07/16/2021 Jeni Kramer

Are restaurant workers ready to come back?

It’s no surprise that the restaurant industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID pandemic. When restrictions closed dining rooms, many were forced to think creatively to keep afloat. Take-out and delivery became a staple, as well as gift cards and merch. But even with these new ways of operating, few establishments were spared from having to furlough or layoff staff to make it through. And some restaurants simply didn’t survive the impact.

The National Restaurant Association reported that the hospitality industry lost 2.5 million jobs in 2020. As of December 1, 2020, more than 110,000 eating and drinking places were either temporarily closed for business or permanently shuttered. Though there have been some gains in 2021, the unemployment rate for restaurant workers remains above the national average.  

Even with high jobless claims in the hospitality industry, many restaurants are still struggling to find enough workers now that restrictions have lifted. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that accommodations and food service job openings spiked to nearly 1 million in March of 2021. Additionally, the National Restaurant Association found that almost half of establishments are operating with 20% less staff than usual. 

Job market data by LinkUp shows that job listings in the Accommodation and Food Services industry spiked in March, up almost 14% from the previous month (up 68,776 job listings). Like in other industries, job listings in the sector have slowed down lately, but overall industry job counts still remain solidly above past jobs counts.

So what’s behind the current discrepancy between the number of unemployed restaurant workers and the number of job openings? Many have been quick to blame the stimulus packages and enhanced unemployment benefits rolled out during the pandemic. Others point to the fact that  systemic issues like lack of comprehensive benefits, low wages and poor working conditions have plagued the industry for years. Many major metropolitan areas say the current hiring crisis actually predated COVID, though the pandemic certainly served to drive many from the industry into other fields. 

According to Google trends data though, some may be looking to make their way back to the industry. Looking at search trends for “bartending jobs,” “host jobs,” and “server jobs” we see steady increases in job seeker interest since last year, with that focused interest also hitting recent peaks. 

With these recent search spikes, along with the growing overall interest in jobs in the industry, the hope is job seeker interest will continue to rise up to meet the demand of employers as well as eager patrons. 

Employer demand, it appears, was at its peak in April. And it seems at least some of those open positions must have been filled, as even though job listings remain high, they have come down slightly.

As we’ve witnessed, attracting workers in these circumstances might mean employers need to offer more. Many restaurant owners have already found success filling positions by raising wages, redesigning positions, improving benefits, and thinking about what perks might be most desirable. Considering what makes restaurant jobs viable for workers long-term will not only help withstand current challenges, but also to weather any storms to come.

As a whole, today’s trends seem to point to an increased willingness for job seekers to return to restaurant positions—if met with the right conditions. And a lot is riding on employers getting it right, as success now could starve off a full blown crisis for the industry.