October 06, 2023

Restaurants surpassed pre-pandemic employment peak in September

Even with restaurant employment levels surpassing pre-pandemic readings, the workforce expansion likely has more room to run.

More than three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. that resulted in millions of restaurant employees being laid off or furloughed, the size of the industry’s workforce finally returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

Eating and drinking places* added a net 60,700 jobs in September on a seasonally-adjusted basis, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

That was the strongest increase since January and marked the 33rd consecutive month of employment growth in the restaurant industry.

Overall during the third quarter, eating and drinking places added a net 100,400 jobs. That was up from a modest gain of 36,300 jobs in the second quarter. It also represented the 10th time in the last 11 quarters with restaurant job growth above 100,000. 

While the road to recovery was uneven, eating and drinking places have now added more than 6 million jobs since the pandemic trough of restaurant employment in April 2020. As of September 2023, eating and drinking places are nearly 30,000 jobs above their February 2020 employment peak.

More room to run

Even with restaurant employment levels surpassing pre-pandemic readings, the workforce expansion likely has more room to run. 

Job openings in the combined restaurants and accommodations sector topped 1 million on the last business day of August, according to Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data from BLS. 

While that was down considerably from the record levels registered during much of the past 2 years, job openings were still elevated compared to pre-pandemic readings. 

In 2019, there were an average of 875,000 hospitality job openings each month. Using this as a proxy for normal labor market conditions, it means there were still nearly 150,000 job openings above normal in August 2023.

Note: The job openings data presented above are for the broadly-defined Accommodations and Food Services sector (NAICS 72), because the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report data for restaurants alone. Eating and drinking places account for nearly 90% of jobs in the combined sector.

*Eating and drinking places are the primary component of the total restaurant and foodservice industry, which prior to the COVID-19 pandemic employed more than 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.