CHICAGO - At a South Side job fair on Monday, a group representing 18 Chicago area restaurants promised new hires would earn the full minimum wage, plus their share of customers’ tips. For some in the beleaguered business, that represents a significant raise.
The move highlighted a crisis confronting the hospitality industry, which is Illinois’ second-largest employer.
Fourteen months after the pandemic forced a sudden shut down, restaurants that survived found an ugly surprise. They say it is difficult to hire enough staff to reopen fully.
Activists have a different take.
"The truth is there's not a labor shortage. There's a wage shortage," said Mikey Knab, who owns three restaurants on the West Coast and spoke at the job fair at 45th and King Drive sponsored by the alliance of High Road Restaurants.
Chefs and servers in notable fine-dining establishments can take home six-figure incomes. But most earn far less. Knab said a survey of 3,000 restaurant workers found 71-percent considering another line of work.
When asked why, he said workers cited the industry’s low wages. Knab said restaurants employ seven of the economy’s 10 lowest paid job classifications.
Many, however, who previously worked in restaurants found other gigs during the pandemic.
"They've moved onto other areas of the economy. Maybe they've picked up a job as Uber driver or delivering food. And they get to be their own boss and have all this autonomy to set their own schedule. And they really like it!" said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president at Chicago-based consultants Challenger Gray.
Still, there are more than 400,000 officially unemployed in Illinois and eight million nationally. SOME blame the extra $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits scheduled to continue through September. Some officials in at least two states, South Carolina and Pennsylvania, want to move aggressively to cut off benefits to any who refuse a legitimate job offer.
President Joe Biden disagrees.
"I think the people who claim Americans won't work even if they find a good and fair opportunity underestimate the American people," he said.