Where are all the workers? NY businesses struggle to find employees
Jeff Beckenbach's had the sign out for more than a year now.
Beckenbach, owner of Macedon Collision in Wayne County, has been desperately looking to add a second metal technician to his staff for months. He's had to turn away customers whose business he needs, and with his small staff, it's taking longer than he'd like to finish the jobs he already has lined up.
But the sign out front asking for a metal technician with experience to apply has done no good, he said. No one is coming in — not mid-career adults with previous experience, not recent high school graduates with ambition and the desire to learn on the job.
"It's ridiculous," Beckenbach said. "I don't know what this whole American society has come to. The kids don't want to work. ... The unemployment system is horrible."
Beckenbach isn't alone in his struggle to add employees to his payroll. Just on his drive into work each morning, he counts the various "Help Wanted" signs in the windows of businesses he passes. He counted 16 last week.
The national labor force participation rate was 61.6% last month, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. In February 2020, prior to the shutdown prompted by the pandemic, the participation rate was 63.3%.
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That 1.7% drop between pre-pandemic times and now accounts for 4.3 million people who are 16 or older and eligible to work, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In New York, statewide job postings are at record highs, according to The Conference Board Help Wanted Online Index, which tracks changes in online job vacancies. Total job postings in New York for July 2021 exceeded the March 2020 pre-pandemic peak by 72.4%.
Bob Lodico, Macedon Collision's manager, said finding motivated people who want to work has been next to impossible. Years ago, the shop brought in so much work they had four metal technicians and two painters on staff. Now, they only have one of each.
"Between Jeff and myself, we have like 85-90 years of experience in this business. We've done it all, we've seen it all," Lodico said. "But we've never seen anything like this."
'The worker shortage has been a plague'
Twisted Rail, a brewery with several locations across the Finger Lakes region, temporarily closed its Macedon location several weeks ago.
A sign on the door explained the closure, saying, "This very hard decision has been made due to lack of staff, please stay tuned for updates as we navigate these difficult times."
Richard Russ, one of the brewery's co-owners, said staffing has been a prominent hurdle for Twisted Rail over the last year.
"The worker shortage has been a plague at every location," Russ said. First, they battled changing COVID-19 regulations — social distancing meant no dancing, no live music and reduced occupancy — before being able to pick up speed again. Then rapid employee turnover became a major problem.
"There was a flow of people coming in, but there was also a flow of people who would only work one day and wouldn't show up again after that," Russ said, adding that the brewery had tried out more than 20 people over the summer to see if they'd be a good fit. "Three to four days? That was probably rare."
The unemployment rate, which spiked to 14.8% in April 2020, has not yet receded to its pre-pandemic rate of 3.5% in February 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In September 2021, the rate was 4.8% and some 7.7 million people were collecting unemployment insurance.
In September, the federal government announced it would cease the additional benefit of $300 per week that it had added to unemployment insurance payouts to help people out of work due to the pandemic. That bonus was added to the baseline Unemployment Insurance New York provides to those out of work, the amount of which depends on a person's income.
Competing with abnormally large unemployment benefits over the past 18 months has been a serious obstacle to finding, hiring and keeping employees, said Russ of Twisted Rail.
But despite the challenges, Twisted Rail has spent the last several weeks building up a strong team of people who will be working at the Macedon location, which will reopen in November, he said.
He's confident the new staff will be able to bring the knowledge and enthusiasm customers are used to, and he's looking forward to welcoming them.
"I'm starting to see the tide turn," Russ said.
As someone with a long history in the food and beverage industry, Mike Ruben, a restaurant manager and bartender in Buffalo, is willing to do whatever it takes to foster the resurgence of restaurants, bars and entertainment spaces.
Ruben, 34, works six days a week at his two jobs, sometimes pulling open-to-close shifts as he covers the gaps in workforce that restaurants are experiencing across the nation.
“Even though we’re working longer hours, we’re used to doing this, and I just didn’t want to abandon the industry,” he said. “Working longer hours to keep our industry afloat means the world to me."
Though difficult to contend with in some ways, the worker shortage forced needed changes in the industry, Ruben said: More establishments are offering healthcare coverage or other benefits, and some have upped their wages.
“Working in restaurants is so draining on your body, and people haven’t been able to go to the doctor or dentist,” he said. “Now I work at a place that offers that.”
'A big issue among all businesses'
Stew Leonard's, a grocery store chain with stores in New Jersey, Connecticut and downstate New York, has spent the last few weeks hiring people at breakneck speed for the upcoming holiday season.
In the last month or so, the company has hired nearly 1,000 people to work through the holidays, said Stew Leonard Jr., the president and CEO of the grocery store chain his father founded in 1969.
The applications weren't coming in as fast as they needed, Leonard said. So he announced a perk: The starting pay would be bumped up $2 an hour, with those seasonal employees making anywhere from $14-$25 an hour.
"I have a commitment to our customers that we're going to have full shelves at Stew Leonard's right through the holidays," Leonard said. "You need people to fill those shelves, so we were a little panicky about three weeks ago."
The change worked, and Stew Leonard's started seeing a weekly trend of more than 5,000 applications each week.
The labor shortage is touching nearly everyone in Leonard's business circle, he said. In conversations with his suppliers, from ranchers in Montana to fishermen in Maine, he's hearing of the same problems.
"Everybody says labor is one of their highest concerns right now," Leonard said. "I think it has to come down to the price you pay. You’re going to see increasing wage rates right now. … I don't see labor going down."
Georgie Silvarole is a backpack reporter for the New York State Team. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @gsilvarole.