Restaurants are scrambling to hire bussers, waiters, and bartenders as economy reopens

One of the industries hit hard by staff shortages is restaurants. The National Restaurant Association estimates nearly 2.5 million jobs were lost last year, and more than 100,000 bars and restaurants closed permanently. 

But even as restaurants reopen to more people, some workers aren’t returning. Some are afraid of COVID-19. Others aren’t eager about a physically demanding job when they can work from home.

Dustin Lancaster is founder of An Eastside Establishment, which includes 10 restaurants and bars around Los Angeles. He says he was forced to close some of his businesses early on, including one music venue. The others face a long and tough road back. 

“Our industry has shifted a lot. I know personally people that have worked in my establishment in the past have left industry for good. Being down 14 months, for some of these people that we laid off that we weren't able to bring back, it gave them enough time to find other things that they wanted to pursue.”

He says four of his businesses are currently understaffed and need bussers, dishwashers, and bartenders. Understaffing also means they can’t open during the days and hours they want. 

Lancaster says the part-time nature of restaurant work makes it understandable why some potential employees want to stay home.

“If you're a part-time worker that got on unemployment [benefits] … let's say that their base unemployment was $150, and you add that $300, [then] $450 a week is a considerable amount of money. … It’s really no argument as to why you wouldn't prefer to maybe stay home, make what would be a comparable amount of money, and then there's no health risks.”

Lancaster points to some businesses that have raised wages or offered bonuses to get more employees through the door. But he can’t afford to do that right now. 

“Even though we’re in the yellow tier, our sales are nowhere near where they used to be, because we can't seat as many people,” he says. “You just can't get up to the sales that you've previously had, which will then of course make it harder to pay the higher wages or bonuses.”

But Lancaster says he’s excited about summer because it could mean more business. 

“Our plan is to try to, as safely as possible, provide a great experience for our guests and make sure we retain the [staff] that we have. … We’re having this ongoing conversation every week with our staff, checking in and making sure everyone is okay with where they're at, and feeling compensated, and feeling appreciated because it is now more important than ever.”