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I Work In The Restaurant Industry — Gov't Handouts Aren't The Reason People Don't Want To Work Here

Photo: Pedro Talens / Shutterstock
Why Restaurants Are So Short-Staffed Post-Pandemic

If you’ve been to a restaurant, or have gone on restaurants' Facebook pages, ever since everything opened back up you may have noticed that a large number of restaurants are short-staffed.

Staffing issues arose as restaurants began opening back up. But depending on who you ask — managers, servers, or patrons — everyone has a different theory as to why no one wants to work in restaurants.

A restaurant owner in California wondered why restaurants all over the country are short-staffed, and shared their views via a poster on the restaurant’s door. The owner of Taco Loco posted a sign asking for patience from the customers because “due to government and state handouts no one wants to work anymore.”

But government handouts aren't the reason people won't work in restaurants.

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At the beginning of the pandemic, a vast majority of restaurant workers were let go due to no fault of their own. And yes, a lot of these restaurant workers were able to collect unemployment because, funny enough, they were unemployed.

I’m sure some people didn't want to come back to the chaos that is the restaurant industry because of the unemployment check they were collecting. However, now that most restaurants are fully open, it’s clear that a lot of us in the restaurant industry decided that it really just isn’t worth it.

Customers are rude, entitled, and even sexually harass servers.

I have worked in the restaurant industry for four years now. I left my job as a full-time nanny and decided to join the wonderful industry of catering to the needs of restaurant goers.

I soon began to realize that it wasn’t that much different than nannying; it was worse, because the people I was now catering to were just as bad as kids, but old enough to know better.

I’m not sure what happens to people as soon as they walk into the doors of a restaurant. They could be the most logical, kind, understanding person in the world, but as soon as they come into the restaurant, they turn into the holy grail of "Karens."

Now, not all customers are like that. I have more kind and understanding customers on average than I do Karens.

On any given day, servers endure verbal and sexual harassment from customers. Servers are the face you associate your experience at a particular restaurant with, which often makes us the first punching bags in line. It also leads to us seeing the impact of any displeasure reflected in our paychecks.

Maybe you didn’t get the table you wanted, or the kitchen took a little bit longer to make your food during the dinner rush. Servers are the ones that have to endure the toddler-like tantrums that ensue, and we are often the ones who suffer.

I can’t speak for everyone in the industry, but I personally try to make sure you enjoy coming to the restaurant where I work. I want you to have a good time, but unfortunately, I can’t control all of the factors that play into you enjoying your meal.

Sexual harassment from customers and other employees is far too common in restaurants.

When I started working in restaurants at the age of 17, I would get sexual comments from customers that would make my skin crawl. Unfortunately, my paycheck was on the line, so I was often told to grin and bear it, or “just laugh it off.”

Being told by a 45-year-old man that they wished I was 18, or being catcalled by entire parties of grown men, is not very easy to “laugh off.” Not to mention, making me feel unsafe and uncomfortable when I'm just trying to do my job.

After more than a year of feeling unsafe and uncomfortable in the world, not many people are racing to get back to an environment that makes them feel that way.

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Servers make much less than minimum wage for triple the work.

Most servers in the United States make around $2.13 an hour. This means that our customers are the ones who sign our paychecks when they sign their receipts.

Now, does tipping inspire servers to work harder? Of course. But with that being said, it also leaves us at the customer’s mercy.

Kitchen staff and even hosts make at least minimum wage hourly. So if the food takes a little bit longer or customers can’t be seated at the table they have their heart set on, then it’s fine, because the cooks and hosts still go home that night with a set amount of money.

This is not the case for servers.

Any inconvenience that the customer experiences during their visit is the deciding factor for just how much a server makes that night.

We see the reflection of our coworkers' mistakes in our tips. Some people may not tip because they don’t have the money, but I encourage you to remember that by tipping, you're paying us for the time out of our night and the labor that went into making sure you received your vodka soda with six limes or a pizza with ten different toppings.

This paycheck insecurity made servers hesitant to leave the safety of their unemployment check and may have led them to find a job in another industry. Many people still aren’t comfortable eating out, so naturally, there are less tables and less tips.

If you're a server who is counting on a paycheck to pay your rent each month, wouldn’t you like to be sure you’ll make enough money?

Restaurant workers are devalued in the industry.

Like most jobs, management sees us as the little worker bees who need to do their jobs, get their paycheck, and come back and do it again later. And that’s to be expected.

But it becomes very obvious that management doesn’t have your back when you're working in an industry where your manager frequently has to solve altercations between employees and customers.

Is the customer always right? No, but we will often let you think you are.

I have had tables ask for managers and complain, to which my manager tells them they are 100 percent, without a shadow of a doubt correct, and scolds me in front of my tables.

The flip side of that situation is the one you don’t see. That is usually the part where my manager and I walk to the kitchen, and they explain how I was right and they just needed to make the table feel better.

This may save the restaurant’s face, but it leaves that table believing that I'm incompetent at my job and, even worse, it leaves my other tables concerned that I'm unskilled.

Management having your back in private means nothing when management not having your back in front of your tables can cost you close to an entire night’s pay.

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Lockdown also made it very clear that servers aren't valued as workers in this industry as a whole.

We understood when we were let go because restaurants had to close. We were weary when restaurants asked us to come into work when they were finally able to open again. We put our health at risk so people could feel some sense of normalcy in a crazy time.

We were even deemed essential, but when vaccines rolled out we weren’t essential enough.

In December of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that essential workers such as food service employees be prioritized to get the vaccine in phase 1c. Ultimately, our essentiality was left to the states to decide.

In Texas, masks and social distancing were gone by April, but vaccines still weren’t available to the restaurant workers deemed essential.

Restaurant workers were told, “we need you to make us feel like we’re back to normal, but we still don’t think you’re important enough that your health matters.”

This was troubling for many restaurant workers to be told they’re essential but still not worth protecting. It made me think twice about staying in the restaurant industry.

Sure, some restaurants are understaffed because they are collecting unemployment checks, but that isn’t the only reason they are understaffed.

We are devalued in our positions, subject to verbal abuse and sexual harassment during any given shift, and are even put in compromising positions just to get a paycheck.

After over a year of feeling unsafe and unsure, many people decided it just wasn’t worth it anymore.

We run around for you and cater to your every need for the two hours you decide to spend at our restaurant, all with the hope that maybe you'll be generous and tip the socially expected 20 percent. We are your punching bags, the ones that take the fall for situations where we could easily say "that's not my fault" or "get over it."

So no, servers aren't lazy.

Don't blame servers and restaurant workers for our apprehension to return to an unpleasant environment that you, the customers, largely create for us.

Next time you go out, be a little bit nicer to restaurant staff. Say "thank you" and understand that they are pushing themselves physically and mentally to make sure you enjoy your meal.

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Livvie Brault is a writer who covers self-love, relationships and news and entertainment.