October 02, 2020

Restaurant employment still 2.3 million below pre-coronavirus levels

For the second consecutive month, job growth in the restaurant industry remained dampened. Eating and drinking places* added a net 200,300 jobs in September on a seasonally-adjusted basis, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

September’s growth came on the heels of a downward-revised increase of just 104,300 jobs in August. Taken together, the employment gains in August and September were only a fraction of the 3.5 million jobs added during the first three months coming out of the coronavirus lockdowns. As a result, eating and drinking place staffing levels are still down 2.3 million jobs from February’s peak.

This recent slowdown represents additional evidence that the restaurant industry’s return to pre-coronavirus employment levels will likely be measured in years and not months.

[It’s important to note that the BLS monthly employment reports count 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.] 

Staffing levels remain dampened across every segment

While all of the major restaurant segments added jobs in recent months, employment remains below pre-coronavirus levels across the board. [Note that the segment-level employment figures are lagged by one month, so August is the most current data available.]

The fullservice segment added over 2.4 million jobs since the April trough, which is more than the other major restaurant segments combined. However, it still leaves the fullservice segment 1.2 million jobs below its pre-coronavirus staffing levels. 

Limited-service job losses were less significant during the pandemic, as these operations were more likely to retain staff to support their off-premises business. The quickservice and fast casual segments added more than 733,000 jobs since April, after losing nearly 1 million jobs during the lockdowns. 

Snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars – including coffee, donut and ice cream shops – added 343,300 jobs since April. This leaves the segment roughly 60,000 jobs below its February level.

*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.