Local workers flee service jobs

Low pay, high stress and rude customers cited for exodus

PHOTO/iSTOCK: Restaurants are having trouble hiring employees even after the pandemic-related unemployment benefits have expired. Long-time service industry workers are escaping the low pay, stress and frustration of those positions.

Trever Schryer, 23, escaped the Reno service industry by landing a job at D1 Training as a lead of its sales department. He couldn’t be happier.

“(Now), I don’t deal with customers; I deal with people – there’s a difference,” Schryer said. “I’m not constantly under stress. I have a lot more freedom. I’m not constantly running around trying to help customers. I don’t work nights anymore, which I hated.”

Schryer is among legions of former restaurant workers who have apparently deserted that industry and other service jobs in the wake of the pandemic. When restaurants and other businesses reopened last year, they had trouble hiring people. Management often placed the blame on the pandemic-related federal unemployment subsidies of $300 to $600 more per week added to often-skimpy state benefit amounts. Many workers made more money staying unemployed than they did at their jobs in restaurants, retail outlets and in other industries. 

But the federal subsidies are long gone and people who collected unemployment payments in 2020 have exhausted their benefits. Yet, the labor shortage continues.

That’s a national trend, but it especially bad for Nevada, where tourism remains a pillar of the state’s economy. Northern Nevada is growing as high-tech firms relocate to the area, but at the same time housing prices and rents are increasing so fast that those in low-paying restaurant and other service industry jobs can no longer afford to live here. Many of those workers have had to adapt to the new normal.

Help wanted

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 10.4 million job openings in America in December 2021. In September, about 4.4 million people quit their jobs in a variety of industries, a continuing trend that analysts are calling the “Great Resignation.” Pundits speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crash that followed made some workers reconsider their future prospects, particularly workers in low-paying service jobs, tedious occupations, or high-stress positions.

PHOTO/JADEN NIEMI: Trever Schryer.

Nobody has to tell Schryer that the restaurant industry serves up a lot of stress. He has worked at Dominoes and Papa Murphy’s pizza and was a budtender at MYNT Cannabis Dispensary when he eventually left for greener pastures. Schryer doesn’t necessarily think all service jobs are bad, but said he burns out quick doing that type of work. Money, though, was the primary reason why he decided to seek employment elsewhere.

“I never had a solid paycheck with having to rely on tips,” said Schryer. “It gets pretty stressful not knowing how much you’re going to be making when you rely on tips. It’s all dependent on how the customers are and how busy it is.”  

Low pay; high rents

With Reno housing values skyrocketing, and rents increasing exponentially over the last two years, service workers have a difficult time finding affordable places to live.

“In Reno, the cost of living has gone up a lot and wages have not increased,” said Schryer. “I would have stayed with MYNT (cannabis dispensary) had I gotten a raise or if wages went up. I really liked my coworkers, but the stress with helping customers just wasn’t worth it. Customers were rude often… If they raise wages, people will work more service jobs.”

Restaurants have an especially difficult time finding workers. According to the job-listing website Zippia, “food preparation and serving related” jobs average a salary of $26,500 a year and rank 16th in gross revenues out of Nevada’s 22 leading industries. 

Offering incentives

This year, the Squeeze In restaurant in Northwest Reno had problems hiring line cooks and chefs. In response, the management offered incentives to applicants. The eatery also raised the wages of the cooks to no less than $16 an hour. Over the last month, cooks have been staying on the job.

“We currently aren’t having a problem with the labor shortage,” said Cody Shook, manager at the Squeeze In. “Some of our other stores have had a problem with it, but once we offered incentives, we have been good ever since. We were showing people that we cared and that we wanted them to stick around.”

Eddie Maria-Calvo, 28, previously worked at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in the Legends Outlet Mall in Sparks and other local restaurants for nine years. He started off as a server-assistant and became a bartender and a server.

PHOTO/iSTOCK: Busy restaurants often are stressful workplaces for employees in the kitchens, dining rooms and behind the bars.

Crossing the bar

During 2021, Maria-Calvo has been working for Patagonia, an outdoor-clothing company in Reno. That job was the result of first being hired under a contractor to do some video editing for the company. He then asked for a full-time position and was hired.

His six-month training process includes working in several different departments so he can have a better understanding of how the company operates. Maria-Calvo’s training ends this month, and  he can then decide to work in any department he chooses.

He still has a toe in the restaurant business. He fills in at Grimaldi’s on Fridays, the Italian eatery’s busiest night of the week. He could pick up other shifts as well, but he wants to focus on his job at Patagonia and eventually exit the restaurant business entirely.

“Now while sometimes I do want to go back to making the same money I used to when bartending, the stress just isn’t worth it. The pay is good (as a bartender), which does make it hard to get out.”

– Eddie Maria-Calvo of Reno.

‘Dealing with the public’

Maria-Calvo is less enthusiastic about “dealing with the public,” he said, because “a lot of people are not nice.” Working in the service industry is very fast-paced and can be very stressful, he noted, especially on busier nights or if customers are challenging servers and bartenders by complaining, demanding a lot, or sending food back.

He noted that the kind of benefits and insurance he will receive from Patagonia are rare in restaurant jobs.

“It’s not worth the stress. It’s hard to move up,” said Maria-Calvo. “I wanted to go to a place where I could move up and get better opportunities. I want to go to a place where I can get a career. You can’t make a career and move up from serving and bartending.”

Chasing a dream

Nick Felton, 25, is currently working two jobs. He works as an assistant manager for the Wild Garlic located on Mount Rose Street in Reno. He also works for a real estate company, TourDSpace and shoots photos for them. He works 25 to 35 hours a week as an assistant manager and 15 to 25 hours shooting photos.

PHOTO/JADEN NIEMI: Nick Felton.

Photography is Felton’s passion. He currently does a lot of skateboarding photography as a hobby, but wants to build that skill into a career. He has his own magazine called, “7Ply” and has been featured in several local publications, including “Thrasher,” a skateboarding magazine, which has a national audience.

Felton has been working on and off in the service industry for six years. It’s not an easy job, he noted, but he has few complaints.

Time to move on

“I work for a company with really good owners,” Felton said. “They’ve treated me like family there. The job’s always been there for me. It helps me make ends meet. It helps with what I’m trying to accomplish.”

Still, he said, it’s increasingly difficult to make ends meet while working in the restaurant industry. The pay is stagnant; the cost of living in Reno continues to rise. In addition, restaurant jobs are usually very regimented and robotic.  You have to “swallow your pride” while working in the service industry, he said.

Photography, meanwhile, allows Felton free expression. Felton hopes to become a full-time photographer this year. The service industry hasn’t done him wrong, he said, but he has to follow his dreams.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was made possible by readers' donations to our Independent Journalism Fund via a grant from the non-profit Tides Foundation. It's part of our ongoing series exploring the effects of rapid growth and development on the future of Northern Nevada.

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