Restaurant workers disappear again from job recovery in Washington

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Think you had a hectic holiday season?

In December, Seattle restaurateur Joe Sundberg, co-owner of Manolin, Rupee Bar and Old Salt, ended up working nearly every night his restaurants were open. Not only was omicron decimating its existing staff, but it’s still nearly impossible to find new workers with enough experience to fill in quickly.

“It’s incredibly difficult to hire,” Sundberg said. “You might get 30 resumes if you’re very, very lucky…and maybe four of them have relevant experience.”

Sundberg’s lament reflects a paradox in Washington’s pandemic-ridden labor market.

Overall hiring continues to improve steadily, with the state adding 14,000 jobs, or about half a percent, in December. Layoffs and jobless claims are down: New or “initial” claims for jobless benefits fell 52% last week from the previous week, according to data released Thursday by the Security Department of state employment.

It’s a different story for the state’s leisure and hospitality sector, most of which are restaurants and bars. After seeing a modest hiring wave in October and November, the industry suffered a net loss of 2,200 jobs, or 0.7% of its already undersized workforce, ESD reported.

“Leisure and hospitality looked good in Washington as recently as November, but now it has flipped again,” said Jacob Vigdor, an economist at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy who studied state and local labor markets.

Part of that turnaround is the combined blow of seasonal layoffs, a freezing winter, and the arrival of omicron, which knocked out many restaurant workers while scaring off some diners, industry experts say.

In fact, many industries saw layoffs in December, including agriculture and construction, which are sensitive to seasonal fluctuations and weather conditions. And there has been a net loss of manufacturing jobs, notably in the aerospace industry, which is still feeling the effects of COVID-19 on airline revenues and supply chain operations.

But the difficulties of working in the restaurant industry go beyond seasonal layoffs or omicron.

Many restaurants and bars are still facing a labor shortage that predated the pandemic and has only worsened as the industry has tried to rebound from various COVID-related shutdowns.

Even after more than 18 months of economic recovery, Washington’s leisure and hospitality sector is still short of about 40,000, or 11.5%, of the workers it had in December 2019, according to data from the ‘State.

“We have more jobs than workers, period,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association.

Most barriers to hiring are sadly familiar.

Many parents of young children are still sidelined by a pandemic-related lack of childcare or by school schedules that are still regularly disrupted by COVID outbreaks, Anton said.

These workers often fear coming back to work and having to quit again “because, you know, the kids are back home,” Anton said.

The sector continues to lose workers to retirement, in the case of older employees, and the promise of better wages and working conditions in other careers.

In other cases, former restaurant workers who are ready to return are put off by pandemic-related changes that have made the job more difficult, less lucrative, or just plain less enjoyable.

Some former bartenders, for example, don’t like how social distancing can reduce interaction with customers. Although many restrictions have been lifted, “it’s still not the same job,” said Rich Fox, owner-operator of Weimann Maclise, which operates nine restaurants in Washington, including Rhein Haus Seattle on Capitol Hill, and one in Denver.

Another hurdle: In expensive housing markets like Seattle, even well-paid restaurant workers are often forced to travel long distances.

As the pool of restaurant workers has shrunk, those who apply are often less experienced, which means even more work for already overstretched managers.

Where it can take about a week to get a “up-to-date” experienced hire, Sundberg said, “hiring someone green can take two months of hands-on training, where you have an owner or manager who has to be there every nights. ”

For much of the pandemic, restaurants have adapted to missing workers with labor-saving solutions like QR codes, or a shift to the counter-service model, or simply by reducing opening hours; often owners and managers worked overtime to cover vacant shifts.

These adaptations were often at least partly sufficient, given that many restaurants also saw significantly less business than before the pandemic. Fox says Weimann Maclise sales in 2021 were about 60% of 2019.

But many restaurants have seen business pick up this fall – “we were getting to 80% of [2019] sales over many weeks before December,” Fox said.

Omicron has halted this recovery – and is expected to lead to even more net job losses this winter. “January [job] the numbers will surely bear the brunt of not only omicron but also the weather,” Vigdor said.

But some in the restaurant industry expect, or hope, that the positive hiring trend will resume once omicron peaks – at which time many restaurants will find themselves scrambling again. to find enough workers.

It will mean competition for labor “not just with the restaurant across the street,” Anton said, but with “your big box store…Amazon…warehouses” and all the other companies that have sucked in the workers. restaurants laid off earlier in the pandemic.

Given the challenges and costs of recruiting in a tight labor market, many restaurants are likely to play a waiting game – delaying a costly hiring campaign until they are certain that a sufficient number customers are ready to start eating regularly again. “I think that’s the final piece of the puzzle,” Fox said.

Coverage for the economic impacts of the pandemic is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all of its coverage.

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