The current and worsening labor shortage poses a massive threat to industries struggling to keep up with renewed consumer demand and a reopened economy. 

Perhaps the most impacted of these industries is restaurants and hospitality, which have undergone everything from closures to partial reopenings to re-closures to full-scale reopenings in just a matter of months—weathering the many changes of the pandemic head on. 

Beyond the loss of revenue, widespread closures and inherent stress of working during a health emergency, there is another factor at play that cannot be ignored as managers aim to bring back workers: people in the food industry were at the greatest risk of death during the pandemic.

According to research from the University of California San Francisco, between March and October 2020, the risk of dying in restaurants, food production and agriculture went up by 40 percent. For Latinx workers, deaths reached an increase of 60 percent. Of all sectors studied, food workers were by far the most at-risk of death.

READ MORE: Inside the Restaurant Industry’s Critical Labor Shortage

This means that the employees who are currently being asked to return to work not only face the same anxiety as the rest of the workforce, but potentially lost co-workers to the disease or had close calls themselves. 

Already the industry with the highest turnover rate pre-pandemic, managers are caught between the urgent need to welcome back guests at full capacity, the lack of available workers and the desire to remain empathetic of the strains of the past year. 

Experts are quick to blame stimulus checks, unemployment benefits or poor wages for the lack of eager employees, but the elephant in the room remains: workers will no longer tolerate unsafe, unsanitary work environmentsespecially as vaccine rollouts slow, variants grow and experts predict COVID-19 will reach endemic status.

After a year of immeasurable loss and trauma surrounding physical wellbeing, the residual impact of safety-related anxiety cannot be ignored.

Here are three ways restaurants can demonstrate a renowned commitment to safety to win back the workforce and remain a competitive option for job seekers:

Welcome workers into conversations about safety. The best resource for building a safe work environment may be the workers themselvesthe folks who have been on the ground serving customers throughout the trials and tribulations of the pandemic. Host stand ups where employees can share what they think might be a breach of COVID safety, how they believe issues can be improved and what’s missing from the return to work conversation. The benefits of this are two-fold: managers can better understand worker sentiment, and workers may begin to build more confidence in their workplace’s commitment to safety. 

Treat COVID and other diseases as an ongoing, active threat. COVID-19 is undoubtedly improving, but treating the pandemic as a thing of the past will only hurt business and risk employee health. Managers of course need to work in tandem with mask rules, social distancing guidelines and customer sentiment in their area, but loosening these restrictions cannot mean a mental departure from the dangers of the pandemic. This can be as simple as keeping track of who’s received a vaccine and who hasn’t and mandating different protocols accordinglyunvaccinated workers must wear masks, vaccinated teammates can have more flexibility, for example. To hire and retain workers, make it explicitly clear that your management team recognizes that COVID is still capable of infecting employees. 

Build out a plan of attack against infectious diseases. It’s not a question of if a third wave will happen, but when. Businesses that aren’t prepared to protect employees during this inevitable surge will be the one suffering from the labor shortage and potential closures. How to stay ahead of the curve? Proactive infectious disease management. This means enhanced cleaning and sanitization, routine employee testing, vaccine status logging, contact tracing, quarantine strategies and more. For smaller businesses, this may be a heavy lift, but technology solutions now exist to help develop and manage this data collection. 

Employers owe these processes to their anxious teams, and need to implement these systems now. The only way to successfully bring people back to work is to re-imagine what safety looks like in the workplace—now, post-COVID and beyond.

Dr. Jikku Venkat is a Co-Founder and CEO of ReturnSafe. For the past 20 years, Jikku has been involved with startup companies in healthcare technology, enterprise software, cloud SaaS and virtualization areas.

Health & Wellness, Outside Insights, Story