Food News

Restaurant Hiring Woes Continue as Server Exodus Rattles Industry

A sign posted in Deep Ellum before Postino's opening.
A sign posted in Deep Ellum before Postino's opening. Lauren Drewes Daniels
Even before the pandemic, the service industry was in need of reform. As restaurants begin to open to full capacity, owners and managers are having trouble finding servers, bartenders and other key players. With stimulus packages and unemployment checks, furloughed workers of the service industry were practically guaranteed biweekly payments of a set amount. Many workers found it allowed them to pursue other job opportunities, and even better, not have their livelihoods depend on customer tips.

Callie Dee is one of Dallas’ most sought-out artist managers, but before the pandemic, she was a bartender at a Saginaw dive bar. She was furloughed immediately when COVID ordered restaurants closed. When the bar began to bring people back on, Dee chose not to return and instead focused on her work in the local music industry.

“Corona was still spreading rapidly,” Dee says. “The protocol for bars and bartenders to sanitize, not have bar top customers, only be at 25 to 50% capacity, all seemed like a lot of work for half the pay. Plus the idea of trying to keep drunks 6 feet apart with masks on sounded impossible and dangerous. It didn't seem to be worth the risk.”

While a few service industry workers have chosen to return to their old jobs, many are still in search of better opportunities. The standard wage for a server or bartender is $2.13 per hour, plus whatever tips they may collect during their shift. Because so many people are opting not to return to their old jobs, some restaurants have had to close early on some nights.

Many online communities, as well as former service industry workers, are encouraging other service industry workers to keep fighting for higher wages and benefits. With the shortage in restaurant staffing, some believe this could launch a revolution. Dee, however, says she is unsure.

“I think as a bartender, I used to make pretty decent money in tips to make up for the $2.13 wage,” Dee says. “But I know some restaurant owners overstaff, making it hard for everyone to make a decent wage. And now with the cleaning protocols and masks being a server is less than glamorous.”

Last March, Dallas resident Kassondra Edwards was furloughed from her job at a Plano restaurant. While the restaurant allowed veteran servers to stay on when they opened back up, she wasn’t asked to return until June 2020. She decided not to because dining rooms were still sparsely populated and the service industry was still unpredictable.

"It’s extremely unrealistic to ask for workers during a pandemic while offering them no healthcare by denying workers 40-hour work weeks so they aren’t eligible for abysmal employee benefits." – Kassondra Edwards

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Edwards is now working for a software company but believes that change in the restaurant industry is necessary for it to survive, especially in a restaurant-heavy city like Dallas.

“Restaurants have always had a difficult time hiring and retaining staff pre-COVID,” Edwards says. “There’s been a shortage for [back of house] positions, I believe, because of tough crackdowns on immigration in recent years, combined with low hourly wages for tough work. It’s extremely unrealistic to ask for workers during a pandemic while offering them no healthcare by denying workers 40-hour work weeks so they aren’t eligible for abysmal employee benefits. There’s also no pressure to stay anywhere that pays you $2.13 per hour and hired you for walking in the door. ... The only change I see coming from this is servers finally allowed to work overtime hours from the severe lack of staff at least until the end of September. With not much else to do around Dallas other than go out to eat, restaurants’ future depends on the changes they make now.”

One restaurant that has remained an anomaly throughout the pandemic is Ellen’s, which decided to keep every staffer fully employed, despite being closed to the public. In the SI (service industry) Dallas Facebook group, where restaurant owners and managers share job listings, some have voiced exasperation toward the staff shortage with comments like “Doesn’t anybody want to work anymore?” or “When unemployment runs out, don’t say we didn’t try to help.”

A bartender from Reservoir, a restaurant in Irving, posted a graphic that read “HEY LAZY ASS!!!! WE’RE HIRING. APPLY NOW!” with a caption saying “Quit being a lazy welfare recipient and come make some actual [money].” (The post was made to the employee's personal page as a joke, the restaurant's ownership says. They disagreed strongly with the sentiment and had the post removed as soon as they learned of it,)

In contrast, Joe Groves, owner of Ellen’s, posted a listing noting that along with benefits, servers and bartenders would earn at least $20 per hour and barbacks and runners would earn at least $15 per hour.

“If their wages and tips do not equal 20 or 15, respectively, then the company will make up the difference,” Groves says. “So they aren't subject to the whims of customer tipping. They're not subject to weather and volume fluctuations.”

While Groves doesn’t expect every restaurateur to follow his lead, he thinks change in the industry is vital and inevitable. To him, making these kinds of jobs appealing to seekers is key to long-term change.

“It has to change into a more professional pay structure,” Groves says, ”One not so reliant on customers. There's been a lot of talk about that in recent years. And I'm a big proponent, personally, of eliminating the tipping system completely. The price you pay at a restaurant should be able to cover the expenses of that restaurant, and the wages of the people that are serving you ... I think it's dangerous to assume [the staff shortage] is because of unemployment benefits. I think that's a political statement more than an actual economic statement. One way we can try to mitigate that is to make our work as attractive as possible. And if we can compete with those positions that are in other industries, as far as pay, benefits, reliability, then we have a much better opportunity.”
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Alex Gonzalez has been a contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2018. He is a Dallas native whose work has appeared in Local Profile, MTV News and the Austin American-Statesman. He has eclectic taste in music and enjoys writing about art, food and culture.
Contact: Alex Gonzalez