Our View: A Persistent Challenge in the Labor Market Calls for a Little Tenderness

The problem is visible almost everywhere. It may be a glacier forced to close before the end of the season; a local school, torn apart by burnout, on the verge of becoming overly dependent on community support; one of the state’s ferry operators slashing their hours, or any store or service provider has no choice but to cut their hours further and further.

Gabe Wagner, a deckhand on the Aucocisco III, threw a wet dock line ashore at Maine State Pier last week. Casco Bay Lines is reducing the number of trips to outer islands due to a labor shortage as students return to school. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

Summer has brought with it – as it tends to do – tourist activities and a vital infusion of teenage workers. As we gratefully noted last month, not long ago giving a teenager a job was considered more of an act of charity than a business decision. The last two plus years have led to a whole new reckoning for the service economy.

“It used to be that a ‘help wanted’ sign on your door would bring people in,” Tony Sachs, owner of Big Top Deli in Brunswick, told The Times Record last week. β€œIt doesn’t happen anymore. We try to rely on the people who work here to find their friends, but we’ve hired most everyone’s friends at this point.

As autumn approaches, gaping job openings and sustained supply chain challenges ensure that the goods and services we traditionally take for granted will become even scarcer and more expensive.

This is where the consumer comes in.

Repeated experiences in short-staffed and short-stocked operations can be vexing; long waits, unexpected closures (again!), or reduced hours or services can derail a day. Here, the consumer plays an important role. The more impatient or angry the client or client is, the more undesirable the workplace becomes.

Some workplaces have indeed become very undesirable. Flight attendants, to give a high-profile example, face unusual rates of unpleasant or threatening interactions and abuse. (In 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration investigated a total of 146 “unruly passenger cases.” Last year, that number rose to 1,099.)

The manager of a restaurant in Michigan chose to close its doors at the beginning of last month, as the tension between servers and customers was acute. From fast food joints to post offices, we have all witnessed such hostile exchanges.

Not all managers will respond adequately to the current crisis. Here in Maine and elsewhere, from local branches of Starbucks and Chipotle to nurses at Maine Medical Center, the union-negotiated contract has become increasingly attractive protection against limited resources and punitive demands on staff.

The workers, many of whom are very new and hastily trained, don’t try to keep us waiting. They are being dragged into a unique set of economic conditions, the likes of which the United States has never encountered before, and under these conditions are doing their best.

Business owners and managers now have an increased responsibility to ensure that their workplaces run as efficiently and smoothly as possible. The Federal Reserve, as much as possible, has a responsibility to try to fix the US labor market, where there are currently nearly two jobs open for every available worker.

As for the rest of us? We can catch our breath, set our expectations in check, and reduce the number of service providers we interact with as much as possible. At a time like this, nothing less will do.

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