There's No "Labor Shortage," Just a Shortage of Wages and Worker ProtectionRoundup
tags: unions, minimum wage, labor history, COVID, Living Wage, Labor Shortage
Lane Windham, Ph.D., is the associate director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide.
As we approach Labor Day, America’s working people are deep into a protracted general strike. Millions are refusing to go back into low-wage, no benefits jobs that require they abandon dignity and rights at the workplace door. Their struggle has brewed for 40 years as wages stagnated, benefits vanished and public policy offered working families little reprieve. Employers complain that too few people are returning to work, but America’s “labor shortage” is really a shortage of good wages and workers rights on the job.
Recent jobs reports show an uptick in the numbers of workers returning to work, but payroll tallies are still more than 5 million shy of pre-pandemic levels. Restaurants, retailers and hospitality firms say it is especially difficult to hire, and some blame generous unemployment checks. However, even those states that have rescinded supplemental unemployment benefits are finding that many people remain hesitant to take the sorts of jobs that are on offer.
The pandemic shook up what workers want and expect from a job. America cheered frontline workers during the early days of the pandemics, banging pots and pans for health care workers, honking for delivery drivers and thanking cashiers. But these workers’ wages remain too low to cover rising housing, education and health care costs. You’d need an average of $25 an hour to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and minimum wage workers can’t afford rent anywhere in the nation. An extra dollar or two more just isn’t cutting it for most people, especially when they’re putting their health on the line.
Meanwhile, women are still shouldering the bulk of unpaid child and elder care, a balancing act that the pandemic has made nearly impossible. Nearly 2 million women dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic, and many did so in order to take care of their kids or sick parents. It’s no coincidence that the sectors having the most difficult time staffing up — foodservice and retail — are majority female occupations. Women are looking at their paltry options and voting with their feet by staying home.
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