Austin restaurants, nonprofits urge mental health care access as worker needs spike

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Monday, Dream Bakery in north Austin announced via Facebook it had closed its doors to walk-in customers for the day.

The reason?

A shortage of available employees, after several called out due to mental health concerns. 

Owner Karen Fry said the decision is just one example of a larger mental health struggle permeating among food service workers.

“I literally had three people call in suicidal last week,” she said. “Like, on Saturday, like in the middle of the morning rush, I was like, knocking on doors to make sure that people were alive — like that they hadn’t ‘no showed’ because it was just too much. Like, that is major.”

Fry said she has tried connecting her workers with mental health resources, but the demands spurred by the pandemic have resulted in six to eight-week appointment wait times, out-of-pocket payments or therapists unable to take on new patients.

“That’s not helpful when you are literally sitting at home in your bedroom, wondering why you should get up and go through your day,” she said.

During the pandemic, food service workers have doubled as essential employees, working on the front lines amid massive layoffs, limited staffing and stressful work conditions. More than 15 months later, some Austin restaurant owners are saying their workers are feeling the toll of a pandemic that has exacerbated mental health struggles in unprecedented ways.

Doc Davis of Capital Area Counseling serves on the board of the Austin-based nonprofit, the Mike & Sherry Project. Since March 2019, the organization has helped connect Austin restaurants and their workers with mental health resources. 

One year after the nonprofit’s founding, the coronavirus pandemic hit Texas, shuttering indoor dining and bar services and catapulting many Austin food service workers into unemployment. 

In March 2020, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 132,000 leisure and hospitality industry employees worked in Austin. Just a month later, Austin’s leisure and hospitality employment was halved, down to just under 73,000 employees.

Since the pandemic, the Mike & Sherry Project has helped connect restaurant employees with more than 2,700 mental health appointments, with over 1,300 of those in 2020 alone. 

While some workers have returned to restaurant jobs, Davis said others have decided to find a new work environment, opting out of the food service industry entirely. There are a host of reasons why some people might not be applying for vacant food service jobs, he said. Included in that mix are those who move on for their own mental health reasons.

“The one thing that COVID has been helpful for in the bar [and] restaurant industry is putting people in a situation where they have to rethink their life,” he said. “… I do think that a lot of people that we’ve talked to over the past 15 months have done just that: they’ve examined, they’ve explored, they’ve experimented, and they’ve decided that they’re not going to go back into that same environment if they don’t feel they’re strong enough to do it in a healthy way.”

In a poll conducted by Good Work Austin — an advocacy nonprofit designed to support small business owners and workers — 40 restaurants reported 110 job current job openings in Austin, said  L’Oca d’Oro co-founder Adam Orman.

“Staff have been anxious for a year and a half about their health, where their next paycheck is coming from, how much it will be for, what will be asked of them, what will be demanded of them by guests, and if their job will still exist,” Orman said. “It’s been exhausting for all involved.”

“I think that we have a major mental health crisis, not only in Texas, but well beyond. People have been very isolated.”

Emily williams knight, CEO of the texas restaurant association

As vaccination rates have increased and Austin’s economy has begun stabilizing, the food service industry has navigated a complete overhaul in reevaluating pre-COVID business models in a post-COVID world, said Emily Williams Knight, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association.

The TRA and Texas Workforce Solution launched a partnership training program in early June that waived food handler and seller-server certification fees for prospective food service workers, typically $15. S

ince its launch, the program has attracted more than 600 applicants, 200 of which were previously unemployed.

But the recent shortages of food service job applicants can be applied to a variety of factors, she said. Increased wages, employee benefits and childcare access are major components restaurants have begun tackling, she said.

“I think that we have a major mental health crisis, not only in Texas, but well beyond. People have been very isolated,” she said. “I think our workers tend to be very outwardly facing people, right? They love to provide service. They love to be connected. And so more than anything, getting them back into places where they can do what they do best, which is take care of others and create an experience.”