The Labor Shortage — Risks and Solutions

Columns - Legislative Update

While you are likely much more interested in the potential risks and solutions of the labor shortage, understanding the causes is essential.

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December 13, 2021

For a long list of reasons, COVID-19 caused some significant labor shortage issues, both throughout the worst of the pandemic and still as it seems to be waning. But as the May/June 2020 Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine article “We’re Hiring!” (bit.ly/308tSDu) illustrated, the shortage did not start with COVID. Prior to the pandemic, the United States job market had been growing, taking the unemployment rate to its lowest level in a half century and making it difficult to fill jobs in both food science/management positions and on-floor skilled/low-skilled workers.

What we didn’t know then, but got quite right, was that: “Regardless of what post-COVID-19 looks like, food production will continue to be an essential industry in need of workers.” And that need has become even more critical than anyone really expected — putting huge pressure on the entire supply chain as well as in-plant workforces and causing production and operational challenges.

While it is unlikely that any QA readers are unaware of the labor shortage, the validity of the causes and the impacts on operations, inspectors, auditors and consumers aren’t taking any of it as an excuse. Regulatory agencies aren’t giving food facilities any slack when it comes to continued food safety, and consumers are no more tolerant.

So, what to do? While you are likely much more interested in the potential risks and solutions than in a cataloging of causes, it is essential to understand the causes to understand the risks and develop solutions. So let’s look at some of the key areas:

Supply chain shortages. The worker deficit at every step of the supply chain has not only impacted the availability of ingredients, but also, in some cases, the quality and safety. For this reason, it is more essential than ever that manufacturers ensure their supply chain verification program is up to date, and all COAs, labels, ingredient lists, etc., are accurate. It also is important to seek verified sources and build relationships beyond those you’ve always used to provide backup options and enable continued production.

Workforce return — or lack thereof. Of course, you also need a sufficient workforce in the manufacturing plant to enable ongoing production — both on the plant floor and in management. With the pandemic having caused many workers to resist a return to work because of fear of illness, increased savings from stimulus or unemployment payments, childcare needs and even an overall reassessment of their jobs/careers, businesses are competing for a small pool of workers. So looking at worker recruitment as a competition can help in gaining quality workers. While increased pay can help, today’s workers are even more interested in flexible work time, shorter commutes/work-from-home options, career enhancement opportunities and other such incentives.

Temporary workers. The use of temporary workers has long been a trend for the food industry, particularly those with seasonal variation. While there has always been some associated risk, as these workers are less familiar with the product, operational and food safety requirements, that risk is increased when the pool of quality workers is decreased. Because of this, it is critical that there be a strong focus on training to the job the temp worker will be performing and the food safety aspects of the position. With some businesses finding temp workers arriving in the morning to work, then not returning after lunch, working closely with the temp agency on worker needs, and making the work conditions as positive as possible will help in retaining both regular and temporary workers.

Vaccine and testing mandates. In September, the mandate came down from the Biden Administration that all workers in businesses with more than 100 employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly. In November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] published the standard to which businesses were to comply by Dec. 5, except for testing, for which compliance was due Jan. 6, 2022. As of this writing, however, because of the legal challenges to the standard, OSHA was ordered to “take no steps to implement or enforce” it until further court order. So, it suspended all related activities. Although there may have been some resolution by the time you are reading this, it also may still be pending a court decision, perhaps as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. Either way, the edict has certainly made an impact.

With COVID rates continuing to decline, we can hope that at least some of these impacts begin to level out. But we also need to use the lessons learned from the pandemic to help ensure we are prepared — not only for better weathering the next pandemic but for protecting the business through other infectious disease outbreaks, local or global.