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NYC’s pandemic-hit hospitality industry faces labor shortage a year on

Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy, making a spinach croquet madame sandwich in New York, U.S., May 19, 2021. REUTERS/Roselle Chen

After more than a year of being hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, New York City restaurants reopened indoor dining to 100% capacity this week, but a shortage of hospitality workers has left some restaurant and bar owners scrambling.

Pat Hughes, owner of Manhattan bar Scruffy Duffy’s, which has been shuttered for more than a year, said the bar would not reopen until he finds a good bartender – but feared that with people earning more collecting unemployment benefits and pandemic assistance that may be difficult.

“If you’re on unemployment, you’re receiving… $750 take home (weekly)… So if you’re working in a bar or restaurant, you’re not making that kind of money,” Hughes said.

Hughes said he would need to pay higher wages to attract employees, but those costs would be passed on to the consumer. “And how much more is the customer willing to pay for a hamburger or a Bud Light? It’s already expensive.”

According to job search website Joblist, hospitality job openings in New York have almost doubled in the last three months. But the current level of interest in hospitality jobs in New York on the site is down more than 40% from its peak in June, during the first wave of re-openings.

Owner and Executive Chef Paul Denamiel of French restaurant Le Rivage in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan said many former hospitality workers had decided to leave the industry altogether.

“It was a hard industry to begin with,” he said. “So a lot of people were like, ‘Ugh is this really what I want?’ A lot of those…longtime career hospitality people are just not there. They’re gone.”

Former bartender Aaron Kolatch, who worked for eight years at some of New York City’s most popular bars, is one of those people.

Kolatch decided to learn code as a hobby during the pandemic until bars reopened, but after signing up for an online introductory course on computer science, he realized he wanted to change careers to become a software engineer.

“Did I want to manage a bar in 10 years or did I want something that had the potential to maybe one day move to Jersey and get a house, if that’s what I wanted to do?” he said.

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