For the first time in four months, restaurants recorded a sizable increase in staffing levels. Eating and drinking places* added a net 285,900 jobs in February on a seasonally-adjusted basis, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

February’s healthy payroll expansion came on the heels of an upward-revised increase of nearly 17,000 jobs in January. Still, the two recent gains were not enough to make up for the nearly 400,000 jobs lost in November and December.

Nearly a full year into the pandemic-induced economic crisis, restaurant staffing levels remain 2 million jobs – or 16% – below pre-coronavirus levels. Although some operators foresee a normalizing of business conditions during the next several months, the time horizon for a recovery in the restaurant workforce will be significantly longer.

Not all recoveries are created equal

In recent weeks, the combination of accelerated vaccine deployment and additional fiscal stimulus boosted expectations that the 2021 economy will produce the strongest growth in decades.

However, the data continue to show that restaurants remain the hardest hit sector of the pandemic – and the gap is wide. The current employment shortfall of 2 million restaurant jobs is nearly three times larger than the next closest private industry: the arts, entertainment and recreation sector is 774,300 jobs below its pre-coronavirus level.

Moreover, the restaurant industry’s employment gap is nearly as large as the next three closest industries combined. While the overall U.S. economy is projected to register healthy growth in 2021, the pace of the recovery will continue to vary significantly by industry.

[Note: The BLS monthly employment dataset measures jobs during the payroll period that includes the 12th of each month. Changes in restaurant staffing levels – both negative and positive – have occurred rapidly during the coronavirus pandemic, as restaurants quickly adjust their operating status in response to evolving regulatory and economic conditions. As a result, significant changes likely occurred during the weeks between each measurement period, and the monthly data may not fully capture the total job losses experienced during the coronavirus lockdowns. Based on surveys of restaurant operators, the National Restaurant Association estimates that more than 8 million eating and drinking place employees were laid off or furloughed during the peak of the lockdowns.] 

*Eating and drinking places are the primary component of the total restaurant and foodservice industry, which prior to the coronavirus outbreak employed 12 million out of the total restaurant and foodservice workforce of 15.6 million.

Read more analysis and commentary from the Association's chief economist Bruce Grindy.