Guest opinion: We have the solutions to rebuild the restaurant industry right now

If you’ve been watching the news at all over the last 15 months, you know how the pandemic has impacted our country’s restaurant industry. Families who have owned cafes, breakfast joints, and bistros for decades have struggled to stay afloat while serving take-out or improvising with makeshift outdoor dining rooms.

Unfortunately, many restaurants have been forced to close. Those that have managed to stay open are now facing another crisis: a worker shortage. Utah’s unemployment rate is just 2.9 percent, one of the lowest in the country. But this means there aren’t workers available for restaurants. As a recent television report noted, “nobody’s applying.” Some establishments already are even turning away customers because of their staffing shortages. If that keeps happening, they will have to close too.

Federal lawmakers need to act and take this economic crisis as seriously as they did the pandemic and work quickly to find a solution. Fortunately, there are already two options on the table. 

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) and the Dream Act would begin to rebuild the U.S. immigration system by supporting the immigrant workers who are so vital to the restaurant industry. The FWMA and House bill similar to the Dream Act, the American Dream and Promise Act, are already halfway through Congress, with the U.S. House approving them in a bipartisan vote earlier this year. Now, we need the Senate, including Utah’s own Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, to get Dreamer and farm workforce legislation across the finish line.

Restaurants support the FWMA because it will help ensure a stable labor supply in an industry that we obviously rely on heavily: agriculture. As the United Fresh Produce Association explains, the FWMA would provide legal status for the current agriculture workforce, reform the current federal farmworker guestworker program, and ensure the proper enforcement of the country’s immigration laws.

Undocumented immigrants represent about 10 percent of all restaurant workers and about half of all agriculture workers. On average, these workers pay an estimated eight percentof their incomes in state and local taxes — more than the 5.4 percent the richest taxpayers pay in state and local taxes. While the restaurant industry certainly would suffer without these workers, government officials also would have fewer dollars to invest in schools, Medicaid, and emergency response systems without immigrant tax dollars.

The FWMA would give undocumented farmworkers the chance to earn legal status so they can continue contributing to our state’s economy.

The Dream Act would give young undocumented individuals who are working or in school the opportunity to earn citizenship. Given that the average age for a worker in the restaurant industry is about 29, restaurants need these young people too.

We know that when the federal government gives Dreamers the chance to work, they will. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has been in place since 2012 and more than 700,000 Dreamers have been able to work, attend school, and better support their families because of the program. Some Dreamers even have started businesses, including restaurants.

While DACA has remarkably effective, it’s only a temporary program. Recipients have to keep applying over and over again. And some judges and state governments want to get rid of the program altogether. The Dreamers cannot continue to operate with that level of uncertainty — and neither can the businesses for which they work.

It’s time for a permanent legislative solution that gives Dreamers the certainty they have earned.

If Congress doesn’t act, the restaurant industry workforce shortage is just going to get worse. The National Restaurant Association predicts that, over the next decade, restaurants will create more jobs than the U.S.-born workforce can fill, adding 1.8 million positions over the next 10 years. Over that time, unfortunately, the U.S.-born workforce is expected to grow by just 10 percent. We will need a strong immigrant workforce to help fill these jobs.

Federal lawmakers have not changed federal immigration law for decades. With the restaurant industry in desperate need of a solution, we cannot push this problem down the road. Now is the time for Senators Lee and Romney to act and lead their colleagues and pass the both the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the Dream Act. 

Melva Sine is the president of the the Utah Restaurant Association