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For Restaurants, 'The Employment Situation Is Catastrophic'

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Outdoor seating at Primanti Bros. in the Strip District.

Driven by the pandemic and related restrictions, and public health concerns, employment in Pittsburgh’s restaurant industry has declined by more than 31,000 workers compared to this time last year, according to research released last week.

As of October, the region’s restaurants employed about 57,000 workers, a sharp drop from the more than 88,000 working in those establishments a year ago, according to an analysis by regional economist Chris Briem at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research.

Within the restaurant sector, the largest job losses have been for employees of “full-service” establishments, where patrons typically order while seated and pay after their meal. Employment for workers in these types of restaurants is down 54 percent from a year ago.

"Over half of those jobs have not come back, pretty much, and it doesn’t look like they’re coming back very quickly,” Briem said.

There has been less impact on employment in limited-service restaurants, which include fast-food or takeout-only businesses. Employment in these types of businesses is only down 11 percent, Briem found.

Most concerning, Briem says, is that while there was some rebound of restaurant jobs in May and June, that has plateaued.

“Which is pretty problematic as we ... enter this winter, as you might lose some of those jobs ever again,” he said.

Briem's research includes the seven-county region of Allegheny, Armstong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties, using employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The pandemic has had uneven impacts on various sectors of the economy, and restaurants and the hospitality industry in general are among the hardest hit, he said.

“The employment situation is catastrophic for restaurants,” said John Longstreet, the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Taylor Stessney, a co-founder of the Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid group, says many people in the industry have not yet returned to work. And many of those who are working are not earning as much, she says, particularly those who depended on tips.

“There are folks who like, because they only make $2.83 an hour, they’re not really depending on a paycheck, they’re depending on that day-to-day tips they’re getting that no longer really exists ... They’re employed, but they’re not making what they used to.”

“We’re seeing more furloughed employees recently," said Kacy McGill, another co-founder of the group. "As we’re approaching, traditionally, a cheery season, where we are supposed to be like, focused on giving, we need really just need our federal government to start giving.”

The Restaurant and Lodging Association is advocating for additional government assistance, as well as for allowing restaurants to remain open for indoor dining. Longstreet also urges consumers to support their local restaurants.

“If you’re concerned about going to a restaurant – and many people will be because of the rise in cases and because of things like a strong ‘stay at home’ recommendation – and you’re going out anyway to get groceries, we hope that people continue to go to get food, get take-out, carry-out from the restaurants,” he said. 

The issue is becoming increasingly urgent.

Longstreet says close to half of the Pennsylvania restaurants they recently surveyed believe it is unlikely they will be in business six months from now, unless there are additional government relief packages.

Furthermore, as the year draws to a close, unemployment programs that provided benefits to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians are set to expire, unless Congress acts.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.