Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on Linkedin.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Newspapers are facing a post-pandemic worker shortage Many of us are breathing a sigh of relief, celebrating the possible end of a global health pandemic that has claimed far too many lives, run thousands of businesses into the ground, derailed a thriving economy, and kept us holed up like a bear in extended hibernation. As we start to emerge from our figurative dens, we’ll most likely see many positive effects upon the news industry as well as some new challenges. I expect most of you have already seen an increase in pre-prints versus the dry period of COVID. Shelves that were bare over the past year are now starting to fill up again, and advertisers seem to be coming back in both preprints and in ROP advertising. It’s not a landslide, but I firmly believe that advertisers actually missed what newspaper advertising brings to the table and will be using some of whatever money they were able to squirrel away when things were tough. Their doors were closed, and now it’s time to start bringing customers back through them. While the potential end to this pandemic should bring us all newfound joy, it has also brought a strange turn of events to virtually all areas of our working economy: retail establishments, entertainment venues, the hospitality industry, and the publishing/printing industry. In our POST-COVID economy, it has become increasingly challenging to find and hire lower wage production workers. Perhaps we were treating them unfairly before the pandemic and now it’s just all catching up with us; I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that everyone in every industry I speak with is having the same issue with finding workers who want to work, see the value in having a job, and are eager (or even just willing) to show up and put in an honest day’s work. I recently read that average productivity per American workers has increased 400 percent since 1950. While that sounds like a real win for both companies and workers, in the same period of time since 1950, wages when adjusted for the cost of living and inflation have remained stagnant. A worker in our industry now needs to work 11 hours more per week to match the adjusted equivalent of what they were earning in 1950. And we wonder why work ethic and loyalty to our organizations has eroded over the years. During the pandemic, the newspaper industry seemed to hold its own. Sure, business was down, revenue was in the tank and times were tough, but most of us were still able to provide essential employees with continuous employment. Many loyal employees suffered through financial challenges as a result of reduced hours, reductions in benefits, or no raises, but they still showed up for work in spite of fear for their health and well-being. They kept us afloat and for this I give my sincere thanks to our line workers. Throughout the pandemic, the usual attrition occurred in our staffs. Production workers retired, left to care for family members with health issues related to the pandemic, or just quit for fear of catching COVID. With less work to do and our own financial challenges due to COVID, most companies simply didn’t replace these workers and stumbled their way through the trying times. Now that there seems to be some degree of “normal” coming back to our industry, I find myself asking, “Where are the workers?” If you talk to others in our industry or speak with business leaders outside our industry, you’ll hear the same thing—there is now a significant shortage of qualified workers, and it is affecting our ability to get the job done. In April 2020, the unemployment rate was hovering around 14.8 percent. In March 2021, the U.S. unemployment rate reportedly fell to 6 percent, the lowest rate in a year and in line with market expectations. This in itself explains much of the challenges we are now facing finding workers. To make things worse for employers, many employees are still scared to return to work. COVID changed everything and crushed our confidence and sense of security. Vendors didn’t visit anymore; we didn’t greet others with a handshake; we were in fear of what we might bring home to our families; it rocked our world. For many people, this is still hard to get over and they feel much more safe and secure not going out to work or working from home. In February 2021, the Department of Labor updated eligibility requirements to provide unemployment benefits to those who refused to return to work due to unsafe COVID standards. In March, these individuals qualified for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. To me, this is a double-edge sword and one that sparks arguments everywhere I go. As a society, we need to provide for those who fear for their health by returning to work, while at the same time others may use this to their advantage to receive enhanced unemployment benefits. When it comes to unemployment benefits, some states are more generous than others. The state of Washington pays a weekly average of $497 in unemployment benefits while Oklahoma on average pays just over $44. That’s quite a difference. In addition to unemployment benefits, individuals who are currently unemployed receive a $300 weekly payment (down from $600 per week in the CARES Act). Let’s do some quick math with this. If you’re a mailroom worker at a newspaper in one of the average states, let’s just guesstimate that you receive $300 in weekly unemployment benefits. Additionally, you receive $300 in a bonus check (currently extended to Sept. 6). Your total weekly compensation would equal $600. Now, to earn that same $600 in one of our mailrooms, you would need to earn $15 an hour and work a 40-hour week to earn the same you could on unemployment. I think it’s safe to say that most newspapers in this country cannot afford to pay mailroom employees $15 an hour and remain profitable. Herein lies the problem. If newspapers can’t afford to, or depending on the property, simply refuse to pay a $15 as an hourly wage, and if potential hires won’t work for anything less, than how do we fill open positions? It’s also getting tougher every day to compete for us. Major retailers are paying $15 an hour to start. Fast food establishments are paying $12 or $13. In my town, one manufacturer is paying a $19.44 starting wage, and another right up the road from the newspaper is starting at $16 with a dollar increase after 90 days, plus generous benefits. Things have changed and if we don’t adjust for those changes we’re going to continue to be left behind. Look through your own newspaper, take a ride around town, talk to other businesses, everyone has the same issues—there are more positions than applicants. Not too long ago, I received dozens of applications a week and could be selective on who I hired, but now I don’t have that luxury. Throughout my career, I’ve always strived to give the company I work for 110 percent effort, loyalty, and relentless drive. It’s hard for me to understand why with all the open jobs right now how anyone who is able to work isn’t working. I’ve always been proud of my work ethic and that is perhaps why I have so much trouble accepting why anyone is unemployed when there are so many available jobs out there. So, what can we do about this problem? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be writing about how most of us are now finding ourselves shorthanded and unable to find qualified labor. I’ve sat down and had heart to heart discussions with several employees, asking how I can make their jobs better and make our company somewhere where everyone wants to work. Ninety percent of time, the answer is “more money.” The other 10 percent is “hire more people to help” (a variation of pay more money). My challenge has been to make either one of these a reality. When the unemployment bonus checks stop coming and a line worker can earn more on their feet as opposed to not, I believe we will see a resurgence of applications, but until that time comes, we still need to survive. I’ve never had a day when I don’t appreciate the contribution of line workers to our industry. They are the backbone of our operations, and if we don’t quickly find a way to reward them fairly, things are not going to end well. But at this point they—not us—are in control. I sincerely hope that we can learn something from this unusual situation we’re in and find a better way to compete with other businesses through fairer wages, expanded company benefits, and increased value in this critical area of our business. ▪