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Why a Rhodes Scholar’s Ambition Led Her to a Job at Starbucks

Most weekend mornings, Jaz Brisack gets up around 5, wills her semiconscious body into a Toyota Prius and winds her way through Buffalo, to the Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue. After a supervisor unlocks the door, she clocks in, checks herself for Covid symptoms and helps get the store ready for customers.

“I’m almost always on bar if I open,” said Ms. Brisack, who has a thrift-store aesthetic and long reddish-brown hair that she parts down the middle. “I like steaming milk, pouring lattes.”

The Starbucks door is not the only one that has been opened for her. As a University of Mississippi senior in 2018, Ms. Brisack was one of 32 Americans who won Rhodes scholarships, which fund study in Oxford, England.

in public support for unions, which last year reached its highest point since the mid-1960s, and a growing consensus among center-left experts that rising union membership could move millions of workers into the middle class.

white-collar workers has coincided with a broader enthusiasm for the labor movement.

In talking with Ms. Brisack and her fellow Rhodes scholars, it became clear that the change had even reached that rarefied group. The American Rhodes scholars I encountered from a generation earlier typically said that, while at Oxford, they had been middle-of-the-road types who believed in a modest role for government. They did not spend much time thinking about unions as students, and what they did think was likely to be skeptical.

“I was a child of the 1980s and 1990s, steeped in the centrist politics of the era,” wrote Jake Sullivan, a 1998 Rhodes scholar who is President Biden’s national security adviser and was a top aide to Hillary Clinton.

By contrast, many of Ms. Brisack’s Rhodes classmates express reservations about the market-oriented policies of the ’80s and ’90s and strong support for unions. Several told me that they were enthusiastic about Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who made reviving the labor movement a priority of their 2020 presidential campaigns.

Even more so than other indicators, such a shift could foretell a comeback for unions, whose membership in the United States stands at its lowest percentage in roughly a century. That’s because the kinds of people who win prestigious scholarships are the kinds who later hold positions of power — who make decisions about whether to fight unions or negotiate with them, about whether the law should make it easier or harder for workers to organize.

As the recent union campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Apple show, the terms of the fight are still largely set by corporate leaders. If these people are increasingly sympathetic to labor, then some of the key obstacles to unions may be dissolving.

suggested in April. The company has identified Ms. Brisack as one of these interlopers, noting that she draws a salary from Workers United. (Mr. Bonadonna said she was the only Starbucks employee on the union’s payroll.)

point out flaws — understaffing, insufficient training, low seniority pay, all of which they want to improve — they embrace Starbucks and its distinctive culture.

They talk up their sense of camaraderie and community — many count regular customers among their friends — and delight in their coffee expertise. On mornings when Ms. Brisack’s store isn’t busy, employees often hold tastings.

A Starbucks spokesman said that Mr. Schultz believes employees don’t need a union if they have faith in him and his motives, and the company has said that seniority-based pay increases will take effect this summer.

onetime auto plant. The National Labor Relations Board was counting ballots for an election at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz. — the first real test of whether the campaign was taking root nationally, and not just in a union stronghold like New York. The room was tense as the first results trickled in.

“Can you feel my heart beating?” Ms. Moore asked her colleagues.

win in a rout — the final count was 25 to 3. Everyone turned slightly punchy, as if they had all suddenly entered a dream world where unions were far more popular than they had ever imagined. One of the lawyers let out an expletive before musing, “Whoever organized down there …”

union campaign he was involved with at a nearby Nissan plant. It did not go well. The union accused the company of running a racially divisive campaign, and Ms. Brisack was disillusioned by the loss.

“Nissan never paid a consequence for what it did,” she said. (In response to charges of “scare tactics,” the company said at the time that it had sought to provide information to workers and clear up misperceptions.)

Mr. Dolan noticed that she was becoming jaded about mainstream politics. “There were times between her sophomore and junior year when I’d steer her toward something and she’d say, ‘Oh, they’re way too conservative.’ I’d send her a New York Times article and she’d say, ‘Neoliberalism is dead.’”

In England, where she arrived during the fall of 2019 at age 22, Ms. Brisack was a regular at a “solidarity” film club that screened movies about labor struggles worldwide, and wore a sweatshirt that featured a head shot of Karl Marx. She liberally reinterpreted the term “black tie” at an annual Rhodes dinner, wearing a black dress-coat over a black antifa T-shirt.

climate technology start-up, lamented that workers had too little leverage. “Labor unions may be the most effective way of implementing change going forward for a lot of people, including myself,” he told me. “I might find myself in labor organizing work.”

This is not what talking to Rhodes scholars used to sound like. At least not in my experience.

I was a Rhodes scholar in 1998, when centrist politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were ascendant, and before “neoliberalism” became such a dirty word. Though we were dimly aware of a time, decades earlier, when radicalism and pro-labor views were more common among American elites — and when, not coincidentally, the U.S. labor movement was much more powerful — those views were far less in evidence by the time I got to Oxford.

Some of my classmates were interested in issues like race and poverty, as they reminded me in interviews for this article. A few had nuanced views of labor — they had worked a blue-collar job, or had parents who belonged to a union, or had studied their Marx. Still, most of my classmates would have regarded people who talked at length about unions and class the way they would have regarded religious fundamentalists: probably earnest but slightly preachy, and clearly stuck in the past.

Kris Abrams, one of the few U.S. Rhodes Scholars in our cohort who thought a lot about the working class and labor organizing, told me recently that she felt isolated at Oxford, at least among other Americans. “Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was much room for discussion,” Ms. Abrams said.

typically minor and long in coming.

has issued complaints finding merit in such accusations. Yet the union continues to win elections — over 80 percent of the more than 175 votes in which the board has declared a winner. (Starbucks denies that it has broken the law, and a federal judge recently rejected a request to reinstate pro-union workers whom the labor board said Starbucks had forced out illegally.)

Twitter was: “We appreciate TIME magazine’s coverage of our union campaign. TIME should make sure they’re giving the same union rights and protections that we’re fighting for to the amazing journalists, photographers, and staff who make this coverage possible!”

The tweet reminded me of a story that Mr. Dolan, her scholarship adviser, had told about a reception that the University of Mississippi held in her honor in 2018. Ms. Brisack had just won a Truman scholarship, another prestigious award. She took the opportunity to urge the university’s chancellor to remove a Confederate monument from campus. The chancellor looked pained, according to several attendees.

“My boss was like, ‘Wow, you couldn’t have talked her out of doing that?’” Mr. Dolan said. “I was like, ‘That’s what made her win. If she wasn’t that person, you all wouldn’t have a Truman now.’”

(Mr. Dolan’s boss at the time did not recall this conversation, and the former chancellor did not recall any drama at the event.)

The challenge for Ms. Brisack and her colleagues is that while younger people, even younger elites, are increasingly pro-union, the shift has not yet reached many of the country’s most powerful leaders. Or, more to the point, the shift has not yet reached Mr. Schultz, the 68-year-old now in his third tour as Starbucks’s chief executive.

She recently spoke at an Aspen Institute panel on workers’ rights. She has even mused about using her Rhodes connections to make a personal appeal to Mr. Schultz, something that Mr. Bensinger has pooh-poohed but that other organizers believe she just may pull off.

“Richard has been making fun of me for thinking of asking one of the Rhodes people to broker a meeting with Howard Schultz,” Ms. Brisack said in February.

“I’m sure if you met Howard Schultz, he’d be like, ‘She’s so nice,’” responded Ms. Moore, her co-worker. “He’d be like, ‘I get it. I would want to be in a union with you, too.’”

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Why a Not-So-Hot Economy Might Be Good News

When it comes to the economy, more is usually better.

Bigger job gains, faster wage growth and more consumer spending are all, in normal times, signs of a healthy economy. Growth might not be sufficient to ensure widespread prosperity, but it is necessary — making any loss of momentum a worrying sign that the economy could be losing steam or, worse, headed into a recession.

But these are not normal times. With nearly twice as many open jobs as available workers and companies struggling to meet record demand, many economists and policymakers argue that what the economy needs right now is not more, but less — less hiring, less wage growth and above all less inflation, which is running at its fastest pace in four decades.

Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, has called the labor market “unsustainably hot,” and the central bank is raising interest rates to try to cool it. President Biden, who met with Mr. Powell on Tuesday, wrote in an opinion article this week in The Wall Street Journal that a slowdown in job creation “won’t be a cause for concern” but would rather be “a sign that we are successfully moving into the next phase of recovery.”

“We want a full and sustainable recovery,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Fed economist who has studied the government’s economic policy response to the pandemic. “The reason that we can’t take the victory lap right now on the recovery — the reason it is incomplete — is because inflation is too high.”

undo much of that progress.

“That’s the needle we’re trying to thread right now,” said Harry J. Holzer, a Georgetown University economist. “We want to give up as few of the gains that we’ve made as possible.”

Economists disagree about the best way to strike that balance. Mr. Powell, after playing down inflation last year, now says reining it in is his top priority — and argues that the central bank can do so without cutting the recovery short. Some economists, particularly on the right, want the Fed to be more aggressive, even at the risk of causing a recession. Others, especially on the left, argue that inflation, while a problem, is a lesser evil than unemployment, and that the Fed should therefore pursue a more cautious approach.

But where progressives and conservatives largely agree is that evaluating the economy will be particularly difficult over the next several months. Distinguishing a healthy cool-down from a worrying stall will require looking beyond the indicators that typically make headlines.

“It’s a very difficult time to interpret economic data and to even understand what’s happening with the economy,” said Michael R. Strain, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute. “We’re entering a period where there’s going to be tons of debate over whether we are in a recession right now.”

11.4 million job openings at the end of April, close to a record. But there are roughly half a million fewer people either working or actively looking for work than when the pandemic began, leaving employers scrambling to fill available jobs.

The labor force has grown significantly this year, and forecasters expect more workers to return as the pandemic and the disruptions it caused continue to recede. But the pandemic may also have driven longer-lasting shifts in Americans’ work habits, and economists aren’t sure when or under what circumstances the labor force will make a complete rebound. Even then, there might not be enough workers to meet the extraordinarily high level of employer demand.

Persistently weak pay increases were a bleak hallmark of the long, slow recovery that followed the last recession. But even some economists who bemoaned those sluggish gains at the time say the current rate of wage growth is unsustainable.

“That’s something that we’re used to saying pretty unequivocally is good, but in this case it just raises the risk that the economy is overheating further,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist of the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington research organization. As long as wages are rising 5 or 6 percent per year, he said, it will be all but impossible to bring inflation down to the Fed’s 2 percent target.

Fed officials are watching closely for signs of a “wage-price spiral,” a self-reinforcing pattern in which workers expect inflation and therefore demand raises, leading employers to increase prices to compensate. Once such a cycle takes hold, it can be difficult to break — a prospect Mr. Powell has cited in explaining why the central bank has become more aggressive in fighting inflation.

“It’s a risk that we simply can’t run,” he said at a news conference last month. “We can’t allow a wage-price spiral to happen. And we can’t allow inflation expectations to become unanchored. It’s just something that we can’t allow to happen, and so we’ll look at it that way.”

speech in Germany this week, Christopher J. Waller, a Fed governor, argued that as demand slows, employers are likely to start posting fewer jobs before they turn to layoffs. That could result in slower wage growth — since with fewer employers trying to hire, there will be less competition for workers — without a big increase in unemployment.

“I think there’s room right now for inflation to come down a significant amount without unemployment coming up,” said Mike Konczal, an economist at the Roosevelt Institute.

The Fed’s efforts to cool off the economy are already bearing fruit, Mr. Konczal said. Mortgage rates have risen sharply, and there are signs that the housing market is slowing as a result. The stock market has lost almost 15 percent of its value since the beginning of the year. That loss of wealth is likely to lead at least some consumers to pull back on their spending, which will lead to a pullback in hiring. Job openings fell in April, though they remained high, and wage growth has eased.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest the economy has already slowed down,” Mr. Konczal said. He said he was optimistic that the United States was on a path toward “normalizing to a regular good economy” instead of the boomlike one it has experienced over the past year.

But the thing about such a “soft landing,” as Fed officials call it, is that it is still a landing. Wage growth will be slower. Job opportunities will be fewer. Workers will have less leverage to demand flexible schedules or other perks. For the Fed, achieving that outcome without causing a recession would be a victory — but it might not feel like one to workers.

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Truck Drivers’ On-the-Job Training Can Be Costly if They Quit

Once they have earned the license, drivers haul actual loads for their new employers. For typically four to 12 weeks, they are accompanied by a trainer. They earn a set weekly rate, varying by company but often $500 to $800, according to company websites. Mr. England said his company’s pay was $560 a week in 2019 and about $784 today.

Trainers may be barely trained themselves, often needing only six months’ experience, and they are allowed to sleep in the back while the new driver is alone in the cab, according to industry experts and many companies.

Ms. Jeschke said she finished her training without being able to back up, a crucial skill for truckers. She said she once spent a week at a truck stop, unpaid, waiting for another driver because she didn’t yet have the expertise to pick up a load on her own.

Frustrated with the working conditions and the low pay, she and Ms. Skamser left C.R. England before their contracts were up and went to work for another trucking company, Werner Enterprises, where they say they were more fully trained.

“I do not have words for how bad it was,” Ms. Jeschke said. “They do not care about drivers, only the loads.”

Ms. Skamser said a debt collection agency was pursuing her for $6,000 that C.R. England says she owes for her training.

It’s reasonable for companies to want to recoup the cost of training an individual, said Stewart J. Schwab, a professor at Cornell Law School. Still, he noted, like noncompete clauses, these contracts can significantly restrict worker mobility and hinder competition. In 2021, Mr. Schwab worked on a proposed law about restrictive employment agreements, such as the ones trucking companies use, with the Uniform Law Commission, a nonpartisan organization that drafts laws for states.

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Why the January Jobs Report May Disappoint, and Is Sure to Perplex

The January jobs report is arriving at a critical time for the U.S. economy. Inflation is rising. The pandemic is still taking a toll. And the Federal Reserve is trying to decide how best to steer the economy through a swirl of competing threats.

Unfortunately, the data, which the Labor Department will release on Friday, is unlikely to provide a clear guide.

A slew of measurement issues and data quirks will make it hard to assess exactly how the latest coronavirus wave has affected workers and businesses, or to gauge the underlying health of the labor market.

“It’s going to be a mess,” said Skanda Amarnath, executive director of Employ America, a research group.

on Twitter and in conversations with reporters that a weak January jobs number would not necessarily be a sign of a sustained slowdown.

Economists generally agree. Coronavirus cases have already begun to fall in most of the country, and there is little evidence so far that the latest wave caused lasting economic damage. Layoffs have not spiked, as they did earlier in the pandemic, and employers continue to post job openings.

“You could have the possibility of a payroll number that looks really truly horrendous, but you’re pulling on a rubber band,” said Nick Bunker, director of economic research for the job site Indeed. “Things could bounce back really quickly.”

loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.

Economists typically pay more attention to the survey of businesses, which is larger and seen as more reliable. But some say they will be paying closer attention than usual this month to the data from the survey of households, because it will do a better job of distinguishing between temporary absences and more lasting effects from Omicron, such as layoffs or postponed expansions.

But economists have also cautioned not to minimize the impact that even temporary absences from work could have on families and the economy, especially now that the government is no longer offering expanded unemployment benefits and other aid.

“There isn’t that much Covid relief funding sloshing about anymore, so absences from work may actually reflect a meaningful decline in income,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at the employment site ZipRecruiter.

Even in normal times, January jobs data can be tough to interpret. Retailers, shippers and other companies every year lay off hundreds of thousands of temporary workers hired during the holiday season. Government statisticians adjust the data to account for those seasonal patterns, but that process is imperfect. January is also the month each year when the Labor Department incorporates long-run revisions and other updates to its estimates.

“January is a messy month as it is,” Mr. Amarnath said.

This year, it could be extra messy because the pandemic has disrupted normal seasonal patterns. The labor shortage led some companies to hire permanent workers instead of short-term seasonal help during the holidays; others may have retained temporary workers longer than planned to cover for employees who were out sick. If that results in fewer layoffs than usual, the government’s seasonal adjustment formula will interpret that continued employment as an increase.

Other numbers could also be deceptive. The unemployment rate, for example, could fall even if hiring slowed. That is because the government considers people unemployed only if they are actively searching for work, and the spike in Covid cases may have led some to suspend their job searches.

Data on average hourly earnings could also be skewed because it is based on the payroll data — people who aren’t on payrolls aren’t counted in the average at all. Low-wage workers were probably the most likely to be missing from payrolls last month, since higher-wage workers are more likely to have access to paid sick leave. That could lead to an artificial — and temporary — jump in average earnings when policymakers at the Fed are watching wage data for hints about inflation.

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Despite Labor Shortages, Workers See Few Gains in Economic Security

“Companies are doing all they can not to bake in any gains that are difficult to claw back,” Dr. Schneider said. “Workers’ labor market power is so far not yielding durable dividends.”

The changes that make work lower paying, less stable and generally more precarious date back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the labor market evolved in two key ways. First, companies began pushing more work outside the firm — relying increasingly on contractors, temps and franchisees, a practice known as “fissuring.”

Second, many businesses that continued to employ workers directly began hiring them to part-time positions, rather than full-time roles, particularly in the retail and hospitality industries.

According to the scholars Chris Tilly of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Françoise Carré of the University of Massachusetts Boston, the initial impetus for the shift to part-time work was the mass entry of women into the work force, including many who preferred part-time positions so they could be home when children returned from school.

Before long, however, employers saw an advantage in hiring part-timers and deliberately added more. “A light bulb went on one day,” Dr. Tilly said. “‘If we’re expanding part-time schedules, we don’t have to offer benefits, we can offer a lower wage rate.’”

By the late 1980s, employers had begun using scheduling software to forecast customer demand and staffed accordingly. Having a large portion of part-time workers, who could be given more hours when stores got busy and fewer hours when business slowed, helped enable this practice, known as just-in-time scheduling.

But the arrangement subjected workers to fluctuating schedules and unreliable hours, disrupting their personal lives, their sleep, even their children’s brain development.

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Wages Rise at Fastest Pace Since 2002 as Inflation Continues to Run Hot

Inflation came in strong and wage growth remained elevated at the end of 2021, setting the stage for a challenging economic year in which the Federal Reserve and White House will try to maintain momentum in the job market while wrestling price gains under control.

The Personal Consumption Expenditures index, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, came in at 5.8 percent in December, up from 5.7 percent the prior month. That beat out the prior month to become the fastest pace since 1982.

climbed 4 percent in the year through the fourth quarter, with its wages and salaries measure picking up by 4.5 percent.

That marked the fastest pace of increase for both the overall compensation and the wages and salaries measure since the data series started two decades ago.

taken steps aimed at relieving pressure on choked supply chains, the job of slowing down demand to bring prices under control rests primarily with the Fed.

produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that incorporates backlogs, delivery times and inventories.

Inflation sped up starting last year as people bought more goods, aided by repeated government relief checks and other federal benefits. The world’s factories and shipping lines have struggled to keep up with demand, resulting in rising prices for cars, lumber and clothing. While spending has moderated somewhat recently — it fell in December as Omicron spread, as goods consumption declined — it is unclear whether that is a blip caused by the pandemic or a lasting pullback.

Fed officials have been watching for signs that inflation, which they have projected will ease to less than 3 percent by the end of the year, might instead linger.

“We are attentive to the risks that persistent real wage growth in excess of productivity could put upward pressure on inflation,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, said during a news conference on Wednesday. Friday’s data could offer officials some slight reprieve.

Mr. Powell had in December specifically cited the previously Employment Cost Index reading — which came in high during the third quarter — as one reason that the Fed had decided to shift from stoking growth to preparing to fight back if inflation becomes long-lasting.

The fact that the measure did not pick up as sharply as expected in the final quarter of the year could give investors some confidence that the central bank’s policy-setting group, the Federal Open Market Committee, will not further speed up its plans to withdraw economic help.

University of Michigan survey has shown sentiment faltering as prices have risen, and the Conference Board’s index ticked down in January.

“You have very high inflation, so people are seeing an erosion of their purchasing power,” said Dana M. Peterson, chief economist at The Conference Board, noting that the resurgent virus is also to blame. “People will have higher confidence once we’re beyond Omicron.”

For now, it is a moment of pronounced economic uncertainty.

Ashley Fahr, the owner of the culinary company and event space La Cuisine in Venice, Calif., said rising grocery costs began to bite at a difficult moment — just before Omicron began to surge, causing people to pull back from activities like the cooking classes and catering events she offers.

She noticed in December that her food bill had gone up by about 15 percent, chipping away at her margins, and passed about 5 percent of that on to customers while absorbing the rest of the increase.

“I didn’t want to quote a number people would balk at,” she said.

Ms. Fahr said she pays her workers — most of whom are independent contractors — competitive wages and that it’s hard to keep up with rising prices and still turn a profit. She is watching to see what other local caterers and cooking classes do with their pricing — and whether they begin to pass on the full increase to customers.

“If everyone else does it, I’ll do it too,” Ms. Fahr said.

That sort of logic is what economic officials worry about. If businesses and consumers begin to expect prices to steadily rise, they may begin to accept instead of resisting them — and when inflation gets baked into expectations, it might spiral upward year after year, economists worry.

“What we’re trying to do is get inflation, keep inflation expectations well anchored at 2 percent,” Mr. Powell, the Fed chair, said at his news conference this week. “That’s always the ultimate goal.”

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A Fight Over Rooftop Solar Threatens California’s Climate Goals

Some energy experts say utilities would not be able to produce or buy enough renewable energy to replace what would be lost from the decline in rooftop solar panels — which supplied 9 percent of the state’s electricity in 2020, more than nuclear and coal put together. California would need to set aside about a quarter of its land for renewable energy to meet its climate goals without expanding rooftop solar, said Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental energy at Stanford. As a result, utilities would have to turn to natural gas and other fossil fuels.

“The only thing this is going to do is reduce rooftop solar,” Professor Jacobson said. “That will mean there will be more natural gas in the system. Every rooftop should have solar on it. You should be encouraging more of it.”

People who install solar panels on their roofs or property are still connected to the electrical grid, but they receive credit on their bills for power they produce beyond what they use. California’s proposal would cut the value of those credits, which are roughly equivalent to retail electricity rates, by about 87 percent. In addition, the measure would impose a new monthly fee on solar homeowners — about $56 for the typical rooftop system.

The monthly cost of solar and electricity for homeowners with an average rooftop system who are served by PG&E, the state’s largest utility, would jump to $215, from $133, according to the California Solar and Storage Association.

An intense campaign is underway to sway regulators. Rooftop solar companies, homeowners and activists on one side and utilities and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on the other are lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom to intervene. While the commission is independent of Mr. Newsom, he wields enormous influence. The governor recently told reporters that the regulators should change their proposal but didn’t specify how.

The electrical workers union, which did not respond to requests for comment, is playing a central role. It represents linemen, electricians and other utility employees, who usually earn more than the mostly nonunion workers who install rooftop systems. Many union members, an important constituency for Democrats, fear being left behind in the transition to green energy.

Other states are also targeting rooftop solar. Florida is considering legislation to roll back compensation to homeowners for the excess energy their panels produce, a benefit known as net energy metering.

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Inflation Hits the Fast Food Counter

On a chilly Tuesday afternoon this month, James Marsh stopped by a Chipotle near his suburban Chicago home to grab something to eat.

It had been a while since Mr. Marsh had been to Chipotle — he estimated he goes five times a year — and he stopped cold when he saw the prices.

“I had been getting my usual, a steak burrito, which had been maybe in the mid-$8 range,” said Mr. Marsh, who trades stock options at his home in Hinsdale, Ill. “Now it was more than $9.”

He walked out.

“I figured I’d find something at home,” he said.

The pandemic has led to price spikes in everything from pizza slices in Manhattan to sides of beef in Colorado. And it has led to more expensive items on the menus at fast-food chains, traditionally establishments where people are used to grabbing a quick bite that doesn’t hurt their wallet.

government data. And, in some cases, portions have shrunk.

“In recent years, most fast-food restaurants had, maybe, raised prices in the low single digits each year,” said Matthew Goodman, an analyst at M Science, an alternative data research and analytics firm. “What we’ve seen over the last six-plus months are restaurants being aggressive in pushing through prices.”

This comes at a time when the hypercompetitive fast-food market is booming.

Chains like McDonald’s, Chipotle and Wingstop were big winners of the pandemic as consumers, stuck at home working and tired of cooking multiple meals for their families, increasingly turned to them for convenient solutions. But in the past year, as the cost of ingredients rose and the average hourly wage increased 16 percent to $16.10 in November from a year earlier, according to government data, restaurants began to quietly bump up prices.

But making customers pay more for a burger or a burrito is a tricky art. For many restaurants, it involves complex algorithms and test markets. They need to walk a fine line between raising prices enough to cover expenses while not scaring away customers. Moreover, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Chains that are operated by franchisees typically allow individual owners to decide pricing. And national chains, like Chipotle and Shake Shack, charge different prices in various parts of the country.

When Carrols Restaurant Group, which operates more than 1,000 Burger Kings, raised prices in the second half of last year, the number of customers actually improved from the third to the fourth quarter. “Over time, we generally have not seen a whole lot of pushback from consumers” on the higher prices, Carrols’ chief executive, Daniel T. Accordino, told analysts at a conference in early January.

Menu prices are likely to continue to climb this year. Many restaurants say they are still paying higher wages to attract employees and expect food prices to rise.

“We expect unprecedented increases in our food basket costs versus 2021,” Ritch Allison, the chief executive of Domino’s Pizza, told Wall Street analysts at a conference this month. While Domino’s hasn’t raised prices, it is altering its promotions — offering the $7.99 pizza deal only to customers ordering online and shrinking the number of chicken wings in certain promotions to eight from 10 — in an effort to maintain profit margins.

Despite the higher food and labor costs, some restaurants are seeing sales and profits rebound past prepandemic levels.

When McDonald’s reports earnings this month, Wall Street analysts expect that its revenues will have hit a five-year high of more than $23 billion, a $2 billion increase from 2019. Net income is predicted to top $7 billion, up from $6 billion in 2019. Other chains like Cracker Barrel and Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, have resumed dividend payments or cash buybacks of stock after suspending those activities early in the pandemic to conserve cash.

And next month, when Chipotle reports results for 2021, analysts expect revenues to top $7.5 billion, a 34 percent jump from 2019. Net income is expected to almost double from prepandemic levels. In the third quarter, the company repurchased nearly $100 million of its stock. Chipotle declined to make an executive available for an interview, citing the quiet period ahead of its earnings release.

While Chipotle executives blamed higher labor costs for a 4 percent price increase in menu items this summer, the company has been looking for ways to boost its profitability.

One way was to charge higher prices for delivery. Delivery orders through vendors like DoorDash and Uber Eats exploded for Chipotle and other fast-food chains during the pandemic. But so did the commission fees that Chipotle paid the vendors. So in the fall of 2020, it began running tests to see what would happen if it raised the prices of burritos and guacamole and chips that customers ordered for delivery, executives told Wall Street analysts in an earnings call. It essentially meant the customer covered Chipotle’s side of the delivery costs.

The company discovered customers were willing to pay for the convenience of delivery. Now, customers ordering Chipotle for delivery pay about 21 percent more than if they had ordered and picked the food up in the stores, according to an analysis by Jeff Farmer, an analyst at Gordon Haskett Research Advisors.

“I would say that our ultimate goal, so this would be over the long term, maybe the medium term, is to fully protect our margins,” said Jack Hartung, the chief financial officer of Chipotle, on a call with Wall Street analysts last fall. “When you look at our pricing versus other restaurant companies’ for the quality of the food, the quantity of the food, and the quality and convenience of the experience, we offer great value. So we believe we have room to fully protect the margin.”

That doesn’t mean customers are thrilled about the extra costs.

This month, Jacob Herlin, a data scientist in Lakewood, Colo., placed an order: a steak-and-guacamole burrito for $11.95, a Coca-Cola for $3, and chips and guacamole, which were free with a birthday coupon. The total was $14.95, before tax.

But when he clicked to have the food delivered, the price for the burrito jumped to $14.45 and the soda climbed to $3.65, bringing the total to $18.10 before tax, 21 percent more than if he had picked the food up himself.

There was more. Mr. Herlin was charged a delivery fee of $1 and another “service fee” of $2.32, bringing the total for the delivered meal to $23.20. He tipped the driver an additional $3.

Mr. Herlin said he did not mind paying for delivery and wanted drivers to be paid a decent wage. But he felt that Chipotle wasn’t being upfront with customers about the added costs.

“They’re basically hiding the fees two different ways, through that base price increase and through the hidden ‘service fee,’” Mr. Herlin said in an email. “I would very much prefer if they had the same pricing and were just honest about a $5 delivery fee.”

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