Labor shortage increases pressure on workers

Caroline Ohlandt and Jessie Norwood

As junior Alyssa Yagelski arrived at her server job at Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta, she witnessed an all too familiar scene: waitresses and waiters dashed around the dining room, simultaneously trying to take orders, serve food, and clear tables for arriving customers. Since the restaurant reopened for indoor dining on Sept. 29, a lack of employees has caused an extra weight to fall on the remaining staff, Yagelski explained.

Although Pizano’s has struggled to hire waiters and waitresses, a lack of food runners—a position in which a person waits in the kitchen until food is ready and takes it to tables—has proven to be the biggest challenge and burden for her and many staff members, Yagelski shared.

In addition, Mike Lawson, general manager of Pizano’s, found that a lack of servers is the primary issue when trying to further expand their customer numbers dining indoors.

“Like every restaurant [right now] we’re dealing with a [staff shortage],” Lawson said. “[As we] open up more and take more business, I just don’t have the servers.”

At the beginning of the school year, South faced a similar staff shortage with Quest Food Services, Tim Almy, Quest general manager, said. However, Quest was able to quickly fill the remaining positions and even surpass the number of workers they had before the outbreak of Covid-19, Almy explained.

“We had a few vacancies at the beginning of the year but [we] were able to quickly fill them,” Almy said. “[Before] Covid-19, we had 23 members working at South, now we have 32. We are more staffed than we have ever been.”

The fear of getting sick from Covid-19 by working in a school was likely a major cause for Quest’s initial staff shortage, Interim Principal Dr. Rosanne Williamson explained. However, she said District 225 is content with the quality of the Quest’s service.

“We’ve had a partnership with Quest for many years, and the district has always been satisfied with the service Quest provides,” Williamson said.                          

In addition to cafeteria workers, Williamson noted that the Chicagoland area has experienced an ongoing shortage of other key positions even before the outbreak of Covid-19.

“There has been a bus driver shortage in this area and across the country for a couple of years now,” Williamson said. “Even though [bus services] are offering [wages] for [$22] an hour, there are still shortages.”

First Student, the company that provides busing for South, has begun to offer a $3,000 sign-on bonus for experienced drivers with a commercial driver’s license and $2,500 for inexperienced drivers without one, according to First Student’s website. Jay Brock, First Student spokesperson, noted in a statement the increased demand for workers caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The student transportation industry was already managing a bus driver shortage before Covid-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation,” Brock said. “We are no different than so many other job sectors that are struggling to fill openings, including retail, restaurants and hotels.”

South is not alone in its lack of bus drivers. The National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), run by Executive Director Mike Martin, found in a study published on Aug. 31 that 83 percent of high schools had to alter bus services, and of almost 1,500 survey respondents, only one percent said a bus driver shortage was not an issue. Seventy-five percent of the respondents described the shortages as much worse or a little worse over time while half viewed the shortages as severe in the same time period.

“As school districts across the country return to in-person learning and Covid-19 continues to have an impact on education in general and school transportation scheduling and logistics in particular, the shortage of school bus drivers has become conspicuous,” Martin said. “But let’s be clear – this is not a new problem. Nor is it easy to solve.”

A fear of catching Covid-19 is driving the lack of employees since many working in the food industry are in high-risk positions, Yagelski said.

Almy shared Yagelski’s perspective that a fear of the virus has impacted the workforce. He also believes the U.S. government-provided stimulus checks enabled many to stop working and choose to stay home.

“The pandemic absolutely played a role where people were fearful to interact with the public,” Almy said. “The stimulus payments and extra unemployment funds definitely made it possible for people not to work and seek employment, which was [also] a big factor.”

However, a study published in July 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found stimulus checks did not deter employees from returning to work.

“States that received more small business loans from the Paycheck Protection Program and states with more generous unemployment insurance benefits had milder [economic] declines and faster recoveries,” the study stated. “We find no evidence that high [unemployment insurance] replacement rates drove job losses or slowed rehiring.”

Lawson noted that as the restaurant industry recovers from Covid-19, the financial situation for both employers and employees can become strained. He believes employees deserve a higher pay standard; however, employers are often unable to offer pay at a higher rate while keeping their businesses running.

“We’re facing a tug of war between restaurant ownership and employees, since [employees] are able to command a higher hourly wage than before Covid-19,” Lawson said. “It’s an unprecedented time and I don’t blame the employees for wanting more money, but the restaurant owners just don’t have that money [to give].”

For the unvaccinated population of working adults, there is a concern of being fired depending on vaccination status, a study conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation published on Oct. 28 found.

In the study, 25 percent of employers require vaccination for employees; however, only a small percentage of unvaccinated adults have left their jobs due to an employer requiring them to be vaccinated.

“Despite widespread news reports of employees leaving their jobs due to workplace vaccine mandates, [only] five percent of unvaccinated adults say they left a job because an employer required them to get vaccinated,” the study stated.

Karen Fichuk pays close attention to the supply and demand for labor as the chief executive of Randstad North America. In The New York Times in July 2021, she noted the large implication of the ongoing labor force trends.

“Companies are going to have to work harder to attract and retain talent,” Fichuk said. “It’s a bit of a historic moment for the American labor force.”