Inside Austin’s Service Industry’s Labor Shortage

Staffing issues amid the pandemic are causing havoc on a community that relies heavily on restaurants and entertainment. Now, a more fair future may be on the horizon.

Inside the Labor Shortage of Austin's Service Industry - Austin Monthly Magazine

Trevor Nearburg, the proprietor of Beerburg Brewing Co. in Dripping Springs, is enjoying a cold pale lager at a pollen-coated picnic table on a late weekday afternoon. Even though the idyllic 15-acre brewery was in probably the worst possible position at the start of the epidemic (i.e. mostly delivering on-site service with little to no beer-to-go choices), Nearburg’s crew has weathered the first year brilliantly.

Head brewer Gino Guerrero’s Germanic-style beers have become more nuanced and crushable with each batch, while head chef Ricardo Guierrez’s taqueria-style cuisine has become nothing short of a hidden Hill Country gem.

With the brewery’s vast indoor taproom finally due to reopen, Nearburg should be able to savor the benefits of his labor. Instead, after receiving just a few responses to his most recent job advertising, he spends his days furiously crafting a fresh call for taproom servers.

“Low” is an understatement. Nearburg claims that when the brewer’s operation was just getting off the ground in early 2020, he was able to hire a workforce of 30 people in only two weeks—a time that currently generates zero candidates. And he isn’t the only one who is having difficulty bringing on new employees.

Business Hampered

The constraints of such shortages influence all aspects of business for entrepreneurs like Fried and Nearburg, including making do with skeletal workers who are barely capable of covering typical business hours. To minimize burnout, Eldorado Cafe took the difficult choice to close every Tuesday. “Our staff cannot continue to operate at full capacity indefinitely.”

Overall, the experienced brewer feels Austin’s present labor scarcity has a surprisingly simple solution: “Friggin’ pay them more and make it a better experience,” he adds. However, to do so, many firms are shifting the cost back onto customers. While restaurateurs like Nearburg and Fried are embracing employee-first practices that increase take-home pay (servers at both establishments routinely earn more than $25 per hour after tips), it may come at an unpleasant cost for many.

“I’ve been thinking lately about how I was going to call the brewery Armistice, a name that expresses ‘here is a place where you don’t have to carry whatever your struggle is in life,’” he adds. “I believe that is now also our key to moving forward: creating a safer, more pleasant work environment in which people believe they have the means to succeed.”