Michigan restaurants ask: How can we find enough staff?

“If you stayed open after 2020, you won,” said Dan West, President and CEO of the Livonia Chamber of Commerce. “We told the people that.”

But even if vaccinations increase and Michigan’s brutal virus surge slows in the summer, restaurants cannot find people to serve audiences eager to dine out, said Justin Winslow, CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.

“Personnel to meet that (demand),” said Winslow, “will be an almost impossible challenge for some.”

A changing workforce

Finding a solution by the summer could be due to the wage increases already in place, said Donald Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan.

“Employers will likely have to raise wages if they are to attract restaurant workers for at least the next few months,” Grimes said.

The hospitality industry is known for flexible working hours and a low barrier to entry, but also for low wages: Among the main employment sectors in Michigan, the average wage is the lowest at USD 395 per week as of fall 2020. Compared to $ 961.66 for all Michigan wage earners, according to the state.

Hiring in restaurants wasn’t easy even before the pandemic, as multiple industries battled to attract hourly workers with low unemployment and competition from sales jobs like Amazon warehouses that paid more dollars per hour.

“The food service industry has always had one of the highest fluctuation rates in the country and has only increased in recent years,” said a report released May 5 by One Fair Wage, a national nonprofit advocating the eradication of the Minimum wage sets restaurants and increases pay in the service industry.

However, the pandemic has made the potential restaurant workforce even more complex:

  • Fewer people work. Michigan’s workforce fell 4.4 percent in March of the same month in 2020, according to the state’s Department of Administration and Budget. As a result, around 215,000 people are less gainfully employed this spring than at the start of the pandemic.
  • Fewer women work because they take on bigger caregiving duties due to school closings and other security protocols, but they traditionally make up around 70 percent of the restaurant industry’s workforce.
  • Fewer teenagers are also working in the US, with 1.8 million fewer job seekers in the summer of 2020. Traditional first-time jobs like fast food restaurants are affected.

“Parents were afraid of sending children into work because of COVID,” said West of the Livonia Chamber.

The availability of childcare could also affect women who might choose to do restaurant jobs, Winslow said. Just under 6,700 of the 6,950 childcare workers across Michigan are staying or reopening prior to the pandemic, according to Great Start for Quality, which is funded in part by the Michigan Department of Education. And many of those that are open now have fewer places for children due to social distancing requirements.

At the same time, the geographical differences between open childcare facilities show great fluctuations. Places like Alpena, Cheboygan, and Saginaw Counties are 92 percent or more open. In Wayne County, however, 68 percent of providers are open. The story is similar in Monroe Counties, St. Joseph Counties, and Van Buren Counties. In Genesee County, three quarters of the vendors are open. The open rate in Calhoun County, home of Battle Creek, is only 60 percent.

Meanwhile, pandemic restrictions put pressure on restaurant owners’ profits. After months of closure, the state allowed restaurants to open first with an indoor capacity of 25 percent and now only open 50 percent. And with more confidence in the promotion of pick-ups, the tip income of workers kept on board has been further reduced.

“There’s a segment (of restaurant workers) that used to make a lot of money,” said Winslow, “and you just can’t do that in this environment.”

In a Fair Wage report, “It’s a wage shortage, not a labor shortage,” US food service workers were interviewed through the University of California’s Berkeley Food Labor Research Center from October through April.

It found that “low wages and tips” were the most frequently cited reason for leaving the hospitality industry, a factor that was more than 20 percentage points higher than COVID health risks among employees surveyed. Around 31 percent of restaurant employees said they had moved to another industry.

What would make her stay? 78 percent of those questioned stated a “stable, livable wage”. Also mentioned were: paid sick leave (49 percent), an improved work environment (45 percent) and health benefits (44 percent).

A 2018 initiative sponsored by One Fair Wage in Michigan to raise the minimum wage and end the lower minimum wage for tipped employees garnered enough public support to get into the nationwide vote. However, the Republican legislature – supported by business interest groups – passed the measure preventively and then gutted the most favorable provisions for the workers. For example, GOP law allowed tipped workers to earn 38 percent of the minimum wage, and gave the state the ability to raise the minimum wage to $ 12.05 an hour by 2030, instead of increasing it to $ 12 an hour by 2022.

Some restaurant workers privately say that a pay rise only solves part of the attraction problem: many of the jobs during the pandemic have presented little financial stability to an employee, and an apparent increase in customer harassment for mandates such as mask requests has been a problem in the past year.

Health risks are also a factor, said Alicia Renee Farris, COO of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national nonprofit that advocates for restaurant workers. Farris, a Michigan resident, also led the state’s One Fair Wage election initiative for a higher minimum wage in 2018.

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