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Restaurant Workers Look For Greener Pastures As Florida Experiences Hospitality Hiring Crunch

A help wanted sign is posted up on the door of a business.
Andriy Blokhin
Adobe Stock
Restaurants across Florida are grappling with a labor shortage. Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s Geoff Luebkemann says one of the factors contributing to that shortage is that business owners can’t compete with state and federal unemployment benefits.

Restaurants across Florida are experiencing a labor shortage. Many COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, and more tourists and residents are heading out to eat. But there aren't enough workers to serve them.

Jazz Salm was starting a new job at a Chili's in Plantation when the pandemic struck.

"I had only literally had a shift on the floor for them for a week, and then on March 15, we were put on furlough," Salm says.

Salm says she had to move home to Sarasota because she couldn't afford her rent. During that time, she contemplated working at another Chili's but says shifts were slim and everyone was fighting for them.

"The best bet was to have [a] stable income, to have the hours constantly and a full week of hours which I knew I was getting that paycheck and I wasn't going to sit there and beg for shifts and not get them. So that's why I ended up going to Walmart and kind of dropping the restaurant industry," Salm says.

Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association's Geoff Luebkemann says demand at restaurants started picking back up in late February of this year. The problem went from workers fighting for shifts to not enough workers now to fill them.

"Unfortunately, the labor pool is such that we are unable to fill the positions that we have open, and that's across all positions: Hourlies, front of the house, back of the house, and food. All positions in lodging and management positions as well," Luebkemann says.

Luebkemann says that's making it difficult for businesses to meet the rising demand as people become more comfortable going out.

"If you're operating on 20% or 30% of the staff that you're usually operating with, those people are working insane hours just to keep the business going, and in order to give those folks a breather and some time off, many businesses, especially in food, are choosing to close one or two days a week that they would normally be operating because the business demand is there, but their staff is simply exhausted," Luebkemann says.

Luebkemann says there are many reasons for the labor shortage. But one factor he's hearing from business owners is that they can't compete with unemployment benefits, which the federal government boosted because of the pandemic.

"The state component of unemployment benefits is $275 a week, and there's currently an enhanced federal component to that, which is an additional $300 per week. On a 40-hour week, that averages to just under $14.50 an hour. So, in a smaller labor market like Tallahassee where line cooks might be paid $12 and $13 and $14 an hour, mathematically, they come out better staying at home and collecting unemployment," Luebkemann says.

But for many former workers, the problem isn't that restaurants can't compete with the unemployment benefits. It's that those former workers have found other jobs that often pay more or better fit their needs. That's the case for Zyaire Brooks. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was working at a Tallahassee McDonald's while pregnant with her second child.

"I had to work almost every holiday, and I understand that I signed up for that, but I have kids, and I would request off ahead of time, but even on those days off, I just didn't want to be there anymore," Brooks says.

Brooks says a big reason she left was the pay. At McDonald's, she was making $8.60 an hour. Now, as an office assistant, she makes $13 an hour and gets to spend more time with her kids.

Bonita Violette is a former restaurant worker in Tallahassee. She left her job during the pandemic to look for freelance work. She says she's frustrated by how the restaurant industry as a whole treats its workers and says that's also a reason for the labor shortage.

"I think that it is not sustainable to build an industry with no support for your workers. There's no health insurance. There's no benefits. There's no guarantee of how much money you're going to go home with at the end of the day for a lot of people," Violette says.

Luebkemann says hospitality jobs are often characterized as being low wage.

"And that may be true for entry-level jobs, but we're an industry of limitless opportunity. There're very few industries that you can start as an hourly employee, and if you're willing to put in the work and learn the skills, you can be an owner, you can be a franchisee," Luebkemann says.

Luebkemann says the current hiring crunch can spur big opportunities for those willing to work in foodservice and lodging.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.