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As businesses attempt to recover from the pandemic, one thing is missing: the workers.
January 26, 2022
West High at work
She took a step back as the customer launched into a rant about the wait time, letting her manager step in to deal with the situation. They tried to assure the customer that the food would be out shortly, explaining they were understaffed. Wait times had been longer all day as employees frantically tried to keep up with the steady stream of customers. The woman refused to listen, and her complaints continued. Finally, her food arrived. She snatched up the bag and stormed out of the Chick-fil-A.
“Why is she reacting like this?” Mara Caylor ’23 remembers wondering. All of the other customers had been understanding, despite the delays. Unfortunately, scenarios like this have become increasingly common due to the nationwide worker shortage. Abigail Ghabel ’22 noticed this while working at Stuff Etc at the beginning of the pandemic.
“The behavior of customers changed a lot,” Ghabel said. “I answered the phone and I got more angry callers during the pandemic than before the pandemic.”
COVID-19 also affected worker behavior. Many employees left their jobs because of safety concerns or were let go when businesses cut costs at the start of the pandemic. Some employees have yet to return. For West High students in the labor force, the consequences of the worker shortage have added to the already difficult challenge of balancing high school and a part-time job.
It feels like you’re doing two people’s jobs”
— Mara Caylor '23
“It feels like you’re doing two people’s jobs,” Caylor said. “It’s pretty stressful being in high school with a part-time job … During the school year, they usually schedule me 16 to 20 [hours a week]. It’s more than I really wanted to work, and it’s [almost] every school night.”
According to Caylor, her supervisors do not have any choice but to overschedule their employees due to her workplace being understaffed.
“Over the summer it was really bad. I set my max hours I wanted to work [at] 20 to 25, but it was more like 35 to 40,” Caylor said. “My [coworkers] were having the same problems as me, working way over what they wanted during the summer.”
Overscheduling is not the only reason employees are having to work longer hours. Less people on staff means tasks may take longer to complete.
“I usually close [the restaurant]. We’re supposed to get out around 8, but we have a limited number of people,” Caylor said. “Closing, because of the shortage of staff, you don’t get out until like an hour or two after we’re scheduled to.”
Another issue is the lack of control workers have over when they are scheduled to work. Ghabel quit their job at Michael’s because they did not feel like it was a good work environment and their managers could not offer them hours that worked.
“They wanted me to work Thursday from 5 to 9, and at the time that was very stressful because I had to wake up at 6:30 or 6 to get to my Kirkwood classes,” Ghabel said. “There were only three people including myself working that night shift and they said they wanted at least five or six. There was no one there that could do the work [at] the time that they needed.”
Maggie Greer ’23 works at the Coralville Recreation Center as a lifeguard and has experienced similar issues in getting hours that work for her, but for the opposite reason. Her workplace is dominated by high school workers competing for the same hours, which can lead to unexpected problems.
“There’s a few adults that can lifeguard during the week and there’s about 10 teens that can lifeguard on the weekend,” Greer said. “[While] there are many people working, those people can all work the same hours because we all are busy during the week.”
The worker shortage has also caused higher stress levels for Greer, as more pressure is placed on individuals.
“I think with everyone, you feel overwhelmed for like two weeks and then you’ll get a week where it’s like ‘Oh, this isn’t that bad. I can handle it,’” Greer said.
Despite her job sometimes being overwhelming, Caylor is grateful for the community of employees she found at her workplace.
“We only have a few smaller groups, and everyone that works there, especially the supervisors, are really welcoming,” Caylor said. “I really love the family we have there and that’s one of the reasons I’m staying.”
Working at west
The worker shortage has also affected employment at West High, especially making the process of finding substitutes more challenging. The process of finding a substitute is done through a program called Frontline which allows teachers to input when and why they will be absent. The program then alerts substitutes in the area about available jobs, which they have the option to pick up. Secretary Michelle Minikus is in charge of coordinating substitutes at West High.
“When [the positions] are unfilled, that’s when we have a problem. So that’s when we have two building subs … and I will put them in the unfilled positions, but usually, sometimes two is just not enough,” Minikus said.
When the substitutes from the area and the building substitutes cannot cover all the open positions, Minikus has to start thinking outside of the box. Each teacher has two open periods, which for Minikus means two periods that a substitute for one class can be pulled into another.
“It turns into a giant puzzle,” Minikus said. “Let’s say I don’t have enough of those pieces to fill. Then we have to go within the school. So then I’m looking at other people in the building before I use a teacher. It takes away from the learning of all [the students].”
Despite trying her best to avoid it, Minikus has had to pull teachers away from their prep period several times this year due to the shortage of substitutes. However, she is optimistic the new building substitute will help decrease this in the future.
“Because of the shortage, they allowed us to hire a third building sub,” Minikus said. “I feel like things are going to be so much better here.”
An even greater challenge than finding substitutes for regular teachers is finding them for paraeducators, a role the school is currently short on according to Assistant Principal Molly Abraham. She has had three paraeducator positions open for a while, and received just three applicants, only one of whom was qualified enough to be offered the job. It’s just gotten very hard to find paras and that partly is because we don’t pay them enough” — Molly Abraham
It’s just gotten very hard to find paras and that partly is because we don’t pay them enough”
— Molly Abraham
“It’s just gotten very hard to find paras and that partly is because we don’t pay them enough,” Abraham said. “They are frontline people for us. They are right there with kids all day long. It’s a really valuable job, but we pay around 14, maybe a little more, dollars an hour.”
Most of the budget for special education comes from money given to the district by the state, so increasing funding is difficult. Besides preventing the school from raising wages, this tight budget has caused issues with resources.
“We tried really hard to get every [paraeducator] a chromebook and couldn’t make it happen,” Abraham said.
Abraham worries that the low wages, lack of school resources and the eight to 10 weeks off in the summer without pay discourage some people who might otherwise become paraeducators from taking the job. Substitute paraeducator is another role that is difficult to fill.
“It’s hard to find [substitute paraeducators] — that’s a hard role to be in,” Abraham said. “You might get [to school] and your assignment is to go to seven different classes with kids you don’t know and they don’t know you.”
The school ensures the needs of each special education student are met every single day by shuffling around paraeducators, substitute paraeducators and pulling in other people when necessary, but the situation is not ideal.
“Who gets short-changed? Ultimately, the kids if we’re trying to move people around and we have somebody working with somebody they don’t know,” Abraham said.
What went wrong
When the pandemic first hit, fewer customers and high production costs forced many businesses to lay off workers. The labor force participation rate in the U.S. dropped to 60.2% in April 2020, a record low since the 1970s. Now, as places start to open up and people fall back into old consumption patterns, businesses are struggling to keep up.
Employees are also quitting at record highs, with one in four workers quitting their jobs in 2021 according to people analytics firm Visier. COVID-19 concerns, burnout and low pay are some of the driving factors.
COVID-19 brought in a host of questions surrounding safety, especially since vaccines were not available at the start of the pandemic. This was part of senior Peter Adams’ decision to take a break from working.
“One of my grandmothers was getting hip surgery and we didn’t know anything about COVID, we just knew it was a new virus, so I just took a few months off [while] she was recovering,” Adams said.
At Stuff Etc, Ghabel found safety to be the make-or-break factor in staying at her job.
[I quit] because they weren’t able to keep me in a safe environment where I felt like we were doing the necessary precautions”
— Abigail Ghabel
“[I quit] because they weren’t able to keep me in a safe environment where I felt like we were doing the necessary precautions,” Ghabel said. “We did require masks, but most of the people that went there did not care, and it was really hard to keep things clean.”
This sentiment seemed to spread locally within Iowa City and throughout the country.
“A lot of my coworkers quit at that time because a couple of them were still in college and colleges were closing, [and] a couple of them still live with their grandparents,” Ghabel said.
As more job opportunities become available, the motivation to get one remains low, even for workers who were laid off.
“I think it’s just a lot harder for people to get back into that mode where they want to go back to work because everyone’s like, ‘I need to get work. I need to find a job,’ but there’s no motivation,” Ghabel said. “[People are] putting so much stress on the individual to find a job … It’s exhausting.”
Certain jobs also require extra steps and training to get hired, creating more barriers that might discourage potential employees.
“With COVID, a lot of lifeguards didn’t get recertified, and a lot of new lifeguards weren’t getting certified. People found different jobs because pools weren’t open,” Greer said.
Businesses are struggling to keep their current employees from losing motivation. Adams, an employee at Target, has noticed that the overwhelming work environment the shortage creates has led to a cycle of burnout.
When you don’t have enough people, people are getting burned out before you can hire more.”
— Peter Adams '22
“The current metaphor for the Starbucks in the Target store is that it is a revolving door, because everyone except two of the baristas there quit all at once and our team leader quit in solidarity with them,” Adams said. “There is a lot of demand being put on people and some people were just like ‘I can’t do this.’ … When you don’t have enough people, people are getting burned out before you can hire more.”
What will work
Though it might feel like an uphill battle amidst the worker shortage for business owners hoping to hire, there are solutions. Some students at West found higher wages and extra benefits keep them working.
“One of the reasons I went to Target is they’re really good about how they treat their employees,” Adams said. “I mean, any place that starts with 15 bucks an hour is great, especially when minimum wage is still $7.25. And then there are other perks: all team members get a 10% discount off of almost everything in the store. They have a lot of resources.”
Another thing employers can do to keep employees motivated is show their appreciation for the work the employees do. These displays of gratitude can make a lasting impact.
“There were two separate occasions where, [human resources], in order to keep everybody’s spirits up, rented out two soft serve machines and put them in an employee break room, and I was just thinking ‘wow,’” Adams said.
For Adams, moments like those and the extra benefits the company provides are vital for keeping Target a place that he and his fellow employees want to work at.
“Those perks really do keep me going, because it might seem small, but it does mean the world,” Adams said.