Jose Gonzalez lost his job as bar manager at Midnight Rambler inside The Joule hotel last year, making him one of many casualties of Headington Companies’ mass layoffs after the onset of the pandemic. Gonzalez credits unemployment for allowing him to “hopefully wait for my job to come back at Rambler.” Time passed and the call never came. (Midnight Rambler reopened on March 26, nearly a year after closing.) Now a year later, others are currently in the position Gonzalez was before he found work with a spirits distribution company. They will soon have less flexibility than he had.
Next month, Texas workers will no longer be eligible for the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefit, which had provided an additional $300 per week. On May 18, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texas would be opting out of the program. Some have lauded the decision. The Texas Restaurant Association, with nearly 40 other business groups, urged the governor to make such a decision in a letter “because of the critical labor shortage in Texas.” The TRA acknowledges it’s not a silver bullet.
However, removing the extra weekly allowance that had kept so many economically challenged folks afloat during the pandemic is not likely to Pied Piper workers back into dining rooms or kitchens or behind bar tops. The food sector was the hardest hit industry—one that was slow to rehire initially—and will likely have the hardest time recovering fully.
As dire as some say it is, employment has begun to rebound. About 13.8 million people were employed in leisure and hospitality jobs this March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up from 8.7 million last April after mass layoffs took place. That’s not nothing. Still, the latest jobs report from the BLS notes that while the leisure and hospitality sector has “added 5.4 million jobs over the year, employment in the industry is down by 2.8 million, or 16.8 percent, since February 2020.”
The question, for some, is less about job availability but job quality—including pay. “The job hunt was a rollercoaster experience,” says Sarah Ranola, chef and co-founder of the local Hella Lumpia and Bahay pop-ups. “I recall coming across ads for line cooks starting at $9 per hour or baristas for $8 plus tips and would just start crying. I had a whole year to think about what was important to me when I did go back to work and what was important to me was being compensated what I’m worth. I have two degrees and 10 years in the industry. I like to think I built enough of a backbone to accept nothing less.”
“The narrative of industry people being ‘lazy’ is hurtful. Industry people know how to grind.”
According to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area had the third-highest employment level for waiters who made an hourly mean wage of $9.50 (in Texas it’s about $10 to $11, while nationally the mean wage is estimated at about $13).
Today, some hiring practices have reflected the current reality; just look to local wanted ads online that offer $200 sign-on bonuses and other one-time benefits. “You weren’t seeing a lot of that during the pandemic,” says Gonzalez, “you were seeing less pay actually, with more hours and more responsibility, like having to tell patrons to wear their masks…dealing with more and more complaints and things like that.”
The possibility of confronting customers further informed Gonzalez’s decision to step away from bartending. “I’ve got other bartender friends have to deal with customers that are so angry for the most, like, easiest things,” he says. While this isn’t representative of all experiences, it’s not an uncommon occurrence either.
Benj Pocta, another Headington employee who was laid off last year, didn’t rush back to the industry either. “I’ve kind of taken my time to think about the prospect of what a return to the industry would look like,” he hold me back in April. “I keep in touch with everybody I worked with and a lot of friends in the industry. I’ve seen several go back and, subsequently, leave from it.”
Now that business is in an upswing, every bar and restaurant is hiring at the same time, according to the New York Times. There are more job openings than available workers, and those who are job hunting get to be more selective. For one chef, who wishes to remain anonymous, money wasn’t the tippy-top consideration as they hunted for jobs: “The biggest thing for me was structure and stability. Next, was salary, plus the support and freedom to be a chef and not have to follow a bunch of corporate recipes.”
“For me, it took me the whole year to start looking for work again,” says Ranola. “Going from hustling 12-hour days seven days a week to doing absolutely nothing was an uncomfortable adjustment.” But when she became fully vaccinated, she was eager to get back out there. “The narrative of industry people being ‘lazy’ is hurtful. Industry people know how to grind,” she says.
“I am really glad to see a lot of people starting to speak up a little bit more about how we can change…how we can make this industry better.”
A lot of the last year unearthed the toxicity of many of these workplaces. It’s an industry grappling with its soul and addressing what is sustainable in order to move forward. The industry of yore was already on the brink (be it wages, abusive environments, or physical and emotional exhaustion).
Denise Apigo likewise took her time getting back to work, too. Indeed, she reflected on whether she wanted to return to the restaurant world at all. Apigo is an up-and-coming chef in Dallas’ food scene and, in particular, in the realm of Filipino cuisine representation. “I had several offers throughout the pandemic but none that felt right. I was tired of feeling like just a cog in the machine, of feeling bad about asking for a few days off, of 50-cent ‘raises,’ of haggling for my worth despite almost 10 years in the industry.
Apigo recently took a position at Fount Board and Table on Routh in State Thomas. Here, she doesn’t have to slog through late nights, and, importantly, Apigo says she feels valued both in terms of compensation and being a woman in the food industry. (Often women have to balance everything from raising a family to both overt and implied misogyny.) Ranola took a barista position there as well. She says Fount Board and Table owner Olivia Gente “believes in treating employees like humans who have lives outside of work and respects them and the work they do. I feel strongly that other industry employers should do the same.”
As workers have become more selective in which restaurants or bars they work—if they go back into the industry at all—some hope it’s a sign of better things to come. “I am really glad to see a lot of people starting to speak up a little bit more about how we can change…how we can make this industry better,” says Gonzalez. “Hopefully, you get to see a little bit more of people getting taken care of all around one-hundred percent, not just for the labor part.”