As Diners Return, Restaurants Face a New Hurdle: Finding Workers

Owners across the country report a shortage in help, as rebounding business forces them to compete for a shrunken pool of applicants.

MIAMI — All Day, a downtown coffee shop and restaurant, started the year on a high note. January was its busiest month since the start of the pandemic. “It was like turning on a light switch,” said Camila Ramos, an owner.

Business was so good, it pushed All Day’s staff to a near-breaking point, Ms. Ramos said. When she had trouble hiring reinforcements to help with the increased traffic, she was forced to make a counterintuitive decision: She closed All Day for the month of February.

“I couldn’t find people to hire,” she said last weekend outside her cafe, which reopened on March 1. “I just wanted some time to reset the operations.”

Ms. Ramos discovered early what the owners of full-service restaurants nationwide are now experiencing: a persistent worker shortage in the face of an upswing in business, as mild weather for outdoor dining spreads across the country, along with the reduced Covid restrictions that came early to South Florida and are now being felt throughout the U.S.A staffing shortage seems counterintuitive in a business that has been devastated by the pandemic, with mass layoffs and an alarming number of permanent closings. It comes just as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion grant program for struggling small restaurants, bars and restaurant groups, is gearing up to take applications, and as diners who have eaten at home for a year feel increasingly liberated by vaccines.

Restaurant employment has risen each month this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, but staffing levels at full-service restaurants in February were still 20 percent — or 1.1 million jobs — lower than a year ago. (Employment at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants was down just 6 percent over the same period.)

Restaurateurs say many former employees are choosing not to re-enter the work force at a time when they can make nearly as much or more by collecting unemployment benefits.

“You have some cases where it’s more profitable to not work than to work, and you can’t really fault people for wanting to hold on to that as long as possible,” Mr. Fox said.

Others have left the restaurant business for better-paying jobs in other fields, further shrinking the pool of possible applicants. Greg Wright, 34, said he decided not to return to his job as a sous-chef at Marlow & Sons, in Brooklyn, soon after the shutdown last March. He has since moved to the Bay Area and started training to become a computer programmer.

Owners and chefs at full-service restaurants say the main reason staffing remains stubbornly low is that there are simply many more job openings than available workers.