The tables have turned at New York City restaurants since the layoffs and furloughs of the COVID lockdowns — with bosses giving in to demands from prospective staffers that were previously unheard of.
Waitstaff and kitchen help at restaurants citywide are now asking for holidays and weekends off — a demand that many proprietors would have laughed off as absurd before the pandemic — even as they hold out for higher pay and benefits, restaurant owners told Side Dish.
“They can say they are available just a few days a week, or that they won’t work weekends or New Year’s Eve — something I would have been fired for when I started in this industry,” said Sean Christie, co-founder of Carver Road Hospitality. “But if they’re good, we make concessions because we know there’s other places they’ll go if we don’t hire them.”
It’s a bizarre reckoning for many veteran hospitality insiders. Big restaurant and hotel chains fired staff by the thousands during lockdowns, often cutting off their insurance in the midst of a global pandemic. People who lost jobs took government money if they could. Some went back to school. Others moved out of New York — and the hospitality industry altogether.
That has left a dearth of workers in the Big Apple for restaurateurs in particular, who are meanwhile grappling with soaring inflation costs and a crowd of customers who in many cases are only coming to the office three days a week.
“It’s brutal,” says nightlife veteran and restaurateur Richie Romero, whose 11,000 square-foot club Nebula in Midtown, the largest new nightclub to open last year, is now open three nights a week – Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.
“Everyone is asking for more money, from hourly employees to management level. People also want flexible schedules,” Romero adds. “People are also more unreliable these days. They’ll accept a position and then quit three days later, saying they found something better.”
When it comes to schedules, hospitality workers still have the upper hand — and small-business owners are feeling the pain, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
“In today’s tight labor market, wages have gone up and signing and referral bonuses are more common,” Rigie said. “Some restaurants are also trying to offer more flexible schedules to employees, which is tough when nights, weekends and holidays are prime time and when workers are needed most.”
Carver Road’s Christie said he has been getting creative to make it all work. This past weekend, he opened Starchild, a rooftop bar and lounge in the new Civilian Hotel in Midtown, and is slated to open Rosevale Restaurant + Cocktail Room at the same venue in mid-November.
To ensure that the openings are smooth, Christie said his team is “cross training” staff to work more than one job, and giving people with “supervisory and lead positions” more responsibility and pay. He’s also holding more “upfront conversations” between staff and management about vacation days.
“If managers know who won’t be available to work holidays, then they can fill the gap in advance,” Christie says.
“There’s a new reality,” he added, noting that the change began during the pandemic when people had time to “reflect, reassess and reset” their priorities.
“If somebody has to do something to be present in their kids’ lives, we get it. The hospitality business means working non traditional hours. But now, maybe people want to take time off or take a trip during the holidays as a shift to prioritize mental health.
“Prior to last year, I never told anyone you can have Saturdays off, or filled a full time position with a part-time employee,” Christie adds. “It’s better to have them two or three days a week than not at all.”
As a recession looms, however, the tables might turn yet again. James Mallios, managing partner at upscale restaurant group Civetta Hospitality, which opened Amali at Chiotes Hall on the Upper East Side this week, said he is no longer as willing to make concessions as he was a few months ago.
During the pandemic, people asked for wage increases of 15% to 20% — and they often got them, even if they were already under an employment contract, Mallios said.
“People wanted to renegotiate their contracts,” he said. “They wanted more money in part because of inflation. I was just saying yes whether or not they deserved it or if I could afford it because I didn’t have any options.”
Just a few days, ago, however, Mallios got a phone call from an employee who said he had a late night at a Halloween party and “didn’t feel” like coming to work a brunch shift. A few months ago he might have been disciplined. This time, he was fired.
“He didn’t say he was sick, just that he didn’t feel like it,” Mallios griped. “It happened before and we tolerated stuff like that for a long time. But the situation is turning.
“I think the economic uncertainty has a lot of people skittish on the employee side,” he added. “People understand that we are going into a recession and that changes the dynamic. Restaurants are like the canary in the coal mines. We see everything first.”
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