Wednesday, June 23, 2021 - 09:00

Sherry Villanueva’s family of Santa Barbara restaurants employed 350 people before the pandemic took hold and darkened dining rooms across California. Now, with the state’s economy officially reopened, about 250 workers are back on the job.

Villanueva would hire 100 more if she could – but she can’t find people to take the openings.

“We are in the midst of a very severe labor shortage,” said Villanueva, owner and managing partner of Acme Hospitality, which operates eight eateries in the popular seaside destination, though two remain closed. With staffs stretched paper-napkin thin, the employees “are doing the job of two people.”

California fully reopened its economy on June 15 and did away with limits on capacity at restaurants, retail stores and other businesses. People are eager to return to sporting events and amusement parks and enjoy a meal out.

But instead of full dining rooms, many restaurants are being forced to cut operating hours or leave tables open. Villanueva’s company is offering cash bonuses to workers who recruit new employees.

The worker shortage is also affecting restaurants across the U.S. The National Restaurant Association has reported the eating and drinking industry shed 2.5 million jobs in 2020. Federal data show nearly 1.4 million job openings in the restaurant and hotel sector in April.

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