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Safety and wages are top concerns for Pittsburgh restaurant workers, survey says

Restaurant workers cite a wide range of reasons for hesitating to return to work
Gene J. Puskar
Restaurant workers cite a wide range of reasons for hesitating to return to work

A nonprofit advocacy group for Pittsburgh-area restaurant workers contends the idea that people in their industry “don’t want to work” because of enhanced unemployment benefits is misleading, at best. And Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid has the survey results to back it up.

The informal survey “Return to Work,” released Thursday, found 79 percent of respondents hesitated to return to work at some point during the coronavirus pandemic. The most-cited reason, noted by two-thirds of respondents, was “stress from working in a dangerous environment.”

Other top reasons included low wages and “difficult or unruly customers,” both cited by more than half the participants. Next came unpredictable scheduling (48 percent) and lack of benefits like health insurance (44 percent).

Meanwhile, despite a widespread belief that unemployment compensation was the major disincentive for food-service staffers getting back to work, only about 28 percent of respondents named those benefits as a reason they hesitated to return.

“There’s not really a strong correlation between how much unemployment people were getting and how hesitant they were,” said Larisa Mednis, PRWA’s advocacy organizer, during an online press event.

The survey was conducted this past summer and drew 115 respondents from the region, Mednis said. The complete report is here.

Across the country, restaurants that operated at reduced capacity after the coronavirus pandemic began – if they were open at all – and have struggled to staff up as the economy has reopened. But PRWA organizers noted that the story is often told from the perspective of restaurant owners having trouble bring back old staff, or recruiting new hires, rather than from that of the workers themselves.

PRWA was founded in 2020 to support food-service workers hurt by the pandemic; its contact list numbers about 1,700 current and former workers, Mednis said. Mednis said PRWA sought survey participants through their personal networks of friends and co-workers, via social media, at in-person events including farmers markets, and through phone banking.

Mednis said nearly half of the respondents had 15 or more years in the restaurant industry. She said participants were not broken down by size or type of restaurant, and acknowledged there were few respondents of color. She added that front-of-house staff, like waitstaff, had responded disproportionately. And the survey tracked only “hesitancy” to return to work, not whether respondents actually returned to the job.

The survey also asked participants to list concerns they had had about working in the industry prior to the pandemic, and provided the same list of 10 issues to choose from. Before the rise of the coronavirus, respondents said, they were most put off by low wages and lack of benefits, followed by unpredictable scheduling and “difficult or unruly customers,” all named by more than 60 percent of respondents.

Concerns about a dangerous environment were named by about 45 percent of respondents – many of them folks who routinely work around knives and brave slippery kitchen floors. But that figure jumped greatly post-pandemic.

“During the era of COVID, working in a restaurant has become an increasingly dangerous job,” said Mednis. “Especially during the time period before vaccines were available, a lot of folks felt they were really putting themselves on the line during the time they were working in restaurants.”

And unemployment benefits, which were named by fewer than 10 percent of respondents as a pre-pandemic reason to hesitate to work, did jump during the pandemic, when the federal government, for a time, provided weekly bonus checks of up to $600 to the unemployed.

Still, among respondents who cited unemployment benefits as a source of hesitancy, fewer than half were actually receiving full or partial unemployment compensation. The others had been denied benefits or were eligible but “having issues.” Among those who had not hesitated to return to work, nearly half had received full or partial benefits.

Low wages and lack of benefits have long been cited as a problem for many restaurant staffers. Waitstaff in many states work for a sub-minimum wage – in Pennsylvania, it’s $2.83 an hour – and most restaurants do not offer health insurance to their employees.

However, Mednis and PRWA co-founder Taylor Stessney said the survey results suggest cultural changes might be as important as financial ones: safer working conditions, for instance, and more predictable scheduling.

Stessney said the survey results indicate employers might need to communicate better with their employees.

“We do encourage them to … talk to the workers, and maybe they would get the answers they’re looking for about what would keep people around,” said Stessney.

“Just creating a restaurant culture where workers feel more dignified and more empowered would be probably be a contributor to people being more interested in coming back to work, or joining the workforce,” added Mednis.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email:
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