Jake Galardi Marko has worked in the restaurant industry for the past 10 years, and recently took a new server position at a Cheesecake Factory in Las Vegas, Nevada, after quitting his job at the Olive Garden for two years during the pandemic due to abuse from customers over COVID-19 protections.
“It’s a minefield of unsafe working environments and exploitative practices still permeate the hiring and training processes,” he said. “People always say but we make tips so it can’t be that bad. This is used as an excuse to ignore abusive and exploitative practices.”
Before starting his new position, he applied to dozens of restaurants and went on several interviews, and noted many restaurants are in a chaotic state and unprepared to take on new workers. He said they are baiting potential hires with signing bonuses that don’t pan out, promises of higher wages, or applying for a position only to be told on the first day of hire they have to start as a busser and work their way up. He left one job because the restaurant was not enforcing coronavirus safety protections.
“I contemplate leaving the industry every day. Most of us do but we have bills to pay, rent comes due every month. A lot of us have kids to support,” he added. “The entire industry preys upon desperation.”
Yet the restaurant industry has been the source of recent claims of a labor shortage, with the US Chamber of Commerce, some employers, and Republican-elected officials claiming unemployment benefits are deterring Americans from returning to work. This was especially the case after last week’s unexpectedly poor job numbers which showed that the jobless rate was remaining stubbornly high in the US.
Republican-led states Montana, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, North Dakota, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Mississippi have now cited the claims in decisions to end federal unemployment benefits.
Economists from the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell, and the secretary of the treasury, Janet Yellen, to Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius have dismissed sweeping claims that unemployment benefits are the driving factor for some industries experiencing issues with hiring new or replacement workers.
A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute noted through March 2020 there was an average of 9.8 million unemployed workers compared to 8.1m job openings. Several industries, including the accommodation and foodservice industries, had more than 1.5 unemployed workers per job opening.
In regards to labor shortage claims, the Economic Policy Institute noted such claims would be short-lived as the accommodation and foodservice industry added 241,400 jobs in April 2020. The leisure and hospitality sectors have experienced the most rapid employment growth over the past month, and economists with the Economic Policy Institute warned of the negative economic consequences of cutting pandemic unemployment insurance benefits.
Workers in the restaurant industry say that any issues the industry is experiencing in hiring enough workers are a result of low wages, safety concerns, and harassment from customers over COVID-19 protocols
According to a report published by One Fair Wage and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center in May 2021, 53% of workers in the restaurant industry have considered leaving their job since the pandemic started, with low wages and tips, safety concerns, and harassment from customers as the primary reasons provided by workers.
Workers in the restaurant industry were among the highest sectors of workers who died of coronavirus during the pandemic, according to a University of California San Francisco study published in January 2021.
Crystal Maher, a bartender at Parkside Projects in Austin, Texas, views the blaming of unemployment benefits on hiring difficulties of restaurants as an excuse to try to avoid changing how workers are treated in the industry.
“What are we going back to? I don’t get my schedule until Friday of the week before so I never get to plan anything I have anymore. I can’t get stability on my income anymore because I’m biased on that tip system,” said Maher. “The old restaurant mentality is gone and a lot of bosses don’t get that yet. That stuff has to change. Until we see that stuff change, people are probably not going to come back to the industry in droves.”
Workers in the fast-food industry, in particular, have criticized low wages, safety concerns, understaffing and harassment throughout the pandemic, as annual employee turnover in the industry was over 100%t before COVID-19.
“We’re very short-staffed, regardless of hiring,” said Allen Strickland, a team leader at Arby’s in Kansas City, Missouri, who makes $11.50 an hour. “The pay is really not worth it, but I have to make it happen for my family and me.”
Cris Cardona, a shift manager at a McDonald’s in Orlando, Florida, is one of several workers at the fast-food chain in at least 15 US cities who will participate in a daylong strike on 19 May to demand the largest fast-food chain in the world raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Cardona has worked at McDonald’s for around four years and makes just over $11 an hour, which he explained has prevented him from moving out of his parent’s home, getting his own car, or being able to go attend college.
“They call us essential, but the reality is they treat us like we’re disposable,” said Cardona. “They like to say that no one wants to work, that they’re having trouble finding workers and they blame this on unemployment benefits, but the problem is no one wants to work for a poverty wage, to risk their lives for $7.25 an hour”.