What’s really fueling the service industry labor shortage

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.


27 thoughts on “What’s really fueling the service industry labor shortage

  1. Having worked in the service industry for over 30 years, I can relate to this.
    (I love the “Maskholes” designation – and stealing for future posts.)
    Servers here are dependent on tips; while in Europe, they are treated like professionals – skilled labor- hence the GAT or automatic service charge.
    Some restaurants already tried that – (all of Tom Douglas restaurants) with mixed results –
    The bills were higher and some people failed to be told the gratuity was already included.
    Having been stiffed on more than one check; I can see the appeal – but this might be an excuse for laziness or inattentive service.
    If we treated servers with respect as professionals; and not servants, we might get people willing to work the horrendous hours for relatively low pay.

    1. Chris,
      I’ve heard similar thoughts from other service industry vets. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

      BTW, I was introduced to that term during the process of producing this article.

  2. So we are maskholes really we prefer not to bow to the government lies I guess the hard earned money isn’t good enough for you people By the way in my job I worked 14 hour days 5 to 6 days a week to keep trucks moving so you wouldn’t be without food water toilet paper etc plus logs for the new homes for the rich. We didn’t have a choice or get any government money to get us along then or now So if we would enjoy a meal out and not wear a mask as we don’t as we put ourselves out into the different places its choice We refuse the mask and the shot

    1. lol you are EXACTLY the type of person that people working in the service industry rightfully wants to avoid.

    2. My husband drives with the same work schedule, and masks up when he must, even while docking and doing paperwork (i.e.- getting things signed for). Please don’t rope the industry into your BS. Folks like yourself make my husband nervous and frustrate the crap out of him.

  3. What mental gymnastics you have to perform to blame people that don’t want to wear masks instead of the oppressive, senseless policies that mandate them. This blog is a biased circle jerk and I hid it from my google news feed. I suggest you do the same.

    1. I asked people questions and shared their answers. Nobody responded to my questions by saying that mask mandates were the problem, or that government oppression was causing the labor shortage. That is the only reason I did not report it.

    2. Imagine the mental gymnastics it takes, along with the self importance to think you know more about virology than the people that literally went to school to study virology.

    3. Most of the people I know that have gotten covid have been in the industry. It’s not fun going in to work and wondering if you are going to get sick and die or cause others to get sick and die.

  4. Good on ya!, Kendall. Thanks for taking on this topic. Writing the occasional article where “opinions may vary” makes me much more interested in reading your blog in the future. Cheers.

  5. I suppose it’s great fun to take a political position and lambaste the government for one’s own foolishness, until that political position actually gets someone sick or worse. This is not a high school debate exercise. We are all entitled to our political opinion but should respect the rights of people who don’t want to risk catching our germs. Bravo Kendall for some old fashioned investigative, person on the street journalism.

    1. Nobody is telling them they need to go to work. The issue is paying extended unemployment with an $300 weekly boost.

      An employee who was making $10-12/hr is now making $13 to not come to work.

      This will cause some small business to fail because they cant service the customer enough to meet overhead. So the labor shortage will translate into a job shortage.

      Another point to consider: What do you think the person will do after they have been getting $13 an hour staying home now has to work for $10-12/hr? My guess is riot/protest.

  6. If not wanting to wear a mask all day and avoiding service industry jobs in order to do that, not because I’m trying to make some point about freedom but because I just don’t work to work wearing a mask all day because I would be miserable, makes me a maskhole I wear the title with pride. Sorry, I’ll burn through every bit of my savings before I apply for a job breathing my own breath all shift long.

      1. Sorry, not doing it for an 8+ hour shift; not going to happen. Feel free to take those jobs, you seem excited about it…

  7. If you took away the unemployment money, but masks were still a thing- people would go back to work.
    The opposite is also true. If you kept sending unemployment money, but covid disappeared over night- people would not return to work.

    Its ALWAYS about the money.

    Additionally, I live in Georgia where there has never been a mask mandate. No one is required to wear a mask or tell others to wear one and the labor shortage is just as bad here as everywhere else.

    1. I’m in Valdosta. Horrible here. We work from home and still can’t get any help.

  8. I am a server who had to work to go only for a few months before we reopened the dining room. I never filled for unemployment because my husband is an immigrant and I was afraid of the public charge rule! I am a citizen, but the family unit is what counts. we struggled by for a while but we made it. The GM where I work never appreciated employees before, threatening them if they asked for a holiday or a weekend off, she’s finding it very hard to fill positions now, I am truly enjoying watching her regret all the firings for minor infractions now. I only hope she doesn’t forget this lesson anytime soon, and it will be a nice place to work again when we can finally find staff.
    The customers are two thirds appreciative and one third jerks. I had a customer on Saturday not tip and she complained that she had to wait an hour to sit when there were plenty of tables, I explained that yes there were tables, but only 2 servers in the restaurant, and the host told her that it would be an hour wait and she chose to stay. You see people like that are why a lot of servers do not return to work, if we didn’t receive abuse from the public, we would be happy to go to work every day.

  9. I’ve been going along with the theatre of wearing a mask into a restaurant or coffeehouse and then taking it off to sit and consume. Here’s the thing: I had my second Moderna vaccine in February. It’s now late April. What is the point of my wearing a mask? And more importantly, will you believe me? Do I need to carry a copy of the card on my phone or what?

  10. I work from home and the money is good. We have been unable to find people to work and they are paying us time 1/2 + $10/hour to work overtime. I think we lose a lot of current employees because the work load is rough. I’m from GA and we have pretty much been open the whole time as well as the schools. But still…..no help.

  11. Wow…is 25 the record for comments on this blog? This is great…but on the topic of masks?
    Yeah,,, I don’t know man…Do you fly? Shop at Target? hmm.. I think bars need to be managed.
    All the corporate bars have a no mask no service policy; it seems like the little guys who are whining, about not being able to staff… the managers need to pony up and help out the bartenders… End of story… Or strike up a conversation with their regulars for casual or part time help…This is what I observed in Kalispell MT, recently; where the bartender/owner shut his bar down because he didn’t want to be over run on a friday night…What did he do? The next week he tapped a regular to help him. A retired beer guy, pouring beers and having a good time…

  12. Hilarious, exactly how much money are these service workers earning or should I say getting sitting at home collecting unemployment? I heard that it is something like an extra $300 a week on top of the regular state benefit but I cannot believe that this money people claim they are making more sitting at home collecting government benefits than working. You chose the job and accepted the wage offered. What’s even more pathetic is of course what is encouraged in the USA today playing victim

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