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Science & Medicine

Jobs And The Hospitality Industry

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to take a closer look at the latest jobs report that came out Friday. The U.S. added 559,000 jobs in May. That's about twice the number added during April. It's still less than analysts had hoped. And millions of Americans remain unemployed. But at the same time, employers say they have jobs they cannot fill. As you might imagine, there's political tension around this because many Republicans are saying the extra unemployment money passed as part of COVID relief is dissuading people from going back to work, while other people say it's not that simple, that it's a combination of things like, say, pay and safety.

We wanted to hear from somebody who is actually in the business of matching employers with workers, so we found James Essey. He is the president and CEO of TemPositions Group of Companies. That's a staffing firm that connects workers to jobs in a number of industries. Today, we decided to focus on hospitality because it's been hit by so many things this past year in coping with COVID, something James has thought a lot about. And he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JAMES ESSEY: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I just want to say - just understand a little bit about what your firm does. I understand that you placed people in short and long-term work in a number of fields across the country, including hospitality. As briefly as you can, just tell us a little bit more, like, what kinds of jobs.

ESSEY: Yeah. We're a full-service staffing - regional staffing firm. We're in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California and Florida. We like to say coast-to-coast with nothing in between. Put out about 3,000 people a week in varied jobs from temporary lawyers, temporary IT professionals and also hospitality, which one of our favorite areas that we like to focus on.

MARTIN: Well, what was this last year like for you? Were there certain trends that you saw?

ESSEY: Yeah. It was a very difficult year for us, primarily because we placed so many people out in jobs so that they can support their families. And so many of those jobs just literally dried up overnight. We had opportunities, for example, in school. Schools were closed. No need for four teachers. No need for school nurses. No need for any of the professionals that worked there.

MARTIN: So what about in hospitality?

ESSEY: So in hospitality, again, we had to pivot. And one of the areas we got involved in was the meal delivery program New York City put into place, up to 3 million meals delivered a day to the homebound elderly, as well as others who couldn't go to stores to get their own meals to cook for themselves. And so we moved hospitality workers behind the scenes in helping to prepare those meals. These are positions that never existed before, but at least it was a way to get some of those people back to work.

MARTIN: So pre-pandemic, you were placing about 3,000 people per week. And during the pandemic, over the course of that, maybe half that?

ESSEY: Yeah. We actually - our very lowest point was down to 700 people, just to give us a sense of how many - how difficult a period of time this was. And then we built back up, and now we're at about 1,500. To give you a sense, in the hospitality space, we normally place about 500 to 600 people out a week in the hospitality jobs. Right now, we're placing about 50.

MARTIN: So over the past month, we see that the hospitality area has experienced some growth in terms of jobs numbers. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that people are getting vaccinated, you know, school is winding up, people want to get back out there, they want to travel. But employers are also saying they're really having a hard time filling jobs. So can you help us understand, like, how is it possible that how is it possible both things are true?

ESSEY: Frankly, a lot of factors. And it depends in large measure also on where in the country you're talking about. The workers, especially in New York, for instance, in some cases, they're still nervous. They're worried about going into an environment, even if they're vaccinated, especially in places we found where people experience so much sort of pain and sorrow going through the pandemic at its peak. So look at cities like New York and San Francisco. Even with the mask mandates lifted, you still see many people still wearing masks today because they were scarred by this, and they're still not feeling comfortable. And so going into a work environment where there are lots of people they'd be interacting with, that makes some of them scared. So sort of fear for their health is one thing that's holding people back.

I think the second thing that's holding people back is the schools being closed. And now, of course, we're going into summer, when schools are normally closed. But even other options are not quite there in terms of daycare. The daycare programs are not back because they can't find staff. I think the last issue is pay. We had to increase pay dramatically to get people to go over these other hurdles that I just mentioned and say that they want to go out to work.

And I think some of the businesses that are reopening now, some of the hospitality, caterers, for example, they haven't factored in this higher pay into their their pricing for their customers. And when we tell them what we need to pay in order to get people interested in working, they're nervous about, how can they cover that? How can they take their prices up enough to cover that? And so there's a little bit of an imbalance right now.

MARTIN: It sounds like a lot of people are rethinking their lives. It's not just the numbers. It sounds to me like employees are thinking, OK, I'm going to hold out for something I really want to do or for something that's more appealing to me or something that feels safer or more rewarding or it gives me more time. It's - this sounds like this goes beyond just dollars and cents, if you get my meaning.

ESSEY: Well, I think you're right that it does. But I think also people used to have a job solely to earn money. And I think this whole experience that people have gone through in the last year was that they're now a bit choosier about what they do to earn money to make sure that it gives them something else, some other psychic benefit that they can take advantage of. And I think then, when the jobs have maybe better benefits or maybe their - the job duties are slightly adjusted so they're less monotonous, maybe they're giving training - more training opportunities so people can increase their skills on the job and not have to do the same thing every single day for years on end, I think when all of that works together, it'll be a win-win for everybody. And I think then people will be happy to do the work, will probably be earning what they want to earn, but they'll be enjoying what they're doing at the same time.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I hear you saying how workers, how employees seem to be sort of changing their psychology around the work. What about employers?

ESSEY: Well, I mean, I think a lot of employers learned a lot in the last year. You can have a mix. You don't need to have people in the office all the time. You don't need to necessarily have all the office space that you used to have, which is an expense. You know, sort of if you don't have that big an expense, you can put more money into your workers without having to increase your prices because you're taking your wage rates up. So I think we learned a little bit about how we can perhaps better organize the way we run our companies and build in this work life balance by having people be able if possible to work remotely as well.

Now, certainly, if we talk about hospitality, it's hard for a waiter to work remotely, right? So those people are going to need to continue to work on site. But I think as employers, we need to be flexible, be more flexible in terms of the way we do shift scheduling. What we try to do with the people that work for us is we ask them to tell us each week when they'd like to work, so it's not us telling them what their schedule is going to be, but rather we ask them, what's their availability? When would they like to work? And then we build a schedule around them.

MARTIN: That is James Essey. He's president and CEO of the TemPositions Group of Companies. Mr. Essey, thanks so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.

ESSEY: Oh, it was great. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.