Courtesy of Lamar Cornett
A wooden spoon sliding on cast iron. Barely tall enough to see over the stove, Lamar Cornett watched his mother, a cook, prepare her favorite scrambled egg dish.
This first cooking lesson launched a journey of a lifetime in food. Cornett has spent over 20 years in Kentucky restaurants, doing all the jobs except being the owner. The work is grueling and tense but rewarding and rowdy, and so quick that the end of the pandemic was like lightning on a cloudy day.
“It was almost as if there had been this unplanned and unorganized general strike,” Cornett said.
In those rare moments of calm, millions of restaurateurs like Cornett have found themselves reflecting on the realities of their work. Barely long enough to go to the bathroom or smoke a cigarette. Inhaled meals on the go. Hostile bosses, crazy hours and paltry and stagnant wages.
To top it off: rude customers, whose abuse restaurant staff are often forced to tolerate. And lately, irritated diners are only getting more impatient as they emerge from pandemic closures.
Cornett, off work for a few weeks, realized he had received enough money from unemployment benefits to start saving – for the first time. He wondered if the job he loved would ever result in a job with health insurance or paid leave.
“I was working on what I decided to be my last kitchen job,” said Cornett.
As he mulled over a new career path, an exodus began to shake his industry. Workers are quitting their jobs in restaurants, bars and hotels at the highest rate in decades. Every month so far this year, around 5% of that massive workforce has called for resigning. In May alone, it was 706,000 people.
And now ‘help wanted’ signs are everywhere, with a staggering 1.2 million unfilled jobs in the industry, just as customers walk through the doors, ready to eat, drink and finally. socialize.
“They just scream all the time”
Low wages are the most common reason people give for leaving food service. But in a recent survey, more than half of hospitality workers who quit said no pay amount would keep them coming back.
That’s because for many, leaving the restaurant business also has a lot to do with its high stress culture: exhausting work, unreliable schedules, no benefits and so many rude customers.
“I don’t ever want to do something like this again,” said Marcus Brotherns, who spent two years serving coffee and donuts at a drive-thru in Rhode Island. During the busiest hours, customers would barge inside to complain about the wrong amount of cream or sugar.
“They just scream all the time,” he said. Brotherns got a new job delivering drinks to restaurants, a tough job but quieter and better paid with more stable hours. “I’m done with fast food.”
Tensions escalated because of the pandemic, when many low-paid workers in shops and restaurants found themselves forced to carry out mask-wearing warrants, facing harassment and physical attacks.
Now, as many restaurants are understaffed and hastily train new employees, negative reviews and complaints are on the increase from impatient and oblivious diners. A Massachusetts restaurant even closed for a “Day of Kindness” after angry customers brought waiters to tears.
The average salary eventually exceeded $ 15 in MaYes
To cope with the labor shortage, many food establishments found themselves slashing their hours, operating with small teams, and hiring like crazy.
“We used to be known as a late night restaurant.… We can’t do it anymore. I don’t have the staff and the people are exhausted,” said Laurie Torres, whose Ohio restaurant now closes earlier. and remains closed. Monday. She said she paid her staff bonuses and offered $ 17 an hour for a dishwasher job, and three workers backed her anyway.
In fact, for the first time in history, the average hourly wage of non-managers in restaurants and bars exceeded $ 15 in May.
The big chains advertise higher salaries: Chipotle, Olive Garden, White Castle, even McDonald’s, which now promises an entry salary of $ 11 to $ 17 an hour. Employers pay people just to show up for interviews, add signing bonuses, and recruit younger and younger workers on TikTok.
“Every manager acted like they were rushing to hire, it was a little weird. For example, their main goal was: when can you start?” said Sterling Baumgardner, who at 17 is a minor in Ohio. He recently quit his job at Dunkin ‘Donuts and was immediately hired at a sandwich chain making about $ 12.50 an hour, $ 3 more than before.
If you can’t pay well, “then you can’t afford to be in business”
Food service jobs have been “plagued by low wages for an extraordinarily long period of time,” said Jeannette Wicks-Lim, labor economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Wages were rising before the pandemic, but then fell again, and now, she said, workers are barely making up for lost ground. Salaries can go up quickly, but not very high.
Cornett, the longtime Kentucky restaurateur, saw the wage issue grow on his local foodservice Facebook group. Any job offer for less than $ 15 an hour would result in taunts and demands for higher wages. Then the employers got on the defensive, saying they couldn’t afford big increases.
“The immediate response each time was, ‘So you can’t afford to be in business, my brother,’” said Cornett.
He was planning to hang up his apron and started looking for jobs in warehouses and factories when he received an offer he couldn’t refuse – from someone who could afford to be in business. while paying it better. He is now a chef at a new brewery in Louisville.
“This is the first time I’ve been paid a salary,” said Cornett. “This is the first time that I can count on a specific amount of money each pay period.”
That amount is $ 30,000 a year, which isn’t much, he admits. But that “changes his life” compared to his long career earning $ 22,000 or $ 23,000 a year.
It is also the first time that he has only one boss, whom he likes. And the first time – finally – that he had a job that offered health insurance.