Aug 19, 2021 - Food and Drink

Why Charlotte hospitality workers are leaving the industry

Cedarwood Country Club

Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

For more than a year, one narrative about hospitality workers who’ve left the industry was that they don’t want or need to work because of the supplemental unemployment benefits they’re receiving.

We’ve heard that from restaurant, bar and hotel management, and it’s been highlighted in countless national news stories.

But interviews with several former hospitality workers in the Charlotte area show that their reasons for leaving are more complex.

  • One common theme: The pandemic has brought to light how unstable a career in hospitality can be.

Why it matters: Charlotte’s food scene is reaching a pressure point, or a crossroads: It’s growing and new restaurants are opening constantly, but at the same time restaurant workers are considering other career paths.

  • It’s a conundrum for those who’ve spent decades in the restaurant business, who want to see the industry thrive in Charlotte.
  • But following restrictions and mass layoffs last year, restaurants, bars and others in the hospitality industry are still grappling with massive labor shortages.
  • Some restaurants have raised the minimum wage and added more benefits, but still the problem persists.
  • Many who know the industry say because of its underlying problems — unpredictable hours and pay, difficult working conditions, discrimination — it’s due for a major overhaul.

Up near the lake, Abi Mulligan left her job as a bartender at Cornelius Drafthouse last summer. A native of New York, Mulligan had moved down to Cornelius to be closer to family. She graduated from UNC Charlotte with an econ degree and did contract work with a few banks before turning to bartending full-time.

  • She liked how flexible the job was. She made her own schedule and the money was usually good. Then the pandemic hit, forcing restaurants and bars to scale back dramatically. She decided it was time to move on.
  • “With a lot of service industry, it ebbs and flows. Last year, it was down way more than it was up,” Mulligan tells Axios.

Now, she’s working a job as a case manager for a finance firm. She likes the predictability of it — she knows when she’ll get a paycheck, and exactly how much it’ll be.

“If I get sick, I can go to the doctor,” she adds.

Mulligan received unemployment benefits for about four weeks. It was only enough to live on, Mulligan says, because of the supplemental $600 a week the federal government provided as part of last year’s stimulus package.

  • The maximum North Carolina pays out is $350 a week, bringing a person’s total to $950 a week. But the federal government’s supplement was only offered from March-July of last year.

In a recent Florida Atlantic University poll of more than 4,000 hospitality workers, more than one-third said they would be seeking employment outside the industry over the next year.

The hospitality industry for years has struggled with a “public relations problem” of long hours, low pay and demanding guests, said Peter Ricci, director of FAU’s hospitality and tourism management program, in a statement.

  • “The industry needs more than just a PR campaign. It needs a full overhaul in its staffing levels, pay rates and employee treatment,” Ricci said.

For more than two decades, Michael Drew worked various jobs in the service industry, starting around the time he was 14. But last year after he got laid off as executive sous chef at Cedarwood Country Club, he decided to leave the restaurant business for good.

His wife had had a baby in February 2020, and Drew wasn’t seeing much of his new son in his kitchen job. He didn’t want to come home every night after his son was already asleep.

  • “I guess I got to the point where I was like, ‘I can’t have the quality of life outside of work if I stayed in this field,'” Drew tells Axios.
  • He says restaurants have to do a better job of nurturing the talent they have.

“I think definitely a big issue for restaurants and food/beverage companies is the team members are their biggest assets and you have to protect your assets. It used to be that every restaurant had stacks of applications. If somebody didn’t want to work here, onto the next one,” he added.

After being laid off, Drew enrolled in a coding bootcamp program called Tech Elevator. He now works (from home) as a technical support engineer at a company called MarginEdge.

Will Soistman is a restaurant manager who’s frequently seeing his colleagues leave to go work at Amazon, which pays $15 an hour.

  • “Even though they have to work 10-12 hour shifts,” Soistman says, “they’d rather work three of those days in a row (than) five days of $13 an hour.”

Cameron Joyce similarly chose a new path outside the service industry during the pandemic.

  • Joyce, a banquet captain at an Uptown hotel, was furloughed last year and eventually laid off. He collected unemployment for a bit, but ultimately opted not to return to the industry.
  • Instead, he accepted a new full-time job working remotely with a policy research company that supports the federal government. It’s relevant to his masters degree in public policy.

“I’m so happy to be out of that industry because it has terrible hours and is so high stress,” Joyce says.

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