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Nationwide labor shortage puts strain on food industry

Posted at 9:15 AM, Jan 13, 2022

PHOENIX — The omicron variant has teachers, nurses, and even grocery store employees calling out sick. In return, you may be seeing fewer items on store shelves.

“There’s a churn going on of people who are getting ill, then they disappear, and other people are coming in to take their place,” said Bob Grossfeld, spokesperson for UFCW Local 99, a union representing some grocery store workers in Arizona. “But there’s no way to keep up with what normal is, which is why you’re seeing in some instances, store shelves are not stocked the way they normally are.”

In a statement to ABC15, the National Grocers Association says in part, “The nationwide labor shortage continues to strain critical industries, including grocery and the food industry at large. In a recent member survey, some of our members reported operating their stores with less than 50% of their normal workforce capacity for brief periods at the height of the wave.”

The NGA adds that “the omicron variant in both vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, coupled with the lack of available testing resources, has further contributed to current staffing challenges.”

“The number one problem that grocery stores have today is it’s all about labor,” Phil Lempert, editor of the Supermarket Guru, told ABC15.

Lempert says there are still ongoing supply chain issues, which means farms and food companies are going to have to reimagine how their products are made and delivered.

“We’ve got to be less reliant on long haul transportation,” Lempert said. “That means instead of building one factory that’s a million square feet we might want to have ten factories dotted throughout the country that are each 100,000 square feet.”

In the meantime, customers are asked to be patient and not to hoard.

“Hang in there,” Grossfeld said. “This isn’t going to go on forever. There’s always going to be food for you, even toilet paper. So, you should relax and take it easy. Everyone’s going through something, and our people are going through it too.”