The restaurant industry is grappling with an unprecedented staffing crisis. A National Restaurant Association survey reports that an overwhelming 62 percent of restaurant owners don’t have the staff they need to serve their customers. This shortage permeates both full-service (63 percent) and limited-service establishments (61 percent). The challenge doesn’t stop at hiring. Retaining quality staff has emerged as the top challenge for restaurateurs—and replacing staff comes with a hefty price tag. The Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University pegs the average cost of replacing a single restaurant employee at $5,864, factoring in recruitment, training, and lost productivity.

So, in the face of the current challenges of restaurant ownership, how can employers build and sustain a committed workforce? Restaurant owners with 50 or more full-time employees will sometimes offer Minimum Essential Coverage (MEC) plans. MEC plans are a cost-effective way to ensure hardworking part-time servers, passionate chefs and other valuable teammates have basic healthcare coverage. But simply offering an MEC plan isn’t enough to ensure employees fully comprehend and optimally use their coverage. Given the nature of these plans, an unexpected health issue could saddle an employee with crippling medical debt, prompting them to consider leaving the industry for better benefits. The solution? Dive deeper than just the basic provisions. Introducing healthcare navigation could be the special ingredient to perfecting the recipe.

Know what’s on the menu 

A recent study from Kaiser Family Foundation reports that over half of insured adults report confusion around their health benefits. Employees might know how much money gets taken out of each paycheck or what their copays are, but a written explanation of the complete benefits package is as likely to confuse as it is to enlighten. 

MEC plans are by no means a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. Coverage is limited and employees need help understanding what is—and what isn’t—covered. That’s where a healthcare navigator can make a difference. Think of them as a guide, helping employees understand and make the most of their benefits. A navigator can help clear up any confusion, making sure restaurant teams get the care they need without unnecessary costs. Take, for instance, something as simple as a CT scan. The cost can range from $500 to $1,500, depending on the location. With a healthcare navigator’s guidance before obtaining treatment, an employee could save a significant amount.

A hidden Lifeline: Nonprofit hospital benefits

But the value of a healthcare navigator extends beyond just choosing cost-effective diagnostic facilities. One of the significant gaps in MEC plans is their limited coverage for hospital care. Given the unpredictable nature of medical emergencies and the considerable costs associated with hospitalization, this presents a notable challenge for many employees. With so many moving parts—from understanding covered services to making sense of bills—the process can quickly become overwhelming. And that’s precisely where healthcare navigators come into play.

Many restaurant workers are unaware that they likely are eligible for financial aid from nonprofit hospitals. By law, these hospitals have an obligation to provide financial assistance, with income thresholds for eligibility often extending well into the middle class. With the support of a navigator, employees can tap into these benefits, ensuring they receive essential medical care without being burdened by excessive bills. In situations where costs are inevitable, navigators can act as intermediaries, negotiating bills or arranging for feasible payment plans that won’t break the bank. Plus, some plan sponsors offer extended hospital coverage—for hospital expenses not covered by insurance or hospital financial assistance. If an employee has this additional benefit, a healthcare navigator can walk them through the process of reimbursement and ensure any coverage offered by the plan goes as far as possible in covering out-of-pocket cost.

The perfect complement to a MEC plan

An added bonus? Instead of managers getting bogged down with health-related questions, they can focus on the day-to-day. It’s a win-win: employees get expert advice, and operations run smoother. A perfect complement to a MEC plan, healthcare navigation helps create an environment of support and understanding, making employees feel valued and cared for. This can be a powerful tool in not only attracting talent but also in retaining staff in an industry known for high turnover rates. The positive ripple effect is undeniable—making the experience in the dining room match the mood in the kitchen.

In a time when many establishments are just trying to keep their doors open, employers that can offer comprehensive health benefits are positioning themselves for success. They’re demonstrating a commitment to the well-being of their team, ensuring employees are equipped and supported in all areas of their lives. This isn’t just good for business—it’s an investment in a healthier, happier future for everyone involved.

Derek Fitteron is president of Emry, a health cost navigator helping employers and their employees lower benefit costs. Steve Palma is president of Sola Health which delivers next gen health plan experiences. Emry and Sola are part of Goodroot, a community of companies reinventing healthcare one system at a time.

Employee Management, Outside Insights, Story