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Amid unfilled job openings, workers talk about what they want from employers

people wait in line inside a cafe with wooden floors and furniture
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
Customers patiently wait in line for an afternoon coffee at Black Dog Café. Black Dog is a locally-owned business near Lake Ella in Tallahassee, Fla.

Some businesses are struggling to find employees and those employees are demanding better working conditions. The clash is especially obvious in college towns where businesses rely on student labor. Business owners and local politicians expected a meaningful boost to the economy after students returned to campus this fall. But some industries that were popular with students before the pandemic, have fallen out of favor.

Priya Adhikari, a psychology student at Florida State University, has worked in the foodservice industry since she was a sophomore in high school. She left her job at a local cafe when COVID-19 cases started spiking last year because she lives with her sister, who is immunocompromised.

In August, she decided not to go back. Adhikari’s workplace expectations had changed for that year in ways she hadn’t expected.

“Sanitation is super important to me, protocol, so like knowing when other people are sick, like all of a sudden that needing to be my business has become pretty important,” she said.

Patrick Mason, a professor of economics and the director of African American studies at FSU says the current risk of working in the food industry is high.

“It’s sort of like the worst of both worlds where you make people worse off in terms of income and you didn't really do anything to encourage folks to go back to work. If you want to get the workers you have to do something about the safety and health of the job,” Mason said in response to the state’s decision to end COVID-19 unemployment benefits early.

“Nobody wants a dangerous job, and a dangerous low-paying job is like the most unattractive job,” he said.

Adhikari also felt if she was going to risk her health and her sister's life to work part-time, she should earn a decent wage.

She made $9 an hour at her previous job and worked very few hours. It was a situation that she tolerated because she didn’t mind the work, but she knew it wasn’t going to be sustainable, especially going into grad school.

“I think nobody should really be getting paid less than 15 an hour. That's my opinion. Just being able to sustain themselves, we don't know what people need the money for, who's dependent on them, what they have going on, like loans, or whatever,” she said.

At $8.65 an hour, the state’s previous minimum wage was not cutting it for students who paid all or even some of their own way through school.

Geoff Luebkemann is the senior vice president of FRLA, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. He understands the risks employees and patrons take when dining out. He also knows a lot of workers have changed industries, too.

“We lost some of our teammates to other industries, as the grocery industry experienced unprecedented growth over the last year and a half we lost staff to them, and whether those people come back to us or not remains to be seen, but also a lot of people may have decided they want to switch gears and focus on a different career path,” said Luebkemann.

That’s what Adhikari is doing.

“The job I have now is at Cornerstone Learning Community. It’s a private school and I get paid a good amount. I make $13 an hour, I work over 15 hrs a week and the work environment is really, really great. I get to be with kids, I’m a floating teacher, it’s things that I really like doing and that I really enjoy,” she said.

Chelsea Long is an intern this fall with WFSU News. This past summer, she studied journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s currently a senior at Florida State University studying political science and Middle Eastern studies and a staff writer for the student paper, the FSView and Florida Flambeau. She hopes to pursue a career in journalism after graduation, but, for now, she’ll continue working as a part-time barista.