Labor shortages in schooling, healthcare and rail jobs gas labor crises

Exhausted workers in education, healthcare and the rail industry are pushing back after months of staff shortages

Sept. 16, 2022 at 4:34 p.m. EDT

Striking nurses demonstrate on the public sidewalks in front of Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis on September 13 for better working conditions. Striking nurses demonstrate on the public sidewalks in front of Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis on September 13 for better working conditions. (Annabelle Marcovici for the Washington Post)

The US economy came just hours after shutting down due to a standoff between unions and railroad companies over sick pay and work schedules, highlighting how dramatically staff shortages have transformed American jobs and caused exhausted workers to push back.

With more than 11 million job openings and just 6 million unemployed, employers have been struggling to hire enough people to fill their ranks for more than a year. This mismatch has left employees frustrated and burned out, leading to a new round of workplace power struggles.

While the rail row dispute, which the White House helped steer early Thursday morning, has garnered most of the attention, a slew of other strikes are spreading across the United States. About 15,000 nurses quit their jobs in Minnesota this week, and healthcare workers in Michigan and Oregon recently authorized a strike. Seattle teachers called off a week-long strike, delaying the start of the school year.

At the heart of each of these challenges is a widespread labor shortage that has led to deteriorating working conditions. Staff shortages in key industries such as healthcare, hospitality and education have put millions of workers under unprecedented pressure, sparking a wave of industrial action and renewed efforts to organize nationwide.

Everything you need to know about the averted rail strike

Many industries are still struggling to find workers. The percentage of working-age Americans who have or are looking for a job is 62.4 percent, a full percentage point lower than in February 2020, according to Labor Department data.

The reasons are complex and wide-ranging. Early retirements, a massive slowdown in immigration that began during the Trump administration, and ongoing childcare and elder care challenges coupled with Covid-related illness and death have all reduced the available workforce.

“We have about 2.5 million fewer workers than we projected with pre-pandemic trends,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “That’s a big number, and it means that the people who are still there, who are still working in those jobs, have to do even more.”

The stress of working in an understaffed workplace plays a large part in workers’ demands, which often revolve around staffing – or the lack thereof. Seattle teachers wanted a better relationship between teachers and students in special education. Railway drivers and engineers asked for sick leave. And the nurses who stopped working in Minnesota said they are looking for more flexible schedules and safeguards against retaliation when instances of understaffing are reported.

“If you look at sectors like nursing homes, local schools, railroads — employment has fallen like a stone,” said Lisa Lynch, an economics professor at Brandeis University and former chief economist at the Department of Labor. “And with that you see a significant increase in labor disputes and strike activity. People are tired and overworked.”

Biden scores deal on rail strike, but worker dissatisfaction emerges

Though the US economy has officially regained the 20 million jobs it lost at the start of the pandemic, gains have been mixed. Large deficits remain, particularly in low-wage industries that have lost workers to higher-paying opportunities in warehousing, construction, and professional and business services. There are still 1.2 million jobs lost in the hotel and leisure industry as of February 2020. Public schools are short by nearly 360,000 workers and the health sector has yet to restore 37,000 jobs. Rail transport has meanwhile cut 12,500 jobs.

After months of juggling extra responsibilities, Sabrina Montijo quit her $19-hour job as a teaching assistant in the Bay Area in August. She now looks after her two young children full-time and says she is unsure when she will return to the job market.

“Since the pandemic started, we’ve had incredibly little staff,” said Montijo, 33. “I had to work 24/7 because nobody was there. We couldn’t find staff and if we did we had to constantly train someone and start all over again.”

With the added pressure of work and the difficulty of finding affordable childcare, it just made sense for her to leave. Getting by on just an income from her husband’s job as a butcher at Safeway wasn’t easy, but Montijo says it’s better than the alternative.

“It got to the point where I felt like I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “I had to set up arts and crafts, do science projects, make phone calls and talk to parents — all at the same time. There is only so much one person can do.”

America faces a catastrophic teacher shortage

Worker burnout has become a persistent problem across the economy, although labor economists say it’s particularly prevalent in industries facing acute labor shortages. Many frontline workers in retail, restaurants, education and healthcare who have worked during the pandemic – often putting their health and well-being at risk – say their jobs are becoming even harder as job vacancies increase accumulate

Although employers across the economy say they are struggling to find and retain workers, labor shortages are worse in retail (where about 70 percent of job vacancies remain unfilled), manufacturing (about 55 percent), and leisure and entertainment industries Hospitality (45 percent) most pronounced. according to an analysis by the US Chamber of Commerce of data from the Department of Labor.

“If you look at the jobs that have trouble hiring, it’s the ones with really long hours, inflexible schedules, poor pay and limited benefits,” said Paige Ouimet, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School focuses on finance and labor economics. “Managing your people like that — charging them 20, 30 percent more because you’re understaffed — is a very short-term strategy. You will keep losing people.”

In many cases, employers have started raising wages in hopes of attracting new workers. The highest wage increases have been in the lowest-paying industries such as hospitality, where average hourly wages are up 8.6 percent from a year earlier. (That compares to a 5.2 percent increase for all workers.)

But while those wage increases may not go far enough to attract or retain workers, economists say they’re adding to inflation. Restaurants, airlines, healthcare companies and transportation companies are all demanding more, in part, they say, because of rising labor costs.

Aveanna Healthcare, which provides home nursing and hospice services, is working with the Medicaid programs it works with to increase reimbursement rates to offset higher nurse salaries.

“Inflation has pushed our workforce to seek employment that can and will pay higher wages,” Tony Strange, the company’s chief executive officer, said on a conference call last month. “We need to increase wages for caregivers by an average of 15 to 25 percent in certain markets that we serve. We will systematically go through state by state and treaty by treaty and adjust reimbursement rates.”

As Covid lingers, nurses are leaving salaried jobs – and trebling their salaries as travelers

New inflation data released this week showed that prices remained stubbornly high, in large part due to rising costs for services like healthcare and transport. Unlike TV and furniture prices, which depend largely on materials and shipping costs, economists say services inflation tends to be closely linked to workers’ wages.

“It’s clear that the tight labor market is causing wage increases, which are causing price increases,” said Jason Furman, an economics professor at Harvard University. “Inflation in services tends to be much more persistent and much harder to contain. Gasoline prices are very volatile. Commodity prices are somewhat volatile. But for services, if prices were high one month, they’re likely to stay high next month.”

It’s unclear if — or when — many of the people who left the workforce during the pandemic will return. This is especially true for workers aged 55 and over who have stopped working at higher rates. The job market still lacks more than 500,000 workers in this age group.

“There has been a very significant and sustained decline in labor force participation among workers over 55,” said Edelberg of the Brookings Institution. “The pandemic has been a moment of introspection and reassessment, and has prompted many people to exit the workforce.”

Joseph White, who lives in Nashville, lost his job at the Guitar Center six months after the pandemic began. But he’s had enough, he says: the store is constantly understaffed, the customers are unruly. In one instance, a buyer drew a gun on him for trying to enforce the company’s mask requirement.

“I’m tired, broken, broken and old,” said the 62-year-old. “I’ve been worked to death for so long that I finally said there’s no way I’m going back.”

To make ends meet, he draws social security contributions and helps his wife run her small shop, Black Dog Beads. But White says he has no intention of re-entering the workforce.

“Our quality of life is much better even though we have less income,” he said. “I was tired of being a commodity.”

Lauren Kaori Gurley and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.