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As Pandemic Restrictions Ease, Restaurants Lack Workers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Pandemic restrictions are easing up across the country, revealing a new shortage. There aren't enough restaurant workers to get those businesses back up and running. LaToya Dennis of member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports.

LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: To say that 2020 hit the restaurant industry hard is an understatement. According to the National Restaurant Association, about a hundred thousand restaurants closed, and 2.5 million jobs were lost. Now, as some reopen, recruiting and hiring is proving to be a challenge.

PAUL BARTOLOTTA: Clearly, there's a shortage. You know, I would love to say, oh, you know, they're just flocking in and we're fully staffed. We're not.

DENNIS: That's Chef Paul Bartolotta. He owns 16 Milwaukee-area restaurants. Last year, he furloughed workers in all his restaurants except for essential staff. Many of those workers began collecting unemployment benefits. Now he's trying to rebuild. He says that over the past couple of weeks, they've held a handful of successful job fairs but haven't yet hired enough people to allow his restaurants to resume regular hours.

BARTOLOTTA: Normally, we had many restaurants that were seven days, lunch and dinner. At the moment, my restaurants are five dinners. All the restaurants are closed at lunch but one that does Saturdays and Sunday brunch along the lakefront.

DENNIS: There are lots of reasons hiring has become such a problem. One is that people like Nate Northway have found other careers. At the age of 27, he's spent nearly half his life working in the industry.

NATE NORTHWAY: I was a cashier at Culver's. I was a fry boy at Wendy's. I was a shift manager at Jimmy John's. I was a line cook at multiple different places.

DENNIS: Northway says low pay and fears over COVID exposure pushed him to change careers. He now spends his days at home with his two cats, Cowboy Dan and Tanner, where he works as a web developer. And while he says he misses the daily interactions with lots of people, he doesn't expect to ever return to a restaurant job.

NORTHWAY: If I need to run an errand, I can run out and do that. I'm not tied down, per se. I'm making twice as much money as I did. There's health insurance and other benefits. It's a really good job.

DENNIS: Kristine Hillmer heads the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. She says when you account for tips, a lot of restaurant workers are earning more than double the federal minimum wage.

KRISTINE HILLMER: On average across this country, servers are making between $19 and $24 an hour. So there is money to be had. And in addition to that, especially for somebody who's looking for flexibility, there's flexibility built within the restaurant industry.

DENNIS: Hillmer says that while some former restaurant workers found jobs outside of the industry, there are other stumbling blocks, things like visa issues, schools and day cares not being open and even the additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits many people are now getting. She's concerned that some former restaurant workers are now gaming the system instead of taking on full-time work.

HILLMER: We know of many cases - we've talked with some of our operators - that they've got staff that are calculating, like, OK, I can work this many hours, still qualify for partial unemployment, and I still get that $300.

DENNIS: Industry analysts predict that, ultimately, many restaurants will have to pay employees more, both to lure them back and to keep them as restaurants try to reestablish themselves.

For NPR News, I'm LaToya Dennis in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "JUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.