Where Are All the Service Workers?

A confusing set of dynamics is happening in the US workforce these days. Perhaps you have noticed, as I have, that almost every sector has staffing shortages: restaurants, hotels, airports, retail stores, childcare providers, and healthcare for starters.

At the same time, the national monthly jobs report shows high rates of hiring, and the stock market is booming, yet the overall level of employment is still millions of jobs lower than before the pandemic, and staffing shortages are everywhere. What is going on?

Sydney Pereira, writing for Prism Reports, notes that the general wisdom during the pandemic was that the extra unemployment benefits made available by the federal government for millions of workers laid off during the pandemic would make people “lazy” and be a disincentive to working when jobs became available. But long after the benefits ended, the jobs are available and staffing shortages remain. In fact, the current staffing shortages are in large part caused by workers who have jobs but are quitting at unprecedented rates without the extended unemployment benefits. Pereira cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics as showing the following:

  • In August 2021, around 721,000 people quit their jobs in retail.
  • In August 2021, 892,000 workers quit their jobs in the accommodation and food services industries.
  • Overall, nearly 4.3 million people quit their jobs across industries.
  • Women, especially women of color, are leaving the workforce in higher numbers than men.

Pereira cites Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of A Better Balance, a workers’ rights advocacy organization, as saying, “Women and women of color, especially mothers, face a ‘forced choice’ to leave their jobs due to a lack of workplace support.” Women and families need childcare support, living wages, and reasonable work schedules to stay in the workplace. While this has always been true, Gedmark notes that the pandemic has resulted in a bigger drop in employment for women, especially for women with children. Even the childcare provider industry, which could help women stay in the workforce, has 126,700 fewer workers than before the pandemic.

People are quitting their jobs because

  • Employers do not offer childcare or family support.
  • Wages are so low that workers are burned out from having to work multiple jobs during the pandemic to make ends meet.
  • They have no sick pay or paid family leave benefits—and often no benefits at all.
  • Customers have become rude and even hostile, leaving service workers feeling undervalued, unappreciated, and abused. And customers are paying fewer tips. “It’s not worth it to be treated this way for this very small amount of pay,” stated one interviewee who recently quit his job.

We need a major realignment of wages, social supports, and job training in this country. People want to work and need to work—but they also need a living wage, benefits, and respectful work environments. Change this large needs to be initiated at the national level. We need new laws and labor force policies.


Photo by Vanna Phon on Unsplash

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