Chicago restaurants face record worker shortage


Employment in Illinois’ entertainment and hospitality industry fell from 629,900 people in February 2020 to a low of 328,500 last April, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. It rebounded, but not completely: an estimated 444,200 worked in the industry in February.

To compete, restaurants raise wages, offer more perks or bonuses, and get creative where they look for talent. Such investments are difficult for restaurants that are just starting to break even after months of losses. And the stakes are high: without enough workers, the reopening process could be slowed down.

Employees worked overtime at the Franco-Mexican restaurant Tzuco, managing partner German Gonzalez said. He started noticing the shortage of applicants about a month ago, when he posted an accommodation offer and only got six visits. Usually, a job posting at Tzuco receives around 50 applicants, he says.

The Near North restaurant began offering bonuses of $ 100 to employees who referred a new hire who stayed. The salary was increased by a dollar or more for dishwashers and other hourly workers. Tzuco also began hiring hosts with no industry experience.

“We don’t want this to be your first hosting job,” says Gonzalez, “but now we’re in a position where, ‘If you’ve got the right attitude and the right motivation, we’re ready to train you.’ “

The salary increases and the creation of some positions have yet to help Pennyville Station in Park Ridge recruit more candidates, at least not yet, says owner Tony Antonacci. His restaurant has just turned a profit for the first time since October, and the difficult hiring situation is the icing on the cake of a year of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Chicago restaurants are not alone in their situation. Recruiting companies that work in the hospitality industry are bombarded with new customers from across the country and hear similar stories of employees not yet ready to return to work.

“This is not the only reason, but a lot of people make as much money from unemployment as they would from working,” says Steve Farrahi, regional recruiting manager at Goodwin Recruiting. The company works with Maggiano’s Little Italy, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, DineAmic Hospitality and others in Chicago, and added 200 new hotel customers nationwide in the first quarter.

Applicants know that jobs will still be available in a few months, so they wonder why not stay home, away from potential COVID exposure, collect unemployment and apply for a job later, Farrahi says.

In the United States, about half of workers receive more benefits than they would while working, says Peter Ganong, assistant professor at Harris Public Policy at the University of Chicago. This measure, called the replacement rate, is increasing among low-paying occupations, such as those in the restaurant industry.

But the deterrence at work was very weak, even when the federal government supplemented state unemployment benefits with an additional $ 600 per week, Ganong says. That has likely dropped even lower with the supplement now at $ 300, and as other deterrents, such as closed schools, become less of a problem.

Sam Toia of the Illinois Restaurant Association said that at this point many workers are waiting for the vaccines to return to work. Catering workers became eligible at the end of last month. Toia is working with the city to open immunization clinics for industrial workers in Albany Park, the South Shore and other neighborhoods.

The intermittent nature of the COVID restrictions could also have left some workers with a whiplash, and they are waiting for more stability. Dr Rachel Rubin, chief medical officer in the Cook County Department of Public Health, said on April 7 that the county would not hesitate to toughen restrictions on restaurants if the number of cases continued to rise.

Restaurants that have closed completely for the winter are at a particular disadvantage in having to rebuild from scratch.

Anna Posey, who owns Elske in the West Loop with her husband David, says she was shocked when the time came to start hiring staff and no one was biting. The restaurant should reopen at the end of April.

“We thought people would be eager to go,” Posey says. “I hope there are enough cooks for everyone.


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