In a world full of ghosts, Jennifer Castellani is a unicorn.
The director of internal operations for Naples-based Culinary Concepts, with five brands in Southwest Florida, Castellani has been with the company for 21 years. She started as a server in Yabba Island Grill in Naples and has since worked her way up in the company, to now overseeing human resources, among other departments. In a high-turnover industry, that makes Castellani rare — like that unicorn.
But as vaccination levels rise and people eat out again, Castellani, like many other hiring mangers at restaurants across the region, is encountering something else unusual: job candidates not showing up for scheduled interviews, or even weirder, people who have been hired simply being no-shows on day one. In today’s terminology, that’s ghosting, or the practice of ending communication with someone suddenly, with no explanation. “It’s a 50-50 shot someone will show up,” Castellani says, even after confirming the interview or start date.
The no-shows are just one symptom of a broader crisis in the restaurant industry: an acute shortage of employees. It’s currently ripping through every parcel of the sector, from quick-service chains to high-end establishments. One big piece of proof: There were 12.5 million total restaurant workers nationwide at the end of 2020, down at least -16.6% from the normal 15 million, according to The National Restaurant Association.
While many other industries also struggle to fill staffing gaps, the shortage is notable in restaurants. For one, unlike, say groceries or some big-box retailers, the pandemic crushed the industry, particularly in tourism-dependent spots like Florida. Also, outside a core group of restaurant lifers — people like Castellani — finding and keeping good people in the business has always been a challenge. The unsurprising result? Customers are waiting longer to get a table or be served food, places are cutting back hours, or in some cases closing for a day or two and menus are shrinking.
Castellani is one of several restaurant executives who says the current situation is at worst-ever, rock bottom. Nick Vojnovic, president of Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill and a veteran of several restaurant concepts, including Beef O’ Brady’s, says “in my 40 years, this is the worst it’s ever been.”
Vojnovic says friends in the business nationwide say the same thing. Little Greek, with 44 restaurants in six states, feels the effects of the labor shortage all over. In Dallas, for example, franchisees have been unable to reopen not because of COVID-19, but because they don’t have enough employees to staff the stores.
It’s so bad, a manager in Ohio told Vojnovic, “‘Nick, I can’t keep going like this.’”
“The ones who are working are getting burned out,” Vojnovic says, echoing a concern others have. “It’s getting pretty tough.”
Fast-casual chain Chicken Salad Chick, rapidly expanding in Florida, including a location that opened earlier this year in St. Petersburg, is another example of the crisis on a national scale. CEO Scott Deviney, speaking on a Nation’s Restaurant News Ask the Expert Webinar April 19, says the Atlanta-based company, with 184 locations, is short 12 managers and some 500 employees. “And that’s just to staff the existing restaurants,” Deviney says. “That’s not to grow.”
“This is a massive problem the whole industry is facing,” Deviney adds.
There’s some consensus combined with some conflict among restaurant executives and others connected to the industry on the root causes of the shortage.
The most glaring culprit: unemployment benefits allow people to make as much, or sometimes more money, by not working. In pre-pandemic times, once an individual receives 12 weeks of unemployment benefits or reaches the maximum amount of $3,300, the benefits end, according to Florida’s unemployment guide. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis extended the duration of benefits beyond the 12 weeks. The maximum possible extension is now 23 weeks, while a $600 federal unemployment benefit lasts for four months for each individual.
“Small business owners are competing with the pandemic and increased unemployment benefits that are keeping some workers out of the labor force,” National Federation of Independent Business Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg says in a recent report.
“We’re in straight line competition with the government,” Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association President and CEO Carol Dover adds.
Compounding the issue, Dover says, is the waiver of the requirement that people receiving unemployment prove they were either rejected from a job or are actively looking for one. At one point the requirement was to contact five potential employers per week. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity recently extended that waiver through May. “It’s absolutely critical that we begin to fix government entitlement,” Dover says.
‘The ones who are working are getting burned out. It’s getting pretty tough.’ Nick Vojnovic, Little Greek Fresh Grill
The earn-more-staying home numbers provide a compelling argument: with federal and state payouts, an unemployed person can get $875 a week. Then there’s the potential to make extra money in the gig economy, and not even go back to the labor force, says Darrin Rohr, owner of Sarasota-based HH Staffing. All told, says Rohr, whose firm specializes in staffing accounting, finance, light industrial businesses and more, it’s no wonder workers aren’t coming back to restaurants.
The roots of the problem go deeper than increased unemployment benefits. Some workers have gone into other industries, especially ones that didn’t shut down with the pandemic. “They’ve gone to solid employers,” he says.
Castellani concurs. When restaurants were shuttered, she says, people in positions like line cook and dishwasher found work at supermarkets, e-retailers and fulfillment warehouses. Target and Publix are two of several retail and grocery giants that have been on hiring binges for months, for example.
Another cause of the shortage? The COVID-19 fear factor. Especially in the beginning of the pandemic, a segment of the restaurant workforce didn’t feel comfortable going back for fear of getting the virus and/or spreading it to relatives and others. While getting smaller in scale, that worry lingers. “Some aren’t comfortable with taking that risk right now,” Rohr says.
Michael Collins, an associate professor at the School of Resort & Hospitality Management at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, delivers some pause to the unemployment chatter — calling it a “popular misconception.”
For one, Collins believes the benefits have run out for many people. And on top of the benefits being difficult to apply for, he also believes many workers are gunning to get back to work. His son, for instance, was an aspiring chef working in California when the pandemic hit. He was furloughed, and after a few weeks he was itching to get back into the workforce.
Collins also looks at the crisis in context.
“Finding enough qualified workers has been an issue for as long as I’ve been in the business,” he says. He and his wife have been in the industry for 20 years, and before going into academia he oversaw hotels and resorts in Chicago, Palm Springs, Myrtle Beach and other locales. “This is nothing new. It’s not the result of the pandemic.”
The reason he believes restaurants struggle to find workers is because many view it as a job. “There are many people who don’t see us as a career-oriented pursuit,” he says. “It’s a job versus a career.”
With that as a backdrop, Collins and others believe solutions to the crisis are within reach. Collins suggests starting with the basics — be sure to offer training, employee meals and provide uniforms. “You need to make sure employees have what they need to work,” he says.
Cihan Cobanoglu, the McKibbon Endowed Chair at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus, agrees. “We can do a lot of things to change the image from restaurant jobs being seen as in-between jobs to a career,” he says. “You have to invest in your people.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean higher pay. That could be working with colleges and universities to develop certifications and training specific to their business, says Cobanoglu, also director of the M3 Center and coordinator of International Programs for the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at USF. These certifications and training should be geared toward helping workers advance, whether it’s from busboy to host or waiter to manager. “(Employers) need to be creative for the time being,” he says.
Creative, and fun. Consider Taco Bell, says Cobanoglu, which has offered a drive-thru interview where applicants could interview in their car. Texting job information, especially to younger possible workers, is another avenue to explore. “Why not use technology to reach the younger generation?” he asks. “We need to think outside of the box.”
For the older generation Cobanoglu suggests employers provide access to telemedicine — a nice, and current-with-the-times perk.
Overall, investing in employees is the best way to stop the shortage, Cobanoglu says. “You will gain (employees) for life,” he says.
Behind those ideals and other changes — unemployment benefits, eventually, will be curtailed — there’s reason for some optimism. “We’re in a bad place right now,” Rohr says, “but there are things we can do to sort it out. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Read more about how the service industry is struggling to find workers: