NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – It’s no secret that COVID-19 negatively impacted the restaurant industry. Now, new data sheds light on what the New Mexico Restaurant Association has called a “feeling of hopelessness” within the industry.

“I think it was just discouraging,” says Carol Wight, the CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. “I was really hoping by this point we would start seeing some relief.”

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At several points during the COVID-19 pandemic, state-issued health orders forced restaurants and other service businesses to close. KRQE News 13 previously reported that the closures hit employees particularly hard.

While the days of complete shutdowns and dining-room closures seem behind us, the state’s restaurant industry still hasn’t recovered, according to a survey of 100 local restaurants from the New Mexico Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association. “Business Conditions, Employment and Overall Costs are the biggest obstacles preventing a recovery,” they said in a press release.

The majority of restaurant operators they surveyed saw a rise in total sales in October 2021, compared to the same time in 2020, the data shows. But about half of the restaurant operators surveyed said their October 2021 sales were still below pre-pandemic levels.

And many are pessimistic about the coming year. Just under half of the surveyed restaurant operators expect 2022 sales to remain below pre-pandemic volumes. And 27% of them said that, for their individual businesses, they expect conditions will never return to normal.

A key challenge for many restaurants is keeping staff levels up. Just over 70% of the operators surveyed said they don’t have enough staff to keep pace with the demand from customers.

Last year, KRQE News 13 reported on the hiring difficulty New Mexico restaurants faced. And the problem isn’t just in New Mexico. National chains, such as Mcdonald’s, raised pay last year in an attempt to attract and keep the much-needed workers.

Pay for restaurant workers is notoriously low across the nation. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that in 2020, the nationwide average pay for food servers was $13.30 per hour. The nationwide average pay for all occupations in the US, on the other hand, was $27.07 per hour — more than double food server pay.

New Mexico ranks below average in terms of average hourly pay for supervisors, cooks, prep workers, dining room attendants, dishwashers, and coffee shop workers from both fast food and other restaurants. With an average hourly wage of $11.53, New Mexico’s restaurant staff are generally worse-paid than similar workers in Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and 37 other states, data from BLS shows.

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New Mexico, highlighted in yellow, has lower average pay for restaurant workers than most other states. Data from BLS.

Wight, from New Mexico Restaurant Association, says that low wages may not be to blame for the staff shortages here in the state. “I don’t know that you can blame it on low wage,” says Carol Wight, the CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. “We’re paying upwards of $15 an hour to get people to show up. And they’re not showing up.”

And, Wight points out that it’s not just the restaurant industry that is seeing staff shortages: “Everybody wants to say, ‘Well, restaurants aren’t a good place to work. And so nobody is going back to restaurants.’ I just can’t believe that because they’re also not going to Amazon,” she says. “They’re also not going back to banking.”

Julia Lippert, an occupational health researcher at DePaul University in Chicago, says that the restaurant industry does have some unique aspects that workers had to deal with during the pandemic. In October 2021, Lippert and her colleagues published research showing that the pandemic added new stress onto an already stressful job.

“The tip wage, the lack of benefits, the customer relationship — all those things have led to adverse working conditions,” she told KRQE News 13. And these stress-causing problems “were highlighted and exacerbated during the pandemic.”

“People were not only just receiving less tips, but they were being physically and emotionally attacked from customers,” Lippert says. In one example, a New York worker was assaulted after asking out-of-state tourists for proof of vaccination. The risk of being attacked, the added responsibility of enforcing COVID-19 protocol with customers, and the risk of getting sick on the job are probably key stressors restaurant workers have to deal with, Lippert says.

“A lot of people are jumping ship on low wage jobs because they’re not worth risking their lives for,” she says. “I think the wages will increase but I don’t I don’t trust the restaurant industry to change any other structural determinants of health.”

On top of staff shortages, restaurants are facing rising supply costs and supply chain issues, according to survey data from the Restaurant Associations. More than half of the operators surveyed said they have higher total occupancy costs — rent for their buildings — than before the pandemic. And about 40% of those surveyed expect to be less profitable in 2022. “It’s just not really getting any better,” Wight from the New Mexico Restaurant Association says.

Deena Crawley, the chief of staff at Dion’s Pizza says that they’ve had supply chain issues. “This includes everything from obtaining our normal trash bags to shipping delays for ingredients,” Crawley said. But unlike some restaurants, Dion’s didn’t see extreme staff shortages, Crawley told KRQE News 13.

Restaurants haven’t been totally on their own during the pandemic. There have been relief funds from both the state legislature and the federal government to support the restaurant industry.

KRQE News 13 previously reported on how programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program have gone towards New Mexico’s restaurants. Dion’s, for example, was approved for over $4.5 million in loans. Many restaurants, however, weren’t so lucky.

As an industry, “we’re not back yet,” Wight from the New Mexico Restaurant Association says. “We still need help.” And Wight urges restaurant patrons to be patient.

“Restaurants are really doing their very, very best. And we’re doing it with fewer staff than we did before the pandemic. We’re doing it with food costs that are rising,” Wight says. “So please having understanding, have patience when you’re at a restaurant. Know that things might take a little longer but we’re doing our absolute best.”