For the past several years, restaurants have added more than half a million seasonal jobs in the summer as consumer spending ticks up and tourism bolsters business. But the coronavirus pandemic has forced the industry to change the way it operates, leaving questions about what the future looks like and how many jobs will be available for workers this year.
It’s a sharp contrast from trends in recent months. Prior to the pandemic, a historically tight labor market was pushing employers to get creative to find and keep talent. But if restaurants are able to win back customers, the summer jobs could follow.
One in six restaurant businesses operate on a seasonal basis, and they depend on that revenue to stay afloat during the off season. At the moment, many restaurants have turned largely to carryout, curbside pickup and delivery to make up for lost dollars.
“What you’re seeing with a lot of restaurants is certainly an increased focus on takeout and delivery. It’s a good way for us to try to get some revenue into the door, allow us to keep the lights on a little bit longer,” said Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association.
“The biggest challenge right now is whether or not restaurants are going to be able to open under these circumstances,” he said. “We’re dealing with social distancing, different states are approaching different timelines for when to reopen. And we’re really not sure whether that consumer demand is going to be there that’s going to allow us bring 500,000 people on to our restaurants this summer.”
The latest data from the NPD Group shows restaurant trends improving somewhat in recent weeks. Through April 26, U.S. restaurant chain transactions were down 32%, compared to a 36% decline the prior week.
The market researcher projects some 300,000-plus restaurants will potentially reopen for on-premise dining in the next two weeks, which will help industry volume, but won’t return to full capacity due to social distancing guidelines.
“Government relief payments and overall improvement in consumer spending most likely contributed to the easing of transaction declines,” David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor, said in a statement. “Looking to next week, we might anticipate the upward trend continuing as restaurants begin to reopen their dining rooms.”
Continuation of that upward trend is something entrepreneur David Barr is hopeful will happen this summer. Barr is a franchisee and franchisor in a wide swath of businesses ranging from Yum Brands’ Taco Bell and KFC restaurants to TITLE Boxing Gyms and Lash Studios. His restaurants right now are focusing on carryout and drive-thru business.
Typically he sees a 5% boost in business during the summer months and has turned to teen hiring in recent years as the labor market has gotten tighter. Right now, it’s not labor market competition, but enhanced unemployment that is making hiring challenging.
“We would expect this summer for our fast food restaurants to be fairly robust in hiring. We believe economic stimulus will be full in effect and that people will want to be out,” Barr said. “Our biggest competitor for talent is no longer the fast food [restaurant] or other shops across the street, it’s the unemployment bureau. With the $600 additional unemployment, we find that its very difficult to find talent — we hope that in July that will open up.”
Mya Brooks, 16, just got hired at one of Barr’s KFC locations in Auburn, Alabama. Brooks said this is her first summer job, and while she’s typically focused on playing travel basketball and her studies, the change in schedules this spring has allowed for her to pick up work, something she plans to continue to focus on this summer.
“I like to be there for my community any way I can,” Brooks said, adding that working through the coronavirus pandemic has allowed her to step in and help during a time when people might be uneasy.
The National Restaurant Association’s Kennedy said that if restaurants are operational this summer and customer demand follows suit, the jobs will be there for teen and seasonal workers like Brooks.
“If states allow us to reopen, if we can find a way to get the customers back in the door, that’s when we see teenagers being hired the summer,” he said.