There’s a Good Reason Restaurants Struggle to Find Workers

Laura Clawson

A Mexican restaurant in Oakland, California, is closing because it can’t find enough workers. A Las Vegas restaurant needs 12 people to be fully staffed but is struggling to get by with just three or four. Some restaurants are “getting creative” to attract workers — if you count better pay and benefits as creativity.

There’s a reason for all of this, and, despite what you may have been told, it’s not that no one wants to work anymore.

The leisure and hospitality industry remains 500,000 workers short of where it was before the pandemic, The Washington Post’s Abha Bhattarai and Maggie Penman report, and 2 million short of what it needs, but for the most part, those people are working. Just not in restaurants and bars. 

Many former restaurant workers found other jobs when they were laid off early in the pandemic — and ended up deciding to stick with their new lines of work. Related, there are now 1.4 million more people working in professional and business services, a category that includes a range of office jobs, and it’s not the only industry that’s seen increases.

“There’s this reshuffling going on that is explaining why lots of industries can’t find workers,” economist Betsey Stevenson told the Post. “Their workers have left to go somewhere else.”

And in a lot of cases, the somewhere else was better enough that people didn’t want to go back to the unreliable pay, difficult customers, and awkward hours of the restaurant industry. Around 2.5 million people did leave the labor force during the pandemic, which has killed more than a million people in the U.S. and prompted many others to retire early. That opened up a wave of good jobs. 

“When older workers — who were in relatively high-paying jobs at the top of the ladder — retired, everyone else was able to climb up a step, from a worse job to a better one,” Stony Brook University economist David Wiczer said.

Wiczer is a co-author of a National Bureau of Economic Research paper finding “patterns that suggest that workers are moving up an occupational job ladder away from low paying, customer facing and low skilled occupations towards higher paid, higher skilled occupations.

Consequently, the decline in employment in low-paying, low-skilled occupations seems to reflect that workers previously employed in these sectors are now finding better jobs, not by a decline in demand for workers.”

“This has been a good evolution — it has raised wages and changed the structure of the labor market in a deep, profound way,” AFL-CIO chief economist William Spriggs told the Post. “Workers who were trapped in low-wage jobs were able to escape by switching to higher-paying industries.”

It’s hard on restaurant owners, but when they blame workers for not wanting to work, you always have to add that workers don’t want those specific jobs. They also have to understand that the complainers are telling on themselves and, to a great extent, their entire industry. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 3, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the assistant managing editor at Daily Kos.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.