To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the hospitality industry would be an understatement. And while a recovery is underway and restaurants work to resume in-person dining, many business owners are struggling to staff back up. Right-wing media have seized on these new stories to fit an old “welfare queen” narrative about greedy employees and excessive government intervention.
According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 restaurants and bars -- more than one in every six restaurants nationwide -- had closed by December as a result of the pandemic. Nearly 2.5 million jobs were lost, and the industry fell $240 billion short of pre-COVID-19 revenue projections.
A January report from the Congressional Research Service found that workers in the leisure and hospitality industry faced a peak unemployment rate of 39.3% in April 2020 and lagged behind other industries in terms of recovery. While some businesses managed to stay staffed and operational thanks in part to government initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program, there was a lot of uncertainty when it came to the future of the industry. With indoor dining restrictions being lifted and COVID-19 cases on the decline across the country, some surviving restaurants are now stuck with an unexpected problem: jobs that they are unable to fill.
Where some see a problem, right-wing media outlets see an opportunity to smear workers as ungrateful freeloaders.
To hear some on the right tell it, the problem is the result of overgenerous unemployment payments included in the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. The legislation guarantees $300 per week until September to people on unemployment in addition to whatever state-level unemployment benefits are available. While the problem is obviously more complicated than a single government policy, the legislation’s become a canvas for people in conservative media to splash with “welfare queen” rhetoric and opinions pulled from their usual grab bag of grievances.
During a recent Fox News segment, Fox and Friends co-host Brain Kilmeade interviewed a couple of restaurant owners who were having trouble filling job openings. At one point, Kilmeade asked the businessmen how much the media was to blame for making people “so freaked out by the coverage, much of it wrong,” telling them to “wear three masks and sit in [their] closet” so they don’t die. Fox News, of course, has spent the pandemic being consistently incorrect and irresponsible, making Kilmeade’s criticism of other news outlets a bit laughable.
On TV, radio, and online, Fox News has repeatedly promoted the stories of employers who have been unable to fill vacancies. So desperate for narrative-reinforcing content, Fox wrote an entire article about a TikTok video that showed a sign at a McDonald’s drive-thru window urging customers to be patient as they were short-staffed, and then interviewed the person who took the video days later. Many of these segments place blame on people simply not wanting to work because they are supposedly living large on unemployment. This messaging isn’t particularly surprising, as people like Kilmeade and fellow Fox news host Sean Hannity have been arguing against increased unemployment benefits since late March 2020, but it is still notable.
In a video posted to his Twitter on April 26, The Blaze’s Glenn Beck lamented that people could earn “70, 80, or 90% of what they were making without having to do any work."
“Few people want to return to any sort of lower-paying job while the ‘free money’ train is still rolling,” wrote Jazz Shaw at Hot Air. “And as for being forced to be the face mask police, some workers have already been beaten up by enraged customers after trying to enforce those rules.”
Shaw went on to argue against liberal policies like cash benefits, eviction moratoriums, and mask mandates. Though several of these policies were part of previous bipartisan aid efforts, with a Democrat back in the White House and Republicans in Congress unified against the continuation of these interventions, they’re convenient scapegoats for conservatives.
Politicians like Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC) and former Trump administration White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have hopped on the trend of blaming increased benefits for businesses’ struggles to staff up.
As I travel around our state it’s clear businesses are hiring but all too often can’t find workers because our government is paying them to stay home. We need to encourage and reward work, not discourage and then penalize it with higher taxes!
— Sarah Huckabee Sanders (@SarahHuckabee) April 28, 2021
The truth, as it tends to be, is more complicated than people in right-wing media would have you believe.
One thing missing from many of these stories is input from people who are currently unemployed, and for good reason: It would complicate the simple “government bad” narrative of the right.
As COVID-19 case numbers spiked again in December and restaurants that had been relying on outdoor dining had to once again adapt to a challenging landscape, 372,000 food service employees lost their jobs. In January, The Washington Post published a feature about the winter struggles of restaurant employees, many of which had lost jobs, gained jobs, and lost jobs again during the pandemic. Whatever sense of security those workers had, the pandemic destroyed it.
“It’s been 10 months but I’m still shocked, disheartened, devastated,” a restaurant worker named Jasmine Slater told the Post. “I’ve gone through my savings, I’ve gone through my resources -- all of that is depleted now. The bills are piling up and my kids are looking to me for answers I can’t provide.”
Another out-of-work chef was quoted as saying that he was “broke as a joke,” and owed more than $3,000 in back rent payments. “The whole month of December felt like the darkest time of my life. I haven’t made money in a month and, to be honest, I don’t know when I will again,” he said.
Far from living the high life, these people were in pain. An NBC report published in April looked at the trend of unemployment during an improving economy. Unfortunately for both employees and employers, the increase in available work seems to have coincided with the exact moment of burnout for people seeking it. NBC interviewed ZipRecruiter labor economist Julia Pollack, who explained, “Job seeker confidence has gone down between January and March at exactly the moment that their prospects have improved. It’ll take a while before people really notice the labor market has heated up.”
The New York Times published an article in mid-April offering a number of reasons the disconnect between workers and employers may exist. Yes, it offered the possibility that increased unemployment payments may offer a slight disincentive to job-seekers, but the research on that is complicated. Other possibilities shared by the Times included concerns about getting sick, issues involving parents who may need to be home with children who are still remote learning, and worries about money in the erratic industry that had just kicked them to the curb a year before. There’s also people rethinking their career paths as it’s not as though those who were laid off last March have been quietly sitting around waiting for their old boss to call them up.
Weathering the pandemic hasn’t exactly been a picnic for most people, and that’s especially true for both restaurant owners and their employees. It’s easy to frame these groups as being on two opposing sides, and even easier to use their challenges to advance a political agenda. The truth is usually more complicated than the narrative you’ll see on TV, and the right-wing framing of workers as greedy freeloaders has less to do with the reality of the current situation and more to do with conservatives' desire to create overly simplistic narratives centered around greedy “takers” and benevolent “makers.”
The argument has taken many forms over the years, but the core message has been consistent: Government should do less to help and should allow the social safety net to fray. Right-wing media's concern for these business owners only goes as far as it remains politically convenient for them. Their one-sided stories serve the same purpose as they always have: to further their right-wing messaging.