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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Oklahoma City is experiencing a serious service industry labor shortage that was catalyzed by the coronavirus pandemic, and now continues to be fueled by the growing medical marijuana industry.

“It’s not just servers. It’s cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers, front of the house staff, back of the house, I mean it is literally crazy,” said Vito’s Ristorante owner Cathy Cummings.

She is seeking for wait staff, and said she is far from the only one. The need for staff by restaurants and bars across the metro is worse than she has ever seen.

“Not only did we take a hit during COVID, and it was so hard and so challenging,” Cummings said, “So, here’s just one more obstacle that we’re facing right now.”

Before it was suggested, Cummings told KFOR she believes the problem is due in part to a mass migration to the cannabis industry.

“I wouldn’t go back to the restaurant industry,” said Katie Prouty.

She was one of countless Oklahomans laid off when quarantine measures shut down the service industry last year, but she and others who spoke to KFOR agree it was a blessing in disguise.

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Medical marijuana

Prouty transitioned into a job in cannabis, at Timeless Refinery, where the work is less demanding, she feels more appreciated by her employers and she has health benefits.

“I am so happy with where I’m at,” said Darian Dean, another service industry defector with no plans to return. Dean now works as an extractor at cannabis company, Oil Tycoon. “You have set hours, you have a set pay and it just takes a lot of stress off of you because you know exactly what you’re going to make.”

Both women agree that the pay scale alone is a major draw. Most medical marijuana jobs start workers off at $12 an hour, a far cry from the $2.15 servers make, counting on tips to make up the rest.

“There are people that go out to eat, spend $200 and then think that because they just spent $200 they don’t need to tip you at all, or they leave you 10 percent,” Prouty said, “and that day after day, night after night, just runs you down and it kills your spirit.”

The pandemic has also contributed to an increase in unpleasant confrontation with some customers, specifically when it comes to enforcing social distancing policies.

“They really got the sense of ‘why am I putting up with this for $2.35 an hour’ or whatever the server wage was, when I can go over here and make $12 an hour at the dispensary and get benefits,” said Stephen Tyler, managing partner at the Tower Theatre.

Tyler said Tower Theatre management took steps before hiring got tough, offering employees $10 an hour before tips. Not only do they want to be competitive employers, but he said it engenders a better work environment.

“Everybody’s always bought into the idea of Tower and what we’re trying to do here,” Tyler said. “I think that just kind of takes it one step further.”

He said the plan is to now figure out employee health benefits.