Why many laid-off restaurant workers don’t want to go back

OPINION: Talent drain was a problem even before the pandemic. If restaurants want to reverse it, they’ll have to become better places to work
By Corey Mintz - Published on Apr 12, 2021
In 2020, Ontario lost 355,000 jobs, nearly a third of them in accommodation and food services. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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In March 2020, when Ontario began its year of rolling shutdowns and reopenings, Santhir Moodley had just returned from Japan and was only two weeks into a new job cooking at Shorty’s Pizza, in Hamilton. The head chef, who had severe asthma, quickly decided to leave the kitchen, and eight of the 13 staff soon followed. Demand for pizza and for the prepandemic comfort of restaurants, though, remained strong.

“It kind of gives people some sense of normalcy,” Moodley told me last year. “When people come to pick up their pizzas, you can see how worried they are. But as soon as they have it in their hands, you can tell how happy they are.”

Like a lot of restaurants, the business closed the dining room and transitioned to takeout and delivery sales. To limit the number of people in the kitchen, operating hours were cut in half. It accepted fewer orders, shutting off the third-party delivery apps during peak periods. At the time, he’d been worried about his co-workers and whether they were following protocol by isolating, Moodley said — but in the end, he had to give people the benefit of the doubt: “I know it’s a bit of a risk going in. But it gives me a sense of purpose. I don’t know if I could handle just sitting at home and watching the days go by. On my days off, the weight of all this stuff gets to me. The stress and uncertainty. Going to work gives me a sense of normalcy.”

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While Moodley’s story is not unique, it also doesn’t sum up the experience of many restaurant workers over the past year. Most restaurateurs I’ve spoken with began the pandemic by laying off entire workforces; those whose businesses remained open often went on to rehire as many as a quarter of their former employees. So what happened to the others?

In 2020, Ontario lost 355,000 jobs. Peterborough was the hardest hit, with 13.5 per cent of total jobs lost, followed by Windsor, with 10.9 percent. Of all the jobs that went away, nearly a third were in accommodation and food services.

What I’ve heard, anecdotally, suggests a splintering: some stayed home with the aid of the CERB and then transitioned back to employment benefits; some found other jobs in retail, warehouses, delivery, or sales; many decided that this was the time to get out of the precarious restaurant industry altogether and pursue other careers, certifications, or education.

“What’s really important is there is no data,” says Kaitlin Doucette, co-founder of the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition, an advocacy group that grew out of a worker relief fund and the Full Plate, another hospitality non-profit, in March 2020. “Restaurant workers are a group that generates massive amounts to the GDP. We hear about the devastation in restaurants, yet we don’t have any targeted outreach or data services to better understand the needs of that group.”

The CRWC is currently lobbying for paid sick days for restaurant workers. For many of these workers, the past year has just been the final straw in a career that too often required them to accept a lot of injustices — the pay disparity between cooks and servers, a tipping culture that reinforces gender and racial discrimination, the lack of overtime pay, a hierarchy that reinforces abusive behaviour. Doucette is one those planning to transition to another field.

“In corroboration with the pandemic bringing to light fragilities that were already there,” she says, “it’s understandable that workers would feel this is a breaking point.”

We also don’t know which restaurants have provided safe working environments for staff. Last summer, I spoke with someone who’d quit his job at a popular Toronto restaurant that, he said, had failed to maintain safety measures in the busy kitchen. I wasn’t able to get enough people on the record to publish, but I wasn’t surprised when, soon after, the owner outed himself as an anti-mask conspiracy buff eager to break the law. How many more kitchens are there like that, where staff are afraid to complain or advocate for their safety?

Here’s the counter-intuitive part of all this — despite the mass job loss, don’t expect all restaurant workers to return. Every industry professional I speak with tells me that those who are now hiring are having a harder time than ever finding applicants. The pressures of this year have pushed too many out of the industry. Some, seeing the lack of foresight in government decisions, like the recent sudden resumption of patio service, followed quickly by its suspension again, question if there will be any industry to return to. Whether it’s that they don’t feel safe, can’t accept the continued precarity and inequality, or are traumatized by the stop and go of Ontario’s shutdowns — and the sometimes dangerous customer behaviour that has accompanied all this — many will decide not to return to their restaurant jobs.

Restaurants will need to continue adapting to public-health and economic factors. One owner told me he expects a shift toward smaller staffs and more technology — using phones to order off the menu and to pay the bill, for example. However, if restaurants want to reverse the talent drain that was already a problem before the pandemic, they’ll have to become better places to work.

Shorty’s Pizza has seen sales grow steadily over the past year, along with the capacity to safely service them. Because the owners also operate three adjacent properties, the business has been able to set up a satellite kitchen a couple of doors down. This enables them to funnel all delivery orders through one location and all pick-up through another, an extra precaution that separates couriers from diners picking up orders. Despite the increase in business, Moodley, who is now the assistant general manager, sees the pool of job candidates getting smaller.

“It’s been tough,” says Moodley. “A lot of people have had time to reflect and think about whether this is the industry is for them. Can they excuse the negative things intertwined in the industry? A lot have decided it’s not worth it.”

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