The COVID-19 pandemic tossed record numbers of people out of the workforce last year. Today, restrictions have lifted and businesses have reopened, but many workers never returned to their old jobs.
That was true at Anchorage’s Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Cafe, a Spenard institution long known for movies, brews and casual fare, and the adjoining bar and restaurant, the Bear Tooth Grill.
Some of the restaurant’s core group of longtime staff left last year, despite what they described as great tips and benefits they say are rare in the industry.
The former workers say their hours and tips plunged after multiple rounds of indoor dining closures as the city tried to contain the virus. The ever-present risk of future closures added to the stress and uncertainty, they say.
So they decided to try something new, and switched jobs.
The stories of four Bear Tooth employees help explain one aspect of the nation’s labor shortage — a phenomenon that’s part of the “great reassessment.”
“The great reassessment” refers to a broad theme that the post-pandemic economy won’t look the same as it did before the pandemic, said Bernard Baumohl with the Economic Outlook Group, an economic forecasting firm in New Jersey.
Employers are adjusting their operations, such as allowing more staff to work remotely, he said. But also, many people have moved onto new fields, often in search of long-term stability.
“There was a lot of stress, and this was the kind of stress where people said, ‘I won’t let this happen again, I’ll pursue a different career,’ ” he said.
Workers pursuing new careers is one contributing factor to the labor shortage nationwide, he said — others include lack of child care, concerns about catching COVID-19 and extra unemployment benefits.
Amara Liggett, the interim general manager at the Bear Tooth and an 18-year employee, said the restaurant is used to seeing some turnover. She noted many long-term employees are still there, playing key roles as sales and tips rebounded this summer.
Restaurant jobs are often steppingstones for young workers pursuing college or other careers, she said.
But the pandemic contributed to the turnover, she said.
Some people left over a relatively short period, and that’s had an impact, she said. Their absence is felt as the restaurant, about 30 workers shy of the 230 people it employed before the pandemic, tries to train and rebuild its workforce.
“It has definitely made things harder,” she said. “You have less people to explain how we used to do that, where did this thing happen. But we are forging a new path where we have to, and realizing things will be OK.”
The losses have been emotional, but the restaurant still supports its workers pursuing different careers, Liggett said.
“We want people to live their best lives,” she said. “We always tell people you’re always in the family even if you don’t work here any more.”
For Stephanie Johnson, the uncertainty of the pandemic helped crystallize thoughts that had swirled in her head for a while.
She started at the Bear Tooth two decades ago as a waitress, and ultimately became general manager. That meant coordinating a small army of employees across two restaurants, three kitchens, a bar and a dine-in movie theater.
It was demanding. But she “freaking loved” the job, her co-workers and solving problems, she said.
The pandemic brought mounting challenges that were hard to control. When would the next closure hit? Who could fill in for quarantined employees? How would she find and train new workers as experienced ones left?
This spring, she said she came to a “life crossroads.” With so many things out of her control, and after doing the same work for so long, she felt it was time for a change.
She wanted to spend more time with family, and more time at the Anchorage business she co-owns, Dos Manos Gallery.
In June, she left the Bear Tooth. She’s launched a consulting firm for the hospitality industry, with a focus on business development, leadership training and conflict resolution.
Johnson was in Colorado in mid-September, visiting her sister’s family and newborn niece. She’s enjoying setting her own schedule and continuing work she’s passionate about.
“All that feels like a positive shift for me,” she said.
Chasity Huddleston had worked in the restaurant industry for 24 years, including the last dozen at the Bear Tooth, mostly as a bartender.
When indoor dining closed last year and events and movies were canceled, tips plunged from hundreds of dollars nightly to about $25, she said.
The restaurant was “amazing” and the leadership worked hard to keep employees on staff, she said. They continued to provide health care benefits, but there was less work to go around, she said. After six months of reduced income, she was burning through her savings.
Thinking about her 5-year-old son, Leighton Rathbun, she decided to cash out the 401(k) retirement fund the Bear Tooth contributes to, and use the money to earn her real estate license, she said.
To pull out the money, she had to leave the Bear Tooth, she said. She left in August 2020. That month the city shut down indoor dining for a second time. At the time, no one knew when business would return to its pre-pandemic levels, she said.
“I loved my job there but when COVID hit, I couldn’t make money like I did before,” she said “I had no other option but to seek financial stability in another way.”
She earned her real estate license last fall. She’s now a Realtor with RE/MAX Dynamic Properties in Anchorage, she said.
“I love finding families their first home or a bigger home,” she said last week, while preparing an offer on a house for a couple.
“And you build relationships in real estate that can last years,” as families outgrow homes, she said.
The pay is better in real estate and the flexibility is nice, she said. No more late nights means she kisses Leighton good night more often.
“I’m a mom who wants to participate in her son’s upbringing, like his soccer and swimming lessons,” she said. “So now I can work around activities I have for my family.”
Alex Ede had worked at the Bear Tooth for more than a decade, a manager, lead server, and bartender. It was good money and benefits, and he enjoyed having three days off every week.
But when the pandemic hit and his hours were reduced, the money wasn’t coming in like it used to. He was OK with the lower pay for several months. It was a shared sacrifice that kept more of his friends employed.
“I dug that because everyone worked hard together and it made for a good working experience,” said Ede, also a part-time DJ who goes by Alex the Lion. “It was like ‘OK, we’re making this work, we’re staying afloat.’ But later on, I wasn’t making as much and it was taking a toll.”
So Ede boosted his efforts to get a job using the environmental science degree he’d earned a few years earlier.
Late last year, he left the Bear Tooth to work at the state. He’s now a natural resources technician at the Department of Natural Resources.
He misses his old job and thinks about it daily, he said.
“It’s hard for me to go in there because I get sentimental about it,” he said.
He said anyone who has worked one job for many years considers other opportunities. The pandemic caused people to think more seriously about other careers, he said.
“My thoughts and emotions led me to the fact I was looking for something else,” he said. “The pandemic kick-started that for me.”
Jen Cook was the Bear Tooth’s warehouse coordinator the last three years, managing purchasing, inventory and logistics.
The restaurant’s owners and managers were incredible, she said. But the pandemic-driven drop in business had forced the restaurant to scale back her hours.
Last October, as COVID-19 cases were rising, rumors swirled of another round of city-wide restrictions.
Cook had planned to start looking for a job later, after finishing her bachelor’s degree in logistics. But the possibility of further cuts to her schedule accelerated that plan.
“You have to watch your own pocketbook,” she said.
When an entry level position popped up at a logistics company in Anchorage, she bit.
The job pays a bit less than the Bear Tooth, but the health care plan now covers both her and her husband. The Bear Tooth’s health care plan, which is unusual in the restaurant industry, covered just herself, she said.
The new job provides peace of mind after a tumultuous year.
“It’s been a real lift off everyone’s shoulder, because when (COVID) first happened it was like, ‘Would I even have a job?’” she said. “And that’s a struggle for any family, losing an income.”
She’s happy that her departure opened up opportunities for other workers during a difficult time.
“It meant that was another 20 to 30 hours they could use to make someone else’s lives a little bit better,” she said. “The Bear Tooth is a family. At a lot of other jobs, that’s just something they say. But with the Bear Tooth, it really is that way.”