April 02, 2021

Restaurant employment rose for the third consecutive month

Restaurants continued to restore some of the jobs lost during the pandemic in March, but the road to recovery remains long. Eating and drinking places* added a net 175,800 jobs in March on a seasonally-adjusted basis, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

March represented the third consecutive monthly employment increase, and lifted restaurant staffing levels to their highest point during the pandemic. Despite the recent positive trend, eating and drinking place employment remains 1.8 million jobs – or 15% – below pre-pandemic levels.

Employment remains below pre-pandemic levels in every segment

Although staffing levels rebounded from pandemic lows in each of the major restaurant segments, overall employment remains well below pre-coronavirus readings across the board. [Note that the segment-level employment figures are lagged by one month, so February is the most current data available.]
The fullservice segment suffered the most job losses during the initial months of the pandemic – and still has the longest path to recovery. As of February 2021, fullservice restaurant staffing levels were over 1.1 million jobs (or 20%) below pre-coronavirus readings in February 2020. 

Job losses in the limited-service segments were somewhat less severe during the initial months of the pandemic, as these operations were more likely to retain staff to support their existing off-premises business. As of February 2021, the quickservice and fast casual segments were down 248,000 jobs (or 6%) from pre-pandemic levels.

Staffing at snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars – including coffee, donut and ice cream shops – remain 79,000 jobs (or 10%) below February 2020 levels.

In percentage terms, employment in the cafeterias/grill buffets/buffets segment is still 62% below pre-pandemic levels – by far the largest deficit among the major restaurant categories. Staffing levels in the catering and mobile foodservice segment (-44%), foodservice contractor segment (-39%) and bars and taverns segment (-33%) are also significantly below pre-coronavirus readings.

[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.