By Danielle Wiener-Bronner | CNN
After about four years at the Sports Bar, a neighborhood restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich., Mandi Steed gave his two week notice last spring.
It was not an easy decision. Steed, who is 29, had worked in restaurants for over a decade, and she was a fan of this one in particular. She loved her colleagues and had built relationships with clients, many of whom came regularly. But over the past year, things have fallen apart.
At the start of the pandemic, his hours were cut by a third. They started coming back last fall, but because the restaurant was running at limited capacity, she was earning less in tips.
And it wasn’t just his income that was suddenly unreliable. Just like the customers she thought she knew, she said.
âI was literally asked to take off my mask, so that [customers] could see me smile, or they weren’t going to tip me, âshe said. Steed had been shocked by the attitude of some of her regulars, who questioned the mandate of the state mask. They âwere like totally different people,â she said.
Restaurant jobs are notoriously difficult: Workers are on their feet all day, often interacting with customers who can be rude or disrespectful, often for little money.
During the pandemic, the work became even more difficult. For many, it was volatile, with restaurants abruptly closing their doors last spring and operating at limited capacity throughout the year, sometimes closing again if workers fell ill. Essential workers like restaurant workers were at risk of falling ill with Covid-19 while many office workers were able to work remotely.
Now some workers like Steed are not coming back. The exodus is one of the factors of the labor crisis for restaurateurs, who say that hiring has become a major challenge. A number of chains, including Olive Garden owner Darden Restaurants, Chipotle and McDonald’s, have announced that they are increasing wages to attract new employees.
Some former restaurant workers say they have found options outside of the industry that they feel are more suitable. Ben Carnahan, in Bend, Ore., Signed up to drive with Lyft and Uber just before the pandemic hit to help pay for his new car. After being laid off from his cook job last year, he decided to drive for ridesharing companies full time.
âI earn about double what I did in the kitchen,â he says. âIt’s just a better, more enjoyable job. I can set my own hours. I have complete and total autonomy and freedom. I have no cuts or burns, I work in a 110 degree kitchen and sometimes get yelled at by a chef.
For Lindsay Meehan Mayo, a former executive pastry chef, getting time off last year was an opportunity to rethink her career path.
Mayo now works two part-time jobs for mental health and peer support groups. It can be difficult to switch between the two, and the pay is “considerably” lower, she said. But she still feels the decision is the right one. âI feel so good about what I’m doing now,â she says. She enjoys helping people and âworking from home is wonderful,â she says.
The pay cut means she is putting less aside in her savings and being careful not to spend money on luxuries like dining out, Mayo said, but she and her partner didn’t. had to dip into their savings.
‘Run like crazy’
Steed, the former Michigan waiter, got his start in catering at a Panera Bread store through a work-for-credit program at his high school. She then pursued a major in chemistry in college and was intrigued when a professor used the kitchen to demonstrate her reactions. She moved on to cooking school and, although she did not complete the program, continued to work in restaurants thereafter.
About four years ago, she found a job at the Sports Bar.
Steed describes herself as a social person and says she enjoyed being in an environment where she could interact with different types of people. The bar attracted regulars who came often and with whom Steed had befriended. She even connected with some of them on social media.
The sports bar closed from March to June 2020. Steed, who regularly doubled up before the pandemic because the bar was often understaffed and because she enjoyed being at work, had capped her hours at 40 hours per week a times back. , preventing him from earning overtime.
Her hours remained low during the summer, then started to increase again when the employees who were students returned to school in the fall. But even though his hours were increasing, it wasn’t the same as before: the restaurant, which offers a full menu and table service, was understaffed. Steed was scattered around the tables, and the tips she was earning weren’t as good as she couldn’t pay so much attention to every party. The environment had become stressful.
âYou knew how hard it was going to be to make it through the night,â she said. And then there were the customers. “You knew the interactions you were going to have with people, and they weren’t going to be great.”
Rick Buhr, owner of the Sports Bar with his son, said it was difficult to get customers to wear their masks and maintain their distance.
âMandi was one of the people who really stepped up andâ¦ worked tons of hours, filling up, and I’m sure it got on him,â he said. âWe have lost a lot of good people who either found other jobs or decided to leave this industry for something else.â
When Covid-19 cases exploded in Michigan earlier this year, Steed began to think about looking for a second job to make up for lost income and making sure she would have money if the restaurant closed. again.
Instead, she ended up quitting after a rough day.
âI was running around like crazy, having to deal with all the problems that arise in a restaurant, from undercooked food to anything that displeases the [customer] for now, âSteed said.
She decided the work was no longer worth it. Shortly thereafter, Steed found a new position as an office assistant at an insurance company and gave her two weeks’ notice.
When she made the decision to leave the Sports Bar for the first time, Steed was heartbroken. But with a little distance and a new job, she can see how tough the job in restaurants really was. Now she wouldn’t want to start over unless she knew her income wasn’t dependent on tips.
“For me to return, the salary would have to be guaranteed,” she said. “A guaranteed salary with social benefits.”
Now she is doing much the same as before the pandemic, but 40 hours a week instead of the 60 or 70 she was at the helm before the pandemic. She has benefits and weekends, and is working on getting a sales agent license.
âIf I’ve been at my desk for too long, people will come to me and ask if I need a break,â she says. âIt’s just like, a whole different atmosphere. And I love my new job. It’s incredible.”