Restaurant labor shortage may force higher wages for workers

As the economy reopens in the Bay Area, many restaurants are struggling to hire workers. Some are calling it a "labor shortage," but with no healthcare, grueling hours, and minimum wage pay, others say it's actually a shortage of fair wages that is ultimately hurting the industry.

Many workers are cobbling together enough income by working two or three hospitality jobs, each without healthcare or benefits, according to Maria Moreno, a community organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. 

She said that some workers are not returning to jobs, or other positions in the industry, because they simply aren’t being paid enough. 

Working in a kitchen can be grueling, physically demanding work. Moreno said that many line cooks report high levels of stress, and many suffer injuries from "working themselves to death."

While some restaurants are ill-staffed, current employees are facing intense pressure and increased workloads while they're paid the same, low wages and not offered any benefits like healthcare.

A line cook who works at a restaurant in San Francisco, who did not want to use her name for fear of retaliation by her employer, said through a translator that her workload has doubled during the pandemic. Without sufficient staff at her job, she now cleans the bathrooms, the exterior of the restaurant, and works as a cashier, in addition to her duties as a cook. 

She does all this without a pay increase, and barely makes ends meet with the minimum wage of $16 she’s given. She has two daughters and is pregnant, and said that the work is hard on her body, but made worse by the fact that she’s not working for a fair wage.

"Restaurant workers have been some of the are part of some of the lowest paid positions in the country, especially the back of the house, which is where you see some of the most stark situations in restaurants, in terms of labor shortage," Moreno said.

Critics of enhanced unemployment benefits for workers blame the funds for keeping people out of the workforce. But workers and labor organizers say that the reality is more complex, and that workers can't afford – and shouldn't be asked  – to work for poverty wages.

Laurie Thomas, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and owner of Rose’s Cafe in San Francisco, said that when schools closed in the Bay, many workers were unable to find affordable childcare, and that this contributed to the worker shortage. Unfortunately, as many restaurant workers are paid unlivable wages, innumerable workers couldn’t afford childcare in the first place.

"The pandemic really, made it impossible for you not to look and evaluate really, as a worker, about what futures are in this?" Moreno said. "How is this job really taking care of me? Like, am I really, actually, making good enough money to put myself at this risk, not just, you know, from COVID?"

Jennifer Alejo, Co-Director at Trabajadores Unidos Workers United, said that the pandemic created conditions wherein "a lot of workers had the chance to really learn about worker rights—that was the first time they were considered essential."

She said that many members of her organization are looking for jobs now, and are in debt from when they lost jobs due to COVID. Many of these workers, some of whom are undocumented, were never eligible for unemployment, and didn’t get stimulus checks.

"The conversation, or the word, of labor shortage, to me is really interesting—when I know a lot of community members that are looking for jobs," Alejo said. These folks are "actually trying to pile up two to three part time jobs in a week so that they're able to, you know, earn enough to take care of their family because they're still in debt, right?"

Within hospitality and outside of it, when employers do not raise wages for workers to meet the cost of living in an area, the industry, and its workers, can suffer. That’s what Gregory Everett, a member of SEIU 1021, said is happening with city employees in Richmond.

He said that the city has not raised wages for many employees in 6 years.

"We're still living with the same wages for 2015, which makes it harder for the city to recruit and retain employees, because their recruits are being enticed by different cities or companies that pay more," Everett said.

Restaurant workers who are fed up with unlivable incomes are similarly moving towards jobs that may pay better, offer better job security and enhanced benefits. And the labor shortage may also force restaurants to offer better wages for workers. 

"We have seen, already, wages going up," Moreno said. "We've already seen big, corporate restaurants announce benefits to be offered to their employees."

Thomas said that she when she difficulty hiring staff back to her restaurant, she offered a higher wage.

"We made hourly and salary adjustments proactively in April, because after I ran a couple ads, and I saw what happened, I was like, 'Oh, my God, I don't want to lose anybody,'" she said.

A main grievance from restaurant owners is that it's already hard to make money on such thin margins, so they do not want to raise wages for employees.

Thomas said that most restaurant owners she’s spoken with are having issues finding qualified employees to hire. And that affects their bottom lines, too. 

She said that she doesn't believe every restaurant in San Francisco can afford to raise wages, because restaurants would have to increase the cost of food, and that would drive away customers.

"Does it make sense to open and run a restaurant if you, the owner, are making less than these minimum wage numbers?" Thomas said.