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Economy & Business

Omicron deals another blow to Pittsburgh restaurants and their workers

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Keith Srakocic
/
AP

Pittsburgh restaurants and their workers have suffered over the last two years as the businesses struggled to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. As COVID-19 case numbers in Allegheny County continue to rise, many restaurants and their employees fear the omicron variant will only make the situation worse.

Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid provides care packages filled with milk, vegetables and other groceries to unemployed servers and cooks. Last spring, the organization was helping around 40 to 50 families a week. Now, that number is closer to 80 families a week.

Kacy McGill co-founded the group and said the omicron surge right before the holidays couldn’t have come at a worse time for restaurant workers.

“January, February, March are very slow months for the industry — especially for tipped workers,” McGill said.

It has been even worse for people who couldn’t work because they contracted COVID-19, or there was an outbreak in their workplace. They “don’t really have any financial security in a lot of ways,” McGill said.

Restaurant owners also face a lot of uncertainty as local case numbers spike. Customer counts have been creeping towards normal levels. But with COVID-19 cases on the rise, some establishments have chosen to close temporarily. The restaurants’ social media posts often say it’s to protect employees and customers. But those closures come at a price to workers and management.

Square Cafe in East Liberty closed completely for nearly a week in early January after several employees tested positive.

“Due to the increase of COVID, we have made the tough decision to stay closed until Friday, January 7,” they posted on Jan. 3.

Owner Sherree Goldstein estimates the restaurant should have made around $70,000 from December to early January. In actuality, it made just $19,000.

“Our payroll is more than $19,000 a week,” she said.

The uncertainty has made it nearly impossible for restaurants to plan.

“I feel like we’re on a basketball court, constantly changing direction,” Goldstein said. “And, you know, we still have to juke and jive and figure out what to do in that moment. And it will change – we know it will change tomorrow.”

Restaurants that have stayed open have faced challenges hiring and keeping staff.

“It’s like playing musical chairs,” said John Longstreet, the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. “They’re having a very difficult time with an already reduced staff in keeping staff at work because of the variant.”

Longstreet said some restaurants have cut lunch service or aren’t staying open as late to reduce strain on restaurant staff.

Supply chain shortages and the rising costs of food have also put added pressure on restaurant owners trying to turn a profit.

“There are items that are conspicuously missing from menus ... when the servers go through the items that they’re out of ... there’s now eight or ten items, instead of zero, one or two, because it is so hard to get many products,” said Longstreet.

According to a survey from the National Restaurant Association released in September, 56% of Pennsylvania restaurant operators said their businesses were faring worse than they were three months earlier.

The group also found nearly 90% of restaurants in the state did not have enough employees to meet customer demand.

Larisa Mednis is an advocacy organizer for Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid and a part-time server at Fet-Fisk. Mednis said workers aren’t the ones to blame for the staff shortage.

“It’s a little more complicated than that and doesn’t really encompass the struggles and experiences that many, many restaurant workers have faced during this time.”

Mednis argues the low pay, poor benefits, and risk of catching COVID-19 is a better explanation for the shortage.

“We need a better work environment in the restaurant industry. We need better benefits and protections if people are going to be interested in doing these jobs,” Mednis said.

And some people are leaving the restaurant industry altogether.

“They found something better, and that’s what they’re doing,” said Don Carpenter, a kitchen supervisor at Saloon of Mount Lebanon. He said he’s seen some coworkers and friends get other jobs.

“And they don’t want to come back because it’s going to be s--- money and terrible hours,” he said.

While restaurant staff is changing, so is the industry itself. In just one week, the Squirrel Hill locations of Pamela’s Diner and Eat'n Park both announced their closures, joining a list of Pittsburgh restaurants that have shut down since the beginning of the pandemic.

Still, many worry that the restaurant industry has yet to see the full impact of the omicron variant.