Em-URGE-ing Voices

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There Was Never A Labor Shortage

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January 3, 2022

There was never a labor shortage. The ongoing pandemic has brought about employee shortages in many fields, but none is more obvious than the consumer service industry. Retail businesses are filled with “Now Hiring” signs and hiring perks have grown to include industry standards, such as employee benefits, with more desperate employers including things like sign-on bonuses and iPhones. While businesses continue to say that they are struggling to hire, repeating the idea of a “labor shortage,” the reality is service industry jobs are exploitative employment that treat their employees as disposable.

Service industry jobs center on consumer-driven experiences; a broad spectrum, these jobs include things like retail, finance, food, and dining, and hospitality and travel. Out of these industries, food and retail services jobs have had the highest rates of vacancies during the pandemic, beyond any initial business closures. This makes sense, as retail and food service jobs are the lowest paying and least protected of these different fields.

I’ve worked a variety of retail jobs during my stints in college and grad school; The work I did during the pandemic was the worst of these experiences. The stores were short staffed and very busy. This meant we never had enough people to do anything, so all work fell on everyone. People who were supposed to stock the store ended up having to work as cashiers; cashiers helped process merchandise for stocking. Different departments in the store fell behind on their work because of this, meaning we couldn’t process enough inventory to stock shelves, or that customers had to wait an hour in line. New employees had poor and insufficient training; most of it took place online. This left them feeling unprepared to deal with the onslaught of angry customers.

 While dealing with feeling overworked, understaffed, and under-trained, my coworkers and I also had to work while feeling unsupported by management. Customers were increasingly demanding and abusive, yet our management operated under a “give the customer what they want policy.” Management also wanted to deal with customers as little as possible, leaving complicated and tense exchanges up to lower-level employees. And as employees, we were still expected to push the benefits of things such as credit card programs and loyalty memberships, even when customers had shown that they were increasingly less patient with pitches. In terms of service, we were expected to act as if the pandemic had never happened.

As for COVID-19 protections, although customers were required to wear masks in the store, mask enforcement was often left to employees such as myself. Some customers would respond to our requests for them to wear masks by yelling at us, politicizing the issue, or responding that they didn’t need to wear masks because there was no state requirement for them to do so. At a federal level, there was a lack of overall requirements for COVID-19 protection for retail employees. Restrictions and recommendations such as mask mandates for the public were determined on a state and local level, with some states choosing to forgo mask mandates. Safety concerns over customers who refused to wear face masks became a frequently reported issue. Similar to the exchanges that my coworkers and I had with customers, several incidents of violent customers attacking employees who asked them to wear masks were reported across the U.S.

Despite the little protections and benefits that service industry workers had previously, they were labeled as “essential workers” during the pandemic. Definitions of essential workers vary between states, however, during COVID, this was expanded to include “critical retail” workers, such as grocery store workers. Despite the label of being essential, working conditions for individuals in service industry jobs declined during the pandemic. Being labeled as essential meant that service industry employees not only had to perform their original duties but that they had to do so in increasingly understaffed and hostile environments. And even in cases where service industry employees were compensated for the conditions they had to face, this compensation was inadequate and often came with a time limit or with restrictions. For example, the grocery chain Kroger had initially offered bonuses to their employees who worked during the pandemic. However, Kroger came under fire for rescinding their “hero pay” by sending letters to employees stating that they had been overpaid and that they must pay Kroger back. Instances such as these contradicted the “essential” narrative tied to retail service industry employees. Furthermore, the increased wages and “perks” during this time feel like too little, too late for an industry that consistently said it could not afford to pay its employees more.

Ultimately, the pandemic and supposed “labor shortage” show that companies have always been able to pay their employees more, they have just chosen not to do so. This leaves us to question the value that these companies assign to their employees, and why workers should work for people and companies who don’t value them. The massive layoffs that people faced at the beginning of the pandemic, the lack of access to social safety nets such as unemployment for certain workers, and the continued mistreatment and lack of protection for employees with “essential labels” make this a story about undesirable jobs. If employers truly wanted to hire and maintain employees, they would fix their working conditions.

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