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In an effort to retain workers and boost morale, McDonald’s is using monthly potlucks to observe work anniversaries and birthdays for staff members. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Tucked in the corner of Longmont, the classic yellow sign seems like any other McDonald’s. The waft of french fries, bustling employees and children running for the playpen. But step inside, and you’ll be greeted with fiesta decorations and birthday cakes. 

The so-called Great Resignation took a toll on fast-food restaurants all over Colorado, and the McDonald’s at Longmont was no exception. In order to attract employees, Sean Connelly, owner of three McDonald’s in Longmont and one in Arvada, has done everything from holding fiesta-themed birthday parties for workers to allowing them flexibility to choose their hours. 

The lack of food service and hospitality employees in Colorado is particularly dire. The Colorado Restaurant Association estimates there are currently more than 15,600 open food service and hospitality jobs. 

Greg Echavarria, manager and people experience lead at McDonald’s, lights candles to celebrate the June birthdays of three store employees on June 15 in Longmont. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
In an effort to retain workers and boost morale, McDonald’s is using monthly potlucks to observe work anniversaries and birthdays for staff members.

“There are almost two openings for every available worker,” association spokeswoman Denise Mickelsen said. “Eight out of 10 local operators tell us that they are understaffed, and they have been using every tactic in the book to increase hiring and retention.” 

Hiring rates for accommodation and food services nationwide have remained high at 7.2% as of April 2022 compared to an overall 4.4%, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed. 

Rebuilding the workforce

But where has the labor force gone?

One missing demographic is baby boomers. During the pandemic, millions of boomers left the workforce, opting to retire early. Thelma Salcido, a supervisor at McDonald’s in Longmont, and Lisa Wagner, the people experience lead, saw the shift firsthand at her restaurant. 

“The boomers that left during the pandemic did not come back,” Wagner said “I think they were a couple years away from retirement and just said, we’ll figure out how to do it.”

Connelly said his goal is to have employees hired and working within five days of submitting an application. To do so, Salcido said she calls applicants immediately upon receiving their application. 

“We know that everybody’s hiring right? We interview them right away and hire them right away. That way we don’t give them the opportunity to go somewhere else,” she said. 

Connelly and Salcido are also looking beyond their usual applicant pool, trying to attract prospective employees from industries outside of food service. 

Maria Cabrera, right, holds Carmen Valencia during a monthly staff potluck on June 15 in Longmont. Cabrera was named employee of the month at McDonald’s in Longmont in June 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“In the past, it was, we need to have better employees and more employees in Wendy’s or Taco Bell,” Connelly said. “Now I’m out there looking for — is there a mechanic that has the skills that I need in the restaurant? Or a bank teller?” 

As summer hiring has amped up efforts, Salcido said their efforts have been successful in restaffing the McDonald’s with employees. But there’s still a long way to go. 

Adapting to a post-pandemic workplace

Wage increases have been one tool to attract employees. The Colorado Restaurant Association reported that since 2020, Colorado restaurants have increased wages by about 20%. Connelly said he raised the hourly average wages at his store to about $15.75 from $12.50 to $12.80 pre-pandemic. Management got raises, too. 

But beyond increased wages, workers came out of the pandemic wanting more — flexibility, better work-life balance and community support. 

Connelly said offering flexible hours and shifts has been monumental in attracting and retaining workers. It’s come with setbacks — such as having to eliminate the all-day breakfast menu, for instance. 

The biggest priority, though, is focusing on the people, Connelly said. He hired for a new position — the people experience lead — in December. One initiative has been developing the people experience lead position, which they hired in December. 

In this role, Lisa Wagner helps McDonald’s employees seek tuition benefits and career training programs through the company. But she also plans programs intended to build community at their restaurant. 

The monthly themed potlucks — which celebrates birthdays, work anniversaries and promotions — bring together workers from different shifts to increase camaraderie and community. 

Thelma Salcido, a supervisor at McDonald’s in Longmont, poses for a portrait on June 15, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Yessica Zavala, an employee at McDonald’s,  noted that these events help build community with employees, especially those from different shifts who might not know each other. 

Zavala said the employees join together to make sure the events are fun, despite sometimes not even knowing whose birthday card they’re signing before the celebration. Even the younger employees, who don’t always know how to cook, will make an effort to bring food for the potlucks and take part in the events. 

Crazy Hat Day is another staple, along with pajama days. To boost morale and show appreciation for customers, McDonald’s also will scatter inspirational quotes across the store.  

In an effort to retain workers and boost morale, McDonald’s is using monthly potlucks and observing work anniversaries and birthdays for staff members. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

She added that since the pandemic, employees have also gotten closer with each other and supported each other. 

“If they’re sick, then we ask them to stay home and you know we try to help as much as we can,” Zavala said. “We give them a call if you’re sick, and say how are you doing? Do you need food?” 

“We feel like they’re part of our family,” Zavala said. If anything happens to them or their family, we all feel for them. So we’re really trying to go above and beyond.” 

Brammhi Balarajan

Email: Twitter: @brammhi