Manpower shortage or manpower calculation? Wisconsin stakeholders weigh in on workforce change


According to a panel of labor experts, this is forcing employers to adapt to a new labor market.

“We have a fantastic opportunity to rethink the way work is done in this country. Because for too long so many of those jobs were bad jobs. They had very bad and unpredictable schedules, unpredictable incomes and unpredictable benefits, or predictable benefits that were mostly non-existent, ”Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO of Wisconsin, told a WisPolitics panel. in Madison on Tuesday, December 14.

People quit their jobs en masse during the pandemic – a trend that has not stopped. In Wisconsin, new jobless claims hit an eight-month high on Dec. 4, rising 37% from the previous week.

For some, it’s a choice – baby boomers are retiring, professionals looking for remote work options, or families realizing they can get by on just one income after staying home with it. their children during the pandemic.


But for others, usually those at the lower end of the pay scale, quitting their jobs was a necessity. When bars and restaurants closed, many workers turned to industries like retail, healthcare or manufacturing to pay the bills. Others have left the labor market altogether.

Federal support in the form of improved unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and child tax credits has put workers in a financial position to take a break and consider their options.

People are quitting their jobs almost twice as fast as before the pandemic. And they’re in no rush to come back, said Michael Childers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business.

“The workers are more selective and have that opportunity right now depending on the job market. And it becomes almost self-fulfilling. It’s kind of that retention cycle that we find ourselves in,” Childers said during Tuesday’s event.

Rising unionization, employee action across the United States

With labor shortages plaguing nearly every industry, employees are the hot commodity. Those who re-enter the labor market try to do so on their own terms. From Starbucks and John Deere to Kellogg and Wisconsin’s own Colectivo Coffee, this fall has seen an increase in employee collective action.

Advocates say the pandemic has highlighted inequalities in the workplace. Online retailers like Amazon and Walmart made huge profits during the pandemic while workers worked on the front lines.

“These are the workers who have helped us through this pandemic,” Bloomingdale said. “The CEOs of these companies weren’t getting up and going to the office or the factory. They were zooming in. But the workers, on the whole, weren’t able to.”

So the workers retreat.

Bloomingdale compared the recent boom in union activism to the post-World War II era, when union membership was at an all-time high and a strong middle class emerged.

“We can go back there,” Bloomingdale said. “But it’s going to require a lot of different things, including workers defending themselves in the workplace. And that’s what we saw in October – 100,000 people on strike across the country. That means workers say, “Enough is enough. We are fed up with rotten jobs with bad working conditions. And we want more. ‘”

Childers said current levels of employee activism may not compare to historical numbers, but said it has certainly increased since the start of the pandemic. And most aren’t even coordinated efforts like the headline-grabbing strikes.

“These are kind of clues to other workers that if it’s bad we maybe have an agency to make things better. And I think that’s part of what we’re seeing right now,” said Childers.

One of the strongest forms of protest was simply not to return to jobs that were difficult even before the pandemic.

This dynamic is playing out acutely in bars and restaurants.

“A lot of people have had a hard time making ends meet in the restaurant industry,” Bloomingdale said. “The hours were unpredictable. Tips were sometimes high, sometimes low.”

The state lost 22% of its restaurant and hospitality workforce during the pandemic, said Kristine Hillmer, president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. In Dane County alone, it was 44%. And Hillmer said the losses are likely permanent as workers have moved on to other industries.

As a result, the industry is struggling more than others to fully recover. Hillmer said restaurants are cutting back hours and seating just to avoid exhausting the limited staff they have.

Hillmer said 75% of the association’s members are small, independent businesses, where owners often work alongside their staff.

“I don’t know of any restaurateur who doesn’t consider their staff like family. However, this business has yet to survive,” Hillmer said Tuesday. “If these companies don’t survive, then these jobs are gone. “

“People want to be treated like family, but they also want to be able to be paid”

But Bloomingdale said people need more than just camaraderie at a job.

“In order to get more people to work in these industries, we need to pay better, have better hours and better working conditions. And so yes, people want to be treated like family, but they also want to be able to be paid. , ”Bloomingdale said.

Hillmer said most restaurants have increased wages and benefits. She claims you can’t find a dishwasher in Milwaukee right now for less than $ 17 an hour. But after such a devastating year, the service sector is emerging from a much deeper hole than others, and operating at limited capacity makes it difficult to catch up.

Hillmer said 15% of restaurants in the state have closed permanently during the pandemic. She expects the number to increase.

“Right now, restaurants and the hospitality industry are in the fight of a lifetime,” Hillmer said. “Yes, we want to increase wages, we want to offer paid time off, we have to do it. But if that also means that your burger now costs $ 25… and no one can afford it, and the business goes out, then everyone loses. “

With inflation the highest it has been in decades and unemployment increasing gradually, many people expect workers to start returning faster. But the full economic recovery of Wisconsin’s restaurant industry is not expected until 2023 – a timeline that could be stretched further if new variants of COVID-19 continue to surface.

And if the industry is unable to transform itself into a person people actually want to work for, labor shortages could be an ongoing problem.

Childers painted a somewhat bleak picture of an automated restaurant experience with self-service kiosks.

“If you can’t find workers, you find ways to get the job done,” Childers said.

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