On my way to the blog this morning, I passed this headline: “Millions of jobs probably aren’t coming back, even after the pandemic.” I haven’t made it to the story yet, but I don’t really need to, because I’m living it. Not that I am unemployed, or on the verge of it, but yesterday was a stark example of where Pat’s Screen Printing is now, a year into Pandemia.
When I took over at Pat’s, no one, including me, worked there full-time, and there were two of us. We added some teenage help in the summer, and then I started needing help for a couple of big jobs in the spring, and then some year-round assistance . . . it was not too many years ago that I was reporting employing 12 people every quarter.
Now, some of these folks, like longtime current employee Jeff, were extremely part-time, but 12 seemed like a lot considering where I had started. I had gone, in one of those early years, to a trade show where a presenter detailed his start in screen printing in Wyoming, where it was just him that first year, 17 employees in the second and a million-dollar operation by Year Three, and that clearly is never going to be me. I’m not sad about that, either.
I’m not even particularly sad, I don’t think, about trimming down from 12, but yesterday seemed like a long way down from there. Our official number for the unemployment forms these days is six, now that Omar has tendered his resignation due to geometry, but yesterday for most of the day we were three.
Gilly was out with a cat emergency (diagnosis: severe urinary tract infection); Vann was taking the day off since his daughter had the day off. [I’m not quite sure why we’re so anxious to get kids back to school when it seems to the childless among us that every other day of the school year is a day off.] That left me, Kara and James. Well, and Jeff, although he came in while Kara was at lunch, so I’m not sure we ever exceeded three bodies at a time.
It’s when I fill out surveys for the county that I realize how far depleted our ranks really are, because those don’t ask for a body count, but a full-time equivalent (FTE). And that has gone, in a year and a half, from nine bodies at 7.2 FTE to six bodies at less than 4.5 FTE.
A lot of this is self-selection. Donnie, who came to us from the same organization Jeff does (where we are encouraged to see the ability, not the disability) retired, and we shifted his assignments to Jeff. Ben’s wife decided we were a dead-end job, so we replaced him with Vann. We thought this would be a full-time job, but the pandemic and the reality of parenting even without covid means Vann, who is quite competent and gets all his work done before taking time off, is three-quarters time rather than full.
Gilly, who had a small crisis of her own as she approached her birthday last year, threatened to leave us but fortunately came to our senses (possibly census). She did, however, as she approaches retirement age, decide to cut back, also to three-quarters time. And we would really have to stretch to call my days full-time these years as well.
Last summer Fortino’s wife also decided our job was beneath her husband (not that I’m bitter, oh no), and because of the pandemic we decided not to seek a full-time replacement. We did ask Omar, who had worked for us the summer before, if he wanted to come back. But if Omar is the face of teen employment today, I’m about over it: I’ll come to work when I want, leave when I want, take three days to get back to Kara’s schedule requests and still not actually answer, ask to come in and then not really mean it . . . while I would like to think this is confined exclusively to Omar, word on the street has it that such employee behavior is not as aberrant as it ought to be.
Which brings us to where we are: one-third of our bodies gone, and almost half the person hours. We can blame a not-insignificant amount of this on Pandemia, but then the million-dollar question becomes: when will it end? Followed by the five-million-dollar question: how do we staff?
It turns out, neither Kara nor I are Nostradmus. (I doubt very much that Nostradmus was even Nostradmus, whose “predictions” often only get interpreted as such in hindsight.) I don’t know — and so far, no one else seems to know either — when we might be back, maybe not even to business “as usual,” but to some semblance of normalcy.
But we need to figure this out, because we are staffed so close to the bone that we are not going to have time to train a new employee when/if it gets busier. So is now a good time?
In a normal year it would be a great time. Get someone in, acclimated, maybe print the backlog of shirts we sell in our retail area, then hit the ground running in May when everyone here starts ramping up for the summer we need to carry us through the rest of the year — but only if we get that summer.
Even though we would have hung onto Fortino and been glad of it, his departure last summer worked out well financially without causing undue stress on anyone else’s work requirements. So if the summer bumps along like last year, with a large number of tourists coming into the valley despite a lack of events for them to participate in, we probably don’t need another employee. But if people can stage their events, and they are larger because everyone missed out last year and is excited to be back in action — well, that’s the call that’s bedeviling us these days.
We had two college students submit unsolicited resumes and have decided to at least talk to them about part-time work. One of them has already proven to come from that employment philosophy that may be new and hip but I’m just not ever going to buy into it. He bounced in yesterday, demanded a mask, then told Kara he was headed back to Denver “for awhile,” not sure how long, maybe he’d be back in the spring and he could take the job then. Kara told him we’d be moving forward with our search in his absence.
She has an interview with the other young man, who has come across as more responsive and reliable, later this week, and we have also reached out to the high school to see if they know of a vocationally-minded student, such as Fortino once was, who might want long-term employment with us until they acquire a spouse who will inform them they have been wasting their life at Pat’s. (Nope, not bitter at all.)
But even as we’re doing this, we’re still not altogether sure it’s the right step to take. Days like yesterday point out how minimized we become if more than one of us is gone on any given day, and there are plenty of jobs, like the retail shirts and the screens strewn all over the floor that need cataloguing before they can be put where they really belong, that are needing attention.
But we are a far cry from those days when we needed to have 12 people on staff. Running leaner in many ways feels good, and easier to manage, but sometimes, like when I read about how we are all learning to manage this way, once again at the expense of workers who have lost their jobs, I wonder if it’s such a good thing after all.