Thursday, May 26, 2022
May 26, 2022

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Restaurant workers go ‘missing’ again from Washington’s job recovery

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Think you had a frantic holiday season?

In December, Seattle restaurateur Joe Sundberg, co-owner of Manolin, Rupee Bar and Old Salt, ended up working nearly every night his restaurants were open. Not only was omicron decimating his existing staff, but it’s still next to impossible to find new workers with enough experience to quickly fill in.

“It’s incredibly hard to hire,” Sundberg said. “You might get 30 résumés if you’re very, very lucky … and maybe four of those have relevant experience.”

Sundberg’s lament reflects a paradox in Washington’s pandemic-battered job market.

Overall hiring continues to steadily improve, with the state adding 14,000 jobs, or around half a percent, in December. Layoffs and unemployment claims are down: New, or “initial,” claims for jobless benefits plunged 52% last week versus the prior week, according to data posted Thursday by the state Employment Security Department.

It’s a different story for the state’s leisure and hospitality sector, most of which is restaurants and bars. After seeing a modest hiring spree in October and November, the industry suffered a net loss of 2,200 jobs, or 0.7% of its already undersized workforce, the ESD reported.

“Leisure and hospitality had been looking good in Washington as recently as November, but now that’s flipped around again,” said Jacob Vigdor, an economist with the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy who has studied state and local job markets.

Part of that flip is the combined wallop of seasonal layoffs, bone-chilling winter weather and the arrival of omicron, which knocked out many restaurant workers while scaring away some diners, industry experts say.

In fact, many industries saw layoffs in December, including farming and construction, which are sensitive to seasonal fluctuations and weather. And there was net job loss in the manufacturing sector, notably in the aerospace industry, which is still feeling COVID-19’s effects on airline revenues and supply chain operations.

But the labor pains of the restaurant business go beyond seasonal layoffs or omicron.

Many restaurants and bars are still dealing with a worker shortage that predated the pandemic and has only sharpened as the industry has tried to rebound from various COVID-related shutdowns.

Even after more than 18 months of economic recovery, Washington’s leisure and hospitality business is still missing around 40,000, or 11.5%, of the workers it had in December 2019, state data shows.

“We’ve got more jobs than workers, period,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association.

Most of the hiring obstacles are depressingly familiar.

Many parents of younger children are still being sidelined by a pandemic-related lack of child care or by school schedules that are still routinely disrupted by COVID outbreaks, Anton said.

Those workers often fear coming back to work only to have to quit again “because, you know, the kids are home again,” Anton said.

The sector continues to lose workers to retirement, in the case of older employees, and to the promise of better wages and working conditions in other careers.

In other cases, former restaurant workers who are open to returning are put off by pandemic-related changes that have made the job harder, less lucrative or simply less pleasurable.

Some former bartenders, for example, don’t like how social distancing can reduce interaction with customers. Although many restrictions have lifted, “it’s still not the same job,” said Rich Fox, an operating owner at Weimann Maclise, which runs nine eateries in Washington, including Rhein Haus Seattle on Capitol Hill, and one in Denver.

Another obstacle: In expensive housing markets like Seattle, even well-paid restaurant workers are often forced to commute long distances.

As the restaurant worker pool has shrunk, those who do apply are often less experienced, which means even more work for already overwhelmed managers.

Where it might take a week or so to get an experienced hire “up to speed,” Sundberg said, “hiring someone green might require two months of training hands on, where you have an owner or manager that has to be there every night.”

For much of the pandemic, restaurants adapted to missing workers with labor-saving fixes like QR codes, or a shift to counter-service model, or simply reducing hours of operation; often, owners and managers worked overtime covering vacant shifts.

Those adaptations were often at least partly sufficient, given that many restaurants have also seen significantly less business than before the pandemic. Fox says Weimann Maclise’s sales in 2021 were around 60% of 2019.

But many restaurants saw a pickup in business this fall — “we were getting to 80% of [2019] sales on a lot of weeks heading into December,” Fox said.

Omicron interrupted that recovery — and is likely to bring still more net job losses this winter. “January’s [job] numbers will surely bear the brunt not only of omicron but the weather,” Vigdor said.

But some in the restaurant business expect, or hope, that the positive hiring trend will resume once omicron peaks — at which point, many restaurants will find themselves once again scrambling to find enough workers.

That will mean competing for labor “not just with the restaurant across the street,” said Anton, but with “your big box store … Amazon … warehouses” and all the other businesses that vacuumed up laid-off restaurants workers earlier in the pandemic.

Given the challenges and costs of recruiting in a tight labor market, many restaurants are likely to play a waiting game — delaying an expensive hiring push until they’re certain that enough customers are ready to start dining out regularly again. “I think that’s the last piece of the puzzle,” Fox said.

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