After a year of forced dormancy, the restaurant industry is scrambling to get ready for an expected boom this summer. That means hiring back some of the thousands of workers who’ve been without jobs or steady hours over the past year because of pandemic closings and restrictions.
Yet despite a massive labor pool, some restaurants say they are having trouble finding people willing to return to the business. The pandemic, it seems, prompted some to reconsider life in an industry notorious for difficult working conditions.
“I don’t exactly know where I’m going. I’m pretty sure it’s not back to restaurants,” said Tricia Logan, who lost her job as a host and server at a popular restaurant in the Fenway a year ago. “Restaurants are a crazy ride, and it’s kind of like how many more times do you want to get on the roller coaster?”
There’s a reckoning in the hospitality industry right now as these workers — and their bosses — contemplate how much of the old normal they’re are willing to return to. The restaurant trade has a reputation for grueling work and long hours, wildly uneven pay for workers, and a sometimes hostile environment, particularly for women, people of color, and undocumented immigrants.
Some owners are taking steps to improve the life: eliminating tipping to even out pay levels, changing operations to create more opportunities for advancement, even in some cases simplifying menus to make less work for staff. And advocates are seizing on the uncertainty to push for fairer wages and work schedules.
“The idea that we should go back to normal,” said Mikey Knab, national policy director at RAISE High Road Restaurants, an advocacy group, “is kind of whack.”
But as ambitious as the goals are, for many more restaurants the challenge of recovering from a huge financial hit doesn’t leave time for such overhauls. Some Boston-area operators are taking small steps: UNO Pizzeria & Grill, for example, is offering larger referral bonuses to attract new hires and a bilingual vaccination concierge for staff.
It remains to be seen whether large national employers will take steps to reform the industry; the National Restaurant Association’s move earlier this year to oppose efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 did little to bolster good feelings about the potential for change. Eight states have eliminated the very low minimum wage for tipped workers, so they now are paid at the regular minimum wage, which the Center for American Progress has found has led to lower levels of poverty among tipped workers.
“I’d like to be one of those people like that has a stable job with fair payment,” David G. of East Boston said through an interpreter. A former cook, he asked for anonymity because of his immigration status. He lost his job at an Italian restaurant in the North End when the pandemic hit, and since then has taken jobs in construction or demolition to pay his rent.
He said he’d be happy to work again in a kitchen if he were offered a weekly salary, but that’s nearly impossible to find right now. Many owners, he said, “don’t care that you have a family, they don’t care that you have rent and you have bills to pay. They don’t care.” So he’s hesitant to return.
But some owners do feel that now is the time to act.
For Rachel Miller Munzer, a co-owner of Mamaleh’s, State Park, and Cafe Du Pays restaurants in Cambridge, the prospect of reopening and stepping right back into old habits doesn’t make sense. “We’ve been totally ripped apart,” she said.
Starting anew means more equitable pay for her employees, to no longer differentiate between servers and kitchen staff or subject workers to the whims of customers, when all kinds of factors, including racism, can influence how much they tip. She’s currently using money from a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to raise the base pay for all staff to $13.50 an hour — the current minimum wage in Massachusetts — and has replaced tipping with a uniform fee.
“It’s scary, because we’re already sort of reinventing and rebuilding,” she said. “But for us it’s like there’s never going to be a good time to force change, and in some ways it’s like ‘What the hell? We have nothing to lose right now.’ Everything is so turned upside down that we just feel like it’s time.”
Offering more reliable schedules would improve working conditions, said Lily Huang, co-executive director of the advocacy group Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. Low-wage restaurant workers, many of whom are undocumented, are often at the mercy of irregular schedules that don’t offer them stability at home, she said. Ordinances in Oregon and Philadelphia now require retail, restaurant, and hospitality employers with more than 50 workers to provide them with predictable hours.
“It’s predictable pay at the end of the week and the month to pay rent, buy groceries, and pay utilities,” Huang said. Similar legislation has been filed in Massachusetts.
While some restaurateurs stayed in touch with furloughed employees during the pandemic, many acknowledged that rebuilding their businesses could mean replacing much of their old staffs. Fears of infection have kept many workers from coming back, and the pool of students who work in hospitality jobs is limited. Extended unemployment benefits further complicate matters.
Meanwhile, it’s likely that a server or back-room staffer would have to work months before the hours and tips would return to any level of normalcy and ensure they could eke out a living.
“Many restaurants now all are really just scrounging around trying to find help,” said Dan Donato, who owns Fortune Bar in Amesbury. “The business isn’t there for everyone right now, but they’re looking ahead 30 to 60 days and they want to be staffed up and have everybody trained when that business does come back.”
The result is a hiring shortage that many compare to pre-COVID levels, when the industry was so busy with openings that it was impossible to find enough staff. This, despite a state unemployment rate of 7.1 percent as of February. Many of the unemployed came from the leisure and hospitality industry, which a year after the pandemic began had 115,000 fewer jobs.
“A lot of people are not wanting to come back to work. They don’t have faith in the industry anymore,” said Sara Fetbroth, a restaurant consultant who worked as general manager of Oleana in Cambridge before the pandemic. “At the beginning, everyone said this has exposed so many weaknesses, we need to think about how we change things. But I don’t think enough people are doing it.”
A subset are trying.
“We want more quality of life for our people,” said Jeremy Kean, co-owner of Brassica in Jamaica Plain, who said his post-COVID goals are to introduce a system in which staff are involved in the restaurant’s financial decisions, called open-book management, and make sure chefs and servers don’t feel a need to work relentless 75-hour weeks.
A simpler menu is part of that plan, he said: “How can we develop food in a friendly way that doesn’t drive us into the ground?”
Over the past year, several dozen Boston-area operators, including Miller Munzer and Kean, have reached out to RAISE High Road Restaurants for advice on creating more equitable workplaces, said Knab, the group’s national strategy director.
The organization has been pushing at the federal level to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers and at the state level for changes that include allowing servers and bartenders to pool tips with back-of-house staff, which isn’t permitted in Massachusetts.
Knab said that in a survey of restaurant workers in New York City during the pandemic, nearly 40 percent said they were considering leaving the industry. If just 20 percent didn’t come back, Knab said, it would be “incredibly impactful.”
“Our industry had pre-existing conditions that made COVID much more impactful for us,” Knab said. “Our workforce doesn’t work paycheck-to-paycheck, they work tip-to-mouth.”