After more than a year of restrictions, setbacks and loss, the hospitality industry's post-pandemic future was just starting to look up. Vaccines are readily available, the outdoor dining season is here, and there's the promise that all of Washington will be fully open by June 30.
Except for one thing: Restaurants are desperate to find workers in order to return to full capacity.
From offering substantial hiring bonuses to lowering work experience requirements for candidates to simply having a good attitude and willingness to learn, restaurants across the Inland Northwest are trying to lure anyone and everyone to come on board.
At Versalia Pizza in Kendall Yards, co-owner Laura Carey says that before the pandemic, whenever she posted an opening she'd usually start getting a flood of applications within the first 24 hours. Now, some of her job ads go unanswered for days. Another trend she's noticed is an alarmingly high number of job interview no-shows, and even new hires quitting just a few weeks in.
"We try to call [applicants] and nobody answers. We'll set up interviews and no one shows up," Carey says. "We had one guy show up and he sat down and said, 'I can't do this,' and walked out. It's just been such an odd phenomenon."
The need for employees is widespread across the region's food and beverage businesses. While many businesses the Inlander has talked to lately, like the Baby Bar and Whim Wine Bar, say they were lucky to retain nearly all their staff even after being closed for over a year, other spots like Zona Blanca haven't been able to offer both lunch and dinner service, and there's some places that haven't reopened at all due to staffing needs.
Steelhead Bar & Grille is one of those still-shuttered restaurants.
"Now that we're ready to open, we need to hire about 20 people to be fully staffed to be open," says Sarah Shore, Steelhead's operations manager. "We don't have any idea where to find people. Currently we can't find even one or two people to fill open positions."
Like at Versalia, several new hires at restaurants under the same local ownership as Steelhead have quit after a short time, and the hiring and training cycle starts all over again, Shore says.
"We are considering things that normally we'd never do, like reopening just for lunch, or only opening certain days a week," she adds.
For some eateries, the staffing shortage has been so pronounced that they've begun offering hiring bonuses. Adam Hegsted's Eat Good Group offered $1,000 to new employees at some of its Coeur d'Alene restaurants with the stipulation they stay on through September.
The Wave sushi bar downtown, which has been closed since last year while undergoing a complete remodel, is offering $500 hiring bonuses and $15 per hour starting wages, including to employees with no prior experience.
The Wave's reopening date is contingent on having enough front- and back-of-house staff, says Tim McKinney, CFO of Black Hospitality Group, which operates the restaurant. The company is also getting ready to open another spot in Coeur d'Alene, Takara Sushi, yet McKinney says hiring has been less challenging there, in part because of the $15 starting hourly wage, more than double Idaho's minimum wage of $7.25.
"If staffing remains a big issue, we might have to open up half the restaurant or something like that," he says.
So, where did all the pre-pandemic hospitality industry workers go?
A large number of them left the industry and didn't return, even when things opened back up. Melissa Stewart is one of them.
After more than 20 years in various food service jobs, Stewart, now 45, says a number of factors influenced her decision not to stay in the industry, including the physical and mental toll.
"You're on your feet constantly and dealing with the public constantly," she says. "For the first two months of the shutdown, it was a welcome break. I was able to collect unemployment and for the first time in a long time I felt like 'Wow, this is what it's like to not live paycheck to paycheck.' And my body really needed a break."
Another consideration in her career change — Stewart now has a remote-work job — was her young daughter who's about to start kindergarten. Her daughter's day-care center was closed early in the pandemic.
Melanie DuMars also made the choice to leave her job as a barista with Thomas Hammer Coffee in order to stay home with her five children and help with remote learning. She's since decided to go back to school for early childhood education.
"I didn't really see any other options," DuMars says. "Technically [the kids] were all old enough to be home by themselves, but they couldn't handle the mental stress of distance learning suddenly, along with just being in a pandemic. It was a lot."
Besides the sudden change in child care and the lure of better working conditions and pay outside the industry, others left because of stressful work conditions.
Anna Pearson loved working at Perry Street Brewing before the pandemic. It offered a break from her kids a few days a week, and she enjoyed connecting with customers. That second element changed drastically when the brewery opened up again after the first shutdown.
"It felt like all of the fun had been taken out of the job," Pearson says. "A select group of people were horrible about the restrictions. ... All the fun parts turned into turning and burning customers as quickly as possible because we were at limited capacity and everything needed to be sanitized between guests. Going to work felt like entering a war zone. It was traumatic."
Since leaving the industry, Pearson, too, has started school. She plans to become a mental health therapist.
While many former restaurant workers saw the pandemic as an opportunity to pursue other career paths, about 600 in Spokane County are still claiming unemployment benefits, data from Washington's Employment Security Department, or ESD, shows.
That number, however, only includes people who previously worked full time, between 32 and 40 hours a week. It's unclear how many part-time restaurant workers are still receiving unemployment benefits, as that group wasn't asked what industry they were leaving, says Doug Tweedy, regional economist for ESD.
In April 2019, Spokane County had about 18,100 people working in food services and drinking places, as defined by ESD. For April of this year, total employment in the industry was 16,400, or about 9.4 percent fewer employees than pre-pandemic levels.
"We think workers from restaurants and bars went to different industries which were the fastest growing according to wages," Tweedy says. "Essential businesses like grocery stores and some manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, and then given bonuses to work through the pandemic."
Hospitality's hiring issue is a national trend. The Washington Post reported in late May that job openings in the industry, including hotels, are at an all-time high of 7.7 percent of total jobs, meaning there are 1.7 million more unfilled jobs than before the pandemic.
Currently, unemployment claimants in Washington are still not required to look for work each week, a change made as part of Gov. Jay Inslee's March 2020 Pandemic State of Emergency order. But that rule could change soon.
Nick Demerice, public affairs director for ESD, says the agency is working with the governor's office to determine how to reinstate the job-search requirement.
"We're going to have more information on that requirement coming back on in the upcoming weeks, and we'll be working with claimants so they know exactly what is expected of them," Demerice says.
Many restaurant owners in the area are frustrated over unemployment extensions and additional federal benefits still available to people who left the workforce at the start of the pandemic, saying that's why they're unable to find staff. (An unemployed, previously full-time, minimum-wage worker receiving both the maximum weekly state benefits and $300 in federal benefits is being paid the equivalent of about $12 an hour, Demerice points out.)
Stewart, the former longtime restaurant worker, says that line of thinking only proves a deeper issue in restaurant work.
"What does that say about our work? It means we're really underpaid," she says. "There are a lot of good things about the food and beverage industry, but honestly, a lot of customers, especially during the pandemic, have made it not worthwhile. We've lost our threshold of taking crap, and we're exhausted."
Restaurateur and chef Hegsted also sees the current labor challenge as an opportunity to make long-needed changes. "Workers are demanding what they really do deserve, which is benefits and better wages," he says.
"Although this will be a little bit of a learning curve for all of us, it's time to recognize hospitality workers as a real career and not a pass-through job. Essentially the pandemic served as a tipping point for a larger and deeper economic issue that has not been previously addressed. The workers now will be calling the shots and somewhat have more power because of the demand issue. This is not a bad thing, and overall is better for our industry." ♦