Leisure travel is back following a year of lockdowns. But in the time it's taken hospitality companies to restart their hiring efforts, many of their former employees have found new jobs in other sectors. The result: Restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues nationwide can't find enough workers.
As of early June, there are more than 8 million available jobs in the U.S., with opportunities in the hotel and restaurant industries leading the way. In fact, hospitality accounts for almost 1 million of those open jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
"We're seeing many workers re-evaluate their motivation for rejoining the workforce," said Kristel Arabian, a hospitality recruiter with Kitchen Culture Recruiting in Los Angeles. "Many have left to take on other crafts or trades altogether."
At Blue Water Hospitality in Ocean City, Md., HR manager Karlie Antezana said extended jobless benefits are slowing her ability to expand her current team of 40 employees, who manage a portfolio of campgrounds, attractions and hotels from Maine to Louisiana. "It seems like we're competing with enhanced unemployment payments, which are inhibiting job seekers from applying for positions or coming in to work."
And even though his company has been able to retain and recall most of its 400-person workforce, Jason Berry, founder and principal of KNEAD Hospitality + Design in Washington, D.C., agreed that attracting new workers is a major challenge.
"We are having issues in select front-of-house positions in most restaurants, namely server, maitre d' and bartender," he said. "Everything else is OK, but these positions are the tough ones to fill."
Getting Workers Back on the Job
To address these hiring problems, hospitality industry recruiters are suggesting new tactics to their clients. For example, in addition to offering basic benefits such as health insurance and paid time off, Arabian explained, hospitality employers could include such perks as covering cellphone bills and offering "research and development or continual education stipends, where a chef can dine out and submit receipts for reimbursement, or buy cookbooks or take classes. These methods stack up in a great way for workers while saving the business on traditional employment taxes, since they are nonpayroll compensation."
She also recommended providing diversity and inclusion training to all recruiters, since finding job candidates from diverse groups can be a greater challenge in a tight job market. "These practices and training sessions will attract the right type of workers into our businesses, and more of them," she said. "These are practices many of the most savvy workers are keeping an eye out for."
Richard Hollocou, president of Lafayette Hospitality in New York City, said providing workers with a competitive wage, medical insurance and a 401(k) plan is now a minimum expectation, which is prompting employers to look for something extra to woo workers. For example, "wine that is no longer on the [wine] list can be gifted [to staff] and written off," he said.
What Do Employees Want?
At Blue Water Hospitality, raising hourly wages is helping to attract new recruits. But to really set itself apart, the firm is providing housing opportunities at some of its properties, help with acquiring J-1 student visas for international students, transportation to and from work for employees, and new referral and year-end incentive bonuses for the team, Antezana said.
KNEAD Hospitality + Design is offering $1,000 bonuses to new team members, paid after they average 30 hours per week during the 90-day training period. Employees also can receive a $2,000 referral bonus if they refer managers or chefs, with the bonus paid out 90 days from the new employee's start date, Berry said.
Even top-rated establishments are having recruiting issues. Danny Lledó, owner and executive chef of Xiquet, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington, D.C., with 13 employees, said he is quickly posting jobs online and on social media, as well as networking with current and former employees. "I have had to really stay on top of [recruiting] now more than ever before."
In the fast-casual dining sector, the struggle to fill open jobs is no different. At EHS Recruiting Co. in Sarasota, Fla., which specializes in hiring for that sector, Vice President David Tantillo reported that online job posts aren't attracting enough candidates, especially for entry-level management positions.
"People who have only been in restaurant management for a few years are hard to find," he said. "Most of them have left the industry since the pandemic."
Tantillo said he is offering current employees $50 for every successful referral. "It's a very strange year because of what happened in 2020, which may have permanently changed how we will look at restaurants and recruiting from here on," he said.
David Staller, CEO of DAS Staffing in Newnan, Ga., has many job orders for fast-casual dining positions that he can't fill, which is pushing starting salaries higher.
"Right now, unfortunately, employers are having to pay much more for average talent," he said. "Jobs that were paying $55K last year are paying $65K to $70K [now]. Hourly positions in the south Atlanta area that were $10 an hour last year are up to as high as $14. Very few of the larger restaurants have enough staff to actually open 100 percent, even though the law allows 100 percent capacity," he said.
Staller's suggestion for employers? "I would hold on at lower capacity until September when the extra unemployment benefits end," he said.
Berry agrees. "As unemployment benefits get closer to expiration, more people feel better about getting vaccinated and capacity restrictions ease, the world will return," he said. "It's just a tough time, but I believe it to be temporary. The lights came on much quicker than most in our industry realized, and many are scrambling for staff they didn't know they'd need so soon."
Looking at the problem holistically, it's possible even more has changed, Arabian said. "The last year or so has shown to us the inequities in our world, including the ones within the hospitality industry," she said. "I am seeing the best and mostly highly regarded owner/operators reconsidering their business models, [including] who they employ, how they compensate workers and what benefits they offer. Many workers need to see that things have changed before they accept job offers. I believe they will return to work when we have made the situation better for everyone across the board."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.