Former restaurant workers are too angry to re-apply, study finds

They're still furious over how they were treated at the pandemic's start, the research shows. The way to get them back is showing them proof that a repeat won't happen.
A plan for the next crisis could calm angry departees. / Photo: Shutterstock

Many of the 8 million workers who were displaced from restaurant and hotel jobs during the pandemic’s early days are unlikely to re-apply because of lingering anger over how they were treated, a new academic study shows.

The industry’s hopes of pulling the best of those departees back into the business hinge on how successfully trust can be restored, concluded the report from the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership.

The researchers advise hospitality employers to foster that trust by drafting contingency plans today for safeguarding employees’ livelihoods during future crises and communicating those plans now.

“If there’s another crisis in the industry, they’ll want to know there’s a plan in place and that they’ll be protected, financially, emotionally and physically,” said Iuliana Popa, a doctoral candidate who participated in the report’s development.

The prognosis for drawing back workers is not good, the authors conclude.

“By and large, people who were laid off or furloughed during the pandemic probably moved on to different industries altogether,” Popa said in the announcement of the study’s publication. “Something more stable and less dependent on those in-person interactions where their skills were transferable, like business or real estate.”

The study zeroed in on two emotions that were roused in the early days of the pandemic, when dine-in restaurant business was halted and millions of workers faced a disruption in pay.

“Your job, your livelihood is taken away, so a natural response is fear for your future,” said Juan Madera, the professor who led the research team. “But we found anger was a bigger driver in explaining why these workers aren’t coming back. They were angry over how the industry responded to the pandemic.”

He observed that the industry was caught completely flat-footed by the arrival of coronavirus in the U.S.

“I don’t think any industry was prepared, but the hospitality industry really wasn’t prepared,” said Madera. “Their solution to cutting costs and saving the business was to let people go and then try to rehire them when it was over.”

The authors encouraged hospitality employers to sweeten pay and benefits for additional topspin, but said the top priority is showing would-be returnees that they would be unlikely to suffer the same course of events should a similar crisis erupt.

Madera stressed that pulling those workers back is not a lost cause.

“There are people who are still motivated to work in hospitality because it’s a unique industry,” he said. “You can travel the country or the world, you have a lot of personal interaction. Even people from outside the industry could be attracted to that.”

The report did not specify what percentage of former hospitality workers could be described as angry. The research was based on online surveys of 300 people and 100 responses to what the school described as a "scenario-based experimental study."  Participants included students in the college's hospitality program, as well as former and current hospitality workers.

Results were published in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management. 

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