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US Restaurant Labor Data: An Overview

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Few economic data points are as closely watched as measures of employment. For those in the foodservice industry, which must confront high rates of turnover and ever-evolving wages, US restaurant labor data trends are especially informative, as they can help restaurateurs adapt as the trends surface (rather than after the fact). But due to the sheer volume of monthly labor reports, it’s not always easy to extrapolate that data, or even to find it all in one place. And that’s why we did it here — so restaurant operators and others involved in the foodservice industry can have the most up-to-date overview of the labor trends affecting restaurants.

Matters of employment are a bit of a catch-22 for restaurants. On the one hand, the more that people work, the less time they have to cook, and restaurants reap the rewards. On the other hand, the lower unemployment is, the less likely people are to take lower-paying jobs (the kind offered at so many quick-service chains throughout the US and world). So while traffic might go up when unemployment goes down, so does turnover.

Each month, we’ll be summarizing the following data points using the most up-to-date numbers. Below, we offer an overview of the US restaurant labor data points we’ll examine, gleaning data from national totals of the number of employed people, as well as statistics on occupational employment and wages, labor demand and turnover, to offer a better view of the dynamic state of the labor market and how it will affect restaurants.


    • On average, 11.4 million people were employed in the restaurant industry in 2016
    • The average growth of employment in Food Services & Drinking Places (i.e. restaurants and bars) in 2016 was 3.3%, almost twice the growth of the general economy
    • On average, 23,000 new jobs are created in this industry per month (2016)
    • Wages in the Leisure & Hospitality sector averaged $15.9 per hour in 2016
    • Leisure & Hospitality wages grew at an average 3.8% in 2016, more than a percentage point faster than the overall growth in nonfarm wages
    • Restaurant employees worked an average of 25.6 hours per week in 2016

    The Employment Situation Summary, also known as the Employment or Jobs Report, is based on the Current Populations Survey (a household survey) and the Current Employment Statistics Survey (an employer survey) and estimates the number of people employed and unemployed, the number of hours worked, and a slew of other figures. The report impacts the stock market, public and corporate confidence, and future business and hiring decisions — which certainly holds true for restaurants, an industry with turnover that topped 70% in 2016.

    restaurant job stats US restaurant labor data

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics deems restaurant jobs to be in a category it calls “food services and drinking places,” which encompasses jobs at sit-down restaurants (which comprise 50% of the category), fast-food chains (37%), bars (3%) and other. For the past several decades, restaurants have steadily grown in terms of employment. In fact, restaurant jobs have grown faster than the overall economy every single month between 2011 and 2017.

    While other jobs in industries like coal mining and steel-making dwindle, the restaurant industry has become a boomtown. In fact, the number of restaurant workers are set to overtake those in the manufacturing sector by 2020. That’s a major shift in a relatively short time period, considering in 1990, there were three times as many manufacturing jobs as there were restaurant jobs.

    Restaurant Labor Data Employment


    Wages are an especially interesting variable of US restaurant labor data, particularly because they’re still in flux in many parts of the country. While federal minimum wage currently sits at $7.25 an hour (the same level it’s been at since 2009), 30 states have passed laws in recent months mandating higher wages. In Washington state, minimum wage is $11. In Seattle, a phased policy will bring it to $15 by 2022. Similar initiatives are in place in other large cities across the country. While it remains unclear whether the federal government will take a similar approach anytime soon, statistically speaking, we’re due for a raise in the minimum wage. (The US is currently in the midst of the third-longest stretch without a minimum wage hike in its history).

    minimum wage restaurant data

    Critics of minimum wage increases (like former CKE Restaurants CEO Andrew Puzder) say they will prove overly burdensome for operators and, in turn, hurt those who need jobs. Puzder, who took his name out of the running to be President Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary, has also said higher wages will lead to an increasing use of automation in the restaurant industry, as well as other industries.

    Andrew Puzder US restaurant labor data

    An August 2017 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that raising minimum wage by $1 equates to a 0.43% decline in employment held my low-skilled workers — including many in the restaurant industry. While it might not sound like a lot, there’s no question that automation will fully transform the restaurant industry.

    Information on wages can be found in the nonfarm payroll report. The total nonfarm payroll (i.e. any job with the exception of farm work, unincorporated self-employment, the military and intelligence agencies) accounts for approximately 80% of the workers who produce the entire gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States.


    Another factor that has worried many restaurant operators over the past year or so is overtime. A policy drafted under the Obama administration would have expanded who was eligible for overtime pay, increasing the number of eligible workers to an estimated 4.2 million. The mandate would have more than doubled the threshold (from $23,660 a year).

    For restaurants, that could have spelled drastic change, with many employers arguing they’d be forced to limit staff working hours to 40 a week. After a group of businesses won a temporary injunction from a US district court in Texas, however, that rule never took effect. And even more recently, under a new administration, the Labor Department has begun to take steps to roll the policy back entirely. This latest move will essentially rewrite the rule from the beginning.

    Tipping has also become an increasingly divisive topic amongst operators. We’ve offered our thoughts on tipping before and, while some are choosing to turn their backs on the practice (Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer’s Universal Hospitality Group announced his decision to end tipping in restaurants in 2017), others argue its an important way to supplement the income of minimum-wage workers. While some, like Meyers, promise that guests won’t actually pay any more (the amount they would have tipped will make its way into the prices of food, for instance), there is still a perception that they’re paying more.

    Of course, changing US restaurant labor data means shifting implications for the industry. Will tipping go away tomorrow? No, and wage increases likely won’t appear out of the blue, either. But there are trends that indicate change is on the horizon (trends that those in the industry would be especially wise to take into account). Therefore, we’ll be updating US restaurant labor data each month on the blog, as the reports are released.


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    Aaron Allen & Associates is a leading global restaurant industry consultancy specializing in growth strategy, marketing, branding, and commercial due diligence for emerging restaurant chains and prestigious private equity firms. We have helped helped restaurant companies around the world drive revenues, increase profits, and enhance the guest experience through improved marketing, messaging, and menu engineering. Collectively, our clients post more than $100 billion, span all 6 inhabited continents and 100+ countries, with locations totaling tens of thousands.

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