—  October 9, 2022  By Jayne Roth, M.P.H, REHS Rimkus Consulting Group, Inc  —  

🔘   At the end of 2021, a survey fielded by the National Restaurant Association showed that 78 percent of operators said their restaurants did not have enough employees to support customer demand. Understaffing is not only an economic issue, but also a food safety issue. With fewer staff, many safety and operating procedures get shorted in exchange for service expectations. This has the potential to increase risks of Foodborne Illnesses (FBIs).

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🔘   Going out to dinner with family shouldn’t cause an impending feeling of danger. However, did you know there are more than 250 types of pathogens that can cause foodborne illness? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes statistics each year of FBIs, such as hospitalizations, and deaths, and these numbers are in the thousands. FBIs can happen anywhere at any time, including one’s own home. However, restaurants or businesses serving food have a higher expectation for FBI control and understaffing because of Covid-19, which can result in an increased risk and additional liabilities to their food safety managers and the establishments themselves.

🔘   It is important to realize that FBIs can happen to anyone and can have varying degrees of severity. An individual suffering from something they ate can be devastating. It may result in missed days of work, which for some families means that they can’t afford to buy food for dinner this week or are rendered unable to care for their children. Or it may result in a several days’ stay in a hospital, among other outcomes.

🔘   The fear of contracting COVID-19 has caused millions of customers and employees to stay at home, resulting in a massive decrease of dollars spent on entertainment, gas, and food. This double-edged sword has reduced the numbers of customers going out to eat and, in turn, resulted in plummeting sales. Restaurants either can’t stay in business, or they reduce staff to do so. The number of restaurant employees dropped by 2.2 million from 2019-2020. Unfortunately, many restaurants attempt to maintain status quo, but with a potential price to those who eat at their establishments. We are discovering the hard way that the side effects of COVID-19 may be indirectly causing FBIs from the circumstances at hand.

🔘   The value of the restaurant industry in 2020, after being adjusted because of COVID-19, was $659 billion ($240 billion less than projected). Restaurant managers and owners are trying to stay open and staffed, which is commendable. However, a survey conducted by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association found that 88 percent of respondents are operating with inadequate staffing. The public health sector has seen thousands of illnesses occur for decades, and much needed new laws and regulations that keep up with current science have been adopted to change industry practices. 

🔘   A restaurant with an eight-page menu, for example, shouldn’t operate with a skeleton crew unless they have made other adjustments. Adequate staff is needed to operate the kitchen in a manner that is conducive to a controlled situation and ensures that corners are not cut on food safety practices. 

🔘   It sounds simple, but the risks understaffing poses to public health need to be addressed quickly. Labor violations, such as not giving employees time to eat or take a break, can be common in the restaurant industry. These violations usually go unpunished since workers cannot afford to refuse shifts, speak up for their rights, or even take sick time. Unfortunately, FBIs are occurring in understaffed foodservice establishments. Those employees who do continue to work may not have the knowledge or experience needed to control food safety risks in the kitchen. However, having knowledge of food safety is not a predictor of proper food handling, especially with time constraints, poor training, and a general lack of resources. 

🔘   One of the biggest contributors to foodborne illness outbreaks is human error. Often, these errors are unintentional. For example, an employee is rushing or forgets to take the internal temperature of the meat being cooked and inadvertently serves undercooked (potentially harmful) hamburger. Or they place packages of raw poultry on a high shelf in the walk-in cooler, and raw juices drip on (and contaminate) the ready-to-eat foods below. Or they leave a delivery of refrigerated products out in the hot sun for hours, making them unsafe and unusable. These human errors are magnified when restaurants are understaffed, leaving even less time to follow critical food safety procedures.

🔘   Cutting corners, working while ill, and lack of general food safety knowledge can lead to devastating outcomes. In 2018, a British pub chef admitted to disregarding food regulations and indicated he was rushing while preparing Shepherd’s pie, which contributed to poor cooking, cooling, and reheating steps necessary to control potential pathogen survival or growth in food products. As a result, one person died and 30 people were sickened. The chef was ultimately given a four-month jail sentence, community service, and a large fine. 

🔘   These situations have the potential to end up in litigation. If a restaurant does have insurance, it may not be sufficient to cover medical costs of ill customers. Foodservice establishments must be compliant with applicable rules and regulations to protect their reputation and, ultimately, their pocketbook.

🔘    The solution sounds easy, right? Do not operate with inadequate staff. But what determines “inadequate staff?” I can surmise that deciding to close or reduce staff is one of the most difficult decisions for a manager or owner to make. Businesses are condensing their menus, which is a positive approach, as well as decreasing hours of operation and decreasing available tables. 

🔘   Evaluating food processes to build-out food safety risks by partnering with a food safety expert can decrease steps, save time, improve efficiency, and reduce food safety hazards. If there is an alleged exposure, then working with a qualified food safety expert/consultant, can help in the exposure identification, response, and investigation of claims related to food, food packaging, and processes. These investigations can include:

  • Auditing food safety procedures at restaurants and manufacturing facilities
  • Investigating food damage claims related to product safety and product quality
  • Identifying causation of food microbial contamination as well as physical contamination of food products
  • Evaluating compliance in food industry regulations regarding of standards of care 
  • Investigating food allergen allegations
  • Crisis management response to food-related incidents such as illnesses, recalls, aseptic sampling, public health considerations, and communication messaging
  • Assisting in environmental sampling following positive tests by regulatory agencies

🔘   COVID-19 has provided numerous challenges to the food service industry, but none that cannot be addressed with proactive measures and intentional planning. Many of these challenges are molding the industry for the future. By understanding how these challenges could impact food safety, we will be designing a more resilient industry in the future.

🔘   About the author: Jayne Roth, MPH, REHS, is Senior Food Safety Consultant at Rimkusin Portland, OR. She has more than 25 years of experience in the food industry, working in both the government sector and with the food safety programs of large companies such as Walmart and Amazon. Her experience includes local and state jurisdictions, working closely with State Infectious Disease Teams to mitigate large foodborne illnesses. 


  • Unless you’ve been living under a Covid-free rock for the last 18 months you’ve probably heard there’s a serious shortage of restaurant workers in this country. It seems that after years of customers telling waiters and waitress to go get “real jobs,” that’s exactly what they did. 

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November of last year. One million of those people were in the leisure and hospitality industry. So why are service industry workers dropping their jobs like plates of food that have been sitting under a heat lamp for three hours? The most obvious answer is because of Covid, but it’s more complicated than that.

  •  While Covid was responsible for the shutting down of over 100,000 restaurants at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of the people who worked in those restaurants chose to not come back.   And many of them who did go back, eventually ended up leaving again.

  • CAROL —    After 30+ years in the industry, my body is falling apart. Plus covid dropped the guest count, so I had to work twice as many hours for the same money.” It simply became too much work for some people. With the restrictions on seating capacity and the reduction of restaurant hours, servers were working twice as hard for half as much money.

  • 🔘   REBECCA   —   a single parent, so when the shut down happened and I lost my job, I had to find something that wouldn’t be in danger of going away so quickly again.” With Covid surges happening every few weeks and variants mutating faster than a speeding bullet, no one is certain what the future holds. Restaurants could be forced to close again at any time and plenty of restaurant workers needed something more stable to depend on

  • AARON  —  After 15 years — Last day was November 5th 2021. I quit because (for me) it wasn’t worth it any more. I was making myself sick to my stomach every shift I had to work. The customers were just awful. The good ones just couldn’t make up for the bad.” The number of customers who are taking out their Covid frustrations on their servers is escalating with alarming severity. 

  • ANGEL  —  “The stress was not worth it anymore. Waitresses only make $2.13 cents an hour plus tips in Indiana. I was also sick of paying hundreds in taxes every year.” After months and months of not working at all, many servers decided that making less than minimum wage was no longer okay with them. Many customers seem to be tipping less and if someone is making a few dollars an hour as a wage and not getting decent tips to make up the difference, what is the point?

  • RANDIE  —   “I left 5 months ago after 22 years, and it was the best decision I ever made. People were just getting too awful and more rude by the day. I just was done getting treated like shit.” Again, too many customers are misdirecting their anger at service workers. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that life is too precious to be treated like crap. No one wants to go to work and have a customer tell them they want to, punch them in the f*cking face.” 

  • So, why are restaurants so short-staffed these days? The short answer was: the pandemic. The longer and more truthful answer is that the pandemic opened the eyes of many service workers who realized they were not getting what they deserve from their jobs. 

  • They left the industry to find something else to do for a living that is more reliable,  pays more money, and doesn’t whittle down their self-worth with each shift. There will always be a need for restaurant workers, but maybe eventually, customers will recognize how vital these workers are and finally begin to appreciate them. Until that happens, expect to keep seeing “ Now Hiring ” signs in every restaurant across the country.
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