In early 2020, Emma was enjoying what was in many ways a dream job. Emma describes herself as “obsessed with the restaurant industry,” and after working in restaurants since she was a teenager, she landed a job as a waitress at a popular upscale Salt Lake restaurant. (To protect her privacy, Emma asked for her name to be changed and to not specify the name of the restaurant.) She stayed for six years in the position, which she says was widely known as “a prized job” in the industry. It gave her financial security she had never experienced in her adult life—she was able to work less and travel while keeping consistent health insurance. “I’m never leaving this job,” she thought to herself.
Then the pandemic hit.
At first, Emma got by with government support and a grant through Ty Burrell’s and the Downtown Alliance’s Tip Your Server program. Then, the restaurant required staff to return and work a minimum of 20 hours per week to keep their health insurance. Emma, who was caring for a mentally ill family member, said this was a challenge, but she stayed in order to keep her health care. When she returned to work, management did bump wages from the minimum rate for tipped employees ($2.13/hour) to $7.25 hourly. However, tips, which used to be the vast majority of Emma’s earnings, fell dramatically. Before COVID, Emma could expect up to $400 in tips on a busy night. But when the restaurant shut down indoor dining, Emma says she only took home an additional $6 during a typical shift. The fast-paced environment she had grown accustomed to was gone—she spent some days playing the video game Animal Crossing. “I was sitting around on a daily basis, twiddling my thumbs, hoping that curbside orders would come in,” she says.
Emma and other employees at the restaurant felt trapped. Those who didn’t feel safe coming back to work lost their health insurance. Those who did return lost unemployment benefits, but the reduced tips and limited hours weren’t adding up to a livable wage. Ultimately, she decided to quit the job that she loved.
Emma is one of many restaurant workers who faced layoffs, reduced pay and unsafe, stressful work conditions during the pandemic. Now, as the economy recovers and restaurants are experiencing higher demand, many of those workers have left the industry entirely.
Labor shortages are not unique to the restaurant industry. In June, Gov. Spencer Cox ended extra pandemic unemployment pay in hopes that more Utahns would return to the workforce. As of last month, Utah’s unemployment rate was 2.7%, notably lower than the national rate of 5.9%. However, fewer Utahns are participating in the labor force generally—67% of Utah adults, compared to 69% before the pandemic—and many businesses still struggle to attract workers. Most Utahns seem to think that cancelling additional unemployment benefits will bring people back into the workforce—74% of voters supported the move. Utah Restaurant Association President Melva Sine also hopes Gov. Cox’s decision will be enough. “The pandemic is coming to a close and the patriotic thing to do now is to enter the workforce and get back to full-time employment,” she told ABC4.
Experts believe that the labor shortage is likely caused by multiple factors beyond unemployment benefits, including fear of contracting the virus and a lack of affordable child care. Many economists predict that workers will slowly return as the pandemic wanes. But for government leaders and business owners, the pressure to hire more employees and meet demand is immediate.
One restaurateur feeling this pressure is Reed Allen Slobusky, who owns the food hall Hall Pass. In May, he guaranteed a $19 minimum hourly wage and health insurance for all employees. Slobusky believes that the wage increase was necessary to attract and retain the staff he needs to grow a successful business, and Hall Pass did receive an uptick in applications after the announcement.
Slobusky, who also owns restaurants in Las Vegas and Dallas, said that in Utah, restaurant owners have an added challenge because, compared to cities like Las Vegas, Salt Lake has a less-established restaurant industry and fewer people specifically looking to work in the field. “You’re trying to move and create a giant workforce that has largely not been working. When you do that in real time, it’s going to be tricky, and it’s going to turn to a degree on who’s paying the most and who’s putting the best environment in front of people,” he explains. Slobusky says he is still able to operate while spending more on employees. For workers, the benefits are obvious—the higher wages and health benefits can allow them to earn a living with a single job.
While restaurants try their best to make adjustments that attract a new workforce, many former service industry employees aren’t taking the bait. Olivia worked as a host and busser at the same restaurant as Emma. (Olivia’s name has also been changed to protect her privacy.) Like Emma, Olivia’s tips and hours were reduced significantly during the pandemic. She did not rely on the restaurant for health insurance, and while reduced hours were a financial burden, she knew that other workers, including Emma, needed to reach a minimum number of hours to keep their health care. “It was a morally challenging time for me,” she says. When the restaurant planned to reopen for indoor dining, Olivia worried about being around diners without masks. She decided to quit in the middle of the pandemic.
After leaving their jobs during COVID, both Emma and Olivia switched to different industries—Emma to tech and Olivia to hospitality. Both realized that their concerns—low wages, limited hours and risk of contracting COVID—were not unique to their specific workplace. Even as many Utahns get vaccinated, neither plan to return to restaurant work. Emma and Olivia’s experiences appear to be common in the industry. A survey from One Fair Wage and UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center found that “among unemployed individuals who previously received unemployment benefits that were subsequently cut, 57% are not considering returning to the service industry.” The most cited factor that would cause people to return? Livable wages. These results were consistent with the organizations’ May report, which found that more than half of restaurant workers considered leaving their jobs during the pandemic. Low wages were once again the biggest factor in workers’ decisions. Other factors included concerns about safety during the pandemic and harassment from management, coworkers and customers. Women, especially mothers, bore the brunt of these problems.
Both Emma and Olivia said that COVID shattered illusions and laid bare long-standing problems in their jobs. Before the pandemic, Olivia said, management called the restaurant team a family. “When COVID hit, it was pretty apparent that they didn’t really care and they were just trying to make money,” she says. Emma agrees: “I cared about that restaurant, my position and our restaurant family so much, but at a certain point, it came down to, ‘I have to look out for myself because they don’t have my back.’” Ultimately, Emma felt that management’s only solutions were to threaten to take away health insurance and tell her that “bad tips happen.” She said front-of-house staff members with decades of combined experience left because they couldn’t afford to stay at the job.
Olivia agrees with Gov. Cox on one point—the increased unemployment benefits probably have contributed to the current labor shortage. “I think a lot of people, myself included, got a taste of what it’s like to actually have a livable income,” she says. But Olivia does not support the elimination of additional benefits. “To be crass, I think it’s fucked up that they’re going to take away money from other people and force them to go back to jobs that don’t pay them enough,” she says. Both women pointed out that these problems expand beyond the food industry. Frontline workers in many industries, including hospitality, where Olivia now works, were underpaid in 2020. “I do a lot of work and deserve to be paid more,” she says. For Emma, low wages paired with rising housing costs have made life increasingly untenable in Utah. “I feel like I’ve been pushed out of my own city because I can’t afford to buy a house here,” she says.
Even after a difficult year of work, Emma says leaving was a painful decision. “I was part of that restaurant for a good chunk of my adulthood…It was a huge, huge part of my life. I gotta say, not being able to serve a last table was really devastating to me.” In many ways, she is a restaurant owner’s dream employee: passionate, experienced and committed. Though Emma says she enjoys her job now, working in tech was never her plan. If she no longer sees a place for herself in food service, one wonders if anyone can. “I love the restaurant industry,” she says. “If I could have made it my career, even with [two college] degrees, then I would have forever. Unfortunately [restaurants] are just not making that an option for us anymore. So something has to change—and they have to be the ones to change. They have to be the ones to have our backs.”
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