Brandon Medina spends Wednesday through Sunday evenings cooking for Ethan Stowell Restaurants’ rotating pop-ups that started during the pandemic at the former location of gastropub Bramling Cross in Ballard. Medina says he loves his team of three, composed of himself, the chef and the sous chef. And he loves cooking, something he’s dedicated his life to over the last six years. 

But recently, his job as a prep and line cook has been wearing him down. Like many other restaurants in the country, he says Stowell’s pop-ups are short-staffed due to a severe labor shortage in the hospitality industry that’s making it extremely difficult to hire cooks, servers and bartenders as restaurants reopen and demand for labor surges.

With people dining out in numbers again in Seattle, Medina says it’s hard to keep up with the orders coming out of the dining room. Business income in Washington’s food service industry was up around 67% in the second quarter of 2021 from the second quarter of 2020, back to just 3% shy of 2019’s second quarter business income for the industry, per the Washington State Department of Commerce.

To make things even busier, one pandemic behavior change that might be here to stay is the continuing popularity of to-go orders. Some days, Medina’s team has 60 to-go preorders before dinner service even starts. And because of widespread supply chain issues that are causing food purveyors to come up short on orders, Medina sometimes doesn’t get the ingredients he needs to prep until after dinner service starts — making for hectic shifts where he’s prepping and cooking at the same time.

“Most days, I’m really over it,” he says. “Every cook I know is overworked. Every cook I know is tired.” 

Food service work has always been notorious for long hours, short breaks and hard working conditions, but it’s gotten even harder during the pandemic. Many restaurant workers in Seattle are just as exhausted as Medina, working extra hard to make up for staff shortages, unable to take days off with nobody to cover shifts. Front-of-house workers say they’re tired of worrying about catching the coronavirus at work and arguing with customers who won’t follow mask mandates. Some restaurant industry veterans are so fed up from working through the pandemic that they’re leaving the industry altogether even after bearing through restaurant shutdowns, rapidly changing pandemic restrictions and the extreme uncertainty that plagued the industry through the pandemic’s first year. 

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The staffing shortage continues

Medina says he doesn’t blame Stowell for the tough working conditions. Stowell says he’d like to have more staff at all his restaurants to take pressure off his employees. He just can’t find the people to hire and has even postponed the reopening of his downtown restaurants because of a lack of staff.

Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, says the labor shortage is one of the main forces making restaurant work difficult right now. 

With restaurants reopening, the demand for restaurant labor is as high as it was before the pandemic, Anton says. But the leisure and hospitality industry, of which food service is the largest component, was down 69,000 jobs in June compared with January 2020, almost double the losses seen in any other industry, according to the state Department of Commerce. And as of the second week of August, over 23,000 people in the industry were still claiming unemployment benefits in Washington, according to the state’s Employment Security Department. 

Brandon Medina works at Ethan Stowell’s Bramling Cross on Ballard Avenue in Seattle. Stowell says he’d like to hire more workers to ease the workload on existing staff, but the ongoing labor shortage in Washington and beyond has been a roadblock. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

With three major pandemic-era federal unemployment programs expiring on Labor Day, some of these 23,000 workers might go back to work and provide some relief for their co-workers and restaurant owners. But states that withdrew early from federal unemployment programs this summer saw only marginally better job growth than states that kept the programs, according to a paper published Aug. 20 by researchers at Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Toronto. The study casts doubt on the popular idea that canceling unemployment benefits will end the labor shortage. 

Anton is telling members of his association not to count on cooks and servers coming back to work when benefits end. Even if every single hospitality worker currently claiming unemployment benefits returned to Washington’s hospitality workforce, the industry would still be short nearly 50,000 workers, many of whom Anton says left for other industries or retired during the pandemic.

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In the meantime, Anton says he’s been “pleading with the public to show grace and to show patience and to show kindness” to restaurant workers.

Tough conditions get tougher

Restaurants in Seattle and across the country are increasing wages to attract workers, but for people like Medina, pay raises don’t make up for exhausting working conditions. Desi Caswell, who left the food service industry in May after five years working as a server and host at the Capitol Hill Italian fine dining restaurant Spinasse, also says higher pay couldn’t have kept her at the restaurant. 

Caswell started working there part time while going to Seattle University and kept working at the restaurant once she graduated. She says she always felt like Spinasse management had her back, and the restaurant was extremely careful about pandemic safety — staff conducted temperature checks for anybody dining-in, limited parties to six people and asked customers to put on masks whenever a server approached tables. 

But working at the restaurant during the pandemic was hard anyway, partially because of customers who disagreed with Spinasse’s rules intended to mitigate the risk of coronavirus transmission. Sometimes, she had to kick people out of the restaurant.

Until Washington state reinstated a mask mandate Aug. 23, businesses had been left to make their own rules on indoor masking for several months, and throughout the pandemic, restaurants implemented COVID-19 safety measures in wildly different ways.

“I had adult males yell at me because they didn’t want to wear a mask or because our policies were too harsh,” Caswell says. 

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Desi Caswell, seen here in July 2020, worked as a host and server at Spinasse for five years, but quit in May after the stress of working in a restaurant in a pandemic became too much to handle.  (Courtesy of Desi Caswell)

Caswell navigated these types of conflicts once or twice per week after Spinasse reopened for dine-in service, making work a much more stressful environment. Stuart Lane, chef and part-owner of Spinasse, says he heard of something like this happening to somebody every other night. 

At the same time, the amount of hand-washing and hand-sanitizing required for the job caused Caswell’s skin to become inflamed. She also had to set up and take down furnishings for the extra patio space that Spinasse created during the pandemic to facilitate outdoor dining. This meant hauling propane tanks and heaters out in the morning and back in every night — hard manual labor that was not formerly part of the job.

Eventually, she says the level of stress she experienced while working caused breakouts of stress-induced eczema. 

And last spring, Spinasse was short-staffed, like many other restaurants. Lane says it’s been hard to hire enough people to staff the restaurant, and has been postponing the reopening of Artusi, Spinasse’s sister restaurant, because he can’t find people to work.

After a particularly busy night serving a large section in April, Caswell says she was on the verge of tears, realizing she couldn’t emotionally or physically keep working the job she used to love. She gave notice and left in May. 

Now she manages Corre, a boutique shoe store in Madrona co-founded by Luis Guillermo Velez, another Spinasse server who left to focus full time on his business in June. Alisha Chou, another former Spinasse server, also left the restaurant industry recently in search of better benefits and found work as an administrative culinary assistant at the Seattle-based scientific cookbook company Modernist Cuisine.

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For those who are still working in restaurants, the labor shortage has made shifts harder and time off more difficult to come by. 

The molotes at El Cabrito are a hit in Burien, but running the restaurant has been tough on owner Letica Sánchez, who has had to work seven-day weeks because she can’t find enough employees. (Jade Yamazaki Stewart / The Seattle Times)

At the Capitol Hill location of U:Don, a fast-casual udon noodle shop, manager Michael Tenjoma says that because of staff shortages, “everybody is expected to do more.” He’s been trying to hire people but gets few applicants. U:Don used to have six people working shifts and is now down to four most of the time. So Tenjoma and other employees have to work harder to pick up the slack, washing dishes, making udon noodles and ringing people up at the cash register. Even the owner washes dishes at the restaurant now to make up for the staff shortage. 

Letica Sánchez, the owner of El Cabrito, a Oaxacan restaurant in Burien, says she’s exhausted from working seven-day weeks. But Sánchez can’t take time off because she doesn’t have any staff to make moles and gorditas while she rests. 

Multiple issues coming to a head

To compound matters, tense interactions with customers can be more complicated than disagreements over masking and social distancing.

For example, Min Cong Huang, a server at Nine Way, a Sichuan noodle shop in Redmond, says customers have a hard time understanding why wait times for food are sometimes so long — he says it’s because the restaurant is seeing “unprecedented” numbers of to-go orders, driven by people using third-party delivery apps like Grubhub and Uber Eats more during the pandemic. 

At Rhein Haus, a Bavarian beer hall with locations in Seattle, Tacoma and Leavenworth, chef Kelly Wilson says pandemic-related supply chain issues have caused the restaurant to periodically run out of tater tots — consequently, some customers get frustrated with servers because they don’t understand how a restaurant could not be able to source a product as mundane as cut potatoes. 

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And some restaurant workers are still concerned about catching the coronavirus at work. Though more than 150 Seattle restaurants are now requiring proof of vaccination or recent negative coronavirus tests to dine-in, neither the state nor the city of Seattle requires indoor diners to show proof of vaccination — a rule enacted by some other cities this summer, including New York and San Francisco.

Since early August at Café Lago, an Italian restaurant in Montlake, hosts have been asking diners for proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result no more than 72 hours old to get into the dining room. Kyle Novak, a server and bartender at the restaurant, says overall, customers are happy about the rule. But in the first couple of weeks of August, a few customers showed up without proof of vaccination and were angry when staff turned them away. 

Those conflicts have become less common now as more restaurants in Seattle are requiring proof of vaccination. But without a city mandate, each restaurant still makes its own rules.

Fred Ness, a server and cashier at RoRo BBQ & Grill in Wallingford, says he has never stopped wearing a mask throughout the pandemic because his restaurant doesn’t check vaccination status, and he doesn’t know where his customers are coming from.

“You never know whether somebody has had contact with somebody with COVID-19,” says Miguel Gálvez, a server at Antigua Guatemala Restaurant in Kent, who echoes Ness’ concerns. 

Chef Stuart Lane, who owns Spinasse, hasn’t been able to reopen Artusi on Capitol Hill (photographed here in May 2020) because he can’t find enough people to work. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

At Spinasse, Lane says he’s considering requiring proof of vaccination, but he’s taking his time to make a decision because enforcing these rules can be complex. For example, he’s unsure whether he’d allow children under 12 (who aren’t eligible for the shot) into the restaurant when they could carry the virus as easily as an unvaccinated adult.

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Without a clear end to the pandemic in sight, and with Anton, the Washington Hospitality Association CEO, saying the labor shortage in the restaurant industry is unlikely to end soon, restaurant workers in Washington are in for tough working conditions for the foreseeable future.

Those unfavorable conditions, of course, could further exacerbate the worker shortage as burnout increases.

Medina says he doesn’t think he’ll last another year cooking. And he’s pessimistic about the industry he’s dedicated himself to. Though he wants to be a chef, he wouldn’t want that responsibility with the current state of restaurants, he says.

Now, Medina says he sometimes wishes he didn’t love cooking, so it wouldn’t bother him so much when he thinks about moving on to other industries.