Getting Restaurant Employees to Come Back to Work

Picture inside a Restaurant

By: Jeff Tadashi

Hawaii restaurant managers are reporting difficulties convincing employees to return to work.  The continuing tough and unpredictable times have not yet allowed restaurants to compete with unemployment benefits yet.  Restaurants are happy more folks are dining in, but right now it is simply hard for them to keep up with demand.  Existing restaurant staff are currently working a lot of hours and a lot of days.  Even with the 67,000 folks in Hawaii still unemployed, it is proving difficult to find restaurant workers, but there is some good news.  The latest surveys from the Census Bureau show that Hawaii restaurants are actually hiring at a pace a bit above the United States average   This above average hiring rate is consistent with the expansion of tourism that Hawaii is seeing.  

Retailers are not quite seeing the same level of difficulty as are the restaurants.  According to the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, retail businesses are getting an influx of resumes.  Compared with restaurants, Hawaiian retailers have a wider selection of people to choose from right now. 

Aside from restaurants not being able to compete with unemployment benefits, there are other factors that could be contributing to the issue.  During the peak of the Coronavirus, restaurants were not deemed essential businesses while many retailers were.  Retail employment thus appears more stable than does food and hospitality employment.  Because of the pandemic, the restaurant business model may be forever transformed from one with a dining in emphasis to more of a dining out model.  Customers may never again be comfortable dining inside in enclosed spaces.  

Outdoor dining may fare better.  Restaurants may indeed continue to rely more on a take-out and delivery services than dining in services.  This reliance reduces the overhead needed out front as take-out requires less hosts, no bus service, and no sculleries.  You can potentially the same or even more amount of business while having less employees.  A quick glance online shows not shortage of Door Dash and Uber Eats advertisements.  

There are also lingering challenges with child care and safety concerns.  Though schools in the Hawaii have opened back up for the most part, after school care programs have not.  Workers must stay at home to care for their kids when ordinarily they would otherwise have childcare and be working during prime dining-in hours.   Restaurant workers are also typically younger.  In the United States, the average restaurant worker age is 31.7 years old.   Oahu, where 72 percent Hawaii’s population and the vast majority of tourism takes place, currently remains in Phase 1c vaccination protocols where only people ages 60 and older can currently be vaccinated.  

There are exceptions to the age restrictions; however, people having by-exception health issues that allow them to get vaccinated now are typically not going to be restaurant workers.  Individuals ages 50 to 59 on Oahu become eligible for vaccination on April 12 with vaccination access expanding on April 19 to all Oahu residents age 16 and over.   State health officials say there will likely still be waits for appointments until supply meets the expanded demand in the state.  Hawaii restaurant managers will likely experience less difficulty finding restaurant workers after some level of herd immunity is achieved in the 16 to 50-year-old Hawaiian population. 

Finally, there are simply fewer workers available in Hawaii to work in the restaurants.  Hawaii saw a drop of 16,000 people from its labor force since even before the pandemic.  Younger workers just starting out find greater difficulty to afford living in Hawaii without working 2-3 full time jobs and not living with 2-3 roommates.  Restaurant workers annual salaries average around $22,500.  The cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment on Oahu is just under $2,000 per month.  The annual required salary required to live on Oahu is around $75,000.  The annual required salary and cost of living in Honolulu and Waikiki where the majority of tourism takes place is even higher.  

Younger workers are not taking the risks of exposing themselves or others to Coronavirus by public transportation commuting to Honolulu.  The Hawaii birth rate is also declining and people of the ages who would normally work in the restaurant industry are simply not moving to the islands because they cannot afford to live here.  Although in quantities well below that needed to prevent the state’s population decline, people are still moving here.  The migrants to the state however are on average older and more affluential than the average restaurant worker.  Over time even without the pandemic, Hawaii would have experienced a naturally occurring difficulty in filling restaurant worker quotas.  The pandemic has merely displaced that difficulty from the future to the present.