As COVID-19 restrictions lift, New York City restaurants and bars are hiring again, but it hasn’t been easy to fill positions. Even after increasing wages and introducing signing bonuses, some owners are facing problems attracting enough workers. 

“There's many different pressures,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “There's not one reason. It's a combination.”

The reasons are varied and go beyond the often-cited excuse that people are clinging to weekly federal unemployment benefits of $300 that extend through September. Experts, groups representing workers, as well as restaurants and bar owners themselves, said many parents who work in the industry face limited childcare options as kids continue learning remotely during the pandemic; the number of available workers has shrunk because many New Yorkers who worked in the arts and entertainment as well as in restaurants have left the city; and, some people still fear getting sick with COVID-19.

Eric Finkelstein, co-owner of the HiHi Room in Boerum Hill, said he’d like to hire six people as he prepares for the full return to indoor dining at the end of the month. He’s raised salaries by about 10% from pre-pandemic levels, offering $21 to $23 an hour to kitchen staff, but it’s still been hard to find new employees.

“There's a lot of positions that need to be filled,” he said. “The last month or so, as we've been trying to ramp up that hiring, it's been difficult.”

Finkelstein said the majority of people who worked for him and haven’t come back have moved away to their home states. Similarly, James Mallios, co-owner of the Amali restaurant in Manhattan, said his former employees who worked in the arts haven’t returned. 

“Of our previous staff, many of whom were actors, actresses, graphic designers … they’re not in New York right now,” he said. “That whole class of employees is not here.”

After a much slower-than-expected increase in the number of jobs added last month nationwide—266,000—some business groups called for an end to the weekly federal bonus of $300, claiming it has disincentivized unemployed people from returning to work. 

The same set of job numbers for New York State and the city aren’t yet available, but in a survey conducted by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce last month, 64% of businesses said they had trouble rehiring and retaining their workforces, and 41% cited extended unemployment benefits as a reason. 

James Parrot, an economist at the New School, said that while some low-wage workers might be better off receiving unemployment benefits, most are driven by other concerns. He’s calculated that childcare capacity is down 25% from what it was before the pandemic.

“There are many factors that affect the ability or decision of a parent or a worker to return to work,” he said. “The lack of availability of childcare has got to be a big reason for a lot of people.”

Prabhu Sigamani, director or Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, a non-profit that represents restaurant workers, echoed that concern and said the workers still face numerous other issues in the workplace, such as unstable schedules, inability to socially distance in kitchens, and lack of protective equipment. If those problems are sorted out and they’re probably paid, he added, people will opt to work. 

“It is easy for many restaurants to use unemployment checks as the scapegoat for the staff shortage rather than admitting that they failed to provide the living wage,” said Sigamani. 

He also said he thinks this is the moment when restaurant workers, being in high demand, can leverage that power and permanently improve their position in the industry. 

“This can be the pathway for betterment of restaurant work conditions,” he said.

Mallios did acknowledge that after instituting an 18% service charge on customers’ bills in April (customers can still tip on top of the fee), he's been able to attract a bigger pool of job candidates, because they knew exactly how much they could earn.

“There was still a very small pool, but we were making job offers and hiring people,” he said. “Before there was no pool and there were no offers.”