By Richard Sullins |

I switched pharmacies last month. My previous drug store, which had always been accessible seven days a week, is now open only for only four and I need to be able to count on them being there. Four days a week doesn’t cut it.

It’s become hard for them to find a second pharmacist to provide relief for the one who has been on primary duty there since I came to Sanford. In fact, 30 different pharmacist positions in the Sanford area were being advertised in late December on And it’s part of a trend that is impacting more than just pharmacies, and more than just Sanford.

You’ve probably experienced it recently in checkout lines. You’ve likely felt it just walking into your favorite restaurant during the past few months. Or maybe there has been a sign on the front door, warning you to expect delays in service because of a shortage of workers.

But these workers, where are they?

There exists a belief among some that the labor shortage that’s taking place nationwide can be traced back directly to the generous unemployment benefits that were contained in the economic stimulus relief package that followed the arrival of the COVID pandemic last year. This theory says that most people who lost their jobs when the pandemic arrived chose to stay home because they could bring in more money from their unemployment checks than they could from their paychecks.

While that way of thinking might ring true for some, it turns out that there is a deeper explanation that provides a broader truth: lots of employees were already fed up with working conditions before the pandemic arrived and when it hit, it was all the push they needed to move on.

Return to employment didn’t happen

The men’s group from my church meets twice a month for breakfast at a local restaurant. On the entrance door, a posted sign reads “please be patient. We are short staffed due to stimulus money. We are doing the best we can under the circumstances.”

If the temporary unemployment benefits funded by the COVID stimulus bill were responsible for workers choosing to stay home and draw their benefits instead of going to work, those same employees should have returned to work after the benefits ended on September 4. But according to the North Carolina Division of Employment Security, they didn’t.

You’ve seen them across the city — signs that promise starting wages that were simply unheard of just 6 months ago. It’s become easy to spot signage at fast-food restaurants offering hourly rates of up to $15 or more, and some with sign-on bonuses, like poultry production, retail and automotive sales, and health care facilities looking for CNAs and RNs.

By the end of April 2020, six weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state, the state’s unemployment rate had reached 15 percent, a level that was high but still lower than the record of 16.2 percent reached in April 2009 during the Great Recession. Like air slowly leaking from a balloon, the jobless rate continued to slowly drop through the pandemic, even through the most recent COVID surges of last winter and this summer. As of this September, the latest month for which current numbers are available, the rate stood at 4.3 percent. In September of last year, it was 8 percent.

The raw numbers of people without jobs also indicate that large sums of people dropped off the unemployment rolls instead of remaining on them. In September 2020, 2,070 persons were drawing unemployment checks within Lee County. One year later, that number had dropped to 1,125 — a decrease of 945 persons or 45.6 percent.

Even more important than the number of persons out of work is the growth in the county’s labor force, which increased by 1,161 persons in the 12 months between September 2020 and 2021. The labor force is defined as the number of persons 16 years and older who are either working or looking for work and who are not on active duty in the Armed Forces or inmates of institutions such as penal or mental facilities.

Those numbers tell us that the number of persons receiving unemployment compensation continued to decrease during the pandemic while the number of people either working or looking for work continued to increase.

So again, where are they? What is to account for the labor shortage in Sanford and beyond?

‘A nation of quitters’

The search for what happened to workers in the service sector of the economy begins and ends with the search for better pay and benefits. And no better example exists for what is happening to the economy than a look at the food service industry.

The work there is grueling. The hours are long and fast-paced, but they can also be rewarding. When COVID came 21 months ago, it was like lightning bolts coming from a cloud. One former Sanford restaurant worker interviewed for this story, who wished to remain anonymous, says that “when the virus suddenly came here, it was like there was a general and unorganized strike that came out of nowhere.”

When the first wave of COVID benefits arrived a few weeks later, food service workers found that for the first time in their lives, many were making enough through benefits to begin saving. This worker said, “I couldn’t remember taking a break that was longer than just using the bathroom, or sitting down to eat a meal, and I never had health insurance.”

When the reality hit that he now had those things, this man realized that after 20 years of working six days a week in a local restaurant, he had worked his last kitchen job. His employer had kept his wages low, didn’t provide benefits, and was constantly changing work schedules. And he’s not the only one.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that each month since March, about 5 percent of the huge numbers of people who make up this sector of the workforce walked away from their jobs each month. That has left over a million jobs vacant in the food service industry at a time when customers have been streaming through the doors to eat, drink, and socialize as the pandemic began to ease.

It’s known in labor circles as ‘The Great Resignation.’ The latest BLS report says that 4.2 million American workers quit their jobs in October. That’s an incredible amount of people who are either fed up with their old job or looking for a new one. CNBC reported last month that 28 million people have quit their jobs during the last 7 months and a recent article in Forbes magazine says that we have become ‘a nation of quitters.’

The BLS report also says that there were 11.1 million job openings in that same month, 40 percent more than before the pandemic. Many of them in the leisure and hospitality industry, particularly in food services and hotels, showed the largest increases.

But restaurants that used to be open until 10 or 11 p.m. don’t do that anymore.

The staff they employ are exhausted. Some are now closed one or more days a week when they used to be open seven. Many are paying bonuses and hourly rates unheard of in the industry, but potential workers do not apply.

In a recent survey reported by NPR, more than half of a nationwide survey group who quit their jobs recently said that no amount of money could get them to go back. For many, the decision to leave food services was all about the culture — low wages, no benefits, long hours, constantly changing schedules, and so many rude customers.

‘I was done with fast-food.’

Rashawn Thompson worked at a Sanford fast-food restaurant for 13 months until July, when a customer stopped his car in the drive-thru and came storming inside to threaten him over the amount of cream and sugar in his coffee. Thompson left that afternoon for a job delivering beverages to restaurants. It’s tougher but quieter work, and better paying.

“After that happened, I was done with fast-food,” he said. “I’m never going back there again.”

It wasn’t just that one incident that one incident that made Rashawn decide to walk away. But it was the moment that pushed him over the edge.

“For months, it seemed like every hour or so at work, I would have to go up front and be forced to argue with somebody who was making an issue because they didn’t want to wear a mask inside the restaurant,” he said. “I don’t know what’s got into people. But I was done.”

John Dean, Economic Development Manager for the Sanford Area Growth Alliance (SAGA), said in an August article published by the organization that “as the pandemic life took hold of the U.S., many people began rethinking their own values and priorities. Many of these people, especially in the service sector, lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic, leading to angst and uncertainty of the future.”

“Others who were fortunate enough to keep their jobs were forced to work remotely, while a significant portion of employees, considered essential, found themselves in higher-stress situations than before,” he continued. “This abrupt change in employment, according to analysts, has led more people than ever before to voluntarily leave their jobs.”

Where did they go? National Public Radio reported in a story broadcast on June 24 that many of them went “in search of more money, more flexibility and more happiness. Many are rethinking what work means to them, how they are valued, and how they spend their time.”

Life after the kitchen

During the weeks when workers were furloughed because of the pandemic, many discovered for the first-time what family life could be like if they weren’t putting in 50 to 60 hours a week in a restaurant. They got to see the faces of their children when they opened the presents they had spent six hours or more assembling. They were able to attend church services and family picnics. They saw sunsets.

So, when many of them were called back to work, even after their unemployment checks had stopped, they quit. For the first time, many had accumulated enough savings to last for a few weeks and they decided to look for something they would be happier doing.

There are many reasons that people are quitting and looking for jobs elsewhere. Some had been frustrated with their jobs before the pandemic and took advantage of the opportunity to re-examine their lives that COVID relief benefits brought. Some quit because they could make more money elsewhere. And others left because they realized that their priorities had changed.

Workers are now deciding where, when, and how they want to work. For younger workers, that could mean entire careers that look nothing like they did years ago.

Some workers, for example, are giving up the 45-minute one-way commute to Raleigh and the cars they would have to buy to get there. They are looking for jobs they can work from home.

The pandemic has changed life as we know it. There is talk of a ‘new normal,’ whatever that may look like. But one thing is for certain: it has changed the mindsets of workers, particularly the younger ones. They value their time in ways they didn’t before. There are bills still to be paid. But there is also life to be enjoyed. And they don’t want to miss that opportunity.

Impacts on new industries

Over the past three years, Lee County has racked up a record of success at recruiting new industry that is the envy of almost every other county in the country. The Central Carolina Enterprise Park, a 750-acre site situated at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Colon Road, is as busy these days as any hill of fire ants you can find in Lee County.

With buildings averaging 117,000 square feet in area and center ceiling heights reaching 29 feet, the park has quickly filled with industries ranging from life sciences to recycled rubber products. But are local leaders concerned about finding workers to fill the thousands of jobs that these companies will create?

Jimmy Randolph, SAGA’s Chief Executive Officer, thinks many of the same advantages that brought those industries to Sanford will help ensure that they are able to find and keep a good supply of trained workers. In an interview this fall with The Rant, Randolph said “you know, Lee County is not alone in what’s happening with the ‘Great Resignation.’ But we do have some advantages that, I believe, will help keep things moving in the right direction.”

“We’ve worked really hard to create a public-private partnership here that works both ways, with employers providing the jobs and incentives, and Central Carolina Community College and our nearby universities and Lee County Schools providing the training that makes those employees more valuable to these companies,” he continued. “These recent announcements are also going to attract other people to our community, and they are going to strengthen the fabric of what has been built here over generations. The Triangle is just 40 minutes away for those who like to have an evening out, and those folks can return home to the slower pace of life that makes Sanford so attractive. Put all of these things together and you have the secret sauce that can help us to retain workers and pay them a great living wage in ways that other rural areas can’t do. And if we can do that, things are going to keep growing here, with our industries and our service sector. I’m sure of that.”