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Desperately seeking restaurant workers

Episode Summary

Two years after COVID-19 upended the restaurant industry, food spots are still short-staffed -- and workers are looking elsewhere.

Episode Notes

The pandemic has made a lot of us rethink a lot of things. On the forefront of that existential rethink: restaurant workers. 
This realignment of priorities and personal interests drove lots of restaurant workers to quit. Now, two years after COVID-19 upended the restaurant industry, so many food spots are still short-staffed and help-wanted signs are seemingly everywhere. That's motivating employers to offer better pay, conditions and perks. 
Today, L.A. Times business reporter Samantha Masunaga discusses why the labor shortage is still a big problem for restaurant owners across the country and how they can persuade workers to come back. Read the full transcript here

Episode Transcription

GUSTAVO: The pandemic made a lot of us rethink a lot of things. On the forefront of that existential rethink though: Restaurant workers. 

SCHUYLER CLIP: the word restaurant comes from the word restore and that ethos was really embedded into us. It was our job to restore the guests that came through, but in order to restore them, we have to take care of ourselves.

GUSTAVO:This realignment of priorities and personal interests drove a ton of restaurant workers to leave the industry altogether. 

KAREN CLIP: In a lot of ways, working in hospitality feels like a microcosm or metaphor for the larger world. Restaurant work finds itself at the unique intersection issues like wage fairness, racial justice, immigrant rights and mental health.

GUSTAVO: Now… two years after COVID-19 upended the restaurant industry….so many food spots are still short-staffed and help-wanted signs are seemingly everywhere from high-end restaurants to McDonald’s as workers are demanding more. 


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GUSTAVO:I’m Gustavo Arellano. You’re listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. It’s Monday, May 23rd, 2022. Today…why the labor shortage is still a big problem for restaurant owners across the country,..and how they can convince workers to come back.

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Gustavo: Samantha Masunaga is a business reporter who writes about who’s left behind in the pandemic economic recovery. Samantha, welcome to the Times.

SAM: Thanks for having me 

GUSTAVO: So what's the current state of the restaurant industry right now when it comes to employment?

SAM: So the restaurant industry has a pretty heady uphill battle when it comes to getting back to their pre pandemic employment levels. So last month, we’re still short, nearly 800,000 jobs, , compared to how many there were before the pandemic. This is data from, the National Restaurant Association Trade Group.And in the last six month period, October to March the unfilled job openings in the hospitality industry, which is restaurants and hotels exceeded the total number of hires by about 500,000 per month. That's a huge difference from what it was before the pandemic. And it's clear that there's still a long ways to go in terms of filling those open spots. 

GUSTAVO: Oh, yeah. It's real. I was a food critic for a long time. And so I know a lot of restaurant owners and that has been their complaint ever since the pandemic is like where can we find workers and all sections from the house, people to something as simple as dishwashers. And it's all types of restaurants,your mom and pop spot, your hole in the walls, your chains, your higher end restaurants. It's just one big, huge mess. 

SAM: Yeah. And Sometimes if you find folks, they don't stay for very long. So it's definitely a huge issue. 

GUSTAVO:  What are some of the reasons employees say that they're quitting restaurants? 

SAM: So an NYU professor did some research on this and found that hotel and restaurant industry employees are leaving the industry in large numbers because of the lack of job security, a STEMI career growth, difficult working conditions and low compensation issues in the industry for years. In addition to that, the pandemic just made the industry a much more difficult place to work. Some of the employees I talked to said that customers got more combative during the pandemic and it was difficult to do their jobs. some of them talked a little bit about how they got more, new responsibilities for the same amount of pay, and weren't getting enough support from management. And then even just beyond that, the pandemic really made a lot of folks think about what they wanted from their life and whether their current career was something they wanted to continue doing. And for some of the former restaurant workers that I spoke with the restaurant industry wasn't a place that they wanted to be long-term anymore.

GUSTAVO: One of the people you spoke to was Skylar Mastin.

CLIP: My name is Schuyler Mastin. My former title was a head waiter at Rossoblu  restaurant here in LA, and I'm currently the ninth and 10th grade English teacher at New Designs charter school.

GUSTAVO: What's his story?.

SAM: So Skyler started working at Rossoblu, which is a downtown LA restaurant. Um, and he started working there in 2018 as a way to support himself while he was pursuing a career in acting. And he really loved it there. He felt really supported by management. He really enjoyed the work he was doing. And it was something he thought that he would be doing for a while.

CLIP: We mattered. The employees mattered to the management. So there was a bottom up desire from us to support. At least from my end, I wanted to support the mission and it was an excellent place to work.

SAM: But then the pandemic happened 


CLIP: March 13th. I got a call at like 10 o'clock in the morning. And Hans was like, listen, we're shutting down, get onto your unemployment now.

SAM: And then when restaurants eventually reopened. The work that was already hard, got even harder. Um, customers that were initially understanding [00:05:00] of what servers and, and other staff were going through, started getting a little more impatient. They weren't happy with some of the delays that the pandemic brought. And they weren't really shy about voicing that either. 

CLIP:  I really noticed something when we had to put the face shields on and the masks on that we were not seen. And it's a fear I have because I feel like people sometimes do not see each other. See the bus driver, see the 7-11 clerk, see each other, they're humans. We are humans who are in this, doing our best to get your Manhattan exactly as you want it. Forgive us if the vermouth is a little too much.


SAM: And like many in the industry, Skylar really had to scramble to figure out what he was going to do next and what was best for his family.

CLIP: the pandemic gave me an opportunity to really think, as I'm sure it did a lot of people. And I had just gotten married to my wonderful wife and was like, we want to have a family. // We want to have kids. I do have a valid teaching certificate. It was valid in Utah. // I should probably get back into the classroom because, uh, I probably need some, a little bit more steady. I mean the future of restaurants seems really volatile. 

SAM: And at the end of the day, he wanted to recession-proof his life. So in August, 2020, he quit his job as a server and he became a high school English teacher, but he still occasionally takes shifts at Rossoblu, kind of on an on-call basis. And he's planning to work there over the summer when school's out to bring in a little extra cash for his family. 

GUSTAVO: How does Schuyler compare working in the service industry to being a teacher? Because being a teacher isn't that easy either.

SAM: Right. Um, so he actually makes less now as a teacher than he did as a server. 

CLIP: It’s tricky. You know, as a waiter I was putting into 30, 35 hours a week and I was walking home with $5,000 every month, probably. And now it's not quite that it's about 4,200 and I'm working at least 60 hours a week, grading papers.

SAM: But on the other hand, he gets to see his family during holidays, which was something he could never do when he was a server. You know, he can go and see family on Thanksgiving, on Christmas. He has evenings off, he can spend it with his wife. Um, and that sort of work-life balance is really important to him. But yeah, the, the pay is, is definitely a lot different. He told me. 


SAM: plus manual labor, which is a huge part of working in a restaurant is a lot and it, it got more difficult.

CLIP: It's hard to work on your body. And I realized that I needed to get out of my body. My body can’t handle it and I need to find ways to use my mind to bring in income. And it's a lesson I kind of wish I had learned a long time ago. 

GUSTAVO: More after the break 


GUSTAVO: Samantha, you also spoke with Karen Fu and she tried to leave the restaurant industry, but [00:08:00] eventually returned. What did you learn from her?

SAM: So Karen's been in the industry for a while, uhm, about 13 and a half years, and she was just exhausted. 

CLIP: My name is Karen Fu. My current title is bars manager in a corporate hotel setting, focused on operations.

SAM: You know, it's 10 to 12 hour days. She was always on her feet. And once the pandemic happened, she was furloughed from her bartending job.

CLIP: ​​Professionally, I consider myself one of the lucky ones in. I was able to qualify for unemployment and did find it a scary time. But also having worked  nonstop in some ways was a welcome respite.

SAM: Karen said the time off she had was restorative. For years, she really had time to herself or balanced between work and personal life. And now the personal time she had became something she really [00:09:00] cherished. So when the bar director at her company asked her to return to her job, she said, no–twice.

CLIP: It was a matter of feeling personal safety and bargaining that risk and also attempting to pivot and edit my resume towards nonprofit work. 

SAM: She returned to work about a month and a half before outdoor dining was shut down again in November, 2020, and then declined to come back. Karen gravitated toward volunteer work for the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. And she serves as co-chair of the organizations, grant writing and nonprofit partnerships committee. And she was voted onto the group's board of directors. she really felt like she wanted to change a lot of the long standing issues she had experienced in the industry. Things like, uh, wages, um, unfairness in the industry. And she thought that working for a nonprofit would be a way to do that and where's care now. 

GUSTAVO: So where is Karen now?

SAM: So Karen was hoping to find a job in non-profit work. Um, she hasn't quite gotten traction there. so she actually took a job managing bar operations for a Beverly Hills hotel. 


CLIP: The industry as a whole, we are still dealing with short staffing. I think it's definitely in a rebuilding stage and still with its own struggles.

SAM: in her new position, Karen is able to have a more balanced schedule, which was something that was really important to her. She doesn't work really late hours and all of the full-time staff there are eligible for health benefits, which was something that she really wanted to see and was really important. This new job it fits her career goals. It's something that she wanted,  in terms of career advancement. And she's hoping that she'll be able to take her experiences working in the industry and be good leader for others, um, who's thoughtful in someone who's intentional. 

CLIP: I only hope that we continue to create spaces that aren't just for guests and consumers to enjoy, but also support the workers who are coordinating and hosting these experiences.


GUSTAVO: What do experts say the industry needs to do differently to get workers to return?

SAM: Some of the biggest things are flexibility, especially for schedules, definitely better compensation, and providing opportunities for career advancement. 

GUSTAVO: Did you speak to any restaurant owners? What are they saying about all this?

SAM: I did, I spoke with Dana Samson. 

CLIP: I'm co-founder of Rossoblu and Super-fine pizza, both located in downtown Los Angeles in the fashion district. 

SAM: To get more workers, Dina has tried several different options. At super-fine pizza, they up their minimum wage to $20 an hour, um, up from $18 an hour. And she said that [00:12:00] has made hiring and retention a lot easier. they've also tried hiring bonuses. 

CLIP:  And we encouraged our team to basically help us recruit their friends, their coworkers, fellow coworkers, from other jobs to come and work for us. So that worked out actually really well.

SAM: And to keep folks at their restaurants, they've really reinforced their company culture, and create a place where people want to work and feel like they're getting direction and advancement in their career. 

CLIP: We basically realized, you know, everyone is really looking for somewhere where they can be proud of working and especially during a time like this.

SAM: They also started a training program that allows line cooks to learn additional culinary skills, such as pastry making or pasta making. And they even sent one of their cooks to Italy to learn more about Italian food on the ground.

GUSTAVO: I mean to me, it just seems like such basics, you know, and this is not just for the restaurant industry, but anywhere. It’s like sometimes it's not always about the money, you know, it's a, sometimes it's just acknowledging them and saying, Hey, like if you stay with us, we're going to advance you more than just being a basic drone for us. 

SAM: Right. Yeah. And that's something that a lot of workers are saying that, you know, these are just basic things that the industry needs to adopt. If you want to be able to fill these positions, because things are not the same as they were before. 

GUSTAVO: Common sense you'd think. Did Dina tell you anything about how, the cost of inflation and labor shortages is impacting customers?

SAM: Yeah, she talked a little bit about that. You know, cost of goods has gone up, that means that menu prices have gone up too.

CLIP: You know, you need to be able to cover those labor costs and then the increase in your food costs and your paper goods costs. I mean, all of it. I mean, even your electricity at this point, you know, your water, I mean everything has gone up. 

SAM: And in addition to the cost of goods, I mean, obviously you're paying employees a little bit more, you know, that contributes to menu prices. Sometimes restaurants are even turning off their to go orders because they're so busy and there's not enough staff. Or sometimes they end up closing on the seventh day because there's just not enough people to cover all of their, workdays. 


SAM: And really overall do, you know, Dina thought it was really important that the industry rethink how it recruits and retains employees, because that's really the only way that folks are gonna be interested in coming back or new folks are gonna be interested in, in joining this industry.

CLIP: We're doing some really deep thinking about what can we do that can make this an industry, a job, a career that, you know, people can really commit to and be happy in, and, you know, um, prosper in. And so I think that’s a huge thing. 


GUSTAVO: More after the break 


GUSTAVO: Samantha, what does a shake up and the staffing shortages that the restaurant industry faces right now. What does it mean for the [00:15:00] long-term for them?

SAM: So experts that I talked to said that this huge axis, this great resignation, specifically from the restaurant industry, is really having an effect on public policy and individual restaurants changing. In terms of public policy, you know, you're seeing the needle move a little bit in terms of labor dynamics, you're seeing more restaurants and service workers in the food industry unionizing and organizing more than they have before. You know, you have a Starbucks unionizing, that's, that's sort of an example of that. There's also individual restaurants that are starting to organize and unionize. So you're starting to see workers tilt the needle a little bit, away from the leverage of employers, more toward employees. 

GUSTAVO: Yeah, I did a story about one small coffee chain in Inland empire that tried to and failed, and this is just a couple of years ago, and at that time there was just like two, two coffee shops in entire United States unionized. Now there's dozens of them. So workers in the restaurant industry they're pushing.

SAM: Yeah. Yeah, they really are. 

GUSTAVO: Is a minimum wage, you know, it's increasing across the United States. Is that going to catch up to rising inflation costs?

SAM: It could.So there is a proposal right now that could end up on the November ballot that would increase the minimum wage to $18 an hour. That's being pushed by someone who has explicitly said that during the pandemic, it was clear that the minimum wage was not enough to sustain folks. Um,and that it, it really needed to catch up with the costs of the times. On the kind of not minimum wage side, there was a revised federal labor regulation that went into effect last year, folks in the back of the house of restaurants–so line cooks, dishwashers, other folks in the kitchen–to share in the tip pool that traditionally was for servers and folks at the front of the restaurant, with regulations like that for instance, the cooks at Rossoblu are now making about 40% more than they used to. So there's a couple of [00:17:00] proposals, some in the works, some that have already changed, that are kind of pushing the needle on pay. 

GUSTAVO: Yeah. But like we talked about earlier, money, you can throw all the money in the world at folks, but if the job is not something that they enjoy, they're just not going to do it.

SAM: Right. And if it's not an environment they don't want to be in, you know, that's, that's a factor too. I spoke with Jose Lemus, um, who was a cook at Chateau Marmont. And he talked to me about how he was laid off during the pandemic. 


SAM: He got informed by an email after he had worked at this place for 10 years, you know, to spend 10 years of his life there. And more than 200 of his coworkers all ended up getting laid off at the same time. And he had said that experience made him realize how important the work environment is. And that is something that is going to be a non-negotiable for him going forward. 

CLIP:  I want to go back to work, but I want to go to something that they will treat you with respect and dignity.

GUSTAVO: Samantha. Thank you so much for this.

SAM: Thanks for having me Gustavo. 

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Outro mux

Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times

David Toledo was the jefe on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

Like what you’re listening to? Then make sure to follow the Times on whatever platform you use. Don’t make us the Pootchie of podcasts!

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.