(Bloomberg) -- The staffing shortages that bedeviled US restaurants and fast-food chains throughout the pandemic are finally starting to abate.

National chains including Del Taco Restaurants Inc., Portillo’s Inc. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. say it’s getting easier to find employees, with their staffing at or above pre-Covid levels. Across the country, employment at food and drinking places is quickly approaching what it was in early 2020, Labor Department figures show.

The turnaround signals a major shift for the US labor market — and a significant boost for foodservice providers, which struggled to bring workers back after layoffs in 2020. For now, it may mean an end to, or at least an easing of, restaurant and dining-room closures due to a lack of staff. And perks such as $200 signing bonuses for entry-level employees are likely harder to come by as rampant inflation and the end of government stimulus push more Americans back on the job.

“It’s much better now, finding people, than it was,” Tim Hackbardt, chief marketing officer for Del Taco, said in an interview. “That’s improved dramatically. It’s less of something that we worry about at night.”

The chain of about 600 restaurants, acquired this year by Jack in the Box Inc., is back to being fully staffed. It’s also less difficult to keep those hourly workers and managers from quitting, Hackbardt said.

The improvement is particularly pronounced for employers with the means to offer better pay and benefits. Often times, that’s the big companies like Chipotle, which says its hourly wage is now more than $16 an hour, on average, about $1 more than last summer. The burrito seller says its staffing levels are “much higher” than they were two years ago.

The change highlights both the evolving trajectory of Covid-19, which had kept some public-facing workers away because of infection worries, as well as a job market that is showing broader signs of easing. Last month, a steady stream of people entering the workforce pushed the US unemployment rate up from a five-decade low. At the same time, the labor participation rate — the share of those working or looking for work — advanced to 62.4%, matching the highest since March 2020. 

“In the last month or so, we’ve seen a huge influx of labor supply,” said Elizabeth Crofoot, senior economist at labor researcher Lightcast. “There are more people coming in from the ranks, from the sidelines, willing to take on additional jobs, to look for jobs.”

Job openings for accommodation and food service have been falling for the past two months, and are down from a high in December last year, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show. Employment at US food and drinking places was 11.7 million in August, up from a low of 6.3 million during the pandemic, and near March 2020 levels. 

Retention may also be improving, with Starbucks Corp., which is investing in better employee training, reporting a recent reduction in turnover rates among workers. Chains including Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc. and Wendy’s Co. in August said their turnover rates and staffing were getting better.

There are multiple issues at play. Workers who were depending on pandemic stimulus checks and sitting out of the job market no longer have those benefits. The resumption of in-person schooling and consistent child care has enabled more women to join the labor force, Crofoot said. And unionization campaigns spreading across the country at the likes of Amazon.com Inc. and Trader Joe’s, are helping, too, even as employers such as Starbucks fight against such efforts.

“It bodes well for that industry in terms of the working conditions, the pay, the benefits and the ability to attract different kinds of people, who may want to take those jobs now if they know they have some sort of protection,” Crofoot said.

Inflation also is making jobs more of a necessity, she said. Even as wages accelerate, restaurant workers are still relatively low-paid, and higher prices for food and gas mean they may struggle to make ends meet. The US personal savings rate as a share of disposable income has tumbled in recent months to a 13-year low, following a pandemic-driven stimulus surge. 

Crofoot cautioned, however, that the gains in staff may be limited to larger chains that have the pockets to support wage hikes and improved perks and training. More specialized positions are difficult to fill, too.

In Chicago, Vincent Colombet, owner of La Boulangerie & Co., can’t find pastry chefs, cleaning staff and drivers for his production facility where croissants, baguettes and loaves of sourdough are made. One of his bakers recently quit, despite the $20 to $25 an hour Colombet pays for the role.

“Where we’re really struggling is qualified people with experience. Pastry people, bakers, that is very very hard,” Colombet said in an interview. “Especially when it’s early morning, or late night jobs, and weekends. That’s where we’re struggling the most.”

Yet Colombet is able to staff his three cafes — where he starts staff at $15 an hour — more easily. “We don’t have a problem finding people for entry-level positions,” he said. 

Meanwhile, chains are dangling new perks to stand out from competitors. For example, Portillo’s, the Oak Brook, Illinois-based Italian beef chain, now offers discounted company stock for the chain’s cooks and servers.

“This is something big companies did forever. A lot of boomers would tell you that it’s one of the best ways that they accumulated wealth,” Chief Executive Officer Michael Osanloo said in an interview. He said the company is targeting 10% for the discount, and that the response so far has been incredibly positive for the program they’ve dubbed Beef Stock. 

In addition to hiking pay by several dollars over the past two years — to about $16 an hour, on average — the chain late last year began offering gym passes to its workers at a discounted rate. 

The company’s staffing levels are back to pre-Covid levels, Osanloo said. “People are sticking around.”

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