By Amina Niasse
NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. restaurant employment reached pre-pandemic levels in September for the first time in three-and-a-half years, according to a report released Friday, signaling a potentially broader recovery for the leisure and hospitality industry.
The number of Americans employed in food service increased by 61,000 in September from the prior month, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data released as part of the monthly U.S employment report showed. Food service and hospitality workers accounted for the majority of jobs added in the wider leisure and hospitality sector, which added 96,000 jobs last month.
The gains in restaurant and bar employment last month were almost double the average of 37,000 jobs added monthly over the past year.
Overall, American employers added 336,000 jobs in September, and the unemployment rate remained unchanged in September at 3.8%, the BLS reported.
Food service employment was among the most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers in the industry lost 6 million workers in March and April 2020 as consumers dined at home amid widespread quarantine restrictions.
Restaurant and bar employees were overrepresented among Americans who lost their jobs, accounting for more than a quarter of the 22 million layoffs although they comprised just 8% of total employment at that time, according to BLS figures.
As restrictions slowly eased through 2021 alongside vaccination rollouts, food service establishments struggled to regain frontline employees due to COVID-19-related health concerns.
“It took some time but we made it,” said acting Labor Secretary Julie Su, who argued the strong wage gains seen particularly among lower-paid workers are cycling back into the economy.
“People have returned to normal,” she said. “Workers are making enough money that they can spend it,” and sustain continued job growth even in an industry hit hardest at the onset of the pandemic.
While the food industry has picked up in payrolls, leisure and hospitality overall has struggled to regain pre-pandemic levels of employment in a tight labor market.
The hotel accommodations and the amusement and gambling services industries remain below their February 2020 employment levels, with hotel employment still 10% below where they were on the eve of the health crisis. The performing arts and spectator sports industry has seen the largest recovery so far – 5% above its February 2020 employment level.
(Reporting by Amina Niasse; Editing by Rod Nickel)