Like many servers and bartenders around the country,

Ashley Roshitsh,

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.

Ashley Roshitsh now works from home for grocery-delivery service Shipt Inc.



Photo:

Andi Rice for The Wall Street Journal

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

Brad Hershbein,

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.

Higher compensation and other perks that came with new jobs have

Has the pandemic economy finally passed an inflection point?

In March, hiring bounced back strongly in Dallas-Fort Worth with the region adding 23,000 jobs, the biggest monthly gain since October.

It was an encouraging rebound from February, when D-FW lost over 25,000 jobs after a brutal winter storm knocked out power for days.

There’s growing optimism the pandemic’s economic roller coaster may be coming to an end as more people get vaccinated and return to restaurants and gatherings.

In March, Texas added 99,000 jobs and the U.S. added over 900,000 positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The strong job numbers — the best for the nation since last summer — prompted the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas to bump up its forecast for 2021 job growth.

By year-end, Texas is projected to add over 800,000 jobs, the Dallas Fed said. That would be a record gain, far surpassing the 417,000 jobs added statewide in 2014. D-FW historically accounts for a major chunk of the state’s new jobs, so it’s expected to make big gains, too.

“We’re growing all over the place, and industries across the board are coming back,” said Jay Denton, chief analyst at ThinkWhy, a Dallas-based software services company whose products compare top talent and salaries in the U.S.

Many expected hiring to accelerate rapidly in the second half of the year, figuring it would take a while for vaccinations to be distributed and businesses to regain confidence.

“It seems like it’s happening about three months earlier than we thought,” said Denton, who on Wednesday posted an online article under the headline: “A tidal wave of hiring begins to take shape.”

Last month, the North Texas region posted sharp increases in jobs at restaurants and bars and the category known as other services, which includes hairstyling, auto repair and laundry. The two sectors have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic, but together they added nearly 10,000 jobs in D-FW in March.

Despite the sharp increase, both job sectors remain roughly 10% below employment levels before the pandemic. Together, they had 42,000 fewer D-FW workers in March than in February 2020.

The recovery from the COVID-19 recession will likely be faster than past recessions, according to a recent report by a research analyst and two economists at the Dallas Fed. They said the Texas downturn looks much like the impact from a natural disaster and compared the trajectory of job losses during COVID to the economic fallout from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

The decline in jobs and output was much steeper than a typical recession, and a quick return to growth followed a couple of months later, they wrote. But full recovery can take a year or more.

“Some structural changes that the pandemic wrought will take longer to resolve,” they wrote.

In Dallas Fed surveys of Texas business executives in January, nearly half said employee headcounts remained below pre-pandemic levels. Nearly 1 in 5 of those respondents don’t expect to

“Normal” life may be returning to downtown Sarasota.

At Selva Grill, the south Main Street eatery known for its creative cocktails and romantic vibe, both indoor and outdoor tables are filling up with diners on a regular basis, manager Michael Heitzman said. The restaurant’s cozy bar, with a lounge area perfect for groups of people reuniting, is alive on the weekends. 

Selva is also back to its prepandemic employment level of about 50 people, as are some other local restaurants. Monk’s Steamer Bar in Gulf Gate, for example, is back to having 10 front-of-house workers on staff.

But even with locals and tourists flooding into restaurants, unemployment in the leisure and hospitality industry is still high. 

In February, the unemployment rate for the leisure and hospitality industry was 13.5% nationwide. Sarasota and Manatee counties lost 9,800 leisure and hospitality jobs between February 2020 and February 2021, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Leisure and hospitality had 39,300 employees in February 2021, compared to 49,100 the same month the year before.

Business owners say high unemployment in the industry isn’t because there aren’t jobs but because they can’t find anyone to hire. 

Mark Rosato is looking to add about eight new employees for Zuzu’s Cocktail Lounge, his Gulf Gate Drive lounge opening soon next door to his other bar, Moondoggy’s Saloon.

Mark Rosato is looking to add about eight new employees for Zuzu’s Cocktail Lounge, his Gulf Gate Drive lounge opening soon next door to his other bar, Moondoggy’s Saloon. 

Federal relief may discourage jobseekers

Rosato and his general manager, Debby Keehbauch, said they rely on word of mouth and sometimes Craigslist to look for employees, but they haven’t been able to find many good fits. They think it’s because of the extended unemployment benefits that were put forth in the newest COVID relief law.

The COVID relief bill extended $300 per week federal unemployment benefits through Labor Day and provided $1,400 stimulus checks to many Americans. That, on top of the $275 per week offered by the state of Florida, is enough to keep younger people who don’t have much to worry about in terms of living expenses at home instead of out in the Gulf Gate neighborhood looking for work, Rosato said. 

Restaurant roundup:What’s opening or closing in Sarasota-Manatee? 

Good news:Unemployment in Sarasota-Manatee is almost back to its pre-pandemic level

“Why would you work for the money when someone is going to give it to you for free?” he said. 

Matt Jasnich, owner of Monk’s Steamer Bar on Superior Avenue, said since May of last year, he’s gone through 20 new hires, and none of them have worked out. He has 10 workers now and wants to hire two more, but he’s not having any luck. It’s something a lot of his neighbors are also dealing with, he said. 

“Every restaurant is constantly looking for people. Every small business is hiring,” he said. “The people I tried to hire don’t care if they get a job or not.” 

On the flip side, it’s not like the unemployment benefits offered by the government right now are sustainable long-term wages, according to Jen Zak, communications director