Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant and foodservice industry was expected to provide 15.6 million jobs in 2020, according to National Restaurant Association projections. This would have represented 10% of all payroll jobs in the economy, and made the industry the second-largest private sector employer in the economy.

Eating and drinking places are the largest component of the restaurant and foodservice workforce, and were projected to provide 12.3 million jobs during 2020. The other 3.3 million foodservice positions were expected to be in sectors such as healthcare (570,000), accommodation (530,000), education (435,000) and food and beverage stores (400,000).

After starting out positive, 2020 turned into a devastating year for the restaurant workforce. Restaurants were hit harder than any other industry during the pandemic, and still have the longest climb back to pre-coronavirus employment levels.

Below is a timeline of eating and drinking place employment trends during 2020.

January-February: The eating-and-drinking-place sector completed its 10th consecutive year of employment growth – providing a record 12.3 million jobs in February.

March-April: The restaurant industry suffered far more job losses than any other sector at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, as government-mandated lockdowns led to millions of restaurant and foodservice employees being laid off or furloughed* in March and April.

May-June: What followed was an unprecedented hiring surge, with nearly 3 million restaurant employees returning to payrolls in May and June. While a two-month employment bounce of 3 million jobs was impressive, it only marked the beginning of a long road to recovery for the restaurant industry.

July-October: Although restaurant employment continued to trend higher during summer and early fall, the gains were only enough to put a modest dent in the staffing shortfall. In total during these four months, eating and drinking places added a net 1 million jobs.

November: The industry’s employment recovery stalled in November, with eating and drinking places payrolls remaining essentially flat. Business conditions starting rapidly deteriorating due the winding down of outdoor dining, rising restrictions on indoor dining, and significantly scaled-back holiday celebrations.

December: The bottom fell out in December, as plunging sales forced restaurants to cut 372,000 jobs. As a result, the eating and drinking place sector finished 2020 nearly 2.5 million jobs (or 20%) below its pre-coronavirus level. That employment shortfall was nearly three times larger than the next closest industry: the professional-and-business-services sector was still 858,000 jobs below its pre-coronavirus level.

*Note: The BLS monthly employment dataset measures jobs during the payroll period that includes the 12th of each month. Changes in restaurant staffing levels – both negative and positive – have occurred rapidly during the coronavirus pandemic, as restaurants quickly adjust their operating status in response to evolving regulatory and economic conditions. As a result, significant changes likely occurred during the weeks between each measurement period, and the monthly data likely did not fully capture the total job losses experienced during the coronavirus lockdowns. Based on surveys of restaurant operators, the National Restaurant Association estimates that more than 8 million eating and drinking place employees were laid off or furloughed during the peak of the lockdowns.

Staffing levels down across all segments

Restaurant employment remains dampened across all segments. In a national survey of restaurant operators conducted in late-November, 9 in 10 fullservice operators reported staffing levels that were lower than what they would normally be in the absence of COVID-19. Sixty-two percent of fine dining operators and 54% of both family dining and casual dining operators said their staffing levels were more than 20% below normal.

Job losses were somewhat less severe in the limited-service segment, as roughly one in four operators reported staffing that was at or above normal levels. Still, a majority of limited-service operators said their staffing was below normal.

Read more analysis and commentary from the Association's chief economist Bruce Grindy.