Stories From the Great American Labor Shortage: An Update


clare toeniskoetter

Hello, hello.

sydney harper

This is Sydney Harper, producer with The Daily here in D.C.

clare toeniskoetter

This is Clare Toeniskoetter. I am on Smith Street in Brooklyn.

sydney harper

Walking up and down 18th Street in the nation’s capital.

[EXHALES SHARPLY]

18th Street is a big hill. Ooh, child, I’m just breathing hard, breathing hard. Breathing hard.

clare toeniskoetter

Hi.

speaker

Hi, how are you?

sydney harper

Hi, I’m a producer with The New York Times, a daily news podcast. We’re turning to an episode looking at businesses and local restaurants hiring people and if they’re having trouble finding people. Can I get your name and your role here.

dave delaplaine

Dave Delaplaine, general manager.

vanessa

My name is Vanessa. And I’m the manager here at Xochitl Taqueria.

jonathan

My name is Jonathan. This is my family’s restaurant.

daniel

Hi, I’m Daniel from Savelli Restaurant in Brooklyn.

simona

I’m Simona. I’m a manager at Mama Capri.

clare toeniskoetter

How big was your staff pre-pandemic? And how big is it now?

vanessa

So in February, I believe we had about 13 employees. Now it’s six of us.

dave delaplane

Pre-pandemic, we had a staff close to 50.

sydney harper

What are you at now?

dave delaplane

I have 30 now, I’d say.

sydney harper

So you’re actively hiring, then, right now?

dave delaplane

Yes, always.

vanessa

It’s been so extremely difficult trying to find employees.

daniel

Hiring is something crazy right now.

^simona

Finding waitstaff.

vanessa

Servers.

jonathan

Bartenders.

vanessa

And the kitchen probably is the hardest.

daniel

Busboy, runner.

jonathan

Sous chef.

daniel

Pizza guy.

speaker

Experienced grill cook.

vanessa

Line cooks.

jonathan

Line cooks.

speaker

Line cook.

interposing voices

Dishwashers.

daniel

Sometimes I clean dish myself.

vanessa

I’ve even had to do the kitchen, I’ve had to do deliveries.

jonathan

I was cooking in the kitchen last week. I have a huge burn on the bottom of my leg.

sydney harper

Oh, wow, yeah, I can see it. Are you OK?

jonathan

I’m OK. But it tells you that I shouldn’t be working in the kitchen, most likely.

vanessa

We’ll take anybody. And we’re willing to work with them and train them.

jonathan

We get down on our knees and we beg.

vanessa

But we can’t even get that.

sydney harper

Where do you think everyone went? What do you think is happening?

shiva

Everybody is getting free money sitting at home. That’s all the reason is. It’s very clear.

vanessa

The government is just giving out so much help. They’re basically making more money to stay home.

simona

If I was getting $600 a week, I would not be going to work either. I would be chilling out with my money.

daniel

This unemployment, it makes people more lazy. People rather stay home and watching TV than go back to work.

caleb orth

Hello?

diana nguyen

Hi, is this Caleb.

caleb orth

This is.

diana nguyen

Hey, Caleb, it’s Diana. Is it still an OK time for you to talk?

caleb orth

Absolutely.

diana nguyen

Just to start, can you introduce yourself. Tell me your name and your age and where you live in the U.S.

caleb orth

Sure. My name is Caleb Orth. And I am 35. I am pretty new to Chicago. I just moved here at the beginning of June. I’ve worked in kitchens since I was 19. I didn’t go to college. I went to culinary school. I wanted to be a chef. And I really tried to make that happen throughout my 20s and early 30s. And I got really far.

My last job that I had before the pandemic was in Portland, Oregon, at a seasonal, highly-acclaimed, sort of American-Italian restaurant. It was the kind of place that had the sort of prestige, but it was by no means a dream job. Working in the back of the house in a restaurant, especially a restaurant like that, of that caliber, is more than a full-time pursuit. It is a complete lifestyle. So when I say that I worked there, what I mean by that is I worked there 80 hours a week. I worked there from 11:30 in the morning until 1 o’clock in the morning most days.

So that’s very unsustainable to me, just the culture of the work itself. You don’t eat meals at appropriate times. You’re always standing. You’re working so hard.

katya barmotina

I would usually work a shift at this restaurant nearby.

cris

Working in a kitchen where we’re, like, regularly 80, 90 degrees, sometimes even 100, being right next to ovens and heaters and grills and fryers.

adam

You know, waiting tables jobs can also be very kind of psychologically damaging in some ways, because you have interactions with people who don’t respect you.

cris

It would be horrible. We would be soaked in sweat.

katya barmotina

And then Tuesdays and Thursdays I would sub in for, like, a barista shift.

cris

It Standing for eight hours, and just five minutes to sit down and eat something quick.

adam

You have to learn to perform at a level that’s, like, essentially flawless.

cris

Basically living paycheck to paycheck.

katya barmotina

I was depressed.

cris

It can be very overwhelming. We’re constantly overworked.

ariel

There’s a lot of multitasking.

cris

Underpaid.

ariel

Remembering stuff.

cris

Underappreciated.

adam

There’s a lot of pressure.

cris

You know, like, dropping the meat and the chicken. So there’s oil everywhere. When you put the meat down, sometimes oil drips down. So for a very long time, I had a lot of burns and scars on my hands. I still have some scars. I don’t think they’ll go away.

katya barmotina

It sucked. It really sucked.

caleb orth

My last day of work was March 15, 2020. The night before, we had a very, very slow service. And I remember talking with one of the other guys that was in kitchen management. And I just said, hey, tomorrow I might be a little late, because I’m going to go to the store, and I’m going to stock up on supplies in case this gets bad.

And so when I was at the grocery store the next day, buying food and stuff, with everybody else in the city, I got called. And they said, we’re closed indefinitely. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Everybody still has a job right now. But we don’t know how long this is going to last. Then we got an email about five days later basically laying off the entirety of the staff.

katya barmotina

My name is Katya Barmotina. I am 25. I am a musician, teacher. I live in Brooklyn in Bed-Stuy. And I grew up here too. So yeah, that’s me.

ben casselman

Tell me about unemployment. Did you — did you start applying right away?

katya barmotina

I didn’t apply right away because I thought, you know, I have money. I have savings. And then, two months later, when I had, like, maybe one month’s rent, I was like, no, we got to do it now. We have to apply. This is a bad situation now.

ben casselman

Once unemployment started to come in, do you remember how much you were getting a week at first?

katya barmotina

After taxes, I think it was like a good $600, $700 a week. So very, very decent. It was great.

katya barmotina

I loved napping and having money come in. I was able to rediscover and discover things that I never really did for myself. I never took a moment to just take a walk, be with my thoughts, read in the morning. I’m reading “Immodest Acts,” which is a book about lesbian nuns in the Renaissance. I was able to really think about the kind of relationships I want to have. Buying organic. [LAUGHS] I invested in a cat for my mental health. You know, some of those rich, bougie things that I wasn’t able to do.

And then I start teaching around noon. So I have one or two students from 12:00 to 1:00. Sometimes I take a nap in the middle of the day if I don’t have anything between, like, 1:00 to 3:00. I take a two-hour nap. It’s amazing. Thankfully, unemployment. Thank you, government.

ben casselman

About how many hours a week would you say you’re working now?

katya barmotina

Honestly, just teaching-wise, I’m working like 12 hours a week.

ben casselman

Do you see any scenario in which you go back?

katya barmotina

No, [LAUGHS] absolutely not. No, 100 percent no.

caleb orth

In the initial period of the beginning of Covid, the spring of 2020, we all filed for unemployment. And unemployment, at that time was more than fair. The money from the federal government at that time was $600 a week. And that’s on top of the amount that your state would give you, whichever state that you’re in. So for a while, I made considerably more on unemployment than I did working. And I just told you how hard that I worked.

So you know, I really thought, well, this is a good chance for me to just sort of take a rest. I know that I want to go work in a different restaurant. My girlfriend and I were seriously considering a move to New York City. And I had a line on a restaurant job there at a restaurant that I really like and admire. And I was going to try to go work there.

And then the thing that happened for me is that I started to notice how well rested I was. The bags that were under my eyes forever, for years, went away. My feet stopped hurting. And I never had really thought about how much my feet hurt all the time. But they did. My back stopped hurting. I was going to bed at a reasonable hour and waking at a reasonable hour rather than going to bed at, like, 4 in the morning and waking up at 11 a.m. And I was eating healthy and exercising.

My girlfriend and I were going on daily bike rides at the time, all over the city. We were going out and seeing places that we’d never seen before. And granted, everything was closed. But it was spring. Oregon is beautiful in the spring. And there were all these things that I never, ever had time to experience.

I also got really into cooking at home. Because I really do love to cook. It was a hobby of mine before it was my job. You know, there’s this adage that my dad used to say to me — and my grandpa used to say it to me too — that you should take what you love to do, your hobby and make it your job, so you get to do that all the time. And that’ll make you happy.

But I actually 100 percent disagree with that now. I think that if you take your hobby and you make it into your job — your job being something that you have to do every day, whether you want to or not — that you end up hating your hobby. I know that’s true for me. There were lots of days where I had to go into work and I’d just be like, I really don’t want to do this. I’d be thinking about it, and they’d be like, I really don’t want to have to make this food again. I’m so tired of making this food, somebody else’s food, the same thing, over and over and over.

So during Covid, I’d be making meals at home. And I got really into it. I’d make the best version of some kind of takeout that I could make, so stuff that we couldn’t get, like a full-on Indian meal or something, with naan and a bunch of different curries. And that was really fun for me. And I sort of got to reconnect with this thing that I really do like doing.

And I just started to think that this is how I’d like to live. I’d like to feel rested and well like this all the time, not have this just be some kind of little vacation. And so I started thinking, well, why am I really doing this? Is this really serving me? Or is it just serving whoever my employer is? And the easy answer to that question is it isn’t serving me, it’s serving whatever my employer is, hands down. For all of my 20s and the first three years of my 30s, I worked in the service of someone else. And I was making $3,000 a month, maybe $3,200 a month. So it was enough for me to live, no doubt.

But you got to bear in mind that that was for 80 hours a week. And so I don’t want to have to live like that anymore. I want to have my work be my work and have it be something that I punch in for, and I do for a set amount of hours during the day, and then I punch out of it, and I go home and I don’t have to think about it. I think it’s a wake-up call.

katya barmotina

Once I took stock of my life, I was like, I’m never, ever, ever —

caleb orth

There’s a whole generation —

katya barmotina

— ever —

caleb orth

— they’re gone.

katya barmotina

— ever, ever, ever going back to that.

caleb orth

They’re not coming back —

speaker 1

I worked at McDonald’s for three years.

caleb orth

There are people all around me that have this exact same story.

katya barmotina

— depressed, I was overworked.

speaker 1

You have nights where you just want to rip your hair out.

caleb orth

— that are out.

katya barmotina

I started getting more inquiries for online lessons.

speaker 1

— was able to escape McDonald’s.

caleb orth

They’ve taken a job somewhere else.

speaker 1

And now I currently work at Universal.

katya barmotina

And then somewhere around like five students, six students, I was like maybe I should invest more time and more energy into this business and see what happens there. Because here —

speaker 1

Here at Universal, I get an hour break. And half of that, 30 minutes, is paid. And that, to me, is so wonderful. Like, I —

caleb orth

Or they’re out, they’re back in school.

speaker 2

I had just been having a conversation with my father. And he had said, why don’t you go back to school?

caleb orth

So they can do something else for a living.

speaker 2

Eventually, I want to be doing my own thing.

katya barmotina

E-learning is such now a huge business.

speaker 2

Our dream is to open a cafe that is also a greenhouse.

speaker 1

I have a lot of dreams, like —

caleb orth

I know lot of people that have made a lot of changes.

speaker 2

I feel like I wouldn’t have even considered doing that if I didn’t have the time to even think about it, you know?

katya barmotina

I think I feel a lot more hopeful now?

diana nguyen

What’s your plan?

caleb orth

I’ve accepted a conditional offer of employment with the United States Post Office here in Chicago. And I’m going to be a mail carrier. And I’m doing that because it offers me a regular schedule where I work during the day and I go home at night, where I have holidays off, where I have benefits and the protection of a labor union. And most of all, I’m doing it to be as far away from the tractor pull of work as I possibly can be.

diana nguyen

Well, is there anything else that you — is there anything else that I didn’t ask you that you feel like I should know?

caleb orth

Well, I was thinking the other day, I was looking at Instagram, and it was this sort of trope that’s going around about these low-wage food places, you know, McDonald’s, Chipotle, et cetera, not being able to find anyone for their low-wage jobs. And it’s always something along the lines of unemployment’s too generous and none of these people want to come back to work. And I just find that so offensive. I do think that there are certain people that are saying that, that unemployment’s paying me far more. I don’t want to go back to work at this terrible job. And I don’t blame them for that.

But I also think that there’s a huge part that’s being left out of that conversation. And that part is this. Almost 700,000 Americans have died of Covid. So I think that A, it’s super offensive to think that, why won’t these people come back to their terrible jobs where they’re going to make less than they are on unemployment. But B, what’s really not being said here is that a bunch of us died going to work. A bunch of us died. So-called essential workers paid the highest price.

So I really feel like that’s something that’s not said enough. So I did want to say that.

ben casselman

Katya.

katya barmotina

Hello.

ben casselman

Hello. How are you?

katya barmotina

You know, other than my cat having a skin infection, we’re doing all right.

ben casselman

Sorry to hear about the cat.

katya barmotina

It’s fine. He just licks himself unnecessarily.

ben casselman

[LAUGHS] Yeah, I mean, so I guess we just are sort of trying to check back in with some of the people we talked to back in the summer. And I don’t know, the last time we spoke, I think you were pretty determined to make it work not going back to sort of a traditional job. And I guess I’m kind of curious, where are we now?

katya barmotina

Yeah, well, I lost a couple of students this year. So I did have to take on a part-time job. It’s kind of perfect for me because it’s a receptionist job, but it’s a reception job at a yoga studio. And it’s in the mornings, like, 20 hours a week. Nobody talks to me. I’m totally alone. I go in, do the bare minimum, check out a bit, go home, get paid. It’s great.

ben casselman

[LAUGHS] I think when we talked, you we’re still on unemployment benefits, which I assume those have ended now.

speaker

Yeah, yeah, they’ve ended.

ben casselman

Was that a blow when that came to an end?

speaker

It wasn’t a big blow because I was expecting it. So I just found a way to make that money back in a job environment that doesn’t make me want to keel over.

ben casselman

It seems like a lot of the things that we talked about the last time have actually become even more a part of, I don’t know, the conversation more recently. Like the whole idea of workers sort of saying, you know what, I don’t want to go back to the way I used to do things, that actually seems to have become even more, I don’t know, in the water since we spoke.

katya barmotina

Yeah. Weren’t they saying that once unemployment benefits stop, people will come back to work? But no, now we have a Great Resignation. Like, duh. Duh. Why would people want to work again for shitty jobs when they can go out there and get better for themselves?

ben casselman

But I guess that part is the key part. Because I think what some people were saying was not that people would necessarily want to come back to lousy jobs with low pay, but that basically you have no choice but to come back to lousy jobs for no pay, for the same reason that you did the lousy job with low pay two years ago.

katya barmotina

But then it’s also like the choices, I think, right now, are do I go back to a job I might not particularly like? Or do I go out into the unknown? And it seems like the unknown is more appealing to people than going back to a work environment pre-pandemic.

I mean, didn’t I say that people won’t want to go back to their normal jobs? I called it.

ben casselman

You are proven right.

katya barmotina

I called.

ben casselman

We’re going to fire the economists and bring you in. Although that is an office job, so I don’t know, maybe —

katya barmotina

[LAUGHS] OK, I have to teach students.

ben casselman

Yeah. Go, go, go. Thank you.

katya barmotina

Bye.

ben casselman

All right, bye.

[PHONE RINGING]

caleb orth

Hello.

diana nguyen

Hi, Caleb. Can you hear me? Hi. How are you?

caleb orth

I’m good. Can you hear me? I’m talking on my car’s Bluetooth thing.

diana nguyen

Yeah, I can hear you. Are you on your way home from work right now?

caleb orth

I am. I’m a mail carrier in Chicago.

diana nguyen

What was it like to go back to work after having a break for, I guess, almost a year and a half or so?

caleb orth

It’s been really nice. It’s pretty hard work, but I don’t find it to be nearly as taxing, physically and especially emotionally, as working in a restaurant is. Pays really well. You know, I’m doing better financially than I ever have before.

diana nguyen

Wow. That’s great.

caleb orth

Yeah, it’s good. I was ready to go back. It’s nice to feel useful again. And it’s nice to be earning a living again. And I don’t mean to say that I don’t think that I deserved the unemployment payments that I got. I did deserve them. And everyone else did too. But it’s really nice to be earning your living independently of any sort of government oversight.

diana nguyen

What are your hours like?

caleb orth

I generally go to work at 8 a.m. And it’s pretty typical for me to get off at about 7. And the hours are pretty long. But they’re not at night. And every time I go over 8 hours, I go into time and a half. Every time I go over 10 hours, I go into double pay. So there were some times where I was working late, thinking, this is bullshit. I don’t want to have to work for 12 hours a day. But then I got the paychecks for it, and that really made it worth it.

diana nguyen

Do you still feel like you have time to pursue the other things you want to in your life and to enjoy your evenings and whatever else it is you want to do?

caleb orth

Well, I haven’t been cooking nearly as much, that’s for sure. I’m pretty tired when I get home. And I don’t really want to stand. And then I’m still free in the evenings, so I’m able to see friends and hang out with my girlfriend — my fiancé, actually. We got engaged.

diana nguyen

Congrats.

caleb orth

Thanks. And I don’t have nearly as much free time as I did when I was unemployed. But that’s OK. I was getting sort of tired of that.

diana nguyen

Thank you so much for taking the time, Caleb. I really appreciate it, especially after your long workday.

caleb orth

Yeah, yeah, no problem. It’s my pleasure.

diana nguyen

OK, cool. You have a good night. Thank you.

caleb orth

All right, you too

diana nguyen

OK, bye bye.

caleb orth

Bye.