What industry group thinks is behind Virginia restaurant worker shortage

'Some people are more comfortable not coming back to the workforce right now and collecting unemployment'
Posted at 7:27 PM, Apr 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-26 10:17:08-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Several COVID-19 restrictions on Virginia businesses are set to relax next month, allowing owners to expand and serve more customers.

But there's a big problem. Restaurant managers can't seem to get back the workers they lost during the pandemic, and some business leaders say unemployment is partly to blame.

Juliana Harris spent her Sunday morning browsing through some of the creative Photoshop projects she's taken on over the past several months.

"This guy wanted me to make him a cat person, and I had a lot of fun doing it," she said about one piece of work where she transformed a man into a feline.

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Juliana Harris transformed man into "cat person" via Photoshop.

It's just one item on Harris' long list of pandemic side hustles.

"I did anything I could do," Harris said. "I cut grass, I worked with my parents, I sold fruits and vegetables," Harris said. "I did Door Dash, and I sell my clothes."

The 21-year-old Richmond woman was forced down unprecedented avenues just to make a dollar after COVID-19 took her restaurant job of one year away.

"They were throwing us so many tables at a time that we couldn't really catch our breath," Harris explained. "We were under so much stress, and it was kind of a nightmare."

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Juliana Harris

The former server described feeling overworked while understaffed until she eventually fell victim to COVID cuts as well.

"There were too many servers and not enough hours," she said. "I wasn't making any money, so they let me go."

Desperate to pay the bills, the VCU student turned to the Virginia Employment Commission for unemployment benefits.

When asked how those benefits compared to the tips she made serving, Harris said it was "absolutely a ton of more money."

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Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association President Eric Terry

That's one of the reasons the president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging, and Travel Association, Eric Terry, believes there's a statewide shortage of food industry employees.

"I think some people are more comfortable not coming back to the workforce right now and collecting unemployment," Terry said.

Terry went as far as to call the staffing challenges a borderline crisis.

"Restaurants are reducing their hours," he said. "Some of them are closing two days a week, because they can't get enough staff."

Terry mentioned a new report from the VEC showed the pattern getting worse.

"In the last two weeks, we've seen a significant increase in people in the accommodations and food service categories file for new unemployment benefits," Terry said. "That's a bit of a disturbing trend."

Restaurants Generic Workers

Aside from unemployment, Terry said other factors causing staffing struggles include vaccine concerns, childcare, and schooling.

He said business owners are now offering incentives to hire new workers like signing bonuses, higher wages, and flexible hours.

When asked if the minimum wage law for restaurant workers is contributing to employees not returning to the industry, Terry said servers are making more money right now because of higher check averages and better tips.

But if business owners don't see relief soon, they could suffer.

"They're not going to be able to get their revenues back up to the pre-pandemic levels, because they're going to be restricted on how many tables they can see," Terry said.

Thankfully, Harris found steady employment in an entirely different industry after receiving unemployment for just a couple months.

She said she has no plans to tie her apron back on again.

"I don't think I ever see myself going back unless I desperately need to," Harris said.

Starting in June, the VEC will require people to apply to jobs weekly in order to keep receiving benefits. Terry hopes that'll help relieve staffing shortages, but he doesn't believe the problem will completely dissolved until federal unemployment bonuses end in September.

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