“Sadly, due to government handouts, no one wants to work anymore. Therefore, we are short staffed,” reads a table placard at Corralito Steak House in El Paso. At the Oasis, a restaurant on Lake Travis in Austin, a sign greeting diners reads: “We are short staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did show up. No one wants to work anymore.” A similar sign was spotted at a Chicken Express drive-through in Fort Worth. As the COVID-19 pandemic eases and diners eagerly return to restaurants that had laid off many employees, those businesses are finding themselves short on workers. This is a national phenomenon, but given the rapid growth of Texas’s population and economy, the crunch is especially evident here.
Owners are blaming the shortage on a variety of factors, often embracing the much-challenged theory that workers prefer to stay on unemployment insurance rather than return to work. But workers we interviewed say it isn’t the unemployment checks that are keeping them from returning to work as servers and cooks—it’s the demanding, low-paid, and often benefit-free nature of the jobs. As economic growth accelerates in Texas, those workers face more attractive opportunities in other industries than they did before the pandemic. And by their account, most restaurant owners prefer to blame government handouts or employee laziness rather than behave like rational capitalists and compete for talent.
An April 2021 survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association showed 91 percent of Texas eatery operators “currently have job openings that are difficult to fill,” while 84 percent of operators nationwide have lower staffing levels now than before the pandemic. In May, a group of 38 Texas business organizations, including the Texas Restaurant Association and nearly two dozen chambers of commerce, wrote a letter asking Governor Greg Abbott to end the $300 monthly unemployment supplement that workers received as part of federal COVID-19 relief. The extra funds, they wrote, posed “a major barrier to fill [sic] their job openings.” Abbott agreed and granted their wish. Citing “voluminous jobs,” with restaurant roles given as an example, the statement accompanying his decision boasted of the booming Texas economy and copious high-paying job opportunities.
As of June 26, unemployed Texans no longer received the supplemental benefits. (The undocumented workers who make up 8.4 percent of the state’s workforce were never eligible to receive them to begin with.) What remains to be seen is whether this move, accompanied by the resumption of residential evictions at the end of July, is enough to push workers to fill low-paid jobs in restaurants, or whether they will find better prospects in other industries.
There is much that eateries could do to bring back experienced workers and lure new staff. First, in the words of President Joe Biden, businesses could, of course, “pay them more.” Workers have additional ideas in the wake of a pandemic during which, as pastry chef Austin Walton says, many employers “essentially left us out to dry.” Take, for example, David, a line cook in San Antonio: when fellow staffers got sick with COVID-19, he says, “those guys were just out for two weeks. No pay, no compensation, not even free food.” (David has asked to use a pseudonym for this piece.) Benefits that are standard in other industries, like health insurance, paid time off, and sick leave could help make a career in the industry sustainable.
To cover these expenses, restaurants implementing such policies may have to raise their prices—and customers would have to decide whether or not they’re willing to pay more. Given the clamor today for seats at the sharply reduced number of Texas restaurants coming out of the recession, it would seem that price increases would help balance supply and demand. But many owners are reluctant to take that leap, citing recent memories of half-empty dining rooms.
In the meantime, restaurant workers are discovering that they have leverage. In a May 2021 survey by One Fair Wage about pandemic working conditions in the industry, 76 percent of respondents said they were considering leaving restaurant jobs “due to low wages and tips,” while 78 percent said “a full, stable, livable wage” would make them consider staying in their jobs.
Like David in San Antonio. During his eight-year career in hospitality, David has filled multiple roles: he’s been a line cook and a server, and, at the beginning of last year, he started a new job at a spot on San Antonio’s famous River Walk as a bartender. But when the pandemic hit, the restaurant where David worked temporarily closed, leaving him out of work for nine months. He was not alone—in November 2020, there were 112,500 fewer jobs at Texas restaurants and bars than in the same month in 2019.
For the duration of David’s unemployment, in addition to standard benefits based on past wages, he received the $300-per-week federal supplement. “Unemployment [compensation] was pretty robust,” he says. “It was kind of crazy, because I was getting paid more than I had ever been paid as a worker.” It was a revelatory moment for him, in which he realized “the money that we make at work is not a livable wage. It doesn’t match up to what is demanded from people every day, like for rent and bills and stuff. It just doesn’t match.”
Restaurant wages were fairly stagnant for several years leading into the pandemic, amid tight profit margins for most owners, rising costs of real estate and ingredients, and an hourly wage minimum that’s been set at $7.25 since 2009 as contributing factors. (The minimum wage for workers who earn tips, such as servers and bartenders, is $2.13 per hour.) There are, however, signs of change. Nationally, the average hourly wage of nonsupervisory employees at food and drinking establishments was $15.14 in May 2021, up from $14.95 in April 2021, and $13.74 in June 2020.
Texas may have some catching up to do: amid the height of the pandemic in 2020, the average hourly wage for food preparation and serving-related occupations was $11.53 in Texas, about two dollars shy of the national average at the same time. Some restaurant groups, like Austin-based burger chain P. Terry’s, have had success raising wages during the pandemic: the burger drive-through raised its hourly minimum wage to $15 per hour in February 2021, exceeding Texas’s fast-food average wage of $10.53 an hour. P. Terry’s CEO Todd Coerver says the chain has held a steady labor force, in part because it never closed or laid off workers during the pandemic, and “it’s easier to maintain your operation than build it back from scratch” as other restaurants have been forced to do. He’s noticed wage competition in the chain’s markets, which also include New Braunfels, San Antonio, and San Marcos, that are trying to “appeal [to workers] out of desperation.” P. Terry’s gave workers two weeks of paid time off if they developed COVID symptoms and, more recently, encouraged workers to get vaccinated while on the clock during their shifts. These worker-friendly policies are paying off: the chain has seen an uptick in qualified applicants in the weeks since the federal unemployment boost ended, and according to Coerver, this “has resulted in increased sales and profits.”
Other restaurants have started offering perks such as signing bonuses. A search of industry hiring site Poached shows Dallas-area eateries offering $300, $500, even $750 signing bonuses for dishwashers, cooks, and sushi hosts, respectively.
Beyond material benefits, many restaurant veterans say they’ve simply been looking for a better working environment. Over the past year, Texas pandemic policies changed frequently and with seemingly little logic—putting staff at risk for COVID-19, requiring them to enforce mask policies with often-irate customers—and made them feel “disposable,” as one worker described it. The pandemic gave them time to reassess their personal priorities.
Austin-based chef J. Coleman Durham says that before 2020, “we were working forty hours—at least—a week to barely make a living, and none of us were able to enjoy any kind of life that we wanted. It was all give, give, give, and we weren’t getting anything in return.” In the summer of 2020, Durham left a hotel restaurant job where he says he was being pressured into coming off unemployment to return to work. These days, he runs the kitchen at Bummer Burrito on Austin’s Rainey Street; he’s also the resident burger flipper during the owner group’s popular Bad Larry Burger Club pop-up. Now, Durham relishes the opportunity to work for a company that “respects us and how hard we work, and listens to us if we have issues.” He says he respected how the restaurant group, which also owns Better Half, Hold Out Brewing, and others, handled the pandemic crisis, both in terms of retaining staff and protecting their health on the job. (Employees were given the authority to not serve customers who refused to wear masks, for example, and the restaurants maintained staff masking policies until everyone was vaccinated.)
Similarly, Central Texas pastry chef Austin Walton found new and better work during the pandemic. His former employer, a large, bustling Italian restaurant, had a “laissez-faire attitude towards COVID restrictions. The owner would walk around without his mask on all of the time.” Still, Walton was grateful for the work—he says he was on unemployment for only about two weeks in 2020—and stayed at the job until recently. But as more of the patrons began receiving vaccinations, the restaurant got busier and busier while the number of employees on duty failed to keep up. Walton found himself picking up the slack: “On [my] very last day, I worked a seventeen-hour day.”
So he quit. “When I put my notice in,” he says, “the first thing my chef had said to me was, ‘Well, you had a raise coming.’ That doesn’t mean anything anymore. If I had a raise coming, you could have given it to me.” He now runs the kitchen at FoliePop’s, a pastry and coffee shop in the Bee Cave area of Austin, where the staff has implemented the types of employee policies that he long wished for in his own jobs—“making sure everybody has a break during the day, two back-to-back days off, control over their schedule.” Those are perks that may seem commonplace to office employees, but are a rarity in the restaurant world.
A increasingly common alternative to finding a better restaurant employer is to leave the industry entirely. Before the pandemic, Amanda Farris managed a cafe at a boutique hotel in Austin, and has been unemployed since it closed for the March 2020 lockdown. She contemplated going back to work, but as restaurants reopened and started hiring skeleton crews composed entirely of cooks and servers, she found her management expertise was not in demand. Even if she had applied for a barista or server position, she says, jobs offering mid-pandemic pay rates that were lower than her previous wages and clientele who bristled against masking and distancing protocols combined to create “this incredibly hostile, dangerous environment for less money.”
Then she had a baby. The unpredictable scheduling demands of a service job, the financial burden of childcare, and the risk of exposing her infant to the virus via her interactions with customers meant the industry no longer made sense for her. The pause gave her a chance to reassess hospitality work, and she’s now pursuing a variety of self-employed projects. “I’ve been in the service industry since I was 14, and I’m 34. And no matter how good the work environment is—I’ve worked at some really wonderful places that I really respect a lot—the ethos of the service industry is . . . the more of your life you give to it, the more respect you get. Which is just not healthy.”
Pandemics and politics aside, the task of shutting down and restarting an entire industry over the course of a single year is nothing short of Herculean. Known for slim margins and high employee turnover, the hospitality industry is a particularly vulnerable one. The financial stability of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and bakeries is precarious in the best of times. If restaurants can bounce back from a virus tailor-made to spread within their walls, and from the ever-changing policies of a government scrambling to respond to it, it will be on the shoulders of cooks and servers, bartenders and barbacks, dishwashers and busboys, general managers and sommeliers. And perhaps, in powering this comeback, they will have more of a say about the circumstances of their employment than they did in the past.