Chicago restaurants can't find workers because stimulus checks keep them at home

Business reopening as vaccination rates continue to climb and people going back to work is good news, right? Obviously, it is, assuming employers can find enough interested and qualified applicants to fill the openings. But CBS Chicago is reporting that the owners of bars and restaurants are increasingly having trouble making that happen. Multiple restaurant owners are reporting that their former employees were expected to be eager to return to getting a steady paycheck now that the vaccines are more widely available, but many of them are not interested. Some have left the industry altogether. And few new people are applying for these food and beverage service jobs. The owners are attributing this issue to a combination of big COVID relief or enhanced unemployment benefits and a dislike of the new rules imposed on them because of ongoing pandemic restrictions.

The United States Department of Labor says hiring surged across the country in March as employers added 916,000 jobs. Many of those jobs are in the hospitality sector as businesses like restaurants reopen. But finding enough workers to fill those jobs is proving to be a challenge for some local restaurant owners.

Steve Hartenstein says opening a new restaurant as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on is “exciting, scary and brutal.”

He is the Managing Partner of Lucca Osteria and Bar, which is aiming to welcome customers in Oakbrook in May. A huge part of that preparation is hiring. Still, with so many laid off during the worst of the pandemic, applications for the 100 jobs he’s filing are only trickling in.

This appears to be largely anecdotal evidence, but it also seems obvious and was predicted when the COVID relief bills were being debated. The GOP argued for putting a cap on federally enhanced unemployment benefits, as well as on COVID relief checks, based on the taxpayer’s former income. Many of us questioned why anyone would go back to work when they can make just as much money (if not more, in some cases) by staying home. That’s particularly true when they’re still being lectured every day about how the virus is still out there waiting for them, even if they’ve been vaccinated.

A spokesperson from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a group representing bar and restaurant workers, cited another set of complaints coming from their members. Even if their jobs are available, they don’t like being put in a position where they are responsible for telling customers that they have to wear masks when they are not eating or drinking. Getting into arguments with your customers is not conducive to earning good tips, assuming you can get the customers to comply at all.

Unfortunately, as I noted above, all of this was entirely predictable and plenty of people have been warning of these possible outcomes since last year. These effects are probably showing up earlier and faster in the food and beverage industry because it’s so heavily driven by tipping. But other types of lower-skill, lower-wage positions will no doubt be experiencing the same sort of impact as reopening proceeds. Few people want to return to any sort of lower-paying job while the “free money” train is still rolling. And as for being forced to be the face mask police, some workers have already been beaten up by enraged customers after trying to enforce those rules.

The government at nearly every level was in such a rush to make sure it looked like they were “doing something” at the beginning of the pandemic that in too many cases, not very much thought was given to what would happen when we finally came out on the other side. This applies to the various cash benefits that were given out, the eviction moratoriums, and the facemask mandates, among other efforts. Swamped unemployment benefits systems, particularly in states like Illinois and California, have been tagged by fraudsters for hundreds of millions of dollars. If we have taken nothing else of value away from this awful experience, it should be the lesson that all of these preparations need to be in place and ready to go with all the required safeguards long before the next pandemic blows into town.

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