American cities, states can’t find enough workers despite an influx of federal funding

The number of Americans filing for unemployment fell to 250,000 last week, dipping for the first time in three weeks. But as students across the country return to school, many districts are facing staff shortages. State and local governments are severely understaffed, affecting not only education but almost every service they provide, from trash pickup to policing. Catherine Rampell has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell to 250,000 last week, a sign that demand for workers remains high.

    But that strong overall labor market has made it difficult for state and local governments to find enough workers, affecting almost every service they provide, from trash pickup to policing.

    Special correspondent and Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell has the story.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    I'm afraid to ask, what's floating on top?

  • Bill Davis, Utilities Director, Richland County, South Carolina:

    So, grease is one of our biggest problems.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Ah. It's grease.

    On the most glamorous of "NewsHour" reporting trips, Bill Davis showed us around his workplace, a wastewater treatment plant. That's exactly what you think it is.

  • Bill Davis:

    Wastewater is typically a light brown color. And it sort of smells earthy. I mean, it's not real in your face.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    You have had some time to acclimate yourself to it, though.

  • Bill Davis:

    Oh, is that what it is?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Bill Davis:

    It's just poopy water.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Public service is noble work, but it's not for everyone. It can be smelly, stressful and often not super lucrative.

    Here in Richland County, South Carolina, nearly a quarter of government jobs are now vacant, up from 13 percent before the pandemic, and it's not the only place struggling to hire, says researcher Joshua Franzel.

  • Joshua Franzel, Managing Director, MissionSquare Research Institute:

    Overall, state local employment is still below its peak from the February of 2020 time period.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Nationwide, private sector jobs have recovered, with more jobs today than pre COVID. But state and local governments are still way behind, despite a lot of COVID relief money from the feds.

    Partly, this is about retirements.

  • Joshua Franzel:

    The state local sector has been three to five years older on average relative to their private sector peers.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    And those not yet retirement age are demanding a lot more pay. But government employers are often slow to adjust.

  • Bill Davis:

    One of the things we were challenged with is, if you have got $15 an hour, and you're going to go to Amazon and make $18 an hour to drive a forklift, and you pick up boxes and listen to your AirPods all day, do you want to do that, or do you want to come play in the poopy water? Or do you want to go make 20 percent, 25 percent more and work at Amazon?

  • Catherine Rampell:

    It's especially hard for governments to match pay for jobs where private employers are rapidly raising wages like truck driving and construction.

    What would help the situation?

    Brian Knight, Jefferson County, Colorado, Road and Bridge Department: Money.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Brian Knight and Will Truesdale of Jefferson County Colorado's Road and Bridge Department said they were short 36 out of 190 positions.

    When people are leaving, what do they tell you about why they're leaving?

  • Brian Knight:

    The majority that we hear is pay. You have support your family. The rising costs of fuel, food, everything going on right now, and to be able to do the same job in the private sector, get paid X-amount more, it's that decision at the end of the day.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Worker shortages, alongside higher material costs, are causing problems all year round.

    In the summer, potholes aren't getting filled. In the winter, roads aren't being plowed.

    Will Truesdale, Jefferson County, Colorado, Road and Bridge Department: If you don't have the personnel to do it, we can't complete these budgets. We can't do what we do.

  • Brian Knight:

    So, our road network, it's deteriorating quicker than ever. We have more cars on the road, more people in the area. With the staffing, we're just falling farther behind.

    The amount of lane miles we should be maintaining a road or improving is dropping.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Constituents notice, Jefferson County Manager Don Davis says.

  • Don Davis, Jefferson County, Colorado, Manager:

    The citizens, all they knows they pay taxes and they expect these services to be done. They don't necessarily understand that it's unlimited expectations against limited resources.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    In Richland County, sometimes that means garbage pickup problems, says public works director Mike Maloney.

  • Michael Maloney, Richland County, South Carolina Public Works Director:

    We have had some other issues with this collections and that. And those were due to lack of work force replacement, work force that wasn't trained properly, and also the equipment.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Trucks and other equipment have hit supply chain snacks.

    But contractor Charles Bruce Johnson's key concern is still labor.

  • Charles Bruce Johnson, Contractor:

    There's been a very low pool of drivers that have been interested in the challenge.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader says it's not only about the money. Some jobs have become less attractive for other reasons.

  • Jeff Shrader, Jefferson County, Colorado, Sheriff:

    Through 2020, we saw a lot of people who were just getting out of law enforcement. People who are getting hired into law enforcement aren't my age. They're younger people.

    Their social groups were probably questioning, based upon the dialogue that was going on, the role of police and its legitimacy.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    The work has always been stressful and polarizing. But, today, it's even harder to recruit applicants.

  • Jeff Shrader:

    From 2019, pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, up until 2021, we saw a 39 percent decrease in the number of applications for deputy sheriffs.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    He argues the stakes are high.

  • Jeff Shrader:

    If public safety, sheriff's offices, police departments aren't able to have staff that put first responders out on the street or we're not able to bring people into jail that need to be in jail, because of staffing concerns, ultimately, the public's at risk.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Between higher crime, the pandemic and dangerous heat waves, first responders are spread thin, says Richland's assistant county administrator John Thompson.

  • John Thompson, Assistant Administrator, Richland County, South Carolina:

    We see that because of the increased demand for services, that means increased workload for that particular crew, for that paramedic and for the EMT working on that ambulance.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Captain Winta Adams with the Emergency Services Department says burnout is worsening worker shortages.

  • Capt. Winta Adams, Emergency Services Department, Richland County, South Carolina:

    As soon as the crew goes in service, they're normally getting a 911 call, right off the bat. And they will run the call, get to the hospital, get another 911 call.

    Run that call, get to the hospital, get another 911 call. It is very hard for them to find time to take a break, whether that's to eat breakfast or lunch or just be able to use the facilities.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    They're recruiting aggressively to find more staff and recently opened a new training boot camp.

  • Capt. Winta Adams:

    Our job as EMS professionals is to save lives. If we don't have the adequate staff to run the calls, to get to the patients that need lifesaving measures, then we are not able to do our job saving lives.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Government managers are also trying to increase pay, though voters and elected officials are not always keen on handing more tax dollars to public workers.

  • John Thompson:

    There's a 4 percent cost of living adjustment that will go into effect for the next fiscal year.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Even though the inflation has…

  • John Thompson:

    Yes, absolutely.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Has hit higher than 4 percent.

  • John Thompson:

    Yes, yes, absolutely. And I tell you, we can't compete with inflation.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Governments are also recruiting by singing the virtues of public service.

  • Don Davis:

    Government has got a bad rap. And local government gets broad-brushed into that national narrative.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    But, says Jefferson county's Davis:

  • Don Davis:

    I was in the Marine Corps for 27 years, and people that work at local government, I have found them to be every bit as patriotic as any Marine, sailor, soldier, airman, or Coastie that I ever lead in almost 30 years. They really want to make a difference.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    That only goes so far.

  • Don Davis:

    The challenge is, is that when you're asking employees to give more, give more, give more, but they still have bills to pay, that makes it really difficult in the long run, when you don't have the revenue or you don't have the money to be able to pay them what is competitive in the market.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    As it turns out, even Davis himself has now been poached by another local government. He switched jobs shortly after this interview.

    For the "PBS NewsHour." I'm Catherine Rampell in Jefferson County, Colorado.

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