Benefits Or Bottleneck? US Restaurants Struggle To Hire Workers

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Eva Johannesdottir has gone through six kitchen workers since reopening her restaurant The Cliff last May. Each time, she invested time and money to train them, but they were unable to keep up with the demands of serving busy brunches and take-out orders at the small cafe in Jersey City, New Jersey in the United States. “The biggest challenge with staying in business right now is to find help,” Johannesdottir told Al Jazeera. “One of the main reasons why I cannot have the business open more than three days a week right now is because I just can’t find workers.” Her problem is not unique. As capacity limits on restaurants are lifted and Americans indulge their pent-up desire to dine out, many establishments have “help wanted” signs gathering dust in their windows. Restaurants were among the hardest-hit businesses during the coronavirus pandemic and ended 2020 with around 3.7 million fewer jobs than they started the year with, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. But as vaccinations have increased and restrictions have lifted, demand for restaurant workers has come roaring back: there were 1.2 million leisure and hospitality job openings in March, but a lot of those jobs aren’t being filled. Staffing levels remain 14 percent below pre-pandemic levels, the National Restaurant Association found. In an April survey, 84 percent of restaurants said their staffing levels were lower than what they would normally be without COVID-19, with nearly half of them operating with staffing levels more than 20 percent below normal. Restaurants eager to up their sales after a devastating 2020 find themselves constrained by the lack of workers — and they’re paying the price. It can cost almost $6,000 to find, screen and train an hourly worker, a study by restaurant platform Toast found, and that’s in an economy when every other restaurant isn’t also looking for servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers and front-of-house staff. The staffing shortage is being driven by a number of factors, experts say, from bottlenecks and workers who can’t find childcare to people switching careers. But one factor, in particular, has become a political lightning rod — the $300 federal weekly top-up to state unemployment benefits, which some argue acts as a disincentive for people to go out and find jobs. “A lot of people are like, well, I’m going to just enjoy the summer, spend time with family, keep collecting and then go back to work in September,” Johannesdottir said.

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