It’s still early days, but it appears that finally Covid is starting to wane. As I write this, a couple European countries have announced a definite date where they will be removing certain health mandates and lowing foils to return to work in offices instead of working from home. Many U.S. states have removed mandates allowing people to congregate again. The next 90 days will demonstrate the real direction or end to the pandemic.
With the return to offices, we cleaners expect a return to normal workload levels, but therein lies a new problem; staff.
With the spread of Covid, and folks staying home in droves, it wasn’t uncommon to see demand for drycleaning drop 80 to 90 percent. And, with demand falling off a cliff, drycleaning business owners had little choice but to lay off staff to get costs as low as possible. No shock or surprise there. It’s just basic business sense to reduce expenses below that of sales. But now that things MAY be returning to what we used to know as normal, where have all the employees gone?
Well, let’s start with the obvious. People, staff, have needs too. They have mortgages, car payments, credit card bills, kids to feed and bills to pay, just like everyone else does. When many of these people were laid off, they experienced drops in their cash flow of 100 percent, plus, they still had personal obligations drawing down their savings (if any).
Let’s face some hard facts. May people are living paycheck to paycheck. Usually, many employees run out of money before they run out of pay period. When I had my drycleaning shops, it wasn’t uncommon for an employee to be completely flat broke four or five days before the next payday. Given that most folks don’t have enough money to even make it to the next payday, you can pretty much bet they don’t have any savings or even a little emergency money tucked in a mattress somewhere. So, when their job disappeared, they were in big trouble.
It’s really uncomfortable being broke, no money and knowing you have nothing coming in. I know, I’ve been there. Yeah, I don’t mind telling you, I’d been in some rough spots in my lifetime. I’ve skipped taking a paycheck myself so my staff would get paid. I’ve put myself at the back of the line financially so the loan payment would clear, the landlord got his, the utilities were paid, staff were paid, taxes were paid. Yeah, I know the feeling of hot stinging tears running down your face as the Sheriff or Court Bailiff tapes the demand letter for arrears on your lease from the landlord on the door of your shop. So, yeah, I know exactly what it’s like to be broke AF. It’s not fun, it’s VERY disconcerting, and, it’s a hell of a lesson, and I’ll put my lessons learned up against any silver spoon cleaner who has never had a day of hardship his or her entire life.
Now, imagine our staff. They reply on us to provide them work and income. And, suddenly, through no fault of their own, their job is gone. The rug is pulled out from underneath, and, despite falling square on their butt, their bills still have to be paid, their mortgage or rent needs to be covered, the utilities have to be paid, and the kid’s clothes, sheltered, and fed. And, given the state of the social safety net today, they can’t depend on the government to cover them. So, people do what they have to do.
The world has been changing for some time now. I don’t mean, just the last two years of raging Covid, but even before the pandemic. Not just Y2K, or the big hair days of the 80’s. It goes even further back. Back to the end of WW II and the troops coming home. Something happened and its caused tumultuous change. When the world war ended, and the troops came home, they were eager to start, or restart their lives. They bought homes, the took jobs and the economy expanded to accommodate all these now peaceable troops. And, many of these same people married their sweethearts, which then led to what usually happens when two folks marry, kids come along. Now, for the past few thousand years, most families consisted of Mom and Dad, and Ma and Pa tended to simply replace themselves with two kids. Not exactly by design like over in China where they have the one child policy, but simply naturally, it was a couple, then a couple kids. But, for reasons unknown, there was a change. Post WW II, the returning GI’s not only had 2 kids, some had 3, 4, 5 and MORE! Suddenly, there was a population boom! And this boom continues until 1965 (the year I was born).
This was the baby boom. And, this baby boom caused all sorts of problems. Houses and housing needed to be expanded to accommodate these larger families. Then schools had to be built to educate all these kids. When they graduated and moved into the workforce, the workforce expanded to accommodate all these people. Economies ran amok and interest rates went through the roof (Heck, I remember bank load rates of up to 21 percent).
After 1965, birthrates began to fall as people left childbearing years. Birth rates fell so far, that the boom, became, a bust. A lot less children were being born, and, well, this does not bode well for North America in the future (a little foreshadowing here).
After a while, these baby boomer children grow up, and they to begin to marry, and have kids. Amazing how life just cycles, isn’t it? Well, all these baby boomers having kids of their own, caused what’s known as the baby boom echo as the next bulging wave/cohort of people begins moving through our population.
Boom bust and echo. Yes, there really is a cycle at play. This cycle, and the study of them, is called demographics. And, the current labor shortage, demographically speaking, should come as no surprise. The kids born during the bust years are just coming into high school and early university age. There are so few of them, yet, there are so many jobs clamoring for the few people. Where are potential employees? Well, frankly, they don’t exist because they were never born.
Now, with the rise of the gig economy, there is even MORE jobs for the few people who can work. The gig economy is a huge competitor to us employers because, a gig economy job offers perhaps more than what we are willing to give and offer. I’m not talking money, but intangibles.
Employees are not much different from employers. Granted, an employer wants to extract as much labor out of an employee as possible for the least amount of pay, and conversely, an employee wants to provide the least amount of labor (work) for the most amount of pay they can bring home. So, bot employer and employee are trying to maximize their return on investment, be it time, money, or other stuff (that’s what they have in common).
Gig economy jobs sound pretty enticing to employees. Work when you want to, no set schedule. Don’t feel like working today? Go ahead, sit on your butt at home. But, if you do feel like working today (because you need the money, or feel motivated to do something), well, a gig economy job will pay you today for all the work done today (often no two-week waiting period). Mostly, a gig economy job does NOT have a boss breathing down your neck telling you what you can and cannot do, what you should and should not do…oh no, gig economy workers are self-employed contractors, they are their own boss!
How does working at a Cleaners stack up? Well, employees are scheduled and told when to show up. Disciplined and bitched out when they don’t. Its sometimes very hot, sweaty, manual labor. Sometimes the boss is a jerk, sometimes they are nice, and it’s a crap shoot when it comes to your fellow co-workers and their personalities and attitudes. Now, with Covid, you are in the public eye, waiting on customers, perhaps exposing yourself to the virus, or maybe it’s on the clothes the customer carried in that you have to handle. And, then finally, there is the pay. Sure, employees that work in a cleaners are part of the fashion industry, rubbing shoulders with Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, but, at the same time, one is also dealing with the solid waste crap left in Fruit of the Loom, side effects of Budweiser and Johnny Walker combined with regurgitated Pizza Hut and Whole Foods at minimum wage, or just barely more than that.
Hmm, let me see, take the chance of driving for Uber in my own car, where I could make 20 or 30 bucks an hour, or knock farts out of pants at a spotting table, sweating it out 20 to 40 hours a week over a hot press?
And, many jobs these days, you can do from the safety of your own home, online, remotely and get paid some serious sick money. I know a local guy who does voice over work recording books for Audible.com and he clears two grand a week for reading and recording what he reads and speaks out loud. I know another lady who earns an insane amount of money monthly doing grocery shopping for people who don’t want to or are too lazy to do their own grocery shopping. A lot of gig economy jobs don’t require a lot of skills. Drycleaners make you work with strange chemicals, strange machines and insist that you be ‘customer friendly’ even when you don’t feel like it, smile and sell like hell, work like hell, until you’re told you can go home.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, we could pay more. But money does not always buy happiness.
What if we offered better working conditions? Granted, we are handcuffed by our customers limited to working with what they give us to clean and process. But, investing in air conditioning, safety screens, better lighting, modern presses and updated equipment are all excellent places to start. I know, I know, I can I ready here a few folks freaking out that it costs money to update equipment, but frankly, a coat of paint and some brighter lights are not that huge of an expense. And, our industry as a whole could use some serious updating (I know cleaners who are still using presses that their great grandfather bought in 1940 for pressing clothes).
How about investing in training for your staff? Training is always a good investment, both for immediate needs and in the future. Customers appreciate well trained staff that CAN handle themselves and situations. Plus, I still meet former employees from my shop from time to tie who tell me they learned some of the best lessons that have gone on to serve them in other jobs they have had in their lives. I’m rather proud of the education, skills and experience I transferred into at least 100 people over the years and I’m VERY proud that I played a role in helping others become a useful, integral, civilized participant in our society and there is no way I can EVER put a price on that (You are welcome world).
And, take a look at the history of drycleaning. This industry has always been closely associated with newcomers to our shores. Immigrants found drycleaning a great opportunity to learn, grow, earn, participate and progress into their new home society. Given the current demographic trough and shortage of folks, enticing immigrants to come and work can fill this void. People are so much more transient today, moving from country to country, seeking peace, opportunity, a better way and life for their children. Let’s share in the abundance our nation offers and let’s give someone an opportunity to better themselves their families and their lives. Frankly, there is so much demand for labor these days, we really need to embrace immigration so much more than we have to fill the immediate needs and it’s only going to increase from here for another decade or more.
Now you know why we ended up in this mess. You also know what has caused it to become even worse and, I’ve offered up some solutions to solve the labor shortage. The rest is now up to you. Put those help wanted signs in the window and compete for those employees. It may not be the most glamorous but its honest work.