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Where Have All the Restaurant Workers Gone?



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The restaurants are back. Bravo! Across the country, restaurants are open or beginning to open. Cheers!

But there is something amiss. Something unexpected and as-yet-unexplained is going on: There is a national shortage of restaurant workers.

By Llewellyn King


The Pandemic Changed the Restaurant Industry

During the lockdown, I was among many who lamented the fate of those who prepped, cooked, served, and cleaned up, enduring bad hours, difficult conditions, and uncertain earnings.

However, there have always been those who want to work in restaurants. For some, like college students, it is a way of earning on the journey to somewhere else. For others, and there are many, it is because they love the ethos of restaurant life: its people intensity, and its real-time energy and urgency.

And for those who link ambition with acumen, restaurant work has always fostered the possibility of, as I have heard waiters say, “a place of my own.” Chez Moi beckons to those who would sell foie gras, as well as those who would sell hot dogs.

For unabashed entrepreneurs, it is probably impossible to beat restaurateurs. The chance of self-employment, to my mind, is the great motivation of the free-spirited. A food truck is a start and may be enough.

We knew the pandemic would change things. But to change employment in the restaurant industry, even a reduced one? That isn’t only a puzzle, but also a hint of how the pandemic has altered things.

Workers Not Lazy, Just Resetting Lives

There are those in Congress and the statehouses who hold that restaurant workers are lolling at home because they would rather collect unemployment benefits. I doubt that there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who are so lazy, so work-averse that they would rather stay home — after more than a year of staying home — than returning to their restaurant jobs.

Something else is happening.

Horizons have changed, new jobs have been found, and the grueling but satisfying work of restaurants has given over to something else. After the plague, a new dawn.

The country is resetting, and lives are being reset, too. A waitress I know of in Florida found work in a print shop. She prefers the regular pay there to the uncertain income from waitressing. That is a reset in her life.

As we go forward, as the pandemic is less dominant in our lives, we are going to experience changes — some anticipated, some surprising like the restaurant labor shortage.

‘Restaurants are Milestones of Life’

We don’t know whether the full complement of workers will go back to their offices; we don’t know how schools will deal with the lost year, and we don’t know whether the mini migration from town to country that has been a feature of the last year is a trend to stay or a product of panic.

What we do know and rejoice in is that we can go back to being restaurant patrons. In brief travels around New England, Washington, D.C., and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., I found people are eating out with joy.

Restaurants are milestones of life. It is in them we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, advance romance, or simply eat something that we wouldn’t get at home.

But that isn’t all. Restaurants, however modest, are destinations. During this long pandemic, we have missed having a destination.

Restaurants in all societies are part of the fabric of how we live. Eating out is woven into our lives, whether it is a humble hamburger or a great ethnic food feast. The first step in the American Dream for many immigrant families is to start a restaurant, to employ the social capital that they brought with them: their cuisine.

Bon appétit! We need restaurants because, in their great variety, they add spice to our lives, especially after the long lockdown.

About the Author 

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is llewellynking1@gmail.com. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.