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Immigration Nation

Immigration Nation

Operators feel the squeeze as ICE cracks down on undocumented immigrant workers.

During summer 2019, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a.k.a. ICE, announced it would plan targeted sweeps to round up undocumented immigrants across the country.

This included the restaurant industry, where immigrants have played a vital role for decades. For example, in July, more than 2,000 migrant workers were targeted in raids, according to the New York Times. And in September, ICE agents detained five workers at a Chicago pizzeria near the Indiana border, Eater reported. The restaurant industry already faces a hiring crisis and targeted raids bring on more challenges, say industry experts.

“There used to be more [immigrant] applicants,” says Okan Yazici, director of fine dining overseeing both Zahav and Abe Fisher restaurants in Philadelphia. He also immigrated from Turkey in 2008. “I know a lot of people in the industry, and everyone is complaining [that] it’s impossible to find cooks, prep cooks and support staff.”

The tightening job market, including an overall decline in immigrants, both undocumented and working legally, has other consequences in the workplace. It can limit the diversity of cultures, which can open up different types of dialogues.

“You get different ideas, talents and attributes, and it’s important in the restaurant industry,” says Andrew Volk, owner of Little Giant and Hunt + Alpine Club in Portland, Maine. “As an industry that takes on skilled and unskilled workers, you bring in a swath of people.”

That, however, is changing. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2017, foreign-born workers comprised 23 percent of the service industry compared with just 17 percent of U.S.-born workers. And the New York Times reported in October 2019 that total immigration to the United States declined by 70 percent to only 200,000. This is the lowest number in more than a decade.

At New York Italian restaurant Leopard at des Artistes, owner Gianfranco Sorrentino historically has brought chefs over from Italy to help train younger cooks the proper techniques. Now, he says, because of visa restrictions, he cannot.

“We can’t keep people or bring people to train our employees about these jobs,” Sorrentino says. “Now these kinds of jobs aren’t seen as important [to our government] to bring them in. I understand the competition that you don’t want to take jobs away from Americans. I’ve been here since 1984 and I’ve never worked with a dishwasher or porter who was from America.”

With the loss of immigrants, it’s getting harder—and costlier—to hire quality staff who will stick around.

“We have a hard time because the restaurant business pays some of the lowest wages in the economy,” says Erik Niel, chef/owner of Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, Tenn.

With lower available workers in general and less immigrants in the work force, restaurants have to pay higher wages, which affect overall costs to run the business.

“We’re doing things strategically not to price ourselves out of the market,” Niel adds. “Our costs go up, but you just can’t raise prices without losing covers. There’s this giant squeeze.”


How to combat a loss of skilled immigrant workers

Ask almost any operator about the biggest issues facing their businesses and many may point to a shortage of skilled workers. No matter if that’s having less access to line cooks, bussers, dishwashers or hosts, the restaurant industry has felt the squeeze of a tight labor market.

One reason could point to a decline in the number of immigrant workers, whether documented or undocumented, entering the hospitality industry. One operator says an increase in raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has pushed skilled, foreign-born workers into other industries.

What does this mean for you? How do you ensure you’re running your business as
successfully as possible while also retaining your staff? Here’s what several high-profile operators had to say.

Increase Salaries and Offer Benefits

“To keep the good people, we have to raise the pay rates. You have to pay the good ones better or they’ll go somewhere else. We have to make consumers understand that good food and service and hospitality cost money.”
– Gianfranco Sorrentino, owner, The Leopard at des Artistes, New York

“I’m not smarter than other restaurant owners, but when they find the talent, fair pay has to happen. It’s important to provide healthcare and also guide them so they’re doing things right, like paying taxes on time. Give them direction if they need counseling or go to the gym, finding ways to help them build a life here.”
– Okan Yazici, director of fine dining, CookNSolo restaurants, Philadelphia

Reassure Your Staff

“Have open conversations with your staff about the choices you make and why you make them. Be proactive with the things that impact their lives every day. Think about what you would do if ICE knocked on your door and what you would say and tell your staff to do. That conversation assures them we have their back and that they work in an environment [in which] they’re excited to show up and work every day.”
– Andrew Volk, owner, Portland Hunt + Alpine Club and Little Giant, Portland, Maine

Only Hire Documented Workers

“All of our employees have to have work permits. Ask if they have official work permits and if they’re qualified. They know something will be asked, and that puts people on edge. But you need talented laborers, but like everyone else, they have to pay taxes and use public services.”
– Okan Yazici, director of fine dining, CookNSolo restaurants, Philadelphia


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