Amid a labor shortage, former restaurant workers share why they left the industry for good

“When my kids were young, I thought, ‘They won’t remember I’m gone,’” said Renée Harper, a longtime Phoenix bartender. “I wasn’t paying attention to how much I was missing out on. My oldest son, he’s 15 … I’ve been gone his whole life.”

In spring 2020, the Phoenix bartender found herself with real downtime for the first time in years. No longer working three jobs in the food and beverage industry, and with schools closed for in-person learning, she and her four children wound up passing their days together at home.

After a brief stint at a hotel bar later that year, Harper began looking elsewhere for reliable work to support her family. She turned to mortgage lending and got her license in 2021.

For 18 years, Harper had dedicated almost all of her waking life to restaurants. But her new job as a mortgage loan officer has provided her a newfound luxury: time to slow down and see her loved ones more.

This past summer, she and her boyfriend bought their first house together and she moved her family out of their cramped apartment.

While she still keeps one foot in the door of the hospitality industry — a new weekend gig bartending at The Van Buren music venue — she has no plans to go back to the industry full time.

She’s also not alone.

Amid widespread reports of worker shortages, restaurant owners are desperate to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic business operations. But after being furloughed or laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, some of those bartenders, cooks and servers have moved on to other industries.

A portrait of Renée Harper on Sept. 16, 2021, at her home in Phoenix. Harper left full-time work in hospitality as the industry grapples with a labor shortage.

What is causing the restaurant labor shortage? 

Reports of labor shortages in the restaurant industry aren’t new. But hiring struggles became especially pronounced recently when businesses started restaffing again. On March 25, 2021, Gov. Doug Ducey announced bars could fully reopen. He also lifted restrictions on restaurants and large gatherings.

Air travel rebounded, events picked up, dormant bars sprang to life and restaurants returned to full capacity dining. But employment numbers hadn't bounced back quite as fast.

Arizona’s leisure and hospitality sector employed close to 43,000 fewer people in May 2021 than it did in February 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, in February 2020, more than 12 million people were employed in food services. In May 2021, that number hovered at 10.9 million people.

Some businesses never reopened, like many of the restaurants at the Phoenix airport, which could account for some of the employment decline. But many restaurant owners and managers blamed unemployment assistance.

Arizona pays a maximum of $240 per week in unemployment benefits. From August 2020 to mid-July 2021, jobless Arizonans could receive an extra $300 in federal aid, bringing the total up to $540 per week.

In comparison, an untipped worker, such as a cook, would earn $486 per week if they worked 40 hours a week on minimum wage.

Undocumented workers, who make up an estimated 10% of all restaurant workers, are not eligible to collect unemployment or other federal assistance, including $1,200 stimulus checks.

Former hospitality workers shared with The Arizona Republic the reasons why they're not going back to work in restaurants or bars. Wages are only part of the problem. For some, that period of unemployed limbo was an opportunity to reprioritize their time and explore new careers. Some found that by stepping away, they could more clearly see the bigger problems in the industry that existed before the pandemic.

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Many restaurant and bar workers were left jobless at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. Some, like Jessica Wolfe, who goes by Wolfe, never plan to return. Wolfe is now focusing on a career in textiles and art.

Restaurant workers say the stressors that came with working through a public health crisis — from hostile customers who politicized COVID-19 to employers’ disregard for their safety — have taken a toll on their mental health.

It wasn't worth enduring anymore for Jessica Wolfe, who prefers to go by Wolfe.

For most of 2020, Wolfe worked as a server at a downtown Phoenix pizzeria. In October of that year, they decided to quit both their job and the restaurant industry.

COVID-19 cases and outbreaks had been sweeping through restaurants in metro Phoenix since the beginning of the pandemic. Wolfe said that the restaurant where they worked hadn't retained bussers and could not, or would not, stay on top of sanitizing.

"The straw that broke the camel’s back was that we, the entire front of house staff, worked with someone who tested positive with COVID. We still had to work while we got tested," Wolfe said.

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"My mental health couldn’t take it anymore after working through the pandemic," Wolfe said. "The tips got really bad, the type of people dining out were not very kind or tipping generously, so the money wasn't even worth it anymore. It was like an emotional and physical abuse that I couldn’t take anymore."

Wolfe had worked in the restaurant industry around a decade. Then in October, they stepped away to focus on their own business, selling handmade textile earrings and art pieces.

Working as an independent artist comes with its own set of challenges, Wolfe said. They earn enough to get by — not comfortably, but enough, so far. Still, Wolfe doesn't regret the decision.

From poorly behaved customers to not receiving health insurance, there's no real incentive for them to return to the restaurant industry, Wolfe said.

Low pay and job insecurity make restaurant work unsustainable

John Rodriguez had just started working as a baker when he was furloughed in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. In October that year, he started working in a pet supplies warehouse.

John Rodriguez started working as a baker in October 2019. When his Phoenix restaurant shut down in March 2020, he stayed home for more than six months, surviving on Arizona's weekly unemployment assistance of $240 plus the weekly federal supplement of $300, which was more than he made working full time.

"That was a big sign I think all across the country, the restaurant industry is underpaid," Rodriguez said. "We weren’t part of the tips, and I wouldn't expect to because I didn't interact with customers, but it was definitely an eye-opener that my unemployment benefits were more than what I was working."

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Rodriguez wasn't eager to go back to work, he admitted. Individual restaurants were closing for weeks at a time, or indefinitely, because of COVID-19 cases. The jobs he found paid $15 or less an hour. If he could make more on unemployment, save money on gas and not risk contracting COVID-19, it didn't seem worth it, he reasoned.

Though he would have preferred to spend his days in the kitchen baking, in October 2020, Rodriguez accepted a job as a warehouse stocker for a pet supplies company. The job paid more than he'd made working in the restaurant, and the boom in online shopping during the pandemic meant his hours were secure, he said.

He's already gotten one raise since he started, Rodriguez added.

When he was given the opportunity to get his old job back in 2021, the company offered him part-time hours at the same pay, but with tips. Rodriguez felt unsure — if COVID-19 cases rose in Phoenix, how long would the restaurant remain open? The combination of instability, shortened hours and low pay led him to decline.

"I honestly don’t know how long until I would feel comfortable going back into the industry," Rodriguez said. "Even now, I like my job, thankfully. But if I could make the same money baking, I would take it in a second."

Toxic kitchen culture predates COVID-19

The restaurant industry is riddled with problems that started long before COVID-19 was around, said Jaycee Abadeer.

Abadeer worked in the restaurant industry for about 13 years, mostly as a cook. She liked the chaotic atmosphere and how she felt when she created a meal for someone. But as a trans woman, Abadeer saw how kitchens could be unwelcoming.

"I wasn’t always out as trans working in kitchens," Abadeer said.

Former Phoenix restaurant worker Jaycee Abadeer was furloughed in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. She has since moved to Portland and become a full-time hairdresser.

While working in a restaurant near Arcadia, Abadeer saw a cook scream homophobic slurs at an openly gay server. The head chef, who was present, didn't stand up for the server or reprimand the cook, she remembered. This was one of the many instances that kept Abadeer from coming out as trans in the kitchen.

When she did come out, she felt her upward momentum stalled.

"I was being taken more seriously before," Abadeer said. "Part of it too was, people saying things they felt they could say because of how I looked. I got sick of constantly having to fight with people because of stuff like that."

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Abadeer recalled how hostile her work environment was at another restaurant inside an upscale supermarket. Management paged her about which restroom she was using and misgendered her when they wrote her up to get fired, she said.

By early 2020, Abadeer had moved from the kitchen to the front of house, working as a server at another restaurant in Phoenix. Abadeer had just graduated from cosmetology school and was planning to work part time in a salon and part time at the restaurant.

Her restaurant's closure in March 2020 left her unemployed, and the downtime prompted her to reevaluate where she wanted to spend her time.

Even when restaurants were allowed to reopen for dine-in services, Abadeer found salons to be a more hospitable and respectful environment. She started as a salon receptionist and though the pay was lower, she ultimately felt more satisfied with the support and mentoring from her co-workers and boss.

"People spend all their time at work," Abadeer said. "Why do they want to go back to an industry that keeps punishing their body for little benefit?"

Abadeer has since moved to Portland, where she now works as a hairdresser.

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'I always worked. I never said no'

Renée Harper remembered nights before the pandemic when she'd work past 2 a.m. at her downtown Phoenix bar and come home too wired to sleep. When she did drift off, it seemed all too soon that she was being woken up by the sounds of her children getting ready for the day.

She doesn't hold ill feelings toward the industry and still has a good relationship with her former boss. But that lifestyle no longer serves her or her family, she said.

"You don't know what you’re missing until you have something to compare it to," Harper said.

Renée Harper is a former bartender. She stopped working full time in the industry during the coronavirus pandemic and now works at a mortgage lender with better pay and fewer hours.

In the fall of 2020, Harper returned to work at a different bar. It was her first dip back into the industry after being mostly unemployed since March 2020.

It was worse than she'd expected. Enforcing mask mandates led to disgruntled customers who tipped poorly. Someone threw a pen at her and another customer threw a balled-up receipt in her face, she said.

She left the job at the end of December and decided to take an online course to become a mortgage loan officer, which her brother had done. 

She now makes more money to support her children while working fewer back-breaking hours, she said.

"I always worked. I never said no," Harper said. "I think there's an expiration for those kinds of positions. You can’t do that forever. No one can. Not everybody has to work that hard and so many hours to support themselves."

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How can the restaurant industry win back staff?

Labor shortages have impacted those who remain in the industry, with restaurants reducing hours because they lack the staff, or even closing briefly to allow overworked employees to take a break.

“There were a couple of times today where I just wanted to cry because I was just so overwhelmed with stress, with how my day was going and everything that I had to do,” said Victoria Stahl, a Starbucks barista at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, in June.

Stahl told consumer travel reporter Melissa Yeager what it was like to be short-staffed and facing what seemed like a never-ending line of impatient customers, who “get very irritated and angry.”

On Sept. 15, restaurant workers for HMS Host, one of the two companies that manage restaurants at Sky Harbor, walked off the job to protest the "breaking point" in understaffing, The Republic reported.

Ultimately, people want to work where they're taken care of, Abadeer said. That means restaurants feeding their staff so they don't go hungry while they work. That means letting people take care of their health and treating cooks like people instead of machines, she said.

On Aug. 20, Ducey announced the state was launching a $5 million Back to Work Small Business Rehiring and Retention Program, with a focus on businesses affected by wildfires and flooding. Designed to help businesses that have between five and 25 employees hire and retain workers, the program will give businesses up to $10,000 for retention efforts, such as signing bonuses and employee relocation costs.

"If the restaurant industry wants to attract workers, it needs to pay more than minimum wage and make health care a priority, because right now, most restaurants don't offer health insurance," Wolfe said. 

Harper thinks restaurants and bars would be able to retain workers better if they backed up their employees when customers "get nasty" about safety measures. Workers don't want to put themselves and their families at risk, she said.

Benefits, such as health care and access to free therapy sessions, would also make the job more attractive, she said. If that means raising menu prices, then prices have to go up. The industry as a whole has always prioritized other things over employee well-being, she said.

"It's seen as weakness to want balance," Harper said. "We're going to die one day and do we want to spend 40% of our lives working for somebody else who doesn't appreciate us, for nothing, or a wage we can't support a family on?"

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