Serving, bussing and running food in a Restaurant.

Karen McLaughlin, 58, has been working as a server at Provino’s, an Italian restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee for about two years.

Working conditions have been particularly tough recently. Some people get hired and never show up, she said. Others come in and quit after a week. For McLaughlin, that means wearing multiple hats per shift.

On some days “there’s no bussers [and] no food runners, so we have to take the orders, run our own food [and] bus all of our tables,” she said. “Servers have been called to work on the food line, to prep salads, to wash dishes. We come in and just have to fill the holes,” she said.

On some occasions, the current employees aren’t enough. “There was one day half of the kitchen didn’t show up,” she said. “So we had to open an hour later.”

The added responsibility means servers are spending less time with customers — and as a result, earning less in tips. “If you’re having to do other things … then you make less.” McLaughlin said.

John Miles, who has been the general manager at Provino’s for about 36 years, said that when employees take on other roles their pay is adjusted so that they make as much as they would normally.

Miles described the current environment as very difficult. “We’ve never experienced the issues that we have now, like not having enough employees,” he said.

Of the current employees, “I asked everyone to do their best,” he said. “And some of them have gone beyond that.”

McLaughlin has been working in restaurants for about eight years — she calls it her “pre-retirement plan,” after working in the telecommunications industry for decades. The flexibility of her restaurant job means she can spend more time with her grandson. Generally, “I thoroughly enjoy what I do,” she said. “Except for this year.”

Still, she expects things to turn around eventually, and she plans to stay in restaurants. But she can see why, for younger employees with less experience, the job is unappealing. “It’s harder work than it used to be,” she said. “So they’re coming into something [where] they can’t see that it’s going to get better at some point.”

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