It is hard not to notice all of the “now hiring” signs in front of South Florida restaurants and bars. Owners, managers and experts say this is partly because unemployment benefits continue to exceed the salaries they offer.
Isabel Matuz is a general manager at a Denny’s in Kendall and has worked with the company for 35 years. From April to August of last year, the restaurant only offered to-go services, and most servers and hostesses lost their jobs, she said.
But once the restaurant fully reopened, only 19 of the 40 original employees returned to work.
“A lot of people didn’t come back because they were receiving government assistance,” she said in Spanish. “They knew they wouldn’t make the same amount of money as before.”
Although the number of customers is still lower than in pre-COVID times, the employees that remain are struggling, she said; most work 50 to 60 hours a week.
“No one is applying,” Matuz said. “In over six months, we have not received a single application. We used to have three or four applications every week before the pandemic.”
Due to understaffing, the restaurant no longer opens 24 hours a day as it did before the pandemic. Instead, it now stops offering indoor dining services at 11:45 p.m. and opens at 6 a.m.
Raysa Lopez, 21, worked as a server at Hooters in Hialeah for three months before being laid off due to the pandemic, she said.
After a month without working, Lopez applied for unemployment benefits.
“I waited for a long time, but I received approximately $7,000 for those two months I didn’t work,” Lopez said. “It was a lot more than what I would have made had I been working.”
As soon as the restaurant reopened, Lopez returned to work, but some of her co-workers did not.
“I wasn’t sure if I would continue receiving money from unemployment,” she said. “I knew I had to return to work.”
Florida International University Professor Jose Gabilondo teaches at the College of Law and has studied the impact of unemployment.
Although the state’s unemployment benefits eligibility has changed and federal benefits have fluctuated during the pandemic, Gabilondo said there are several other reasons for local businesses’ understaffing.
According to the professor, one of those reasons is fear of COVID infection. Another could be that wages for some work are sometimes less or equal to unemployment benefits.
And, he said, the current minimum wage could be a factor.
“I think that if the minimum wage were higher, you would see people working, you would see people looking for work,” Gabilondo said.
Some restaurant owners have opted to offer signing bonuses for low-wage positions.
Ernesto Martinez is the owner of El Ventorrillo Bistro in Kendall. His restaurant now offers $100 bonuses to people who remain with the restaurant for a minimum of 60 days.
“I saw some restaurants using this strategy and thought it could be a great way to attract applicants,” Martinez said. “We desperately need people.”
Martinez opened the restaurant in December 2019, just a couple of months before closing down due to the pandemic.
It currently has six employees, but Martinez said he needs at least 12 people during peak times.
“It is a lot of work for the few people that are willing to work,” Martinez said.