Like many servers and bartenders around the country,
32 years old, used to love her job—until the pandemic.
She had worked in hospitality since she was 14, eventually bartending at a craft cocktail bar in Birmingham, Ala. But after being furloughed in March 2020, she took stock of the toll that the long hours and late nights had taken on her. “Why do I have arthritis? Years and years of bartending will do that to you,” she says.
In August, she took a customer-service job with Birmingham-based grocery-delivery service Shipt Inc. and says she doesn’t plan on returning to the bar business. “It feels like someone has shaken you awake,” she says of the career switch.
After Covid-19 forced restaurants, hotels and bars to shut last year, thousands of workers didn’t just get pushed to the employment sidelines. Many, like Ms. Roshitsh, moved onto new careers in digital sales, shipping, mortgage-financing and other businesses that thrived in the pandemic, in what some economists say could mark a lasting shift in the labor market for hospitality staff.
That exodus, they say, could spell labor challenges for the sector that persist well beyond September, when the enhanced federal unemployment benefits that have helped keep some low-wage workers from returning to jobs are set to expire.
To try to lure workers back, many restaurant operators and other hospitality businesses are raising wages, offering signing perks and rethinking scheduling practices to make the work more flexible and, in some cases, less grueling.
While the new job-market dynamics have left such employers scrambling to find enough workers, they are helping many longtime cooks, servers, hotel staff and other hospitality workers break into new lines of work, often with more predictable schedules and better pay and benefits than their previous jobs.
At this point in the pandemic, says
senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, many such workers have “found employment somewhere else, possibly at a higher wage.”
The share of U.S. restaurant and hotel workers leaving their jobs hit a two-decade high in May at 5.7%, according to the Labor Department. Though the latest jobs report shows restaurants and bars added 194,000 jobs in June, employment at such establishments remains down by 1.3 million jobs since the pandemic began. By contrast, employment has bounced back beyond pre-pandemic levels in many other sectors. Compared with February 2020, there are now 100,000 more warehousing and storage jobs, along with 39,000 more jobs in management and technical consulting, and 25,000 more jobs in insurance and finance.
Data from hiring sites also indicate relatively high numbers of workers pivoting away from the sector: On Jobcase, a digital job board and social network for hourly workers, searches for restaurant and food-service jobs in April were 35% lower than the same period in 2019.