//As of July 13, Kinga’s Lounge on Colfax Avenue and Marion Street seeks a cook for its kitchen. According to a survey conducted by the Colorado Restaurant Association for April and May, more than 90% of Colorado restaurants are currently struggling to hire staff. Photo by Esteban Fernandez | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: The situation with the COVID-19 Delta variant has changed since this story was published. To stay up-to-date with case data and mandates in Colorado, click here.
The pandemic threw everything except the kitchen sink at servers—public-facing jobs, low pay and desperate employers. After 2020, Brenda Bea left the dining industry for good.
As restaurants shut down in the confusion of the early pandemic days, food service workers were furloughed without pay. Stimulus checks took months to distribute, while the Colorado state unemployment website frequently crashed under an unprecedented barrage of claims.
Bea was furloughed last March by her employer, Uchi Denver, and when restaurants opened again, they asked her to return. As a Black woman, Bea knew her chances of dying from the virus were three times higher than white Americans, partially because Black workers more often fill essential jobs.
“I wasn’t ready because it wasn’t safe,” Bea said, particularly when it came to indoor dining—a sentiment she shared with her coworkers. Bea and the other staff began unionizing, but she said the restaurant owners shut their efforts down swiftly. According to Bea, a group of employees from the restaurant’s locations in Colorado and Texas collaborated on a list of demands that revolved around the safety of their workplaces.
“The employees in Texas were put in a really terrible situation because Texas just never took COVID seriously in the first place,” she said. Eventually, the demands were addressed by the president and CEO, who ultimately decided not to concede to the requests of their employees. “They basically told us all the reasons why they wouldn’t and couldn’t do any of the things we asked. I made it pretty clear to my managers on social media that I was pro-union and anti-indoor dining, so they eventually stopped asking me back.”
By August, Bea had found a job at a CU Boulder campus COVID-19 testing site. But since the testing program will end this summer, she’s had to reevaluate her future once again. Bea plans to begin her undergraduate studies this fall, an idea she hadn’t seriously considered until the pandemic hit and her source of income became even more precarious.
“I had no idea what I was doing, just working in a restaurant trying to get by,” Bea said. “COVID definitely drove my decision to go back to school. I mean, people with degrees are struggling to find work, so getting back into the workforce with no degree felt like I really had no chance.”
After months of vigilant social distancing and carefully metered vaccination rollouts, COVID-19 cases and deaths in Colorado have bottomed out to near-record lows—though the Delta variant has caused a slight recent surge. However, that spike is much lower than the average number of daily cases this time last year. That’s largely thanks to a little over 53% of Coloradans having received both doses of the vaccine. As the risk of the coronavirus diminishes, businesses such as restaurants and bars that were unable to operate at full capacity since the beginning of the pandemic have finally received the green light to fully reopen, maskless and all.
Yet, restaurants across the country are struggling to reopen due to the labor shortage. According to a survey conducted by the Colorado Restaurant Association, more than 90% of Colorado restaurants are currently struggling to hire staff. Only 10% of those restaurants have announced incentives for hiring. In the same survey, 65% of employers believe that “the primary hiring obstacle is workers preferring to remain on unemployment benefits.”
However, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment, 68.6% of Coloradans are participating in the labor force as of May 2021, just shy of the pre-pandemic February 2020 labor force participation rate of 68.7%. Colorado holds the third-highest labor participation rate in the nation, according to CDLE Senior Economist Ryan Gedney.
“We expect to see the labor force participation rebound for the rest of the year,” Gedney said in a press conference on July 16.
Despite the desperation from the restaurants, many maintain that they can’t afford to pay more than the minimum wage. A brief glance at job listings on Indeed showed that only 17% of listings offered payment of over $20 an hour. Nearly half of restaurant job listings on Indeed offered tip-adjusted minimum wage, which is $11.75 an hour for Denver. Although tipped positions can allow for employees to make upwards of $20 an hour in some cases, the form of compensation is dependent on several factors like table turnover and how large the serving staff is.
Other restaurants have begun offering hiring bonuses as a way to entice workers without adding the long-term cost of higher wages to their budgets. Tomayo is offering a $500 bonus after 60 days of employment, while Uchi—the restaurant that let go of Bea after quashing her unionizing efforts—is offering a $1,500 bonus after 90 days of employment. Cocktail bar Room for Milly was, until recently, even offering a $2,500 hiring bonus for two weeks in an attempt to attract employees with the right experience, though to no avail.
“We still haven’t hired anyone,” said Kyle Fanfoni, Room for Milly’s bar manager. “We’ve had a few people apply, but nobody with enough bar experience.” Fanfoni said he has been working well over 40 hours a week. “I’m on the bar making drinks all five days that we’re open and come in on the days we’re closed to help train our bartenders.”
Despite these cash offerings, restaurants across Colorado and the country overall still struggle to staff their businesses. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, the most recent data available showed the number of job openings hit a record high of 9.2 million in May, while layoffs hit a record low of 1.3 million. In the food industry, 80% of job separation can be attributed to staff quitting as opposed to layoffs, the highest it has ever been for the industry.
Another factor that may be contributing to the labor shortage? COVID deaths themselves. One study from the University of California San Francisco used data on death rates in California and found that “during the COVID-19 pandemic, working-age adults experienced a 22% increase in mortality compared to historical periods.” Additionally, “relative excess mortality was highest in food/agriculture workers (39% increase).” Cooks had reportedly the highest risk of death over any other occupation.
After the financial insecurities workers experienced during the pandemic, as well as health risks, many have resolved to leave the high stresses and scant compensation of the dining industry for good. In Lincoln, Nebraska, the entire staff of one Burger King location quit at the end of June due to harsh conditions, including shifts in a kitchen with no air conditioning during a sweltering heatwave and being forced to skip lunch breaks because they were understaffed.
“I do think employees have the negotiating upper hand at the moment,” said Gedney in another press conference on May 21. As staffing troubles for the food industry show no sign of waning, workers are leveraging for better conditions, benefits and pay.
One worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, said they didn’t leave their employer, a local restaurant, “but I leveraged it to a new position that paid $4 more an hour, with benefits and tip sharing,” they said. They now work as a kitchen manager.
The worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic led many workers to take action in one way or another. A general strike is planned for Oct. 15, with the intent of raising the minimum wage, pushing a four-day workweek and free healthcare for all, among other demands.
Though the current soaring job demand has given workers unexpected leverage in holding long-overdue conversations with their employers around issues such as compensation, safety and their overall welfare, some frontline workers are unsure that putting their lives on the line paid off.
“I’m not sure feeling like I was risking my health every day while everyone was working at home was worth that,” the anonymous source said. “I aged four years during this pandemic.”
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