Labor shortages in education, healthcare and railroads fuel labor crises

Labor shortages in education, healthcare and railroads fuel labor crises
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Tired workers in the education, healthcare and rail industry take a step back after months of staff shortages

Striking nurses demonstrate for better working conditions on public sidewalks outside Riverside Hospital on September 11.  13 in Minneapolis.
Striking nurses demonstrate for better working conditions on public sidewalks outside Riverside Hospital on September 11. 13th in Minneapolis (Annabelle Marcovici for The Washington Post)

The U.S. economy came hours after the shutdown amid a standoff between unions and rail carriers over sick pay and scheduling, highlighting how staff shortages are dramatically reshaping American workplaces and forcing exhausted workers to retreat.

With more than 11 million job postings and just 6 million unemployed workers, employers have struggled for more than a year to hire enough people to fill their ranks. This mismatch frustrated and exhausted employees, fueling a new round of power struggles at work.

During the White House’s rail dispute helped solve It garnered the most attention early Thursday, and a number of other strikes are spreading across the United States. Nearly 15,000 nurses were laid off in Minnesota this week, and healthcare workers in Michigan and Oregon have recently taken off strikes. Seattle teachers have canceled a week-long strike, delaying the start of the school year.

At the heart of each of these challenges is widespread labor shortages, which has led to worsening working conditions. Staff shortages in key sectors such as healthcare, accommodation and education have put unprecedented pressure on millions of workers. fueling a wave of labor disputes alongside new efforts to organize nationwide.

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

The causes are complex and broad. Early retirements, a massive slowdown in immigration that began during the Trump administration, as well as ongoing childcare and aged care challenges, as well as covid-related illnesses and deaths have reduced the number of workers available.

“There are roughly 2.5 million fewer people in the workforce than we follow in 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 out there, still working in these jobs, have to do more.”

The stress of working in an understaffed job plays a big role in employee demands, often revolving around staffing or shortages. Seattle teachers wanted better special education teacher-student ratios. Railroad chiefs and engineers asked for sick leave. Nurses who stopped working in Minnesota said they sought protection from retaliation for reporting cases of more flexible schedules and understaffing.

“If you look at industries like nursing homes, local schools, the railroad, employment has dropped like a rock,” said Lisa Lynch, professor of economics at Brandeis University and former Labor Department chief economist. “And with that, you see a marked increase in worker action and strike activity. People are tired and overworked.”

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While the US economy has officially regained the 20 million jobs it had lost at the start of the pandemic, the gains were uneven. Major deficiencies remain, particularly in low-wage industries that have lost workers to higher-paying opportunities in warehousing, construction, and professional and commercial services. In the hospitality and entertainment sector, 1.2 million jobs still fell from February 2020. Nearly 360,000 employees are missing in public schools, and health services have yet to recover 37,000 positions. Meanwhile, rail transport lost 12,500 jobs.

After months of tinkering with extra duties, Sabrina Montijo quit her job as an assistant teacher at $19 an hour in the Bay Area in August. She now looks after her two young children full time and she says she is not sure when she will return to work.

“Since the outbreak began, our staff has been incredibly understaffed,” said Montijo, 33. “I had to work day and night because there was no one there. We couldn’t find staff and if we did we would have to constantly train someone, we would always have to start over.”

Between the added pressure at the workplace and the difficulty of finding affordable childcare, she says the separation makes sense. It wasn’t easy to manage on a single income from her husband’s job as a butcher at Safeway, but Montijo says it’s better than the alternative.

“It got to a point where I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” he said. “I had to build arts and crafts, do science projects, make phone calls and talk to parents at the same time. There is so much that just one person can do.”

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Worker burnout has become a persistent problem throughout the economy, although labor economists say this is particularly evident in sectors with acute labor shortages. Many front-line workers in retail, restaurants, education and healthcare throughout the pandemic, often putting their health and well-being at risk, say their jobs are getting harder as vacancies pile up.

Although employers in the economy say they are struggling to find and retain workers, labor shortages are most prevalent in retail (about 70 percent of job vacancies are unfilled), manufacturing (about 55 percent) and leisure and accommodation (45 percent), according to one report. US Chamber of Commerce analysis Ministry of Labor data.

“When you look at jobs that have trouble hiring, those are the jobs that have really long hours, inflexible schedules, no high salaries, and limited benefits,” said Paige Ouimet, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. focuses on financial and labor economics. “Running your people this way – asking them to do 20, 30 percent more because staff are understaffed – is a very short-term strategy. You’re going to keep losing people.”

In many cases, employers began raising wages in hopes of attracting new workers. The highest wage increases were in the lowest-wage sectors, such as accommodation, where average hourly earnings were lowest. increased by 8.6 percent from a year ago. (Compared to 5.2 percent increase for all employees.)

But while these wage increases may not go far enough to attract or retain workers, economists say they contribute to inflation. Restaurants, airlines, healthcare companies and transportation providers are charging more, in part because of increased labor costs.

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

“Inflation has driven our workforce to seek jobs that can and will pay higher wages,” the company’s CEO, Tony Strange, said in a statement last month. “We need to increase carer fees from 15 percent to 25 percent on average in the specific markets we serve. We will systematically move from state to state and contract to contract and adjust reimbursement rates.”

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New inflation data released this week showed prices remained stubbornly high, largely due to rising costs of services, including healthcare and transportation. Economists say services inflation tends to be closely linked to workers’ wages, unlike TV and furniture prices, which are heavily dependent on the cost of materials and transportation.

“It’s clear that the tight labor market leads to wage increases, which in turn leads to price increases,” said Jason Furman, professor of economics at Harvard University. “Inflation in services tends to be much more persistent and much more difficult to bring down. Gasoline prices are very volatile. Product prices are somewhat volatile. But if prices for services are high for a month, they will likely stay high next month.”

It is unclear whether or when many who left the workforce during the pandemic will return. This is especially true for workers aged 55 and over who stop working at higher rates. More than 500,000 workers of this age group are still understaffed in the job market.

“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 reassessment, causing many people to exit the workforce.”

Nashville resident Joseph White lost his job at the Guitar Center for six months due to the epidemic. But he says that’s enough now: The store’s staff were consistently understaffed and customers were stubborn. In one case, a customer pulled a gun on him for trying to enforce the company’s mask instruction.

“I’m tired, devastated, worn out and old,” said the 62-year-old actress. “I was worked to death for so long that I finally said there was no way I could go back.”

He started using Social Security payments to make a living and helps his wife run her small shop, Black Dog Beads. But White says he has no intention of rejoining the workforce.

“Our quality of life is much better, 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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