Castle Brook Academy, one of the longest-running preschools in St. Augustine, has a capacity for 225 students.
Enrollment usually hovers around 125, but for the last year or so numbers haven’t pushed past 75.
That’s not by the management’s choice; rather, the workforce market is limiting the amount of children Castle Brook can serve because the facility — like many other daycare and early learning centers — is having trouble finding and keeping qualified staff members.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Stephanie Bradley, Castle Brook Academy’s director. “We have four whole rooms we’ve had to shut down.”
Today, there are nearly 250,000 fewer people in Florida’s labor pool — the total of those employed and those looking for work — than there were when the pandemic struck in March 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And nationwide, 1 in 5 workers have considered a career change in the past year, according to a Washington Post/George Mason University Poll.
While the construction industry in Florida seems to have rebounded for the time being, and hospitals and the financial sector have added jobs, overall there are fewer people working or looking for work in Florida today than in February 2020, despite a population increase of more than 300,000.
The hardest-hit industries are restaurants, hospitality, and other services-related jobs, including a noticeable number of unfilled positions among other professions like advertising, public relations, teaching and first responders, records show.
Locally, in St. Johns County, data from CareerSource Northeast Florida shows the industries most impacted by the employee shortage over the last 30 days are manufacturing, administrative office work, food preparation and service, transportation, sales, and yes, childcare services.
Lindsay Morris, owner of the Rain River Learning Center near the St. Augustine Shores, opened her facility in August 2020.
While she doesn’t have a problem keeping her staffing roster full, Morris would like to expand her programs but she cannot find employees.
“I’ll call people in for interviews and they don’t show up,” said Morris. “Maybe they don’t need or want the work.”
Isabelle Renault, president and CEO of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, said she believes employees have more leverage in the current worker shortage.
“What we’ve seen is there definitely is a desire for those who have the opportunity to do so, to work remotely, or at least have that flexibility in their schedule, maybe to go in[to] the workplace one or two days a week,” said Renault. “Plus, with COVID, if someone is immunocompromised, or has family members who are, there’s that, too.”
Daycare has both scenarios working against it in that it cannot be done remotely and it carries the extra challenge of working in a very hands-on, interactive environment in these COVID-weary days.
“And I can’t blame them,” said Bradley, “because you have to take care of your health.”
An evolving workplace
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the state’s jobs agency, tracks employment in broad categories. Its June 2021 jobs report finds that there were 344,700 fewer Floridians working in the leisure and hospitality sector.
The workforce for health care and social service agencies dropped by 65,000 and there are 18,300 fewer people in the professional and business services sector.
Tallahassee’s FBMC Management Company calculates that, in June alone, 164,000 people nationwide quit their jobs, whether they had another position lined up or not.
That brings the total number of people who have resigned in the past year to nearly a million, according to an analysis by the firm which advises companies on health care and employee benefits.
While some have argued generous federal unemployment benefits had incentivized people to stay at home, FBMC’s analysis indicates other concerns may be at work.
It found 65% of the people who had rejected job offers in May said unemployment benefits were not a factor in their decision. They cited concerns about COVID (35%) and the need to care for family (31%) instead.
Said Renault, “We’re seeing women, especially, leaving the workforce, because in some cases at least one parent needs to stay home to care for someone or take care of homeschooling if kids are home. Some of them just don’t return.”
“I think the hard-hit industries (service, leisure, restaurants) will have to rethink how they attract and retain employees,” said Richard Koontz, who leads FBMC’s efforts to find savings in companies health benefits packages to finance other perks, such as life insurance or childcare programs.
Many companies and corporations reduced staff when the coronavirus stalled the economy. A Florida Chamber/West Florida University study found the 2.7 million small businesses in Florida reported they had furloughed or laid off on average 13% of their staff and permanently reduced their workforce by 4.2%.
In February 2020, the businesses surveyed employed eight people but today have six.
Some workers feel they ‘don’t have to live like this anymore’
That may explain some of the missing workers, but not all.
John Russo, the visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and professor emeritus at Youngstown State University’s Labor Studies Program has spent the summer talking to people in D.C. and Ohio about why workers would quit a job without having another lined up.
He notes that, nationwide, people are not returning to their jobs at the rate economists expected: “They’re saying that COVID has made them feel like, ‘I don’t have to live like this anymore,’ especially among middle-class working people,” Russo said.
Russo notes that many retired Floridians before the pandemic held part-time jobs, such as baggers at the supermarket to supplement their retirement, but have withdrawn while the coronavirus is loose.
He and Koontz also cite a “burnout” culture in professions like public relations, health care, restaurants, and welding, but say a lack of childcare and increased automation introduced since the pandemic began, are also factors in the drop in employment.
But this summer COVID looms large in many workers’ minds when thoughts turn to work, life, and family.
State Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, is a captain for the Palm Beach County Fire and Rescue Department. The county has been a hotspot since the coronavirus struck Florida.
“We’re 100 school bus drivers short in Palm Beach County. We’re down school resource officers and teachers have left the profession as have police officers, and EMTs,” Willhite said.
While Russo said many service workers are making ends meet in a gig economy — working assignments as a contractor, driving for a service such as Uber, or making restaurant deliveries — Willhite worries about the coronavirus’ impact on the essential services people expect, such as a response to an emergency or educating children.
“These are professions where you have to be trained and certified,” said Willhite, speaking Wednesday during a break at a Palm Beach Fire Station. “You can’t just decide tomorrow you want to be a teacher, a firefighter, or a paramedic — we’re in a difficult place right now.”
James Call, a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau, contributed to this report.