The world has spent the last fifteen months waging war against a pandemic, a battle that is still raging in many parts of the globe. Millions of people lost their lives and even more lost their jobs. Forced to shutter businesses and send workers home for long stretches of time is not an ideal situation in any economy.
Workers who were deemed essential have been carrying the burden of exposure to disease and possibly death while trying to scratch together a living by working long hours for minimal pay, benefits, and respect. After 15 months most are exhausted, burnt-out, and feel very unappreciated. Those that were terminated and have been forced to spend the pandemic living unemployment check to unemployment check are questioning returning to a career that values them so little.
The American Rescue Plan that was passed by Congress and the stimulus checks that were sent to individuals and families were intended to help people bridge the gap and keep things afloat. The Rescue Plan even included additional money in unemployment for workers. It wasn’t intended, and no matter what anyone says, isn’t the sole reason why people are not flocking back to the work they had done pre-pandemic.
So-called essential workers didn’t ask for that title, or even know their work was so important (the work, not them, of course) until the nation was in crisis, gripped by a pandemic and led by an inept President. Most of them were simply low- and under-paid workers with little to no training and suddenly going to work carried the weight of possible infection. Now, as the pandemic clears, many are re-evaluating what they want to do and even if they want to stay in the same field. They are taking unemployment and halfheartedly looking for work because while many across the country were working from home on their decks and in front of their TVs these so-important workers weren’t given paid time off or vacation time. They had to work to pay the bills.
We do not have a worker shortage in this country. We have a wage and value problem in this country. Gone are the times when you can pay adults the bare minimum with no benefits and expect them to give you, in some cases, their life. Workers have seen too many people get sick and die making minimum wage to want to follow in their footsteps.
The small extra stipend put on unemployment benefits from the American Rescue Plan is not the cause of people not returning to work, no matter what a number of governors think or say. So far, 22 states have rejected the additional unemployment benefits from the federal government as a way to get people off unemployment and back making minimum wages. These states believe that they are paying people not to work. The governor of Wyoming, Mark Gordon, said that paying people not to work was “just plain un-American.”
It is not un-American to want to make a living wage, to not be taken for granted and disrespected by your employer. Workers’ Rights are American Rights!
Not only are these states being closed-minded about the workers in their states, but they are also not paying any attention to the actual data that is being produced about workers. Certain sectors of the economy are going to have to vastly rethink their business models if they ever hope to return to what they think of as normal:
Low-income earners, the people making $27,000 or less annually, are the ones who were hurt the most when the pandemic struck — janitorial workers for closed offices, food and beverage staffers at closed restaurants, salesclerks at stores that couldn’t retain staffers at brick-and-mortar shops. But data show that they are also the group having recovered the least since Covid-19 reached the U.S., with employment rates still about 16 percent below average nationally. — MSNBC, May 24, 2021
These statistics are only looking at what we are seeing in the very early reshaping of our economy in the post-COVID world. As sectors begin to rehire and large corporations with huge office complexes begin to transition employees back into the office, we might see new shifts. Companies are realizing that more work can be done from home and that their workers have been just as productive if not more so while working at home.
At the end of the day, it will not fully be about pay for most workers. They aren’t staying on unemployment to become rich or avoid work. They are waiting as they evaluate the jobs and opportunities that are being created in the post-COVID job market:
Wage data from April is also telling. When companies, especially fast-food restaurants, complain they can’t find workers, the common retort is, “Why don’t these companies raise pay?” In fact, there is evidence that restaurants are raising pay. The average hourly rate in the hospitality sector is up roughly $1 compared to the pre-pandemic going rate. But the bigger issue appears to be that warehouses have hiked wages by more than a dollar and now pay $26 an hour on average — far more than the roughly $18 average in hospitality. — Washington Post, May 7, 2021
The Recovery Act and the Build Back Better plan being negotiated and supported by the White House would open new pathways for workers and their families to strive in the post-COVID economy. It will help create training for good jobs, more apprenticeships for union trades that would not only work to rebuild our country but also to take us into the next century by starting to address the climate change and the years of underfunding of our infrastructure.
The plan would create jobs for electricians to build electric vehicle charging stations across the country; jobs for the construction trades, building wind and solar farms, replacing lead pipes across the country, and updating our public transportation and our roads and bridges that have been neglected for far too long. These are primarily Union jobs that provide training, pay living wages, provide health benefits to the worker and their family, and allows workers access to a retirement that many never thought they would have.
So, the workers that are being called lazy, and the workers that some governors are kicking off or reducing unemployment benefits for, are actually waiting for the largest jobs plan ever dreamed to be passed and implemented.
What these governors and many media outlets reporting on them are failing to look at is that it isn’t always about the money. Yes, workers want to earn more but that is not always the reason a person is sitting out in this labor situation. The majority of the jobs that were created in April went almost entirely to men. Why is that?
Schools and daycares being closed is one of the major reasons. Single mothers who have no one to watch their kids, or who don’t have healthcare and are worried about exposing their children to COVID from working in “essential” but not necessarily safe conditions, are making the very real and very hard decision to stay home to protect and care for their children.
In the aftermath of that recession, there were nearly constant tales of employers who couldn’t find workers. The stories at that time about labor shortages in construction, when the unemployment rate in construction was still close to 13%, have a similar feel as claims today of labor shortages in restaurants, considering that the unemployment rate in leisure and hospitality is currently 13%. The Great Recession was caused by the bursting of a giant housing bubble that threw many construction workers out of work, and the Covid recession was caused by a public health crisis that shuttered many restaurants.
In both cases, counterintuitive reports about employers not able to find the workers they need really captured the public’s imagination. But a look under the hood reveals that beyond the anecdotes there is little evidence of a real shortage. — U.S. labor shortage? Unlikely. Here’s why; Economic Policy Institute, May 4, 2021
At the end of the day workers want to be valued. Employers can show that value through better pay like a living wage so that workers aren’t constantly left worrying about how they will make it through the week. Value is shown through additional incentives like health insurance and paid time off to recharge and spend time with families.
Workers need to be treated fairly and with respect. If employers don’t want to do that, they will have a harder time finding people to work.