As restaurants gear up for increased capacity, finding workers is the new challenge

Local News

As the city inches towards normalcy, restaurants across the five boroughs are struggling to meet the impending demand.

Many are unable to operate at full speed because employees aren’t returning to work, and in some cases, would rather collect unemployment than head back into a kitchen.

Casa Del Toro’s geared up with all the goods ahead a Cinco de Mayo rush — and what could be the Manhattan restaurant’s biggest crowd since the shutdown.

“There’s a little more consumer confidence out there. People are getting vaccined and don’t mind eating indoors,” said owner Sanjay LaForest.

The margaritas are cold and the avocados are ripe, but the only problem is, LaForest says there’s not enough employees on hand to meet the hospitality industry’s comeback. 

“There aren’t enough truck drivers, there aren’t enough people working in the warehouses so that we get the food and the produce — and our alcohol is always late,” said LaForest.

According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants across the country are still down 1.7 million jobs below its pre-coronavirus level.

Eating and drinking places added more than 175,000 jobs in March, increasing employment to the highest level during the pandemic.

Across the five boroughs, the New York City Hospitality Alliance says restaurants and bars are still short 140,000 jobs.

The labor crunch is happening now because places are hiring back at the same time — ahead of the increased dining capacity and warmer weather.

According to the Labor Department, the restaurant industry lost 5.5 million jobs in April of 2020.

In Lebanon, New Jersey, Melissa Rafano can barely make ends meet at her bakery, Sweet Melissa Patisserie.

Rafano’s even offered to increase employees’ wages, but fears the solution isn’t sustainable when the market returns at full speed.

“Let’s say we pay the dishwasher entry level, $13, $14, $15 an hour, let’s say we pay then $20 or $25 and then workforce comes back, and we have to fire them because we can’t afford them,” said Rafano.

Plus, she says many of her qualified interviewees would rather collect unemployment at $300 a week then bake cakes.

“Potential employees come in an interview and say they want to keep collecting and say ‘can you pay cash?’” said Rafano.

Labor experts say collecting an unemployment check is one of the main reasons why people aren’t returning to work.

“If people are staying on unemployment, there’s a labor shortage and it’s going to hurt all of us,” said LaForest.

Ongoing safety concerns and even relocating during the pandemic have also contributed to the overall labor shortage.

In Hell’s Kitchen, LaForest is doing everything he can to stay afloat, with safety measures in place.
His ideal employee is someone who’s willing to overlook the current challenges in return for a promising future.

“They believe in the company growing, they believe that maybe it’s not for the quick buck today, but within six months, within a year, they’ll be making what they deserve and what they’re worth,” said LaForest.

Restaurants will move to 75% capacity later this week and then full capacity on May 19.
Even at 100% capacity, coronavirus precautions will remain in place, including mask wearing and social distancing.

At Cascalote Latin Bistro on 2nd Avenue in East Harlem, staff members say they had one of the best evenings so far this year on what is traditionally Cinco de Mayo.

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