Philly’s COVID recovery

No, restaurant workers don’t want to work (for long hours with low pay) | Opinion

A longtime Philly cook describes the industry’s employment conundrum.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Over the past six months, countless restaurant owners have told me they’re had trouble maintaining a full roster of staff, with employees sometimes leaving after a few months and few people applying for open positions.

While trying to incentivize jobs with band-aids like signing bonuses, many restaurateurs refuse to take responsibility. A few even complained outright to me, saying, “No one wants to work anymore.”

The Venn diagram of the owners saying this and those offering comically low wages under terrible work conditions is probably a circle.

I have cooked professionally for 8 years, with the last three as a lead in some of the most popular kitchens in Philly. I lost my job when the pandemic hit, and after more than a year on unemployment, I began looking again in May 2021. I have not yet taken a position.

One owner told me, after ranting about how lazy cooks are these days and how no one wants to work, that because of my experience he could offer me “up to” $12 an hour. When I told him it would be a significant pay cut from what I previously made, he reassured me that I’d be working “at least” 60 hours a week, so it would “even out.”

When I later declined the job, he was astounded. Unfortunately, this is all too common. Many restaurant owners are painfully unaware that no one wants to work…for them.

There’s a narrative that overly generous unemployment benefits are the cause of people not wanting to return to restaurant industry work. At this time, the maximum unemployment takehome is 50% of your last weekly reported pay. That’s just $145 per week for someone making minimum wage.

Yet some are indeed choosing to forgo new jobs. What must the work environment be like if people would rather make half their income instead of going back?

“There’s no worker shortage,” said Dylan Ruiz, a 30-year-old who worked at restaurants in Philly for 6 years. “There’s a shortage of people willing to put up with poor working conditions.”

For many of us, the COVID shutdown was a wakeup call. For years, the restaurant industry has exploited its workers. Regular long hours, uncertain and sometimes extremely low wages, rampant sexual harassment, and outward racial and gender discrimination were the norm.

When restaurants were forced to close, we were suddenly given a chance to examine this from the outside. It caused many to leave the industry altogether.

“When your business is centered around taking advantage of people and there’s little to no promise of a reasonable schedule, pay and some semblance of quality of life, people are going to get fed up,” Ruiz said. “The restaurant model isn’t designed for anyone below executive level chef to really succeed.”

Some restaurateurs, on the other hand, took advantage of the paradigm shift caused by the pandemic to implement changes they’ve long known were needed.

Like adding an automatic service charge to checks. Doing away with tipping was discussed for years prior to COVID, and even tried at several high-profile establishments, but the practice didn’t take hold — especially not at neighborhood joints.

Now, it’s happening. Places like Fitz and Starts in Queen Village and Martha in Kensington have eliminated tipping in favor of a 20% service fee that goes to “fair labor wages and [to] provide health benefits for all employees.”

At Mike’s BBQ in South Philly, “everyone is in the tip pool,” per owner Mike Strauss, who said he actually upped wages.

“We actually didn’t lose staff during the last almost two years now,” Strauss said. “Some sat on the bench for 3 to 6 months during the height of the pandemic. However, they all came back. If my memory serves me correctly, since we opened, only one person has quit.”

Despite his good intentions, Strauss isn’t sure how much longer he can last. Thanks to COVID, small restaurant owners are faced with a whole new host of issues. The shortage isn’t just in labor, it’s in the supply chain too.

“The cost of goods has gone up 30% to 80%. We’ve had to increase some pricing,” Strauss said. “As it sits now, it’s truly not sustainable.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s COVID recovery stories.

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