Long checkout lines. Closed fitting rooms. Empty shelves. Shortened store hours.
Plus the dread of contracting the coronavirus and yet another season of skirmishes with customers who refuse to wear masks.
A weary retail work force is experiencing the fallout from the latest wave of the pandemic, with a rapidly spreading variant cutting into staffing.
While data shows that people infected with the Omicron variant are far less likely to be hospitalized than those with the Delta variant, especially if they are vaccinated, many store workers are dealing with a new jump in illness and exposures, grappling with shifting guidelines around isolation and juggling child care. At the same time, retailers are generally not extending hazard pay as they did earlier in the pandemic and have been loath to adopt vaccine or testing mandates.
“We had gotten to a point here where we were comfortable, it wasn’t too bad, and then all of a sudden this new variant came and everybody got sick,” said Artavia Milliam, who works at H&M in Hudson Yards in Manhattan, which is popular with tourists. “It’s been overwhelming, just having to deal with not having enough staff and then twice as many people in the store.”
said last week that it would shorten store hours nationally on Mondays through Thursdays for the rest of the month. At least 20 Apple Stores have had to close in recent weeks because so many employees had contracted Covid-19 or been exposed to someone who had, and others have curtailed hours or limited in-store access.
At a Macy’s in Lynnwood, Wash., Liisa Luick, a longtime sales associate in the men’s department, said, “Every day, we have call-outs, and we have a lot of them.” She said the store had already reduced staff to cut costs in 2020. Now, she is often unable to take breaks and has fielded complaints from customers about a lack of sales help and unstaffed registers.
“Morale could not be lower,” said Ms. Luick, who is a steward for the local unit of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Even though Washington has a mask mandate for indoor public spaces, “we get a lot of pushback, so morale is even lower because there’s so many people who, there’s no easy way to say this, just don’t believe in masking,” she added.
Store workers are navigating the changing nature of the virus and trying their best to gauge new risks. Many say that with vaccinations and boosters, they are less fearful for their lives than they were in 2020 — the United Food and Commercial Workers union has tracked more than 200 retail worker deaths since the start of the pandemic — but they remain nervous about catching and spreading the virus.
More broadly, the staffing shortages have put a new spotlight on a potential vaccine-or-testing mandate from the Biden administration, which major retailers have been resisting. The fear of losing workers appears to be looming large, especially now.
While the retail industry initially cited the holiday season rush for its resistance to such rules, it has more recently pointed to the burden of testing unvaccinated workers. After oral arguments in the case on Friday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority expressed skepticism about whether the Biden administration had legal authority to mandate that large employers require workers to be vaccinated.
The National Retail Federation, a major industry lobbying group, said in a statement last week that it “continues to believe that OSHA exceeded its authority in promulgating its vaccine mandate.” The group estimated that the order would require 20 million tests a week nationally, based on external data on unvaccinated workers, and that “such testing capacity currently does not exist.”
When the top managers at Mr. Waugh’s Stop & Shop store began asking employees whether they were vaccinated in preparation for the federal vaccine mandates that could soon take effect, he said, a large number expressed concern to him about being asked to disclose that information.
“It was concerning to see that so many people were distressed,” he said, though all of the employees complied.
Ms. Luick of Macy’s near Seattle said that she worked with several vocal opponents of the Covid-19 vaccines and that she anticipated that at least some of her colleagues would resign if they were asked to provide vaccination status or proof of negative tests.
Still, Macy’s was among major employers that started asking employees for their vaccination status last week ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on Friday and said it might require proof of negative tests beginning on Feb. 16.
“Our primary focus at this stage is preparing our members for an eventual mandate to ensure they have the information and tools they need to manage their work force and meet the needs of their customers,” said Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes companies like Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Gap and Walmart.
As seasonal Covid-19 surges become the norm, unions and companies are looking for consistent policies. Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for the food and commercial workers union in Northern California, said the retail industry needed to put in place more sustainable supports for workers who got ill.
For example, he said, a trust fund jointly administered by the union and several employers could no longer offer Covid-related sick days for union members.
“We have to start treating this as endemic,” Mr. Araby said. “And figuring out what are the structural issues we have to put forward to deal with this.”
HICKORY, N.C. — Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of workers lost their jobs and companies fretted about their economic future, something unexpected happened at Hancock & Moore, a purveyor of custom-upholstered leather couches and chairs in this small North Carolina town.
Orders began pouring in.
Families stuck at home had decided to upgrade their sectionals. Singles tired of looking at their sad futons wanted new and nicer living room furniture. And they were willing to pay up — which turned out to be good, because the cost of every part of producing furniture, from fabric to wood to shipping, was beginning to swiftly increase.
More than a year later, the furniture companies that dot Hickory, N.C., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, have been presented with an unforeseen opportunity: The pandemic and its ensuing supply chain disruptions have dealt a setback to the factories in China and Southeast Asia that decimated American manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s with cheaper imports. At the same time, demand for furniture is very strong.
In theory, that means they have a shot at building back some of the business that they lost to globalization. Local furniture companies had shed jobs and reinvented themselves in the wake of offshoring, shifting to custom upholstery and handcrafted wood furniture to survive. Now, firms like Hancock & Moore have a backlog of orders. The company is scrambling to hire workers.
12 percent nationally through October. Furniture and bedding make up a small slice of the basket of goods and services that the inflation measure tracks — right around 1 percent — so that increase has not been enough to drive overall prices to uncomfortable levels on its own. But the rise has come alongside a bump in car, fuel, food and rent costs that have driven inflation to 6.2 percent, the highest level in 31 years.
What to Know About Inflation in the U.S.
The question for policymakers and consumers alike is how long the surge in demand and the limitations in supply will last. A key part of the answer lies in how quickly shipping routes can clear up and whether producers like the craftsmen in Hickory can ramp up output to meet booming demand. But at least domestically, that is proving to be a more challenging task than one might imagine.
container ships cannot clear ports quickly enough, and when imported goods get to dry land, there are not enough trucks around to deliver everything. All of that is compounded by foreign factory shutdowns tied to the virus.
With foreign-made parts failing to reach domestic producers and warehouses, prices for finished goods, parts and raw materials have shot higher. American factories and retailers are raising their own prices. And workers have come into short supply, prompting companies to lift their wages and further fueling inflation as they increase prices to cover those costs.
Chad Ballard, 31, has gone from making $15 per hour building furniture in Hickory at the start of the pandemic to $20 as he moved into a more specialized role.
according to data from Zillow.
toilet paper to new cars. The disruptions go back to the beginning of the pandemic, when factories in Asia and Europe were forced to shut down and shipping companies cut their schedules.
Now, ports are struggling to keep up. In North America and Europe, where containers are arriving, the heavy influx of ships is overwhelming ports. With warehouses full, containers are piling up. The chaos in global shipping is likely to persist as a result of the massive traffic jam.
“We have a labor market that is tight and getting tighter,” said Jared Bernstein, a White House economic adviser. Mr. Bernstein said the administration was predicting that solid wage growth would outlast rapid inflation, improving worker leverage.
domestic manufacturing. This moment could help that agenda as it exposes the fragility of far-flung supply networks.
But pandemic employee shortages, which are happening across the United States in part because many people have chosen to retire early, could also serve as a preview of the demographic shift that is coming as the country’s labor force ages. The worker shortages are one reason that ambitions to bring production and jobs back from overseas could prove complicated.
Hickory’s furniture industry was struggling to hire even before the coronavirus struck. It has a particularly old labor force because a generation of talent eschewed an industry plagued by layoffs tied to offshoring. Now, too few young people are entering it to replace those who are retiring.
Local companies have been automating — Hancock & Moore uses a new digital leather cutting machine to save on labor — and they have been working to train employees more proactively.
Several of the larger firms sponsor a local community college’s furniture academy. On a recent Thursday night, employers set up booths at a jobs fair there, forming a hopeful ring around the doorway of the school’s warehouse, welcoming potential candidates with branded lanyards and informational material. It was the first furniture-specific event of its kind.
But progress is slow, as companies try to assure a new — and smaller — generation of young people that the field is worth pursuing. Corporate representatives far outnumbered job seekers for much of the night.
“It’s such a tough market to find people,” said Bill McBrayer, human resources manager at Lexington Home Brands. Companies are turning to short-term workers, but even firms specializing in temporary help cannot find people.
“I’ve been in this business 35 years,” he said, “and it’s never been like this.”
A driver in Belleville, N.J., cut his cable and downsized his apartment to save money for gas. A retiree in Vallejo, Calif., said he had stopped driving to go fishing because the miles cost too much in fuel. An auto repairman in Toms River, N.J., doesn’t go to restaurants as often. And an Uber Eats deliveryman said he couldn’t afford frequent visits to his family and friends, some of whom live 60 miles away.
“Times are tough right now,” Chris Gonzalez, 31, the Uber Eats driver, said as he filled up his tank at a Safeway gas station off Interstate 80 in California.
Millions of American drivers have acutely felt the recent surge in gas prices, which last month hit their highest level since 2014. The national average for a gallon of gas is $3.41, which is $1.29 more than it was a year ago, according to AAA. Even after a recent price dip in crude oil, gasoline remains 7 cents more per gallon than it was a month ago.
While consumers are seeing a steady rise in the prices of many goods and services, the cost of gas is especially visible. It is displayed along highways across the country, including in areas where a gallon has climbed as high as $7.59.
survey from the fuel savings platform GasBuddy.
instructed the Federal Trade Commission this week to investigate why prices at the pump haven’t declined as much as might be expected, citing the possibility of “illegal conduct” by oil and gas companies. The administration is also facing calls from Congress to tap the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said would help struggling Americans.
Gas prices have gone up in part because of fluctuations in supply and demand. Demand for oil fell precipitously in the early months of the pandemic, so the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other oil-producing nations cut production. In the United States, reduced demand led to a substantial decline in drilling; the country’s oil rig count was down nearly 70 percent in summer 2020.
But over the past year, demand for oil recovered far faster than OPEC restored its production, and crude oil prices doubled to as much as $84 a barrel. (Since Nov. 9, the price has declined to just over $76.)
higher in the past; in 2008, the national average rose above $4.10 per gallon. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be equivalent to $5.16 today.) They’re optimistic that the increase in travel and gas demand is a reflection of the economy’s rebound from the pandemic, though they worry that rising prices could make people cut back on other spending.
“If gas prices rise so much that it affects consumers’ disposable incomes, this would weigh on discretionary spending,” said Fawad Razaqzada, a market analyst at ThinkMarkets. “It would be bad news for retailers.”
In California, where the average price of a gallon is the highest in the nation, at more than $4.60, drivers said they were changing their behavior. Some sought out cheaper spots, like Costco and Safeway gas stations, to save a few dollars.
At an Arco station in San Francisco’s NoPa neighborhood, a line of cars extended into the crowded street on Thursday. Some drivers searched for change. Others grumbled about the prices, which have shot up to as much as $4.49 at the Arco — known locally for its normally cheap rates — and up to $5.85 in the most expensive part of the city.
Keith Crawford, 57, who was filling up his Kia Optima, said he had taken to getting smaller amounts of gas twice a week to soften the blow to his bank account.
“You have to spread it out in order to stay afloat,” said Mr. Crawford, a concierge. “It’s part of the budget now.”
Thirty miles northeast of San Francisco in Vallejo, drivers lined up at the Safeway gas station off I-80, where the price was $4.83 per gallon. Several put the blame for their bills on the Biden administration.
“It’s Biden, Gavin Newsom — look at the gas taxes we pay,” said Kevin Altman, a 54-year-old retiree, referring to California’s governor.
Mr. Altman paid $50 to fill up his Jeep and estimated the gas would last him just two days. He said he had stopped driving to go fishing in nearby Benicia to avoid using too much gas, and would do all his Christmas shopping online this year.
The cost can be especially challenging for people who own businesses that depend on transit. Mahmut Sonmez, 33, who runs a car service, spends nearly $800 on gas out of the $2,500 he earns each week driving people around New Jersey. To save money, he moved in September into a Belleville apartment that is $400 cheaper than his previous home. He also cut his cable service and changed cellphone plans.
If gas prices keep rising, Mr. Sonmez said, he will consider changing jobs after nine years in the industry. “Somehow we’ve got to pay the rent,” he said.
In New Jersey, which bans self-service gas, some drivers are directing their ire toward station attendants.
“Every day they’re cursing me out,” said Gaby Marmol, 25, the assistant manager of a BP station in Newark, adding that when she sees how much the customers spend on both gas and convenience store items — $1.19 for ring pops that used to be 50 cents — she feels sympathetic. “We’re just doing our jobs, but they think we set the prices.”
Cheik Diakite, 62, an attendant at a Mobil station in Newark, doesn’t get as many tips as he did before the pandemic, he said, and grows frustrated listening to customers attribute the high prices to Mr. Biden.
Mr. Diakite typically passes afternoons by looking out for his most loyal customers. Bebi Amzad, who works at a nearby school, always has the same request for him: “Fill it up.” But when she pulled in on Thursday, she asked him to give her just $30 worth of gas.
“Today I’m not filling up all the way because I have other expenses,” said Ms. Amzad, 54, who commutes to Newark from Linden, N.J. “Everybody is hurting.”
Because she spends so much on gas and groceries, Ms. Amzad continued, she can’t afford many indulgences. “I don’t go to Marshalls anymore.”
Thu Trang traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 2019, ecstatic to get a job at a factory. She worked eight-hour shifts and was guaranteed overtime pay, and the wages were nearly triple what she had made as a farmer back home.
But during a Covid-19 outbreak this summer, the factory where she worked making Adidas, Converse and New Balance shoes virtually shut down. She and her co-workers were forced to live in a cramped apartment for nearly three months, subsisting on a diet of rice and soy sauce. In October, when restrictions loosened as global supply chain issues surged, Thu Trang decided she would pack up and return to her home province, Tra Vinh.
Her manager promised her higher wages, but she didn’t bother to find out how much.
“Even if the company doubles or triples our wages, I insist on moving back home,” said Thu Trang, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she feared retribution from her company and the government. “Ho Chi Minh City was once a destination where we sought our future, but this is no longer a safe place.”
Just last year, Vietnam’s coronavirus controls were lauded by health officials around the world. The country was so successful that it achieved the highest economic growth in Asia last year, at 2.9 percent. That outlook has dimmed: Workers have fled their factories, managers are struggling to get them back, and economists are forecasting that a full recovery in output won’t come until next year.
monthslong factory shutdowns in the Southeast Asian country. It could mean a longer wait for Nike sneakers,Lululemon yoga pants and Under Armour tank tops before the holidays.Several American retailers have already switched to suppliers in China to ease the crunch.
Patagonia and other brands.
Ms. Doan said that when the government imposed coronavirus restrictions, she went days without food and received only about $130 for August and September from local authorities. The subsidy was not enough for her to pay rent. She said shewas waiting for the company to approve her resignation.
“My trust in the authorities has vanished,” she said. “They failed to control the pandemic effectively, causing many to die from infection and to live in hunger.”
the deliveries of gifts during the Christmas season.
Nike cut its 2022 revenue growth forecast, sayingin September that it had lost 10 weeks of production because 80 percent of its footwear factories were in the south of Vietnam and nearly half of its apparel factories in the country were closed.
On earnings calls, Chico’s, a women’s clothing maker based in Florida, and Callaway, the golf company, said they had moved some of their production out of Vietnam.
Adam Sitkoff, the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, said many companies were looking for workarounds and other remedies to help ease the stress.
“American companies are seeing what they can do,” Mr. Sitkoff said. “If we charter buses and send them to whatever province and hometown, will that help us get the people back?”
American businesses have pushed the Vietnamese government to speed up its vaccine program, which they say is essential for workers to feel safe.Only 29 percent of the population has been fully inoculated, one of the lowest rates in Southeast Asia. Vietnam says it hopes to fully vaccinate 70 percent of its population by the end of the year.
Nguyen Huyen Trang, a 25-year-old worker for Changshin Vietnam, a major supplier for Nike, is fully vaccinated but said she still feared being back on the factory floor. Ms. Nguyen and her husband returned to their home inNinh Thuan, a province in central Vietnam, from Dong Nai when cases there started soaring at the end of July. Her husband wants to go back to the city, but her family is pressuring her to stay.
She said her manager called her in October and offered to increase her wages if she returned. Her response, she said, was “a definite head-shaking no.”
After the company threatened to bring in replacement workers, the employees were dismissive. “No one can find workers now — where do they think they’ll find 400?” Ms. Glazar, the local union official, said shortly before the strike ended. “That’s the only thing that keeps us smiling out there.”
There were also indications that Heaven Hill was running low on inventory as the strike wore on, crimping the company’s ability to age and bottle alcohol that it produced in Louisville. “We could see the truck movement had slowed down from week one to week six — there were not near as many trucks in and out,” Ms. Glazar said.
Josh Hafer, a company spokesman, said, “There may have been some small-scale products impacted, but not to any large degree.”
Still, the workers were under enormous stress. Their health benefits ended when their contract expired, and some workers found their insurance was no longer valid while trying to squeeze in a final doctor’s appointment.
And while jobs in the area appeared plentiful, many workers preferred to stay in the whiskey-making business. “I like what I do, I enjoy everything about bourbon,” said Austin Hinshaw, a worker who voted to strike at the Heaven Hill plant. “I have worked at a factory before, and it’s not my thing.” In late October, Mr. Hinshaw accepted a job at a distillery in town where he had been applying for months.
A few days earlier, Heaven Hill management had worked out a new agreement with the union. The proposed contract included a commitment to largely maintain the existing overtime pay rules for current workers, though it left open the possibility that future workers would be scheduled on weekends at regular pay, which grated on union members. The company also offered a slightly larger pay increase than it had offered just before the workers’ contract expired in September.
In a statement, Heaven Hill pointed to the generous health benefits and increased wages and vacation time in the new contract.