Don’t make work a four-letter word

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For restaurants, the busiest day of the year is Mother’s Day. According to the National Restaurant Association, 10% of consumers will dine out for breakfast, 25% for brunch, 45% for lunch, and 47% for dinner.

And, based on recent experience, 90% of Mother’s Day restaurant patrons will come away underwhelmed.

It’s not the restaurant management. It’s not the restaurant staff. At this stage, it’s not even the fault of the business-killing pandemic, although appearances may suggest otherwise. In fact, it’s about something not even there: Many workers who were furloughed, were laid off or quit have yet to return.

The lack of sufficient and adequate staff in the restaurant business – and in other industries – can be felt in numerous ways:

• Customers reported their shock on social media that their popular Waffle House in East Cobb had shut down. This despite complaining about poor service amid critical staffing shortage during Covid-19.

• Hundreds of attendees at a recent event in a Midtown hotel faced long waits for their dinner. Servers were scurrying, but they were simply too few. At that same event, the owner of a trucking company lamented how business could be booming, if only his company could find more drivers.

• Poultry plants are struggling to find workers and demand for chicken is overwhelming supply, resulting in higher prices.

• One restaurant owner, short a whopping 30 workers, is easing his crisis by maintaining socially distanced tables, even though Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent executive order ended that mandate. The restaurant will continue earning less profit by serving fewer patrons, but servers can cope and customers will be satisfied.

• Restaurants with fewer employees are forced to close early or offer carry-out service. Workers have less flexibility to swap shifts, if necessary – crucial during Covid-19 – and stressed employees are even more prone to quit.

Job openings far outstrip job applicants at restaurants and in so many other industries. Why are candidates not applying?

The first reason is the most obvious. With unemployed Americans being subsidized on so many levels by the federal government, they would be foolish to return to a lower-paying job when staying home pays more.

The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law March 11, extended the federal supplemental benefits of $300 per week for laid-off workers through September 6. Georgia’s extended unemployment benefits ended in February; its unemployment rate is around 4.5%.

Additional expanded and extended benefits include rent and mortgage assistance as well as nutrition and healthcare assistance. According to the Peter G Peterson Foundation, federal spending to-date in Georgia is $7,967 per capita.

A second hurdle in finding workers in Georgia, where a lower cost of living is reflected in lower wages, is the number of progressive corporations that can outbid local small businesses with new, “woke” wages. They must compete with hourly wages like $15 offered by Amazon, Target and Walmart, even $16 at Costco.

Restaurants now must compete for workers by raising wages. It’s a domino effect. Raising wages requires compensating by shrinking menus, raising prices, reducing staff or reducing staff hours. In Seattle, where the minimum wage campaign began, wages are now $16.69 an hour. Restaurants “adapted:” Some closed, even more reduced workers’ hours, “economizing on labor.”

How to respond? Montana holds one lesson. That state is eliminating extended federal unemployment payments. Instead, it will offer an incentive to unemployed residents: a $1,200 return-to-work bonus to address Montana’s labor shortage. Georgia’s Department of Labor website lists more than 238,000 job openings.

Promoting the work ethic that is foundational to America extends beyond getting Americans off the taxpayer dime — although that is an added benefit. As one study found, a working individual in a household is a role model and the most important guide out of poverty to young people in the community. The dignity of work, of individual initiative, cannot be underestimated.

Meanwhile, we hope your Mother’s Day celebration was a pleasant dining experience. Most of all, going forward, be kind to your server.

[Benita Dodd is the Vice President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation.]