October 2021 Bar Bulletin
By Al Davis
Help wanted signs are everywhere. Despite the national unemployment rate of 5.4%, companies continue to have difficulty finding employees, particularly in service and blue-collar industries. The challenge is evident with lower paying jobs, but problems occur with higher paying positions as well.
In my town, restaurants have done away with takeout ordering due to lack of staff, the local market has closed its deli section for the same reason, and even one of the most secure employers, the US Postal Service, has help wanted signs everywhere — with no takers. Meanwhile, one of the most important, the Washington State Ferry System, is cancelling ferry runs due to lack of workers. That’s not an easy problem to solve because ferry crews require a certain amount of training and appropriate maritime certificates before they can be engaged.
The fundamental question: Where did all of the employees that held these jobs pre-pandemic go? The answer is complex. Allowing for illness caused by the pandemic, many people had to make significant changes to their work/life balance. Parents had to home-school children. Those who had childcare needed to make decisions whether or not to continue it for their children. Some adults decided that taking public transportation created too much risk for their families, while others decided that the work environment itself was simply too risky.
Recently, radio station CJJR in Vancouver, British Columbia discussed a study conducted among twenty- to thirty-year olds in that province. The vast majority indicated they would prefer to have three or four “gig” jobs over a single “career” job. They cited the ability to make their own decisions regarding the work they did, the ability to decline assignments, and a desire for greater control over their work/life balance.
We see this in the US as well. For example: One of the schools at the University of Washington is mandating that staff return to the office in September, despite some staff members objecting to the risk. Other companies have set deadlines as well. A group of Amazon warehouse workers in New York sued the company, claiming that working conditions put them and their families at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Smaller companies that require a physical presence onsite are finding that the personnel they require (many skilled) believe that they don’t have the programs in place to protect those workers in a way that those individuals feel safe.
What can a smaller company do to make employees feel protected and valued? No matter the number of masks or bottles of hand sanitizer available, business owners have to make employees feel safe, in the workplace and around customers. And how can a smaller company attract the employees it requires when fear outweighs the need for a job?
One answer is to consider re-tooling communications with employees as well as those who apply for positions. Give them a clear understanding of the steps the company is taking to protect them and ask them for ideas on how the company can do better. As a model, the airlines are a decent example. No one gets on a plane without a mask. And the airlines are willing to take draconian steps to ensure that those masks stay in place. In addition, they have beefed up air filtration systems to provide maximum security.
Will a company lose business if they insist on masks and vaccinated customers? Undoubtedly yes. But will their employees support them? Quite probably, but word-of-mouth publicity will serve as an offset. There is still approximately 20% of the US population that remains unvaccinated. As more workplaces, travel providers, and public use facilities begin to demand proof of vaccines, any problems caused by such demands become mitigated.
But what if worker reluctance isn’t rooted in health concerns? Some of the answers may have been provided by the British Columbia survey. Attract those individuals that are looking for “gig” work by creating a more gig-like environment. Share a job between two or three people. Provide the necessary training and once trained, let them work out their own schedules. You get the equivalent of a full-time trained person and these workers get the life/work balance they are seeking.
If you are an attorney advising a company attempting to solve its employee recruitment and retention challenges, you need to make certain that management is discussing any proposed actions with you. There are significant local measures relating to COVID-19 protection for both employees and customers. There are also potential issues to consider when maintaining a combination employee and gig environment. Making sure your client is complying with state and local rules regarding compensation and work-related requirements can pre-empt future problems.
Most “gig” workers are not motivated by money or careers. They are looking for more control over their lives. Perhaps if your company doesn’t have to provide benefits, it can offer selected bonuses or some form of payment for educational courses.
The important thing in the age of Covid is to demonstrate clearly that a company is taking care of its employees — both physically and psychologically — while providing an environment that allows this new type of worker greater flexibility and control over their lives. It may not happen at the post office, but it could happen at your company.
Al Davis serves as Principal at Revitalization Partners LLC, a corporate and board advisory firm that specializes in restructuring and receiverships. He is a Court Appointed General Receiver in the State of Washington as well as an interim CEO and advisor to middle market companies. He can be reached at email@example.com or (206) 903-1855.