The myth of ‘nobody wants to work’

While it’s true that some service workers haven’t returned to the industry as the pandemic begins to wind down, their reasons are more varied than the popular narrative claims

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Short North Pint House photographed in November 2020

When Heather FitzGerald walked into her job at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in Easton on March 15 of last year, she was immediately struck by the silence. There was no music playing, and all of the televisions, which were typically tuned to various sports programs, were all prepared to broadcast the same press conference led by Gov. Mike DeWine, who was gearing up to announce the steps the state would be taking to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“And that’s when DeWine came on and said, beginning at 9 p.m. that night, I believe, all bars and restaurants were shut down,” said FitzGerald, who has worked off and on in the service industry for 20 years, 13 of them in Columbus. “And we all just looked at each other, because it came so out of left field.”

Once the initial shock wore off, FitzGerald said she experienced a sense of relief, believing the shutdown would be short-lived and feeling acutely in need of a breather due to a work schedule that regularly saw her working 60- to 70-hour weeks. But as the days at home stretched into weeks and then months, and issues with a suddenly overtaxed unemployment system delayed payments to those out of work, including FitzGerald, a sense of panic began to settle in.

“It started getting scary, like, what are we going to do? Unemployment wasn’t coming, and there were no jobs to go to,” she said. “It wasn’t like you could just go work at another restaurant.”

In October, when businesses started to reopen under significantly reduced capacity, FitzGerald returned to BJ’s, only to find her hours so reduced on most weeks that she barely cleared the threshold that prevented her from collecting unemployment.

“I had to make under $175 to qualify for unemployment, and my first week back I made $179. And that continued for weeks, where we were just getting enough hours to put us over [the threshold]. I was $14 over. I was $60 over. And there’s no way you can live on that,” said FitzGerald, who was making $287 a week on unemployment, which still wasn’t enough to cover basic bills but at least left her closer than the paychecks she was earning after returning to the job. “I have a 13-year-old son, and we started a [little free] food pantry in our front yard in Linden, and it got to the point my son and I were going to the pantry in our front yard to see what we could make for dinner. And that’s when my mind went into survival mode, searching for another job, taking anything I could.”

When DeWine first announced the statewide closure, FitzGerald envisioned she would eventually return to the service industry. But in the time away, FitzGerald, who eventually landed a gig making $15 an hour scheduling COVID tests for the Ohio Department of Health, started to reconsider her devotion to a career in the field.

“For the first time in a long time I’ve been working 9 to 5, and once I got to see what that felt like, and the steadiness of the pay, it’s been life changing,” FitzGerald said. “I can still make a lot more money as a server, but not getting home at 4 o’clock in the morning, exhausted, and not dealing with the customers, and the way people treat you sometimes, it’s been a blessing. I don’t think I ever would have left the service industry if it wasn’t for COVID, but now that I have I don’t want to go back.”

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In recent weeks, a narrative has developed around the staffing issues currently being experienced by some businesses, particularly those in the service industry, with many business owners, politicians and media outlets offering up some version of “nobody wants to work” while pinning the blame for a glut of unfilled jobs on the enhanced unemployment benefits included as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill signed into law by President Joe Biden. 

“The federal government should not be paying people to stay home when there are more than 8 million jobs available — the most in our nation's history,” Sen. Rob Portman wrote in a May 19 Twitter post. “It’s time to end this expanded $300 per week federal unemployment supplement and help get folks back to work.”

But the idea that workers would rather collect unemployment than earn a paycheck doesn't capture the complexity of the issue. For one, it ignores the fact that many workers, including FitzGerald, were returning to fewer hours, fewer patrons and fewer tips, potentially putting their health at risk in order to make less money than they would have staying on unemployment.

The industry was also hit with waves of reopenings and closings throughout the pandemic, which were generally accompanied by shifting regulations, making an already unstable career even less reliable and pushing some workers to find jobs in more reliable industries, or to pursue long-held passions. And that’s before getting into the chronically low wages offered across the field, which has been central to the national push for a $15 minimum wage, or the damaging issues that can often go hand in hand with the job, including high instances of drug and alcohol addiction and a culture of sexual harassment.

“I think people are realizing over the course of the pandemic that restaurants aren’t the most healthy environments,” said Andy Smith, an industry veteran who co-founded the Columbus chapter of Ben’s Friends, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those in the service industry get and stay sober. “There’s a lot of drinking, a lot of partying, and we kind of got beat up over quarantine by society. ... I think people are migrating away from the business a little bit, and that’s why we’re seeing a huge issue in staffing everywhere from Jimmy John’s to fine dining restaurants.”

“People don’t realize we’re stuck in spaces where there’s immense amounts of substance abuse, harassment, unlivable wages and being overworked,” said Dru Batte, who worked at Brothers Drake Meadery for four years prior to the lockdown but has since taken a job in addiction services, which she described as an extension of the grassroots work she had done previously in service of harm reduction. “That dialogue that people don’t want to work … perpetuates a lot of the stigma we have in the service industry, where as employees we’re not seen as valuable, where we’re seen as disposable. And public perception is already that folks in the service industry don’t deserve a good wage. In light of the pandemic, it’s shocking to me people are still having these conversations. … It’s not that people don’t want to work, it’s that we’re sick of working in unsafe, underpaid positions.”

If there’s any potential silver lining to the current labor conversation, it might be that businesses are finally starting to consider things like wages and company culture, driven in part by a pandemic that appears to have opened the eyes of at least some consumers to the reality that the current financial model for the industry isn't viable, and that larger structural changes could be forthcoming. Wolf’s Ridge Brewing co-owner Bob Szuter said in a February interview with Alive that he intended to raise the minimum wage for all workers at the business to at least $15, which could lead to higher costs for customers.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point we have to raise prices, and that’s going to be hard to do,” Szuter said. “But at the same time I can’t continue running a business where we’re not paying some staff, particularly kitchen workers, really enough to live on.”

While there’s growing hope the industry could be in for a larger post-pandemic restructuring, its current realities have continued to push some away, including Batte, who started working in hospitality at age 14 but said she had more recently become disillusioned with the work, taking the time away afforded by the pandemic to dedicate herself to the things she cared about more deeply, including activism, community outreach and art.

In May 2020, at the height of the most recent wave of the Black lives matter movement, Batte helped turn Brothers Drake into an outpost for protesters, and in the months that followed she created artwork for an exhibition inspired by the sense of isolation that artists felt living amid COVID-19 — in addition to landing a more rewarding full-time job in addiction services. “It’s really been great,” Batte said, “especially with the extraordinary need for the assistance we can provide.”

Like Batte, Adria Jerman had long considered making a drastic career change, with the myriad changes brought about by COVID-19 providing an unexpected jump-start. 

“It was one of those things where the pandemic pushed me in the direction I was already going in a faster, more intense manner,” said Jerman from her new home in Hocking Hills, where she now lives and works as a stained-glass artist after logging a bulk of the last six years at Yellow Brick Pizza. “[The shutdown] gave me the opportunity to focus on the one thing I wanted to focus on, and I don’t think I could have accelerated my skill level and my ability to market my work without that free time. I went from making some things to supporting myself, so it’s been a drastic shift.”

Across interviews, everyone stressed the essential role that time played in making the decision to leave the industry, with the pandemic and attendant lockdowns allowing more space for soul-searching than the demanding work hours typically would allow. 

Tamara Filip, for one, said she embraced the time off as an opportunity to make big, beneficial changes to her own life. She quit drinking and picked up running, all while pivoting away from a career in the service industry in order to study for an Associate of Applied Science degree in welding.

“I think the overall thing is that a lot of people have been forced into this position where they’ve had to reevaluate where they are in life, and they’ve been like, ‘Maybe I could do something else? Why am I settling for this when there’s more I could probably accomplish?’” said Filip, who spent the two years prior to the pandemic with Dough Mama, the latest in a diverse, long-running career within the service industry that has included stints working as an executive chef and running corporate kitchens, among other jobs. “A lot of people have had time to sit and revel in where their life has been, and what they might want to do with their future. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that they hate the industry, or that they’ve hated the companies they’ve worked for, or that they've disliked any of the work. It’s just that there’s really been an opportunity to think, and maybe to discover new things about themselves.”

“I really believe that’s more of the overall experience and not, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go back to work,’” Filip continued. “I mean, I fully realize people aren’t being paid fair wages. That’s absolutely true. But there have always been those of us who were like, ‘I’ll find a way around this. I can still manage and I can still get by and I can still live.’ But it’s gotten to a point now where people aren’t willing to settle for less. They know there’s more. And they know they can do more.”