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Restaurants struggle to rehire, even in states with laws demanding former workers get job offers

Posted at 11:19 AM, May 07, 2021

VENICE, Calif. — As COVID-19 cases start dropping in many places in the country, more businesses are starting to open. But, for many restaurants, reopening is harder than they expected.

Even though customers are flooding in, there are fewer employees coming back to serve them. Staffing shortages are hitting especially hard for large restaurants like The Rose in Venice, California.

“This restaurant, I like to equate it to an aircraft carrier,” said owner and chef Jason Neroni. “It's 10,000 square feet.

Neroni took over the huge and historic Los Angeles restaurant almost a decade ago.

“The Rose has been here since 1979,” said Neroni. “It was your local meeting place. It was a big brunch spot.”

It took 250 employees to run it seven days a week. Then came COVID-19.

“It was just insane to see something that was a machine, we're doing 10,000 people a week, literally come to a grinding halt,” said Neroni.

He was forced to lay off nearly all the staff when the first shutdown hit.

“And that was surreal,” said Neroni. “I thought I was going to lose my restaurant. I thought I was going to lose my home. I have two children and a wife. You just didn't know. It was a pit of despair, was what it was. One of the worst times of my life,” he said.

What made it worse, his son is immune compromised, so he was terrified to bring COVID-19 home to his family.

Over the summer, The Rose was able to reopen to outdoor dining and employees came right back.

“But when we closed down again in November, I think that was kind of a kick in the gut to a lot of people,” said Neroni.

California’s second shutdown came two days before Thanksgiving and lasted weeks. Neroni made the tough call to stop takeout service and close altogether.

“It cost less money to be closed than it was to be open,” he said. “We were burning more money just being open, because we lost 95% of our sales.”

Fast forward to today: restrictions are loosening, but reopening this time is different.

“I don't have enough servers,” said Neroni.

“We’re just spread very thin,” said server Andrew Perez.

Perez jumped at the opportunity to come back to his job, thankful for the chance to save up some money before going to school. But, as more people come out to eat, the number of servers and staff hasn’t changed much.

“With more people coming in, it doesn't change the fact that we have less hands,” he said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.7 million people are looking for jobs, but businesses across the country say they can’t find workers. The National Restaurant Association reported staffing at restaurants is down 20%, 1.1 million jobs, from the year-ago level.

Some say they make more money on unemployment, while others worry about catching COVID-19, but no matter the reason people aren’t coming back, it’s forced Neroni to rethink what’s feasible for the restaurant.

“We have not brought back breakfast,” said Neroni of cutting service for the restaurant’s iconic meal. “We never reopened on Mondays. We used to always be open seven days a week.”

California just passed a law saying restaurant owners have to offer their former employees their jobs back, but Neroni said that legislation did not change much. He was already doing that.

“There are a lot of people who just left,” said Neroni of many employees he tried to get back to the restaurant. “This time around with COVID, I think it really opened up a lot of eyes and a lot of perspectives of maybe restaurants weren't always going to be there.”

Some moved out of state and some took on new careers, including longtime employee Aria Periera.

“I've worked with Jason for eight years across three different restaurants,” said Periera.

COVID-19 was a wake-up call.

“After losing my job the second time in one year, I was like, ‘OK, it's time to make a change,’” she said.

She became a real estate agent and left The Rose behind.

“I feel like I'm really making a change in my life, you know, something that's going to have dramatic effect down the road,” said Periera.

Even though it’s tough to see his restaurant family go, Neroni said he understands those who left to other careers.

“I wish only the best for people who are on to the next thing. You got to follow your dreams. I mean, this is mine,” said Neroni, looking over to The Rose.

He just hopes one day soon, he’ll have a little more help to keep his alive.