Long Island restaurant owners say they can’t find the workers needed to meet customer demand, pointing to enhanced unemployment benefits as the main culprit. But workers and their advocates cite a different reason for the staffing crisis — low wages — and say the problem predates the jobless aid and the pandemic.
"A bunch of owners feel that the supplemental payout for unemployment is driving people to stay at home and collect their money, and unless workers were offered some major increase in their minimum wage or their past wages, they’re not going to leave their home to do hard labor," said Mark Irgang, president of the Long Island Hospitality Association.
Child care and health concerns
Worker advocacy groups reject the idea that the extra $300 unemployment benefit that many receive is to blame for unfilled positions, and instead point to low wages, difficult working conditions, lack of access to child care and health concerns.
"There was already ... a labor shortage prior to the pandemic," said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, which advocates for service workers. She said the issue was made worse last year when limited capacity and restrictions meant many of those still working in restaurants saw decreased take-home pay while working in a difficult environment. Additionally, child care options shrank as day care centers closed.
"A lot of them went back to work last summer," she said. "What they found was tips were down."
Many owners said they've had unfilled openings for months, with some saying they've tried incentives like referral and sign-on bonuses to bring in workers. Still, they said, the applicant shortage continues, threatening to burn out existing staff and leading to slower service.
"I’ve placed ads on Indeed, Facebook … Instagram, Craigslist, and we really got nothing," said Craig Attwood, owner of Five Ocean in Long Beach. "We had to take seats away ... because we don’t have enough front-of-house or back-of-house staff."
In restaurant speak, front-of-house staff include customer-facing positions, such as waiters, hosts, bussers and bartenders. Back of house refers to kitchen positions, including cooks and dishwashers.
Attwood said he can operate only five days a week, which hurts the bottom line. "We’d like to be open seven days, but we can’t because we don’t have enough staff."
He and other restaurant owners said the biggest factor contributing to their hiring woes is the federal government’s $300 weekly enhancement to unemployment payments, set to expire in September. Many said the benefits, begun after COVID-19 abruptly threw so many working Americans into unemployment, are disincentivizing the return to work.
"I’m hoping that they end [the extra] unemployment sooner than later," Attwood said. "I think it’s hurting business."
At least 24 Republican-led states have announced plans to end the distribution of the extra $300 in jobless benefits, citing restaurants and retailers’ inability to fill openings.
$9.35 an hour
On Long Island, the minimum wage for most workers is $14 per hour and is set to increase to $15 at the end of the year. Minimum wage for tipped food service workers is $9.35 an hour, set to increase to $10 on Dec. 31. If tips don't average out to bring hourly wages to at least $14, owners are responsible for covering the remainder.
One Fair Wage argues that tipped workers should make the area's minimum of $14, plus tips.
While the staffing shortage has become acute in the food and beverage industry, the issue is widespread.
"It’s across all industries," said Rob Basso, vice president of Asure Human Capital Management in Plainview, an HR and payroll firm. He said hiring struggles are most evident in "moderately paid hourly positions."
Some restaurant workers are leaving the industry.
"Most definitely workers want to go to work, and they’re getting jobs; for many of them [that's] not necessarily in the restaurant industry," said Sekou Siby, executive director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national advocacy group.
"When wages are very low and Amazon is offering wages of $15 and more, and you have Best Buy going to $15 an hour, but you have most of the restaurants paying the state minimum wage, that doesn’t work for people," Siby said.
The median annual wage for Long Island restaurant waiters and waitresses was $31,120 in 2020, according to state Labor Department data. For restaurant cooks – excluding executive and head chefs – the median was $31,000. Both work out to just under $15 an hour for a 40-hour week. Many restaurant employees work part time without benefits.
Across all jobs on the Island, the median annual wage was $46,820 in 2020, or $22.50 an hour.
"Many workers are going where they can get paid more," Siby said, adding that $15 no longer meets the standard that many labor activists call for: a living wage. "New York is too expensive for $15 an hour," he said.
James Henry Dunne, attorney for the Long Island Hospitality Association, said paying more can be difficult for restaurants, which often survived on thin profit margins.
Now, also facing higher prices for meat, chicken and delivery of kitchen essentials since the pandemic, Dunne said restaurants would have to increase food prices if higher wages were implemented.
"If you’re saying minimum wage is going up, and you have to go above that, it simply is adding to expenses," he said. "While the world can now come to their business, they’re hitting barriers to actually turning a profit."
Short staffed, closed doors
Alan Feinstein, owner of H on the Harbor in Port Washington, a catering venue-turned-restaurant, said lack of workers is preventing the upscale eatery from opening more than two days a week.
"We tried to reach out to a lot of the employees that we had, and they had moved on to other positions," he said. Many of his previous cooks had moved into food prep at hospitals.
Feinstein said his waitstaff can make $60 to $80 an hour with tips, and experienced cooking staff can earn $25 to $35 an hour.
He said he never "bought into the rumor" that enhanced unemployment benefits kept people out of the workforce, but he’s seen few other explanations that make sense to him.
An analysis last month by economists with the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank suggest unemployment benefits' impact might be less significant than critics suggest.
"Each month in early 2021, about seven out of 28 unemployed individuals receive job offers that they would normally accept, but one of the seven decides to decline the offer" because of the enhanced unemployment payments, the Fed reported.
Jayaraman of One Fair Wage said many tipped workers nationally were unable to access unemployment benefits, and those who did received meager state payouts, a result of their already low earnings.
In New York, a worker making $31,000 a year could receive about $298 a week in state unemployment, according to the Labor Department's benefits calculator. Adding the federal bonus of $300 a week, that worker could see a total of $598 per week before taxes, roughly equivalent to what they earned while working.
Tips down, harassment up
Many of those who returned to work last summer amid the heaviest COVID restrictions were tasked with enforcing mask compliance among a smaller customer base.
"All of last year we were saying workers are leaving because tips are way down and harassment is way up," Jayaraman said.
Fifty-three percent of restaurant staff working during the pandemic said they were considering leaving their job, with 76% reporting that they would leave due to low wages and tips, according to a One Fair Wage report based on a national pool of surveys answered by more than 2,800 restaurant workers from October 2020 through May.
Rashaad Lloyd, 26, a chef at a gastro pub in Bay Shore, said he understands the pressures that restaurant owners are under, but he can also understand why many workers might not be eager to return to the industry.
Lloyd said he'd worked his way up for six years, eventually commanding higher wages at more desirable locations. But when the coronavirus hit last year, his cooking career came to a halt.
After losing a good job due to the pandemic shutdown , he spent four months looking for work. He finally landed a job at a steakhouse, only to see the eatery shut down two months later due to a COVID outbreak.
Unable to go two weeks without pay, Lloyd landed his current position.
"People in this profession were very much at risk," said Lloyd, who lived with his parents last year. His mom has respiratory conditions that made going to work an emotional balancing act. "I had a really serious moment at the height of COVID where I had to evaluate where I was and that maybe I should look at a different career path."
According to a February report from researchers at the University of California-San Francisco, line cooks were found to have faced the highest rate of COVID death among all occupations from March 2020 through October 2020, seeing a 60% increase in the occupation’s mortality rate.
Lloyd said that in most restaurants there is a divide between those who see the work as a career, as he does, and those who just need the money. And those lured in by money alone, he said, likely found more consistent, reliable pay outside the industry.
"The younger generation in America today, we are very informed," Lloyd said. "We know unemployment is going to stop giving money to everyone. That is a thought in everyone’s head. I don’t think there are many people sitting at home playing video games thinking, ‘I’m just going to collect unemployment.’"
Keeping the business going
Whatever the reason, John Murray III, owner of The Hero Joint and Kilwin’s in Patchogue, said he has struggled for six months to find help.
"You’re trying to run a business, you’re trying to deliver the best quality product. But you can’t get out of the starting gate if you can’t get anyone to work at the business," he said.
Murray, who employs about 12, mostly part-time employees at The Hero Joint, said ideally, he’d have 16 to 18 on staff. As it stands, current workers are racking up the hours and putting in overtime.
"A lot of them are working between 30 and 40 hours," Murray said. "Some of them are routinely going into overtime because of it."
Murray said he and a lot of other owners he knows found it much easier to fill positions last summer. This year, however, has been very different.
"You would think with the end [of the $300 payments] being in sight … it would actually be easier this summer," he said. "It’s 10 times harder."
Though the hiring landscape has been rough on owners, it’s given young jobseekers a boost in their marketability.
Sarah Colefield, 20, of Oakdale landed a job as a waitress at Locale Gastro Bar and Pizzette in Patchogue last month during a restaurant hiring event organized by the Patchogue Restaurant Committee.
Colefield, a rising senior at SUNY Cortland, was looking for a summer job to supplement her income giving private swim lessons. She has no experience as a restaurant server but worked briefly for a caterer.
"I was probably there for 5 to 10 minutes at most," Colefield said of the brief job interview. "I left the place and went back to my car. I was still in Patchogue and I got the call."
All told, from introduction to offer, was about 30 minutes, she said.
"I know it’s a fast-paced environment and I hope I get the ropes quickly," she said.
Restaurant pay vs. jobless benefits
Median yearly wage for LI servers who work full time: $31,120 a year = $598 a week
Estimated benefits for a worker who earned $31,000 a year: $298 plus $300 federal bonus = $598 a week
Source: New York State Department of Labor; NYSDOL benefits calculator
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