In the space of two days, local lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have made it harder for the city's restaurants to both retain staff they currently employ and hire new workers once the pandemic is over.
On Monday, the District slashed restaurants' allowable indoor capacity to 25 percent, down from 50 percent.
This reduction wasn't a surprise for restaurants, given that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had announced the coming restrictions some three weeks ago. It's nevertheless a blow for business owners who've been devastated by the pandemic, lockdown orders, civil unrest, rioting, and everything else 2020 has thrown at them.
Should a restaurant manage to survive the winter and the District's limits on indoor dining capacity, they'll find their ability to scale up their operations come springtime more difficult thanks to a bill passed by the D.C. City Council on Tuesday.
That bill will require restaurants, bars, and retail stores that had 50 or more employees up until March 2020 to offer to rehire staff they let go during the pandemic. Hotels will have to offer to hire back employees that were let go as long ago as December 1, 2019, about two months before the U.S. had its first confirmed coronavirus case.
Workers will have three days to accept or reject an offer to come back to their old job. Business owners will have to offer to rehire all their former workers before they can start shopping around for new talent.
Should a business change ownership, the new owners still be required to offer people employed by the old management their jobs back. They'll also be required to keep those employees on for at least 90 days. At the end of that period, this new employer will have to fill out a performance evaluation of their employees, and offer to keep them on staff so long as their performance was "satisfactory."
The above provision doesn't apply to employees of bars and restaurants unless the change in ownership has "no demonstrable" effect on that business's operations. Businesses won't be forced to rehire employees that had quit voluntarily or were fired for cause.
One obvious criticism of this new law is that it piles a bunch of bureaucratic requirements onto something that business owners would already be doing: rehiring experienced, reliable staff.
"The natural thing to do is rehire the folks that were already trained and who did a good job for you," Dan Simons, a D.C. restauranter, told DCist. "Now we have restaurants failing left and right. It seems to me the way to help workers is to help restaurants exist as businesses. When restaurants have customers, we need employees."
At best, this new "right to reinstatement" law just makes this whole process more cumbersome and inflexible. That's hardly ideal when an industry is trying to bounce back from its worst year on record.
"During this time we need to focus on supporting restaurants, not imposing burdens that will make it more difficult for restaurants to operate, to keep their doors open and to staff back up to pre-pandemic levels," said the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) in an email urging people to oppose the new D.C. law.
At worst, this new law will freeze out new workers trying to enter the restaurant industry. They'll have to get in line behind everyone else who has already had a job, regardless of how eager and able they are to work. That's not a great set up for younger folks just entering the workforce, or for new arrivals to the city looking for a job.
Granted, screwing over younger workers seems to be the intent of the union activists who've pushed this proposal. They've expressed fears that businesses getting back up on their feet will opt for hiring less experienced employees at lower wages.
The pandemic, and all the public health regulations that have come with it, have been devastating for the hospitality industry. Businesses that make it out of this year alive will no doubt be eager to get back to something approaching business as usual. Politicians in D.C. appear eager to make that as hard as possible.