A little over a year into the pandemic, with many restaurants opened up to capacity and about a third of the state fully vaccinated against COVID-19, “help wanted” signs in restaurant windows are replacing the “curbside only” and “mask required” notices that became customary over the last year. Help wanted signs are posted in windows all over the country; some have gone viral by stating the sweeping assertion that “no one wants to work anymore.”
And while that narrative seems tidy, it doesn’t account for people who were forced to find other jobs during the pandemic, or had no choice but to stay home to care for their children, or were cut off from unemployment months ago, or for the first time felt empowered to call it quits on an essential industry that pays low wages with no benefits. Minimum wage for tipped employees in Arkansas is $2.63 an hour. Tips can certainly add up to more than minimum wage, but in a pandemic year with limited dine-in capacity, servers who still had jobs were turning fewer tables, which typically meant less money. Many back-of-house employees, the people cooking and washing dishes, aren’t making much more than the state’s minimum wage of $11 an hour.
We’ve all seen reports about business owners needing workers, but is it really true that the workers they so desperately need are just sitting around more than a year later, still getting unemployment checks and choosing not to work? The answer, of course, is no.
Kara Bibb: Customers, Bread, Resentment
Kara Bibb worked for Boulevard Bread Co. for 14 years. When the pandemic started last March, she was managing the company’s Main Street location in SoMa. The part of the job she loved best was connecting with customers, making them feel welcome. “During the pandemic, all that joy was gone,” she said.
“The first several weeks I had one person there with me, but I was pretty much by myself that entire time. So I was having conversations with everyone — people that were there because they wanted my coffee and because they fully supported Boulevard or small businesses in general. That was easy. I feel like I’m a very transparent food service worker. There’s not a customer service voice, I’m just being myself. So in that transparency, when we were going through this — back then it felt like it was together — the customer and the front line workers as we were called, it was just open dialogue. We were talking about our fears.”
That feeling of unity started to fade when she asked customers to wear masks, and some refused.
“The first person who refused to wear a mask was one of my older customers [who] came in twice a day, every day, 30 minutes after we opened and 30 minutes before we closed. The first time he came in, he yelled at me and stormed out and said he [was] never going to wear a mask. … I cried. [I] texted my boss and said, ‘I can’t do this.’ ”
That day, Bibb put in her first of three notices, but it didn’t take.
The hard part wasn’t going through the motions of being in the service industry during the pandemic, Bibb said. It was the anticipation of customers “not wanting to wear the mask, not respecting the universal uncomfortableness that was happening. Every day I was so on edge waiting for them to come in. I’d go home and I would think about it. … I felt prepared to address it, but it didn’t make it easier.”
But Bibb wanted to work. And she knew that she wasn’t alone in the anxiety she was feeling. She started seeing a therapist over Zoom and was put on medication for anxiety, which “86’d [restaurant lingo for being out of something] the anxiety but also any motivation to do anything outside of just being still and not being stressed,” she said. “Talk therapy was great but it didn’t help; my therapist [wasn’t] with me at work.”
Bibb said her breaking point was when dine-in service started up again.
“It’s so crazy that I broke, because I was so lucky,” she said. “My employer was 100% making choices for the [benefit of] the employees. They were making good choices for the customers too, but it was to benefit us first.”
Like some other restaurant workers we spoke to during the reopenings, Bibb questioned why people wanted to dine in at all and began to resent those who did.
“We have an entire system created that really could be contactless except for me handing it to you through your window. Even customers I loved, I just [thought], ‘Why are you in here?’ ”
Before the pandemic, Bibb supplemented her income by hosting trivia and running an Airbnb out of the bottom floor level of her home. She was unable to do either once the pandemic began. Her hours at Boulevard were cut. She put in her notice more than two months before her last day at Boulevard on Feb. 26, incidentally the same day the governor lifted the capacity directives on restaurants. “I was so relieved for myself, but mostly I was worried about my fellow service industry workers,” Bibb said.
Bibb did not apply for unemployment benefits. She’s back to running the Airbnb out of her home and studying for a real estate license in property management. She doesn’t plan to work in a restaurant again, though one day she could see herself operating a food truck or running a bed and breakfast.
Bibb said she was drawn to Boulevard, in part, because of her love for food, baking and technique. “One thing that happened in the pandemic and since I’ve been unemployed is I realized I can create culinary experiences any time I want. … I don’t have to work in a restaurant to do that,” she said.
When asked about the narrative that no one wants to work anymore, Bibb started out with a simple one word answer: “Bullshit … Didn’t we show up to all of our shifts beforehand hungover, no sleep, or you weren’t even supposed to work but somehow you got talked into working. … The idea that food service people don’t want to work, that’s stupid,” she said.
Cody Mayfield: Cook turned craftsman
Cody Mayfield worked in restaurant kitchens for 13 years and spent the last three as a sous chef at South on Main in SoMa.
“I wouldn’t say I liked it,” he said. “It was just kind of what I did, you know. You make the best of it. Before the pandemic, you didn’t really see an out.”
Mayfield said being laid off in mid-March opened a whole new window of opportunities.
“I had the time to think, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’ and then also, ‘If everything can just get shut down like this, what kind of job security is that?’ I liked having the free time at home to be able to just refocus my life … and just kind of expand on what else I could do outside of the kitchen.”
Mayfield drew unemployment and said the extra federal benefits were significant.
“Not having to worry about money so much was a big thing, especially restaurant people, most of us [are] living paycheck to paycheck, so having that little cushion was definitely a game changer.”
South on Main reopened in June 2020 during the Phase 2 reopening of the economy, which allowed restaurants to open at 66% capacity. When Mayfield returned to South on Main, he said the job wasn’t the same. The restaurant was understaffed, he worked long hours and “we were just begging for people to come in the door every day,” he said.
Mayfield left South on Main in October. He recently purchased a wood lathe and has been making wooden bowls. “Hoping to have a venue to sell those in the future,” he said. He and his artist girlfriend own a camper van and have been touring the country with the Oddities & Curiosities Expo, a traveling market of weird crafts and collectibles.
Mayfield said he doesn’t see himself returning to the restaurant industry, and he understands why people would be avoiding it right now.
“I completely understand why no one wants to go back and deal with nobody showing up and people not wanting to work and just having to pick up extra shifts, I get it. And then customers coming in and bitching about this and that … I hope through all this the customers can get the takeaway [to] respect the people that do this for you. They were here this whole time working while you were sitting at home watching Netflix for two months, you know, ordering your shit on Grubhub. People were still having to come in and deal with all these shortcomings and staff shortages and still put out what you want.”
Daniel Bryant: restaurateur for the people
Daniel Bryant owns several restaurants in Central Arkansas including Gus’s Fried Chicken, Big Whiskey’s, Hillcrest Artisan Meats and Hill Station. In June 2021, HAM closed for a week to move the staff over to Hill Station, which has been understaffed for months, Bryant said.
The last full staff meeting at Hill Station was on April 9, and Bryant and management decided they would staff up to be open for Monday nights and Thursday lunches. Two months later and they haven’t been able to hit that goal. Bryant said 75% of his recent hires are in high school.
“It’s just young people everywhere, and you know what, they’re killing it. … All these people have to go back to school in the fall. But you know what, we’ll worry about that in the fall.”
Bryant said kitchen positions are tougher to fill right now.
“I think people are tipping well, and the front of the house people are making good money. The back of the house has not quite caught up with the new inflationary market … You’re competing with unemployment insurance, and I’m not going to argue with that; I do think that’s a component,” he said.
Some restaurant owners advertised bonuses for new hires. Bryant said he started offering higher wages to back of house employees.
“I think that the disparity between the back of the house and the front of the house needs to be closed, and that’s not a new position,” he said.
Bryant mentioned well-known restaurateur Danny Meyer, who eliminated tips from his New York restaurants in 2015. He reversed his position in the summer of 2020 when his restaurants opened for outdoor dining, though he said in an interview with The New York Times that he still believes tipping leads to inequitable pay and wage instability.
Trying to figure out how to close the gap is a struggle, Bryant said.
“Restaurants just can’t necessarily afford to pay everyone $15 to $20 an hour, so that’s a challenge,” he said. “But I do believe that, overall, [kitchen workers] are underpaid, and this is causing people to revisit back-of-house pay. It’s a hard job, and people need to make more money. I think that’s a good thing that’s going to come out of this for those people.”
Bryant said now that people are getting vaccinated he hopes they return to work if they can.
“But I also believe that it’s time for people on my side of things, employers, to pay people fairly, and if this causes us to kind of wake up and pinch pennies in other areas and get that money to employees, I’m OK with that,” he said.
“Dave”: drink-slinging dad
Dave, a longtime Little Rock bartender who asked that we use a pseudonym for fear that his candor would hurt his career, said he was initially unsure if he wanted to seek unemployment when his bar closed down in March 2020.
“Honestly, I wasn’t sure how long this would last,” he said.
Dave waited about a month before he applied and received back pay from the work days he missed. In addition to the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits, he received the state’s minimum unemployment of $81 a week.
“Before tax,” he said. “Really it was just $73. So even with the extra $600, I was making only about what I used to make a week.”
Staying home was beneficial for Dave because child care centers were closed and he and his partner have a 2-year-old.
When the federal pandemic unemployment compensation dropped from $600 weekly to $300 in August, Dave was no longer eligible.
“I didn’t pursue that anyway,” he said. “I knew I could make a little more by getting a job.”
With his son back in day care, he took a job at a pizza place as a stopgap. “First-ever restaurant job,” he said.
Dave’s 2-year-old contracted COVID-19 in October, likely from his day care. Dave’s partner was able to work from home and quarantine with their son, who thankfully never showed any symptoms. But Dave needed to work, so he wore a mask at home, slept upstairs and “had five or six tests in one week from different places around town,” he said.
Dave is leaving the restaurant to go back to his old bartending job soon. He doesn’t agree that his peers in the industry don’t want to work.
“Obviously, in this industry, folks had no idea when it would be back and running, so people moved on, looked for a different field, went back to school … Also customers (even as early as the start of this year) weren’t going to restaurants because they didn’t feel comfortable yet. These places, though I know they’re struggling, have to pay employees better. It’s not fair for cooks busting their asses for $11-$12 an hour or servers making $2 and praying for tips.”
Jasmine Domingue: former server, sold on sales
Jasmine Domingue received unemployment benefits after Maddie’s Place closed in March of last year.
Domingue couldn’t remember exactly what she received from the state, “either $112 or $120” per week, in addition to the $600 federal unemployment assistance.
At the end of May 2020, Domingue’s father, who lived in Louisiana, died unexpectedly, so she and her boyfriend packed up and moved to Louisiana to be closer to family.
In late June or early July, she received a letter saying that her unemployment had run out and that she was unable to apply again until March of 2021.
“I had just moved to Louisiana, and I was really happy that I hadn’t spent any of it. With the $600 a week, I’d saved about seven grand. So I lived off that for like a month, and then I started painting houses,” she said.
Domingue’s now working in sales and said she doesn’t see herself back in the service industry, especially not in this current version of it.
“Everyone is so short-handed, and everywhere I go, everything is so fucked up and doesn’t look like a place that I want to be, you know. Especially with COVID, and I don’t believe that it’s over … not necessarily even COVID but something else, you know? It just doesn’t seem like a reliable source of income at this point.”