With more and more people getting vaccinated and life going back to normal, everyone is taking advantage of the new freedom and going out to eat. You may have noticed an increase in diners waiting outside restaurants to be seated, or a bit slower service than pre-pandemic times - all due to shortage of restaurant workers. Another sign of the times is the many “Help Wanted” signs on the windows. The lack of restaurant employees is very real these days and causing a ripple effect in the industry.
As the Executive Chef for a restaurant group in Coronado, Imperial Beach resident and Councilmember Jack Fisher, has seen the effects first hand. One question that comes to mind is whether restaurant workers are being paid enough. Fisher said when in the past dishwasher were getting paid minimum wage or even 50 cents over that amount, now employers are paying them $2 over minimum wage. “The incentives are there especially in hospitality,” said Fisher.
Fisher himself was laid off when the pandemic hit, then rehired then laid off again. He was out of a job for a total of five months. Fisher knows many cooks in the industry that when the restaurants were not open for dine in, then were open for dining outdoor only, some decided to leave the industry and go to work for Amazon. “Amazon has scooped up a lot of employees in every sector,” he said.
Fisher himself worked for a hotel in Mission Valley during the height of the pandemic, and switched jobs this past February. He has been in the industry for 30 years and despite the difficulties he was not going to leave the industry.
Specifically at one of the restaurants he oversees, the owner had to change hours of operations because there aren’t enough employees to fill all the positions. This is not a unique problem, many restaurants are facing the same issue. Fisher explained that a restaurant may receive 20 applications, 10 of the prospective employees are qualified. Once they are contacted only eight respond, and after setting up interviews only one or two show up.
“Everybody is spending so much time contacting applicants, only to get no shows. It’s out of control. People are doing what they are doing to get unemployment [benefits],” said Fisher.
The fact that prospective employees are not showing up is baffling to Fisher. “It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Although restaurants have been busy and lack staff, most diners understand what’s happening. “We do get customers that are not happy… but most are appreciate of our effort,” he said.
Fisher believes that there are a few possibility for the employee shortage. One is COVID related unemployment checks are still going out but will stop in September, and two - the border is not fully opened and employees are having difficulties crossing.
Restaurant employee shortage is not only limited to the front of the house but the back as well. Right now for example, Fisher needs at least four more cooks and a couple of dishwashers. “If we had more employees, we’d open for longer hours,” he said.
Speaking to other people in the business and based on his personal experience, Fisher has seen record breaking revenue at restaurants compared to pre COVID times - up to a 30 percent increase. “There are more customers, but there are less employees,” he said.
In addition to the employee shortage, food prices have gone up and restaurants are passing on the costs on to the diners.
“Everything we are using in the restaurants are skyrocketing, supplies are still short,” he said.
For example the company where his restaurant buys bacon, had no supply recently. “They’re experiencing some problems nationwide, pig farms were closed during COVID and now they are trying to supply the demand, but there is an exceedingly [large] demand over supply. Purveyors are also short staffed. “Sometimes we get deliveries one hour or two late or there are no shows,” he explained.
Because of the supply issues, restaurants sometimes scramble to make things happen at the front of the house, and diners don’t even realize or see what is happening.
Fisher explained that a positive change in some restaurants during COVID, is that both the front and back of the house employees are now part of the tip pool. “It helps keep a good balance. It had been in the woks for decades, now we bridge the gap between what the servers versus cooks make. It’s a positive thing from the shortage,” said Fisher.
Although diners don’t normally see the back of the house, those working behind the scene are just as important as the server that comes to your table. There is a saying in the industry that makes things clear for people. “You have to cook to have a restaurant, otherwise it’s lounge, and a restaurant without servers is a cafeteria. It opens people’s minds when they hear that,” he said.
Although there is still frustration with prospective employees not showing up for job interviews, Fisher believes the needle is starting to slowly tick the other way and with unemployment benefits running out shortly, people will have to go back to work if they want to pay their bills. “In the past couple of weeks we have had an influx of qualified candidates but there is still the issue of not showing up…In 4 to 6 months it will be different. Inflation will come and it will balance out at some point,” he said.
Another issue facing restaurants right now is that employees know the shortage is real and it’s to their advantage. “Employees can be very picky as to where they work, making employers more flexible when at any given minute they can leave and find a job before the sun sets,” he said. Because of that, employers are walking a fine line when managing their workers in an effort to keep them.
Fisher has never seen a shortage like this before. “Back in 2018 when unemployment rate in San Diego was 4 percent, which as below the national average, finding staff was not easy but you could find it. Unemployment rate is now 12 or 13 percent and there are people out there choosing not to go to work or changed jobs,” he said.