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Nassau Street businesses adjust to COVID-imposed shortages in labor market

<h5>Labyrinth Books storefront</h5>
<h6>Samantha Lopez-Rico / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Labyrinth Books storefront
Samantha Lopez-Rico / The Daily Princetonian

Businesses on Nassau Street have been struggling to find new hires and keep current staff members from quitting throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The Daily Princetonian interviewed five local businesses to hear more about how they have maintained a workforce amid a national “Great Resignation.”

Tony, a manager at Dunkin’, said he has “never seen anything like this in my entire life.”

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“I usually work 50 [hours per week], but sometimes I work 75–100,” he said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “I do get compensated for it, but you know, there was one week where I worked the entire week by myself.” 

The situation at Jules Thin Crust is similar, as manager Jason described in an interview. When students left campus due to the pandemic, Jules had to modify its hiring tactics.

“Due to college students leaving, we needed to find high schoolers to come in,” he said. However, this has led to “employees pulling in extra hours during the morning shift and during school hours.” 

Both Tony and Jason, who did not provide their surnames, expressed their difficulties in finding staff.

“No one wants to work, so no one’s filling out applications,” Tony said.

John Grigsby is an assistant professor of economics and public and international affairs whose research focuses on aggregate labor markets. He said that there are a number of theories to explain the difficulty employers are having in finding staff.

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Grigsby explained that for many Americans, savings went up during the pandemic due to reduced consumption and COVID-19 stimulus checks from the government, leading to what he called an “income effect” on labor supply.

“The fact that we’ve had a period in which people have saved and have some money in the bank account, that would mean that they can potentially be a bit more selective in the kinds of jobs that they might want to be taking,” he said.

According to Grigsby, for employees, this can mean wanting a higher salary for the same job as before or looking for a new job that they value more.

Another possible explanation for why businesses have struggled to find workers, he said, is that current employees are “overstressed, overburdened, and overworked” in trying to compensate for staffing shortages, which affects the perspective of potential new hires.

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“Imagine that you're a worker who wants to get a job, and you're thinking about coming in to work for Dunkin’ and you see ... the quality of work-life here is pretty miserable, because [I’ve had] to be running around like crazy,” he said. “And so if you want me to do that, you're gonna have to pay me a lot more.”

In economics terms, Grigsby described this as a “multiple equilibrium problem.” 

“You could end up in a place where you have full employment and you don't have to increase wages too much to get more people or you're in a place where you have very low employment, and you have to increase wages a lot to get people,” he said.

Jim Sykes, president of the University Store (U-Store), grappled with this issue over the summer, when students began returning to campus and employees were in high demand. Sykes described that the store decided in July to raise its starting salary from $12 per hour to $15 per hour “to try to be competitive with all the other retailers.”

“That definitely helped in the hiring process in August, although it still was very difficult,” he said in a phone interview with the ‘Prince.’ “The sheer volume of people applying is down dramatically.”

Discussing a new opening he is trying to fill, Sykes said that just a few years ago, if he'd placed an advertisement for a job opening, he would have heard from “30 relatively qualified people, who would have been fairly difficult to winnow down to people to interview.”

“This time ... I only got seven people,” he said.

Luckily, Sykes has not seen many resignations in his staff.

“It's good that we can pay our employees more and that's positive for the workforces,” he said. “But it also puts pressure on us from a business standpoint to absorb all that.”

Just down the street from the U-Store, owner of Labyrinth Books Dorothea von Moltke has retained all of her staff. However, staffing became difficult earlier in the fall, with the beginning of classes and subsequent rise in business.

“We have never run anything close to as lean [on staff] during coursebook rushes as we had to in the fall, and we are concerned that the same will be true for the spring semester rush,” she wrote in an email statement.

According to von Moltke, her store had approximately 10 “rush hires” on staff to help this year. In 2019, she said, the store “would have hired 18 temps.” Her regular staff, who usually “pitch in” during the fall rush, “became the backbone of the coursebook operation.”

Looking forward, von Moltke says that she sees some challenges in maintaining a stable workforce, including the "high cost of living in Princeton.”

Unlike Sykes and von Moltke, Jon Lambert, owner of the Princeton Record Exchange, had to lay off 13 of his full time employees and six of his part time employees. He told the ‘Prince’ in an interview that he kept two employees part-time to help with online sales.

He said that loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, an initiative from the Small Business Administration that provided loans to small businesses earlier in the pandemic, was a big help.

“It was relatively stable until just a few months ago when a couple of long term employees, who had been here for 15 years, resigned just to move on … it was just happenstance,” he said.

Typically, Lambert just hangs up a help-wanted sign.

“One of the great things about having a store like ours is the cool factor,” he said.

Over a few weeks, Lambert says he received about 30 applications for two openings. He has had a range of people apply, from retirees to engineers and architects and professionals “who were putting down six figure salaries.”

“There’s a real reevaluation going on I feel like in society right now,” Lambert added. “What does a job mean? What’s the value of my life? Money, of course, is important, but there have always been other things that have been important to people and I think those other things have come into more sharp focus [during the pandemic].”

Grigsby told the ‘Prince’ he believes a similar phenomenon could be a factor in the current labor landscape.

“People might want to do something a bit more meaningful,” he said. “So they’re not willing to accept a barista job. They want to go and try to work in a museum or try to work at something that they care a bit more about.” 

For now, managers and owners at understaffed Princeton businesses will keep working long hours until they can find enough employees.

“I put in a lot of long days in here, from 6:30[a.m.] to 8 o’clock at night,” said Tony, the Dunkin’ manager. “It’s just really tough right now. We’re taking anyone we can get.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece noted Tony’s shift as beginning at 6:30 p.m. rather than 6:30 a.m. The ‘Prince’ apologizes for this error.

Sandeep Mangat is a staff writer who frequently covers the University administration and campus events. He can be reached at smangat@princeton.edu and on Twitter @s_smangat.

Miguel Gracia-Zhang is a staff writer who often covers University affairs and local news. He can be reached at mg43@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @gracia_zhang.

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