Fast food is Southern California’s hot job – Orange County Register

A fast-food hiring wave across Southern California has pushed overall restaurant employment near pre-pandemic strength.

My trusty spreadsheet filled with state job numbers found 631,500 at work in all types of restaurant operations in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties in August.

Restaurants hiring due to the COVID-19 crisis added 40,700 new employees in 12 months, a 6.9% growth – nearly triple the average annual pace of 2.4% since 1990. Two-thirds of the most recent Hiring spurts have been in quick service restaurants.

Restaurant owners have had to juggle a myriad of issues during the pandemic, including business restrictions, unwilling diners and shortages or rising prices for essential ingredients and labor. In total, 274,000 restaurant workers lost their jobs – or 43% of all employees.

Still, trends in the restaurant space often reflect the broader economy. While restaurants account for only 8% of all local jobs, their fluctuation in attitudes says a lot about the psyche of local consumers.

So it’s a sign of economic confidence that restaurants in Southern California accounted for 98% of August 2019 employment, just 10,800 from a full recovery.

Cut from service

It’s been a very different recovery for the area’s fast-food joints than for their full-service brethren.

First of all, the lockdowns of 2020 are hitting sit-down eating harder. Full-service restaurants initially lost 195,000 workers, or 65% of staff, compared to 79,000 cuts for fast food, a 23% decrease. As economies reopened, quick service restaurants filled many more needs in the pandemic era.

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Fast food portability was great for eating on the go or delivery. Outdoor dining areas at quick service restaurants made some guests more comfortable. The lower price of fast food was also attractive as household budgets were squeezed by the economic fallout from the coronavirus.

Roberto Diaz serves guests at Sorriso Bar Celona on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena on Thursday, December 3, 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak.  The city, which has its own health department, has decided to keep its restaurants open for al fresco dining.  (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Roberto Diaz serves guests at Sorriso Bar Celona on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena on Thursday, December 3, 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak. The city, which has its own health department, has decided to keep its restaurants open for al fresco dining. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Quick service restaurants had 358,300 local jobs in August, up 5% from pre-pandemic August 2019. The revival added 27,200 workers in a year, or 8.2% growth — triple the historic hiring pace.

Sit-down restaurants are often best suited to urban centers where workers congregate. But a modest return of workers to traditional offices has weighed on full-service restaurants.

Full-service restaurants had 273,200 employees in August, or 9% fewer than before the pandemic. That’s after adding 13,500 staff in one year, or growth of 5.2%.

Or consider the breakdown of the industry: fast-food jobs hit a record high in July, while full-service is at 2014 levels.

Now let’s compare restaurant recreations to other major employment niches in Southern California.

Only one hiring spree surpassed fast food – transportation/warehousing companies have 23% more employees than before the coronavirus. Healthcare and social services jobs up 5% from August 2019; business services are up 3%; Retail and real estate/construction jobs are flat; Manufacturing is 4% below; Entertainment and recreation is down 8%. Hotels are 19% cheaper.

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price points

The long-term growth of the restaurant industry, apart from the coronavirus period, has created opportunity and controversy.

From 2000 to 2019, Southern California restaurant jobs grew 74% — more than triple the region’s overall job growth. Those 270,000 new restaurant jobs accounted for 18% of the region’s new hires over those two decades.

But the low pay in the restaurant industry raises questions about the quality of the region’s economic growth — and fairness to restaurant workers. According to a federal wage index, wages in industry are 43% below the region’s overall average wage.

All of those pandemic-era “Help Wanted” banners caused average wages in Southern California restaurants to rise rapidly — by 31% in three years to $18.07 an hour in March. Note that during this period, the national minimum wage increased by $3 an hour to $15 for most employers.

FILE - A recruitment banner hangs outside a McDonald's fast food restaurant in Stanton, California in this May 17, 2021 file photo.  California continued its slow but steady economic recovery in April.  New jobs figures released on Friday, May 21, 2021 show that California added more than 100,000 jobs for the third straight month.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file)
FILE – A recruitment banner hangs outside a McDonald’s fast food restaurant in Stanton, California in this May 17, 2021 file photo. California continued its slow but steady economic recovery in April. New jobs figures released on Friday, May 21, 2021 show that California added more than 100,000 jobs for the third straight month. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file)

Still, that increase looks big — and the pay looks low — compared to the typical hourly wage in Southern California, which is up 16% since 2019 to $31.91.

The higher pay is one reason menu prices have skyrocketed. According to the Consumer Price Index, eating out in restaurants is 19% more expensive in three years in the Inland Empire and 16% more expensive in LA-OC.

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The spins of the coronavirus have not chilled the state’s political labor disputes.

California just created a Fast Food Council that regulates working conditions and raises wages to as much as $22 an hour. But the restaurant industry has filed papers to request a voter referendum on whether that law should be repealed.

Fast-food workers who say they endure wage theft and unsafe working conditions will move to Orange County on Wednesday, July 27 to seek support for a law that would empower California's fast-food workers.  (File Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters)
Fast-food workers who say they endure wage theft and unsafe working conditions will move to Orange County on Wednesday, July 27 to seek support for a law that would empower California’s fast-food workers. (File Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters)

mapping the gaps

The geography also shares the rest of the restaurant.

The Inland Empire’s overall economy was booming, with overall employment 8% above pre-pandemic levels. Restaurant jobs in Riverside and San Bernardino counties followed…

All restaurant occupations: 145,800 workers in August – 10% more than August 2019.

Fast food: 91,800 jobs – 13% above pre-pandemic levels.

All-round service: 54,000 jobs – 7% more in three years.

In Los Angeles County, the slight recovery in restaurants reflects a gentle overall economic recovery…

All restaurant occupations: 343,400 workers in August – down 7% from August 2019.

Fast food: 191,000 jobs – 1% more than August 2019.

All-round service: 152,400 jobs – down 16% in three years.

In between was Orange County in terms of performance…

All restaurant occupations: 142,300 workers in August – 1% above pre-pandemic levels.

Fast food: 75,500 jobs – 6% above pre-pandemic levels.

All-round service: 66,800 jobs – down 4% in three years.

Jonathan Lansner is a business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at [email protected]

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