The recent surge in covid-19 cases is exacerbating labor challenges at big US food and coffee chains such as Starbucks, Chipotle, and McDonald’s, all of which have struggled to hire and retain workers throughout the pandemic.
Workers are calling out sick in large numbers across the country. Between Dec. 29 and Jan. 10, about 8.8 million employees reported not working because they were sick with coronavirus or caring for someone who was—nearly triple the levels from the first two weeks of December, according to data from the US Census.
As a result, restaurants are cutting hours—again. McDonald’s has reduced hours by 10%, on average, at some 13,000 US locations due to the shortage of workers, CEO Chris Kempczinski said last week in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, Starbucks said some locations are reducing hours, experiencing product shortages, and temporarily halting the option to pay via mobile phone as more workers call in sick. That comes after the coffee chain, which employs some 228,000 people in the US, said it’s no longer requiring workers to be vaccinated against covid-19, which perhaps points to how difficult it is to find workers. The policy reversal comes after the US Supreme Court on Jan. 13 rejected (pdf) the US government’s plan to require vaccination or regular covid testing for private-sector workers.
The difficulty in finding workers has pushed restaurants to invest in technology to fill in the labor gaps. The reduced hours has also prompted the industry to question whether dining rooms are even necessary at fast food outlets.
Losing work days to illness isn’t just a burden for employers but for employees as well, many of them work in precarious, low-wage jobs where they cannot afford to stay home. Just 59% of service workers have access to paid sick leave benefits, whereas, 91% of workers in professional and related jobs have access to the benefit, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.