An employee stocks shelves in the toy section of a Walmart in Secaucus, NJ on Tuesday, November 22. More than two and a half years into the pandemic, many businesses have not been able to resume the same hours of operations or services as they continue to face labor shortages. (Seth Wenig, Associated Press)
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NEW YORK — Before the pandemic, Cheryl Woodard used to take her daughter and her friends to eat at a local IHOP in Laurel, Maryland after their dance practice. But now they hardly ever go there because it closes too early.
“It’s a bit frustrating because it’s not as convenient as it used to be,” said Woodard, 54, who also does most of her shopping online these days rather than in person because of the stores limiting their opening hours.
Before the pandemic, consumers had become accustomed to instant gratification: packages and groceries delivered to their doorstep in less than an hour, stores that remained open 24 hours a day to meet all their needs.
But more than two and a half years later, in a world yearning for normalcy, many workers are fed up and don’t want to go back to how they were. They demand better hours, and sometimes even quit their jobs altogether.
As a result, many businesses have still not been able to resume the same hours of operation or services as they continue to face labor shortages. Others have made changes in the name of efficiency. For example, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and private employer, announced last summer that it was not considering its supercenters resuming daily operations from before the pandemic.
IHOP says a large majority of its locations have returned to their pre-pandemic hours and some have even expanded them. But others, like the Laurel location that Woodward frequented, have indeed cut spending.
The changes are creating a disconnect between customers who want to shop and dine like they did before the pandemic and burnt-out employees who no longer want to work those long hours — a push-pull that only intensifies while shopping for busy holiday season.
“Nobody wins,” said Sadie Cherney, franchise owner with three Clothes Mentor resale stores in South Carolina. “It’s so demoralizing to see you fall short on both sides.”
Across all industries, the average number of hours worked per week per worker totaled 34.4 hours in November, unchanged from February 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But for retail, it slipped 1.6% to 30.2 hours per week over the same period. Hours worked in restaurants fell by the same amount in October, according to the most recent data.
Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association’s latest monthly survey of 4,200 restaurateurs conducted in early August found that 60% of restaurants reduced opening hours on days they were open, while 38% closed on days they were. normally open compared to right before the pandemic.
And a report by food and beverage research firm Dataessential showed that the average American restaurant was open about six hours less per week in October than in 2019, a drop of 7.5%.
Cherney noted that her stores had returned to pre-pandemic times last year, but with labor shortages worsening and labor costs rising, she has struggled to retain those same hours this year.
–Sadie Cherney, Franchise Owner
Her Columbia store opened an hour later, but she had to offer her workers raises. For its other two locations in Greenville and Spartanburg, hours have been reduced for personal shopping appointments throughout the week and no longer accept second-hand clothes from shoppers on Sundays.
Cherney noted that customers often complain about long waits to process their second-hand deals, while her staff are overworked because they are working 20% longer than they would like. The end result: cash flow and profitability both took a hit.
Mani Bhushan, owner of Taco Ocho, a taco restaurant with four locations in the Dallas area, is still struggling to hire cooks at his McKinney location, which opened in July 2021. He said many workers could not afford to live in this posh suburb and had to travel from elsewhere. Several times a week, he had to close the establishment early, something he has never had to do in his 40 years with the company.
Even when Bhushan is able to maintain its normal business hours, it still has to cut online orders earlier in the day and the service falls short of its other locations.
“I’m a perfectionist,” he said. “I’m not happy. But I can’t fix it now.”
Labor shortages are expected to remain acute into next year, even as several major tech companies have cut staff or frozen hiring. The economy added 263,000 jobs while the unemployment rate remained at 3.7% in November, still near a 53-year low, according to the Labor Department. And while U.S. job openings fell in October from September, the number rose 3% in retail.
For shopping center operator Taubman Centers, which manages or leases 24 leading centers in the United States and Asia, many stores open later than its centers to save on staffing costs, according to Bill Taubman, president and chief operating officer. However, he said it caused frustration among customers who went to the mall thinking the store they wanted to shop at would be open.
Vicky Thai, a 27-year-old student to become a medical assistant in West Hartford, Connecticut, said she was often frustrated with expectations for service in restaurants and stores. She recalls a recent experience at the restaurant where it took a long time just to get water; at a local clothing store, she spent 30 minutes waiting in line to buy an item due to a lack of staff.
But for every frustrated customer, there’s a frustrated worker. Artavia Milliam, 39, from Brooklyn, New York, is a visual merchandiser at H&M in Times Square. She said she spent more time helping out in the saleroom than updating the mannequins due to the lack of staff.
“It can get overwhelming,” she said. “Everyday I meet someone who is rude.”
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