Understanding and Supporting Restaurant Employees During COVID-19

    While restaurants face challenges, they’re also thinking about how best to help team members.

    Callie Lipkin

    Even before the pandemic, most hourly restaurant workers were living paycheck to paycheck and had very little in emergency savings.

    Among the many vulnerabilities COVID-19 has revealed, the risk on the hourly workforce has been most apparent. Especially as restaurants had to rapidly shift to take out and delivery only or shut down indefinitely, restaurants and the food service industry were some of the hardest hit. As a result, hourly workers in the restaurant industry were as well, experiencing the greatest reduction in hours and jobs (78 percent) followed by retail (68 percent).

    From service on the frontlines to rapid fluctuations in hours, they’ve also played a critical role in navigating the uncertainty around reopening. They’ve stayed nimble as restaurants began rolling out operations at limited capacity, supporting the safety of both customers and colleagues. 

    While restaurants undergo their fair share of challenges, they’re also thinking about how best to support their team members during this difficult time. Within our larger survey of the hourly workforce, we dove deeper into what hourly restaurant workers care about most in their work and financial lives to better understand how they’ve been impacted by COVID-19 and identify ways to support them.

    Limited to no savings, bill delays

    Even before the pandemic, most hourly restaurant workers were living paycheck to paycheck and had very little in emergency savings. But the severe reduction and inconsistency in hours further hurt their finances, as 84 percent had less than $500 saved for an emergency, a 6 percent increase from last year. Over half (51 percent) had nothing saved, an 11 percent increase from last year.

    Even with stimulus checks, 82 percent had already delayed or missed a bill payment or expected to. That’s likely why 88 percent of restaurant workers said having access to their wages ahead of payday would be helpful, with 72 percent even citing it as very helpful. Like other hourly workers across industries, basic living costs continued to rank among hourly workers’ top concerns. Affording utility bills (67 percent) overtook last year’s top concern of home/rent affordability (55 percent), followed closely by groceries (54 percent).

    Inconsistent schedules, lack of hours

    The financial instability and concerns also influenced what they looked for in a workplace. While higher wages was a top priority last year (61 percent), even more employees cited it as their top priority this year (72 percent). Other factors that increased this year were a predictable, stable schedule (59 versus 51 percent) and additional hours (28 versus 23 percent). Scheduling flexibility (34 percent) and a positive work environment (33 percent) also ranked among the top five.

    While higher pay was also the top goal at their current employer (43 percent), more employees were looking to grow and stay at their workplace. A higher percentage of employees preferred to use their work experience to earn a promotion (30 percent) rather than switch jobs (15 percent), a significant change since last year when they were both hovered around 24 percent. However, the pandemic has also led 40 percent to reevaluate the type of job they wanted.

    Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your employees. With all the challenges of the past six months have also come opportunities: to do better, be better, and continually innovate. Here are three ways you can help your workers right now.

    Offer resources for stability

    One of the major themes within these findings has been the lack of stability that restaurant workers experience in their financial and work lives, which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. We understand that sometimes schedules are out of your control, but any sort of consistency or stability you can provide will go a long way. Earned wage access, where employees can access a portion of their earned wages ahead of their scheduled payday, is a benefit that can offer that.

    Especially as so many restaurant workers struggle financially, an unexpected car repair or medical bill can send them into a cycle of overdraft fees, high-interest loans, and debt. But by giving them the option to access some of their wages ahead of payday in case they have an unexpected expense, you’re helping them avoid that vicious cycle. You’re letting them address their short-term financial challenges in order to gain more financial stability for those longer-term goals, like saving up an emergency fund or setting aside money for retirement. When evaluating earned wage access providers, look for ones that don’t require additional costs to you or your employees.

    Meet them where they are

    If you’re not already making contactless payments the go-to option for both your customers—and your payroll—now is the time to start. About 81 percent of restaurant workers ramped up their use of contactless payments or planned to because of the pandemic. Contactless payments are safer for everyone involved. They eliminate the need to use cash and eliminate the need for paper checks, which can actually be an unnecessary cost to your business. Instead, make sure you’re not only letting consumers pay digitally, but that you’re paying your employees digitally too.

    This has the added bonus of letting you pay your employees faster, as well. Think of tipping out your employees, for example. Instead of making someone wait two weeks to get their tips on their next paycheck—or running to the bank to make change to tip them out sooner—what if you could digitally tip out your employees after each shift? Restaurants can save time and money by adopting technology that allows them to digitally tip them out or pay them for mileage reimbursement after each shift.

    Prioritize health and well-being

    Another part of staying safe throughout this pandemic is making sure your employees can take time off when they’re sick. Don’t promote a company culture of “sucking it up” and working through an illness. Especially in the restaurant industry, that attitude can have disastrous ramifications for both your staff and your customer base. Employees should be offered paid sick time if possible, and if not, given ample ways to swap shifts and take the appropriate time needed to rest and heal.

    These are all challenging, unprecedented times, and we know that you’re still figuring things out too. By looking for creative ways to address your employees’ financial challenges, you’ll offer much needed support during a difficult time—and retain more of your workforce because of it.

    Atif Siddiqi is founder and CEO of Branch, a challenger bank that partners directly with employers to help working Americans grow financially. Employers turn to Branch not only to help them attract and retain workers, but also reduce the costs of paper checks and paycards by offering Branch as a free financial wellness benefit and banking alternative. Employees that sign up with Branch can receive a zero-fee bank account, free instant access to earned wages, and budgeting tools to help them manage their cash flow between paychecks.