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Check the crying about restaurant labor shortages

If the pandemic forces Madison restaurateurs to raise wages, it’ll be long overdue.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

In spring 2020, it seemed that the pandemic would spell doom for the restaurant industry: public health officials predicted that the virus would circulate at high levels in the U.S. for months, and for a moment, it appeared likely that restaurants and bars—hotspots for viral outbreaks—would be forced to close. One particularly apocalyptic study by the Independent Restaurant Coalition—an organization founded by independent chefs and restaurateurs during the pandemic—predicted that 85 percent of restaurants in the country would close by year’s end. And while restaurants have been hard-hit, the worst predictions haven’t borne out: all told, about 90 percent of restaurants remain open, due, in part, to funding from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and other state and federal relief programs.

Now as summer approaches and President Joe Biden’s accelerated vaccine rollout portends, hopefully, lower rates of infection in the country, restaurants are preparing for an influx of customers. But furloughed and unemployed former restaurant workers aren’t all returning to the industry—a development that has generated a flurry of employer-side media coverage bemoaning the “labor shortage” afflicting bosses. In Madison, the hospitality director of Food Fight Restaurant Group weighed in on the conversation this week, publicly complaining to WKOW that the company could be forced to raise wages, “negatively impact[ing] our guests.”

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Put differently, people are walking away from unacceptably low wages and restaurants, contemplating wage hikes to attract workers, might reap what they have long sowed.

Restaurants famously operate on slim margins, competing to keep menu prices low by relying on the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 and exploiting the precarious circumstances of undocumented workers, an overrepresented group in the industry. Limited data on Glassdoor’s salary and wage database indicate that Food Fight adheres to the standard pay structure for servers and bartenders, who earn a subminimum wage and rely heavily on tips for pay. Now, after a year of layoffs and unsafe working conditions amid the pandemic, it’s not that workers are in short supply, as the term “labor shortage” might suggest: they’re just declining to work in an industry that demands hard physical and emotional labor for far too little in return. Hopefully Food Fight will be forced to raise wages—and in turn, other area restaurants will be forced to follow suit. 

Because if the pandemic has taught anything, it’s that capital will never willingly betray profits for the benefit of workers or the community.

Take the restaurant industry’s response to state-mandated closures in early 2020. Some independent restaurants resigned to operating on a takeout-only basis to attempt to mitigate the ravages of the virus—but such modest attempts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 were overshadowed by hospitality interests, who have fought against all public health restrictions on business operations. Around the country, state affiliates of the National Restaurant Association have lobbied to keep restaurants open during the pandemic. In Wisconsin, after the conservative state Supreme Court revoked Evers’ “Safer-at-Home” policy in May 2020, the Bar and Tavern League encouraged owners to reopen quickly—and in October, the lobbying group sued the state over capacity limits on indoor dining facilities. The Wisconsin Restaurant Association hasn’t opposed public health measures quite so aggressively and has promoted voluntary safety practices, but that group’s CEO has declined to take a stance on mask mandates, pushed back on capacity limits, and opposed raising wages.

The corporate push to “reopen” and save businesses has—ironically and predictably—facilitated the spread of COVID-19 and prolonged the economic crisis the pandemic has wrought. One silver lining is that restaurants may finally have to re-think their relationships with workers.

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