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Long waits, short staffs: Kansas City restaurant workers deserve better pay, treatment

·4 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us more aware of many inequities, including how spoiled the restaurant/retail industry has made us customers — despite the short shrift its workers have been given in pay, benefits and, too often, gratitude.

As service sector businesses, especially restaurants, struggle to re-staff, we formerly coddled customers rush back to be waited on exactly as before — only to find frequently long waits due to a lack of help. Those employees who have gamely returned, as well as those who bravely never left, are each doing the work of several people, and shouldn’t be met with pre-pandemic expectations.

Even Bill Teel, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association, has caught himself feeling a consumer’s frustration at times. And he certainly hears all about the slow service his friends are getting in restaurants. “I have to remind them to be patient, that it’s difficult getting enough employees. They’re struggling to keep up.”

He hears about the eating-out tension from his fast-food employee daughter, too. “They don’t have enough people,” Teel says. “She tells me stories of how they just struggle every night to keep up with the drive-thru and get the orders filled fast enough. I think it’s just kind of like that everywhere. They just can’t quite deliver the level of service they’re used to delivering.”

Restaurant and retail workers who’ve returned have done so in the teeth of a resurgent COVID-19 delta variant, as well as a scarcity of colleagues by their sides — not to mention stir-crazy kids at home and low pay at work. They deserve bigger paychecks, improved benefits and livable shifts from their employers.

In some cases, they are indeed getting higher pay and a few more benefits, Teel says: “The pendulum’s kind of swung over in favor of the workers, and restaurants are just going to have to pay more.”

Teel said the June 12 end to federally enhanced unemployment payments in Missouri has “helped, but it’s still difficult to find enough employees.” In Kansas, the $300 weekly federal unemployment boost ends with the program’s scheduled cessation Sept. 6.

Along with higher pay, workers need more appreciation. Wait staff need and warrant unprecedented respect, grace, kindness, patience and, yes, generosity from their customers.

Nor is it just about the servers and staff, though our gratitude for them should be made abundantly obvious. It’s also about your favorite restaurants’ actual ability to survive. If they can’t attract and retain happy, motivated workers, they can’t stay open. Period.

Smokin’ Joe’s Bar-B-Q in Olathe announced its closing last month due to “continuous price increases on everything, a shortage of employees and repairs.” And Overland Park’s Smokeys on the Blvd BBQ has closed due to pandemic losses. Employees there were repeatedly challenged over mask requirements, “often hatefully, by people who simply refuse,” owner Winston Riley said last summer.

The heavy lifting that’s needed now must be done by the restaurant industry itself. It’s a new world, the COVID-19 pandemic having changed the landscape as surely as an F1 tornado. New calculations and expectations are required to attract and keep the best restaurant workers. Perhaps owners and shareholders can step up to help. Outgoing Kansas City health director Dr. Rex Archer argues that paid sick leave is a must. He’s right.

Then it’s up to the rest of us. For now, we have to readjust our thinking about how quickly we can get a table, how doted-on we can expect to be, and how thoughtful we should be in return.

This past Sunday at a Kansas City metro chain sit-down restaurant, one had to wait at times to even encounter an employee, as the hostess was helping out in the back and the entire bar area was shut down due to a worker’s absence. Management was in the kitchen as well. Yet, as few as the place could seat, the more patient customers left happy.

This pandemic has changed nearly everything, and that should include our dispositions. We clearly need to reset our assumptions when shopping and dining out — as well as the working conditions for those who cater to us.

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