Help Wanted: Restaurants Uptown Struggle to Hire

Ralph Johnson, the manager at Shake Shack on 124th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, hung “Help Wanted” signs on the front window this fall. Since then, he has hired four people.  But he still has jobs to fill, because 11 workers resigned rather than comply with the city’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

While he didn’t see a huge sales decline during COVID, the labor shortage has cut deeply. “We are always hiring,” Johnson, 57, said. “We need more people.”

At The Hudson, an upscale Inwood restaurant that serves at least 600 diners a day, managers held an open house in September, hoping to lure new employees. It attracted only about a half dozen applicants and hired one, a part-time hostess. “People have quit because they didn’t want to get the vaccine,” said Lyjah Guzman, manager at The Hudson.

Help wanted signs appear on the storefronts of many uptown restaurants, which like those nationwide, are struggling to fill open positions. The labor force employed in food services and drinking places in New York County dropped 51.3%, from 174,578 workers in March 2020 to 85,004 a year later, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Industry experts blame low pay and part-time positions, and city vaccination mandates and the subsequent confrontations with customers over the requirement to show vaccine status. Some owners and managers insist that potential employees don’t want to give up unemployment benefits, though some economists dispute this.

 “It’s a complex issue. There is no easy answer,” said Joanna Fantozzi, an associate editor at Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade publication. “This has been a long time coming, and the pandemic was an opportunity for employees to realize that maybe they were not treated well.”

Yamila Ruiz, a spokesperson for One Fair Wage, a national coalition focused on the service sector’s wages and working conditions, said that during the pandemic, employees have weighed how much they earn against the risks they face. “Workers are saying we need fairer wages or else we’re not coming back,” Ruiz said. “It is simply not worth it.”

Fantozzi said that the minimum wage war that has plagued the restaurant industry for years  is playing a big part in the national shortage of workers, adding that “pay is the first and foremost factor.”.

Although New York City’s minimum wage is set at $15 an hour, “restaurateurs end up paying lower than the minimum wage, which is against the law,”Catherine P. Mulder, a labor and political economist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. New York State Law requires employers to pay wait staff cash wages, with “tip credits” if their earnings don’t add up to the minimum wage. But restaurants, Mulder added, “never have, they never do, and they don’t check.” 

In Inwood, where some restaurants are hiring barbacks, cashiers, line cooks, hosts and porters, managers advertise on Craigslist and offer starting wages of $10 plus tips, while others are advertising $17-20 per hour excluding tips. One restaurant hopes to hire a sushi chef for a flat $1,000 per week, $341 more than the average full-time weekly food service wage across New York County.

Half of New York State restaurant workers reported that they considered leaving their jobs since the pandemic began, according to “It’s a Wage Shortage, Not a Labor Shortage,” a report published by One Fair Wage in May, and 90% cited low wages and tips as a reason. In the report, compiled from online and phone surveys of more than 300 food and restaurant workers across the country, more than 80% of respondents reported a decline in tips since the pandemic.

Ruiz said that the pandemic highlighted what was already a significant problem, related to gender, race and nationality. About 70% of the tipped workers in the industry identify as women, Ruiz said, primarily women of color as well as working parents.

During the pandemic, that vulnerable population became more vulnerable, and when the demands became too much, the female workforce decided to leave. “They were asked to do more for less,” Ruiz said.

Workers also report increased conflict with patrons, as enforcing social distancing and public health regulations became a regular part of their jobs. The One Fair Wage report states that since COVID-19 outbreak, 39% of workers are leaving their jobs due to concerns of hostility and harassment from customers.

Maria Rodriguez, 41, a long-time employee at Mofonga del Valle on Broadway and 135th Street, keeps a box of face masks behind the counter for customers. Even so, she says she is constantly in conflict with disgruntled customers who don’t want to wear a mask.

“Workers have had enough,” said Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor at Nation’s Restaurant News. They’re “being treated disrespectfully by their employers and they are finding different ways to make ends meet.” 

A restaurant adapted to short staffing by taking self-serve orders at a kiosk.

Some local managers attributed the staff shortage to unemployment benefits. Checkers, a fast food franchise at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, has been trying to hire in-person, but hasn’t had much success. Manager Islam Mohamad, 32, said people “don’t seem to want to work because of the unemployment benefits.”

But Mulder, the labor and political economist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, objected to the “misinformation out there that people are just not taking the jobs because they can get unemployment assistance.” People want to work and be “productive members of this society,” she said, adding that additional federal unemployment assistance expired on September 5.

Small restaurant owners in particular have had to shoulder the burden of the labor shortage to keep their doors open. In March 2020, Misael Chica opened Salento, a modern eatery he hoped would become a Colombian staple of the vibrant Washington Heights food scene. A week after its debut, he had to let a handful of employees go as COVID-19 swept the city and restaurants shuttered.

Chica had invested $700,000 in this venture, which he had anticipated would bring in over $1,500 a day. Instead, the pandemic has reduced that revenue to $80 to $200 a day. The business didn’t qualify for government loans or assistance, since it had not been open for more than two years. In the year and a half that it has been open, Chica has yet to see any profit. To keep Salento afloat, friends and family co-signed loans that covered 40% of expenses. But even as sales have picked up, Chica owes over $90,000 in back rent. 

A restaurant in Inwood has zero orders even during peak hours.

The financial uncertainty has made it difficult to find employees, since he is unable to offer full-time positions. So, he is working more hours himself, shifting from coming in just mornings to working from 5 a.m. until he closes at 9 p.m., seven days a week — while commuting from New Jersey. Two of his adult children also work at the restaurant to help out. “I’m the owner, so I had to put everything on my shoulders,” Chica said. “It’s the only way to survive.”

Business at other Inwood restaurants is picking up again as indoor dining picks up with the pace of vaccinations and falling temperatures in the city. . “It’s been great for us, and that’s why we need more people,” said Gustavo Sanchez, the manager of the Dyckman Dogs, a quick service hot dog restaurant on Dyckman Street with a big “Help Wanted” sign plastered on its window.

Fantozzi predicts that the shortage of restaurant workers will permanently change the industry. “Employers will have to invest more in their employees. That is going to impact their bottom line,” she said. “They are going to have to figure out how to either sink or swim.”