McDonald’s is raising wages at its company-owned restaurants. It is also helping its franchisees hang on to workers with funding for backup child care, elder care and tuition assistance. Pay is up at Chipotle, too, and Papa John’s and many of its franchisees are offering hiring and referral bonuses.
The reason? “In January, 8 percent of restaurant operators rated recruitment and retention of work force as their top challenge,” Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research at the National Restaurant Association, said in an email. “By May, that number had risen to 72 percent.”
Restaurant workers — burger flippers and bussers, cooks and waiters — have emerged from the pandemic recession to find themselves in a position they could not have imagined a couple of years ago: They have options. They can afford to wait for a better deal.
In the first five months of the year, restaurants put out 61 percent more “workers wanted” posts for waiters and waitresses than they had in the same months of 2018 and 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic shut down bars and restaurants around the country, according to data from Burning Glass, a job market analytics firm.
replace their face-to-face workers with robots and software. Yet there are signs that the country’s low-wage labor force might be in for more lasting raises.
Even before the pandemic, wages of less-educated workers were rising at the fastest rate in over a decade, propelled by shrinking unemployment. And after the temporary expansion of unemployment insurance ends, with Covid-19 under control and children back at school, workers may be unwilling to accept the deals they accepted in the past.
Jed Kolko, chief economist at the job placement site Indeed, pointed to one bit of evidence: the increase in the reservation wage — the lowest wage that workers will accept to take a job.
According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average reservation wage is growing fastest for workers without a college degree, hitting $61,483 in March, 26 percent more than a year earlier. Aside from a dip at the start of the pandemic, it has been rising since November 2017.
“That suggests it is a deeper trend,” Mr. Kolko noted. “It’s not just about the recovery.”
Other trends could support higher wages at the bottom. The aging of the population, notably, is shrinking the pool of able-bodied workers and increasing demand for care workers, who toil for low pay but are vital to support a growing cohort of older Americans.
“There was a work force crisis in the home care industry before Covid,” said Kevin Smith, chief executive of Best of Care in Quincy, Mass., and president of the state industry association. “Covid really laid that bare and exacerbated the crisis.”
more families turning their backs on nursing homes, which were early hotbeds of coronavirus infections, Mr. Smith said, personal care aides and home health aides are in even shorter supply.
“The demand for services like ours has never been higher,” he said. “That’s never going back.”
And some of the changes brought about by the pandemic might create new transition opportunities that are not yet in the Brookings data. The accelerated shift to online shopping may be a dire development for retail workers, but it will probably fuel demand for warehouse workers and delivery truck drivers.
The coronavirus outbreak induced such an unusual recession that any predictions are risky. And yet, as Ms. Escobari of Brookings pointed out, the recovery may provide rare opportunities for those toiling for low wages.
“This time, people searching for jobs may have a lot of different options,” she said. “That is not typical.”