By now, we all know the story too well. The number of service and hospitality industry workers who suddenly found themselves without jobs because of the pandemic is staggering. All of the jobs disappeared instantly, but now that things are getting back to normal, or at least back to something closer to normal, the job market is bleak in a completely different way. (Picture above: a masked-up beertender, Beveridge Place Pub.)
Bars, restaurants, and brewery taprooms are reopening, expanding operations, and looking to hire employees. Although there is no shortage of unemployed service industry workers, there is a severe shortage of applicants for all of the available jobs. Something does not jive.
The most commonly reported, sweeping generalization asserts that people are making more money on unemployment than they would if they returned to work. To me, this sounds suspicious, so I decided to actually ask people why they are not flocking back to work in the service industry.
Using social media channels, I posed a couple of simple questions to service industry workers and business owners, offering anonymity in exchange for honesty. I had more responses than I expected, and many were more detailed than I expected, but I do fully admit that mine is a small sampling of opinions.
“It Sucks, Kendall”
That’s what one Seattle area restaurant/bar owner told me. “It is that bad. NOBODY wants a job,” they continued. “It’s a mix of folks finally getting a paid vacation without getting fired and folks who truly are worried about their health. Filling positions in the restaurant and bar industry is brutal right now.”
By “paid vacation” he is referring to the fact that workers in the restaurant and bar biz do not always enjoy the benefit of paid vacations. Taking time off can sometimes lead to losing your job. Not universal, but the point is valid.
By “worried about their health” he is referring to the fact that a server working in a restaurant, bar, or taproom sees dozens of faces each day. Faces that may be infected. Faces that may not want to wear masks. Apparently, folks who defy or resist mask protocols are a huge part of the problem. More about that below.
Another employer told me, “We’ve had a number of folks apply and when we call them to schedule an interview we’ve gotten the ‘oh, I only applied cuz of unemployment.’ It’s really rough.”
In order to continue qualifying for weekly unemployment benefits, you must make an effort to seek employment. In other words, send out resumes.
So yes, it really is hard for employers to fill positions in the service industry right now. There is no denying that, but I still cannot believe it’s as simple as it sounds. Is it really just because of the size of the unemployment checks?
What Service Industry Employees Say
Money is important, yes, but physical and mental health seems very important, too. Mask policies and other pandemic-related policies are tightly related to those health issues. In one way or another, nearly every respondent mentioned the stress of dealing with people who defy mask policies. The mask issue was mentioned in almost every response I fielded. Frequently, respondents used words like babysitting and policing, along with words like stressful and frustrating.
Reading through the responses from service industry workers, I can feel their fatigue. It must be emotionally exhausting. Masks are a huge part of the problem. For bartenders and servers, mask policies represent just one of the many rules they are tasked with enforcing. It’s not personal or political, it is just a rule. They also cannot serve alcohol to minors.
According to the responses I received, anti-maskers (commonly referred to as maskholes) are a significant contributor to the current labor shortage. People simply do not want to deal with the stress of enforcing mask policies.
One respondent explained what they see as a prevailing sentiment in the service industry right now: “Wages aren’t worth the risk or hassle of dealing with anti-maskers.”
Another told me, “For every 10 people who are so happy you are taking a risk to serve them, you have one who talks to you like a child and throws a fit when asked to wear a mask. The mental stress of hospitality was tough enough before, but now you see 400 people a day who demand service so they can go back to their work-from-home job. It definitely highlights the level of inequality.”
Another person suggests, “The warm weather and vaccination distribution has caused many customers to again get lazy about wearing masks and keeping six feet from others, so it still continues to be stressful to police adults on basic procedures.”
Another respondent shared his wife’s story about returning to the service industry: “At this point, she is working a couple days a week and has been assaulted both verbally and physically for enforcing mask-wearing inside the restaurant she works at.” He adds that for his wife, who is of Asian descent, there’s another challenge. “Not to mention the racist noise those of Asian descent have faced since the start of the pandemic.”
That last statement highlights why maskholes are such a problem. Before the pandemic, it was already hard enough to deal with customers who can at one moment be kind and appreciative, but at the next moment demanding and unreasonable, rude and abusive. It seems the pandemic has amplified the problem exponentially.
If you’ve ever witnessed an altercation between a bartender or server and a anti-masking zealot who refuses to obey a simple rule, you understand the stress. Money aside, would you want to deal with that situation several times a day?
It is worth mentioning that one person suggested that what they’d really like is for employers to show more appreciation for the risk service staff are taking and the stress they are enduring. More than one said they are upset with employers who assert that people are not coming back to work just because they’re lazy.
It’s not about the money, it’s about the money
Of all the responses and comments to my queries, surprisingly few suggested that money was a primary factor in their decision. Actually, nobody said it was the sole reason that they have not, or did not, return to the workplace.
Most respondents who mentioned money at all spoke of it being just one factor in their decision. I must reiterate, mental and physical health was the closest thing to a common thread in the responses I received.
One person, a brewing industry veteran but not necessarily in a service capacity, very bluntly explained the role that “government money” played in their decision.
“The biggest reason it took me over a year to return to work is very simple: government money,” the email explained. “Although I wasn’t making as much as I was as an operations manager [in the brewing industry]… my unemployment benefits still provided my family an affluence that enabled us to pay our bills and still enjoy a lifestyle we had been living.”
“I was secure through unemployment benefits and I was being extremely picky when it came down to who I was going to work for.”
Though the money may not be enough to keep people at home, it is allowing them to be picky, and in some cases consider career changes. Although I heard anecdotal evidence and secondhand accounts of people leaving the service industry altogether, the only mention of it I heard from my respondents involved moving laterally within the beer business. For example, from a job in the brewery’s taproom to a job on the brewery’s sales team.
I suppose the amount of money people are bringing in from unemployment is a contributing factor to the current labor shortage. If nothing else, those unemployment checks are allowing people to be picky. However, to say the size of those unemployment checks is the sole reason for the labor shortage is far from the truth. As is usually the case, the reality is not so simple.