Restaurants in New Jersey cannot find staff to hire. The ex-employees tell us why.
Signs of desperation are everywhere, stuck in restaurant windows, staked along roadsides and posted on social media feeds.
“We are hiring! We are hiring! We are hiring!”
Chiefs. Waiters. Bussers. Hosts and hostesses. As New Jersey restaurants and bars may finally return to 100% capacity on May 19, and more newly vaccinated customers return to dining rooms every day, the ravaged industry statewide has struggling to keep up. Many restaurants are unable to replenish the workforce they touted before the pandemic. Some have been forced to close temporarily, only because they cannot find staff.
Why such a shortage of manpower? When NJ Advance Media spoke to restaurateurs last month, some suggested that the former employees laid off during the March 2020 shutdown were still living off the increase in unemployment benefits or simply not wanting to work.
But recent conversations with several former and current service workers reveal a more complex story of disillusionment and fear.
Staff in restaurants and bars want to work, they say, but not under the same conditions as before and during the pandemic. They also say the unprecedented time away from the daily grind has allowed them to reconsider whether the hard hours, manual labor and low wages are really worth it.
“(Service workers) are paid a pittance,” said Jackson, a Jersey City waiter who quit his job in August after feeling unsafe because of the lax application of masks. âThey want health care that won’t bankrupt them, they need child care. They want you to treat them with dignity.
“The industries currently struggling to hire workers are the same industries whose workers were most likely to die from COVID-19,” he added.
The minimum wage for savvy workers in New Jersey rose from $ 3.13 to $ 4.13 in January 2021, and will rise to $ 5.13 in January 2022. That may not be enough to entice some to return. on the ground, especially since the brief honeymoon surrounding the benevolent pandemic tipping has since disappeared, workers told NJ Advance Media.
Now customers are tipping fewer and are not in favor of COVID restrictions as well as the struggle to work shorthanded. A customer at Glenbrook Brewery in Morristown made headlines last month when he blocked a server and blamed the company’s 90-minute table limit (a restriction common across the state since the year last).
Greg Cochran, a Jersey City resident and general manager of Murray’s Cheese in New York City, believes that the assumption that workers benefit from an increase in unemployment benefits – the additional $ 300 per week is currently scheduled until 6 September – is a dangerous oversimplification. .
âIf you want to talk about (unemployment benefits) you have to talk about a much bigger problem,â Cochran said. âThe minimum wage has been inaccurate for a very long time and the tip system is brokenâ¦ Part of the reason some places have stayed afloat is because tips transfer a cost of labor to your customers. “
The staff shortage is not unique to New Jersey. Restaurants across the country are struggling to replenish their staff and be creative in convincing new employees. Chipotle offers free tuition to some workers who stay in the last four months. Olive Garden and McDonald’s have increased wages. Michigan sports bar is offering hiring bonuses of $ 2,000 as it seeks to recruit people.
Some New Jersey restaurants have launched the idea of ââending tips and / or increasing the wages of workers at all levels. Restaurateur Tim McLoone, who owns 10 Garden State restaurants, offers no-tip employees $ 15 an hour. Neptune City’s famous pizzeria and bar Pete and Elda’s (pictured above) is offering $ 8 plus tips. But after a year of COVID-ravaged profits, many establishments simply cannot afford to raise wages.
âThe lesson for many people to learn? Yeah, you probably can’t afford to do that, âCochran said. “It is not a favorable industry.”
Cochran says more than a year of restricted or eliminated work hours has given workers, in many fields, something they’ve never had before – extra time to reflect on their careers. His downtime led him to apply for Syracuse University’s Virtual MBA program, which will help him move from home to owning. He plans to leave Murray’s and take a job as a bartender to pay the bills while he completes his program.
But he knows a lot of people whose layoffs or time off convinced them it was time to quit him altogether. Many have realized that other jobs could provide a better quality of life with more social-friendly hours. It’s part of a larger calculation around work-life balance. The Washington Post has ruled “a great reassessment of work in America”.
Selene Marino had a similar thought. She spent five years as a waitress at Urban Griddle in Elizabeth, enjoying the energy she got from talking to customers and the tips that lined her pockets. But she’s had enough of the grueling routine. When the pandemic hit and the food service shut down, she decided she wasn’t coming back when they reopened. She is now in the process of starting her own business.
âIt was time for me to go,â said Marino. âIt forced me out of my comfort zone. I was nervous for change, anxious for something different, but the pandemic really forced me to put things in a new perspective of what’s possible and what’s possible.
Others just couldn’t wait for the business to bounce back. They had to find work wherever they could.
Marco Galindo-Perez had worked in the service industry for over 12 years, for years at upscale restaurant The Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick, and most recently as a waiter at Barrio Costero and Reyla d ‘Asbury Park. When he was fired in November in the midst of another COVID spike, he had no choice but to leave the company.
âIt wasn’t difficult,â Galindo-Perez said bluntly. “I didn’t have a job.”
Galindo-Perez now works as an engagement coordinator at a retirement home and says his quality of life has improved dramatically.
âIt’s a great relief. I have a regular salary, âsaid Galindo-Perez. âMy hours are better than they were in the food industry. I work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and am on weekends off. “
Jackson, who did not request that his middle name be used, did not close the door when he returned to the service industry. He still doesn’t feel safe with unmasked diners inside a restaurant, so it won’t be for a while. But if the industry wants to restore its workforce, it has a simple solution.
âDon’t pay starvation wages,â Jackson said. “You will gladly find people willing to work.”
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Jeremy Schneider can be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.