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How restaurants attract, retain employees amid a COVID-19 pandemic

Employees are central to restaurant reopening success

The easing of COVID-19 restrictions around the country means more restaurant companies reopening their dining rooms. For many restaurant operators, this signals the first steps on the path to “normalcy.” Employees that were previously furloughed can return to work. Amid this welcome news to many, there’s also a reckoning that some staff may not return. A number of factors can prevent an employee’s return; among them are an offer of other employment, a continuing concern for health and well-being or continuing unemployment benefits that can offset work income.

As restaurants reopen, safety and sanitation will factor greatly in employees’ comfort level to return; so too will health benefits and access to paid leave in case they get sick. How can restaurant companies bring back and retain employees in this interim period when COVID-19, although declining, remains a dangerous reality in the absence of a vaccine and effective treatment?

  • Understand the plight of employees, many of whom are the front line of contact with
  • customers
  • Erect compassionate policies that seek to ensure worker safety and remove inequalities across demographic groupings
  • Reward employees for what they do, and add a bit more during times of crisis
  • Create a more inclusive culture
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Understand the plight of employees

According to a recent webinar presented by the National Restaurant Association and MFHA, employees are on the front lines and many lack sufficient health resources. The disparity is greater for African-Americans and other minorities, who may not have access to healthcare through their employers, spouses or families. In fact, COVID-19 as we have seen,has impacted minorities more than Caucasian Americans. A CDC survey of 580 patients confirms that although African-Americans represent 18 percent of a population,they represented 33 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Likewise, according to data from the National Restaurant Association, although African-Americans compose only 29 percent of New York’s population, they make up 39 percent of COVID-19 patients. According to data from New York City, African-Americans were more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than Whites (92.3 deaths per 100,000 versus 45.2). Erect compassionate policies that seek to ensure worker safety

“We have to be intentional and connect the dots,” says Gerry Fernandez, president of Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA). “As a leader you have to be authentic.” When you reopen he says,it’s an opportunity to rebrand yourself as an organization that cares.” Fernandez recommends there be a strong emphasis on employees and zero tolerance on discrimination. This is a great opportunity to do what’s right, he adds. Even more so, during the health crisis, who needs impediments to efficiency and to the careful stewardship of customer safety?

After the pandemic, employees will need reasons to continue working for a particular restaurant. These “team members” or “partners” want and need to be heard. Quick, regular location-based staff meetings are an art that only some restaurant companies have embraced. These meetings treat each day as a new opportunity to celebrate victories, address mistakes and discuss both positive and negative customer comments.

Listening to employees and providing additional care during a time of crisis is critical. This is the case for restaurant workers during COVID-19. Photo by Louis Hansel.
Listening to employees and providing additional care during a time of crisis is critical. Photo by Louis Hansel.


Restaurants can emphasize these and other in-person or video-based communications. “(We) listen to our employees’ thoughts and ideas,” says Jose Schwank, VP of Franchise Development for Sushi Chef. He also suggests restaurant operators acknowledge when employees are striving to improve.

At Jeremiah’s Italian Ice, in times of personal tragedy, the company provides additional care to workers. For these employees’ personal friends and family, the franchise helps raise funds to show support. “We have held numerous 100% proceeds nights to give back to the community that builds our Frog Squad in times of need,” says Julianna Voyles, senior training manager for Jeremiah’s Italian Ice.

Jamal Rasoully, chief executive of The Halal Shack, makes sure his stores take the extra time to support team members who may lack the ability to seek out and understand resources available to them during the COVID-19 health crisis. He sees to it that resources are translated in employees’ native languages, because as Rasoully says, it can be frustrating to call an 800 number and not be able to navigate or get the help you need.

Reward employees for what they do, and add a bit more during times of crisis

Starbucks Coffee took a leadership position during the pandemic, staying in constant communication with stakeholders, including employees. Workers were given extra paid time off to use as they wished
Starbucks implemented enhanced pay and benefits during the early stages of the pandemic. Photo by Starbucks.

Restaurant companies that lead by example engender goodwill. Starbucks Coffee, Restaurant Brands International and Dine Brands Global,for example, have been communicating thoroughly about safety and taking action toward employee well-being. Starbucks took a leadership position during the pandemic, staying in constant communication with stakeholders, including employees. Workers were given extra paid time off to use as they wished and when they or their family members were sick. The company also provided supplemental mental health resources during a stressful time.

In addition, Starbucks employees who were healthy and chose to continue working were paid $3 extra per hour through the end of May, according to a letter to employees from Rosann Williams, company EVP and president. Other chains followed suit and provided additional pay to employees, as frontline workers risked their health to enable restaurants to continue operating during the COVID-19 crisis. Chipotle and Wendy’s each paid employees an extra 10 percent during the pandemic, according to RB Online. Increasing pay can really make a difference, when team members want to continue working but may be fearful of exposure to customers who might be carriers.

When it comes to employee retention, advancement, and the accompanying better pay, can go a long way. Many restaurants focus on providing employees’ first jobs; now they’re realizing restaurant work represents a career for many. At Jeremiah’s Ice, Voyles says that 60 percent of managers start in entry-level positions, then rise up through the ranks. When other staff witness the potential for upward mobility, that reinforces a culture of long-term potential within that restaurant or restaurant company.

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Create a more inclusive culture

Different ideas, perspectives and backgrounds have contributed to the success of many restaurant businesses. In the context of the pandemic, it’s an especially important time to make sure employees are treated well and feel comfortable coming to work. Major media reports have shown that during the COVID-19 crisis, minorities have been targeted by customers for a variety of reasons, including looking different or being blamed for the outbreak of coronavirus.

MFHA’s Fernandez recommends that restaurant managers must show by example that they are treating staff members equally. In addition, a clear communication of policies and procedures, as well as applying these evenly go a long way in establishing that all employees,regardless of their backgrounds, are an important part of the business and respected.

Use role-playing to help answer employees’ concerns and questions, suggests Fernandez. This is an effective tool to demonstrate in real time how some situations can play out. It also helps employees empathize with the situation and the characters involved. Showing how team members can interact with a respect for inclusiveness is doubly impactful: it reinforces conduct in alignment with workplace values and enhances communication within the team.

This article was originally published in Restaurant C-Suite Magazine, part of the Eatery Pulse Network magazine portfolio. To view this issue, navigate here.

Photo credit: Starbucks (featured preview image)

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1 Comment »

  1. Covid-19 has caused a major disaster and has damaged various businesses and industries. Among them all the food industry has taken the major damage. It has been a major task to bounce back and gain business for the restaurants and cafe industry. The article will definitely help us in doing that better. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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