Florida faces dire shortages of restaurant workers: ‘They don’t think we are worth the money’

Restaurant in Cocoa Beach, FL, May 31, 2021. Credit: Diane Rado.

Sharon Sessions worked as a line cook for over a year at a Whataburger in Tallahassee, earning $9 per hour — an amount slightly over the state’s minimum wage of $8.65.

A single mother, she’s been working in the restaurant industry for more than 15 years, trying to make ends meet to take care of her two children.

But Sessions said she resigned from her job because the industry doesn’t pay livable wages.

Sharon Sessions has worked in the food industry for more than 15 years. Credit: Sharon Sessions.

“That was one of my biggest reasons. That was a big issue – the pay. Those checks are not high enough to survive,” Sessions told the Florida Phoenix. “You’re not respected enough in that industry and you don’t get the pay you deserve, that’s already stressful.”

Sessions is not alone. Restaurant workers have been fed up with low wages, resulting in a shortage of workers in that industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, a survey from the National Restaurant Association in mid-May found that staffing levels at restaurants are below the industry standard, “with 84% of operators saying their current staffing level is lower than it was in the absence of COVID-19.”

Several restaurants and other businesses in Florida’s hospitality industry face an extreme shortage of workers and are eager to gain more employees, according to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. FRLA is a nonprofit organization supporting workers in the hospitality industry.

The group had praised Gov. Ron DeSantis for withdrawing from the supplementary federal unemployment assistance program set to end on June 26, which offers jobless workers in Florida an additional $300 in weekly benefits.

Without that $300, they’ll have to rely on the state’s maximum weekly amount of $275 to pay for rent, food, and other expenses. Florida has the stingiest unemployment benefits in the nation, based on a combination of the number of weeks and the amount of the benefit.

Supporters of ending the federal aid supplement say it is an initiative to get people back to work, citing an increase in jobs available. Carol Dover, president and CEO of FRLA, said ending the supplemental federal aid “will help the industry (hospitality) regain pre-COVID levels.”

“Even though our industry is open for business, we are facing a dire labor shortage,” Dover said in a written statement.

“Strong demand, coupled with this staffing shortage, has left many businesses forced to limit operating days and hours in addition to reducing capacity in both food service and lodging. We encourage all Floridians to explore opportunities in Florida hospitality and envision a career with a future.”

But how would it be encouraging if restaurant workers can’t get better wages?

Rich Templin, legislative policy director with the AFL-CIO of Florida, agrees that many workers in the restaurant industry “earn poverty-level wages” with no benefits. “These are jobs for far too long that have not provided sick leave” and other benefits, he said.

Some unemployed workers never qualified for unemployment benefits, Templin said, so a $300 supplement was never part of the equation.

“For anyone thinking that that’s keeping people at home is preposterous,” Templin said.

Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Marcus Dixon said in a written statement:

“These expanded ($300) unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for so many. They are the difference between being able to put food on the table and not, being able to buy diapers and not. Weak leaders like Gov. DeSantis find pleasure in preying on the vulnerable. It’s despicable.”

Meanwhile, some companies in Florida struggling to find workers are offering bonus pay or raising hourly wages to address staffing shortages, in hopes of enticing potential candidates.

For instance, a restaurant in downtown Orlando is offering a variety of benefits, such as increasing hourly wages to at least $10 and paid vacation time in the summer, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Maxine’s on Shine also offered a day’s pay for workers to get COVID vaccines and “started a tip-sharing program so everyone makes $15,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Universal Orlando announced Thursday that it will increase the starting pay to $15 an hour – up from $13 an hour – on June 27, according to a press release from the company. More than 18,000 part-time and full-time employees at Universal Orlando will be granted a raise, including food service workers and jobs in other areas.

John Sprouls, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Universal Parks & Resorts, said in a written statement:

“This is about taking care of both our current team members and those who will be joining our team. We know a great guest experience begins with our team members – and we will continue to provide the best work experience we can.”

Meanwhile, Sharon Sessions, who now lives in Daytona Beach, has had it with restaurant jobs ranging from cook and waitress to cashier.

“They don’t think we are worth the money,” Sessions said.

After feeling “physically and mentally exhausted” from a variety of jobs in the industry, she said, “I called it quits.”

She’s now concentrating on pursuing a degree in the health field to secure a job that would better provide for her family.