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Restaurant workers celebrate holiday on the job after months of COVID closures

After more than a year of employment insecurity, restaurant workers are grateful for steady hours and fewer restrictions, but challenges remain.

PORTLAND, Oregon — As is the case on most Labor Days, several people enjoyed this one off of work. Others, however, still clocked in, especially those who work in the restaurant industry. After what the last 18 months have brought them, that's something they don't take for granted.

“I didn't even remember it was Labor Day until somebody told me,” said Nicole Prior, a restaurant manager at The Sudra, on North Mississippi Avenue. “Just kind of business as usual.”

Prior said while working holidays has always come with the service industry territory, getting others to join her there has been a new challenge.

“I'm trying to hire,” said Prior. “I'm making calls all the time but a lot of people aren't showing up. There's a lot of need out there and I get it. The pandemic has everybody rebalancing their life.”

Further down Mississippi Avenue at StormBreaker Brewing, the feelings are mutual.

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“It's been an interesting year, to say the least,” said StormBreaker Brewing owner Rob Lutz. “We are super grateful for the employees we have right now. It's been a struggle at times to find people but we have a great team at both our locations.”

Lutz didn't even think of taking Labor Day off. After having to close during the pandemic and dealing with other COVID change-ups, every day of work is worth celebrating for him. Even Labor Day.

“The rest of the team had to be here, I was here too, helping out wherever I can.”

Lutz said to attract job applicants, he's raised wages by 15-20%. Other restaurants are offering hiring bonuses. But for many who are unemployed this Labor Day, things are about to change, financially. Several pandemic-related benefits just expired. Economists figure that will impact around 80,000 Oregonians. Employers hope those who are able to, will apply to work with them.

“That's the rumor, that's the shop talk of it all the restaurant people,” said Prior. “That September is going to bring a lot more people coming in [to apply], which is great.”

Lutz agreed.

“We're hoping to see some good candidates come back,” he said.

For now, restaurant employees keep trying to make it work. Pulling beers and extra shifts, packing orders to-go and patience to boot. Giving others a chance to eat, drink and feel normal. On this Labor Day, all we can say to that is, thank you.

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