LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tina Hardison has had to stop reading news articles about the so-called “worker shortage” in the service industry. “It burns me up so much,” she said. 

What You Need To Know

  • Employers have been complaining about a worker shortage as the economy opens back up

  • Service industry workers say the problem is more complicated than some make it seem

  • Some are waiting for their old job, hunting for a new job, or unable to work because of childcare issues

  • Others suggest that the service industry is simply not paying enough to attract workers

“It's very upsetting that people would think I’d rather collect unemployment,” said Hardison, who was furloughed from her position as the food and beverage director for the Kentucky Center for the Arts in March of 2020. “I would much rather be working. This is the first time since I was 15 years old —and I'm 50 now — that I have not been in the food industry.”

In recent weeks, service industry employers in Kentucky and around the country have said they can't fill jobs. Restaurant owners have gone viral claiming "no one wants to work anymore" and "people just do not want to work." Increasingly, Republican leaders are blaming the problem on unemployment benefits that they deem too generous. 

Democrats “have demonized work so Americans would become dependent on big government,” House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted over the weekend. On Wednesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell said filling open positions is difficult because "compensation plans are so generous to not work that you lose the incentive to go back to work."

But economic data suggests these concerns are overblown and several workers in the Louisville service industry told Spectrum News 1 a different story about why they haven’t returned to the industry. There are challenges with childcare, frustrations with low wages, and after a year of lock downs and tragedies, a reworking of priorities.

Hardison would love to be back at work, she said, but with two kids attending school remotely, she has not been able to return despite offers to do so. “A lot of people have kids, and they’re home from school,” Hardison said. “How are they supposed to work?”

Now her kids are back in school two days a week, making a return to work as impractical as when they were home full-time. “Everybody’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, and then, having judgment thrown at them for just doing what they have to do is infuriating,” she said.

"Looking for a job is a full-time job"

Tracey Garnett is also unemployed, but she still wakes up every morning and checks her email. “I get job alerts from Indeed,” she said. “And I pay for LinkedIn, so I can see jobs there, too.”

She makes a list of all the positions she’s qualified for and, by the end of the day, has applied to each of them. “Looking for a job is a full-time job,” said Garnett, who is currently furloughed from her position at a Louisville sports venue. She declined to name the venue to avoid harming her chances of returning to work.

Garnett is not unwilling or unable to work hard, she said, but she’s also not ready to settle for substandard wages. “A $10-an-hour job is not going to cover my expenses, and it’s going to take me away from looking for a job,” she said.

Some of Garnett's friends couldn’t wait for their restaurant job to return, so they found work in construction or manufacturing. Some even started their own businesses in their hunt for what she called "a more stable income."

"Not for everybody"

Hannah Jones has a theory for why people aren’t flocking back to work in the service industry. “Nobody wants to pay what it's worth for people to work those jobs,” she said. Service industry jobs are always a challenge, said Jones, who was been a waitress, hostess and barista. Those challenges have increased during the pandemic and now include managing a stream of carry-out orders along with in-person dining and police customer mask compliance. "It's a tough job and it's not for everybody," she said. 

When COVID-19 hit the U.S. in March 2020, Jones worked as a shift lead at Heine Brothers'. For several months prior, she and a group of co-workers had discussed leveraging their collective power to demand improvements in pay and treatment. 

As offices began telling employees to work remotely, Heine Brothers' cafes began filling up and Jones and her co-workers began to feel unsafe. “We decided to immediately draft a letter demanding certain protections,” she said. 

Within weeks, Jones and her co-workers had organized a sick out and won hazard pay. Despite the victory, Jones didn’t stick around long. “Only essential businesses were to remain open and I didn't really feel like lattes were essential,” she said. 

After two years at Heine Brothers', Jones has not returned to the service industry, taking a job instead with the nonprofit Change Today, Change Tomorrow. In her new role, she’s come in contact with many Louisvillians who are struggling to stay in their homes and feed their families during the pandemic.

She’s also met people who have been able to use extended unemployment benefits to take a break from grinding work schedules for the first time in their lives. They’re emerging with new priorities. 

“Regular folks had a moment to step back and take stock because the way we were living wasn’t good for us,” she said. “So, no, we don’t want to go back to exploitative living. We don't want to depend on $3-an-hour plus tips ever again. If those folks want to stay in business, then they need to come up with new ways of doing it that take care of their employees first.”