Worker shortages in education, healthcare and rail jobs are fueling labor crises

Exhausted workers in education, health care and the rail industry are falling back after months of staffing shortages.

Striking nurses demonstrate for better working conditions on the public sidewalks outside Riverside Hospital on September 13 in Minneapolis.
Striking nurses demonstrate for better working conditions on the public sidewalks outside Riverside Hospital on September 13 in Minneapolis. (Annabelle Marcovici for The Washington Post)

The US economy came within hours of shutting down due to a standoff between unions and rail carriers over sick pay and scheduling, highlighting how dramatically staffing shortages have reshaped American workplaces and has driven exhausted workers to back down.

With more than 11 million open positions and just 6 million unemployed workers, employers have struggled for more than a year to hire enough people to fill their ranks. That mismatch has left employees frustrated and burned out, and is fueling a new round of power struggles at work.

While the rail dispute, which the White House helped solve early Thursday, has attracted the most attention, a series of other strikes are spreading across the United States. Some 15,000 nurses walked off the job in Minnesota this week, and health care workers in Michigan and Oregon have recently authorized strikes. Seattle teachers called off a week-long strike, delaying the start of the school year.

At the heart of each of these challenges is widespread labor shortages that have caused working conditions to deteriorate. Staff shortages in key industries such as health care, hospitality and education have put unprecedented pressure on millions of workers, sparking a wave of labor conflicts, as well as new efforts to organize across the country.

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Too many industries are still struggling to find workers. The share of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one is 62.4 percent, down a full percentage point from February 2020, according to data from the Labor Department.

The reasons are complex and broad. Early retirements, a massive slowdown in immigration that began during the Trump administration, as well as ongoing challenges in child and elder care combined with Covid-related illnesses and deaths, have reduced the number of available workers.

“We have about 2.5 million fewer people in the workforce than we were on track to have with pre-pandemic trends,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “That’s a huge number, and it means that the people who are still there, who still have these jobs, have to do even more.”

The stress of working in a short-staffed position plays a significant role in the demands placed on workers, which often revolve around staffing, or lack thereof. Seattle teachers wanted better special education teacher-to-student ratios. Train drivers and conductors requested sick leave. And the nurses who left Minnesota said they are seeking more flexible hours and protections against retaliation for reporting understaffing.

“If you look at sectors like nursing homes, local schools, railroads, employment has dropped like a stone,” said Lisa Lynch, an economics professor at Brandeis University and a former chief economist at the Department of Labor. “And with that, you see a marked increase in labor action and strike activity. People are tired and overworked.”

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Although the US economy has officially regained the 20 million jobs it lost at the start of the pandemic, the gains have been uneven. Large deficits remain, particularly in low-wage industries that have lost workers to higher-paying opportunities in warehousing, construction, and professional and business services. The hospitality and leisure industry has still lost 1.2 million jobs since February 2020. Public schools are losing nearly 360,000 workers, and health care has yet to regain 37,000 positions. Meanwhile, rail transport has lost 12,500 jobs.

After months of juggling extra duties, Sabrina Montijo quit her $19-an-hour teaching assistant job in the Bay Area in August. She now cares for her two young children full time and says she is not sure when she will return to work.

“Since the pandemic started, we were very understaffed,” said Montijo, 33. “I had to work off hours because no one was there. We couldn’t find staff, and if we did, we constantly had to train someone, we always had to start over.”

Between the added pressure at work and trouble finding affordable child care, she says it made sense to leave. Managing on a single income from her husband’s job as a butcher at Safeway hasn’t been easy, but Montijo says it’s better than the alternative.

“I got to the point where I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” he said. “I had to organize arts and crafts, do science projects, make phone calls, and talk to parents all at the same time. There’s not much one person can do.”

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Worker burnout has become a persistent problem across the economy, though labor economists say it is especially pronounced in industries with acute labor shortages. Many frontline workers in retail, restaurants, education and health care who worked during the pandemic, often putting their health and well-being at risk, say their jobs are getting even more difficult as job openings pile up.

Although employers across the economy say they are struggling to find and keep workers, labor shortages are most pronounced in retail (where about 70 percent of vacancies remain unfilled), manufacturing (about 55 percent) and leisure and hospitality (45 percent). according to a US Chamber of Commerce Analysis Department of Labor data.

“When you look at the jobs that are having trouble getting hired, it’s the ones with long hours, inflexible hours, not great pay and limited benefits,” said Paige Ouimet, a professor at the University of Carolina Kenan-Flagler School of Business. del Norte, who focuses on finance and labor economics. “Managing your workers this way, asking them to do 20 or 30 percent more because you’re short-staffed, is a short-term strategy. You’re going to keep losing people.”

In many cases, employers have begun raising wages in the hope of attracting new workers. The highest wage increases have been in the lowest-paying industries, such as hospitality, where average hourly earnings are 8.6 percent from a year ago. (That’s compared to an increase of 5.2 percent for all workers).

But while those wage increases may not be enough to attract or retain workers, economists say they are contributing to inflation. Restaurants, airlines, health care companies and transportation providers are charging more, in part, they say, because of rising labor costs.

Aveanna Healthcare, which provides home health care and hospice services, is collaborating with the Medicaid programs it works with to increase reimbursement rates to offset higher nurse salaries.

“Inflation has driven our workforce to seek employment that pays and pays higher wages,” Tony Strange, the company’s chief executive officer, said on an earnings call last month. “We need to increase caregiver wages by an average of 15 to 25 percent in certain markets we serve. We will systematically review state by state and contract by contract and adjust reimbursement rates.”

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New inflation data released this week showed prices remained stubbornly high, largely due to rising costs for services, including health care and transportation. Unlike the prices of TVs and furniture, which depend heavily on the cost of materials and shipping, economists say services inflation tends to be closely related to workers’ wages.

“It’s clear that the tight labor market is driving up wages, which is driving up prices,” said Jason Furman, an economics professor at Harvard University. “Inflation in services tends to be much more persistent and is much more difficult to reduce. Gasoline prices are very volatile. Commodity prices are somewhat volatile. But in services, if prices are high one month, they’re probably going to be high the next month.”

It’s unclear if, or when, many of the people who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic will return. That’s particularly true for workers age 55 and older, who have stopped working at higher rates. The labor market is still short of more than 500,000 workers in that age group.

“There has been a very significant and persistent decline in labor force participation among workers age 55 and older,” said Edelberg of the Brookings Institution. “The pandemic has been a time of introspection and re-evaluation, and has led many people to drop out of the workforce.”

Joseph White, who lives in Nashville, lost his job at Guitar Center six months into the pandemic. But he says he had had enough: The store was consistently understaffed and customers were intractable. In one case, a buyer pulled a gun on him for trying to enforce the company’s mask mandate.

“I’m tired, I’m broken, worn out and old,” the 62-year-old said. “I worked myself to death for so long that finally, I said, there’s no way I’m coming back.”

He has started using Social Security payments to make ends meet and helps his wife run their little store, Black Dog Beads. But White says he has no intention of rejoining the workforce.

“Our quality of life is much better even though we have less income,” he said. “I got tired of being a commodity.”

Lauren Kaori Gurley and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.

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