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City restaurateurs on Thursday panned President Biden’s advice that they offer higher wages to attract workers away from pandemic-fattened unemployment benefits, arguing that they might have to pass the cost onto customers — or eat it themselves.
Grilled by an Ohio restaurant chain owner about the predicament during a Wednesday evening town hall event, Biden said that the industry might be “be in a bind for a little while” unless they ponied up bigger bucks for prospective employees.
Chris Page, general manager of the White Oak Tavern in Greenwich Village, scoffed at the suggestion.
“We can’t afford to raise wages because if we do that we just essentially become an employment agency,” said Page, 45. “We’re in business to make profits.”
Page said that he could see why so many out-of-work New Yorkers are in no rush to return to the labor force, and that it was on Uncle Sam to incentivize them to get back on the job.
“Listen, if I was 25-years-old making 800 bucks a week, then I’d be sitting on the beach drinking margaritas, too,” he cracked. “The government makes it easy for them to collect unemployment.”
If restaurateurs caved and offered higher wages to entice workers off the sidelines, the money would have to come from somewhere — with jacked-up prices for customers the most obvious source, said Page.
“Yeah there’s an aspect of having to raise prices in order to supplement the lack of employment in order to pay for more people,” he said. “That’s kinda where it’s gonna go if we don’t stabilize the employment issue right now.”
David Arias, the co-owner of Upper West Side tapas joint Bodega 88, agreed, despite being a Biden booster.
“Easier said than done,” he said of the suggestion to up worker wages. “There are other things that come into play: Liquor costs, food costs, the rent.
“The landlords don’t care that we want to pay the employees more,” Arias added. “So it puts us in a quagmire, where, how do we balance that out? How do we raise their pay but also be able to pay rent, taxes, food costs that are higher now, liquor costs that are higher now? It’s not a one way street.”
Arias arrived at the same logical conclusion that the costs would be passed on to the customers — who might stop coming out altogether if they felt priced out.
“You raise wages for employees but then you have to raise prices on food and drinks and the customers complain,” he said. “Again, caught in a quagmire: What do you do to find the balance where you pay more for the restaurant employees, but then you have to raise the price for the customer?”
Arias predicted that higher wages would only be a victory for restaurant workers in the short term if the establishments employing them couldn’t afford to keep the lights on.
“If you’re paying employees $15 to $20 an hour, but then we can’t pay rent, can’t pay the taxes, and this business closes, that employee is unemployed,” he reasoned.
Chrissy Viola, manager of The Richmond on Staten Island, said that while her restaurant was well-staffed now, they had previously struggled to attract servers and back-of-house workers who wanted to cling to unemployment benefits.
“We had endless folks coming in and saying, ‘I really want to stay on unemployment,’ and we say, ‘We’re very sorry but no, we’re not double dipping,’” she recalled. “They wanted to get paid less than $500 so they could continue to get unemployment.
“The opportunity is there, but it’s just that people don’t want to work,” Viola added. “Either there is a fear or they’ve accommodated their lifestyle accordingly.”
While Viola did not go so far as to say the plug should be pulled on pandemic unemployment assistance, she warned that some enjoying the ride now might find themselves left out in the cold if they didn’t take advantage of openings available now.
“I do think there is a little bit of an abuse on it, but I think it will bite those people in the butt because when they go back, the jobs won’t be there,” she said. “Especially when some people have adapted to sort of working with a smaller staff because they really didn’t have a choice.”
Some restaurateurs, however, saw the wisdom in Biden’s suggestion.
Joe Trento, the manager of Upper West Side Mexican joint Blockheads, said that he raised wages for all tipped employees to $15 per hour — a $5 hike — at the start of the year and has not regretted the investment.
“I think it’s a fallacy that they [restaurant owners] can’t afford it. I think they can,” said Trento, 53. “And if menu prices have to make an adjustment then that’s what has to happen. We have not adjusted [menu prices]. We’ve stayed level, and still were able to give a raise.”
Trento said that the higher wages allowed them to easily restore their staff to pre-pandemic levels, which in turn has given them a competitive advantage over less well-staffed restaurants.
“It helped with getting people back,” he said. “I think that’s why we’re able to open and be staffed and be available for everyone, because our employees are happy, or happier.
“I think that’s probably the advice that needs to be [heeded] moving forward,” added Trento of Biden’s proposal. “That businesses somehow have to share in the struggle with trying to get people back.”
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