I am writing to you now in response to reading an article you recently posted about the Asheville restaurant labor crisis [“Falling Short: What’s Causing Asheville’s Restaurant Labor Crisis?” Aug. 23, Xpress]. I am a former culinary professional, and the article you published really came across as a gross misrepresentation of the real issues surrounding these restaurants’ current staffing problems.
A little about myself: I am 30 years old, and I worked in the service industry [starting when] I was 15 years old. I graduated from two culinary schools with majors in both cooking and baking; I have worked at some of the most popular restaurants in Asheville. … I have seen what the people you interviewed in the article were talking about, but from the eyes of the employee, there are major problems that were not even spoken of.
My first point is that a couple of people state that the starting wage is $10 [an hour]. The problem here is the term “starting.” That starting $10 is all most cooks will ever get, meaning it is not a starting wage, it is the standard wage. Also, the numbers claiming that the average cooks’ wage in Asheville is $12-15 an hour are not accurate. Nine-$12 would be a much more accurate number. Most of the people would fall on the lower end of that scale.
The point being: No one is willing to pay for good staff. As the article is written, one individual talks about how they have not had problem with turnover before, and that their Atlanta stores do not see the same issue because they have a high population of immigrants. This is stating that they do not have a problem replacing employees in Atlanta who want a raise because they have a large disposable and more desperate work pool.
Everyone in this article points out that there are not enough “qualified” workers here in Asheville and blame competitive businesses for stealing workers. The fact that this was listed as a crisis is an overstatement or a misrepresentation of the actual issues. This is a problem for a few select business owners who refused to put any real value on their employees and are now worried as to why no one wants to work for them when they have done literally nothing to offer any real incentive apart from a basic poverty-line paycheck.
The people interviewed speak about how housing prices are driving people away; this would not be as big of an issue if they actually paid people enough money to live beyond low-income housing. Also, no one spoke about how not only is the service industry grossly underpaid, but they are also incredibly overworked. Many people end up working 60 hours or more easily a week and then get punished or reprimanded for putting in too many overtime hours. The problem is that often this amount of work is required to keep a restaurant running properly, and it is also the only way for a lot of employees to get their wages up to a livable level.
Many times, most of these restaurants only hire full-time staff and refuse to hire on part-time help, which would help spread hours around and prevent overtime, but many just don’t like the hassle of the paperwork involved in extra workers and just dump the work onto the current staff and get mad when they go over their hours. None of these people interviewed talked about how many restaurants will trick a hardworking employee into taking on a salaried position that seems great on paper and then end up working more hours then they did before, and it works out to be a lower wage then if they had gotten overtime for all of their hours.
It is a very hard-knock life in the food industry that leads many to drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and even suicide. The stress put on people for fear of losing a job over $10 [an hour] when they actually find one is not fair.
I apologize for the length of this letter, but I really want you to understand what the struggle really is here, and it lies solely on the business owners themselves not making a proper business plan that involves planning out proper employee wages, staffing and scheduling. Less than 1 percent of the industry offers any form of benefits, and paid time off is never offered. Most end up working every weekend and holiday without holiday pay. And they are wondering why most are choosing to go back to school or join construction sites.
The simple idea that cooking is fun and you get to be artistic with food is a lie once the grind of a line cook sets in. My final thought also is that they kept mentioning that there were not enough qualified workers in this town. A-B Tech has an outstanding culinary program with close to 100 students. These are classically trained individuals who are paying to learn how to become professionals, and more graduate every year. The problem is that this industry puts very little value on formal education in cooking and baking. It can get you an interview and definitely an edge on skill tests, but it won’t make you any more money. They will hire an applicant with a degree before someone else a lot of the time, but they won’t pay them more.
Again this is just another reason pointing to how all of these businesses have never actually tried to put any value on their own workforce, and now karma has drained the work pool because the workers got wise and moved on. One restaurant said it had been six months of hell. Working for less than $11 an hour for four years is much closer to hell, but they would not know anything about that.
Please look into posting a follow-up article about the real reasons that this industry has thoroughly used and abused its workforce and refused to accommodate for the rise of living costs and now worry that it’s competition and poor bus routes to downtown that are keeping them from finding good people. If they were actually good to people, they would find the workforce they so desperately need right now, but until they realize this, they will just keep digging themselves deeper into the [rut] they have found themselves in. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
— Anthony Horger