Restaurateurs are hopeful that the end of enhanced COVID-19 unemployment benefits on Monday will push New Yorkers to get back to work.
New York City restaurant owners getting burned by a shortage of workers during the pandemic told The Post they anticipate that people will start re-applying for open positions now that they can no longer reap the weekly $300 boost from the federal government.
Jeremy Wladis, president of The Restaurant Group, said he’s already heard from a former staffer at one of his Washington, DC eateries, who called to say, “Now that my unemployment is up I’m ready to come back.”
Wladis, who runs Good Enough To Eat, Harvest Kitchen and Hachi Machi in Manhattan, said finding workers has been “crazy difficult,” though he noted his going rate for servers is between $30 and $40 an hour.
“Why am I having a hard time finding people to work and there’s so many people collecting unemployment?,” he asked.
“Logically, it makes sense that once unemployment benefits stop more people will apply for jobs,” said Stephen Starr, who owns nine Manhattan eateries including pan-Asian Chelsea restaurant Buddakan.
Starr is scheduled to reopen a host of eateries he closed during the depths of the pandemic, including The Clocktower on Madison Square Park, next month — but hasn’t been able to find enough staff.
“There’s restaurants we closed that we need to reopen in October but we’re having real difficulties getting people,” he said. “We’re feeling this shortage on all levels from dishwasher to general manager.”
Jeremy Merrin, who operates the city’s Havana Central chain of Cuban eateries, also said staffing was at “crisis levels,” despite him offering incentives, such as increased pay. He’s even been forced to shut sections of his restaurant and refuse takeout orders during peak periods because he does not have enough employees to keep up with demand.
“We’re hoping to find more staff when the benefits end,” Merrin said. “It’s unbelievable there are so many people claiming unemployment and everyone I know in the restaurant industry can’t find enough staff.”
Some business owners have been offering higher wages or other incentives such as signing bonus to attract staff amid the labor shortage — but even those tactics don’t always work.
Simon Kieik, 34, general manager of “The Boutique” bistro and bar in Astoria, Queens said some prospective employees asked to be paid in cash under the table so they could keep reaping the benefits.
“I couldn’t find people to work,” he said. “And when I do, they wanted me to pay them cash so they wouldn’t lose their benefits. When I said no, they’d leave.”
But that could all come to an end, as 1.6 million New Yorkers see their coronavirus jobless aid drastically drop or disappear.
In addition to the Biden administration’s extra $300 per week, two critical programs expired Monday: one providing benefits to self-employed and gig workers and another for those who have been unemployed more than six months.
“We’re glad its over,” said Mark Jaffe, president of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, calling the end of the weekly boost “a godsend.”
“Its one thing to get unemployment when you cant find a job or cant work, that’s a blessed thing… But to pay people more to sit at home was just wrong,” Jaffe said. “We think that people will be begging to get back to work.”
Tom Grechen, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, agreed that “unemployment will drop.”
“You are going to see a huge spike in employment over the next 45 days,” he said.
Unemployment stood at 7.6 percent statewide in July and 10.5 percent in New York City, according to the state Department of Labor.
Jeffrey Garcia, Chairman of the NYS Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association, said “We absolutely believe that it will be easier than it’s been” to find employees.
“People are just going to have to get back to work.”
But others were more weary, with some food industry experts noting that workers still face a slew of concerns that’ll keep them at home, such as health worries due to the Delta variant and finding childcare.
Some noted that 26 states already opted out of the federal program early over the summer over complaints from businesses about not being able to find enough people to hire. Early data hasn’t shown a major correlation between cutting off aid and job growth or other economic benefits in those states.
Andrew Rigie, of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, was among those erring on the side of caution.
“Restaurants have been running very short staffed, so there’s been a hope that workers will return and I’m sure it’ll happen in limited numbers,” he said, “But other states that already eliminated the federal unemployment did not see a huge bump in employment, so I suspect the hiring challenges at eateries will unfortunately persist.”
Rudy Mansy, 33, owner of the family business “Hamido Seafood” in Astoria, nonetheless remained optimistic that he’ll now finally be able to fill openings for line cooks and food runners.
“It’s tough,” he said, “But I have to be hopeful. I’m staying positive.”
Additional reporting by Carl Campanile and Lisa Fickenscher