The Universal Notebook: Take this job and shove it

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Owing to labor shortages, it took three days and a couple of long lines for me to get my prescriptions filled last week. Also, my favorite restaurant is now only open four days a week, as is our favorite butcher shop.

I can live with these minor inconveniences, but I feel sorry for those impacted by labor shortages in the health care field, hospitality industry, law enforcement, and transportation. 

Edgar Allen BeemWhere did all the workers go? I don’t know for sure but just based on what I hear from friends and family, I’m beginning to get the picture.

Republicans, of course, would like to blame America’s chronic labor shortages on the Paycheck Protection Program and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Conservatives have simple-minded answers for most things, so they blame welfare for labor shortages. Jobs are going begging, conservatives say, because the government is paying people more not to work than they could make bagging groceries or flipping burgers.

But unemployment benefits in 47 states are less than the state’s average wages, meaning only about 14 percent of those on unemployment ever made more than they would have by working. While unemployment benefits may have had an effect on the labor market for a short time, the bailout money is now gone. So the dole doesn’t explain why half the small businesses in town seem to have “Now Hiring” signs in their windows.

According to a report by the global financial services firm BTIG, only 6 percent of those on unemployment this past summer planned to go back to work when their benefits ended in September. 

Why didn’t the pandemic unemployed go back to work? I have a few theories.

First, there is the fear of COVID-19. I imagine a small percentage of the unemployed aren’t willing to risk death for minimum wage. 

Then there are the vaccine mandates that scare the pants off anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. “Get vaccinated or get terminated” is surely keeping some workers home, and we should all be glad of it.

But how are unemployed workers paying the bills? I’m guessing some are working the gig economy and getting paid under the table. But a much larger percentage probably looked at the state of the economy and decided to retire early. They’re collecting Social Security.

Americans are aging out of the job market. The big bubble of Baby Boomers is passing out of the workforce. The labor force participation rate fell from 67.1 percent in 1997 to 62.9 percent in 2018. It is projected to fall to 61.2 percent by 2028. Not coincidently, Baby Boomers have been qualifying for Social Security since 2000, so maybe the pandemic just pushed a large cohort to leave the job market and there aren’t enough Millennials and Gen-Xers to take our places. 

Then, too, the enforced self-isolation of the coronavirus pandemic may have demonstrated to a lot of people that it might be possible to live, as our parents once did, on a single paycheck. If you don’t have to pay for child care, takeout meals, and a second car, maybe you don’t need a dead-end, soul-deadening job to make ends meet. Get a little side hustle, grow a garden, take care of your own kiddos, and staying home become real possibilities. 

Bottom line: I think jobs are going begging because Americans are learning to live better on less. A $12 an hour job just isn’t worth it in this day and age. And hustling for tourist tips in Vacationland makes no sense whatsoever.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.