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Manager says he retained 30% of his kitchen staff as restaurants struggle to hire workers back

Some blame unemployment benefits, but others say it's more complicated
Comida Restaurant in Aurora
Posted at 10:10 PM, May 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-12 00:40:45-04

DENVER — The service industry continues to struggle to bring workers back through the door. While many blame continuing unemployment benefits, others say a shift in the workforce dynamic since COVID-19 has caused new challenges.

Patrick Dizon is the general manager at Comida Restaurant in The Stanley Marketplace, but this year, he has taken on many new roles.

"I'm a bartender, server, busser, line cook, head pastry chef, dishwasher," Dizon said. "All of it."

All of those roles remain unfilled as the restaurant seeks new employees. The company is posting numerous positions on social media and hiring websites in an attempt to hire more staff. The restaurant needs to fill as much as 70% of its roles vacated in its kitchen during COVID-19.

"We have put out text messages to old employees who moved out of the state to see if they knew anyone, friends within the industry to see if they were looking for other jobs." Dizon said. "A lot of it, I believe, is because the unemployment benefits that most people are still getting right now."

More than five states are choosing to end the boosted unemployment benefits to get people back to work. The move comes after a disappointing employment report released last week showing the U.S. economy recovered just 266,000 jobs in April, far short of the expected 1 million.

"Unemployment right now is definitely a game changer," Dizon said. "While some people are looking for work, some people are not."

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment says labor shortages and hiring challenges are anecdotal and the data points to a different picture on jobs.

The state’s unemployment rate dropped from 6.9% in December 2020 to 6.4% in March 2021. Additionally, there are fewer job postings in May 2021 as there were in May 2019.

Other issues are also at play, including children being away from school. Parents who can’t get kids back into daycare or back into a classroom say they’re forced to stay home.

Nationwide, 4.6 million women are out of work from the pandemic, making up 55% of the recently out of work. Two million are still unemployed, but the other 2.6 million women say they’ve stopped looking for jobs because of demands at home.

As employment changes, Dizon hopes employees will come back.

"We're definitely hiring," he said "It would be great to wear one hat on a shift instead of multiple."

While some local restaurants claim the unemployment benefits are reducing the incentive for people to come back to work, one of the leading voices in the country on this issue, Saru Jayanraman from One Fair Wage, says the solution is simple: restaurants should pay minimum wage on top of tips. She says proof that it works can be seen in the seven states that require it.

“Not only have those seven states experienced greater growth in the restaurant industry than Colorado, small business growth has been higher than Colorado,” Jayanraman said. “They've also had one half the rate of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry because when you pay people a full minimum wage, it turns out they don't have to put up with as much from customers. They can actually count on a wage from their boss like every other worker in other industries."

A new study from One Fair Wage shows 53% of restaurant workers are considering quitting the industry altogether, but 78% say a stable, livable wage would make them stay.

Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert believes if unemployment benefits were taken away, the economy would reopen at a faster pace. In a tweet Tuesday she said, “Unemployment bonuses are killing the American Dream.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce echoes the sentiment. Last week, it blamed boosted unemployment benefits for slowing the rebound and called on lawmakers to end the program.