Maybe last year’s toilet paper shortage was the canary in the coal mine? A sign that we better buckle up for the new “shortage economy”?
What began as pandemic-driven irrational outages of everyday commodities like bathroom tissue, yeast, rice and cereal has morphed over this past year. Just as we are trying to transition back into “normalcy,” we are suddenly thrust into another head-scratching paradigm shift. What everyone really needs now is humans.
You cannot get in the car and make even the shortest trip without going by a “help wanted” sign. Fast food, dry cleaners, landscape companies, medical offices, retailers — everyone is hiring. It is as if, overnight, the labor pool of willing and able workers has been drained.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey showed that job openings, a measure of labor demand, jumped to 8.1 million on the last day of March, the highest in more than 20 years.
The main problem holding back businesses from really taking off is their inability to find enough workers to fulfill the demand for service. And unable to get service, people whose bank accounts are flush with federal stimulus checks and tax returns are finding it increasingly difficult to spend their money.
The shortage most of us have noticed is in the restaurant industry. Restaurants, bars and other service industries here are at their busiest in the spring because of the spring golf season.
And yet, a number of restaurants are having to close one or two days a week or limit their service because they can’t get enough workers.
“(Independent) Restaurants are usually not big enough to provide benefits like health insurance,” says Ashley Van Camp, owner of Ashten’s Restaurant in downtown Southern Pines.
Workers, she said, “also have found jobs that didn’t require them to work nights and weekends or found jobs with a more consistent paycheck. This is hard on a town that relies on hospitality. There was a small pool to draw from, and they are just not there.”
Around the corner from her, at Bell Tree Tavern, the situation is no better. “I have been posting job ads for months. We have not been able to hire people even though our pay scale has gone up,” owner Con O’Mahoney said.
And that’s just one industry. Retailers can’t find stockers to get products on shelves. Hotels and resorts can’t hire enough staff to clean rooms. And trades people ranging from window installers to plumbers are regularly turning away work or simply not answering the phone because they don’t have enough help to handle all the extra work.
“With jobs, there is money to be made and being left on the table. We just don’t have the workforce,” O’Mahoney says.
Many employers say the greatest hindrance to hiring is the extended unemployment payments the federal government has in place through September. That belies other complex factors at work, such as higher wages at other jobs, irregular availability of child care and lingering questions about exposure to COVID.
The additional jobless benefit — $300 a week in addition to any state aid — made sense when large swaths of the economy were shut down or severely curtailed by the pandemic. But most of those restrictions have since been lifted or soon will be. There is plenty of work to be found, either at former employers or new ones.
Anyone who wants a job these days can find one quickly. The time has come for Congress to cut short the additional unemployment assistance so we can begin refilling the labor pool and getting on with the business of economic recovery for everyone.