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EDITOR’S NOTE: From a member of the business-owning family of Trotters Sewing Company, here is a first-person account of what it’s like trying to find workers today.

ASHEBORO — “Please be patient with our staff. We are trying to hire. … Welcome to the new pandemic.”

I read this sign as I stood outside waiting to get into a restaurant at North Myrtle Beach a few weeks ago. I laughed to myself because at this point, I laugh to keep from crying.

I sympathize because I know firsthand why this business is calling their hiring issues the “new pandemic.” As an operating officer of Trotters Sewing Company (TSC) in Asheboro, hiring new employees feels impossible because everywhere you go, businesses are hiring.

The widespread labor shortage across the country affects all size companies, and it seems to be getting worse instead of better.

On top of that, the “old” pandemic is still around, and COVID-19 cases are quickly rising again. Trying to maneuver the changing rules for the pandemic as a citizen, let alone a business owner, is very confusing at times.

You have so many new things to worry about that weren’t there before, and it feels like when things become semi-under control, the rules change again.

For example, it is OK to ask your staff if they are vaccinated or to get vaccinated. It wasn’t just a few short months ago. Mask mandates were lifted, but we are making difficult decisions again about wearing masks and socially distancing all employees, whether they are vaccinated or not. We are going back to deep cleaning although the virus does not live on surfaces anymore. Or wait, does it?

Adjusting from 2020 to 2021

TSC’s Human Resource Director Tammy Brinkley has seen her job duties increase two-fold during the pandemic.

“Trying to navigate through this pandemic brought many changes and challenges for our company,” she said. “Our number one priority is keeping our employees safe and working. We made changes in our daily routines that consist of temperature checks, changing break and lunch schedules to provide social distancing and wearing masks. I had to make several calls to the Randolph County Health Department to make sure we were following proper protocols and procedures.”

They eventually knew her by name because she called so many times. The local health department became our lifeline at times, along with other agencies in the county.

TSC never closed its doors during the pandemic. Our company was deemed essential, and in less than a month, we shifted a majority of our production to cutting and sewing masks and gowns for hospitals and local communities.

The demand we saw for PPE during 2020 was overwhelming! We had calls from as high up as the Department of Defense, various state government agencies and large hospitals across the country to our local fire departments, doctors offices, assisted living facilities, etc. They were all in the same boat. They desperately needed masks and gowns.

In the height of the pandemic, we added a second shift in order to produce more masks & gowns. Brinkley was able to find help for us pretty quickly then. 

But, fast forward to 2021, and it’s a totally different story.

“Now we are trying to navigate an employee shortage,” she said. “It’s a struggle to find employees to meet the demands of our customers. We have to be creative and think outside the box in order to hire new employees.” 

TSC is no longer running a second shift, as the demand for masks and gowns ceased as quickly as it came.
The demand for our cutting and sewing services, however, has continued, just not at the level of 2020. We experienced disruptions in operations in the first half of 2021 due to supply chain issues. 

But hiring has become the largest growth obstacle for our business as well as many others. 

A sobering convention

In July, my husband Todd and I set up a booth at the Furniture Manufacturing Expo held in Hickory. Unfortunately, every business we encountered was dealing with the same issue — they were unable to find enough help.

I attended a session at the expo on how to attract new employees and retain the ones you have. It was led by a panel of business owners and managers, and I was hopeful I would learn something new and wonderful to take back to our staff. But the more I listened to the panel, the more my heart sank.

One furniture company in Hickory shared how they had increased their sign-on bonus from $250 to $2,500, but just down the road, another company was offering twice that amount to new employees.

Another company shared how they had started recruiting retirees who only work 3-4 hours a day or every other day, but said those 3-4 hours help. 

One company started calling former employees back to work regardless of why they left. Another company talked about their “second chance” program, as they recruit employees with a past record. They shared that 1 in 3 people today have something found on their background checks. The majority of those infractions, however, are misdemeanors. I was somewhat surprised by those numbers but after researching it, the data was there.

Story after story poured out around the room, and I honestly left conflicted. I was somewhat hopeful because I had learned about new ideas for hiring. But I was also saddened because it honestly felt like everyone was in competition to attract and retain employees.

In August, we lost a couple of our seamstresses to other companies offering a sign-on bonus and advertising higher wages. Being a small family-owned business puts us at a disadvantage competing against larger corporations that are able to offer more benefits.

But we’ve also learned some people don’t want to work for a large corporation, and they like the “family-owned” business atmosphere. So, as Brinkley stated, we are continually brainstorming different ideas to attract new employees.

‘Earn to Learn’

In 2021, TSC implemented a profit sharing program, and we’re hopeful this may attract some new employees. We are also starting a program called “Earn to Learn.” If employees want to learn to sew or improve upon their sewing skills, they will be taught during working hours and on Fridays, which is usually overtime pay for them. So while they are learning, they are also earning. Our plan is to open this program to the community next. 

We’ve also added benefit programs, and we’ve kept our 10 hour, 4 days a week schedule, which everyone seems to love.

We remain hopeful that the hiring situation will eventually improve for everyone, and the pandemic will come to an end. But until then, we take it day by day.

We do have much to be thankful for, as we have been able to remain open throughout the pandemic and keep most of our employees working. Like everyone else, we need more people, and we’ve got the same goal as most businesses in 2021 — to inform the people looking for a job that WE ARE HIRING.