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Where Are All The Restaurant Workers?

Leona Larson

Staffing shortages have restaurants in Southwest Michigan and across the country scrambling for employees.  Some establishments have cut hours while others are simply serving patrons more slowly.

Nationwide a record number of people have left the food industry since the COVID-19 pandemic recovery began. A recent NPR report found that each month this year about five percent of the U.S. restaurant, bar, and hotel industry workforce quit. That was 706,000 people in May alone. Why did they leave and where are they going?

“It was a spotty business”

Former service workers site low wages and tips as the primary reason why they left the industry.  That was the finding in a recent report of a national survey from the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California-Berkeley.

“Being a server and being front of house, your income is not promised. You know, it’s a lot of gratuities,” said Noah Silvey, who quit his Kalamazoo restaurant job to start his own business in June. 

Silvey and his business partner, Aidyn Robison, had been working in Kalamazoo restaurants for about five years when the pandemic hit.  Both said they were happy in the restaurant industry until the pandemic changed everything.

“I actually grew to love the food industry, and then COVID hit,” said Robison, who still works once a week as a manager for the Kalamazoo restaurant that hired him as a food runner when he was still in high school.  “Ever since then (the pandemic), it kind of put the seed in our mind, are we going to continue doing this?  Because it was a spotty business.  You weren’t sure you were working next week or not, and then we were shut down, rules were changing all the time.”

“Our restaurant was very busy,” said Silvey, who worked at a different Kalamazoo restaurant.  “When that happened that was a very big blow. It was like, one day we had a job and the next day we didn’t know where our next paycheck was coming from. And that feeling, I never wanted to feel that again.”

While unemployment was scary, Robison and Silvey found options they’d only dreamed of before.  COVID unemployment assistance meant regular income free from irregular work hours and inconsistent tips.

“As a paycheck-to-paycheck restaurant worker you’re not used to seeing that money come in consistently, weekly like that,” Silvey said.

Kalamazoo Pickers

When it was safe to go back to the post office, the business partners sold vintage clothing online, something they’d been doing for several years. During the pandemic conditions were suddenly and surprisingly right for them to start saving money and follow their dreams.  

On June 1, Robison and Silvey opened Kalamazoo Pickers, a vintage clothing store located downtown at 119 W. Kalamazoo Avenue.  The name is a play off the popular TV series and the 1920’s minor league baseball team, the Kalamazoo Celery Pickers. With the opening of the store, they joined a growing crowd of Americans who started a record 6,714,318 new businesses since the pandemic began last March. 

Andrew Haan is president of the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership.  He said upheaval in the restaurant business isn’t unique to Kalamazoo, it’s happening all over the country. Haan focused on the good news; while 15 downtown businesses closed during the pandemic, 19 new ones opened. 

“Anytime you have an economic downturn its kind of a chance for people to re-evaluate,” Haan said.  “It seems to be a little more deeply concentrated in the restaurant industry right now and the impact on that industry has been especially deep over the last 16 months.  But just as you are seeing an exodus from that industry, you are seeing new people open up restaurants that have never had one or are moving from having a food truck into a brick-and-mortar place. They’re confident that the influx of students coming back and some of the changes to the benefits at the federal level are really going to kind of open the labor market up. So, we don’t think it’s a net loss necessarily, it’s just a bit of a reorganization.”

In the meantime, Haan has advice for restaurant patrons here at home and on vacation in other parts of the country.

If you dine out

“Calling ahead is always wise,” he said. “Sometimes even the hours on websites are, you know, a little lag to get those updated. You know this has been a hard year for everyone. The restaurant business has been hit particularly hard so we really just hope that the consumer is able to have a little bit of grace.”

Robison and Silvey worry about their former co-workers and ask the public to be kind and patient while understaffing problems in the industry are resolved.

“It’s also sad for the workers who are still working for the restaurants because they don’t have lives now because they’re working overtime,” Silvey said. “They’re working a crazy amount of hours a week. The good employees are getting ran into the ground right now and I feel bad for them.”

“Crazy hours,” added Robison, “they are getting burned out.”

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