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Where Have All the Workers Gone?

Over the past several months, one thing I hear repeatedly from employers in all industries is that they cannot find people to fill jobs. If you pay attention to the news, this problem is playing out all over the country and in some cases causing serious problems such as in healthcare. The concern is that there’s not one quick and easy answer to solving the labor shortage.

I suspect that at least part of what feels like a shortage is really just people changing jobs. I see this on the local level with regularity. It is one of those rare times when the grass may very well be greener on the other side. Workers are looking around and seeing that employers are upping the ante by paying higher hourly wages, giving signing bonuses, and offering other goodies in order to get people to fill open jobs and you can’t blame them for job-hopping.

Keep in mind that wage growth in this country has been stagnant since the Nixon administration, so when you get conditions that give a little leverage to workers, I say more power to them.

Locally, the crisis is most visible with solid waste and trash hauling. Over the past several weeks we have been in communication with our contracted hauler, Atlantic County Utilities Authority (ACUA), about delays in curbside trash pickup.

The labor shortage is made worse by a pandemic surge and most recently, compounded by some snow. The thing was fragile to begin with because we’re talking about picking up garbage, not exactly the type of thing that people wake up excited to do. Because of that, the hourly wage has to be high enough to overcome the drudgery and what that number might be is still being fleshed out.

What tips the balance is the Omicron surge that has rotating numbers of employees out sick with symptoms or out on quarantine and the schedule gets behind. Throw in a decent snow that prevented pickup for a day and half, and the whole things gets backed-up and takes a couple of weeks to untangle.

We are meeting with company officials to understand how they plan to address this mess. Until this situation gets stabilized, enforcement has been suspended including the need for stickers on trash outside containers awaiting pickup.

This is one local example of the crisis, but it is not confined to solid waste. Rite Aid, which was known for having the pharmacy portion of the store open 24 hours, has had to close at 11 p.m., eliminating the overnight shift because they simply cannot staff it. Stores of all kinds are shortening hours and trimming their sails because they lack employees.

There is concern among older workers about getting sick from Covid and this explains a wave of retirements among those with institutional knowledge in companies and organizations of all shapes and sizes. We won’t know the full impact of this brain drain for some time to come.

Finally, it’s not just the pandemic or stagnant wages but a changing work ethic that is affecting the economy. Older generations worked not only to earn a living but because there was pride in working in a chosen field and in not taking a handout. Today, the mindset among some is not so much that but in figuring out how to work the system. Wages will adjust upwards and the pandemic surge will ease, but I’m not sure there’s a fix for the lack of work ethic.