Where have all the workers gone? Here’s what experts, data say is leading to labor shortages

ORLANDO, Fla. — It seems every week we are reporting on local businesses limiting hours or closing completely due to a labor shortage.

But Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray looked through the data and spoke to real people to confirm it’s more of a labor shift.

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For nearly two decades, Kristin Wyza worked for Disney as a quality assurance manager for the vacation club. When the parks shutdown, Wyza said she was scared and didn’t know what she would do.

It was a similar story for Dana Brady, who worked for Disney the same number of years coordinating guest experiences for the Disney Cruise Line.

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“It’s always good to have that backup plan — you should always have a side hustle just in case something happens,” Brady said.

Both women turned side hustles into full-fledged careers over the last year and a half.

Wyza is now a web developer creating websites for other entrepreneurs after launching her own mobile spray-tan business.

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Brady, who was already a certified yoga instructor, took that side gig full-time and is now hosting up to a dozen classes per week.

“I don’t think I would be doing this if it weren’t for the pandemic it pushed me into the unknown,” Brady said.

They’re a small sample of Central Florida’s changing workforce.

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It’s no secret the hospitality industry, our bread and butter, suffered the most during this pandemic. Though jobs in that sector saw gains over the spring and summer, that stalled in August as the delta variant of COVID-19 surged.

“Necessity is the motherhood of invention if you were in an industry shut down by government order there was nowhere to go to get another job,” said UCF professor and economist Sean Snaith.

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Snaith said government shutdowns coupled with government aid have led to a lower labor force participation rate.

Over the last 20 years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has marked a steady decline from about 67% of the employable population actually having a job to around 63% pre-pandemic.

That dropped sharply to 60% in April 2020 and we’ve added fewer than 2% of those people into the workforce ever since.

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“A particularly pernicious part of this recession is that the pain was inflicted on households that were in the lower third of income earnings,” Snaith said.

Snaith said restaurant and retail workers who made less money pre-pandemic have sought out factory or gig jobs like Uber Eats or Lyft that end up paying more.

And a Pew Research Center survey found 66% of unemployed had seriously considered changing their field of work — much higher than what was reported during the great recession.

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“A lot of entrepreneurs have to quit a job to pursue something like that and the bar is a little higher and the fear is a little greater but if you’re already out of work you have less to lose so to speak,” Snaith said.

For Wyza and Brady, as well as others, COVID-19 shutdowns have created a different work-life balance.

“I sometimes have to pinch myself to think I’m living my dream right now. I have my own schedule and I have the flexibility to get things done in my timing… it’s been remarkable it really has,” Wyza said.

And with less potential exposure to the virus than in a traditional office setting.

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“Yes, the pandemic was nothing anyone wanted but it allowed me to look into myself and find strengths I didn’t even know I had,” Brady said.

There are more nuances to this if you drill down to the job growth from male employees to female employees, there are signs that women are staying home due to childcare issues still lingering from COVID-19.

Also many baby boomers are leaving the workforce to retire either on time or early because of fears of COVID-19 in the workplace.

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Snaith said we need another six to nine months to see how things will shake out in Central Florida and if we’ll ever get back to pre-pandemic levels in our stores and restaurants.

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.