Finding service industry workers remains a struggle for thousands of North Texas restaurant and bar owners, with some offering incentives to get people in the door and onboard that almost seem too good to be true.
Some restaurants are offering cash bonuses with full benefits on the spot, but even that isn’t convincing most people to sign on.
According to the Texas Restaurant Association, 91% of restaurant operators in the state say they have job openings that are difficult to fill. And what’s most concerning is they don’t expect the labor challenges to ease after the pandemic is over.
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Meanwhile, 93% of operators say recruiting and retaining employees will likely be more difficult after the pandemic is over compared to business before the pandemic.
“It’s a real concern, especially when you combine it with the losses the industry saw last year,” said Kelsey Streufert with the Texas Restaurant Association. “We have rising food and other commodity prices we’re dealing with as well. So, it’s another really significant challenge at a time when we need to be rebuilding and kind of ramping up to make up for the last year.”
Local restaurants are still having to close earlier than normal or only open on certain days because they simply don’t have the staff.
The Texas Restaurant Association has asked Gov. Greg Abbott and Bryan Daniel, the chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, to address the critical labor shortage by:
- Considering ending Texas’ participation in the extra $300 per week federal benefit that is added to standard unemployment insurance.
- Promoting job opportunities in the state and the search-for-work requirement.
- Exploring additional steps Texas can take—potentially with funding the state will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act—to support workers reentering the job market and their families.
“Every day we talk to restauranteurs who cannot find enough employees just to run their regular shifts. They’re getting really creative. And the good news is, we’re seeing higher wages and better benefits than we’ve ever seen in recent memory in the industry, which is great. But even that’s not enough to really address the challenge,” said Streufert.
“For people who are ready and who can be back in the workforce, we need to start encouraging them to do so, but we also need to take efforts to really support those workers, and support working families.”
Joe Groves, co-owner of Ellen's Restaurant, which has locations in Dallas's West End and in Allen, says the conversation needs to go forward beyond accusing people of just taking unemployment.
“That may be a component for some people that it’s easier to take unemployment than to go back to work. I think that’s a political statement, not a statement of reality,” said Groves. “The reality is that people need to feel confident in what they’re doing and that they can take care of their families. If we can do that, and make it easier for them, then that’s our goal.”
Ellen’s is one of a few North Texas restaurants literally defying the odds. The owners are already planning to open six more DFW locations and two more concepts, increasing their workforce to nearly 500 employees this year.
They have been able to keep every single employee on staff throughout the pandemic. During the shutdown, instead of working in the restaurant, they used their kitchen to cook up meals and asked workers to help distribute them to those who needed them.
There was a special focus in South Dallas, and there still is for the restaurant. Ellen’s partnered with the MLK center and found hundreds of people that they could feed on a weekly basis. They sent out their servers and bussers as their delivery team.
“These really dedicated employees have been with us through thick and thin, from the beginning, and we didn’t feel like it was right to abandon them and turn them over to unemployment,” said Groves. “We’re fortunate. We understand that that’s an unusual ability we had, but the fact is, we did have that ability and we made the decision to invest in our team rather than to our profits.”
Right now, they’re offering some pretty competitive wages which include guaranteed earnings of up to $20 an hour, paid time off, health benefits and opportunities for career growth.
The owners hope they can encourage other restaurant owners to step up and do the same.
“To think really strong and hard about the need to make sure that our waiters, our bussers, our cooks, our barbacks, our bartenders, our hosts, everybody that works in the restaurant, deserves to make a decent living. We want them to come out and work for us, and I think that it’s only fair that we try to ensure as best we can that they can meet their own personal needs,” said Groves.
Groves says he’s proud that he and his team made the decision to make their employees their most important asset.
The Texas Restaurant Association says it will continue working with state leaders as they work to rebuild the industry.