Caryn Sullivan: Stretched service industry isn’t celebrating low unemployment report

Where did all the workers go?

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When the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development released the latest unemployment numbers, the Walz administration touted 1.8 percent unemployment as something to celebrate. However, for sectors struggling to recruit and retain staff, it was anything but that.

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Restaurants, gas stations, coffee shops, and resorts are grossly understaffed, as are senior living facilities.

Where did all the workers go?

ARRM, an advocacy group representing 200 providers offering community-based and residential supports for Minnesota residents with disabilities, offers a sobering picture. In a report titled, “About to Break,” it asserts staffing shortages are putting providers in an untenable position.

Caryn Sullivan

Group homes, staffed 24/7 to provide housing and support for adults, are closing because they don’t have enough workers. Dozens of individuals have been displaced this year.

Lynne Megan is president and CEO of TSE, a nonprofit that supports adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities through in-house production work and community-based employment placement. With TSE short 15 to 20 employees, they’ve reluctantly reduced programming for clients from six to three hours per day.

COVID had a dramatic impact on TSE’s clients, most of whom live in group homes, Megan says. With fewer opportunities to go into the community, their socialization needs are neglected.

Heidi Burch is program manager for Fraser’s career planning and employment. Burch says staffing is a big concern for the organization which offers an array of services, including residential supports in group homes and apartments.

The service industry is fried from working during COVID, Burch says. Unable to work remotely, people are exhausted and out of patience.

With relatively low wages, dictated by government reimbursement, it’s difficult to find and keep staff when they could earn more delivering packages.

Staff turnover is enormously stressful for individuals for whom change is often difficult. And yet, with inadequate staffing, adults are moving home, often to live with aging parents.

In March 2020, we didn’t know how COVID was transmitted. Apartment living feeling fraught with risk, my son moved home.

We certainly weren’t unique — lots of families made similar decisions. But Jack had been participating in a Fraser residential program for years. For a young man with autism spectrum disorder, it was the perfect way for him and I to live independently.

Unfortunately, as concerns about COVID receded, concerns about staffing persisted and concerns about crime in his neighborhood increased.

In our third year of cohabitation, I don’t see a path back to safe and supported independent living. So, for now, he’s focused on a different challenge — finding and keeping a job.

While it’s easy to find jobs for Fraser clients, Burch says, keeping them can be difficult. Some clients will be hired over the phone, sometimes without the employer understanding the applicant needs a job coach. Once there, though, the employer recognizes the new employee has unique challenges requiring attention and training.

Sometimes employers hire for one position then shift the employee to a different one for which he’s ill-suited. The once desirable candidate becomes one more thing an already-stretched employer must contend with.

Last year, Jack was hired by a grocery store for the seemingly perfect job. The manager was admittedly overwhelmed by staffing shortages. Rather than train him (or use his job coach effectively), she threw Jack into the job to see how he would fare. The sink or swim approach was a disaster.

Overcome by anxiety, with no support or direction from the employer, he failed. It took months for him to recalibrate after losing the job.

Burch says Jack’s experience isn’t unusual.

People are desperate so they’ll hire anybody, Burch says. But they’re also not being flexible about working with people. She sees a disturbing amount of intolerance.

Moreover, old etiquette has fallen to the wayside, putting new stress on employers.

People apply for jobs then don’t show up for interviews. They accept the job but don’t show up to work. They take the job, onboard, push for higher wages, then leave for greener pastures, Burch says.

“You wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that in the past.”

And yet, Burch says she’s hopeful.

“The silver lining is the disability community is becoming more outspoken as a collective advocacy group.”

Though progress is incremental, she says, “People are slowly wanting to make some positive changes and contribute to the community. I think we’re going in the right direction. I think there is hope. It’s just slower than I want it to be.”