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Restaurants Struggle To Bring Back Employees

A stock image of a service worker cleaning a dining table with cleaning spray and a towel.

As the economy reopens, restaurants remain far from pre-pandemic employment levels.

In the Mountain West, New Mexico stands out with eating and drinking establishments reporting an estimated 19.7% fewer employees in March compared to February 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzedby the National Restaurant Association. Colorado and Nevada had 15% and 13.7% fewer restaurant employees, respectively.

Sankar Mukhopadhyay, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, says two big factors are behind restaurants’ slow rebound: low compensation and elevated risk. Service industry employees often rely on tips to earn an adequate income.

“Indoor dining is still somewhat discouraged and a lot of people are not yet comfortable with indoor dining,” Mukhopadhyay said. “If there are not a lot of people going to restaurants, then I guess they will not be making a lot of money on tips.”

Dr. Linsey Marr studies the transmissions of viruses in the air at Virginia Tech. She says eating indoors is the riskiest activity to participate in during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People go to restaurants to socialize, and when we talk, we release 10 times more aerosol into the air than when we’re just breathing,” Marr said in describing her recent research.

Mukhopadhyay says the restaurant employment dynamic could help efforts to increase the minimum wage for employees who rely on tips.

“Restaurant workers, justifiably, are expecting that the risk of infection is higher and they might demand a higher premium, higher wage,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Stephanie Serrano (she/her/ella) is an award-winning multimedia bilingual journalist based in Reno, Nevada. Her reporting is powered by character-driven stories and is rooted in sound-rich audio. Her storytelling works to share the experiences of unserved communities in regards to education, race, affordable housing and sports.
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