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Restaurants Are Still Struggling to Hire as 2 Million Jobs Remain Unfilled

The sector is still down 500,000 employees from pre-pandemic levels.

Chef garnishing plate with food Westend61/Getty Images

During the pandemic, tons of people took the opportunity to change their routine—and also their career.

Particularly in the hospitality industry, many businesses had to shut down or let go of employees. And now, almost three years since that first started happening, the sector is still facing problems: 2 million hospitality and leisure jobs remain open, The Washington Post reported on Friday. And while many industries have recovered, leisure and hospitality is still 500,000 employees short of its 2020 levels.

Part of the problem is that the people who used to work in these jobs—many of them with low wages and a lack of benefits—have moved into roles that provide them with a better quality of life. They may now be making more money than they did in the service industry, or have perks like paid time off and health insurance.

“There’s this reshuffling going on that is explaining why lots of industries can’t find workers,” Betsey Stevenson, an economics professor at the University of Michigan and a former Labor Department chief economist, told the Post. “Their workers have left to go somewhere else.”

While the consequences of that are industry-wide, the effects are also hitting businesses on an individual level. One of my colleagues has heard from chefs and restaurateurs in New York City who have had to shorten their workweeks to fewer than seven days, citing labor shortages. Others are changing their business practices to attract new employees.

Alex Sirigu, the general manager of a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has raised wages by as much as 20 percent and is closing earlier on weeknights, in hopes that workers will see that as a benefit. “The people who used to work in restaurants have gotten new jobs,” he told The Washington Post. “They’ve all moved on.”

Now the pool of workers is mostly a younger cohort, with entry-level applicants, he said. Many older workers retired during the pandemic, and there was an overall shift away from jobs with a lot of person-to-person contact, such as those in the service industry. Some economists, though, see this as an overall positive.

“This has been a good evolution—it has raised wages and changed the structure of the labor market in a deep, profound way,” the labor economist William Spriggs told the Post. “Workers who were trapped in low-wage jobs were able to escape by switching to higher-paying industries.”

But that’s still left the leisure and hospitality sector in a bit of a pickle, with jobs unfulfilled and restaurants having to deal with the fallout.

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