Restaurant workers left the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Will they come back? – The Fayetteville Observer

Paul Gazelka

Ieshia West loved her job as a bartender.
A 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry who got her first job in a restaurant at age 16, West worked a flexible schedule that allowed her the time to get her college degree. A natural people person, she met some of her closest friends, including her wife, while tending bar at World of Beer in Fayetteville. 
She thrived on the energy and music of a full bar. The money was good. 
But she, like so many others in the hospitality industry, left their restaurant jobs near the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no plan to return. Experts say people used the time away from work to pursue education or training at a rate not before seen in previous recessions. 
“People took the initiative to upscale themselves,” said Michael Walden, an economist and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. 
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West, 35, graduated from college not long before the pandemic started, but it wasn’t until the pandemic began that she decided to leave the hospitality industry and focus on her other career. 
She transferred from Maryland to Fayetteville around eight years ago to be closer to family. During her years at Olive Garden and World of Beer, she did a bit of everything, from waiting on tables and tending bar, to working in management and serving as a trainer, traveling around to new restaurants and helping them prepare for their grand openings. 
All the while, she attended college, graduating from Methodist University in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in social work. She got a job as a social worker with Cumberland County Schools before she graduated, but kept her gig bartending at World of Beer on Friday nights and weekends. 
With a full-time job outside the restaurant, she didn’t depend on the bartending job for her livelihood anymore but loved the lifestyle it offered.
“I had the total package,” she said. 
Then COVID-19 hit. World of Beer, like so many other restaurants across the country, switched to carry-out only. West kept working, but without a bar full of customers, tips were low, a decrease further compounded by what limited work did remain being thinly spread out to more employees. 
She never had a problem following the mask mandate but had to deal with customers who didn’t follow the mask or social distancing rules. At one point she was required to wear latex gloves, which made gripping glass bottles tricky. A bell would ring every 30 minutes to remind employees to drop what they’re doing and wash their hands. 
“It was just a different energy,” she said. 
Everyone — customers and employees alike — was stressed out. She got razzled a few times but never had a customer lose their cool. Her decades in the restaurant industry and social work degree prepared her well. 
“We were working with less, but customers were expecting the same, if not more,” she said. 
West had two kids and a dog at home. She and her then-fiancee, Carla, were planning a wedding for May. West decided bartending wasn’t worth it anymore. She left in April 2020. 
“Once I walked away, I established stability for myself amongst the chaos,” she said. 
State labor force data shows the number of jobs in leisure and hospitality services has increased from 415,500 in July 2020 to 493,700 in July 2021, a nearly 19% increase (seasonally adjusted), by far the highest of any industry in North Carolina.
However, the restaurant industry, in particular, is still short around 38,000 jobs compared to July 2019 and currently makes up around 26% of all unemployed workers in the state, said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. 
Buoyed by stimulus payments and pandemic unemployment benefits, which in many cases paid people more than they made while working, a significant number of people now had the time and money to assess their lives and go back to school or train for higher-paying career fields, such as technology, health care and business. 
A study by the Pew Research Center showed that two-thirds of unemployed adults surveyed in January said they seriously considered changing their occupation or field of work. 
Walden, the N.C. State economist, said he’s never seen a recession used as a time to retrain and educate to the levels seen during the pandemic. 
“The difference this time is that there was federal help,” he said. 
Minges agreed, saying that a number of the more than 20,000 restaurant industry workers her organization has kept in contact with reported that they left the industry for another career, to further their education or left temporarily due to health and safety concerns. 
The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association works with high schools and community colleges across the state to develop programs to train students for careers in the culinary and tourism fields. The organization also established a free job board for the hospitality industry in the state. 
“We’re realizing that we’re going to need to cultivate a new workforce,” Minges said.
The expanded federal unemployment benefits, which provide an additional $300 (previously $600) a week on top of state benefits, are set to end in North Carolina on Sept. 4. 
Around the time West left World of Beer, her wife got laid off from her job and subsequently filed for unemployment. With one school-aged child learning remotely and another at home because daycares were closed, the unemployment benefits allowed her to stay home with the kids while West worked. 
Her wife eventually got a new job, which paid more than her previous job. 
West, who started her own tutoring business, Tutoring Legacy, on top of her full-time job with the school district, never filed for unemployment during the pandemic. But several of her coworkers did and opted to not return to work. 
While she knows some people are taking the benefits for granted, she understands why people opted to stay home and ride it out in hopes of a better opportunity. 
“What sense would it make going back to a place that benefits you less?” she said. 
The labor shortage at restaurants in North Carolina and across the country is well-documented. While the end of the increased unemployment benefits will bring some people back to work, Walden said that’s just one temporary part of a larger issue. 
While the demand for more entry-level jobs should increase, many career restaurant workers, like West, aren’t going back to the restaurants they worked in before. 
“Workers aren’t looking to pick up where they left off,” Walden said. 
What does that mean for restaurants? Wages are at an all-time high, Minges said, and many large restaurant groups, such as Chipotle and McDonald’s, have promised wage increases.
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Some now offer benefits, such as health insurance, paid time off, and a retirement plan. Others have turned to signing bonuses of $500, $1,000 or more to entice would-be employees. 
Closed borders due to the pandemic have also dried up the flow of immigrant labor to all types of industries, including restaurants. 
“Immigrant labor has been an important part of our workforce,” Minges said. 
Walden expects to also see a rise in technology and automation, such as self-order kiosks, that will reduce a restaurant’s reliance on human labor. 
“This may be the saving element for restaurants,” he said. 
Minges agreed, adding that she’s seen restaurants embrace technology “in ways she would never have imagined” during the pandemic, such as QR code menus and online ordering and delivery platforms. Still, she said, the human element will never go away. 
“People are what make our industry unique,” she said. 
West said the restaurant industry will always have a special place in her heart. It was a pathway to her education. She met best friends, her wife and even became a godmother from bartending, thanks to a couple she would serve every Saturday and watched as their relationship progressed from dating, to marriage, to parenthood. 
“People in the restaurant industry are the most dynamic, interesting humans,” she said. “We have goals and dreams.”
Nowadays, West will scratch that bartending itch by serving at one-off events, working on her own schedule. She’s volunteered her skills tending the bar at events for the Cool Springs Downtown District.
“I can still get a taste,” she said. 
Jacob Pucci writes on food, restaurants and business. Contact him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jacobpucci or on Facebook. Like talking food? Join our Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group. 
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