December 9, 2021
Businesses open but not ‘as usual’ as pandemic continues to affect restaurant staff, management
Mallory Biggar

The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown hit restaurants hard, and continues to disrupt operations. Fairhaven’s Mambo Italiano owner Dominic Tino wondered after the March 2020 shutdown whether he had tossed his last pizza; now re-opened, he and others at the family-run business are still trying to navigate their way in a changed industry. (Courtesy photo Safiyyah Chelson)

December 9, 2021
Businesses open but not ‘as usual’ as pandemic continues to affect restaurant staff, management
Mallory Biggar

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Normal? No, restaurants are open but not back to “normal”, and workers and business owners alike are asking for relief.

For the last 20 years, Mambo Italiano, a family-owned restaurant in the Fairhaven neighborhood, has stood strong off the corner of Harris Street and 12th Avenue. But the strains of the pandemic threatened that livelihood, owner Dominic Tino said.

When restaurants first shut down early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Tino said he considered closing the doors of his family’s restaurant for good. The takeout business was fruitful, but labor costs were high and, without employees, the amount of work for those remaining was unsustainable.

“We couldn’t afford to have as many employees, obviously, so we worked super hard that week,” he said. “By the end of the week, it was so emotionally exhausting, physically draining. We were like, we can’t do this. I was convinced it was the last pizza I was going to throw.” 

The doors did close, but only for two months. The federal Paycheck Protection Program came through which eased the cost of labor enough to hire more workers, government restrictions on restaurants gradually eased, and slowly, things started to look like they did before the pandemic — at least from the outside. 

Disappearing workforce

“A lot of the public who is not involved with restaurants think that the pandemic’s over in some capacity for the restaurants, and it’s not at all,” Tino said. “If anything, it’s just as difficult as it has been trying to like navigate all these things. There’s still all those strains.”

As of October in Whatcom County, there are an estimated 9,600 workers in leisure and hospitality jobs, which includes restaurants, according to the Employment Security Department. Nationally, the hiring rate hasn’t changed much, but according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, those leaving their jobs are at an all-time high.

Tino said they haven’t had an issue with front-of-house staffing due to what Mambo pays, but they have had a hard time finding experienced kitchen staff. 

Colton Wooldridge, now 30, worked in restaurants from the time he was 15 and managed a fast-food chain for the last 10 years. Last year, he left his management position for a job in manufacturing, with a part-time job working back-of-house at Cosmos Bistro. 

Wooldridge said that working two jobs has been less stressful than working fast-food management during the pandemic. 

“[I left] for a lot of personal reasons, but the big one is that we are in the middle of this labor movement, and, at least for me, I am realizing I don’t always say ‘yes’ to my employer,” he said. “With fast food or any kind of major corporation, they don’t want to hear the word ‘no’.” 

Mental health drain

For Wooldridge, the pandemic was a wake-up call. He said that his experiences working fast-food during a global crisis gave him the opportunity to reevaluate his priorities and move toward a career.

“I’m really focusing now on honing my skills, whereas before, it was just about employment,” he said.

A recent study by Black Box Intelligence, an organization that collects data on restaurants for restaurant operators, found that three major contributing factors to the industry’s staffing shortage are wages and benefits, concerns about mental and physical health, and opportunities available in other industries.

Half of workers said their needs for higher pay and consistent scheduling were not being met by their restaurant jobs.  The study also said that workers worry for their physical health because restaurants create an environment that easily spreads illness, as well as difficult social interactions in an already stressful work environment.

In fact, 78% of workers said their mental health had been negatively impacted in the past 12 months, the study said. 

Love your life

Mason Harrington, 21, has been working in restaurants since he was 16 and is now working his way toward his dream of becoming a home inspector. He spent over a year receiving unemployment benefits, and when he moved to Bellingham earlier this year, he began working at a local restaurant. That lasted only a week. 

“I was supposedly hired as a server, but what the deal actually was is I was a glorified dishwasher,” he said. 

Harrington said because the restaurant was so short-staffed, he was unable to perform the job he was hired for. Because of this, he said he wasn’t making money in tips and as a result not making a living wage.

“This really opened my eyes,” he said. “I thought, maybe I should actually respect myself and try to work at a job that I enjoy. If I’m going to work for less money than unemployment, then I might as well like it, rather than hate my life every day.”

Still in recovery

Staffing issues that restaurants are currently facing don’t only affect the establishments themselves, but their patrons. For the untrained eye, things are starting to go back to normal, but as Tino said about Mambo Italiano, that is not the case. 

The restaurant’s manager, Safiyyah Chelson, said that customers are returning to dine-in, some for the first time since the pandemic started, but staff who worked through the difficulty of the shutdown are still recovering. 

“I feel like we all kind of went through like a trauma, and we’re all grieving a little bit,” she said. “A lot of people come and dine out, that’s like their mini vacation. They want everything to kind of feel like it was before, but it’s not.”

Looking toward the future, Guy Ochiogrosso, president of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that because restaurants are facing such a complex set of issues caused by the pandemic, it’s reasonable to expect a new normal for how patrons enjoy restaurants. 

“It’s hard to grasp, because we don’t know what that looks like,” he said. “Say you call three of your friends and say, ‘Hey, let’s go out for beers and nachos’. That’s still going to be an option. What that experience is once you get there might be very different. More self-service, fewer menu options, or it might be twice as expensive as it once was. There’s a lot of there’s a lot of variability to that, but the fact is, you’re still going to be able to go have beers with your friends.”

 — Reporting by Mallory Biggar

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