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Tribune Star

American Workers Flex Their Muscle

Companies are looking to hire, but workers won't come back without higher wages and childcare

Brian Young's picture
May 10, 2021

Over the last few weeks, a lot of attention has been paid to the difficulty that employers are facing in finding people to work for them. While pictures of help wanted signs seem to be filling everyone’s social media feed and cable news is doing seemingly daily stories on it, they always seem to blame the government for workers not coming back, but rarely talk to workers about what their real concerns are.

The typical line from the media, often parroting talking points put out by Republican and business leaders, is that workers would rather continue to collect unemployment than work. Here is the reality for those businesses though, the average American isn’t making that much on unemployment. Currently, someone collecting unemployment in New York is only making $804 a week with the federal unemployment boost of $300. That means that person is only making $41,808 a year. In an expensive place like New York, that isn’t going to get you very far. Even in Washington, the highest paying state, unemployment benefits are $1,144 a week. However, there are also many states where the unemployment benefits payout between $500 and $600 a week. In a state like Florida, where unemployment pays $575 a week, or about $14.37 an hour.

Even with increasing vaccination rates and lower positivity rates, workers are still concerned about getting sick from the virus. Is a low-wage worker in Florida really going to put themselves at risk of dying from COVID for a job that pays $12 an hour? Although many of the open positions are now paying more, with ZipRecruiter estimating that the average open position is paying about $23 an hour, that is still not a lot of money considering the risk people are putting themselves in.

Since 2008, employers have gotten a free pass on raising wages. There has been low wage growth over the last decade for everyone except those at the very top. While bosses got richer, workers were forced to work two and three jobs to get by, especially at the lower end of the economic spectrum.  Many of these people were the first to be laid off when the pandemic hit, showing them just how much their employers valued their work. It should be no surprise that they aren’t willing to return and put their health on the line for these companies that showed their true colors.

Another major issue that needs to be dealt with before getting people back into the workforce is the fact that many women have simply dropped out of the workforce. These workers are often forced to care for kids who are still at home learning remotely or in hybrid classes. Estimates say that about 165,000 women aged 20 and over have stopped looking for work. That also means that they aren’t even being counted in the monthly unemployment numbers. The biggest shortfall came from the Latina workforce which is down 5%. The simple fact is that unless a job pays enough to cover childcare costs or schools reopen full time, these women will continue to stay at home and out of the workforce.

After a decade of whittling down wages and taking away benefits from workers, many working people are standing up and saying that they won’t take it anymore. Unlike in 2008, there are jobs out there that need to be filled giving workers leverage. Workers are also helped by an executive order that was signed by President Biden that allowed workers to stay on unemployment insurance if they turned down a job offer that they think would put their health at risk. This gives workers the security that is needed to not be forced into a dangerous job and instead take one that meets their needs.

So, what jobs do workers want? According to ZipRecruiter, nearly half of workers say they would like a remote job even after the pandemic. This speaks to the ongoing fear that many workers have that COVID-19 will be a long-term issue in workplaces, but also could be indicative of a change in the American worker. For years workers have been valued by how many hours they put in, how hard they worked, yet when the pandemic hit many of these same workers were just tossed aside. After a year of constant threats of sickness and death, workers' values may have changed. Seeing how fleeting life can be may mean people value time with family more than the long grind in the office followed by a long commute home.

The job market is just that a market and contrary to the belief of many business owners, workers are part of the process of setting the pay for a job. While it may be tough to hear after a hard 2020, workers just aren’t willing to put their health, and the health of their families, on the line for the low wages that the employers have paid over the last decade. If employers want workers to come back they need to pay better, figure out ways to provide childcare or flexible schedules for working parents and make a real investment in safety so that workers feel comfortable going back into settings like factories, warehouses, and offices.

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