Labor shortage in education, healthcare and rail jobs is adding to the labor crisis

After months of staff shortage, exhausted workers in education, healthcare and rail industry are retreating

Striking nurses demonstrate for better working conditions on public sidewalks outside Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis on September 13.
Striking nurses demonstrate for better working conditions on public sidewalks outside Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis on September 13. (Annabelle Markovici for The Washington Post)

The US economy came within hours of a shutdown due to a standoff between unions and rail carriers over sick pay and scheduling, highlighting how dramatically staffing shortages have changed American workplaces and Tired workers have been motivated to push back.

With more than 11 million job openings and just 6 million unemployed workers, employers have struggled for more than a year to hire enough people to fill their ranks. That mismatch has left employees frustrated and burned out, and starting a new round of power struggles on the job.

While the railway dispute, which the White House helped solve As of early Thursday, has garnered the most attention, with several other attacks spreading across the United States. About 15,000 nurses left their jobs in Minnesota this week, and health care workers in Michigan and Oregon have recently authorized strikes. Seattle teachers called off a weeklong strike, delaying the start of the school year.

At the heart of each of these challenges is widespread labor shortages leading to deteriorating working conditions. Staff shortages in key industries such as healthcare, hospitality and education have put unprecedented pressure on millions of workers, New attempts to organize nationwide simultaneously ignite a wave of labor disputes.

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A lot of industries are still struggling to find workers. According to Labor Department data, the share of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one is 62.4 percent, an absolute percentage drop compared to February 2020.

The reasons are complex and widespread. Early retirement, the massive slowdown in immigration that began during the Trump administration, as well as ongoing child care and elder care challenges, as well as COVID-related illnesses and deaths, have all cut into the number of available workers.

“We have about 2.5 million fewer people in the labor force than we were on track with pre-pandemic trends,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a huge number, and it means that the people who are still there, who are still working in these jobs, have to do even more.”

The stress of working at a job with fewer staff is playing a big part in the demands of workers, which often revolve around staffing – or lack thereof. Seattle teachers wanted better special education teacher-to-student ratios. Railway conductors and engineers were demanding sick leave. And nurses who stopped working in Minnesota said they are looking for more flexible schedules and protections against retaliation for reporting instances of inattention.

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

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Although the US economy has officially made up for the 20 million jobs lost at the start of the pandemic, gains have been uneven. Major shortages remain, especially 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 short in the hospitality and leisure industry as of February 2020. About 360,000 workers are missing in public schools and 37,000 positions in health care have yet to be recovered. Meanwhile, rail transport has lost 12,500 jobs.

After months of extra duty, Sabrina Montijo quit her $19-hour teacher’s aide job in the Bay Area in August. She now takes care of her two young children full time and says she is not sure when she will return to work.

“Ever since the pandemic started, we’ve been incredibly short-staffed,” said 33-year-old Montijo. “I had to work round the clock as there was no one there. We didn’t get staff and if we did, we had to constantly train someone, always starting over. ,

Between the added pressure at work and the trouble of finding affordable child care, she says it just makes sense to quit. Managing on just one income from her husband’s job as a butcher at Safeway hasn’t been easy, but Montijo says it’s better than the alternative.

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

Terrible teacher shortage in America

Labor burnout has become an ongoing problem in the economy, although labor economists say it is particularly evident in industries with acute labor shortages. Many front-line workers in retail, restaurants, education and health care who worked during the pandemic – often risking their health and wellbeing – say their jobs are becoming more difficult as vacancies pile up .

Although employers across the economy say they are struggling to find and keep workers, labor shortages are most pronounced in retail (where about 70 percent of job opportunities remain vacant), manufacturing (about 55 percent). ) and leisure and hospitality (45 percent), according to a US Chamber of Commerce Analysis labor department statistics

“When you look at jobs that are having trouble getting hired, it really isn’t long hours, inflexible schedules, great pay and limited benefits,” said Paige, a professor at the Kennan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. Oimet said. Focuses on finance and labor economics. “Running your employees like this — asking them to do 20, 30 percent more because you’re less employee — is a short-term strategy. You’ll keep losing people.”

In many cases, employers have started raising wages in hopes of attracting new workers. The highest wage gains have been in the lowest paying industries, such as hospitality, where average hourly earnings are up 8.6 percent from one year ago. (This is compared with 5.2 percent increase to all workers.)

But while those wage increases aren’t going far enough in attracting or keeping workers, economists say they are contributing to inflation. Restaurants, airlines, health care companies and transportation providers are all charging more, in part, he says, because of rising labor costs.

Avena Healthcare, which provides home health care and hospice services, is collaborating with Medicaid programs to increase reimbursement rates for nurses to offset higher wages.

“Inflation has driven our employees to seek employment that can pay higher wages,” the company’s chief executive officer, Tony Strange, said in an earnings call last month. “We need to raise the wages of caregivers by an average of 15 percent to 25 percent in some of the markets we serve. We will systematically go through it state by state and contract by contract and adjust reimbursement rates.”

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New inflation data released this week showed rising costs of services, including health care and transportation, have driven prices up sharply. Unlike TV and furniture prices, which are largely dependent on the cost of materials and shipping, economists say service inflation is closely linked to workers’ wages.

“It is clear that a tight labor market is leading to wage growth, which is driving price increases,” said Harvard University economics professor Jason Furman. “Inflation in services remains very high and it is very difficult to bring it down. Gasoline prices are very volatile. The prices of goods are somewhat volatile. But in services, if prices are higher in one month, they will probably remain higher the next month.

It is unclear whether – or when – many people leaving the workforce during the pandemic will return. This is especially true for workers age 55 and older, who have stopped working at higher rates. The job market is still less than the more than 500,000 workers in that age group.

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

Joseph White, who lives in Nashville, lost his job at Guitar Center six months into the pandemic. But he says he’s had enough: The store was constantly short of staff and customers were irresistible. In one instance, a shopkeeper pointed a gun at him for trying to enforce the company’s mask mandate.

“I’m tired, I’m broken, tired and old,” said the 62-year-old. “I was put to death for so long that eventually, I said, there is no way for me to go back.”

He has begun using Social Security payments to meet his needs, and helps his wife run her small shop, Black Dog Beads. But White says he has no intention of joining the labor force again.

“We have a much better quality of life even though we have less income,” he said. “I’m tired of being a commodity.”

Lauren Kaori Gurley and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.

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