Erick Williams, the executive chef and owner of Virtue, a Southern restaurant in Chicago, said his staff of 22 employees is about half the size it was before the pandemic. “People aren’t even showing up for interviews these days,” he said.
If he can’t hire more help before business increases with the growth of outdoor dining, Mr. Williams said, “all of a sudden, you got to pay more overtime, and you’re running the risk of burning out your staff.”
The tight job market has helped hasten changes that restaurant workers pushed for during the shutdowns, including higher pay and better working conditions. Ms. Button has raised wages in accordance with recommendations made by One Fair Wage, an advocacy group for service workers, and is paying $150 bonuses to employees who refer new hires who stay on the job for more than 90 days.
The starting wage for kitchen employees at Mr. Acheson’s Atlanta restaurants is $14 to $15 per hour, he said, up from $12 before the pandemic. “People will walk down the street for a buck more — and they should,” he said.
Mike Traud, the program director of the Department of Food and Hospitality Management at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, said intense competition for talent makes this an opportune time for people to break into the restaurant business. He said this is particularly true in the Northeast, where restaurants on the coast are hiring for the tourism season.
“You have more leverage,” he said, “and there are more opportunities to get into upper-level kitchens.”
Many people, though, may be reluctant to take up or return to restaurant work, given the health risks that some studies have linked to serving customers, particularly indoors. Many restaurateurs are also concerned that resuming indoor dining too quickly could cause another spike in Covid infections. (This week, the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program released a set of safety guidelines it developed, in partnership with other industry groups, for diners and restaurant employees to continue following.)