Workers in nursing, fast food and airlines say they continue struggle with low pay, burnout and staffing issues three years into the pandemic
“We’re all still struggling,” said Cierra Swain, a 28-year-old wheelchair agent at Chicago Midway Airport, citing increasing hours and a lack of benefits. “Conditions have gotten worse.”
The pandemic presented a major shift for office workers required to work from home during nationwide city shutdowns. Since then, many employers have introduced more-flexible working arrangements. But service workers — many of whom were on the front lines during the height of the pandemic — say they have been left behind. Staffing shortages, burnout, low pay, little to no benefits, and unpredictable schedules are magnified by the emotional exhaustion some feel from risking their lives during the dangerous days of the pandemic.
More than 111.5 million people work in the service industry, representing nearly 72 percent of non-farm employees as of April, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released this month. That includes workers in trade, transportation and utilities as well as those in education, health and hospitality. While some service workers have made progress, there is still a lot employers and policymakers need to do to improve prospects for these workers, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that advocates for low- and middle-income workers.
“It’s about thinking broader about what kind of work environment we want to create for all workers,” she said. “There’s no reason to leave any workers behind.”
Many companies experienced record profits during the pandemic on the back of their workforce, which is only getting squeezed, said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 2 million workers. That created a pivotal moment for workers who felt they deserved more.
“The pandemic shined a bright light on how broken our economy is and how it’s never worked for essential and care workers,” she said. “That’s why we’re seeing workers come together to reject the status quo.”
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A growing worker movement continues to expand three years after the outbreak of the pandemic. Bank tellers at Beneficial State Bank, a community development bank serving California, Oregon and Washington state, unionized in 2020, ending a 40-year hiatus of union activity in the sector. And in the past two years, workers at Starbucks, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Trader Joe’s, an Apple store and an Amazon warehouse created the first unions at their retailers, demanding better pay, benefits and working conditions.
Chipotle and Starbucks say they’re working to improve worker benefits, investing in technologies to make jobs easier and boost pay. Beneficial State Bank said it voluntarily recognized the union and plans to listen to workers.
For many workers, pay is the central issue. Swain, the wheelchair agent, said she’s putting in more unexpected mandatory overtime than ever. As a result, she’s unable to plan her days and is often exhausted before pulling an 11-hour shift starting at 2:45 a.m. the next day. She says it’s because of understaffing. The lack of health-care benefits doesn’t help.
She walks up to 20,000 steps a day at work. “We are not robots. By the end of the day I’m ready to get home and just get off my feet because they’re sore. ”
Lizzet Aguilar, a 42-year-old cashier at a McDonald’s franchise in Los Angeles, was fired after going on strike with her co-workers over alleged poor safety protections during the height of the pandemic. She’s in the process of being reinstated following a state labor commissioner ruling and is now speaking up about another issue she finds deeply concerning, what she calls “wage theft.”
“They don’t pay us for breaks like they’re supposed to,” she said in Spanish. “That’s a dollar we budgeted. It does make a huge difference.”
McDonald’s says the allegations don’t reflect its work environment. The company said it worked closely with public health experts and the Mayo Clinic to implement more than 50 safety procedures and added benefits during the pandemic. Cindy Rojas, a supervisor at a franchise in Sacramento, said she felt supported by the company and her franchise owner who helped her buy a house.
Others are coping with reduced work hours. Nail salons often unexpectedly cancel work shifts if there aren’t enough customers, said Menuka Simkhada, a nail technician in New York City. The lack of hours led her to get a second job. But even when she works 40 hours, the 36-year-old struggles to support her two kids because she doesn’t make minimum wage. She does collect commissions and tips, which she said some employers take from technicians who do get minimum wage.
“It’s just basic needs. What we are asking is not a lot,” she said in Nepali, through an interpreter.
Benny Mathew, a nurse in the emergency department at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, said a strike earlier this year secured some improvements, including increased salaries and enforceable terms for more staff. But staffing continues to be an issue, with nurses often doing the jobs of two people. Meanwhile, emergency rooms continue to be overcrowded.
The pressure comes after a stressful period for nurses, who regularly saw 20 to 30 deaths a day during the height of the pandemic, Mathew said. At the time, he said, he was convinced he’d eventually catch covid and die.
“What happens is you go home defeated,” he said about the staffing shortage. “You feel like you couldn’t do your job … like you’re a failure. And that stays in your mind.”
Montefiore Medical declined to comment.
Musu King, a nurse at Lincoln Medical Center in New York City, said understaffing has left nurses vulnerable to violence from patients frustrated by long waits. That plus low pay led many to quit. The health care system said it has initiated staff retention programs, is working to hire employees and is investing in employee wellness and continuing education programs. But King is skeptical.
“If things aren’t done, I will change my profession entirely … for my own family and sanity,” she said. “It’s very frustrating … nursing was supposed to be a respectable profession.”
Flight attendants are also dealing with staffing problems exacerbated by the pandemic, said Susannah Carr, an attendant and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA member in the greater New York area who asked to keep her employer unnamed due to company policy barring employees from speaking to the media.
Carr said that for safety purposes, airlines cut some specialty services on some flights during the height of the pandemic. That allowed them to reduce the number of attendants per flight. But since then, airlines have revived services such as serving elaborate desserts on international flights without bringing back flight attendants, she said. And since not all flights have returned, planes are full. The large number of disruptive passengers also continues to be a major issue.
Flight attendants “are stretched thin,” she said, adding that having additional attendants improves safety.
At Lake Michigan Credit Union’s South Division branch in Wyoming, Mich., one of the biggest problems is that the busy location often gets a large proportion of Spanish-speaking customers but has very few bilingual tellers, two workers said.
“There are days I’m the only teller on the line that speaks Spanish so I’ll have a whole line form just for me,” said Anaisa Sanchez, a 21-year-old teller at the bank. “It’s very stressful. You want to give these people the best help you can, but you have four more people waiting for you so you have to hurry.”
Iván Diaz, a former member service representative who was fired from the bank shortly after its union formed in January, said bilingual employees were often asked to help other departments with Spanish-speaking customers even if they didn’t know how to properly translate specific financial terms. He has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board over his firing.
“You’re putting more stress on people who are bilingual … and the customers aren’t getting what they need,” the 25-year-old said.
The credit union did not comment on the matter.
To aid service workers’ plight, policymakers and employers should prioritize flexible working relationships, said Harvard Business School professor Joe Fuller, co-head of the school’s Managing the Future of Work project. They should audit policies that hurt or disincentivize workers and pursue programs that will support anyone who can and wants to work, he added. Meanwhile, employers should understand workers’ needs and pain points and respond by easing their struggles. Companies should regularly collect feedback and gather data on why people leave, he said.
“People leave because they don’t have opportunity. … Someone is willing to give them a dollar more and there’s no reason to stay.”