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July 07, 2021 News » Cover Story

Help Wanted 

Bouncing back from COVID, Utah is flush with jobs. But where are the workers?

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Local restaurateur Scott Evans is accustomed to hiring challenges. When you have owned as many as seven restaurants, you're always looking for a new server, dishwasher or cook.

But the typical struggle to fill a few jobs is nothing like the extraordinary labor shortage that restaurants in Utah have faced these past few months, as pandemic restrictions have eased and diners have joyfully returned to eating out.

"It has been the most challenging time to hire employees ever," Evans said. "Typically, we post an ad on a couple sites and get 10 to 15 applicants. Now, we're lucky to get one."

The lack of employees means Evans can't fully open his businesses, even though Salt Lakers are eager to eat out and spend money. He had to delay a plan to serve lunch at Pago until this week and isn't open for lunch at Finca at all—because he just doesn't have enough staff.

It's not just Evans, and it's not just restaurants. Most Wasatch Front businesses this summer are struggling to provide their customers what they want—mostly because they can't hire enough workers to grill sandwiches, hang sheetrock, screen bags and deliver packages.

Scott Evans, Pago and Finca restaurants - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Scott Evans, Pago and Finca restaurants

And it's not just Utah, either. Nearly half of all U.S. small businesses reported in May that they were having difficulty filling open jobs, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

The explanations for this current labor shortage, which is slowing down the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, vary widely. Observers credit a complex stew of factors, from COVID's direct toll, to workers who found better jobs in new sectors, to groups of workers such as college students and immigrants who stayed put the past year, to a shortage of affordable child care for young families.

The immediate crunch on employers may ease in the coming months as life slowly returns to normal. Or 2021's worker shortage may serve as an urgent wake-up call—convincing policymakers they must address critical issues like wages, child care and immigration to support the state's low- and moderate-wage workers.

Feast and Famine
Nearly all Utah businesses report difficulties in hiring. Jody Zabriskie, CEO and owner of five A to Z Building Blocks child-care centers in Utah County and Draper, is currently down from a typical staff of 125 to just over 100.

"When we post jobs, we get no applicants," she said. "It's a tremendous stress."

Jody Zabriskie, A to Z Building Blocks - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Jody Zabriskie, A to Z Building Blocks

Like many other businesses, Zabriskie says this means she can't offer the services she'd like to. "My facilities would love to open up care for more families," she said. "But we just don't have the staff available."

Missy Greis, the owner of Publik Coffee—with four locations in Salt Lake—was grateful when a bit more than half of her workers came back when she started reopening her businesses in the spring. She has slowly added new staff, but it's been most challenging to find replacements for "back-of-the-house" employees—dishwashers and line cooks.

"It's nearly impossible to fill those jobs right now," Greis reports.

Unable to fill dishwasher jobs, Greis said she's had to use disposable products at her restaurants, which she hates to do given Publik's commitment to sustainability.

The shortages stretch into many fields. Salt Lake City International Airport officials said in early June that as many as 50% of the jobs in their new facility—everything from food to retail to security to construction—remain unfilled.

When the pandemic first hit, tens of thousands of Utahns were laid off and jobs were hard to find. The unemployment rate peaked at around 10% in April 2020, but employers soon began hiring again. By May of 2021, Utah's unemployment rate was 2.7%, far below the national figure of 5.8%.

But economists say there's an even better number that explains why businesses are struggling to find workers—labor force participation. That's the percentage of all residents of working age who currently have a job.

That "labor force" number has come down since the pandemic started: 67% of adult Utahns have a job today, compared to 69% before the virus hit, according to the Federal Reserve. That may sound like a small shift, but it translates into more than 40,000 Utahns not working today who were employed before March 2020.

They're not "unemployed," which denotes someone who wants to work but can't find a job, they're simply not working. And in a market that already struggled to find workers—Utah has had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation for years—that number is having an outsized impact.

Worker shortages may not be great for businesses that can't fully re-open, or for customers trying to flag down a harried server, but it's not all bad news. Employers are offering higher pay to attract new employees and a recent jump in wages is welcome news for workers and their families, especially given the rapid increase in housing costs locally.

"Even entry-level jobs are getting paid significantly more than before, in all restaurants," Evans said.

Wages have also gone up in child care, from $9 an hour to $12 or more, says Jamie Bitton, the co-owner and director of Progressive Preschool and Childcare Center in South Ogden. "Some people even want $15 now," she says.

Mark Knold, Workforce Services economist - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Mark Knold, Workforce Services economist

New Normals
There is no clear, single explanation for why Americans are choosing to not work, but Republican elected officials have rallied around the idea that it's because they're cashing fat unemployment checks. In response to pandemic job losses, the federal government has been paying an extra $300 per week to qualifying, unemployed workers—a benefit set to expire in September—but that wasn't soon enough for governors like Utah's own Spencer Cox, who cut off the jobless stipends in late June.

For the governor, the labor shortage has a simple explanation: "That's what happens when we pay people not to work," Cox said in May when he appeared on CNN to explain his decision.

Not all experts think the extra unemployment will prove to be a huge factor. "I don't think it'll make a big difference, but it could help on the margins," said Mark Knold, the chief economist at the state Department of Workforce Services.

So far, news reports suggest that the very first states to end the enhanced unemployment benefits, in early June, are not seeing a flood of workers applying for jobs.

"Our businesses are reopening en masse," Knold said, "but labor isn't ready to come rushing back all at once."

He suggested several factors that might explain worker hesitancy. And the first to consider is the direct effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayra Cedano, executive director of Comunidades Unidas—a nonprofit that works for the rights and well-being of the state's growing Latino and other immigrant communities—wants to remind the public that the virus directly devastated thousands of Utahns, especially low-income families.

"So many lives were lost during this pandemic," she said. "Communities of color and low-income workers were the hardest hit."

In addition to the direct loss of workers, some Americans tell pollsters that, due to COVID, they are unwilling to return to in-person jobs, even as cases continue to decline nationally. (Those numbers began to creep back up in Utah in June.)

Second, research suggests, many workers left their old jobs for new sectors last year—perhaps they have gone from flipping pancakes to hanging sheetrock, or from chasing toddlers to doing office work from home.

Evans backs this theory. "A lot of our workers have just left the industry," he says of the restaurant business. He estimates perhaps 20% of restaurant workers left the field entirely.

"Some got new jobs in new industries—maybe in tech, or graphic design," says Greis of her ex-employees.

Missy Greis, Publik Coffee - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Missy Greis, Publik Coffee

It's been challenging for Publik to fill its open jobs, but Greis understands her former employees' decisions. "When people were home, they were able to ask themselves, 'What do I want to do? Do I want to go back to the dish pit?' New things have opened up for people. I'm happy they found something that made them happy."

Zabriskie is also hearing that her former child-care employees chose different careers during the pandemic.

"People have seen the opportunity to have more of a free schedule," she said. "In the service industry, you have to be there. You can't be in your pajamas. There's a lot more stress."

Knold also says that data suggest some categories of workers just aren't in Utah right now, such as college kids who stayed in their hometowns, or immigrants and other would-be newcomers who remained in their home countries and states.

"COVID interrupted the normal flow of labor," he said. "In the state, around the country, from country to country."

There's no good data on how many newcomers might be moving to Utah right now compared to earlier years, but Cedano says Comunidades Unidas has been receiving fewer inquiries from new immigrants in recent months.

Experts identify another factor: The massive shortage of affordable child care for families with young children.

Anna Thomas, Voices for Utah Children - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Anna Thomas, Voices for Utah Children

"It is very hard for me to believe that there is not a direct correlation between staying out of the workforce and the lack of good, affordable child care," says Anna Thomas, a senior policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children. "There are plenty of women, and some men, making an income that pays for child care and just a little more. At some point, as a family they decide, 'It's just easier if one of us doesn't work.'"

The pandemic may have made that decision clearer for some families. Working from home for the first time, they realized one huge financial advantage—they no longer had to pay for child care. Working from home with small children around isn't exactly easy, but it can save money.

"For some people, it made them question: 'Do I want to go back to that? I saved money. Maybe I want to rethink what I'm doing,'" Thomas says.

Cedano is hearing similar feedback from her community. "What I'm hearing is: 'Do I go back where they pay minimum wage? And then I have to pay for daycare?' It doesn't add up.'"

Child-care providers themselves report they've lost workers—and can't find new ones. There's no mystery why, says Thomas.

"Child care is demanding and important," she said, "yet it pays very little and offers few benefits."

Child-care professionals also report that their work became more difficult during the pandemic. Stressed-out children acted out more.

"They are seeing behavior in youth that is extreme. Outbursts. Aggression. It has made a hard job harder," Thomas says. So, not surprisingly, some workers have left the field.

Bitton with Progressive Preschool agrees. "With all the stress, it's worn on people's mental status—families, kids, providers and caregivers. Everyone is suffering."

"These kids, they have really big emotions right now," Zabriskie adds. "They're very fragile. It takes a lot of patience to care for them."

Show Me the Money
Economists interviewed say they believe the worst of the worker shortage will fade in the coming months, as higher wages, declining COVID risks and a return to in-person school lures more people back to the workplace.

However, researchers point out that worker shortages in Utah have been brewing for years—and likely won't disappear anytime soon. Back in 2015, the Utah Foundation—a nonprofit, nonpartisan, policy research organization—surveyed 151 local employers and found that a shortage of qualified employers was the No. 1 factor limiting their company's growth.

However, that report also pointed out that many employers in Utah were also offering below-average wages for open jobs, according to state data. That suggests the problem may not solely be a lack of workers, says Christopher Collard, a research analyst with the foundation.

"Is there really a labor shortage if employers aren't willing to pay for workers?" he asked.

Many Utahns right now are wondering why workers might be staying home, but perhaps the answer is right in front of us—employers need to get used to paying Utahns a lot more. And Utah consumers, in turn, need to feel comfortable paying more for goods and services.

"We can do better as employers," says Cedano. "It's difficult, but we can do better. If we are able to pay better wages, that would make such a big difference in so many lives."

Certainly without higher wages, it's hard to see how new workers can move to Utah and afford to find an apartment—let alone buy a home—on the Wasatch Front. Looking ahead, Knold said, the "biggest risk" for Utah's economy is clear: "The rapid increase in the cost of housing."

Skyrocketing rents and a tiny inventory of homes for sale has grabbed headlines the past year, but Utahns have said housing affordability was one of their top concerns for years now. The Utah Foundation does periodic "quality of life" surveys and state residents reported in both 2018 and 2020 that housing concerns were a top issue.

It's particularly important for younger families and workers, says Collard. "The younger generation—millennials and post-millennials—are most concerned about these issues. They're the ones most directly affected."

Another critical issue for Utah workers, especially those younger families, is the lack of affordable child care. The data is overwhelmingly clear that Utah doesn't have nearly enough daycare for working- and middle-class families. A 2020 report from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that we may be providing only about 35% of the care we need, among the lowest of any of the 25 states studied.

Jamie Bitton - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Jamie Bitton

Child-care costs range widely—caring for an infant in a child-care center might cost $1,500 a month or more, while a slot for a preschooler in an informal home setting might be just a few hundred dollars. Whether to pay that cost or not, if a slot is even available, plays a huge role in the decision many workers, especially women, make about whether to enter the job market, advocates say.

Solutions for fixing our massive child-care problem range from sweeping overhauls—universal, federally funded child care—to market-based reforms, like offering tax credits to child-care workers or paying prospective workers to gain needed certifications.

Bitton is appreciative of some new state support that has come into her child-care business during COVID, and she's hopeful that the public is growing to understand how important child care is to a healthy economy, and society.

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But, she says, the only way that she can offer child care to more families is to pay her workers more. And there's no way her center, which primarily serves families who qualify for state subsidies, can raise rates. "Our tuition rates are as high as we can put out there," she said. "Many parents still can't afford them. You can't squeeze blood from a turnip."

Lastly, Cedano says, policymakers in both parties must embrace comprehensive immigration reform and create a path to citizenship for the millions of American workers who remain on the margins of our economy, not able to fully participate.

"It would help so many areas of the economy," she said.

In early July, Cedano and seven fellow immigration activists participated in a two-day fast, designed to raise awareness of the critical role those undocumented immigrants played as essential workers during the pandemic. Their goal is to land a meeting with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a potential swing vote on immigration issues.

"Immigration reform will bring essential workers and a lot of other individuals out of the shadows," says Cedano. "There are so many individuals out there who have the potential to participate more in our economy, our society. We must come together to support them and to get rid of the fear so many in our community have."

Matt Pacenza teaches English at Judge Memorial Catholic High School and has recently finished his first novel. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, an editor and an environmental advocate.

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