Note: This post contains mentions of harassment, abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
It's impossible not to have felt the lasting effects that COVID-19 has had on the restaurant industry.
In 2020, the restaurant industry ended the year with sales $240 billion below what was predicted, and it's now estimated that nearly 8 million employees were either laid off or furloughed as a result of the pandemic. As restaurants slowly continue to approach their pre-pandemic numbers, one puzzling question remains: Why aren't restaurant workers returning to the industry?
(Fact: As of September, the percentage of job openings in the hospitality industry remains higher than in any other.)
To dig in a little further, we asked the restaurant workers of the BuzzFeed Community to tell us why they won't be returning — whether their reasons were fully motivated by the pandemic, or just a looooong time coming. Here are their stories.
BTW, if you have a story to share with us, let us know in the comments below. 👇
1. "One of our managers died in a car accident on New Year's Day. I had been the closing bartender with her the previous night — New Year's Eve — so we did a champagne toast together at midnight. We were a close-knit staff, with most of us having been there together for 5-plus years. Management told us all that she had passed away as soon as we walked in for work that night, and then forced us to work through the shift when we only had a handful of reservations on the books."
"Half of the staff had to keep going back to the kitchen, crying. That was when I realized that not a single one of us meant shit to management. I left a 10-plus-year bartending career two months later, and never looked back."
2. "My manager literally screamed in my face after I took one bite of food to take with my prescription pill. (Both my tables were fine and had just been checked on, and there wasn't a single item that needed to be taken to the dining room.) I’m over the verbal abuse from not only the general public, but also from my employers."
3. "I worked in fast food for 23 years as a manager, but after having two miscarriages in 2021 from the stress, verbal, and emotional abuse, I quit in September. The pandemic has shown the absolute worst in people. In early March 2020, a customer purposefully coughed and spat on me. When I reported to a superior that I was uncomfortable and worried, I was laughed at."
4. "Seventeen years in the industry and I have never seen it so bad. No help, low wages, longer hours, no benefits, and worst of all...the PUBLIC. People are more impatient and less thankful for any type of service given. I give up. I'm going back to school to finish my B.A. because my passion for the culinary arts has been ripped from my soul. "
6. "When COVID-19 broke out, I was a chef in Houston, Texas. It took the restaurant less than a week to close, and I only found out after calling the restaurant to let them know I was running late because of a road closure. They didn’t even bother to give me a call. After that, we were sent into unemployment with no return date. I moved back in with my mom because I couldn’t pay my rent. Unemployment benefits paid me less than half of what I was previously making. So, I did what anyone else would do. I moved on. After an extensive job search, I got a job in car sales, and I poured my heart and soul into the industry, just as I did when I got into kitchens."
"What happens when COVID surges again and they close restaurants? Or when another economic crisis happens and people stop eating out? What happens when we go through this again? My reason for not going back wasn't because I’m sitting at home collecting an unemployment check; I didn’t go back because of the way the industry and the government treated myself and my fellow hospitality coworkers. They treated us like pawns on a chess board. They left us — we didn’t leave them."
7. "I left when I realized that I had developed a drinking problem. People that work in restaurants are such train wrecks — but they're also some of the best, and most fun people I've ever met. There were bar regulars that would drink their faces off every day, staff showing up drunk from the night before or their morning fix, and it normalized heavy drinking. I was not the only one I knew that needed to seek help. I had many good friends that needed help, too. I had a coworker pass away when she vomited in her sleep."
8. "A mass exodus has been festering for years. The public regularly berates employees to receive discounts and freebies. No other job is as stressful, demeaning, and degrading for such little money. You can’t stand your ground because 'the customer is always right.' No, they are not. You are the punching bag for everyone that had a bad day. I left after 17 years, and it was the best decision of my life. To all the 'no one wants to work' crowd: Go fill out an application at your local restaurant."
9. "I was in the restaurant industry for 25 years. I loved it — it was everything I knew. I worked through the entire pandemic as the bakery I ran remained open. I was exhausted. Long story short, we were never compensated for working through the pandemic at risk of high exposure, so I looked outside the field. I found a job in a different field that I was excited about, which offered realistic wages. When I told the bakery owners I was leaving, they offered me a $12 raise to get me to stay. I hadn’t received a raise in two years, and would never have asked for one during such a hurt economy...but all of a sudden, toward the end of the the worst of the pandemic, they had an extra $12 hourly to pay me? It was a smack in the face."
10. "I once worked a 14-hour double-shift, back-to-back, with no break. I started crying because I was so overwhelmed, and that's when I finally got a break. This was a regular occurrence. When everything shut down during COVID-19, I realized how much the place destroyed my mental health — not only as a result of management working us to our breaking points, but also because of the way customers treated us (and how management would always let it slide). You know a place is messed up when customers treat employees like crap, yet management sides with the customers."
11. "I worked at an Italian restaurant that did a LOT of to-go orders. I was a cashier, so I just took orders and grabbed orders in the back to give to folks up front. The cooks were responsible for packaging up food and putting it in the right slot for me to grab, and because containers were stapled closed, we could never check orders. One time, the cook made a mistake and switched two orders, so I unknowingly grabbed the wrong order for a customer. The customer came back pissed off and THREW the food back at me. I was drenched in marinara and Alfredo sauce. When I started crying, he was boasting and telling the restaurant, "Look, I made the piggy girl cry, everyone!" A few folks laughed. My boss then fired me on the spot because he had a policy that the customer was ALWAYS right, and if an employee upset a customer, it was an immediate job termination."
12. "My breaking point came after severely injuring my back on the clock and being told I couldn't leave until after my shift."
13. "I worked in a restaurant for about three and a half years, and just recently quit this July. I got the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as I could, but three of my younger siblings can't be vaccinated (and I’m still living at home while doing school). I live in an area with high COVID rates, and my boss had us wearing masks for a time. After the CDC eased their stance on vaccinated folks wearing masks, my boss said we didn’t have to wear masks anymore. Given my family situation, I decided it was better to be safe than sorry, so I continued to wear a mask. There was this couple who would always come in every day and sit at the bar. One day, the guy decided to start giving me crap about wearing a mask and made rude comments about my body. My boss didn't make him stop, and this continued for about a month. My boss told me to handle it, but it got worse..."
"I tried to talk to them, but they wouldn’t stop...they were even rude to my mother when she'd come in wearing a mask. It got so bad that even going near them made me uncomfortable and triggered my anxiety. Finally, I’m at work one day, and they start up. I ask my boss to tell them to stop, and he says he won’t. I get a disposable mask and write: 'If me wearing a mask offends you, you’re the snowflake.' As they headed to the door, I put the mask on over the one I already had. The guy saw, and so did my boss. He said I was there to work, not 'spread hate,' and if I wanted to do that I could get another job...and he walked away. I quit there on the spot."
14. "A waitress from the restaurant I work at was serving a table on the patio, and the table had dogs with them."
15. "My sister-in-law almost broke her knee while she was a server, and she continued working with her brace on. One day, she woke up and her knee was twice the size it normally was. Since my brother's business had really picked up steam, he told her to quit since they could figure out money without her ruining her knee. She did."
16. "The amount of disrespect from guests went up 1,000% during the initial COVID-19 shutdown, and didn't get better once things began to reopen. Sure, the tips might have been good from time to time, but it wasn't worth the guests yelling at me and my coworkers constantly, just because we had to enforce COVID protocols (and our wait times were a little longer than usual since we were so short-staffed)."
17. "I don’t want to continually put myself at risk from disrespectful customers...and I am SO INCREDIBLY TIRED of asking people to pull their masks up when they’re wearing chin-hammocks."
18. "It’s been terrible in NYC. I remember last year when we were the 'heroes,' working through the pandemic. Now, the shitty behavior is back: terrible tips, attitudes about mask mandates, and even more entitlement than pre-pandemic times. I’m a hospitality veteran and have been in the industry for 15-plus years. I’ve now dropped almost $5,000 in career-change-focused therapists and counselors because I would rather castrate myself with a plastic spoon than work in the industry another day. Bartending used to be fun...but it’s turned into a nightmare."
19. "I worked in HR for a restaurant/hotel. I worked through COVID-19, being the face of ownership and management as I laid off 50 employees. It was devastating — they were basically family to me. I started a Facebook group for them, sent them weekly emails, and kept them updated on unemployment procedures and potential return-to-work. I spent hours on the phone helping bussers, cooks, and housekeepers with language barriers navigate the terribleness of the unemployment system. I fought to bring them back and built up our restaurant/hotel teams. After all that, my general manager, regional operations manager, and regional HR manager approved a nice raise for me. A random new HR director from corporate, who never met me, decided I didn’t deserve it...TWO MONTHS after I had already been receiving it. They took it away from me. I had literally been approved for a mortgage on a new house that I had to back out of because my income suddenly dropped."
20. "I've been a server for 25 years, and the only reason I'm not going back is because of the customers. Every server will tell you that the customers have become intolerable since the onset of COVID-19. Yes, the money can suck, and the hours aren't great, but the Karens of the world are taking over...and since I'll definitely get fired for telling them how I feel, I'll just never go back to work in a restaurant again. The customers act worse than my 4-year-old grandson. The customers are not always right."
21. "I worked in the restaurant industry for about 10 years, in and out of different places. My last restaurant was Red Robin, and I was in a pretty high management position. I could no longer put up with being forced to see my employees — people — as just numbers and percentages. The final straw for me was being forced to make people work in over 110-degree weather, with the AC not working in half the restaurant, under the guise of 'being there for the community.' It couldn't come at the expense of the employees that I was supposed to be there for. So, I dropped my keys on the counter and walked out."
22. "I went back to work in an NYC restaurant this May. For months, I suffered consistent, unwarranted comments from entitled Upper West Side customers about my body and my looks, such as, 'All this standing keeps you so skinny, doesn't it?' and, 'The next time I'm here, I'm going to force you to eat!' The pay was pretty good, so I tried to shrug it off...but I definitely internalized those comments. In July, 80% of the restaurant's seating was outdoor seating. On a day where there was a city-wide heat warning and temperatures reached 103 degrees, management wouldn't let us go inside to cool off, or have a water bottle outside at the host stand. They said that it 'looked unprofessional.' After being yelled at by management for going inside to get water when I was about to pass out, I grabbed my stuff and ran out of there for good."
23. "When things opened back up in June 2020, customers were nice, generally compliant with the mask mandate, and even thanked us for working through a pandemic and risking our safety to provide them with service. Now, over a year after reopening, customers are crazier than Black Friday shoppers."
24. "I knew it was time to go when I could seriously consider throwing myself down the stairs just so I’d have a legitimate reason to call in sick. I had it all planned out too: step wrong at the bottom 2–3 steps and hopefully just sprain an ankle."
25. "I sprained my ankle badly on the job as a food runner. I was in terrible pain at the ER when my manager texted me, asking if I could 'find someone to pull my next shift.' They never asked if I was OK or needed help. I got the ER bill and had the restaurant pay it for me. Never got my shift picked up, never went back."
26. "Honestly, everything from the last year or so has been a nightmare...but the pay was the last straw. I worked for a very popular soup and salad fast-casual restaurant, and they've screwed over all employees in terms of pay. They furloughed people, then tried to bring them back at a 25% pay cut, plus, they eliminated assistant managers and passed their responsibilities onto shift managers (with no pay increase whatsoever). As a manager, I had all this responsibility and stress: working every single weekend and holiday, working 9-plus hours without a single break, not getting the chance to even use the restroom until hours into my shift...and I was making one dollar more than high school kids working in retail or at other fast-food restaurants. All that stress and responsibility for only a dollar more?! No thanks."
"I've been in the industry since the age of 13, and now I’m 36, leaving for a warehouse job. It's sad that it had to come to this, but it’s just not worth it at this point — mentally or financially. I’ve been off for two weeks now, waiting to start my new job, and I’ve quit smoking, lost weight, and haven’t had the urge for a drink either. Yes, there's lots that I will miss...but it’s just not worth it at this point."
27. "I was a general manager at a very busy downtown restaurant. Within hours of hearing about our initial COVID-19 mandates that required us to serve to-go food only, my owner had us lay off more than 75% of our staff, and then cut our salaries. The emotional stress of laying off employees was significant, especially when we had disagreements on who to let go. All managers were working harder for less pay, and we felt we weren’t being heard when we were the ones with our feet on the ground. When my child's daycare closed, I had to eventually work from home in order to keep up with him in a stage where he needed to be looked over constantly. I realized that if I had to choose, I would choose him over my job...and that also came with an extreme amount of guilt. I had a job when so many didn’t. My team needed me, and I did not feel I could give them my all."
28. "The industry is based on slim profit margins and exploitation. Turnover was already increasing prior to the pandemic — the pandemic just accelerated the process. I got back into the restaurant business five years ago as a cook. The idea was to re-learn the business, then start my own food truck. It's been a rough, wild five years, and I'm spiritually broken about this industry. It's a nightmare. Low pay, no benefits, working weekends and holidays and dealing with poorly trained managers (who are also overworked), increasingly belligerent customers... You know how many cooks are missing teeth? More than you would like to know. Dentists are expensive."
29. "One time, during a double with the Sunday church crowd — not tipping because they gave all their money to the church — and then my night shift of two tables staying an hour after closing, I left with $30 in tips. THIRTY BUCKS FOR EIGHT HOURS OF WORK. Earlier that day, a customer said I was a 'good door opener.' Something clicked in my brain and made me realize that I am more than that. I never went back."
30. "I accidentally charged a woman for guacamole. She opened up her burrito, looked me in the eye, and said, “See? No guac...” — then proceeded to throw said burrito in my face."
31. "I have been a loyal employee for Dunkin' Donuts since I was 14. Twelve years. I worked my way up to a multi-unit manager, and I loved my job. We operated with five people minimum in the mornings before the pandemic...now, I'm being told three people — including me — 'is what it is,' and I should just 'do my best.' I go in at 4 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m. since I have to do all the paperwork after the morning rush. I'm exhausted, sore, cranky, and angry...and I feel guilty because my poor employees feel the same way. I couldn't bear to tell them to "just do their best." It's simply not good enough."
32. "Someone stubbed a cigarette out on my arm. Rather than saying sorry, they just said: 'Thank god it was only staff and not someone important.'"
33. "I left my job during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I was furloughed — not because of the large unemployment checks I was receiving as a result of federal aid, but because as soon as I took a moment to myself, without thinking about or going to work, I realized I was drained and miserable."
34. "I worked back-of-house for almost 10 years. I realized working 60-plus-hour weeks with no sick days, no benefits, zero breaks, and missing every single family holiday just wasn’t worth the measly check that restaurants provide. Once I left, it was almost scary how it felt to work at a job that actually treated me like a human being."
35. "I live in a big city and work in one of the busiest neighborhoods for going out. We have a mask mandate in our city, meaning if you're up and walking around inside a business, you need to wear a mask. I'm done telling people to put one on and getting shit back. I'm done with management not backing us up and allowing people not to wear them. I'm done with our corporate office encouraging us to go against city mandates for the sake of a profit. Multiple employees have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last few weeks, and we were not informed — nor was the restaurant cleaned properly."
36. "I worked at Starbucks for about a year, right as the pandemic began to subside and everything started to open back up. We had so, so many issues with people refusing to wear a mask or getting mad when we asked them to wear one from the start, but the holidays were even worse. People were so incredibly rude and awful to the point where a lot of us had anxiety attacks at work. I fell into a really bad depression and was having suicidal thoughts. I took a mental health leave shortly after Christmas and never went back. I promised myself I’d never work in a job like that ever again. I’ve worked in so many customer service and retail places for the last five years, but working at Starbucks was the final straw for me. I swore to myself to never let a job drive me to that kind of mental state ever again."
37. "In the last six months, it's gotten so hard to work in a restaurant. Mask mandates are an everyday fight with people. As a chef, I am leaving because of the customers. Everyone seems to think it's all about them. What the hell has happened to our society?"
"All of you that have never worked in a restaurant: Try it for 24 hours, then talk about it. I bet your view will change. Raise your hand if you want to wait tables for $2.13 an hour. (Yes, in my state, the minimum wage for wait staff is $2.13 an hour.) Who's ready to work a 10-hour shift? Oh, and don't forget you have to pay all your bills on that, including childcare, if you can find it."
38. "I worked at a very small restaurant for close to four years that never closed during the pandemic. In those beginning days, the owner 'fired' the GM — who he was sleeping with — so she could stay home and collect unemployment. The rest of us were made to bear the burden of keeping the business going with absolutely no help from the owners. It took them months to even provide masks and hand sanitizer. They didn't update us on rules or protocol, and so it was up to us to keep track of how to police every single person who walked through the door from week to week. Customers stopped tipping well pretty quickly. We received no aid or hazard pay."
"My shifts were all solo shifts, so I didn't have anyone to help if it got busy or if a customer got out of hand with me. I had regulars who would come in and treat me like a therapist, to the point where I would come home and weep because I was so emotionally overwhelmed. (Oh...and that same owner who fired his girlfriend would constantly hit on me.)"
39. "Honestly, I still work in a restaurant, but I'm chomping at the bit to get out. I work in probably one of the most liberal cities in this country, but the amount of rude, arrogant, entitled people that come in staggers me when it comes to COVID precautions. We just reinstated a mask mandate (per county health requirements), and we are basically on our last leg, because people — both staff and guests — refuse to wear masks when not at their table. Like, I get that you have a problem with the mask mandate, but at this point, it's our jobs and local restaurant on the line. Put on a fucking mask."
40. "Once the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted at the end of 2020, my restaurant took down all the signs, reopened all the tables, and stopped requiring masks for anyone. I literally saw people I KNEW who were COVID-positive sitting in the dining room without wearing masks...and we were expected to go out there and serve them. The attitudes toward the pandemic were flippant and dismissive. So I quit. And I'm not going back. It's not worth working in the restaurant business right now. You're treated like trash by your managers and your customers, and you're not compensated fairly for how hard you have to work."
41. "I've returned to my work as a sous chef for a hotel here in Orange County, California, but part time now. I started driving for Uber and Lyft, and to tell you the truth, I'm happy now. I work less hours, have time to hang out with my kids, and I make more than four times my previous income (when I was working 6 or 7 10-hour shifts a week). I only went back part time because I missed the kitchen camaraderie with a passion."
42. "For two years, I worked as a host at a pretty popular restaurant run by a pretty famous chef. I experienced some form of sexual harassment every single day, which ranged from inappropriate comments to full-on groping. I put up with it because I was told, 'This is the culture.' I was young and didn't know any better, until one day, when I was standing by the host desk with a female coworker. One of the male servers walked up, put his hand up my dress, and walked away. My coworker and I were both in shock."
"I told a manager, who thought it was fine to just make the server apologize and move on. It wasn’t, so I told another manager. An 'investigation' was launched that lasted about a week, during which I was forced to work with that server and put up with people whispering about what happened to me. Ultimately, the restaurant's general manager told me that while my coworker corroborated what happened, they didn’t think there was any 'malicious intent' on the part of the server, so I needed to drop it and not talk about what happened again, or I would be fired. I quit a couple months later. I was in my early 20s, and this was a few years before the #MeToo movement, so I wasn’t fully aware of my rights or even the fact that what happened to me was considered assault. Had I been more informed, I would have — and should have — sued."
43. "People are rude AF, and some wouldn’t even follow mask protocols. Guests would get mad at us for enforcing socially distanced seating. I have no faith in humanity after working in the service industry during COVID. My last day in the industry was last week, after 17 years, and I will be so glad to never serve another ungrateful asshole again."
44. "My final straw was when our chef decided to do an impromptu chef's table and had me manage all the outside seating by myself in 100-degree weather. The outdoor tables were tiny, and he would yell at me for not clearing plates in a time he deemed acceptable, when in reality the customers weren’t even done eating their dishes. He drunkenly cussed me out while refilling the customers' wine glasses. I cried in front of the customers, and his close friends were apologizing on his behalf. He never personally apologized. The next week, a regular came in wasted, pissed himself, then placed his hand on my ass before plopping down on the couch. The chef was right there and saw everything. I mentioned it to him, and he said, 'It just looks like he touched your back.' He didn’t even acknowledge me my last night. Fuck you, Todd."
45. "Our operations manager subtly asked how people felt about reopening for dine-in as we started getting vaccinated, but there wasn't a moment where we actually had a meeting to discuss doing so. When they announced that reopening was happening in a week, and that we had a whole new set of tasks to do to get ready, I asked some key questions about cleaning and safety protocols. I got a lot of 'uh, I don't know' answers back. I told my manager that unless they wanted to give us raises, I wasn't willing to do certain tasks that I felt threatened my safety, the safety of my coworkers, or the safety of vulnerable customers. I ended up getting pulled into the hallway mid-shift by management to tell me I could either talk it out with them right then and there, or have a Zoom call with the CEO."
"They argued with me, told me that the city-mandated raise of minimum wage was a great raise, and we were 'lucky to even have it,' and tried to convince me that all of my safety concerns were my own fault because I hadn't brought them up before they announced reopening for dine-in. I was burned out from horrible customers, hadn't taken a full vacation day in my 18 months with the company, and put up with dubious safety conditions for the entire pandemic at that point. The manager started raising her voice at me after about 15 minutes of telling me all my concerns were wrong, and shouted, 'If you don't think we pay you enough, why are you even still here?' So, I left my key and walked out. Since I left, many other employees have quit. Now the business is advertising for BOH and FOH at all of its locations — with higher pay, PTO benefits, and sign-on bonuses — but they still can't find enough staff.
46. "After 30-plus years in the restaurant industry, working an ungodly number of hours with abusive customers, employees, and owners, I’m now on disability. Any way you look at it, it’s an abusive industry. (Notice that I didn’t even address wages or benefits.) I believe the people that aren't returning after time away realize they don’t have to put up with it anymore. I could write a book on how abusive the industry is."
Note: Submissions have been edited for length and/or clarity.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline is 1-888-950-6264 (NAMI) and provides information and referral services; GoodTherapy.org is an association of mental health professionals from more than 25 countries who support efforts to reduce harm in therapy.