Low on Workers, Manufacturers Recruit Their Executives for the Factory Floor

Wendy Marcus was midway through a recent meeting with senior leaders at Newell Brands Inc. when word came that she needed to leave immediately.

The Newell-owned factory that makes Yankee Candles was once again short on workers, and the plant needed Ms. Marcus, an R&D manager, on the assembly line to help pack the famously scented knickknacks into gift baskets.

“I told them, ‘I have to work the overtime shift,’ and they just said, ‘OK, thank you and go ahead,’” recalled Ms. Marcus.

American manufacturers have gotten better at safeguarding their factory floors and containing infections of Covid-19 in their workforces. Despite the progress, they are still struggling to find enough people to staff their plants. The worker shortages are choking supply chains and delaying delivery of everything from car parts to candles just as demand is picking up.

Among Covid-19’s weird effects: Despite high unemployment levels, many employers are having trouble hiring enough workers. The unemployment rate held steady in December at 6.7%.  Weekly initial claims for jobless benefits from state programs, a marker of layoffs, have also been steady at around 790,000. That’s down sharply from a peak of nearly 7 million in March, but still around four times the pre-pandemic average.

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