TRSA: Covid-19 Yr II begins with workers scarcity however restoration is ongoing


The North American Association of Textile Services, TRSA, recently hosted a series of five virtual regional "town halls" highlighting two things that pretty much any participant could agree on. First, attendees expressed relief that the economy in most parts of the US has emerged from the Covid-19-related shutdowns last year. Second, there were widespread concerns that severe labor shortages could hamper recovery.

Among the approximately 215 linen, uniform and facility service operators and suppliers who attended five 90-minute online sessions of TRSA's regional town hall on March 30, 31 and April 1, a TRSA supplier partner said from the southwest: “The work problem is the big elephant in the room for us and for most of the people we talk to. "

That view was confirmed by attendees at each of the regional town halls this week, beginning March 30th with sessions focused on TRSA members from the Northeast / Central Atlantic and a second session for members from the Midwest. The following day, two more regional town halls were held for members from the south / southeast and the west / northwest. A separate town hall for Canadian members is planned for April 7th. Click here for information.

TRSA President and CEO Joseph Ricci and Vice President Government Relations Kevin Schwalb moderated each session.

Participants predicted that labor shortages could ease in September when the additional unemployment benefits envisaged in President Joe Biden's recently approved Covid-19 Relief Act expires. A big part of the problem with hiring / retaining employees is that state grants discourage people from getting paid jobs, several participants said. Examples of how operators address labor shortages include:

  • Reduction in part-time employment: One operator said that with reduced demand from restaurant customers, it cut staff hours to such an extent that they are still eligible for unemployment benefits.
  • Expansion of onboarding programs to encourage teamwork, combined with in-depth exit and stay interviews to better understand what works and what needs to work better to meet employee needs. One participant emphasized that the challenge is not just to hire employees, but to avoid a “fluctuation tsunami”.
  • Improved flexibility: This means that you primarily take care of employees who are forced to work overtime due to labor shortages by offering pizza parties and other perks, as well as paid time off for Covid-19 vaccinations or other personal needs.
  • Increased wages, including retention bonuses: Many companies have already done this, but the problem is the difficulty of passing these additional labor costs on to hard-hit customers such as restaurants and hotels that are struggling with labor shortages themselves and trying to survive the government. Mandatory Covid restrictions that limit capacity to 25% -50%. Industrial supplier partners face similar recruitment / retention challenges when it comes to increasing employee wages when many laundries have cut investments due to lower sales. One supplier described a “catch 22” situation where material costs, like steel, continue to rise, but it is extremely difficult to pass costs on to customers.
  • To the extent that companies can retain employees, they use loyalty credits in combination with paycheck protection program loans. In previous versions of this program, you could not use both programs at the same time. You can track both at the same time in the latest Biden administration invoice.

The town hall participants reported some positive aspects. One of these is that the labor shortage for hospitality laundry operators is that hotels have to close their on-site laundries because of the difficulty in staffing them. The pandemic has accelerated an ongoing trend in favor of hotel laundry outsourcing, several operators said. One noted that in most cases, he will refuse to accept OPL work – unless the hotel agrees to permanently close the facility in order to outsource laundry operations.

Another positive consequence of the pandemic, according to TRSA, is that the focus of laundry customers in all sectors, especially in healthcare, in hotels and in food processing, has increased on ensuring textile purity. This, in turn, has increased the value of programs like TRSA's Hygienically Clean program. The third party laundry hygiene testing that this program provides for laundry, uniform and facility service companies gives customers a sense of "validation". This means customers know their textile supplier is following laundering best practices, including regular testing of textiles to ensure they are safe for employees and the public.

One factor that makes the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic an ongoing challenge for operators is the uncertainty that comes with it. With each subsequent “wave” of Covid cases, one operator noted that the unpredictability of where, when and whether these would occur exacerbated planning efforts.

TRSA reported that participants said the large differences in government rules related to the pandemic didn't help even with states like Florida and Nebraska, which are largely open to business, while others like California and Michigan are almost as restricted as them a year ago.

However, most of the participants still said that they are better off than a year ago. Industry operators said their sales are near pre-Covid levels, with additional demand for facility services products helping to fill the gap with customers whose unified business is declining. Some industry segments such as clean room and food processing are also showing strong growth.

According to the town hall participants, the health system has also largely recovered, but not completely. The flatwork business in hospitals is typically around 90% of pre-Covid levels, and operators speculated that a combination of Covid patients who typically use less bedding and patients' fears of going to the hospital , contributed to the downturn. Most said the outpatient medical business had recovered to pre-Covid levels.

As more people get vaccinated against Covid-19, a robust rebound and easing of business restrictions could follow this spring. And while there are no easy answers to the recruitment / retention problem, most operators and suppliers will settle for signs of progress. Said TRSA. "We're still scratching our heads," said one employee, adding, "I'd still rather do that last year."

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