L.A. Restaurants Are Dealing with a Major Labor Shortage—What’s the Issue?

As local eateries struggle to draw servers back to dining rooms and cooks back to kitchens in a post-vax world, restaurant workers explain what’s keeping them away

CUT Beverly Hills, the flagship location of Wolfgang Puck’s fine-dining steakhouses, has a Michelin star and a menu that boasts savory bone marrow flan, three choices of sturgeon caviar from France, and a wide variety of prime-cut, grass-fed beef. But no one has eaten there for months and won’t again until July because, according to Puck, they don’t have enough staff to reopen. Spago, Puck’s famous California cuisine bistro, has found itself in a similar situation.

“It’s very difficult,” Puck says. “[Spago] didn’t open for lunch because we don’t have enough people. CUT is maybe going to open in the middle of July. We are still figuring out how to get enough people.”

Puck is experiencing what he says the rest of the world’s restaurants, “even in Europe,” are too: a staff shortage. “The customers want to go out for sure, but it’s difficult for us to build a restaurant like we used to because we don’t have enough people,” he says.

Nearly 400,000 people in L.A. County lost their jobs in 2020; between February and October alone, 104,600 food service workers’ jobs evaporated. The restaurant industry, which has long been home to many aspiring actors and undocumented immigrants (estimated to make up to 40 percent of the restaurant workforce), had already started to lose employees to app-based businesses like Uber, Lyft, and Postmates before the pandemic. The shutdown just added fuel to a fire that was already burning.

As for the latest shortage, many argue that low wages, a lack of healthcare benefits, and lax safety guidelines have played a large role in staff’s decision not to return. A 2021 report by UCLA and UC Berkeley determined that during the pandemic some restaurants put employees at risk by failing to notify them of viral outbreaks and that “37 percent of quick service restaurant employees reported they hadn’t had mandatory training on COVID-19 protocols.”

bar restaurant
Bar Restaurant’s chef struggled to restaff during the pandemic.

Corina Marie Howell

Even restaurateurs who claim to have done everything right have suffered from the shortage. Doug Rankin, executive chef at Silver Lake’s quirky Bar Restaurant, had to pare down his menu to account for his lack of staff during L.A.’s first and second attempts at reopening restaurants, despite what he describes as stringent adherence to safety protocols.

“Of all of our hourly people, we had about 50 percent who didn’t want to come back for whatever reason. Some of it was people being scared the second time around. Some of it was obviously financial, meaning, why am I going to go back to work if I can make this money at home?” Rankin doesn’t have a huge staff, so 50 percent of his hourly kitchen workers only amounted to two people, but it was still a loss.

That argument is a common one. Wolfgang Puck also cited government money as incentive for people to stay home. And why would someone making minimum wage choose to return to a boiling kitchen, expose themselves to the risk of a contagious virus, and lose a government check each week? But Chef Erin Eastland of the Rustic Canyon Family, the restaurant group that operates Milo & Olive, Milo SRO, and Huckleberry, among others, says the common narrative around collecting unemployment wasn’t her experience at all.

“I don’t see a huge correlation between somebody taking a $300 check, or whatever it was, and choosing not to go to work. Frankly, all of our staff in the kitchen opted to stay. We didn’t have anyone that came and said, ‘Hey, I don’t feel safe here.’ We ran with a full staff during the entire pandemic. We didn’t have people saying, ‘I’m going to stay home and collect checks.’” That said, she’s still experiencing the same staff shortage when it comes to new hires for summer.

“A lot of places are opening, and the pool is shallow. There are a lot of choices out there. It used to be you just put an ad up, and you get 30 resumes on the first day, now you’re lucky to get two to three people to respond, and most of them don’t show up.” She isn’t sure if it’s the pay, if they’ve found another job, or if it’s the fact that her restaurants require a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination for all new employees. She says it’s competitive out there, and she doesn’t begrudge anyone for their choices.

But Rankin says his cooks are paid well and that Bar Restaurant’s tipping culture includes the back of house, so servers share their profits with the kitchen workers at the end of each night. In addition, Bar Restaurant, despite being a smaller, non-corporate establishment, offers healthcare to full-time employees. In fact, all of the restaurants we looked into for this article offer healthcare.

So, what’s the issue? According to Rankin, while COVID protocols help everyone feel safe, they also mean discomfort for those working in the back: “In the kitchen, the dishwasher had to wear a face shield, and I think that was really hard for him because of the steam fogging it up and also wearing a mask underneath it—breathability was an issue. When we were open for the summer last year for a short period of time, it was super hot in the kitchen, and it’s really hard to wear a mask when you’re running around sweating bullets.”

Some good news for workers on that front: on Thursday, California’s Division Of Occupational Safety & Health voted to eliminate the mask mandate for fully vaccinated workers; Governor Gavin Newsom has promised to sign an executive order allowing that change to go into effect immediately.

Front-of-the-house workers, who were likewise forced to wear gloves, masks, and face shields in sweltering temperatures, at least have the opportunity to make up for it with plentiful cash tips. “The waiters at Spago make a lot of money. The kitchen workers, even if you are a sous chef, have a lot of responsibility. You still make less money than a waiter,” Puck says. And it’s true; waiters can make anywhere from $200 to $500 a night serving food at expensive restaurants in L.A.—far above the paltry $300-a-week government assistance.

But for many, the money isn’t worth it, and the conditions Rankin describes, of strictly implemented safety protocols and generous healthcare policies, aren’t the case everywhere.

“Guests are awful and ask how long their food will be while we are panting in a hazmat suit and it’s absolutely bananas,” a server at a prominent oceanfront seafood restaurant in Santa Monica divulges. She asked to remain anonymous because, unlike many of her peers, she did choose to return to work. In doing so, she found herself in an environment she says is far from supportive and safe.

“I think what’s hard is that there appear to be rules that we are supposed to be adhering to, like closing early, that are completely ignored. Mostly it’s that guest mentality is that everything should be back to normal, and it’s not. So I’m working twice as hard, twice as long, and there’s no real ability to properly wash my hands. There’s zero adherence to keeping things clean; you couldn’t pay me to eat in a restaurant in L.A. at this point.”

She blames management for not setting their servers up to succeed or having their backs. “It feels like there is a top-down attitude from the bigger people that are completely OK with us being treated like we are disposable.” She says her restaurant does offer a plan after a certain number of hours, but most employees don’t meet those hours, and it’s unclear to her if they lose their coverage if they dip below the minimum number of hours one week. She doesn’t blame her fellow servers for not returning; in fact, she’s started to look at other job options herself.

“The money is definitely more than unemployment, and I mean obviously it was a band-aid, but it was enough for all of us to see how we could shape our lives on a very low income. We also had the time to focus on what we wanted or didn’t want or what was worth sacrificing to do a job like that.”

“It’s not that nobody wants to work like the media is making it out to be, we just know our worth.” — A Former L.A. Server

Another server, a 22-year-old student who worked at a resort restaurant for three years, starting as a busser then working his way up to food runner and finally server, feels similarly. He was initially furloughed, then let go after providing his job with a doctor’s note saying he wasn’t fit to return to work when the restaurant reopened. Since then, he started attending UCLA and took an internship that he says pays more than what he was making. “It’s not that nobody wants to work like the media is making it out to be, we just know our worth. Starvation wages for an insanely difficult job with little to no benefits, terrible management, horrible hours, working every single holiday, as well as a complete disregard for the individual and their health, is not where anybody wants to be working. It was a blessing in disguise for nearly everybody who got let go.”

That certainly seems to be the case for one 39-year-old career server who had been waiting tables for over 15 years before the pandemic hit. After the reopening, she decided not to return to her job at a swanky hotel restaurant in Beverly Hills.

“I got a sales job from home and never want to serve again. Happy to be out. My old coworkers are making money but also want out. They said everything changed, but people’s expectations did not. We worked in five-star Beverly Hills where these rich folk just get what they want and don’t accept no in their lives.”

For Chef Rankin, that attitude from guests is a sore spot: “People who come out to restaurants during this time are so unforgiving—it’s not everybody. It’s case by case. But we definitely have some people who are not understanding how much extra work [the servers] are going through to provide service. There are those times when I hear from a server that someone is being really rude to them, saying ‘I can’t hear you with your mask on,’ things like that, and that’s really disheartening because we’re just trying to get the lights back on and get everything rolling. That’s a very big thing for me. Stop treating your servers like garbage, please.”

While we wait for customers to get their acts together, the non-profit community is stepping up to help with the shortage. In April, the organization Chrysalis, which specializes in job placement and retention for those out of work, partnered with Kitchen Culture Recruiting to address two problems simultaneously. The initiative paid understaffed restaurants to provide meals to in-need locals and equipped them with the staff to do so. It was all funded by a private, unnamed donor.

Puck would like to see more of this type of solution. Referencing L.A.’s housing crisis and the countless people who “lost everything in the pandemic,” he says he thinks more programs should be set up to help those who want to work: “There are openings everywhere.”

Or maybe the solution lies in a joke stand-up comedian Daniel Tosh performed in 2015: “Everyone should have to wait tables for one year of their lives, so they’ll realize their ranch dressing isn’t that f-ing important.”

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