“Last Christmas was the first time I was able to watch my 6-year-old daughter open presents on Christmas morning,” Gibson said. “The previous five years were spent working until midnight on Christmas Eve and getting back to work at 5 a.m. for Christmas brunch. No one was allowed to take off or it was instant termination.
“I remember breaking down one year because my whole extended family was just waiting on me to get off Christmas evening, and I felt like I ruined it for my nieces and nephews. I will never go back into an industry where I couldn't have at least half the day off on Christmas Day.”
After being furloughed, Gibson said, he received unemployment benefits and had paid health insurance for about six months, but being unemployed “got to him,” so he returned to work.
But he didn’t go back to the hotel steakhouse where he’d been laid off. It was still closed. Instead, he’s now happily employed as a dispatcher for a truck company. “I make more doing this than working over 55 hours a week as a sous chef,” Gibson said.
Anyone who has dined out in recent months may have seen firsthand what those numbers mean for restaurants, which are struggling to find servers and kitchen staff. This being America in 2021, the reaction often falls into two broad camps: Blame the shiftless workers or blame the greedy business owners.
“Of course they won’t come back because the federal government is paying them in some instances twice as much money to stay home,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told CBS News in July 2020, when the federal government was still offering expanded unemployment benefits.
Then there is this from Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, reported by TIME in October: “[Employees] don’t want to return to backbreaking or boring, low wage, shit jobs.”
But here’s the thing about shit jobs and unemployment benefits: The people who have those jobs still have to pay rent and buy food, and those temporary, higher unemployment benefits are long gone. So, where have all the busboys gone?
Some have gone back to work, if they ever left, and they’ve been joined by countless others entering the restaurant industry — just not enough of them in a sector that was already facing a labor shortage before the pandemic hit.
“Accommodation and food services added 2 million employees in 2021, more than any other subsector I could identify. In fact, accommodation and food services, which has been hardest hit by the Great Resignation, has also created one out of every three net new jobs in 2021,” Derek Thompson, who has covered the Great Resignation for The Atlantic, wrote in December. “Does that make any sense? Only if you think about this as a job-switching revolution.”
He described what’s happening as a form of free agency for low-wage workers. All sorts of industries are hungry for workers as they ramp up for the post-pandemic economy. Restaurant workers aren’t walking off en masse to lead dissolute lives on the taxpayer’s dime. They’re moving on up. Give that busboy — or sous chef — a shot at finding a better option, and they might take it. In a competitive hiring market, the least rewarding jobs naturally will be the hardest to fill.
But the question remains: Where have all the restaurant workers gone? The Observer spoke to a handful of ex-workers about why they’ve left the industry, where they’ve gone and why they might never come back.
One grim fact of the pandemic is that some of those workers won’t be returning to their job because they’re dead, killed by COVID. A study released in February by the University of California at San Francisco found that line cooks in that state suffered the highest increases in mortality among job categories, and Black and Hispanic workers in the food and agricultural industry were hit the hardest.
“We lost so many people, and how many of them worked retail or food industry jobs — high volume places with people in and out?” former bartender Jayme Campbell said.
The number of deaths in the industry aren’t enough to explain the labor shortage — we still have plenty of people — but the added risk might help explain why restaurant workers are willing to exercise their “free agency” option and find a new line of work.
Campbell, who gave up bartending and now works as a grant writer for CitySquare, started there after a months-long job search, helping with direct rental assistance for people affected by COVID. “Which was everyone,” Campbell said.
“So many people lost their jobs, or hours, or a spouse or someone helping them pay rent who died,” Campbell said. “A ton of service industry people, they were like ‘I’m working, I’m really trying, no one comes in. … I can’t get a lot of hours.’”
There’s been very little discussion in public forums of the effect reduced business had on tipped workers. Campbell told us that people who continued working had to “go there all day and just pray that someone comes in so you can make $20.
“The rich people got to work remotely but all these other people couldn’t,” Campbell said. Some died, others face long-term health consequences, some are still working and some are staring down a new epidemic: an eviction epidemic. “Dallas County alone is filing 700 evictions a week and we can’t get the money from the city and get it out fast enough,” Campbell said.
Tasha, who spoke to us in exchange for not revealing her last name, met her husband when they both worked at the same bar in Fort Worth. While she had moved on to a different employer by the time bars were forced to close on March 18, 2020, her husband hadn’t. He and other employees at the bar were given a complimentary after-shift shot to drink and a wave goodbye. Some never heard from the bar owner again.
Although they worked regular schedules, some employees like Tasha’s husband were classified as independent contractors, a popular dodge in the service industry for businesses that want to avoid the expenses that come with putting workers on the payroll as employees. Many contractors were either ineligible for unemployment or unaware of how to claim it. Getting another job was just easier and faster — until it wasn’t.
Whether from low earnings or low claimed earnings on taxes in a business with loads of cash tips, some workers didn’t qualify for unemployment or would receive a low weekly payment. Others had difficulty navigating the system or found that going weeks on end without income was too discouraging to persevere.
Some who couldn’t afford to wait for unemployment took gig jobs, working for Instacart or DoorDash as the demand for delivery services ramped up. Some did volunteer work.
It’s also important to note that, despite a former labor secretary’s opinion about some of the business owners providing low-wage jobs, many restaurant owners stepped up to help their struggling staff. Sloane’s Corner in downtown quickly pivoted to a new virtual kitchen model, Pizza Leila, that allowed them to bring all of their kitchen staff back full-time.
The fast-food chain, Raising Cane's, increased pay and sent corporate employees to reinforce short-staffed stores.
In other cases, furloughed workers focused on skills outside the kitchen and put them to use in their own businesses. From seamstress services and Etsy stores to cottage food businesses and lawn mowing, during the pandemic, we saw former cooks, baristas, bartenders and waitresses helping their neighborhoods in order to support themselves.
Others leaned on family to make ends meet. Campbell’s dad moved in with her after losing his own job during the pandemic, giving them both some financial relief.
Some went back and forth between working and not working, receiving pay and not receiving pay.
Grayson Micaela was a high school senior working at a restaurant in Oak Cliff and hadn’t yet been there for two months when, in her words, “COVID hit, and the world shut down.
“When the shelter-in-place happened, I was let go temporarily and after only about three weeks, I was sent an email along with everyone else that basically said that if I didn't come in and work, there was no guarantee that I would still have a job,” Micaela said. She didn’t return.
“The thing is, when you work in the service industry during COVID, you see meltdowns nearly every day. Constant stress is a trauma all its own.” - Jon, a former barista
After a couple of months with no money coming in, she received federal assistance. She’s now attending college, working part-time as a nanny and babysitter, helping run family businesses and looking to start a few of her own. “I found that I was more content making my own hours and doing many different part-time jobs,” Micaela said. Time away from work and financial assistance made that possible.
Jon, who also asked us to withhold his last name, had worked in his mother’s business for his primary income for years, but a second job as a barista had provided needed additional income for about 12 years.
When it became clear the U.S. wouldn’t be spared from coronavirus, that changed. “No one knew what would happen, so at first we were given the option of a paid month off or continuing to work with a $3-an-hour temporary raise,” he said. “I took the paid month off.
“It was a really weird, stressful time. We got updates sometimes once a day or more about policy changes that quickly became a thick printed stack of stuff to read. Taking a month off meant I came back to a huge pile of updates (and updates and updates) to read just to know what I’m allowed to do or not do at work. “Shortly after the month ended, when businesses started realizing COVID wasn’t going to be a quick lockdown and over with, we were presented a short window to make one of three choices: 1) ask to be laid off, 2) take a time-capped furlough, or 3) continue to work with the temporary raise and a few other, minor benefits. I took the furlough option again.”
The second furlough was unpaid, but his company paid for health insurance during that time. When the second furlough expired, he went back to work.
To face their financial challenges, laid-off and furloughed workers found creative ways to earn money, significantly reduce their living expenses or both. In some cases, the stress of substantially reduced income was still preferable to the stress of their former jobs. Once free, they weren’t eager to return.
For some, the jolt from the pandemic opened their eyes to new possibilities outside the industry that, for whatever its shortcomings, offers jobs with flexible hours, a sociable environment and pay that’s frequently delivered nightly in cash.
It’s not at all uncommon for tipped workers to depend on a shift to pay a bill immediately. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that “The 2 million working poor in service occupations, in fact, account for 31.3% of all those classified as the working poor.”
One 15-year service industry veteran who chose not to be identified said it succinctly: “They didn’t even realize they were on the verge of poverty. It’s not just the money; they know what their value is now.”
Wages for both tipped and non-tipped employees have stagnated for decades and were creating problems long before the pandemic arrived, and surely some kind of reckoning is coming. But an unwillingness to return to this kind of work isn’t only about money.
Heather Clark, the former kitchen manager of Hypnotic Donuts, told us the hours, especially during the pandemic, were grueling. “I'm so over working when everyone else is sleeping. I didn't realize just how much of a toll it took on me mentally and physically, how much it affected my relationship with my partner and my other relationships until it was glaringly obvious,” she said of the months when they operated minus two workers who asked to be furloughed and never returned.
“I would be out for the night by about 6:30 or 7 p.m. most nights. I was always in a shitty mood at home and never wanted to do anything because I'd just have to leave early to sleep anyways. [I had] just the worst outlook on everything.”
Clark, who is now a student in a diagnostic medical sonography program, has nothing but praise for Hypnotic, and in fact sometimes still works shifts there when they need help. “The amount of creativity that I was able to put into my work at Hypnotic was unparalleled by anything that I'd ever experienced in a kitchen before,” Clark said. “It truly is a badass little kitchen with a kick-ass crew. But they deserved someone who still had that fire to lead them. I just wasn't it. It didn't feel worth it to me anymore.”
The lack of health insurance or any kind of mental health support is also troubling. “At the end of the day, we’re people,” Tasha said. “We have feelings, emotions. These coworkers are like family. And I don’t think the mental health support facet of this industry is talked about enough. I don’t know a single bartender who doesn’t binge drink. We lost a friend last year to alcoholism.”
Despite the opportunity some have to make great money and meet great people, Tasha said she found “zero support, high rates of addiction, dependency and criminal records. It’s almost commonplace to have a DWI in this industry.
“It was that way before the pandemic, and this just added so much more,” she said.
In combined data from 2008 to 2012, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found workers in the restaurant industry to be at the highest risk for illicit drug use (19.1%) and substance use disorder (16.9%). The industry ranks third in binge drinking (11.8%).
Jon returned to his barista job after a second furlough of about three months, but “seeing familiar faces stopped being satisfying,” he said. “Instead, work became a source of fear and uncertainty. Being around nervous coworkers and nervous customers has an amplifying effect.
"I don’t think the mental health support facet of this industry is talked about enough. I don’t know a single bartender who doesn’t binge drink. We lost a friend last year to alcoholism.” - Tasha, a former bartender
“I’ve watched how it impacts everyone I worked with, too. Depression and anxiety and drinking and drug use are all there. We can only offer one another so much support, and the ways in which we cope with stress are sometimes actively harmful.”
Fear of working where they’d have greater exposure to the pandemic was also a factor. Jayme Campbell tended bar until she was 30 weeks pregnant. Her son was born in April 2020, and while she returned to office manager duties after two months of maternity leave, she wasn’t going to return to bartending “because COVID was too scary.”
Bret Thorn is the senior food and beverage editor at Nation’s Restaurant News and he recently wrote about the trouble facing restaurants not being able to get a full staff.
“We don’t like to say this much,” Thorn wrote, “but it has long been the practice of many restaurants to hire staff as inexpensively as possible and provide them with the fewest benefits that they can, often by restricting their hours so they don’t qualify as full-time employees. We all know this.”
But with a tight labor market, Thorn says those practices are not only cruel but those in the service industry now see that they can do better. He points to Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, which was able to hire back 90% of their furloughed staff, who earn “well above minimum wage” and also get health insurance, time-and-a-half for working the company’s 12 paid holidays and a fun environment.
Money is important, Thorn writes, “but so is the fact that those employees get to be themselves and take some ownership in operations, such as picking the music that’s played during each shift.”
Yet the reasons for the industry exodus can’t all be laid at business owners’ feet. There are the customers, too.
“Consumers are now part of the labor shortage problem, because the employees are basically saying life's too short to put up with this,” Lisa Miller, a marketing, strategy and innovation consultant who heads up Dallas-based consumer insights company Lisa W. Miller & Associates LLC, told Nation’s Restaurant News in November.
Cambell tried going back to bartending “in the fall, when [COVID] things were less crazy. It was so stressful. The people were so mean.
“I just found it so bizarre, like I never did understand how people just had so much blatant disregard for other people,” Campbell said. Even customers who weren’t rude about it would tell her, “You don’t have to wear a mask.” With a young child and her father (who only has half of one lung) at home, that wasn’t an option, and despite making several hundred dollars a weekend part-time, she ditched the business for good.
It wasn’t just mask meltdowns that drove Tasha to quit bartending. While customers often said “you can take your mask off,” more often as a demand than a suggestion, they also became belligerent at closing time or if she cut them off because they had too much to drink. She often worked alone in the bar, with no servers, bar back or security staff. Sometimes regulars at the bar assisted her when someone was out of line, but she was always anxious about them returning later. Waiting alone outside for an Uber at 3:30 in the morning became too much to bear; she now works an office job in social work, where her clients can also have meltdowns. But she doesn’t work alone, and there’s a panic button installed under her desk.
“I was so surprised at the professional atmosphere in an actual work environment,” she said. (Two paid days off for Thanksgiving were another welcome surprise.)
Jon shared one example of a customer experience that stood out to him because the employee was not on the clock or behind the counter when it happened. “Another barista was leaving for lunch. She wasn’t wearing anything to identify her as an employee, but a customer in the drive-thru yelled something to the effect of ‘Get back to work! Do you see this line?!’ at her,” he said. Some might think this was an attempt at humor or levity, but Jon says the swearing that followed made clear that it wasn’t.
“After the pandemic started, I quickly made it a habit to take my breaks in my car. I put up the sun visor to feel less visible to the incoming customers and took off anything to identify myself as staff. Most people don’t like being bothered on their breaks, but it became more a feeling of not wanting to see or be seen for a while.” While he doesn’t excuse this kind of behavior from consumers, he says he understands where it’s coming from.
“Abuse is not always a deliberate act of malice,” he says. “People, in general, are stressed to the breaking point and dealing with more than many of us feel we can handle. When you can’t get the coffee you want or your order is wrong, whatever — that’s often the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. It’s not pretty to see someone have a public meltdown. We’ve all seen examples in person or on the news, particularly since the pandemic started. The thing is, when you work in the service industry during COVID, you see meltdowns nearly every day. Constant stress is a trauma all its own.”
Although he was understanding, in the end, he sought therapy to deal with that stress, which in turn helped him gain the determination he needed to quit the job for his own well-being. He’s pursuing an interest in 3-D printing projects and polishing his resume in preparation to change career paths. There are possibilities for a career related to his hobby, or in CAD or using his programming background, among others.
“I’m not leaving any options out except working with the general public right now,” he said.