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Working to Live or Living to Work, Episode 1: Labour Shortages

Even in the early days, we all knew that COVID would result in some paradigm shifts when it comes to our relationships with work. This series examines shifts across various fields and sectors that show how people worldwide are re-evaluating existing work/life balance.

The American response to the pandemic was handled mostly at the state level. This led to a patchwork response that was not particularly effective, which in turn led to some jarring disparities among states. One such difference in approach is how states chose to classify which workers were considered “essential” — and therefore obligated to show up in person to work —and which were not. Some positions were universally considered essential, such as people at energy companies who had to keep the power grids running and our lights on. But some states even included restaurant workers on their lists of essential workers. Whether you consider this designation justifiable, it has had long-term effects on workers in fast-food establishments.

Help Wanted

There is a serious labour shortage at fast-food restaurants throughout the United States. “Help Wanted” signs in the windows are a common sight at these restaurants. Not only are employers struggling to hire enough people, but they are also having significant difficulty retaining them. The natural response by employers is to raise wages, but even a 10% wage increase has not stopped the record turnovers plaguing the industry. Moreover, higher starting wages are not enough to attract new employees. A study by Snagajob explains why.

First and foremost, employees are leaving the fast-food industry due to the need to care for their family members, especially children. When they have to work long hours for little pay, they cannot afford childcare, which has become increasingly necessary. This problem has been compounded by the simple fact that many children are still attending school remotely.

Second, the jobs are mentally and physically exhausting. Some 78% of restaurant workers say that their mental health has been negative affected in the last year. Our European readers may not fully understand the difficulties some workers had to face during the pandemic. If there is a mask mandate in Europe, then people generally follow it, albeit begrudgingly. In the US, there have been countless videos surfacing of very aggressive patrons screaming and threatening restaurant workers for enforcing company policy or state law. Some frontline workers have even been killed just for enforcing mask mandates! This is because masks and vaccines are far more politicised in the US than across the Atlantic.

Third, the free market is working: employees are following better opportunities in other industries. Restaurant work often means inconsistent scheduling and pay, and many other industries offer far more stability without the need to sacrifice mental and physical health. Many of these workers have relocated to retail positions in booming industries, such as home improvement retail, where fewer sacrifices are required.

As we see in our next instalment in this series, the restaurant industry reflects a more general trend in the labour market: workers have greater expectations and are willing to make their demands known.