Restaurants across the U.S. are desperate to hire as outdoor dining season begins, indoor dining restrictions lift, and vaccination rates trend upwards. But despite the hospitality industry losing nearly one-third of its jobs during the pandemic, workers aren’t coming back. In many cases, they’re not even applying.

In highly competitive markets like Southern California, owners are rolling out unheard-of perks. “We’re offering a hiring incentive where if you bring a friend on referral, if they last a certain amount of time, you get a $250 bonus, and it’s $500 for managers,” said chef Jason Neroni, owner of 350-seat restaurant The Rose in Venice, a beachside community in Los Angeles. “It has been an extreme challenge. I can’t even activate my areas outside because I don’t have enough service staff.”

Neroni brought back about half his 250 employees after the first shutdown last spring. But after another hit right before the holidays, he said, many workers moved out of the area or shifted into other professions. To boost capacity from this winter’s cutback to 220 seats, he’s added seating for 100 in the parking lot—but without bartenders, floor managers, and servers to work them, those tables sit empty.

Of course, not every restaurateur is in the position to attract candidates this way. In Philadelphia, Sojourn Restaurant Group owner Jill Weber is struggling to fill four front-of-house openings at Jet Wine Bar—and when the adjacent wine garden opens up later this spring, she’ll need another five workers to run it. Despite a fully-staffed kitchen, she can’t open the group’s newest concept, Sor Ynez, because she can’t find servers. She’s considering temporary staffing agencies as a last resort.

The problem extends beyond larger cities, where workers may have more employment options. Shortages in restaurant labor from cashiers to cooks to managers have been reported in smaller markets in North Carolina, Arizona, central New York, and Pennsylvania.

Read the full article about unemployed restaurant workers by Alexandra Jones at The Counter.