CLEVELAND — Since the pandemic began, I’ve watched the staggering decline of Ohio’s restaurant industry. It breaks my heart, both as a restaurant enthusiast and as a leader within the Ohio Restaurant Association. More than 3,000 restaurants have closed statewide and thousands more have reduced operations. This means fewer local dining options for our communities, reduced hours for existing workers, less profit for restaurants, and ultimately a slower economic recovery for everyone.
We know what causes this problem: the lack of manpower. According to a 2021 Ohio Restaurant Association (ORA) survey, 88% of restaurant owners cited labor shortages as one of their top three challenges. We need a solution because when we lose restaurants, we not only lose businesses, we also lose the cornerstones of our communities, the foundation of our local pride.
If we want to save our local economies, we must open our doors to the world. That’s the beauty of hospitality policies; highly motivated workers arrive here ready to contribute to the country and kick-start economic recovery. We have 381,000 jobs in Ohio and immigrants are ready to work. This is why, at the end of 2020, ORA proudly joined Ohio Business for Immigration Solutionsa coalition of Ohio business, commerce, chambers, and economic development leaders advocating for sensible immigration reform.
Through Ohio Business for Immigration Solutions, we talk to policy makers about how immigration is a labor issue, not just a border issue. Immigrants fill crucial job openings that would otherwise go unfilled, help businesses grow, and enable consumers to get the goods and services they need without delay. Immigrants could literally save Ohio’s restaurant industry.
Restaurants are more than cozy places to have a good meal. They ensure the strength of our economy and the prosperity of our main streets. Our state’s population is already aging; the majority of our counties are seeing their population decline. If we want the next generation to live, work and put down roots in Ohio, we have to attract them.
I have seen with my own eyes how immigrants can help. One of our board members co-owns over 20 Mexican restaurants in Ohio and has managed to keep restaurants full staffed through his network, even in the worst of times. Our members often tell me that their immigrant employees are reliable, with low turnover. To attract and retain more workers, we need policy reforms such as streamlining employment-based visa backlogs, allowing temporary workers stuck in these lines to stay in the United States, and shortening wait times for requests.
Many also enter the industry with entrepreneurial aspirations; immigrants are eager to learn the trade from scratch and find ways to advance. Many of our members are immigrant restaurateurs who started out as busboys and bartenders.
Immigrants make up about one-fifth of all workers in the restaurant and food service industry, according to new american economy. In 2015, nearly 118,000 immigrants less than a bachelor’s degree owned a restaurant or food service business.
In my own life, I have seen the important contributions of immigrants to my community. A once thriving neighborhood saw its businesses close in the early 1990s as many residents flocked to the suburbs. In recent decades, newcomers have revitalized the area; in 2019, 26% of the Columbus metropolitan area’s population growth was due to immigrants. We are experiencing a renaissance, with the opening of dining establishments that represent cuisines from around the world: Somalia, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica and China.
Bottom line: To have a growing economy, you need a growing population. Ohio business leaders understand this, as do many longtime American residents. In conversations with my neighbours, I have heard them marvel at the transformations around them: “I haven’t moved; the world came to me. May it be so for more neighborhoods across our great state.
Tod Bowen is the general manager of external affairs and government relations at the Ohio Restaurant Association.
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