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We Got Served

Where have all our restaurant workers gone? The Great Resignation has Las Vegas sandwiched into a tough spot

So much for the power of love. It turns out that all our lavish professions of support for “essential” restaurant workers amid the thick of the pandemic weren’t quite enough to keep them around in the aftermath. The new daily special at your favorite spot is likely a sour dish called “Help Wanted.” In other words, there’s a dramatic shortage of restaurant workers in Las Vegas and across the U.S. According to the National Restaurant Association, 78 percent of restaurant operators say they don’t have enough employees to meet customer demand, resulting in reduced hours, smaller menus, and shrunken seating capacity. That fact seems to hit with particularly grim resonance in Las Vegas, a city purportedly built on hospitality. We should be a little extra worried.

Where have all our restaurant workers gone? It’s a disappearing act worthy of a Strip magic show. I’ve talked to nearly a dozen people at various points on the food-and-beverage industry map — from servers and bartenders to food journalists to industry executives — and their hypotheses jigsaw together to form a troubling composite of a long-neglected culinary underclass that’s having a moment of deep reckoning with its chosen occupation.

The fact that restaurant workers are having a reckoning at all is kind of a big deal. Restaurant work — a harried, nonstop collective hustle that, I’m told, can be symphonically gratifying, yes, but is also psychically draining and physically punishing — doesn’t seem to allow much time for a hard pause and a long look in the mirror. There’s simply too much work to do. In that sense, the pandemic forced a reboot for a stratum of workers who, previously, barely had time to come up for air. Between stimulus money and unemployment checks, a little breathing room was, at last, an affordable luxury. In some ways, what we’re witnessing is a capsule lesson in what a basic income can do for people: hoist from the workaday fray a stable platform from which to finally consider your options. Some workers went back to school to learn a new skill. Some got their real estate licenses. Some discovered a new job market in the expanding realm of remote work opportunities. Others, constitutionally suited to the credo of tireless hustle that reigns in restaurant work culture, plunged into the gig economy.

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This isn’t to say that working in the food and beverage industry is hell. It’s more like volume-driven, gratuity-powered restaurant work is its own kind of golden handcuffs; the churn gives and the churn depletes at the same time. Matthew Seevers was a longtime bartender at the Fiesta Henderson before he was laid off in March 2020. A member of the Culinary Union, Seevers is waiting for the Fiesta Henderson to reopen — waiting, but certainly not idling. He’s since been cobbling together a paycheck with two part-time bartending jobs at Virgin Hotels and Area 15, and he’s also gone back to school; he expects to graduate from CSN in fall 2022 with an associate’s degree in cybersecurity. “I wasn’t planning on starting a new career, but I had to find a plan B,” he tells me. He enjoys bartending — “I love building rapport with locals, I love when they keep coming back, it’s like a family situation” — but now he’s got options. That’s someone with 17 years of experience eyeing the door.

Which raises another question: In the turbid wake of The Great Resignation, what happens to all those person-years, that compounded expertise, those relationships, all that emotional intelligence, all those intangibles that compose the mosaic of hospitality culture? For a city whose brand banks on it and whose identity is rooted in it, this isn’t just a labor shortage. It’s a perniciously specific kind of brain drain — amid industries (food service and accommodations) that already have some of the highest turnover rates. Also as I write this, the Culinary Union has staged two marches on the Strip to draw attention to the fact that 21,000 union workers have not been hired back to their old jobs since the shutdown. It’s not hard to imagine how such austerity measures are impacting service on the Strip.

One of the dismal ironies lurking beneath this is that despite Las Vegas’ vaunted service and hospitality, we’ve never treated our rank-and-file workers as well as we should. The might of the Culinary Union is an exception in a “right to work” state whose spirit animal is something more like Station Casinos, which has been feuding bitterly with the Culinary for decades. Off the Strip, where collective bargaining power fades, it was only in 2019 that the state Legislature passed a law setting annual minimum wage increases through July 2024; the last boost was in 2010. A ballot question in 2022 will propose to amend the Nevada Constitution to provide an across-the-board $12 minimum wage and tie it to the federal minimum wage. I don’t imagine it’s something that restaurants — already navigating skinny profit margins, rising food costs, and supply-chain problems — are looking forward to. For their part, some restaurants are toying with pay structure in hopes of attracting and retaining talent. Brian Howard, owner of Sparrow + Wolf, is experimenting with tip-sharing to smooth out pay disparities. (Tip-sharing isn’t exactly considered progressive, but at least he’s questioning perverse compensation structures we consider “natural.”) And, for a short time during the pandemic, popular Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam allowed patrons to pay an optional 3 percent fee that goes toward employee health insurance. If these tentative experiments are the start of chipping away at the strange, calcified micro-economies of restaurants, great.

Diners, too, are part of the help that’s wanted. As consumers, we need to rethink some of the comfortable assumptions we literally bring to the table every time we dine out. Maybe we should be willing to pay more for restaurant food. Maybe tipping as a form of wage support should go away in favor of fair, consistent pay structures. Maybe we can remember that, behind the tourist-facing façade, Las Vegas is a town of proud, truly essential workers who make our promise of hospitality a reality.

(The following contributed background for this article: Eric C. Gladstone of Feast of Friends; Greg Thilmont and Mitchell Wilburn, dining writers; Alexandra Dazlich of the Nevada Restaurant Association; Bethany Khan of the Culinary Union; Lorraine Moss, KNPR producer; and writers Kim Foster Brittany Bronson.)

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As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.