Restaurants in Tampa Bay continue to face what some call a labor shortage, or what others describe as workers refusing to return to work for inadequate pay, unsafe working conditions, paltry benefits, and abuse on the job.
Some restaurants, desperate for staff, are turning to robots to fill the gaps. That is, laborers who won’t call in sick, demand fair pay, or try to organize their workplace. Other eateries are reducing operational hours, with restaurant workers now quitting the industry in droves.
Here in Tampa, Asian fusion restaurant Chop Chop Shop is joining a growing number of businesses now offering a four-day, 40-hour work week for its full-time kitchen staff, inspired in part by the owners’ own knowledge of what it’s like to work behind the counter.
“Restaurant staff work in harsh conditions, long hours, and under intense pressure,” co-owner Steve Sera, who works both up front and in the kitchen, wrote in a news release. “We need time to fully rest, recuperate, and tend to our personal lives while doing the work we love, just as anyone should.”
At Chop Chop Shop—located at 4603 N Florida Ave. at the old Nico’s Nicko's Fine Foods diner—a four-day work week is one of several benefits Steve says he and his wife, Olivia, the other co-owner of the Seminole Heights restaurant, are now offering their kitchen staff to both retain and attract new talent.
For about three months, the restaurant’s eight kitchen staff have been coming in four days a week, in alternating teams of two, Sera told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, with three consecutive days off. Workers still reach a full 40-hour week minimum, Sera confirmed, working two double-shift days—equivalent to 12-and-a-half hours, each—in addition to one 9-hour day, and one 8-and-a-half hour day, with breaks.
In the beginning, it took some time for himself and his staff to adjust, but Sera said it’s working out well. “It’s harder to find people to work in the restaurant industry,” he admitted. But the four-day work week, he said, “makes the industry more attractive to people either coming in or people that have been in it for years.”
And he’s not wrong, John Patterson, one of the restaurant’s new prep cooks told CL. Working four days a week, instead of five or six, was “one of the biggest selling things” for Patterson, a 12-year veteran of the industry who left his old job at another local restaurant in September for his current position at Chop Chop Shop.
“The four-day work week was the change that I needed in my life,” John told CL. “The reduction in responsibility, I needed that change in my life. Being able to spend more time with my fiance, I needed that change in my life, too.”
Before, Patterson had been working six days a week at Cooper’s Hawk, an upscale restaurant located near Raymond James Stadium. After working there eight years, Patterson said he’d been one of just two hourly employees—with the exception of managers—not furloughed last year, as the restaurant shifted to takeout only.
Patterson, and the others who were left, helped cook meals for the furloughed workers. Three times a week, the restaurant offered carry-out for their furloughed workers. “It was crazy,” he said.
Now, Patterson works just a few miles from his home, in Sulphur Springs—a 10-minute drive, tops. And with competitive pay, at $19.50 per hour, Patterson has welcomed the change. “It's made my home life better. I've actually been able to start to look for a hobby again,” he said. The reduced stress, however, is what’s been the biggest game-changer.
Full-time kitchen staff at Chop Chop Shop earn a base pay that ranges from $15-$20-plus an hour, which includes their share of tips. Sera said that base salary ($12-$16) combined with a tip share of $4-$4.50 brings the hourly to a figure that makes restaurant life just a little bit better. Like some other Tampa Bay eateries, the Asian fusion restaurant raised base salaries for their workers over the last year in order to remain competitive and retain their workforce.
A push for a four-day work week across various industries found fertile ground during COVID-19—bolstered in part by the success in Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, as well as at companies like Buffer here in the U.S.
Buffer, the U.S. company, reported sustained productivity in most areas and reduced stress. In Iceland, large-scale trials conducted between 2015-2019 showed improved well-being, better work-life balance, and sustained or increased productivity in the workplace. In some work environments—like those in the Iceland trials—a four-day work week means less hours—perhaps 30-35 hours instead of 40 (like the American labor movement first pushed for back in the 1930s).
At Chop Chop Shop, Sera’s kitchen staff are still getting all 40 hours in, and then some. But they have that extra day to reset, which Sera says can make all the difference in the world, at least in his own experience. “Not to sound too corny, but it’s life-changing,” he said.
Nationally, restaurant workers are seeing bigger paydays and other incentives to remain on staff. For the first time, restaurant and supermarket workers were earning an average $15 per hour this summer, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many of us have seen and heard the phrase “labor shortage” to describe what’s forcing bosses to pay their employees something closer to a livable wage. But others, like former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich, say it’s really an issue of workers’ labor being undervalued.
“In reality, there's a living wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health care shortage,” Reich wrote in an op-ed for Common Dreams last month. “American workers are demanding an end to all these shortages. Or they won't return to work.”
Here in Florida, workers know this struggle intimately. In an effort to address the so-called “labor shortage” earlier this year, Florida became one of 26 states that rushed to end emergency federal unemployment benefits of $300 ahead of the federal deadline.
Republicans like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hedged their bets that this cutoff would be an effective measure to boost job growth. It wasn’t. Florida has restored about 80% of the 1.3 million jobs the state lost since March of last year, but unemployment still hovers above pre-pandemic levels. While Florida’s minimum wage recently saw its biggest boost in over a decade, this still falls far below what it takes to pay for things like housing, childcare, and a stable, diverse food supply.
John Patterson, the cook at Chop Chop Shop, told CL he doesn’t blame workers in his industry who’ve decided to call it quits. Prior to his 12 years as a cook, he worked a number of jobs: as a mechanic, in retail, plumbing, and sales. But the pay, he said, wasn’t great. Plus, he genuinely likes cooking.
He knows several cooks in the local hospitality industry who are looking for other forms of employment. They’re “just tired of the hassle,” he said. “The lack of recognition, feeling like you’re always working in the background with none of the glory.”
It’s more than just getting a day off
When Chop Chop Shop began its four-day work week this summer, they doubled their kitchen staff from four to eight. They have two workers up front, and recently acquired self-serve kiosks to assist with customer flow. They try to keep things lean, Sera told CL.
Full-time staff at the restaurant get paid holidays, a tip share, and unchanging schedules. This is untraditional in the restaurant industry, but for Sera, it’s crucial for how he runs business. “You can’t really plan your life” that way, he says. You might have two days off in a row, or one day off, and then be expected to go into work the next day. Sera confirmed that health benefits are not currently offered for staff, although this has recently popped into their conversations.
Three months into their four-day schedule, the restaurant has seen an estimated 30% increase in overall revenue. Sera attributes this in part to the fact that they’ve opened their doors two extra days—from serving five days a week, to all seven days a week (dinner-only on Mondays and Tuesdays, then lunch and dinner all other days).
This change occurred shortly after the implementation of the four-day work week. Opening the restaurant those two days was necessary, said Sera, to ensure his cooks could still get their hours in. The transition hasn’t been entirely smooth. Sera said he’s currently working upwards of 80 hours filling in, as he’s hiring and training new kitchen staff.
At the same time, workers are getting more tips with the new business hours, which has helped boost morale. Because Chop Chop Shop does a tip pool, this increases what both the front of house and kitchen staff are taking home at the end of the day.
At this time, Steve said the four-day work week only applies to the restaurant’s kitchen staff—not the front of house workers. Eventually, however, getting everyone on that four-day work schedule is the goal.
For now, Steve said he’s constantly evaluating the effects of this change, as well as what they can do next to increase the flexibility of the schedule and make sure the schedule is sustainable for workers, particularly on days they’re pulling doubles.
John Patterson, however, isn’t complaining. “It [the four-day work week] can give everyone a better quality of life,” said John. “You work hard [in the kitchen]...Your body hurts. You need time to recuperate and a four-day work week is just that.”
UPDATED: 12/17/21 11:52 a.m. Updated to further clarify the wages at Chop Chop Shop. Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team works tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Tampa Bay and surrounding areas all while giving you the food and drink news you crave. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.
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