Restaurant employment rose for the fifth consecutive month in May, but staffing levels remain well below pre-pandemic readings. Eating and drinking places* added a net 186,000 jobs in May on a seasonally-adjusted basis, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

In total during the last five months, eating and drinking places added a net 830,000 jobs. That is equivalent to the total number of restaurant jobs added in the 42 months prior to the pandemic.

The employment gains during the first five months of 2021 were a step in the right direction, but the road to a full recovery remains long. Eating and drinking places are still 1.5 million jobs – or 12% – below pre-pandemic employment levels.

Staffing levels remain below pre-pandemic readings in every segment

While employment trended higher across each of the major restaurant segments in recent months, total payroll counts remain below pre-pandemic levels. [Note that the segment-level employment figures are lagged by one month, so April is the most current data available.]

Between April 2020 and April 2021, fullservice restaurants added nearly 2.8 million jobs. However, that still left the segment 750,000 jobs (or 14%) below pre-pandemic staffing levels.

Employment in the limited-service segment is further down the path toward a full recovery. As of April 2021, the quickservice and fast casual segments were down 143,000 jobs (or 3%) from pre-pandemic levels. Staffing at snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars – including coffee, donut and ice cream shops – remain 28,000 jobs (or 4%) below February 2020 levels.

Other segments have a much longer road to pre-coronavirus staffing levels. Employment counts in the cafeterias/grill buffets/buffets segment (-58%), foodservice contractor segment (-37%), catering and mobile foodservice segment (-32%) and bars and taverns segment (-25%) are still significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

[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.