LYNNWOOD, Wash — A worker shortage is clogging the employment pipeline, and it's taking a toll on dozens of senior citizens in Snohomish County.
A rusty orange swill has been coming from Brenda Passeau's kitchen faucet for the past four weeks.
Underneath her sink, where the pipe leaks, it's even worse.
"It's just absolutely nasty. It stinks," she said. "So, you can see why I need help."
Brenda is supposed to drink and clean with this water, but she can't. She also can't find a plumber.
The 86-year-old on a fixed income is now forced to buy cases of bottled water, which have doubled in price over the past year.
"It's very stressful because I drink a lot of water. I mean, your body needs water," said the Lynnwood resident, who has lived in her mobile home for 22 years.
At least 60 low-income seniors in Snohomish County alone are on a wait list for plumbers. It's part of a national shortage. And as demand for their skills goes up, so do their wages, creating a vicious cycle.
An estimated eight million skilled labor jobs were lost during the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of those jobs have come back, but there are still about 4 million unfilled positions.
Those in the industry say for every one "boomer" who is retiring there is only one young person to replace them.
"That's actually a statistic from before the pandemic started," said Merrill Bevan, a spokesperson for Barron Heating, AC, Electrical & Plumbing. "In all honesty, there might be a more dramatic exit now than before. This is why we started our own technical school."
Plumbers are in especially high demand.
The job posting site Indeed.com shows plumbing positions going for as high as $90 an hour.
Lynnwood's Homage Senior Services would typically do Brenda's repair for free, but their plumber died recently and they can't find a replacement -- even at $50 an hour, full benefits and a matching 401k.
"There was a great fear that came within our departments that we might not find anyone to fill the position," said spokesperson Cynthia Andrews.
So, Homage raised the wage to $62.50 an hour. That's $130,000 a year.
But nearly quadrupling the original plumber's salary means not filling one vacant repair technician position.
"So, we will still be operating somewhat in a deficit trying to make sure we can reach all the seniors that we can, but it will be a challenge," said Andrews.
For now, Brenda Passeau keeps doing the dirty work.
"Until they find someone, everyday I empty the water, wash out the pan, put it back under there," she said. "I will do my best to keep going."