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End Flap: Staying on the Right Side of the Great Resignation

Feb. 22, 2022
Food processors will want to stay on the right side of the Great Resignation. Pan Demetrakakes explains how.

The biggest challenge facing the food and beverage industry can be summed up in three words: labor, labor, labor.

Pretty much everything else that’s going wrong with the industry right now has labor problems at its core. Can’t get supplies in, or your product out, because of supply chain issues? It’s because no one’s around to drive the trucks. Can’t get the equipment you need? People aren’t showing up to build it.

And one of the biggest challenges of all has been getting workers into the plant and keeping them there.

COVID is a big reason for that problem, of course. Only it’s manifesting itself in two ways: Directly, by keeping workers out when they get infected; and indirectly, by encouraging them to find other employment.

In a phenomenon that has been dubbed “The Great Resignation,” workers all over America are using, or have used, the pandemic as a way to reevaluate their options and reassess their quality of life. Stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits have given lots of Americans choices other than rushing back to, or into, some lousy job with irregular hours and few or no benefits.

Workers have been flexing their newfound power. Last year saw an increase in job actions, including in the food industry, where strikes had been quite rare. Frito-Lay, Mondelēz and Kellogg all got hit with strikes in 2021; all eventually settled.

Now, I’ve been in enough food plants to know that getting people to work there means overcoming some obstacles. Many of them just aren’t very pleasant environments. But there’s one thing they can offer – or at least should be able to offer – that a lot of jobs don’t: Steady, plentiful hours.

One of the biggest knocks on work in retail and foodservice, especially fast food, is that the hours are both skimpy and irregular. Many employers insist on the hated practice of putting workers “on call,” meaning they must be available to rush in to work at a moment’s notice and can’t plan to do anything that would interfere – but of course, they’re not getting paid.

On top of which, retail and foodservice employers, both mom-and-pops and the larger chains, have a powerful incentive to keep everyone’s hours under 30 a week: It keep them ineligible for benefits, from both within and outside the company. Put irregular scheduling together with skimpy hours, paid at a not very high rate, and you have a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Coincidentally, irregular scheduling was one of the biggest reasons for last year’s strikes against food processors. Only the problem wasn’t too few hours to go around, but too many.

During the strikes, workers made hair-raising claims of not having had a single day off for months. In some cases they had to report for their next shift only four hours after their last one, or work double shifts with next to no notice. These are called “suicide shifts,” and it’s for a reason when you consider the possible consequences of fatigue-induced mistakes around heavy equipment.

So you have a pool of workers who need more hours, and another pool who have too many. Any solutions suggest themselves?

If I were in charge of floor worker recruitment for a major food processor, I would heavily advertise how my jobs are a step up from retail or fast food. Better pay (comparatively), benefits, all the hours you need and want, plus no dealings with annoying (or worse) customers.

In addition, factory work has a certain cachet that’s just not there for retail or foodservice work. I don’t mean in any way to disparage the latter, which is hard and necessary labor. It’s just that factories have long been a source of serious, long-term jobs in America and all over the world – the type of job that’s unquestionably for adults who need to make a living and support families.

There’s lots more to be done, of course, to make work in food plants genuinely attractive. Better working environments, higher pay and better scheduling, with an end to suicide shifts, are obvious first steps.

But the industry already has advantages. It needs to play those up, so it will stay on the right side of the Great Resignation.

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