Houston-area restaurants struggle with pandemic staff shortage


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The number of restaurant workers has been hit hard by the pandemic, with substantial losses in March and April 2020 in the Houston area. Now restaurants are starting to recover, following a similar trend in other industries as unemployment continues to decline.

Aaron Lyons, founder of local restaurant Dish Society, saw firsthand how staff shortages in the restaurant industry intensified when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Houston. These challenges continued, he said.

“Everyone was in a lull last year,” said Lyons, who owns six restaurants in the Greater Houston area, including one in Bellaire. “There was so much inconsistency with operations. No one knew if we were even going to be 50% open next week, 100% or 25% open next, or one of those things.

Restaurants face a new problem in 2021: Sales are on the rise, but many restaurants do not have the staff to support the increase in volume.

“What this causes isn’t the best customer experience or the best experience for our team members,” Lyons said. “They get dispersed and burn themselves out as they work long hours to fill in the gaps as best we can due to understaffing.”

Lyons is not the only business owner facing these challenges. As the pandemic unemployment assistance program ended on June 26 in Texas, data from a March survey of 1,500 American workers of different age groups, experience levels and industries by employment website show that employee burnout has worsened over the past year, with 52% of respondents feeling burnt out. and 67% think sentiment has worsened during the pandemic.

Lyons said staffing issues for restaurants could persist until job seekers feel more valued, although industry experts and other restaurateurs believe many restaurants are already doing what they want. ‘they can to get on the road to recovery.

Brennan’s of Houston, a famous upscale New Orleans-style restaurant, has loyal employees but has struggled to retain newly hired employees since it reopened in spring 2020, owner Alex Brennan-Martin said.

“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult time since then, retaining new employees, whatever benefits we offer, whatever salary we offer,” he said.

“Economically insane”

On May 17, Abbott announced that Texas was withdrawing from federal unemployment compensation, focusing instead on “helping unemployed Texans connect with more than a million job openings, rather than to pay unemployment benefits to stay off the job lists ”.

Critics of the move said the consequences were far-reaching and it was not economically sound.

Jay Malone, political director of the Texas Gulf Coast branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in the United States, said the governor’s decision made no economic sense.

“The governor’s decision to reject billions of dollars in federal aid was both cruel and economically senseless,” he said.

Also, any change in unemployment benefits has a massive multiplier effect, positive or negative, Malone said.

“We have seen the benefits of unemployment assistance in the event of a pandemic on the economy,” he added. “When you look at where the unemployment money goes, it goes to rent; he goes to the food; he goes to childcare; it goes to the essential, which remains in the community.

In late March, economists at Bank of America predicted that the federal unemployment stimulus would lead to a 7% improvement in the US economy, up from previous estimates of 6.5% growth.

Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims as part of its decision to end benefits. He referred to data from the Texas Workforce Commission on May 17 which estimated that nearly 18% of all jobless claims since the commission started tracking data on March 1, 2020, have been confirmed or suspected. to be fraudulent, most cases being identity theft. That number had fallen to 14% on June 26, the TWC confirmed.

However, in the restaurant industry in particular, this trend is not happening, said Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

“By the end of June, out of about 86,000 people in our greater region who were receiving or had recently received unemployment benefits, only about 1,100 were from the hospitality industry,” she said. “The vast majority were more administrative or office work. “

Areas to be addressed

Employees will more easily return to the restaurant industry when they feel more valued, and that comes in part from restaurant culture and employee salaries, Lyons said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced these employees to re-evaluate their options, he added.

“We are losing candidates and we are losing existing people who have worked with us for a long time to Amazon and FedEx and other jobs and other industries. We are not losing candidates to other restaurants, we are losing candidates to other industries, and that’s a problem, ”he said.

Amazon, for example, hired more than 400,000 employees throughout 2020, bringing its global workforce to nearly 1.3 million by early 2021, according to annual documents from the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.

With low supply and high demand, competition has driven employee wages up, said Joshua Santana, co-owner of Houston-based strategic consulting firm Cerboni Consulting and Financial Service. This was seen when the national Chipotle franchise increased its hourly wage to an average of $ 15 an hour in June, joined by an average 10% wage increase by McDonald’s for its employees.

To help motivate more employees, restaurants have resorted to measures such as connection and referral bonuses, Santana said.

“When there is a high demand, people are going to ask for more because there is a limited supply,” he said. “There is also security; there is health, and people understand that.

New measures like these have helped raise average hourly earnings for recreation and hospitality, which include food workers, to $ 16.82 in May, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States. This contrasts with the federal minimum wage of $ 7.25, a salary shared by Texas that fell from $ 6.55 to $ 7.25 on July 24, 2009, according to the TWC.

However, about 8% of leisure and hospitality workers nationwide earned an hourly wage at or below the federal minimum wage in 2020, according to a February 2021 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This did not include tips. And in Texas, 2.3% of all workers were at or below that line, about 143,000 in total.

For these reasons, Malone believes any discussion of jobs and the economy should start with workers and their financial needs first.

“There are a lot of companies that tell you they can’t make things work if they pay their employees more than minimum wage,” he said. “How does it serve our communities when you have tens of thousands of people who are unable to support their families? “

According to Stewart, the future of the industry remains bright as communities in Houston continue to recover from a pandemic. During this time, restaurants have evolved into more efficient business models that use fewer staff.

“I think we are starting from a small deficit because we are working hard,” said Stewart. “However, we know time and time again that this can be overcome. For example, old restaurants have had employees accompanying them for decades, and this does not happen without reason. Restaurants have created an environment where employees want to stay. So what we’re seeing is that more and more attention is being paid to creating that longevity and putting in place institutions where people will want to stay for a long time.

Brennan’s, for example, did what it could to treat employees like family, Brennan-Martin said.

“I have a captain in the dining room – a senior waiter – who has been with me for 47 years,” he said. “I have several who have been with me for over 30 years and a handful who have been with me for over 20 years. We have long strived to ensure that our employees have very good benefits. We have always offered subsidized health insurance, paid time off even for tipped employees, and paid time off. We have done all we can.

According to Lyons, however, there are still restaurants in the industry that need to reassess themselves.

“I would encourage owners to look at themselves in the mirror and ask them if they are really creating a great work environment that would attract someone or prevent someone from leaving,” he said. “I don’t think we’re there yet – I mean, I’m not even there yet. We could do so much better and we are striving for it, but it is very, very difficult to do.

Eva Vigh contributed to this report.

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