- The pandemic has been tough for people working in restaurant and fast-food chains.
- Insider talked to three workers who left or took a break from the industry during the pandemic.
- The industry needs better pay and more respect if it wants to attract new workers, they said.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Cristian Cardona was a shift manager at a corporate-owned McDonald’s in Orlando, Florida, until he left the fast-food chain a few months ago.
He was one of 722,000 restaurant and hotel workers who quit in June, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest quit level for these workers during the pandemic and the second-highest level since December 2000, the first month the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey series was tracked. Openings in the industry continue to increase and were over 1.4 million in June, according to the bureau.
“I believe workers are sick and tired of being underpaid, overworked, underappreciated by these companies, not being protected, having to risk their lives,” Cardona told Insider.
He and two other former food-service workers told Insider why they quit and what needed to change for them to come back.
Management and customers need to treat their employees better
The food-service employees we talked to all said that customers didn’t always treat them with respect, even though they put their health at risk during the pandemic.
“Especially now, no one goes to Starbucks to sit for an hour to relax,” said a former Starbucks barista to whom we granted anonymity and whose employment has been verified by Insider. “People go to Starbucks to get in and get out. So everyone has this frenetic energy when they come in, and they are extremely rude and demanding.”
He recalled one customer who called him “stupid” and “lazy.” He said she wanted a decaf Americano and didn’t tell him that she wanted steamed nonfat milk and stevia in it.
“She didn’t tell me all the things that she wanted, and then she literally expected me to read her mind. Like, that was her expectation. And when I didn’t, that’s when she berated me and belittled me,” he said.
“She will never remember to this day that interaction, but I’ll always remember that interaction and how little she made me feel,” he added.
Cardona similarly said customers weren’t always the friendliest.
“I noticed that customers were starting to act almost like they we’re taking stuff out on us,” he said. “They would get upset, angry. Sometimes, they would get violent, yell stuff at us, and it made it a hostile environment for us a lot of times.”
David Goldberg, who was an executive chef and general manager of 169 Bar in New York, said customers should treat restaurant and hospitality workers with respect. He left in November.
“I just felt like I’m anxious. I’m kind of stressed – I’m dealing with customers that don’t want to wear masks. I’m just kind of over it, and I’m just going to take a break,” Goldberg said.
He recalled one incident when the bar had only outdoor dining. One customer was told she couldn’t come in to use the bathroom without a mask but came in anyway.
When she left the bathroom, Goldberg came out of his office to talk to her.
“I said, ‘Listen you cannot come back. You got to leave. You’re endangering other patrons. You’re endangering the staff. You got to leave,'” he said. “What does she do? She calls her boyfriend, husband, and he comes down, threatening me with a fight. This is what people in the restaurant industry are dealing with.”
The former Starbucks barista said he had worked different restaurant positions but working at Starbucks was the worst and most demanding. He left without a new job to fall back on but now works in a different industry.
“Every day that I went to work, there was this significant dread that I would have because it’s nonstop,” he said.
“You are not just doing one job – you are doing probably four jobs, the labor of four people,” he added, giving the example of balancing working at the register and making drinks.
“They have to staff better, and they actually have to support their staff,” he said.
Insider’s Mary Meisenzahl reported Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said the company’s “retention numbers are good,” but some workers she talked to said there was high turnover.
The industry needs higher wages
Cardona, who’s also a member of the Fight for $US15 ($AU20) and a union, started at McDonald’s in 2017, working his way up to manager. He made about $US11 ($AU15) an hour, rising to $US13 ($AU17) right before he left in June.
He said his pay didn’t reflect all the work and hours he was putting in as a manager. He now works at Universal Studios, which bumped up its starting pay to $US15 ($AU20) on June 27.
“After a long search, I was able to find a job that gave me $US15 ($AU20), which made me happy because it made it easier to survive. Going from $US11 ($AU15) to $US13 ($AU17) and then $US15 ($AU20) is a big jump,” Cardona said.
While many people are quitting the industry, Cardona said he thought some might not be able to leave their jobs “because they’re in a trap where they are making starvation wages and they can’t afford to move or get transportation to a better job.”
McDonald’s recently increased its minimum pay to $US11 ($AU15) to $US17 ($AU23) an hour for entry-level workers and $US15 ($AU20) to $US20 ($AU27) an hour for shift managers, depending on location. Insider’s Kate Taylor reported that McDonald’s expected average hourly wages of company-owned restaurants to be $US15 ($AU20) by 2024. CEO Chris Kempczinski said after the company’s announcement, “We’re getting close to full staffing levels.”
Goldberg agreed with Cardona that there needed to be a federal minimum wage of $US15 ($AU20).
“People need to be paid what they’re worth, and it’s just not like that in the restaurant industry,” Goldberg said. He added that unemployment benefits weren’t keeping Americans from looking for work right now.
Cardona agreed. It’s not that people receiving unemployed benefits instead of working are “lazy” and don’t want to work, he said. Rather, it’s because “companies aren’t paying their workers enough,” he added.
In Florida, where Cardona worked, a minimum-wage worker would not be able to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment. A full-time worker would need to make $US24.82 ($AU33) an hour to afford a two-bedroom and without spending more than 30% of their income, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
It seems that the food-service industry is taking note and raising wages. In May, average earnings for nonsupervisory workers in restaurants crossed $US15 ($AU20). As the following chart shows, average earnings in full-service restaurants is over $US17 ($AU23) and just above $US13 ($AU17) for limited-service restaurants, such as fast-food places.
Goldberg said management in the industry needed to "make the job more appealing and more attractive, more rewarding, more growth, and you'll be very surprised about how easy it is to staff."
He is returning to the industry that he has been a part of for roughly 14 years with a plan to open up his own rooftop bar. He said he was hoping to be the owner that the industry really needs right now.
Have you left the food-service industry or are a business that is struggling to hire workers? Email this reporter at [email protected].