COVID-19 Restaurant Resources

How to Rehire Restaurant Staff and Prepare Employees for Reopening

By Dana Krook

staff member in mask opening restaurant door

The restaurant industry was rocked to its core by COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, with 77% of workers reporting that their hours have been reduced. Many restaurants have closed their doors – some permanently – while others have been running tirelessly on skeleton crews to fulfil their loyal guests’ takeout orders.

As public health restrictions ease across the United States and Canada, it’s time to carefully consider how to rehire restaurant staff. Understanding government financial assistance programs is key, as is knowing what technology can help you address staffing challenges. It’s a lot of information to bite off, but we’ll get through it together.

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • What restaurateurs need to know about rehiring staff under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)
  • What Canadian restaurants need to know about rehiring staff
  • Tips for hiring new employees
  • How to prepare your staff for reopening your restaurant and how technology can help
counter staff wearing mask

Rehiring Staff Under PPP

As a restaurateur, you’ve got a full plate right now – to put it lightly. That’s why it’s a wise choice to try to rehire restaurant staff before you put in the immense time and effort it takes searching for new employees, not to mention training them. 

If you’re concerned about your restaurant’s finances, rehiring staff is your most cost effective option. For U.S. restaurants, rehiring staff became more manageable, given the changes to PPP enacted on June 5.

Let’s break down the basics:

  • While the PPP is a loan, if you rehire restaurant staff (or the equivalent positions) at your pre-pandemic staffing level by the new deadline of December 31, those salaries will be eligible for loan forgiveness.
  • To qualify for that loan forgiveness, you must rehire your employees at a pay rate that’s either equal to their salary (including cash tips) from January to March 2020 or up to a 25% pay cut.
  • Restaurants that choose to rehire staff now only need to allocate 60% of the PPP loan to payroll as opposed to the original 75%, which frees up funds for you to cover other major costs such as rent.

It’s important to consider how you’ll calculate your employees’ return pay, especially for front-of-house restaurant staff, because tips make up a significant portion of their income and would have been factored into your loan amount. This means they also need to be factored into payroll decisions for reopening.

But, since the first quarter of the year is often slower than the warmer months (with some exceptions, such as restaurants at ski resorts), rehiring staff at pay levels based on January to March 2020 may mean their income this summer will be much lower than last year. Unless of course you choose to adjust their pay rate.

Some restaurants are opting to offer returning employees the average hourly rate or salary from April/May 2019, to entice them to come back and to keep them once they’ve reopened. Others are changing their tip policy, creating tip pools that evenly distribute tips among all workers. If you do this, ensure that you’re following tip pooling laws in your area.

You’ll also need to consider how job duties and your restaurant’s health and safety protocols may need to change due to COVID-19 before you reopen. These are all things your employees will likely ask about. Let’s walk through how to navigate these important conversations.

What Canadian Restaurants Need to Know

North of the border, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program was extended by three months on May 15. Now, Canadian restaurateurs affected by the pandemic can access this funding to subsidize employee wages by 75% until August 29.

Restaurants Canada’s Rapid Recovery Guide is a useful resource for Canadian restaurants looking to reopen and rehire staff. The organization also released a webinar in June titled Rapid Recovery Series: Rebuilding Your Workforce, which features industry experts and covers topics such as:

  • Caring for your staff’s well-being
  • Helping to build their confidence and motivation to return to work
  • Recruiting and training new employees
restaurant owner reviewing paperwork wearing mask

Top Considerations When You Rehire Restaurant Staff

1. Health and Safety

It’s essential to develop robust health and safety policies and communicate the information to your staff early on in your conversations about coming back to work, so that they know their well-being is top of mind for you. Be ready to address any concerns your team members may have with compassion and clarity.

2. Roles and Responsibilities

You’ll likely need to make adjustments to your employees’ previous positions based on your restaurant’s new business model. For example, your front-of-house staff may now need to manage takeout and delivery orders as part of their regular duties. You may even have to implement a different kind of scheduling system, like a rotating schedule.

When you begin to rehire restaurant staff, be upfront about how their roles may have evolved and be careful not to alter any job descriptions too drastically.

3. Refusal to Return to Work

Some of your restaurant staff may simply not feel comfortable returning to work depending on their personal or family situation and related health concerns. Some workers earning low wages may not want to come back if they’re earning more money through unemployment benefits than they would at their job.

However, according to CNBC, “Employers who follow federal, state, and local safety measures and call employees back to their former jobs will likely be recognized as providing ‘suitable work.’ Workers cannot refuse suitable work and still get unemployment benefits.”

While this information is good to know, it’s still crucial to handle rehiring conversations with care if you want to maintain positive long-term relationships with your staff.

Hiring New Restaurant Staff

It’s possible that not all of your employees will be able or willing to come back to work, and you may need to hire some new staff. Due to changes in your business, you may also have to hire for entirely new roles – for example, someone to manage takeout and delivery orders exclusively or log contact information if you don’t have reservation software.

Take time to consider what roles you’ll need going forward, how to recruit for those roles in a way that will ensure you find the best possible candidates, and how to implement a contactless hiring strategy. For example, Restaurants Canada recommends designating a health and safety point person for each shift to monitor adherence to protocols and offer education.

Tips for Hiring New Team Members

1. Develop a Referral Program

When hiring restaurant staff, you’ve likely received referrals in the past. If you have an informal referral program, it’s time to document and operationalize this system – and promote it widely among your current employees.

“For example, for every candidate referred who passes an initial interview, they will receive an immediate bonus of $250. For more important positions, maybe it’s a $500 bonus after the new hire has worked for two weeks without issue,” suggests this article by Modern Restaurant Management.

You can customize a program like this to meet your needs. It’s a worthwhile time investment, considering that other restaurants have found up to 45% of new employees through referrals.

2. Team Up with Other Restaurants

This idea may be a good fit for you if you have a candidate who wants to work more hours than you can offer. You can partner with another restaurant in a similar situation to ensure the individual gets the hours they need – and you both get a new staff member who’s less likely to look for work elsewhere.

3. Use Industry-Specific Job Boards

You’ll often be able to find skilled candidates like experienced chefs and bartenders on restaurant job boards. A few to check out include Culinary Agents, PoachedJobs, and Shiftgig. You can also advertise in restaurant-specific Facebook groups.

4. Make the Most of the Interview Process

Once you’ve found a solid pool of potential restaurant staff, it’s important to screen your candidates thoroughly during the interview stage. Asking the right restaurant interview questions can help you better discern who would make the best fit for your team.

Interviews also offer an opportunity to communicate your health and safety protocols to help position your restaurant as a top choice for job seekers.

restaurant staff wearing gloves and sanitizing counter

How Restaurants Can Prepare Staff for Reopening

We’ve mentioned that it’s crucial to double down on health and safety before you reopen. Here are a few ways you can do that to protect your restaurant staff and guests.

1. Implement New Procedures

It’s important to ask everyone working in your restaurant to engage in more frequent hand washing, wear personal protective equipment (PPE), limit contact with food, and maintain regular cleaning/disinfecting of surfaces (e.g. tables and chairs in between seatings). You should also remove tabletop condiments and reusable menus, as well as avoid pre-setting tables with glasses or silverware.

2. Change Your Physical Space

In addition to spacing your tables out with a new floor plan, place markers on your restaurant floor to help staff and guests social distance. You can also use directional arrows to ensure that entrances and exits don’t become crowded. We also recommend adding hand sanitizing stations for servers.

3. Develop New Training (Online and In-Person)

It’s useful to record a video walkthrough of your restaurant’s new floor plan that staff can watch to become familiar and comfortable with the layout. You should also offer training for using new restaurant technology such as online ordering systems, reservations software, and contactless payment systems.

4. Monitor Employee Health and Hygiene

It’s a good idea to implement a pre-work screening “health check” for staff to complete at the beginning of each shift. For example, 7Shifts’ new Employee Health Check feature allows restaurants to create customized questionnaires to screen employees before they clock into work. This prevents sick staff from working, which helps keep your customers and other team members healthy.

In addition, establish a clear policy that outlines what you expect of staff if they do get sick or have COVID-19 symptoms. The policy should also cover what will happen if an exposure is reported at your restaurant.

5. Adjust Scheduling Practices

You can stagger your employees’ start times to help minimize contact or create separate “teams” that rotate on different shifts.

How Technology Can Help Your Restaurant Reopen

Employee management software and a robust POS system are powerful tools to help your restaurant navigate reopening successfully.

Even before the pandemic, restaurateurs faced scheduling challenges. Restaurant scheduling software can help you create a solid staffing schedule for your complex and dynamic work environment, without the headache of trying to figure it all out yourself.

Additionally, a POS system can help with several aspects of reopening your restaurant, including:

  • Helping restaurant staff fulfill orders faster and more accurately with tableside ordering
  • Encouraging servers to upsell items to help support your restaurant’s financial recovery
  • Running reports to track labor costs and stay on budget
  • Creating your new restaurant floor plan
  • Taking contactless payments
  • Offering discounts to loyal customers to encourage repeat business and increase sales

Cheers to Your Next Chapter

Times have been extraordinarily tough, but restaurateurs are resilient. With a strong understanding of government assistance programs, rigorous health and safety procedures, and a solid staffing plan, you’ll be well prepared to write a compelling new chapter in your restaurant’s history.

Photo of Dana Krook
by Dana Krook

Dana is the former Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, sharing tips for and stories of restaurateurs turning their passion into success. She loves homemade hot sauce, deep fried pickles and finding excuses to consume real maple syrup.

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