CHICAGO – Emilio Enriquez has climbed from busser to line cook during his seven years working in restaurants, and he still dreams of becoming a chef.
But he hasn't worked during the COVID-19 pandemic and won't look for a job until fall, once unemployment benefits no longer pay more than he would likely earn working and, he hopes, more people are vaccinated.
"This is what I want to do in the long haul," said Enriquez, 25. "I'm just not ready to do that yet – especially since I'm making more at home."
Kodi Roberts worked as a restaurant server for 10 years until the pandemic. Unlike Enriquez, she has no plans to return.
"It hit me pretty quickly," Roberts said. "My body started bouncing back. My back stopped hurting. My nails started growing because I wasn't dipping them in buckets of bleach and sanitizer all the time. I felt like a person who could move through the world relatively well again."
As society inches toward normal and diners fill tables and booths once again, a question has hovered over the restaurant industry: Where are the workers? From white-tablecloth destinations to casual neighborhood spots, business owners have decried a labor shortage that has led some restaurants to scale back menus and hours. Some need servers and bartenders. Others need dishwashers and cooks. Some need all of the above.
A simple narrative has taken root: The workers are staying home to collect unemployment, especially as long as the federal government offers a $300 weekly surplus through Labor Day due to the pandemic. At least 24 states have pulled out of the bonus payments in recent weeks, usually with Republican legislators saying it will force people back into the workforce.
But Enriquez and Roberts underscore a reality: No single answer explains the restaurant industry's thinning labor force, nor can we predict when – or whether – it will return.
This fall, Roberts will start a master's program that probably would have been another two to five years down the road if coronavirus-driven circumstances hadn't yanked her from the only industry she's ever known. The pandemic, she said, made her realize she was ready to go.
Roberts called leaving the industry "bittersweet."
"It's obviously more expensive for me to go back to school," she said. "It's the more difficult option. But I think I'm worth it, and I don't think restaurants make employees think that they're worth it."
Roberts ticked off a list of complaints from her years as a server: unreliable pay, lack of health care, terminal exhaustion and too many negative interactions with customers ("You come into a restaurant and you think I'm happy to see you, but I depend on you because that's how I make my money – it's not my hourly wage," she said). Battling an employer over health care and scheduling during the early days of the pandemic pushed her over the edge.
"I was tired and I was unhappy, and I knew a lot of people I worked with were also tired and unhappy. You can only go so long with going unheard and think it's feasible to keep doing it," she said. "There's a lot of money to be made in the service industry, and I think it speaks volumes that workers are deciding not to go back."
'We definitely have lost a lot of folks'
Restaurant owners and their advocates say the reduced labor force is crippling after a year of industry devastation. Many acknowledge the issues aren't as simple as surplus unemployment payments.
"A lot of people want to say it's just the enhanced unemployment, and yeah that's part of it, but if I had to rank it, closed schools and lack of child care options are the biggest issues," said Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.
Many workers have likely moved on, he said.
"There's no question people working in the industry have gone to work in other fields – cannabis, distribution centers like Amazon and UPS, delivery services," Toia said. "We definitely have lost a lot of folks."
Several restaurant owners expressed pessimism that the labor shortage will resolve any time soon. Michael Muser, co-owner of Ever, which was awarded two Michelin stars in April, is struggling to find servers who were always available in a pipeline of fine dining industry talent.
"These are hirable people in many other fields," Muser said. "My concern is they're gone – they're gone. I don't think there's this small army of hospitality people waiting for some green light to come back."
Michael Roper, owner of the Hopleaf, said he employs 25 fewer employees than when the pandemic struck and needs "12 to 15 more employees to make it possible to serve our full menu." Instead he had to pare back his menu and hours. But he doesn't blame the workers who haven't returned.
"Hours are late, and there are sharp knives and boiling hot oil and slippery floors," he said. "I saw one of our old cooks stocking produce at a grocery store. He doesn't want to come back. He's making the same money and done with work at 9 every night instead of midnight or 1 in the morning."
Before the pandemic, Roper said, there was often "a farm team coming up" of new workers, including multiple people from the same family staffing the kitchen. Most of those people were immigrants, he said, and there are no obvious replacements: "It's not as if some Loyola student is going to say, 'Oh my god, there's a dishwashing job at the Hopleaf,'" he said.
The biggest fix, Roper said, would be "a rational immigration policy" that welcomes the people who do much of the hard labor in the United States. Toia also championed immigration reform to boost the service industry, including an immigrant work visa program endorsed by the National Restaurant Association.
"Immigrants have always been the backbone of the hospitality industry, especially in Chicago, during the last 100 years," he said.
Inequities and injustices
Workers, meanwhile, say there are deeply seated issues within the industry that predate the pandemic.
Last week the nonprofit group One Fair Wage, which advocates for ending the subminimum wage for restaurant workers, issued a report with the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley claiming a "massive exodus of workers from restaurants." In a survey of 144 Illinois restaurant workers who applied for the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund last fall, 53% said they have considered leaving the industry during the pandemic, the report said.
Reasons cited included low wages (75%), concerns about COVID-19 (44%) and hostility or harassment from customers (35%) or from co-workers or managers (27%).
Nataki Rhodes, lead organizer for One Fair Wage in Illinois, said the pandemic "has revealed the very inequities and injustices tipped workers receive in this industry."
"Many workers want to go back, but how can they go back to an industry that doesn't want to pay them and invest in their futures?" she said. "This pandemic has showed restaurant owners are worried about how they're going to open up, not how to invest in their workers."
Multiple workers interviewed said the industry is rife with systemic challenges that were long worth the trade-off. Since the pandemic, that hasn't been the case.
"A lot of people go into it for the flexibility, the money, the camaraderie and the action – and most of those things are gone and not coming back," said Don Woolf, an off-and-on server and bartender since the late 1980s who worked his last shift in March 2020 and does not plan to return. He wants to put his master's degree in journalism to work in some form of writing, research or communications instead.
"There's a cloud hanging over the industry in general," Woolf said. "It's not the place it used to be."
For Enriquez, the issues keeping him away are twofold: health and money. So far as health concerns, he said, ping-ponging governmental regulations about reopening restaurants have seemed driven by restaurant owners and their advocates, rather than concern for workers: "It felt like the restrictions were based on arbitrary numbers based on what lobbyists and the mayor wanted."
He pointed to a University of California at San Francisco study released in January that concluded cooks saw the largest spike in COVID-19 deaths between March and October 2020 of California workers between 18 and 65 years old. Crossed with subpar wages and spotty access to health care – Enriquez has had insurance at just one restaurant job – he isn't eager to return to a restaurant kitchen. He's vaccinated but worried about spreading the virus.
"I'm still not convinced it's worth the risk," he said.
The extra $300 of weekly benefits empowers him to make that calculation; it boosts his pay to about the same as what he would earn in restaurants – about $700 a week after taxes – he said. The narrative of workers being paid too much in unemployment is "looking at the wrong problem," he said.
"The reality is we're not being paid enough to work," Enriquez said. "We're not getting enough money and we're not getting enough health care."
The expiration of the $300 surplus will send him back into kitchens, which is where he wants to be. He'll likely have his pick of jobs.
"A culture of transparency needs to be there," Enriquez said. "What did they do for workers during the pandemic? Did they force them back or do what they could to protect them?"
He also wants a restaurant free of sexual harassment ("Sexual harassment is rampant" in the industry, he said), a living wage and, ideally, health care.
Matthew DiMare, 37, who has worked in a series of high-end bars since leaving a corporate job in 2008, has weaved in and out of the industry during the pandemic. In April, he took a job managing the bar program at Walden, a private event venue in West Town specializing in weddings. The change could have happened regardless, he said, but the past year in the service industry made him realize he'd had enough.
"I was emotionally and mentally over working in a restaurant," he said. "Once the shutdown happened, we were forced to reevaluate and assess our priorities and recalibrate our lives, and a lot of us got used to living a more normal schedule and a healthier lifestyle that isn't really possible in a restaurant or bar environment."
He thinks a labor force will slowly reemerge but with higher standards: "There are still a lot of good people out there who want to work in the industry, but a lot of people won't take jobs that are garbage anymore."
Like Roberts, Beth Martini, 36, is leaving the industry to attend school in the fall. She has worked in restaurants since the age of 15 and worked her way through fine dining establishments during the last seven years, eventually receiving level one certification from The Court of Master Sommeliers. After her last employer, Michelin-starred Entente, closed in March 2020, she said, she stopped having panic attacks, her back stopped hurting, she was drinking less and she was sleeping better.
"The only thing that changed was I wasn't working in a restaurant," she said.
Meanwhile, her boyfriend, also a longtime restaurant worker, was called back to a job last summer where, she said, management violated COVID-19 seating restrictions. They both realized they were ready to move on.
In the fall, Martini will enroll at the University of Illinois at Chicago for a bachelor's degree in design. Her boyfriend will enroll at the Illinois Institute of Technology to study aerospace engineering.
"I feel like I got a fresh shot at doing stuff differently," she said.
She feels twinges of regret about leaving the industry; she and her boyfriend saw a long-term future there before the pandemic.
"We were going to open a bar together and it was going to be amazing – we had a menu and concept and everything," Martini said. "And then the industry collapsed. And now we're doing other things."