Jami Janes worked in restaurants
for 30 years before COVID-19
hit the United States
, and she even volunteered for a few shifts in the last year when her former boss needed help.
But now that the pandemic
is coming to an end, Janes is debating whether she should return to her restaurant job.
“At 54, I realized it’s a brutal way of life,” she admitted.
Restaurants are clamoring for workers as more people
return to indoor dining, and Republicans
have used the industry's hiring woes as Exhibit A in their argument that unemployment benefits
prevent people from working.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), for example, complained on the Senate
floor that the benefits are destroying businesses, citing an eatery in Columbus as an example.
“They literally closed because they couldn’t find workers,” Portman said last week, adding that “other restaurants all over Ohio are going five days a week instead of six or seven days a week, or cutting a shift because they can’t find workers.”
Most Republican-led states have now opted out of the additional federal unemployment benefits put in place by Congress
to help people cope with the pandemic, including the additional $300 per week that made benefits more valuable than wages for some workers.
shortage complaints in the food service
industry predate the pandemic; the National Restaurant Association noted in a recent statement to Stardia that “recruitment and retention of employees had been the industry’s top challenge for many years” before Congress expanded benefits.
It's easy to see why: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a restaurant worker in 2020 was $11.63 per hour, which works out to a little more than $24,000 per year at 40 hours per week, which is less than half the national median wage.
So it's not surprising that the average length of employment in the food service industry is about two years, which is lower than in any other industry.
Part of the reason for low pay in food service is that federal law allows restaurants to pay tipped workers less than the minimum wage, as low as $2.13 per hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Employers are supposed to make up the difference if tips are less than the normal minimum wage, but they frequently do not.
According to a survey released this month by the Food Labor Research
Center at the University of California
, Berkeley, and the anti-tipped minimum wage group One Fair Wage, more than half of restaurant workers
have recently considered quitting their job.
Furthermore, 87% of workers polled by One Fair Wage reported a decrease in tips in the previous year, and 80% reported hostile behavior from customers in response to staff enforcing COVID-19 protocols, such as mask wearing.
Restaurant workers are protesting the tipped minimum wage in a number of cities this week as part of the One Fair Wage movement.
“The industry had what I call a preexisting condition prior to the pandemic: it was already the lowest-paying industry in the United States,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, in an interview
“What this pandemic did was it was like a lightbulb went off for so many workers,” Jayaraman explained, noting that many laid-off food service workers were told they couldn’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits because their income was too low.
When politicians use the term "worker shortage," it has no specific meaning; if an employer complains that they can't find enough workers, politicians can declare a shortage, even if the employer could find workers if they offered higher wages.
However, restaurants may be experiencing an unusual labor shortage right now, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, which defines a labor shortage as businesses lacking staff even as they raise pay at an unsustainable rate. Wage growth in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes restaurants, has risen by 18% in the past three months, according to EPI's analysis.
“It appears clear that in April
, customers returned to leisure and hospitality establishments faster than employers could staff up to serve them at the going wages that recently prevailed in this sector,” EPI’s Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz wrote this month.
However, they believe that the shortage in restaurants is unlikely to be caused by unemployment benefits, as the leisure sector, particularly restaurants, saw brisk hiring last month; rather, the combination of some schools
remaining closed and workers fearing the coronavirus
is the more likely culprit.
Janes, who lives in Meadow Vista, California, said she hasn't received unemployment benefits since March due to a problem with her claim, but she still doesn't want to return to waiting tables.
She's looking for a data entry job that will allow her to work from home
because one of her children
has a compromised immune system and she's concerned about bringing the coronavirus home, despite the fact that she's been vaccinated, and her former employer has only offered a limited number of shifts.
She is also overworked.
“You're on the firing line, do you ask someone to put on a mask?” Janes asked.
She's interviewing for jobs
that don't pay well, but at least the money
is consistent and not based on people's moods, and she's not on the front lines of the pandemic. The last year has given her a new perspective on the work.
“You realize how vulnerable you are when you can take a step back like that.”