As Restrictions Lift, Restaurants Grapple with Labor Shortage

In more than 25 years in the Oregon restaurant industry, Claude DaCorsi has never seen anything like it.

Coronavirus restrictions are (slowly) lifting in Clackamas County and across the state, and hungry diners — eager for a return to some semblance of normalcy after the 14-month pandemic — are swarming their favorite restaurants and watering holes.

There’s just one more teensy problem: a historic labor shortage for wait staff, cooks and bartenders affecting virtually the entire hospitality industry.

“Never,” DaCorsi says simply, when asked if he has seen such a serious labor shortage in the industry before. “I have literally had people tell me they don’t wake up until 2 in the afternoon, and they don’t have to worry about anything because they’re making enough money on unemployment.”

DaCorsi owns four restaurants — a Pita Pit in downtown Portland, Pizza Schmizza Pub & Grub in Wilsonville and two Schmizza Public Houses: one in Gresham and a second in Oregon City — which just opened Friday.

He has job openings at all four.

“At this point, I could hire 10 people right now,” he says. “And I just can’t find anybody. And even when people do apply, they don’t answer the phone when you call.”

His situation in Oregon City became so desperate this week that he began offering $1,000 signing bonuses for cooks — an unusual incentive in this business — but one that has become increasingly common amid the labor shortage, even being offered by some fast-food restaurants.

That’s, perhaps, the one silver lining here is that it has created increased bargaining leverage for workers that they may not normally have had — though DaCorsi insists that those looking to sweeten their deals must still be realistic.

“Some of the wages I’ve had people asking me for are simply not feasible,” he says. “Restaurants work on such small margins. I can’t afford to pay somebody $50,000 a year to cook a hamburger.”

The pandemic and related shutdowns were devastating to the hospitality industry, which saw more than 80% of salaried workers laid off during the early downturn in 2020.

By December, more than half of those jobs had been restored, but the industry job loss rate was a still-staggering 38.7% — more than four times that reported across all sectors (9.1%).

But a lack of available jobs is no longer the problem — with virtually every restaurant, bar and many other businesses in town actively hiring.

Many employers — like DaCorsi — say they know of former or prospective employees that prefer continuing to receive unemployment benefits — which the American Rescue Plan Act sweetened with an additional $300 per week until Labor Day — than returning to the workforce.

For unemployed Oregonians, that works out to an average weekly benefit of $670 — the equivalent of nearly $17 an hour — well above the state’s minimum wage of $11.50 to $13.25, depending on region.

The problem is that the increased federal benefit is temporary — and unlikely to be renewed if current trends continue.

“My response to them has been, ‘Come September, that’s probably going to be gone — along with these jobs,'” DaCorsi says.

Other prospective employees have genuine concerns about the virus, and some have found work-from-home alternatives during the pandemic that they prefer to their old gigs.

“You look at what we do as restaurants: We are in extremely close contact with people who are maskless, so I get it,” DaCorsi admits. “But I still need people.”

Customers, some of whom have waited months to return to the restaurant scene, are not always understanding of a kitchen being short-handed — and DaCorsi doesn’t really expect them to be.

“Customers don’t really care if you’re understaffed,” he says with a laugh. “And I get that, too: They want their stuff. It’s not their fault I can’t get anybody to come into work.”

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