Pre-pandemic, Philly’s restaurant workers were accustomed to hustle. From dishwasher to host, front and back of house worked in unison to create a seamless service experience. Kitchens turned out plates, servers whisked them away, bartenders mixed up another round. Tables turned, money and food changed hands, the cycle would repeat night after night.

Then came coronavirus, a citywide shutdown, and, for restaurant folk, a sudden cessation to the never-ending grind. It left most of them without paychecks, benefits, and savings.

But the pandemic also gave those workers something new: time to think.

As the Philadelphia region’s vaccination rates tick up and case rates fall accordingly, restaurants and bars once again are swarming with customers. But as many owners report, they’re not at 100% operations yet — and not because of COVID restrictions. They just can’t find enough staff.

Many point to extended unemployment benefits as the root cause of the nation’s abiding labor shortage, which has been felt in all sectors. That narrative has prompted 26 states to end federal unemployment payments before their September expiration date, while others, including Pennsylvania, have resumed work-search requirements for eligibility.

But restaurant employees assert more factors are at play, from low wages to routine customer harassment. That rare time to think, they say, led many colleagues to leave the industry altogether, while others are pressing for changes that seemed improbable only a few years ago.

An informal Inquirer survey of 190 workers and interviews with a dozen of them looked at why restaurants are coming up short-staffed, and how the industry could become more inviting now and in the future.

Survey says

Of the respondents to the Inquirer questionnaire, more than 40% identified as front-of-house workers, 13% were back-of-house, 20% had left the industry, and the remainder were a mix of managers, caterers, and job-seekers.

Though not a rigorous, randomly sampled poll, its results offer a snapshot of the views of 190 workers, and subsequent interviews affirmed the general takeaway: Workers are less content to collect unemployment than they are deterred by the restaurant industry’s long-standing labor conditions — long shifts, unpredictable pay, lack of benefits, and workplaces frequently marked by negativity, sexism, harassment, and racial discrimination.

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Respondents across the board rated lack of benefits as the most important factor in the labor shortage. There was also consensus that low wages and punishing schedules are significant barriers, as are poor workplace culture and pandemic working conditions.

Respondents ranked continued unemployment benefits lowest in importance, and they were divided on the influence that lack of child care and the departure of industry veterans have on the labor shortage.

Responses to the prompt “What would make industry jobs more attractive?” largely correlated to the reasons workers aren’t showing up. Nearly every respondent ranked benefits as most important, followed closely by higher hourly wages, better working conditions and positive workplace culture, and regular schedules. Workers were split over the importance of relaxed pandemic restrictions and vaccination rates, but they largely agreed that signing bonuses — a tactic some restaurants have recently used to lure potential hires — were not important.

In interviews, workers elaborated on these themes and others, including the desire to stamp out the “customer is always right” mentality and the idea that unionizing might achieve industry reforms. They discussed potential solutions to some of the industry’s issues, acknowledging many of them may prove challenging for small business owners. Some workers are concerned the moment for change is fleeting, but others are optimistic; a few attest to experiencing better policies at their own workplaces.

Where have all the workers gone?

For some, unemployment benefits have been and may continue to be a lifeline. But for many workers, it’s not comparable to the money they made while working. In Pennsylvania, weekly benefits max out at $580 for those with dependents, and slightly less for those without. The state’s average weekly benefit as of May 2021 was $394, according to the Department of Labor; in New Jersey, the weekly average was $484.

Labor organizer and former server Tsehaitu Abye said that for a subset of the workers she deals with — those with kids or those who were struggling economically before the pandemic — “unemployment insurance is everything.” But for many career veterans, “unemployment is nothing. I have somebody who got a new job [at a corporate restaurant] and is actually making close to $350 a day.”

Workers are quick to add that restaurants had trouble hiring staff even before March 2020. They also said time off plus limited incomes led a number of veterans to scale back their lifestyle, shift their focus to side pursuits, or change career paths entirely.

“Most of my friends and coworkers who were great cooks never want to cook again,” said Joey Ross, lead line cook at the Pyramid Club. Ross said they’re learning to become carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. A few have gone into IT, counseling, accounting, and commercial driving. “A lot of them went to college for new degrees.”

In that sense, unemployment has played a major role in the current shortage: It afforded workers time and temporary stability to contemplate their goals — and the restaurant industry’s pitfalls — more seriously.

Unemployment has played a major role in the current shortage: It afforded workers time and temporary stability to contemplate their goals — and the restaurant industry’s pitfalls — more seriously.

Amber Smith has worked as a manager at the likes of Vernick and The Love. She had just left a job at Merkaz when the pandemic struck. “There was definitely a few months of deep depression and kind of ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ ... And then it got into recognizing the ways in which the industry was exploiting people.”

Smith had experienced egregious treatment in restaurants — as a server at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in 2017, she reported chef Chris Painter’s sexual harassment to management (Painter was later suspended, then left) — and had seen milder forms of abuse, as well. “The mind-set in those environments is ‘We’re family.’ So you come in on your day off because somebody called out, and you pick up that sixth shift when you’ve already worked three weeks of six-day weeks in a row, and you do those things because ‘We’re family, right?’”

After almost a decade in the business, Smith decided to exit. She’s working part time at a medical marijuana dispensary while finishing an associate’s degree. “I love every single aspect of what goes into the food industry,” she said. “I just don’t love being treated badly.”

When pandemic unemployment payments lapse nationwide in September, workers don’t expect to see a rush of returning colleagues.

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“I think you’re gonna see how many people left, and don’t forget, also — people died,” said Nicole de Jessa, a 20-year FOH veteran who hasn’t been able to go back for lack of stable child care. Service-industry workers were on the front lines of coronavirus; a University of California-San Francisco study found that line cooks had the largest spike in deaths in 2020.

There were also “deaths of despair,” de Jessa said. (A spate of overdoses roiled the Philadelphia restaurant community this past fall.) “The restaurant industry is known for attracting some pretty nontraditional and mentally not super-stable people,” de Jessa said. “A lot of people didn’t make it, just because they were alone.”

Room for improvement

The pandemic underscored restaurant workers’ financial fragility. “You make your money day by day in this industry. To have your job tell you that they’re shutting down for a few weeks … is insane,” said Annabella Adamo, a server at Buffalo Wild Wings in Northeast Philly from 2017 to 2020. She said her earnings there never allowed her to save more than a few hundred dollars at a time. When the pandemic hit and work stopped, her first thought was of bills she would invariably miss.

“Everything I had been working on ... personal things like credit, getting stuff together for a car loan, and just overall savings to help figure out another career path kind of came to a hold,” Adamo said.

To have a sense of one’s monthly income ‘is so huge.’

Server

Back of house, pay is more predictable but often lower. Emily Buckman, head chef at Stickman Brews in Royersford and an eight-year industry veteran, said her pay has ranged from $8 an hour to $50,000 a year, but only recently has she been able to stop living paycheck to paycheck. “I finally have more than $50 to my name after almost a decade in this industry.”

The current crunch for workers, however, has started to elicit changes that seemed like pipe dreams pre-pandemic. Some, like automatic gratuity on customer checks, are already in effect and spreading. Others, like health-care benefits, will require owners to reevaluate their business plans. And broader cultural shifts — turning away entitled customers, or treating restaurant work as a “real job” — will only take root if workers, owners, and consumers buy in.

In interviews, workers offered anecdotes and ideas for how restaurants might improve conditions for employees, making the industry more attractive.

Pay

Many workers point to recently instated 20% service charges — most prominently done at Martha in Kensington — as progress. One server who asked to remain anonymous as she is looking for a new job had recently left a Center City wine bar that had implemented such a charge this winter.

“Beforehand it could really be all over the place, like $600 one week, $400 the next,” she said. After the service charge started, “it ended up being very consistently between $600 to 700 a week.” To have a sense of one’s monthly income “is so huge,” she said.

Built-in service charges leave room for money to be spent in a variety of ways. Smith recently ate at a restaurant that tacked on a 3% charge for back-of-house staff. “I think we’ll start seeing a little bit more of those things,” she said. “We’ll start seeing like 3% back of house, 3% for health insurance on our tabs. We’ll start kind of training the consumer into realizing the actual cost of like dining out.”

There’s also growing demand for higher base wages for FOH workers than Pennsylvania’s $2.83 tipped minimum wage — a push that has proved controversial in the past, even among workers, as some high-income servers can average far more than $15 or even $18 an hour.

But some interviewees said that within the FOH community, there may be a misunderstanding that a higher base wage would preclude tips. It does not. The worker organization One Fair Wage notes that, in seven states that have raised the tipped minimum wage with tips on top, “poverty is lower, restaurant receipts are higher, AND tipping is the same, if not better, than everywhere else,” according to a 2017 report from the National Restaurant Association.

Benefits

Some workers, mostly managers or back-of-house staffers, report they’ve been offered benefits like health care and paid time off that were often inaccessible in actuality — premiums were prohibitively expensive, a vacation paycheck wasn’t cut, etc. A couple had had benefits they very much appreciated. But most workers The Inquirer spoke to said they had never had benefits.

That may be changing as owners wrap their heads around the demand for benefits, and how they might afford them.

Sarah Myers, a former server at Dock Street West, noted that current workers there have access to health-care benefits after some former employees publicly protested working conditions last year. At a Southwest Center City Mexican restaurant, a former general manager who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her new job said her old employer had started offering health-care coverage to employees who qualified as full-timers — and had instructed managers to schedule extra shifts for employees who were just shy of eligibility.

But such plans can leave out an important set of workers, the manager noted: “Maybe 50 to 60% of our [BOH] staff ... qualified for it, but most of them signed a waiver not to receive it because they are undocumented.”

Hours

Restaurant schedules are less flexible than most: Nights and weekends are inevitable and typically the most lucrative shifts. But within those constraints, workers identified ways managers and owners could be accommodating.

Ross has seen it at the Pyramid Club, where he has a permanent schedule: “It’s really as simple as asking cooks which two consecutive days they would like off ... and scheduling around it.” Some workers ask for longer shifts over fewer days or vice versa. Allowing employees to express a preference — and respecting it — “makes cooks happy to be heard and gives people the ability to plan,” he said.

Numerous FOH workers also expressed a desire to be paid a non-tipped wage for time spent setting up, breaking down, and cleaning — activities that can add up. “It doesn’t seem like much,” Adamo said, “but there’s been so many times that I’ve worked a long double and still had to spend another 2 hours cleaning for free basically after customers destroyed the restaurant or we just had a very busy night.”

Service

A prevailing theme in the survey’s written responses was the desire to extinguish the “customer is always right” mentality.

In interviews, several workers argued this platitude is a major source of workers’ exploitation: “There are certain people that feel entitled to treat somebody else as less than because they are tipping,” said Matt McParland, a former general manager who recently left the industry. Some — not all — customers “think that, because they’re tipping you, they are putting food on your table, they are paying your rent, they’re paying your bills.”

Overhauling that perspective would require owners and managers to back employees, workers said. That shift has started in some restaurants. “I’ve seen that a lot during the pandemic,” said Haley Bell, a former manager who has left the industry, “where owners get so fed up, they’ll write a note — they’re using expletives on their signs — and say [to customers] ... ‘If you don’t wear a mask, then f— get out.’ ... It really just starts with the owners and moves its way down.”

Leadership’s overt support for workers is a significant start, but it’s part of an even larger change workers would like to accomplish.

“I’ve been asked on many occasions by friends and family, or even strangers in my own restaurants, when I’m going to get a real job,” said Buckman, the chef.

“We’ve had this mind-set for so long it’s like, ‘Well, it’s a server, it’s just a throwaway job.’ No, this is a skilled job,” Smith said. “It takes a lot of intelligence, it takes a lot of organization to make a restaurant run smoothly. I think that we need to just stop allowing the consumer to think of us as less than.”

To make restaurant work a viable, desirable career choice, in the eyes of those inside and outside the industry, would require all of the aforementioned changes and more. And it almost certainly would require restaurants to make major changes to their business models — namely, raising prices.

What’s possible

Even though this moment has already produced some change, workers’ confidence that more will come is mixed.

“This is the most hopeful I’ve been for a service-industry reckoning by the workers, for the workers, toward a more equitable, diverse, safer future,” said Myers, the former Dock Street server. Myers was one of many who suggested unionizing the industry would be a major stride.

Others, like Abye, the labor organizer, are dubious. Abye’s skepticism stems in her experience of rallying workers, an exercise that often proved fruitless. “The reality is organizing people to do something that they’ve never done before requires a lot of work, and nobody wants to do that work,” she said, noting internal divisions pose challenges to worker solidarity. Abye points to racial and socioeconomic stratifications as primary sticking points.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh my God, I gotta fight and live my life??’ And some of them decide to fight and live their life, and most of them decide it’s time to leave the industry or do something else,” she said. “They have the privilege to not get involved.”

Many workers acknowledge that such shifts — especially unionization — present hurdles to small business owners, and some are sympathetic to that.

But a force for more gradual change is already afoot: Younger generations are demanding better.

De Jessa, the 20-year industry veteran who is currently taking care of her children full time, has admiration for these outspoken workers. “I’m very Gen X, and the s— we will put up with is really crazy when you think about it. And I’m happy to just be quiet and be in a corner and be like, ‘Go, guys!’” she said. “I will step aside and support you guys, because you’re articulating it better and more fiercely than I ever could.”

Not all seasoned workers are so on board. Smith encountered pushback from an older colleague after she had gone public with allegations of sexual harassment at Wm. Mulherin’s. “She was like, ‘Well, in my day, your chef would take a line of coke off your breast and you’d all go to work the next day,’” Smith recalled.

“And I said, ‘I understand that that’s what happened in your time. But that’s not the way that I want to be treated. ... If that is the way that we’re going to be treating the people in this industry, and that’s what we’re going to continue to allow to happen, none of us will ever be respected, because people will always think that that’s what working in a restaurant is.’ And by the end, she agreed with me.

“This is a real job that people do for their lives,” Smith said. “This is a career. And we need to stop treating it as if it’s just something people do for fun.”