Gone but not for good: Restaurants try to keep in touch with furloughed workers

Key Points
  • Many restaurants have furloughed workers, citing plummeting sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • While restaurants hope to rehire those employees when business resumes, some workers may have already moved on.
  • Employee turnover in the combined restaurants and accommodations sector was 75% in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A sign hangs on the door of a shuttered restaurant in the Chicago Loop on March 19, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

At 115 years old, Columbia Restaurant Group's flagship location in Tampa is the oldest restaurant in Florida.

The Columbia has survived the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression and two world wars. But on March 20, it temporarily shuttered nine locations and furloughed 90% of its workforce after Gov. Ron DeSantis closed the state's dining rooms. 

"We have people who have been with us 10, 20, 30 years, so we're doing everything we possibly can to retain those employees; that's our first priority," Chief Marketing Officer Michael Kilgore said. "We have every expectation that we'll be able to hire people back and reopen."

The family-owned company is primarily using HotSchedules, the restaurant and hospitality software, to stay in touch with employees. Furloughed workers are also receiving free meals and the proceeds from any gift cards that have been sold.

Columbia Restaurant Group is just one of the businesses that has turned to layoffs and furloughs as the coronavirus pandemic slams the U.S. economy.

About 10% of the U.S. labor force is out of work due to the disruption caused by the pandemic. 

Furloughing workers is usually a short-term fix for employers. Often, it means workers still have access to health-care benefits, in addition to qualifying for unemployment benefits. Furloughs make it easier for employers to bring back workers — as long as they haven't moved on and the business hasn't shuttered permanently.

How long government officials will keep dining rooms shuttered to halt the spread of COVID-19 is unclear. As the number of cases has grown, the timetable for stay-at-home orders has been pushed out, making the situation even more precarious and hard to predict. But initially, when many thought restrictions would be short-term, restaurants saw furloughs as a way to quickly rebound when businesses started humming again. 

This sentiment was forged by years of dealing with a tight labor market. In recent years, the restaurant industry has had to offer higher wages and better benefits, such as paying college tuition, to retain employees. Employee turnover remains high. For the combined restaurants and accommodations sector, it was 75% in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Burgerville, a Vancouver, Washington-based regional burger chain, says it has a turnover rate below that of the industry. 

"Being a bit of a smaller company, a community-oriented brand, a Pacific Northwest brand, inspires employee loyalty," said Hillary Barbour, the company's director of strategic initiatives.

In March, Burgerville went from 1,482 employees to about 450. The chain has partially or fully furloughed the majority of its workforce as it transitioned to offering only takeout, drive-thru and delivery at 38 of its 41 locations.

None of Burgerville's furloughed workers have told the burger chain that they have found new jobs, as of Tuesday. Companies such as Amazon, CVS and Domino's Pizza are looking to hire thousands to handle surging demand for their goods and services.

"We're certainly aware of other industries that are doing quite a bit of hiring, but thus far we haven't seen a dramatic loss of employees at our company," Barbour said.

At 1000 North, a waterfront restaurant in Jupiter, Florida, furloughed employees are contacted about once a week, primarily to help them navigate unemployment benefits, according to managing partner Ira Fenton.

Fenton expects that about three-quarters of the restaurant's hourly tipped workers will return once the dining room can gradually reopen. The restaurant has the added benefit of being attached to a club that charges annual memberships every February, helping its financial stability. 

But some workers are already weighing other options. Sam Diaz, 28, had worked at a Jackson Hole, Wyoming, restaurant for 4½ years. In mid-March, she was furloughed.

"At this point, do you just take whatever you can get?" Diaz said.

Diaz is one of more than 16.7 million Americans who filed for unemployment insurance in the past three weeks, but she hasn't heard back yet from the state.

She said that she's sent off some job applications to miscellaneous jobs she found in the local newspaper, but it's unclear if those hiring notices still apply during the pandemic. She's reached out to a landscaper she worked for several summers ago. 

"Honestly, my biggest prospect is waiting until the snow melts and hopefully being able to start up gardening, and at least being able to do that until the restaurant opens back up — or continue doing that for the rest of the summer," she said. 

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of Florida's governor.

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