As restaurants reopen in South Florida after a difficult year marked by hundreds of thousands of laid-off or furloughed workers, they are facing a new — and surprising — problem: A shortage of staff.
It’s a mystery restaurant owners are struggling to understand: In an economy where unemployment is still high, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industry, why can’t they find enough kitchen workers, servers and hosts to staff their establishments?
“This is definitely a crisis,” said Carlos Gazitua, owner of the restaurant chain Sergio’s Cuban Cafe & Grill. “We can’t find people and we don’t know where the candidates are.”
Gazitua said that in his years working in the restaurant industry, he’s never had such a problem. Applicants aren’t calling him back and as many as eight in 10 new hires simply don’t show up for their first shifts.
The shortage is hitting his franchises hard, he said. His Brickell location can do only takeout and delivery. His Coral Way location can do only outdoor seating because there isn’t enough staff to also serve the indoor dining room. He is short about 25% of staff in some locations.
“We are even putting fliers on our Uber deliveries saying that we are looking for workers,” said Gazitua, who also serves as the restaurant director on the executive committee of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.
As restaurants crawl back from the darkest days of the pandemic shutdowns, employment in the industry still hasn’t returned to where it was before COVID-19 struck. Employment for leisure and hospitality workers plummeted last spring as much of the state went into lockdowns and businesses were under capacity restrictions. The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association estimates that a total of 600,000 workers were laid off during the pandemic and about 10,000 restaurants were forced to close in the state.
Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Labor on Friday show that less than half of the lost jobs have returned.
Despite the statistics, restaurants are hiring. At least they’re trying to.
Peter Ricci, associate professor and director of the hospitality management program at Florida Atlantic University, said there are more job opportunities available now than there were a year ago but restaurants still struggle to find qualified workers for their kitchens and dining rooms.
That shortage is forcing restaurants to make tough decisions about how to operate. Some restaurants in South Florida have had to shut down early, limit seating areas or pay workers overtime, Gazitua said.
“Some of our current workers are working six or seven days a week. Managers and the corporate teams are jumping into the kitchen,” Gazitua said. “With no one to work, it’s going to impact potential sales and it’s going to force them to close down dining rooms and stick to just takeout and delivery.”
Cuba Libre, a restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, has been seeking workers in time for its grand opening festivities. The plan was to open for brunch and lunch late next month, but the plans are in jeopardy because of a lack of staffing.
“The problem will be exacerbated when we are adding lunch and brunch. We are going to have to throttle back the number of guests we take if we don’t have the appropriate number of staff,” said Barry Gutin, co-founder.
In order to be fully operational, the restaurant needs a total of 60 workers and still needs 20 more.
Erik Pettersen, chef at EVO Italian in Jupiter and Robert Egert with Catering with Robert out of Miami have run into the same issues.
Pettersen said he needs about four more workers to help make serving easier under COVID-19 safety protocols.
Egert said he has been left wondering if new hires will show up for the job. He recently tried hiring 25 people, but only eight of them showed up to work.
Finding workers who are qualified for fine dining has been especially difficult. Many applicants are coming from other industries with little experience working in restaurants, owners said.
“It’s always a challenge getting quality staff but it’s nearly impossible now,” said Gutin of Cuba Libre. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 45 years in the industry.”
Pettersen said he has a group of seasonal workers from the northeast that he has called on for years to come down to South Florida as winter hits. When he called on them last October, they didn’t come down.
“The people that we relied on, I think they changed career paths,” Pettersen said. “And I think they did it because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. Thirty percent of all restaurants permanently closed in one year. That’s not really a lot of certainty to a line cook or a server.”
It’s not just restaurants that are struggling to hire staff. Hotels across South Florida are facing the same challenge.
Data and theories are still emerging to explain the trend, but restaurant owners and industry experts believe it is a combination of three things: fear of returning to work during a pandemic, former workers leaving the restaurant industry, and the ongoing availability of unemployment benefits.
“We think we have lost about 20% for the hospitality reason and temporarily we have lost 50% of those workers due to unemployment, the stimulus, taking care of children or have gone into another business,” Ricci said.
Jeremy Nichols, a recruiter in the hospitality industry, said many workers felt cast aside when shutdowns forced restaurants to furlough their staffs. Now, they are reluctant to return to a sector they feel let them down.
“A lot of the talent was forced out of the industry. You can’t blame the industry, but some of them still feel upset,” Nichols said. “They’ve had 12 months to figure out ways to survive without that job.”
Wendi Walsh with the labor union UNITE HERE Local 355 also said many workers either transitioned to new jobs or still felt concerned about working in crowded restaurants with the pandemic still going on.
“This is something that we anticipated early on in the pandemic,” Walsh said. “In some cases, there are workers who want to return but are still quite concerned about health and safety with the workplace.”
Cuba Libre’s locations were forced to completely shut down during the pandemic. When they were able to reopen, many of their former employees couldn’t make it back.
“We attempted to recall our previous employees, but they told us they had child care or health care issues or even the stimulus and unemployment,” Barry Gutin, co-founder of Cuba Libre, explained.
Other restaurant owners believe they are not able to compete with the unemployment benefits former workers are receiving — an issue other industries are facing, as well. On average, Floridians receive about $575 a week on unemployment, which can be more than the average pay for a hospitality job, said Nicole Anderson, chief executive of Mend HR Solutions.
“People of all ages are scared even with hope on the horizon with the vaccines,” Anderson said. “Also, we are getting a huge influx of people from other states who apply for jobs here in Florida that are expecting pay to be at what they were paid in other states.”
The combination of these issues is causing instability for restaurants. Those that want to survive will have to be flexible for the time being, Nichols said.
“This is a great time to be in the industry because, with the lack of available talent, there is an opportunity for those who have made it to the finish line,” he said.