Restaurants Starve, Workers Loaf

There is a small crowd of people waiting for a table outside The Classic Cafe on Broad Street in Nevada City on a recent Tuesday morning. It’s the only breakfast joint open in town. Broad Street Bistro, Nevada City South Pine Cafe, and The City Council Cafe have closed. Ike’s Quarter Cafe has limited hours. 

Despite the onslaught of hungry diners, Classic is hurting. A “Help Wanted” sign is taped in the window. The owner is stuck having to bus tables.

Lockdown malaise is lifting, and the county has administered 80,000 vaccine shots. Yet as the lights come back on, what is missing becomes that much more obvious. Restaurants are stuck in a no man’s land. They don’t have any staff.

Blame the pandemic. COVID made restaurant work risky, and government stimulus checks provided a welcome alternative. The result is that few people are applying for jobs, preferring to stay unemployed until the money runs out.

Nevada City Classic Cafe, Photo by Joseph Hudson

Gina Sidebottom, General Manager of Maria’s Mexican Restaurant in Grass Valley says that they’ve lost about a third of their staff since the beginning of the year, going from 71 employees to 49. Her mother, Owner Maria Ramos, formerly the Operations Manager, is back in the kitchen making sauces to ease the workload. 

“Some [of the missing employees] are parents who have to be home with their kids until schools are fully open,” says Sidebottom. “Some are making more money on unemployment.”

Just how much more? On March 10th, President Joe Biden passed a $1.9 trillion dollar stimulus plan, which included an extra $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits through September 4th. This, combined with state unemployment benefits, means that many former full-time restaurant workers are making close to $700 a week. Prior to taxes, a full-time minimum wage restaurant worker in California makes $560 a week. 

“I understand why you would stay on unemployment, rather than work in the service industry,” says Theresa Thomas, owner of beer and wine bar, The Pour House in downtown Grass Valley. She has multiple kitchen positions open, offering full time work at $14 an hour plus tips. No one’s answering. And Thomas can only pay so much.

“People have bills and rent to pay and they are getting a good amount of money to stay home,” she says. “After all the state mandates and shutdowns last year, I think a lot of people gave up trying to work in bars or restaurants, they were sick of getting the rug pulled out from them.”

Up the street, Lydia Thomas, General Manager of the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley, has been working housekeeping shifts herself until the positions are filled. She works every day, replacing soaps and making beds, working the front-desk, and even training new staff in the kitchen. 

“When we first opened up last year, we used to post a job and get twenty-plus applications immediately,” says Thomas. “Now it’s one or two. We’re hiring people with no experience, training them quickly, and throwing them into it. Everybody who works here is being cross-trained in other positions.”

Restaurants across the country are finding themselves in these same positions. State employment data shows that the Nevada County Leisure and Hospitality industry lost a thousand jobs between February 2021 and April 2021. This is compared with other local industries which are rebounding. A recent report from the National Restaurant Coalition, found that staffing levels for full- service restaurants are 20 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels, with 1.1 millions jobs needing to be filled. 

Of those jobs, many are entry level positions: dishwashers, bussers, line cooks and hosts — some of the lowest paid jobs in the country. Locally, cooks are the hardest position to fill. They don’t get tips, and they can make more money in Sacramento where restaurants are busier and bigger.

A block away, Gary’s Place owner Kimi Spinella says that she’s interviewed five applicants to fill a cooking position for their recently opened kitchen, and none of them showed up for their first shift. 

“I don’t know if it’s because they need to have a certain amount of weekly applications turned in to receive benefits, or if they are getting higher offers from other places,” says Spinella. “We have just enough people here to keep going but that’s it. We operate on a very tight margin.”

Who is collecting?

More free time and more money? An opportunity to earn cash on the side? For many, it’s a no-brainer. 

David (not his real name), who has worked as a server in Grass Valley restaurants for over ten years, has an immunocompromised family member that has made him wary about returning to work in the restaurant industry. Relying on unemployment benefits, he’s also attending college online, pursuing a career in computer programming. With benefits extended through September, he’s taking a full-load of summer classes to finish his degree as quickly as possible. 

“Some people can work and go to school full time,” he says. “But that’s not me. I’m doing what I can in this circumstance to try and better myself.”

Some in the community see the current hiring crisis as an indication that entry level positions need higher wages. A recent meme posted on local Facebook group, “Nevada County Peeps”, stirred up both sides.

The Facebook meme that caused a stir

“You are the master of your own destiny,” one user posted in response. “Get some skills that are in demand and the minimum wage will never matter. Or you can sit around and feel sorry for yourself all your life.”

Another user responded, “I guess boohoo to everyone that is working at fast food, grocery stores, coffee shops, etc. but I mean why should they get paid a living wage?!”

Over a dozen responses were posted before the comment thread was shut down. 

“I’m turning off comments because honestly everyone saying get training/go to school/those jobs are for high schoolers, frankly completely miss [SIC] the point that jobs should pay more than unemployment benefits!” wrote the original poster.

But restaurant owners ask: Why are unemployment benefits paying out so much, especially as the risk of COVID subsides? With almost 80 percent of the county having received at least one vaccine shot, restaurants and bars are left with few staff, unanswered questions, and anxiety as busy season kicks in.

“All I can say is, I don’t know what to expect this year,” says Kimi Spinella. “I just hope we can figure it out and make it through.”

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