This summer's exceptional heat is creating more challenges for restaurant employers

Some employees don't want to work in an inferno, while others are having shifts cut because customers don't want to brave hellish temperatures.
restaurant workers heat
The heat brought a labor meltdown. | Photo: Shutterstock

The ground was so hot during Phoenix’s 34 consecutive days of 110-degree weather that health officials feared pedestrians could severely burn their feet just by walking on pavement. Indeed, the only things local restaurant Willie’s Taco Joint saw cooling during the historic stretch—the hottest month ever recorded for any city on Earth—were its sales and the eagerness of employees to work in those conditions.

The indoor/outdoor restaurant is located a jalapeno toss away from the Arizona city’s convention center. “We have noticed a huge decrease of customers coming in after events,” says employee Danah Lee. “Due to the heat, people don't want to stay out as long, and our usual busy rushes have become so slow.”

People aren’t keen about staying as long on their jobs at Willie’s, either, she says. “Currently it's 84 degrees in our restaurant, and that's low,” recounts Lee. “Normally, when we're busy it goes up to 95 to 100 degrees.

“Working long hours in this heat is very hard. I've had to have more people on my schedule, working shorter shifts to make sure we have no heat exhaustion,” she continues.

Phoenix hasn’t been the only hellish spot in the country where restaurant employees are working fewer shifts in the hair-curling heat. Nationwide, eating and drinking place employment was 0.7% below where it was a year ago, a 1.5% decline from June, according to Homebase, a supplier of labor scheduling software for the employees of restaurants and other small businesses.

While that pattern has been seen before, “in comparison to years prior these declines were major,” Homebase said in its analysis of the research findings.

The data does not reveal if the cutback in restaurant work was instigated by employers facing a drop-off in business because of the heat, or by employees who didn’t want to log time in an inferno.

My guess is that it’s a combination of both,” said Ray Sandza, Homebase’s VP of data and analysis. But the evidence shows that heat clearly is the driving force.

Homebase collects and analyzes its scheduling data on a regional basis. “You’re seeing big differences by region, and the big correlation is the [labor] decreases match where the heatwave has been,” said Sandza.

Still, he doesn’t believe that back-of-house employees are more likely than their front-of-house counterparts to forego a shift, even with the higher temperatures that are typical in kitchens.

“I think they’re pretty closely moving in lockstep,” Sandza said.

Meteorologists say July was the hottest stretch the earth has seen since mankind started recording temperatures. Virtually all who made the assertion have attributed the triple digits to climate change triggered by human activity.

Restaurants have given mixed assessments of the heat’s effects on business. Several public companies assured financial analysts at the height of the scorching weather that they had not detected a fall-off. In contrast, Homebase cited a Wall Street Journal story that an operator of a Texas restaurant had seen his sales wilt by 10%.

There is less variety of opinions about the heat’s effect on working conditions. The danger was perceived as sufficiently dire, particularly for people working outdoors in construction and agriculture, that the White House announced a crackdown on employers who ignore OSHA guidelines for safeguarding employees.  

“Six hundred people die annually from its effects, more than from floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes in America combined,” President Biden said in kicking off a meeting on strengthening workers’ protections against the heat. “And even those places that are used to extreme heat have never seen it as hot as it is now for as long as it’s been.

In July the president directed the U.S. Department of Labor to issue its first-ever “hazard alert” for heat, essentially classifying the danger as extreme.

OSHA is drafting a new set of rules for protecting workers from severe heat like what the nation sweated through last month. In the meantime, agency officials said, enforcement agents will strive to ensure employers are meeting their current obligations.

Those obligations are largely commonsensical: Provide ample breaks and access to shade and water. Allow those taking a new job or returning after a vacation or leave to acclimate their bodies to the heat. Watch for the signs of heat-related stress and train employees to do the same with co-workers.

Oregon, California, Minnesota and Washington have already codified similar requirements into state law.

In the instance of California, the practices are mandated whenever the temperature climbs above 80 degrees. Minnesota’s mandates apply only to indoor workplaces and take effect for employees engaged in “moderate” work at 80 degrees and “light” work at 86 degrees.

Washington’s requirements apply only to outdoor workplaces. It requires employers to pay for any cool-down breaks, and to set up a “buddy system” one employee watches another for any signs of taking ill because of heat.

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