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Lots of jobs, few hires: Labor shortage puts Tampa Bay restaurants in a pinch

Worker advocates say it’s the start of an overdue reckoning for industries that rely on low-wage jobs.
A marquee at the McDonald's at 1905 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa indicates a starting salary of $13 an hour for new hires on May 12. The restaurant had previously offered applicants $50 just for coming in for an interview, a sign of the current high demand for food service workers.
A marquee at the McDonald's at 1905 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa indicates a starting salary of $13 an hour for new hires on May 12. The restaurant had previously offered applicants $50 just for coming in for an interview, a sign of the current high demand for food service workers. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 13

At the Oxford Exchange in Tampa, business isn’t just back. It’s booming.

Sales are up 68 percent compared to 2019, said owner Allison Adams. A waitlist for a Mother’s Day brunch listed more than 1,200 people. The restaurant’s reservation system was similarly backlogged for Easter and Valentine’s Day.

After the steep drop in revenue brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, such business should be cause for celebration. But fully staffing the restaurant to keep up with the increase in customers is proving more difficult than expected.

In recent months, the Oxford Exchange has raised its hourly wage for most line cooks to an average of $15 per hour, with some experienced chefs earning more. Managers now hold open call interviews on a weekly basis. And Adams has started giving $100 cash bonuses to employees who help bring in new hires.

Adams said she’s been able to staff the restaurant with enough people to meet the current demand. But, like others in her position, she said the sudden surge in diners has left her with trepidation for what’s to come.

“It’s kind of staggering,” Adams said. “We really started seeing the numbers (go up) in December and January. When you have all restaurants doing much higher volumes — we’re all competing for more people.”

For all the economic progress made in America’s pandemic recovery, many businesses are struggling to hire new workers — or, in some cases, the workers they let go last year.

A number of industries that rely on low-wage workers are feeling the pinch, from hotels, theme parks and travel to construction and manual labor. The effect has been particularly pronounced in the food service industry, where cooks, dishwashers and bussers aren’t re-entering the workforce as quickly as they left it.

The result: customers eager to get out and spend are now seeing reduced store and restaurant hours, labor and construction backlogs, and a few shuttered businesses.

“It really is depressing,” said Traci Bryant Ferguson, who runs the restaurants Caracara, Taco Baby, Jack Pallino’s and the Nest in downtown Dunedin. “If you can’t get staff and you have to close your doors for a couple of days, then you’re really not going to be able to pay them anyways. Every hour of operation counts.”

Oxford Exchange executive chef Richard Anderson and owner Allison Adams pose for a portrait inside their Tampa restaurant on May 7.
Oxford Exchange executive chef Richard Anderson and owner Allison Adams pose for a portrait inside their Tampa restaurant on May 7. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Too much relief, or too little pay?

The reason for the labor shortage varies depending on whom you ask.

One common refrain: People have gotten too much in unemployment and pandemic relief money. With hundreds per week in aid available to many workers — not to mention thousands of dollars in stimulus checks — they say it makes returning to the workforce feel unnecessary.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce this month called for Congress to repeal a $300-per-week supplemental unemployment payment, saying it keeps people from actively seeking work. Those payments — which are separate from Florida’s maximum state benefit of $275 per week — are set to expire in September.

“These people just keep getting free money after free money, and there’s no incentive for them to go back,” said Doug Bevis, director of business and government affairs for the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce. “I’m friends with quite a few restaurants out at the beach, and they flat-out said (employees) weren’t coming back until the money’s gone.”

The number of Florida residents claiming unemployment relief has decreased over the course of the pandemic, but it remains high. Since last spring, the state has paid more than $27.6 billion to nearly 2.4 million individuals, with thousands more added every week. Nearly 447,000 individuals are from the food and lodging industry, the most of any sector.

Bevis has called those who are content to stay on unemployment “$875′ers” — people who, earlier in the pandemic, got $600 from the federal government and $275 more from the state. The federal aid has since been reduced to $300, which would cap maximum payments at $575 per week. That works out to about $14.37 per hour — well above Florida’s minimum wage of $8.65.

“Until these people reach a point where they don’t have any income, it’s not going to force them back to work,” Bevis said.

Putting the onus on the unemployed doesn’t tell the full story, said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James Financial.

“What (restaurants) don’t tell you is they can’t find workers at the wages they’re willing to pay,” Brown said.

Related: The push for a $15 minimum wage in Florida was winning. Can it survive COVID-19?

Florida’s minimum salary for tipped employees, like servers and bartenders, is $5.63 per hour. They often still earn more than back-of-house workers, like cooks and dishwashers, who might get paid more per hour, but typically don’t share in tips.

Low wages and tips are among the top reasons restaurant staff are considering leaving the industry, according to a survey released last week from One Fair Wage, a national nonprofit campaigning to end the subminimum wage for tipped restaurant workers.

“The restaurant industry doesn’t have a worker shortage — it has a wage shortage,” One Fair Wage president Saru Jayaraman said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of restaurant workers do not want to go back to work to earn poverty wages putting their lives on the line.”

Related: Can Tampa Bay restaurant owners require workers to get vaccinated?

The demand for labor has led to higher pay, in some cases, but also longer shifts. The average national hourly wage for nonsupervisory leisure and hospitality workers rose from $14.91 in February 2020 to $15.68 in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Those employees worked an average of 25.3 hours per week in April, the most since 2008.

Still, despite monthly gains in the sector as more states open up restaurants, the overall number of leisure and hospitality workers remains down 16.8 percent from February 2020, compared to 5.4 percent for the American workforce as a whole.

Worker advocates say restaurant employees face long, often grueling hours; a lack of benefits and child care; and concerns over mental and physical well-being in a high-stress environment. Food service jobs are also considered high-risk for COVID-19 exposure, especially for servers and customer-facing employees dealing with hundreds of diners a day who, for the duration of their meals, don’t wear face masks.

“It’s exhausting,” said Joan Hoffmann, 31, a bartender at Green Bench Brewing Co. in St. Petersburg. “There’s only so much that you can absorb and deflect.”

Related: Taste and smell were a part of the job for chefs and wine pros. Then they got COVID-19.

Before getting hired last fall at Green Bench, Hoffmann drove for Uber Eats to help pay the bills and stay busy. A career bartender, she said she enjoys working at Green Bench, but can understand why others in her line of work are leaving the industry.

“You make (no) money and your customers are the ones who are paying your rent or your mortgage,” said Hoffman, 31. “That’s really challenging when you’re also telling them that in the interest of public health, they have to wear their mask, and they refuse. The conversation gets really sour really quickly.”

Such concerns aren’t limited to the restaurant industry. Allegiant Airlines has held two job fairs this spring at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, trying to hire dozens of customer service and ground operations agents. The most recent, on May 3, offered 82 open positions; 56 people were hired.

Lowes Hotels at Universal Orlando recently held a hiring event for hundreds of employees, from stewards to lifeguards to security guards. At an upcoming fair, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino will try to hire housekeeping, custodial, technical and spa staff on the spot.

The pandemic may have pushed older workers who were considering leaving the workforce beforehand to hasten their plans, leaving more positions to fill, said Raymond James’ Brown.

Even among younger workers, the financial pressures of the pandemic may have led them to reconsider career paths. The pandemic brought with it a reexamination “of the social contract we have in this country regarding work and expectations about work,” said Chris McCarty, director of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

“I think a reasonable argument could be made that the circumstances we had prior to the pandemic simply weren’t good for a lot of people,” McCarty said.

For businesses, lost leverage

All of this has turned the tables on some business owners, who all of a sudden feel they have less bargaining power.

Rick’s on the River in Tampa didn’t have to lay off any employees during the pandemic, said owner Ken Brackins. But many chose to leave.

“It’s just very difficult to compete with the government giving out free money,” Brackins said.

When employees don’t show up for their shifts or can’t perform their duties, there isn’t much an employer can do, said Ferguson, the Dunedin restaurateur.

“I can’t have the same expectations as I would, because it’s not like there’s someone lined up to take that person’s job,” she said.

For workers, it’s a seller’s market. More options are available now than in 2020, when the uncertainty of the pandemic made people “grateful to have employment,” said Nick Friedman, co-founder and CEO of Tampa moving company College Hunks Hauling Junk.

“We’ll have folks that apply, accept the job, and then don’t show up for the first day of work,” he said. “That’s really difficult, and not something we had experienced in the past.”

According to data from Culinary Agents, a job search engine that connects restaurant owners with people looking for work, job postings and searches throughout major Florida cities are in high demand. An influx of new and reopening restaurants, as well as pandemic-weary tourists from more restrictive states, has resulted in a customer boom most owners say they weren’t prepared for.

But fewer people are actually applying for those jobs — roughly 25 percent fewer than in the past, depending on the city, said Alice Cheng, Culinary Agents’ founder and CEO. That means restaurants can’t operate at maximum capacity.

“The more restaurants there are, the more job openings and competition for staff,” Cheng said.

Related: Tampa Bay's bar industry is struggling, with no end in sight

To get workers back, employers have started to get creative.

Offering cash incentives or signing bonuses — a practice previously unheard of in the restaurant industry — is an increasingly popular tactic. A Tampa McDonald’s franchise made national news when the owners announced that applicants who showed up for an interview would receive $50, regardless of whether they took the job. In St. Petersburg, The Galley owner Pete Boland has been advertising $200 signing bonus checks.

At two recent job fairs, Tampa International Airport tried to lure workers with the promise of signing bonuses and annual memberships to streaming services.

Companies operating out of the airport, like concessions businesses and rental car agencies, had laid off or furloughed more than 1,000 workers since last spring, according to documents filed with the state. Nowhere near that many have come back. A job fair in February aimed to fill 185 positions; only 100 people interviewed, with 40 hired on the spot. Another fair this month sought to fill 300 positions. Only 116 candidates interviewed; 52 were hired.

In north Pinellas County, the hiring situation is so dire that the city’s recent Oldsmar Days celebration had to cancel its annual “Wing Wars” contest “because the restaurants can’t find the people to work in the restaurant, much less extra people to work Wing Wars,” said Bevis, from the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.

Bevis and others have spent weeks plotting a job fair on Saturday, recruiting dozens of local companies looking to fill hundreds of jobs in manufacturing, construction, retail and other fields.

“The big question I’m being asked is, ‘How many people do you think are going to show up?’” Bevis said. “It’s a good question. I really don’t know. It’s not for lack of effort.”

For both sides, change is coming

People who used to work in restaurants aren’t surprised the industry is having trouble hiring.

John Alexander “grew up around the hospitality industry,” he said, hanging out in the Boca Grande hotel his father helped manage. He worked his way through kitchens up the Gulf Coast until 2016, when he landed an $11-an-hour job as a line cook at Bern’s Steak House, one of the premiere restaurants in Tampa. He soon moved to the meat department, to cut and care for its vaunted collection of beef.

The job was fulfilling, but exhausting. The most he took home in a year was about $35,000, for a role that saw him working up to 60 hours per week. So a couple of years ago, he took a job in the call center for College Hunks Hauling Junk. Today he trains new salespeople, many of whom also come from the hospitality world — and he makes nearly twice what he did at Bern’s.

“If I hadn’t made that change, my life would have been put on hold just like all my other friends,” Alexander said.

John Alexander left his job at Bern's Steak House in 2018. He now works for College Hunks Hauling Junk in Tampa, making nearly twice what he did in the food service industry. He is shown here inside College Hunks' headquarters on May 7.
John Alexander left his job at Bern's Steak House in 2018. He now works for College Hunks Hauling Junk in Tampa, making nearly twice what he did in the food service industry. He is shown here inside College Hunks' headquarters on May 7. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Throughout his network of hospitality friends in South Tampa and nationwide, Alexander hears concerns over income, hours and stability as recurrent themes.

“A lot of people did those jobs around other aspects of their lives,” he said. “Sometimes it might be better for their situation to be able to not have to pay child care, and get unemployment assistance. That’s ultimately what a lot of people’s struggles are right now.”

College Hunks is one company that’s tried to work the hospitality industry’s workforce shortage to its advantage. Last fall, it started posting job openings in the hospitality section of Craigslist, hoping to convince former restaurant employees to change careers.

It has emphasized how tips and bonuses can push salaries above $20 per hour. That’s helped boost the company’s ranks from about 2,000 last year to 3,000 now — still well below where CEO Friedman would like to be.

“We’re competing with all the other companies that are hiring right now,” he said. “What’s to motivate someone to come work with us, as opposed to drive Uber or go work for Panera Bread? We’ve got to position ourselves as the premier employer, and an opportunity for people to come learn, grow, and feel like they’re part of something bigger than just a paycheck.”

In the One Fair Wage survey of restaurant workers, a majority said they would consider staying in their job for a reasonable wage. Several Tampa Bay restaurateurs said they’ve tried to do just that.

Chris Ponte, who owns restaurants On Swann and Olivia in Tampa, said he increased base pay for kitchen employees by $2 to $3 an hour from what they were making prior to the pandemic. He said a line cook that was making $14 to $15 an hour before the pandemic now makes $16 to $18.

“To keep a good person, that’s worth it,” Ponte said.

David Benstock, who owns the upscale Italian restaurant Il Ritorno in St. Petersburg, said an employee’s quality of life should be top of mind for all restaurant owners and that how they choose to compensate their employees now could have lasting effects for the industry.

“There are a lot of restaurants that don’t treat their employees with respect and don’t pay them enough,” Benstock said. “If everyone doesn’t start doing that, then there aren’t going to be a lot of restaurants left.

“To pay someone nine or 10 bucks an hour — I mean, who can live off that?”