For more than 25 years Nate Reedy worked in bars and restaurants across Omaha, holding various positions from working the door to waiting tables and bartending. Many of those years were spent “on the bricks,” i.e., in the Old Market.

But after all those years of training and working, everything changed for Reedy and the industry when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants throughout the country in 2020.

“When the pandemic hit I knew it was time to get out,” Reedy said.

Reedy’s story is common among former workers in the industry.

“There’s a lot of pressure in the food service world to get a ‘real job,’ and that’s the criticism hurled at us constantly,” Reedy said. “We see our friends that graduated college do the nine to five and have their weekends free. We look at that, and we kind of want for it.”

Since leaving the restaurant business, Reedy started working in tech support for a local cable company, which he says has steadier hours and better, more reliable pay.

Luke Jensen is another former restaurant worker who left the industry as a result of the pandemic. For 10 years, Jensen worked back-of-house positions, like washing dishes, for Jones Bros. Cupcakes and Joe’s Crab Shack. He says it wasn’t an easy decision to leave the industry, but his lack of health insurance made it untenable during the pandemic.

“I would have to be here dealing with the pandemic and everything like that, you know, for 40 to 50 hours a week and not have insurance. I’m 28. I can’t not have insurance.” Jensen said.

Jensen also cited insufficient wages as a reason he left. He said the hourly wage for his position was typically around $11 to $12 per hour, which is higher than Nebraska’s minimum wage of $9 per hour. However, he said his wages were still insufficient to help him achieve financial stability.

“It would be like, ‘Do I want to pay rent? Or do I want to pay my car insurance?’” he said. “When you’re left with, like, $3 in your bank account for two weeks, it’s pretty rough.”

Another factor driving workers away from the restaurant industry, according to Leah Bifano, a former server and barista, is the physical and mental toll the jobs can have. Restaurants are known for being fast-paced work environments, and that can be exhausting for many workers.

“You can very easily get overworked and burnt out,” Bifano said. “Just dealing with the stress of the job, it burnt me out pretty quickly.”

One factor that some theorize is contributing to the current labor shortage is enhanced unemployment insurance benefits, which paid $600 per week for 26 weeks in 2020. While some people, such as Reedy, were able to rely on unemployment insurance for some time, not everyone was so fortunate. Bifano, for example, was unable to receive unemployment payments due to a dispute with her former employer.

Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, wants to dispel the notion that workers aren’t returning to their jobs because they’d rather collect unemployment.

“To say that people in our industry are lazy is just crazy, and it’s insulting,” she said.

Olson said the labor shortage is a vastly complex issue that can’t be boiled down to a single factor like unemployment insurance benefits. One factor she believes is having a major impact is Nebraska’s unemployment rate, which is tied for lowest in the nation at 2.9%.

According to Olson, economists consider an employment rate that low to be a state of full employment. In other words, there aren’t enough people available to fill the jobs that are open. When the pandemic hit last year, many people in the restaurant industry found jobs in grocery stores, manufacturing, tech support and elsewhere.

Olson says the restaurant association believes immigration reform will be essential to filling current job openings, and they have contacted lawmakers to get the job done. She added that restaurants are offering more benefits, including health insurance and retirement plans, as well as increased wages and signing bonuses to encourage job seekers to fill needed positions.

The labor shortage could be a sign that businesses will have to adapt to become more competitive in hiring. The pandemic has taught us the true value of people working in the service industry, and businesses will have to show they understand the value of their employees.

“If we deem a job necessary, we need to understand that that’s a real person that needs to be able to work that job, take care of a family, have a home and have health care,” Reedy said.

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