The restaurant staff shortage is on the decline for the US job market.

(Bloomberg) — The staffing shortage that plagued U.S. restaurants and fast-food chains during the pandemic is finally starting to ease.

National chains, including Del Taco Restaurants Inc., Portillo’s Inc. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., say it’s becoming easier to find employees, with staffing at or above pre-COVID-19 levels. Across the country, employment at food and beverage outlets is fast approaching what it was in early 2020, figures from the Labor Department show.

The change signals a major shift for the US job market, and a significant boost for foodservice providers, which struggled to bring workers back after layoffs in 2020. For now, it may mean the an end, or at least a relaxation, of restaurants and the closure of dining rooms due to lack of staff. And benefits like $200 signing bonuses for entry-level employees are likely to be harder to come by, as runaway inflation and the end of government stimulus push more Americans back to work.

“It’s much better to find people now than it used to be,” Tim Hackbardt, Del Taco’s director of marketing, said in an interview. “That has improved dramatically. It’s less of a thing to worry about at night.”

The chain of about 600 restaurants, acquired this year by Jack in the Box Inc., is back at full staff. It’s also less difficult to keep those hourly workers and managers from quitting, Hackbardt said.

The improvement is particularly pronounced for employers with the means to offer better pay and benefits. A lot of times, it’s the big companies like Chipotle, which says their hourly wage is now more than $16 an hour, on average, about $1 more than last summer. The burrito vendor says his staffing levels are “much higher” than they were two years ago.

The change highlights both the evolutionary trajectory of Covid-19, which had kept some front-line workers away due to infection concerns, and a labor market showing broader signs of easing. Last month, a steady stream of people entering the workforce lifted the US unemployment rate from a five-decade low. At the same time, the labor participation rate, the proportion of people who are working or looking for work, advanced to 62.4%, matching the highest level since March 2020.

“In the last month or so, we’ve seen a huge influx of labor supply,” said Elizabeth Crofoot, senior economist at Lightcast, a labor researcher. “There are more people coming through the ranks, from the fringes, willing to take on additional jobs, to look for jobs.”

Job openings for accommodation and food service have been falling for the past two months, and are down from a high in December of last year, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. Employment at US food and beverage outlets was 11.7 million in August, down from a low of 6.3 million during the pandemic, and close to March 2020 levels.

Retention may also be improving, with Starbucks Corp., which is investing in better employee training, reporting a recent reduction in turnover rates among workers. Chains like Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc. and Wendy’s Co. said in August that their turnover rates and staffing were improving.

There are multiple issues at play. Workers who were dependent on pandemic stimulus checks and locked out of the job market no longer have those benefits. The resumption of face-to-face education and ongoing childcare has allowed more women to join the workforce, Crofoot said. And organizing drives sweeping the country at companies like Inc. and Trader Joe’s are also helping, even as employers like Starbucks fight back against such efforts.

“It bodes well for that industry in terms of the working conditions, the salary, the benefits and the ability to attract different types of people, who may want to take those jobs now if they know they have some kind of protection,” he said. Crofoot. .

Inflation is also making jobs more of a necessity, he said. Even as wages accelerate, restaurant workers still receive relatively low wages, and higher food and gas prices mean they may struggle to make ends meet. The US personal savings rate as a share of disposable income has plunged in recent months to a 13-year low, following a pandemic-fueled stimulus surge.

Crofoot cautioned, however, that gains in staffing may be limited to larger chains that have the pockets to support pay rises and better benefits and training. More specialized positions are also difficult to fill.

In Chicago, Vincent Colombet, owner of La Boulangerie & Co., can’t find pastry chefs, cleaners and drivers for his production plant where croissants, baguettes and sourdough loaves are made. One of his bakers recently quit, despite the $20 to $25 an hour Colombet pays for the role.

“Where we are really fighting is qualified people with experience. Confectioners, bakers, that is very, very hard,” Colombet said in an interview. “Especially when it’s early mornings, night jobs and weekends. That’s where we struggle the most.”

However, Colombet can staff its three cafes, where it starts at $15 an hour, more easily. “We have no problem finding people for entry-level positions,” she said.

Meanwhile, the chains offer new advantages to stand out from the competition. For example, Portillo’s, the Italian beef chain based in Oak Brook, Ill., now offers discounted company stock to the chain’s cooks and servers.

“This is something that big companies have always done. A lot of boomers would say it’s one of the best ways they amassed wealth,” CEO Michael Osanloo said in an interview. He said the company is targeting 10% for the discount, and the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive for the program they’ve called Beef Stock.

In addition to raising pay by several dollars in the past two years, to about $16 an hour, on average, the chain late last year began offering gym passes to its workers at a reduced price.

The company’s staffing levels have returned to pre-Covid levels, Osanloo said. “People are staying.”

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