Bars and restaurants are desperate for workers. Venues like The Flying Harpoon, Fish River Grill and Shrimp Basket are rapidly cutting operating hours and days due to lack of help. The service industry just does not have the manpower to serve the influx of customers right now — not just here but around the country. On a recent check of Indeed.com, there were nearly 700 local service industry jobs posted, many places advertising their need as “urgent.”
Hiring always increases this time of year, with restaurants and bars staffing up to meet the growing demand of the spring and summer tourist seasons. But if you’ve watched the news or casually browsed Facebook recently, you’ve probably come across a few angry tirades saying the situation this year, as businesses try to rebound from COVID restrictions, is different than before.
Identifying themselves as restaurant and bar owners and managers in the area, some have taken their grievances to social media, denouncing “lazy,” “couch-riding” potential employees who are “sitting at home on their butts” collecting unemployment checks. “Reliability and ethics are a thing of the past,” one wrote in a community Facebook group. “Thanks to our president.”
One barbecue restaurant owner in Fairhope took to video, saying he’s had to cut hours compared to pre-pandemic times “to accommodate the employees I have. If you’re making $8 an hour after taxes, you’re pulling in $180 a week. If you’re getting $300 a week in unemployment, that’s a no-brainer. And you really can’t blame people.”
A beer garden owner in Mobile told WKRG “nobody wants to work … Unemployment has its place, for those that are trying to find employment and aren’t able to and I can appreciate that. However, the system is being taken advantage of right now.”
What these people are bemoaning is the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law in March. Part of that bill extended unemployment insurance until September, offering those unable to find work $300 a week in government aid if they meet certain criteria.
If you were to take the word of these restaurateurs and managers at face value, you’d think their entire industry was gutted because their typical employees are entitled, modern-day welfare queens who’d rather watch Netflix all day than earn an honest living. Ouch. But let’s look at the actual numbers.
As of February, the unemployment rate of Baldwin County is 3.3 percent. Only 3,100 people in the entire county, across every job sector, are collecting unemployment. It’s a little higher in Mobile County, at 5.7 percent. Compare these numbers to where the counties were in February 2019 (pre-COVID): Baldwin was sitting at 3.6 percent unemployment and Mobile County was at 4.8 percent. (The counties hit their unemployment highs in April 2020: 15.4 percent in Baldwin and 15.1 percent in Mobile County.)
So, in Baldwin County at least, more people have jobs today than they did in a typical year before the coronavirus even hit, including in the service industry. And if historical trends continue, those unemployment numbers will dip through the spring and summer as locals fill more empty slots in the tourism sector.
Something else seems to be going on.
I asked Chef Duane Nutter, co-owner of Mobile’s Southern National and Steel Smokin, about this recently. Over the past year, he’s had to cut his restaurant hours to accommodate the lack of business and staff. Southern National is currently open only on Friday and Saturday nights, although he wishes it could be open more because he sees the potential for business to pick back up. He can’t find people to work, though. So, what does he think the issue is?
“A combination of a bunch of things,” he said. “Some people were scared of being around people [in the public and catching COVID]. They could have a child care issue. Some people got scared away from the industry entirely.”
Serving is often considered a “transitional” job, he said, and many transitioned into other fields altogether or they went back to school to get certifications or degrees in 2020 when they saw that restaurants and bars would potentially be closed for months. They were laid off en masse, had families to support and saw potential elsewhere for benefits, time off and guaranteed pay not dependent on tips. They got jobs at area hospitals, in construction and at the Walmart and Amazon distribution centers. Some abandoned this geographic region entirely, unable to manage the rising cost of living.
I’ve been a server and bartender in Gulf Shores. It is physically demanding work and mentally draining as well; some (not all) customers and business owners can be cruel, entitled and demeaning, hammering in that you are disposable and easily replaceable. And when you are only paid $2.13 an hour — the absolute lowest these places can legally get away with paying tipped workers in Alabama — if you aren’t working at one of the high-volume or fine-dining locations or taking the abuse with a smile on your face, you’re going to walk out of there at night with barely enough to cover the gas to get home. Not to mention the prohibitive cost of housing, prices of which have skyrocketed even as minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) has stayed stagnant since 2009.
That’s not to say these jobs are not rewarding in other ways, often fun, many customers and owners are kind and you can potentially make hundreds of dollars in a shift. But that is not the norm — kitchen staff like cooks and dishwashers do not earn tips — and “fun” doesn’t pay the rent. If you can’t afford to live somewhere or sit in traffic for an hour or more each way, you can’t afford to work there.
This has been the reality for decades, which is why inmates, ex-cons, students, residents who do not speak English and those on J-1 temporary work visas are often employed in this sector; they can’t complain about their meager wages because they are considered “unskilled” or “unhirable” and can’t get jobs elsewhere. Critics would say the industry has based its solvency on exploitative labor practices instead of increasing prices to reflect real costs, and the reckoning has finally come.
Because there just are not enough potential employees in this sector anymore and everyone is trying to hire them at once. In addition to the ones who voluntarily left, in June 2020, former President Donald Trump suspended foreign workers from getting J-1 visas and entering the country. That ban was intended to open up more jobs for American workers, but it left a major void in the tourism and food sectors that heavily relied on these people to fill positions. That ban expired at the end of March, so maybe international workers will be able to staff some local jobs soon (assuming they can navigate the travel restrictions).
Another thing to note: While the American Rescue Plan Act did extend unemployment insurance for individuals, it also set up the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, through the Small Business Administration, which gives out tax-free federal grants to the owners of food establishments. Eligible owners, who also may have received Paycheck Protection Program loans in 2020 and 2021, may receive up to $10 million to cover pandemic-related revenue losses dating back to Feb. 15, 2020. So, the people complaining about their “lazy” workers with no “ethics” in public forums are — potentially — the same ones lining up for government handouts themselves.
Again, there are plenty of restaurant owners and managers who truly care about their employees’ income and well-being and are grateful for the ones they have. But as for the others, maybe they need to pass some stimulus bucks along to their current and potential employees and offer them a competitive, living wage or at least a little more than $2.13 an hour in pay. (Some already do: Wolf Bay Lodge in Orange Beach is currently offering up to $5 an hour in base pay to servers. Burger King in Elberta is offering $15.)
Maybe they also need to promise employees some benefits like bonuses and days off, career growth opportunities and decent working conditions. Maybe they need to chill on spewing all the disparaging, disrespectful rhetoric about their overworked staffers and shrunken pool of applicants. If you can guarantee a good employee a better work environment and more money than they can make in another job sector — or, for argument’s sake, more than they can make on unemployment — maybe they’ll want to work in your kitchen.
Alyson Sheppard is Lagniappe’s resident hangover specialist. Find her on Twitter: @amshep.
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