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After more than a year of pandemic restrictions, restaurants face new challenges: mental health, staffing

One restaurant owner described the feeling as running a marathon through COVID-19, only to reach the finish line and face another marathon: the busy summer season.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — After nearly 15 months of COVID-19 restrictions and rules, Chris Andrus, co-owner of The Mitten Brewing Company, thought he would feel relief or excitement. Instead, he is feeling exhausted. 

"It’s like you just ran a marathon through COVID," said Andrus, "And got through the finish line, and realized you’re only halfway done. Now, you have to do another marathon and go into this busy season with no energy."

After restrictions eased, and summer picked up business, things started to become busy at the Westside restaurant. Not only is he and his staff facing mental health struggles due to the quick swing, but they are overworked. As with many other businesses, they are hiring relief staff, but finding challenges in that hiring. 

Andrus said his employees are often working double, or triple, shifts. He is also also chipping in making pizzas and other work. Most of his staff thankfully were retained throughout the pandemic, but he needs to hire more to have enough people for time off. 

"Unemployment now, you have to verify you are searching for a job," said Andrus, "So, there's a lot of no-shows, a lot of people using small businesses for unemployment continuums. You get a lot of applications for a position, and 90% don't show up, because they're just using you to prove they're looking for a job."

The Mitten is not the only restaurant or business facing similar challenges. Brian Calley, the president of the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM), said more than any other time in their history small businesses are having an extraordinary difficult time finding people to fill open positions. That's something that is hitting restaurants, and businesses like them heavily impacted by the pandemic, especially hard. 

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In a Facebook post, Andrus said a lot of good has come out of the past year as well, Things like wages and conditions, extraordinarily kind customers, and new dining spaces like the social zone set up in the Mitten's former parking lot.

"A lot of the employees that had made a career in those types of positions," said Calley, "Really had no choice, no other choice but to move on to other options."

The reason for this is for a few reasons. One, unemployment benefits may be higher or close enough to a wage to not work. Other reasons include inadequate childcare, health and safety concerns, and early retirement. 

The result causes many businesses to limit hours, as staffing is limited. Calley also said it is stunting the growth and recovery among the businesses hardest impacted by the pandemic. In turn, that puts more stress on employees currently working. 

"Michigan should follow the lead of 25 others states, and discontinued the federal portion of the unemployment support," said Calley, "That was a really important factor in the height of the pandemic, when there really weren't jobs available today. There are jobs available. There's more jobs open than there are people that show up as unemployed. Then, the federal government has sent over a billion dollars for to help states, to help our state, deal with the shortage in available and affordable childcare. I think that there are some segments of the workforce that will be greatly helped in getting back to work once that money is deployed."

Meanwhile, Andrus believes it is important to talk about the mental health challenges in the restaurant industry, as these certain set of circumstances have never been experienced before. This is much more than a typical busy summer season. 

He also hopes customers bring their kindness when they come dine at the restaurant, and tip servers well. 

"It think it’s the most unexpectant, but real issue, in our industry right now," said Andrus, "I don’t think anyone thought they’d feel like this when the industry reopened."

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