Note: This post contains mentions of harassment, abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
With "help wanted" signs hanging in most restaurants' windows these days, it's virtually impossible not to have noticed (or felt) the nationwide shortage of service industry workers.
Recently, we asked restaurant workers of the BuzzFeed Community to tell us exactly why they left their restaurant jobs — and they had a lot to say about the industry as a whole. Here are their stories.
1."I used to work as the general manager of a 200-seat restaurant. I was there during the height of the pandemic and after. I had no healthcare, no paid vacation, and no sick days. I worked 12 hours a day, five days a week, and on days off I would have to come in for emergencies or when staff called out. I would run everything from the paperwork to the schedule to bartending, I waited tables, managed to-go orders, and more. I left to work an inbound sales job from home. I finally get paid time off, and I can actually take that time off without providing a reason why."
2."I left after tips got worse and worse. After working a 12-hour shift — serving one of our 'highest-paying customers' — management let him walk out on a $1K tab without tipping even $1."
3."I've been a restaurant manager for four years, and since COVID began, the job has become a lot harder. Guests are acting more entitled than ever, and it has now gotten to the point where I'm looking for jobs in a different field entirely. Right now, I'm in an interview process for a job that pays $18,000 less, which would be so worth it just to get out of the restaurant industry."
4."I left my job because of the toxic management. After being told to my face that my opinion did not matter — after years of working for the same restaurant, even through the pandemic — I knew I had to be done to protect my mental health. I've been out almost an entire year, and my sense of self is so much better. Not having to appease the needs of hundreds of customers a day, or having to be a picture-perfect server to gain my manager's approval, has put me in a much better place mentally."
5."A group came in at the end of the night while I was bartending and asked for one drink before we closed up. I obliged and made them vodka-OJs at their request. After serving them, one woman accused me of giving her 'only orange juice.' I explained to her that there was definitely vodka in it, as I had just made it right in front of them. The men started calling me names under their breath, and the woman demanded I 'dump it out' and make her a new one while she watched — for free. I said no, and she threw the drink at me, then jumped over the bar to try and fight me. I walked out and never returned."
6."I worked in the service industry for nearly 40 years. All that time was spent with the same company. When the pandemic started, we had to close for a couple of months, but we did re-open once safety protocols were established. One of my co-workers contracted COVID-19. Nobody was informed about it, so when I finally found out, I asked why management didn't tell us. My mom (who is 80) lives with me, so I had to be really careful. My manager responded that he was 'not required' to inform employees about COVID infections. Well, I'm not required to risk my mom's life. I gave my two-week's notice right then and there. I have always done a lot that I'm not required to do, but he didn't seem to see the necessity of being a decent human being for once."
7."I started having allergy symptoms out of the blue while working one day. Not bad ones — mostly just itching and sinus stuffiness. I'm sure you can imagine that being itchy and constantly sniffling is a bad look when serving people food. The owners had just changed the menu, so I thought it might be some of the new items (since I already have a few random food allergies). I went through all the new items and tried them to test for a reaction...nothing. I went to an allergist to get tested — out-of-pocket, since of course we didn't have insurance — and found out I was allergic to cockroaches. Everything clicked in that moment, since we'd just started to notice cockroaches coming into our restaurant from the nasty building next door. I brought proof of the allergy to the owners, and they did nothing besides put some powder down."
8."I was a server for 20 years, until my restaurant was closed down due to COVID-19. I was on unemployment for a year and a half, and it was the best time of my life. I started playing music again. That was what I lived for when I was young. I hadn't realized that I was putting all my energy into a job that did nobody any good — including myself. I gave that job all I had to offer, and nobody cared. When COVID happened, I put all that energy into music. And I love it! I'm not making any money, but I'm not going back to that terrible monstrosity of an industry. We didn't evolve on this planet for a few billion years just to serve booze to ungrateful jerks. To all the young people out there: it seems like good money, but it's not. Do what you love, and don't worry about money."
9."This past summer made me leave the industry for good. Before we opened up to 100% capacity, things were still going well. But once we opened back up, we were expected to serve twice as many people without any additional staff. Customers got more demanding (and less patient), leading to a much more stressful work environment. Because of long wait times, product shortages, and demanding customers, tips got a lot worse, too. I was working in a restaurant that pooled tips, and I was making much less when I finally left than what I was making at the start of the year — despite working much harder. The final nail in the coffin wasn't the money though — it was the horrible behavior from customers."
10."The service industry is equal parts awesome and brutal. The majority of folks that work in restaurants are GOOD people and hard-workers...but the environment can be so toxic. Both the family members I lost to suicide worked in the industry. If you've left for mental health reasons, or any reason, really, don't feel bad. Take care of yourself first. Always."
11."I left the industry a week ago. It wasn’t due to anything COVID-related. It also wasn’t due to non-tipping customers (hough there’s a special place in hell for them). I left because I was sick of the clubhouse mentality at the spot I worked at. I was so sick of the rampant favoritism, and the restaurant's terribly cheap, passive-aggressive owner."
12."I left the service industry after almost a decade. I was working at a popular coffee chain, on track to become a store manager, when I respectfully stood up to my new boss. I felt that she wasn’t giving the employees the credit they deserved. After years with no disciplinary record, she wrote me up for five infractions, all at once, and put me on 'final warning,' which meant there was no way for me to move up in management. I moved to a local coffee and restaurant chain, which, when shutdowns hit, emailed us to say they would keep us on. Five hours later, they fired us all via email and detailed everything that the now-unemployed closers still needed to do before leaving. I clocked out and never looked back."
13."I worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade, so I'm an absolute expert in the fact that 'the customer is not always right.' Our customers were the most entitled, self-righteous assholes to ever walk this earth, yet our bosses want us to bow down to their every demand just to get their money. Since I've left the industry, I'm thrilled to have a job with actual benefits and decent pay that I don't have to kiss some customer's ass to earn. Now, as a customer myself, I try to show the utmost respect to those taking care of me at stores and restaurants. I was in their shoes not too long ago, and I know that dealing with the public sucks. Most humans are assholes. Even when talking with customer service on the phone, I try to be super nice and understanding. Too often I've been yelled at by customers who think they know better than me."
14."I spent 20 years building a career in the restaurant industry. When the pandemic hit, I was laid off, and I never looked back. The way hospitality workers are constantly disrespected is genuinely disturbing — and it's only gotten worse."
15."I’m sorry for yelling, but THE CUSTOMER IS NOT ALWAYS RIGHT!!!! Sometimes they are entitled, evil SOBs that treat workers like crap and never get called on it. I no longer work in the service industry. I have been cursed out many times by customers for something that had nothing to do with me, and my managers would just comp something to get them out of their hair. They never stood up for us. COVID happening just showed everyone how bad it's always been for the workers."
16."I left when my manager punched a guy for being late to his shift. It just wasn’t worth the abuse. My job at this place was to wash, dry, iron, and fold tablecloths, napkins, and chef jackets for the place, but they wanted me to do 20 loads a day using a household washer and dryer."
17."Before I left the service industry, my hourly pay was $4. Excluding tips, my two-week pay averaged $36 — and the company didn't care. How can anybody live on that?"
18."I worked in a kitchen, and our chef thought he was God. He would constantly compare the kitchen to being in the military. He verbally abused the kitchen staff. He threw things at us. He degraded us for not knowing some obscure culinary tidbits. That said, the main reason why I left was that our hours were never set. If the schedule said you're done at 10 PM and the orders just kept coming, you'd have to stay and cook — sometimes three hours late."
19."I'm a 41 year-old chef of 20 years. I worked my way from dishwasher all the way to executive chef. When the pandemic hit, I was laid off, and I left the industry for good. The service industry is incredibly demanding of your personal time, and the pay never truly equals the amount of time you devote to your career. My starting pay in the industry was $7.25/hour (in 2000), and I left the industry, twenty years later, being paid a $36,000 salary. I couldn't take vacations — the last vacation I took was in April 2000, since schedules were usually sent out two days in advance, and I had no paid vacation."
20."I left when my boss dumped out two buckets of cutlery roll-ups that had taken me an hour of unpaid time to do, for no reason other than the first roll-up was 'scratched.' I cried so hard that my fake eyelashes fell off."
21."People are leaving the industry (and young people are staying away from it altogether) because it's toxic with a capital T. You have to have really tough skin to succeed in the service industry. Most spots don't have an HR department, and even those that do tend to not really care about what's going on in the kitchen. Owners and managers will talk to you like Gordon Ramsay on his worst day. Drug and alcohol use is probably higher than in any other industry, because you're dealing with non-stop stress every single day."
22."'The customer is always right' is what bred all these Karens everyone is dealing with now. I worked for a popular coffee company, and people would order their highly-customized drinks and then curse at us because they had to pay for their customizations. If my manager had just once said 'please don’t speak to my employees that way,' it would have made a huge difference. But in the service industry, management usually backs the customer, even when they’re wrong. It’s hard for most people to reconcile that after a while."
23."My final straw came after I was laid off. My former employer begged me to get back on his payroll (even though the restaurant wasn't open at the time), which I later found out was to get government loans. I ended up having a court phone call, since he was arguing with the state about my ability to receive unemployment. The court ended up deciding that he was in the wrong, since I had childcare responsibilities, and they knew that his restaurant had to be closed according to local law. After that was done, I decided to go back into another passion of mine — computers. I started school in August 2020, and it was the best decision of my life. I'll have a job that pays three times what I was previously making, with actual benefits and a manageable work week."
24."I left the service industry before COVID, and it was brutal even then. I cannot imagine how rough it is now. My heart goes out to all that are stuck in a horrible job. I got out due to the punishing, long hours and low pay — but I still miss it. You almost experience Stockholm syndrome when you work in a restaurant. It’s like being in battle together, and you feel guilty leaving your co-workers. But there comes a point when you have to take your own health — physical and mental — into consideration, and do what you have to do."
25."I actually returned to work at the restaurant that I had been employed by pre-pandemic, but I quickly became agitated and fed up with it. The owners would consistently allow unvaccinated guests to dine in, and at other times, no one was even checking customers' vaccination status. On top of that, I was seriously overworked due to staffing shortages, and I was the only bartender on staff for a few months."
26."I got out of the industry forever in 2015 because it was absolutely DESTROYING my mental health. For anyone thinking this 'mass exodus' is happening just because of COVID: you're obviously not paying attention, and you're part of the problem. So many non-COVID problems have caused this mass exodus: shitty schedules, shitty bosses, shitty customers, shitty pay, shitty tips… COVID didn’t cause this — it’s just the straw that broke the camel's back. This has been brewing for years."
27."On my last day, someone puked in the bathroom sink. My manager, knowing vomit is the one thing I can’t handle, was going to make me put on a glove and scoop it out with my hands. You're treated like a personal punching bag, and if you don’t 'smile' and 'be nice' while they’re treating you like garbage, you’re fired. No amount of money would ever be worth working in a restaurant again. I'd much rather not even have a single penny to my name than put myself through that again."
28."I haven’t waited tables in ten years, and I still have stress nightmares that I’m working at the restaurant again. When I worked there, I ended up needing hip surgery and would have to take two months off. I had doctor’s orders to not take tables larger than four people until the surgery. One of the managers sighed when I handed him the orders, and he asked me 'how serious' it actually was — as if I was lying about needing literal surgery."
29."I'd been working as a server for seven months prior to the pandemic, and I already hated it. It was the most physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially exhausting job I'd ever had, and the management treated us like garbage. They were always breathing down our necks, criticizing everything we did, and pitting us against one another. Luckily, I never had to deal with horrible customers, because it was the restaurant's policy that as soon as a customer expressed even the mildest dissatisfaction with something, we had to run and get a manager to 'shmooze' them and offer free drinks and dessert. We weren't even allowed to handle the mildest issues ourselves. I was miserable."
"When we got laid off for COVID, I was honestly so relieved to not work there anymore that I didn't even care how I was going to pay for rent and food. I'd rather be destitute than ever go back there. When they asked me back in June 2020, it felt so good to say 'no thanks' — though I wish I'd said more."
30."I didn't leave because of the money. The money was fantastic — I can't make money like that anywhere else. I gave the service industry up because the customers became so rude and entitled. They weren't always that way. Something has changed in their attitude, and I refuse to be treated poorly while begging for their money."
31."I'm 20, and I’ve been working in the restaurant industry since I was 14. I have never faced the amount of rude customers that I have throughout the pandemic. Why are you closed early? We’re understaffed. Why are you out of this? We’re understaffed. Nothing new — it’s been going on for two years. This one customer made me cry my eyes out telling me she 'hoped I got fired' because I couldn’t remember if our black bean soup had jalapeños in them. I got written up for this, and I did get fired."
"While I still work in a restaurant (I'm a college student that needs a job open at night), I dread walking in there every single night of my life. Hopefully, this is my last semester ever working in the restaurant industry."
32."I waited tables for 10 years, and I don't miss it at all. The company and managers only care about money, and the customers are so verbally abusive and entitled. Everyone should have to work in a restaurant at one point in their lives, just so they know how not to treat restaurant staff. I suffered so much sexual harassment by staff and customers, it was a total nightmare. I can't even imagine working at a restaurant during COVID. I would quit in a heartbeat. I wouldn't be able to tolerate people's ignorance about not wearing masks and putting others' lives at risk. Working at a restaurant isn't worth the stress, harassment, and abuse."
33."My sister passed away after a battling a prolonged illness in January 2020. Everyone I worked with knew about it (as it was a small diner). I let people know about when services were, and told them it would mean a lot to have their support. The day of her funeral, the assistant manager called me to see if I 'wanted to pick up a shift,' and no one from work showed up to the funeral either."
34."If you're a woman in the restaurant biz, you can be smart enough to be a head chef (and run the entire kitchen), but you can't possibly be smart enough to have an opinion on anything else. I was called a 'hysterical female' to my face and had the flu incorrectly mansplained to me by the owner of the restaurant I had been working at — for TEN YEARS. All I was suggesting was that we have a plan in place in case we were shut down as a result of COVID, or forced to go takeout-only. The day Cuomo shut down indoor dining in New York, I packed up my whole life and went to a friend's farm in the Catskills. Now I'm getting a science degree online, and plan to complete a paramedic course after that. I'm never going back."
35."I've spent a cumulative 25 years in restaurants (I also met my husband at the last one), and I feel for everyone still stuck in the industry. I know this is not a popular opinion — but when people say the industry is dying, I think: 'let it die.' It's an industry that employs a lot of people, sure, but it also chews them up and spits them out. It's so hard on your physical and mental health, and the benefits in restaurants are generally non-existent, or very poor. You're run into the ground for bad pay and expectations are impossibly high for employees to work very long hours, cheerfully. All that, and there are no resources to help you cope with all the physical and mental stress."
36."I left the industry after 15 years because of COVID. I feel deeply for every single person still trying to stick it out, and it's heartbreaking because service industry people are truly the best. Without the industry, I wouldn't have my husband or many of my closest friends, but I've also lost far too many of them from the self-medicating that comes along with it. I'm so, so sorry to the people who have stuck with it. You all deserve better."
If you recently left the service industry (and feel comfortable sharing your reasons for doing so), let us know in the comments below.
Note: Submissions have been edited for length and/or clarity.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline is 1-888-950-6264 (NAMI) and provides information and referral services; GoodTherapy.org is an association of mental health professionals from more than 25 countries who support efforts to reduce harm in therapy.