Sarasota restaurants face workforce shortage caused by pandemic

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For the past two months, Christian Hershman has kept an ongoing Craigslist ad for a $ 25 an hour cook at his Rosemary district joint, The Overton.

Before the pandemic, he could have gotten a dozen or two responses in a month. Now he has received three injections in the same period of time.

“If they [workers] don’t apply for a $ 25 an hour job, “Hershman says,” we’ve reached a point where I’m a little confused.

The data from Craigslist matches Hershman’s assessment: More than 40 jobs for a “cook” were listed in the Sarasota area for the month of July alone. Multiple ads are advertising benefits such as $ 500 signing bonuses. Snook Haven ran an ad for restaurant workers that offered a 401 (k), health insurance, paid vacation days, free YMCA membership, and competitive pay.

But for many workers, pay and benefits aren’t the only issue, it’s a cultural issue. More than a third of former hospitality workers surveyed by job site Joblist said they weren’t even considering a hospitality job for their next role. Those making the switch said they were looking for different frameworks, as well as higher pay and better benefits. More than half of former hospitality workers said no pay rise or incentive would convince them to return to their old jobs.

Local restaurateurs are feeling the effects. According to co-owner Michael Klauber, Michael’s On East has 75 percent staff in the restaurant. Oasis Cafe and Bakery has 11 employees when they would normally have 15, says chef and owner Jim Palermo. In fine dining restaurants, family-friendly breakfast shops, and cafes like The Overton, owners just can’t find people to hire.

“…” We had to reduce the number of people we serve each night in order to balance that. “

This situation is not new. This has been going on to some extent since Florida’s post-pandemic reopening last year, but peaked this spring. There are many theories as to why.

Some politicians and restaurateurs blame the shortage of workers on unemployment benefits, but in Florida those benefits are among the lowest in the country. Florida workers can earn a maximum of $ 275 per week through state re-employment assistance. At the start of the pandemic, the federal government instituted an additional $ 600 on top of state unemployment benefits. But the Florida buggy unemployment claim website meant some workers went weeks and months without receiving their first check. And for those who did eventually qualify, many could earn as much or more from tips – think hundreds of dollars – working two nights in a house front shift at a restaurant. For these workers, unemployment checks were nowhere near as lucrative as a typical working week in a restaurant.

Even raising Florida’s minimum wage to $ 15 by 2026, which more than 60% of voters approved as a constitutional amendment in November 2020, may not lower it. In Sarasota, where the average rent is $ 1,687 per month, about $ 1,000 more than big cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg, $ 15 an hour doesn’t pay the bills.

Klauber says most restaurants are already $ 15 anyway. Hourly workers like dishwashers, line cooks and hostesses at Michael’s On East range from $ 12 to $ 20 an hour. Tipped employees are more difficult to estimate.

At The Overton, employees start at over $ 10 an hour and tips are shared with all staff, an unusual practice for most restaurants, which saves everyone $ 3-5 per hour. hour, according to Hershman. This puts the average hourly amount at $ 18. Oasis dishwashers start at $ 13 an hour and line cooks start at $ 15 to $ 16, while the front of the house can make between $ 25 and $ 30 an hour with tips. , says Palermo.

While Sarasota wages may be on par with national trends, restaurant workers face the uncertainty of the industry. They may duplicate or help with other responsibilities if their workplace is understaffed. Waiters and hostesses deal with the immediate audience, which means tensions can be high – having to ask guests to wear face masks or touch dirty silverware and cash during a pandemic.

All of this means that many restaurants remain understaffed.

“For us, having less help means being less innovative and not being able to do as much as we think we can,” says Hershman. “For others, it literally means they have to get the tables off the floor. It’s a horrible position to be in.

For Hershman, this post-Covid period is the start of an industry calculation. Former hospitality workers wonder if this is really what they want to do in the long run – and many of them are saying “No”.

“For long-time hospitality workers, at some point you have to figure out what the real payoff is,” says Hershman. “Because if it’s all about monetary rewards, you’re going to be pretty dissatisfied. “

But not all workers in the service sector are disappointed in their chosen field during the pandemic.

Bartender Yanelie Llorca, 28, works at Tommy Bahama restaurant in St. Armands Circle and has health insurance and a 401 (k) plan in the restaurant and works five days a week. She earns between $ 150 and $ 400 a night with tips.

“For me, it’s a little hard to leave him,” she said. ” I earn a lot of money. The staff are really nice. The managers care about you. It’s a family atmosphere at Tommy Bahama.

Still, she considered a career change. It scares him to see bartenders in their forties who have to wrap their arms with therapeutic tape every night to relax their muscles. She knows the feeling: She stretched a back muscle in March while working out and is now going to a chiropractor.

“I don’t want to be 40 and be a bartender,” she says. “I know my body will give in. I see 40-year-old bartenders and they need to buckle up.

To look forward

Despite fewer workers, Klauber remains optimistic. When he walks over to the tables and introduces himself, he is surprised to find people who have never been there.

As of April, more than 50 percent of people served by Michael’s On East were first-time guests, he says. And their audience is generally local.

Other restaurants are also noticing new business trends. Oasis used to have its worst week the second week in June. But this year was his best week. Palermo attributes it to pent-up demand and the fact that more and more people are getting vaccinated.

“We had numbers from April to July,” he says, “and we’re doing it with a third less staff. “
Hershman believes the labor shortage will lead to real change – perhaps a rosy new future for the hospitality industry where workers in the front and back of the house are paid far more than a living wages and have a career path.

But there is also a darker prospect, one that he says is more likely. He envisions a time when only the rich are expected and cared for in a service industry setting.

Hershman, Klauber, and Palermo all see the writing on the wall separately. Summer is traditionally slow, but Sarasota’s tourist season is just around the corner. And what will they do then with less than 100 percent staff?

Klauber needs to hire between 60 and 75 staff to run a full-service catering operation. And Palermo will have to block off half of its dining room if the shortage persists.

And as increasing wages and providing more benefits have failed to attract and retain workers, restaurateurs are trying to figure out what will. “We need to collectively determine the value of these workers,” says Hershman. “I’m not saying there must be parades, but these are essential workers.”

At the height of his restaurant’s staff shortage days, Llorca was doing up to four or five double shifts a week. She came in at 9:30 a.m. and didn’t leave until 9:00 p.m. or later. She doesn’t need clients to treat her like a hero, but she would be content to be seen as human.

“Customers could be nicer during the pandemic,” Llorca says. “A lot of them expect super-fast service when we’re short on staff. I’m like, “You have to be patient and know that I’m a human being.”


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