Around the country, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted workers of color—especially those working in frontline or service jobs like retail and restaurants—and at the same time, many workers are increasingly taking back power by refusing to stay in low-paying, dangerous jobs. Between the effects of the pandemic and the “Great Resignation,” employers report that they’re struggling to hire: according to recent data from the U.S. Labor Department, there are currently 11 million open positions in the U.S. and 7 million people looking for work, with more and more leaving their jobs. The story is the same at the local level: reporting from MinnPost found that there are 21,000 open positions in southeast Minnesota alone, and noted that the increase in the job vacancy rate means that there are enough jobs for each unemployed person still in the job market in Minnesota. While the worker shortage has played a major role in national and state economies, it has also impacted those currently working, taking a physical and mental toll on workers and sparking increased demands for better working conditions. Workers in Greater Minnesota and the Midwest shared with Prism how they’re coping.
Ignacia Ambriz has worked for a retail store in Minneapolis since 2008; six months ago she was made manager.
“Last year I wasn’t a team leader or anything, I was just a regular team member. Now that I’m a manager, I am responsible for people, not just myself,” said Ambriz. Ambriz says that the difficulties of the worker shortage go beyond just hiring issues.
“The challenge has been to keep the people I can bring in, it’s just keeping them in the job,” said Ambriz. “When it was just me, I worked, now there is a lot more pressure. Now I need to take care of my employees because I don’t want to lose them, but the work needs to get done and my bosses push me to push the workers.”
Both during the early days of the pandemic and now amid the national worker shortage, getting work done has meant Ambriz and others at the store work increasingly long hours.
“When you open a store you make a promise to the customer, but if you don’t have other employees, it means that people need to work 14, 15, 16 hours a day from open to close,” said Ambriz.
Doing more than one person’s job is an increasingly common experience. Karim Sameh opened a local food truck in 2019 that serves Mediterranean and Arab fare. His food truck runs approximately eight months out of the year and it usually requires a staff of two-to-three depending on the events they attend and how busy they are. Sameh said that hiring has been hard and it takes its toll on him and his employees.
“We’re just not able to find employees and it means that we sometimes need to cancel events we’re committed to or we need to do more work than we can,” said Sameh.
As those who remain in the workforce are asked to fill in for the jobs that remain empty, the pressures that Ambriz and Sameh have faced are also being felt in fields beyond retail and food service—including education.
“Teachers are being asked to become substitute teachers during their prep hours, because there are not enough substitute teachers for the district,” said Jeff Offutt, a history teacher at a City of Moorhead middle school in the northwest corner of Minnesota, who recently spoke at a Fargo-Moorhead press conference about the challenges facing teachers. “That prep hour is when we prepare for our next classes, eat lunch, go to the bathroom. The work that would have been done in the prep hour gets done outside of school hours. This results in teachers feeling stretched and stressed. Stressed teachers are not what students need.”
Many Fargo teachers were not able to attend the planned-for press conference since they couldn’t find substitute teachers to take over their classes.
Ambriz, Sameh, and Fargo-Moorhead educators all discussed the ways in which the open positions at their jobs are requiring workers to take on more of the burden, doing extra work in order to make sure the jobs get done.
Given the challenging conditions, many workers are speaking out to insist on better pay and working conditions. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, more and more workers are unionizing, including those at bookstores, breweries, and nonprofits. Ambriz and some of the teachers who spoke at the press conference have also been inspired to fight for more justice for workers. At the store where Ambriz works, many of her colleagues have begun asking for increased wages. While her role at the store doesn’t give her the power to grant raises, Ambriz has been a vocal advocate: she’s a leader with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos En La Lucha (CTUL), a worker-led organization dedicated to organizing and educating around worker issues. Last week, CTUL and partners held a protest advocating for the Minnesota legislature to free up $250 million in “hero pay” for workers who’ve been on the front lines during the pandemic.
“I don’t control wages but I want every person who works to make enough money, not just the minimum wage, but enough to pay the mortgage, to pay their bills,” said Ambriz. “I want to keep fighting for better wages for all people because if we don’t fight for it, it will never happen.”