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“We’re operating on a knife’s edge,” says Edward, a restaurant manager struggling to double the number of staff at his D.C. restaurant. (He asked to remain anonymous to protect his job; Edward is a pseudonym.) One night earlier this summer, he was pitching in at the host desk when he had to turn a customer away.

“I don’t have anything right now, I’m fully committed,” he said. “Don’t treat me like a fucking idiot,” she responded. “I can look behind you right now and see four open tables. You can seat me there.” Edward took a breath. “I had to explain, politely, that I didn’t have a server to wait on her,” he says. “She can sit there but no one can take care of her or she’ll get garbage service.”

Regardless of whether they have Michelin stars or humble hole-in-the-wall ambitions, restaurants and bars are having trouble hiring the professionals they need to provide the experiences District diners expect. City Paper explored the reasons behind the staffing crisis in April and learned that it’s less of a labor shortage and more of a labor movement, with workers demanding better pay, benefits, and work-life balance.

A longtime D.C. server who spoke on the condition of anonymity is studying for his associate degree in business management. “I’m going to see if that will get me out of the industry,” he says. “There are no holidays, no weekends, no nights, no dinners with family and friends. Up until two years ago, there was no paid vacation or sick days. I didn’t have health insurance until three or four years ago, but I worked in the industry for 20 years. No employee is valued. Every employee is disposable.”

Even places that can afford benefits uncommon in the industry, such as health insurance, find themselves in similar situations. Edward says his restaurant offers coverage after 30 days of employment to any full-time hourly employee. “We’re offering everybody as much as we possibly can and people just aren’t showing up.”

Gemma works as a bartender at both a hotel and a distillery in D.C. “One place guarantees $20 an hour,” she says. “They’re very good about that and taking care of staff. It’s a fun, dynamic place to work.” She’s baffled by why they are unable to hire, but has a theory that many share. “We look around and see how many of our friends have moved out of the city or into other industries. That’s the single biggest contributing factor: Those who couldn’t pay rent moved,” she says.

Edward sees two approaches that short-staffed restaurants can take. “You can throw caution to the wind, open your bar, completely seat your restaurant at 100 percent capacity, and reap a ton of rewards in the form of money but you’ll burn out your staff and give your guests crappy experiences,” he says. Or, you can “monitor your book closely, control the flow of guests coming into your restaurant, and respect your staff, your most precious commodity right now.”

He thinks half of D.C. restaurants are playing with fire by pursuing the first plan. “Some servers are raking in money left and right,” Edward says. “We’re talking about $600 to $700 a night, but they’ll burn out after a month and move on. We’ve created an atmosphere where our guys are making $300 to $400 per night, but they’re working manageable sections.”

Restaurant managers and owners are trying to recoup lost revenue while simultaneously figuring out how to professionalize their workplaces to make them more attractive.
“COVID has fundamentally broken the old norms,” Edward says. “As someone who has been in the industry for two decades, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s giving hourly employees more agency. But at the same time, we still need to be able to run a business. We’re trying to figure out business models that respect the guest experience and workers’ rights.”

In the meantime, those who have returned to work are stretched thin. While customer-facing employees can potentially earn more in tips by serving more people, those working in kitchens are doing triple duty with their fixed wages largely unchanged. Both groups report that their extra responsibilities don’t always come with appreciation or acknowledgment. City Paper spoke with 15 employees about what it’s like to be staff in a staffing crisis.

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Bartending was supposed to be Emily’s side hustle. She studied journalism in college but saw how much she could earn behind the bar working alongside friends. Lately, she had been mulling over whether it’s time to move on after seven years in the business, but then she noticed bars she’s always wanted to work at were hiring. She was on the clock when one reopened at full capacity and says “shit show” is too gentle a phrase to describe the scene.

“We went from being a bare-bones staff to being fully open in a very short amount of time and that left a lot of places woefully unprepared,” Emily says. She was hoping for a more staggered approach to reopening, but Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on May 10 that bars and restaurants could open at full capacity without social distancing restrictions a mere 11 days later. “The mayor just threw us to the wolves.”

So did her employer. Emily found herself peering out at a pulsing crowd waving their credit cards to signal they wanted drinks. As of June, her bar needed to hire two barbacks and a couple more servers per shift. “The money is great,” Emily says. “I’m able to save, which I wasn’t able to do last year.” She’s paid off some debt and parking tickets but she’s tired. “It’s nice not to live paycheck to paycheck, but at what cost?”

“The money is definitely there, but some days it’s pretty ugly to make,” echoes Kayla, another D.C. bartender. Her restaurant was looking for about 10 employees in June and were able to find a few. “On any given shift you could be doing the job of what two to three people would be doing. I’m actually cool with the average payouts versus the big payouts that are ugly to get.”

The workload is impacting employees physically, especially because days off are rare. “I feel exhausted when I come home in a way I hadn’t before,” says Brooke Tunstall, a bartender at an Arlington restaurant that needs 25 percent more food runners, busboys, and hosts. “Maybe I’m just getting older, but I come home and I’m like, ‘Jesus.’” Instead of going out for beers after work, he sinks into his sofa.

Being short-staffed impacts workers’ mental health too because they know hospitality takes a hit. When hiccups happen, Tunstall says it’s “not because of apathy or incompetence.” “We know the problems before they do and it weighs on us far more than it weighs on them,” he says. “We internalize that and take it personally. It creates a feeling within you of anxiety and physiological discomfort.”

A host who asked to remain anonymous takes the negative reviews she reads about her bar personally. “People are going to complain about bad service because there’s not enough people and they expect it to be the way it was pre-COVID and that’s just not going to happen,” she says. Since her bar needs servers and food runners, everyone does multiple jobs. “I was like, ‘You have to hire people,’” she told her employer. “I hired my own cousin.”

When restaurants are desperate and don’t have sufficient time to formally train new hires, it exacerbates service issues. “Places are so desperate to get feet on the floor, the training that’s out there is up in the air,” Kayla says. “I’ve been in this industry for 20 years. That’s not an easy thing to pass on to someone who has been in the industry for 20 days.”

Besides being acutely aware of diners’ disappointment, tension between green and veteran employees adds stress. “Everybody deserves a first job and you want to integrate some experienced people with some new people, but there’s a huge gap of experience,” Tunstall says. Newbies have asked him what goes into a gin and tonic. “Gaps are expected to be filled by experienced people,” he says. “We’re taxed.”

“We’re hiring people that are not qualified for positions, which is frustrating for people who are veterans in the industry who rely on others to make things move quickly,” Emily adds. “I taught someone to change a keg in the middle of my shift when I was four-deep at the bar. It makes things more difficult.”

The signing bonuses some restaurants use to poach employees from other places or lure new people into the industry can frustrate those who have stuck around. Some managers argue for rewarding loyalty instead. “If you offer someone $1,000 who is brand-new to just come in and you have a team that’s worked with you throughout the pandemic, that goes against a positive company culture,” says Judy Elahi, the beverage manager at Gravitas. Her Ivy City restaurant currently needs bartenders. “That breeds some sort of financial negativity for people who held you up the whole year.”

While most employees want permanent work culture improvements, the promise of a couple hundred bucks threatens retention. “We have a company on the corner that has four restaurants offering bonuses and we’re not,” Kayla says. “If there’s a bonus somewhere else, why wouldn’t I just leave and get the bonus? The money is relatively the same between one establishment to the next.”

Work environments are not. Some restaurants have shortened their hours, reduced the number of reservations they accept, or automated some aspects of service by using QR codes to make work more manageable for employees or better for diners. Albi in Navy Yard is actively looking to hire for most positions. The popular restaurant that could easily fill up every night is open Wednesdays through Sundays.

“We’ve gone from six days to five days in an effort to focus on hospitality and service,” bar manager Brad Langdon says. “If we are open for six days, burnout is a big possibility.” He’s grateful chef and owner Michael Rafidi “has the foresight to evaluate what’s important from the financial, guest, and staff standpoint.”

Langdon and most of the workers City Paper spoke with are pleading with diners for patience, especially when providing feedback. “When it comes to expectations being met and unmet, there needs to be a better way of communicating instead of immediately turning to social media,” Langdon says. “I don’t think posting something in the midst of a pandemic is a good idea. We’d much rather have a conversation face to face.”

Edward, who is demoralized by fielding complaints every hour, puts it bluntly. “When you have a complaint, hold a mirror up and complain into the mirror and look how ugly and entitled you look,” he says. “Then rephrase what you’re going to say and go that route.”

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The staffing shortage is straining kitchen workers, too. Potential hires also left seeking better pay, benefits, or hours. But while some dining room workers say they currently have extra earning potential, cooks report working 80-hour weeks with more responsibilities at the same hourly rate.

This is a new dynamic. “Six months ago, people came by all the time,” says Stephanie, an executive sous-chef at a D.C. restaurant looking to hire three kitchen employees. But restaurants weren’t hiring then and workers went looking for other jobs, especially those who couldn’t receive unemployment insurance because of their immigration status.

The turbulent year drove cooks to take steadier jobs in construction or landscaping. Jeremy Riley, a line cook at Bar Charley, blames the holiday shutdown in part. “All these people who came back were forced off again,” he says. “That didn’t help.” His kitchen is fully staffed and he’s happy, but he hears that’s an exception. Workers are aware that COVID-19 variants could cause further instability.

Staffing issues may mean menus with fewer and less complex dishes, even if that doesn’t sit well with diners. “We’re talking about shortening the menu right now to make it more streamlined,” Stephanie says, “but it’s hard when you have customers who write in reviews saying, ‘I wish you had more options.’”

Charlie, a sous-chef at a Shaw restaurant, says his kitchen has six fewer workers than it needs. Slashing the menu in half made work more manageable. It also helps that his restaurant adds a 20 percent service charge to checks. Because that money can be shared with kitchen workers, he and his kitchen colleagues can get raises. He says the restaurant plans to dismantle that system soon.

If there’s one upside to restaurants being strapped for talent, it’s rapid career advancement. One employee Charlie works with started during the pandemic as a dishwasher and is now one of their best line cooks. “I can tell that he’s really happy, that he’s really learning,” Charlie says. “We’re able to train, explain, and give more confidence to our line cooks.”

But for many, there’s too much sweat going into the dishes. “In kitchens you work hard and you come in every day and work these crazy hours,” says Jake, a sous-chef at an Alexandria restaurant. Competitive benefits, he believes, would lure workers back. “Restaurant people work so hard, you’d think they’d give them what they deserve.”

As is, it’s overwhelming that the same amount of food needs to be made with fewer people. “You come and don’t look at anything but your station until you leave,” says Gabi, a line cook, in Spanish. (She spoke using a pseudonym.) Before the pandemic, there were four cooks, a prep cook, and a dishwasher at her Mount Vernon Triangle restaurant. They’re down to two or three cooks, depending on the day. They do their own prep and take turns washing dishes. The workload scares away new hires, she says.

Cooks are also being called in on their days off more frequently. For those with kids, like Gabi, it’s especially burdensome. “It messes with their lives,” Jake says. “They do deserve a day off, but at the same time, we can’t afford to give them a day off because we don’t have the staff.”

When overworked cooks and undertrained servers clash over wrong or late orders, tensions can run high. “[Servers] come to the kitchen stressed,” Jake says. “It makes the cooks stressed.” He compares the fragility of his workplace to a game of Jenga—one wobbly move and the whole stack can topple.

While some managers work 80-hour weeks alongside their staff, other workers say bosses take advantage of them. Gabi’s managers tell her that it’s not the right time to hire because not enough people are going out. “But I can see that when the restaurant’s busy, it’s full all the way out to the patio,” she says.

Some places avoid paying kitchen employees overtime using various strategies such as misclassifying them or asking them to clock in for two distinct jobs. Gabi, for example, starts her day as a prep cook, then shifts to a line cook. “When we came back, they told us, ‘Here we don’t just have one hourly. We have a mixed hourly. If you like that, take it, if not, well …’”

As an excluded worker, or someone whose immigration status prevents them from obtaining formal aid, Gabi didn’t see staying as a choice. “I can already do the work,” she says. “There are places that are harder, more complicated, and pay worse.” Her restaurant gave her a $1/hour raise and promised another increase by August. If they don’t follow through, she might leave. Besides better wages, Gabi wants to spend time with loved ones. Whether or not the industry affords its workers work-life balance could determine if more cooks head back to kitchens.

Some excluded workers harbor resentment for their colleagues who delayed returning to work because they had the safety net of unemployment benefits. “We were here in the tough moments when you guys were getting all the money,” says an excluded worker who spoke under the condition of anonymity. She’s a host, but as an hourly worker and immigrant from Colombia, she identifies more with kitchen workers. A June study from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found excluded workers were denied more than $500 million in unemployment insurance, roughly $40,000 per worker.

“We all want to be able to pay our employees more because that would keep them,” Stephanie says. “They wouldn’t be searching for jobs in other industries. But to be able to do that, we need to raise our food prices and be able to make more money and those things need to work together.”