Chains offer wage hikes as fast-food staff shortages hit Lehigh Valley restaurants

Will Kreznick

Chipotle Mexican Grill and McDonald’s both have announced plans to increase average hourly pay amid restaurateurs struggling for manpower as pandemic restrictions are lifted. Chipotle this week announced it would be hiking its average hourly pay to $15 nationally. McDonald’s Thursday announced it would be raising hourly wages for more […]

Chipotle Mexican Grill and McDonald’s both have announced plans to increase average hourly pay amid restaurateurs struggling for manpower as pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Chipotle this week announced it would be hiking its average hourly pay to $15 nationally. McDonald’s Thursday announced it would be raising hourly wages for more than 36,500 employees by an average of 10%.

The move comes as at least one regional Chipotle location has been struggling to stay in daily operation for the past several weeks.

Chipotle, 4743 Freemansburg Ave. in the Madison Farms shopping center in Bethlehem Township, continues to close its doors for the lunchtime crowd with a sign on the front door saying it will now operate from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

In recent weeks, the front door, however, was locked even after 2 p.m. and an employee told a few patrons waiting outside reduced staff couldn’t keep up with the demand. Inside, some employees were seen taking meal breaks. The restaurant that day planned to reopen in about an hour, the male employee said.

Erin Wolford, a spokeswoman for the chain, confirmed to lehighvalleylive.com Thursday hours have been readjusted at a few select eateries nationally as a result of the lack of manpower.

“In a few minor instances, there have been challenges with available labor so we made adjustments in these restaurants to temporarily accommodate the needs of the business,” she said.

Chipotle is hoping the offer of a starting wage of $11 to $18 an hour by the end of June will entice more workers to come aboard in the increasingly tight U.S. labor market.

The location in Bethlehem Township has a sign on its front door for the past several weeks indicating cut operating hours. A chain spokeswoman Thursday, May 13, 2021 told a lehighvalleylive.com reporter it is due to reduced staff keeping up with customer demand.

At McDonald’s, the average hourly wage for its company-owned restaurants will increase to $15 an hour in a phased, market-by-market approach. Some restaurants have, or will, reach an average hourly wage of $15 an hour in 2021, and average hourly wages are expected to reach $15 an hour by 2024, the chain said.

Several major restaurant chains and independent mom-and-pop owners after the March 2020 shutdown were forced to pare down staffing when the coronavirus pandemic limited service to curbside takeaway, delivery, and drive-thru orders. After the restrictions were lifted, employers were faced with the challenge of finding staff for open jobs, especially in lower-paying frontline sectors. This is coupled with childcare issues and the need to supervise children who remain remote learning, especially women.

The nation’s unemployment rate last month rose to 6.1% from 6% as more Americans sought work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ April report. The Department of Labor & Industry’s occupational wage data, last collected in May 2019, shows employees in food preparation and serving-related occupations made an average of about $25,000 annually. The scale is skewed by head chefs and supervisors, who make about $59,000 and $38,000 annually, respectively.

Most other jobs in the field — short order cooks, bartenders, waiters and waitresses, dishwashers and more — make between $20,000 and $25,000 annually, sometimes less and sometimes more depending on experience level.

Chipotle says its crew members can advance to a restaurateur, the highest general manager position, in as little as three and a half years, with average compensation of $100,000 while leading a multi-million-dollar growing business.

Marissa Andrada, chief diversity, inclusion and people officer at Chipotle, said in a statement the chain hopes to attract talent by showcasing the potential income that can be achieved in just a few years.

“We’re looking for people who are authentic, passionate and want to help cultivate a better world through real food and real personal development,” Andrada added.

Chipotle and McDonald’s seem to be thriving financially following the hurdles of 2020.

During Chipotle’s latest quarterly earnings call, CEO Brian Niccol said as COVID-19 vaccines roll out and Chipotle gets closer to moving past the pandemic, the chain is well positioned for growth. Overall revenue increased 23% to $1.7 billion and restaurant sales increased by 17% in the first quarter of 2021 for the chain, according to the quarterly report.

McDonald’s’ first quarter 2021 report showed global comparable sales increased 7.5%, including a 13.6% increase in the U.S. and 0.6% increase in the International Operated segment, as well as 6.4% in the International Developmental Licensed segment.

“Our first value is taking care of our people, and today we are rewarding our hardworking employees in McDonald-owned restaurants for serving our communities,” said Joe Erlinger, president McDonald’s USA, in a statement Thursday. “These actions further our commitment to offering one of the leading pay and benefits packages in the industry.”

Chipotle additionally has introduced a $200 employee referral bonus for crew members and a $750 referral bonus for apprentices or general managers.

Chipotle needs to staff an estimated 200 new restaurants it plans to open this year nationally. It plans to hire 20,000 new workers nationally. All open Chipotle positions can be found here. Benefits include a college tuition reimbursement program, mental healthcare and emotional support, a 401K savings plan, and free food.

McDonald’s has plans to hire 10,000 new employees nationally. All open McDonald’s positions can be found here. Benefits include Paid Time Off, short-term counseling services, a 401K savings plan, cash incentives, and free meals.

Chipotle and McDonald’s are among the first restaurant chains to increase average pay rates following the ease up in pandemic restrictions.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is lifting all restrictions on businesses and gatherings on May 31, pennlive.com reports. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that, as the state’s COVID-19 numbers improve and vaccinations increase, businesses will be allowed to operate at full capacity May 19 — as long as they can maintain six feet of social distancing between patrons and groups, according to nj.com.

Some other chains, though, are on the bandwagon to at least sway potential job seekers with perks.

Taco Bell on April 21 converted its restaurant parking lots into job fairs. The goal was to hire at least 5,000 new team members nationally during what the chain described as a “hiring party.” Prior to the McDonald’s pay hike announcement, a McDonald’s operator in Tampa, Florida offered job candidates a $50 cash teaser to get them in the door, businessinsider.com reports.

The federal minimum wage has stayed at $7.25 an hour for more than a decade. Some larger corporations, though, have slowly been increasing pay for low-wage workers in recent years amid the Fight for $15 campaign, which began with protests by fast-food workers in 2012.

After opening its first restaurant in Denver, Colorado in 1993, Chipotle now has more than 2,800 restaurants across the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France and Germany. It is the only restaurant company of its size that owns and operates all its restaurants.

Aside from Bethlehem Township, there are regional Chipotle locations in the Allentown area, Whitehall Township, and Lower Macungie Township. Another location was approved for the Northampton Crossings shopping plaza in Lower Nazareth Township.

McDonald’s serves nearly 25 million customers daily across all of its locations. Ninety-five percent of McDonald’s nearly 14,000 U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by local business owners.

There are McDonald’s locations in Easton, Palmer Township, Bethlehem Township, the Bethlehem area, Hellertown, Lower Nazareth Township, Whitehall Township, and the Allentown area. All regional McDonald’s locations can be found here.

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Pamela Sroka-Holzmann may be reached at [email protected].

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