Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Great Resignation: Lots of Jobs But No Takers


Recently, while on my way home from an appointment a few days ago, I came to one of those innumerable stoplights. As I waited patiently for the light to turn green, I noticed a weathered looking man who appeared be in his 50's. His clothes were worn. Dusty but not ratty. His shirt was the cleanest part of his appearance, but it too had seen better days. His look suggested someone who hadn't seen a shower in several days, but he didn't look like he had missed many meals or happy hours.

What caught my eye was the cardboard sign he was holding---"Veteran Down on Luck. Anything Would Help". A few motorists handed him what appeared to be spare change; perhaps a dollar or two found their way into his dirt stained pockets. I felt a bit sorry for him. After all, I'm a disabled veteran, and the "but for the Grace of God" and all that. Yet, I couldn't help but wonder why he wasn't able to find a job. It seems everywhere I turn I see "Help Wanted" signs (he was actually standing a few feet from one).  

In speaking with store managers and employees, I hear the same, now well worn story about no one wanting to work. Those hired stop showing up after a few days or quit the same day. Several employers have doubled or even quadrupled their starting hourly salary. Some are even offering prospective employees same day pay! Never did I think there would be such a demand for workers. Employers are literally begging for employees.

In the interim, partially stocked shelves have become the norm. Not enough stockers, and those who will work, do so during business hours, meaning that finding what you're looking for is as much catch as catch can than not, especially in drug or grocery stores. Some businesses are closing early or not open during times which would have been their busiest. They can't do that for long and stay in business.

Strangely, as I sit there at the light, patiently waiting for it to turn green, I hear the latest news on the radio tell me about high unemployment. It doesn't make sense. How can we have high unemployment when every business is desperate for employees. What gives?

The U.S. economy had been chugging along nicely for several years under Trump. Unemployment had dropped to around 3.5%. The GDP was 2.5%, production was up, no inflation. Then came Covid-19 and everything changed. Covid inspired fear not just in America, but throughout the world. The media played it up like it was the second coming of Black Plague which had nearly wiped out 2/3 of Medieval Europe or the Spanish Flu which added a deadly punctuation mark to end of WWI with over 50 million dead worldwide.

We were urged to home quarantine. We were paternally warned not to venture outside unless it was an emergency, such as a trip to the doctor or hospital.  Elsewhere, run to the grocery store were only for the healthiest of us to go and only if we wore masks and used sanitizer whenever we touched something.  It was as if the world had become toxic. I half expected needing a note from the mayor.

We had daily "infection rate and death counts" on television which seem like a macabre infomercial. We were prohibited to visit anyone admitted to the hospital, or  worse yet, from being with friends and loved ones as they struggled to breath their last. Even the dead weren't immune from the isolation being imposed on us. Then the shortages came.

The quarantine imposed by government covered all but the most essential of workers, who, ironically, were the lowly hourly workers that most everyone ignores. There were shortages of nearly everything. The result of a badly fractured supply chain, missing workers, and made all the more worse by hoarders (there will be a special place in Hell waiting for them by the bottled water section).  Walking around in the frozen food aisle amusingly made me think of "The Andromeda Strain" for some reason.

Employees were ordered home. Some took their work with them and at least earned a paycheck. Most didn't get anything but unemployment. Thankfully, the government came to the rescue right on queue with multiple "tax free" stimulus checks. However, "free money" is never free.  Schools closed long enough for departments of education to find ways for students to study from home, enabling schools systems to collected their tax dollars and keeping teacher unions happy.

The government mass produced  not just one, but three main vaccines. This would normally take years, if not decades, to develop, test and get FDA approval, but they did it in a matter of months! No wonder some were hesitant. People waited in line for hours to "get the jab". Businesses, hospitals, and doctors began demanding proof of your vaccination before allowing your admittance. It was all surreal like some dystopian Sci-Fi movie...or Nazi Germany.  Ihre Unterlagen bitte! ("your documentation please!").

If you had any faith in the compassion of your community, it was surely put to the test by then. But like everything in life, Covid has all but passed. I think we're on booster shot #6 now. Sporadic shortages remained, and America was left more divided than before. The shortages have forced prices upward while employees, who were furloughed during the pandemic or who worked from home, didn't seem all that anxious to rush back to their cubicles.  Thus began what has been called "The Great Resignation".

While Covid eventually passed from page one, and life generally returned to normal, one key component was missing. The workers. The government had selectively forced businesses to close but not others. Only the smaller "mom and pop" and local businesses closed while the government allowed the big mega stores to remain open. Couldn't have anything to do with their political clout could it?

The result was fewer businesses to return to, reminiscent of the years immediately following the Great Depression. It also, by implication, meant that there should have been more workers available for a limited number of jobs. Simple economics dictates that higher demand for fewer jobs should result in lower wages and a reduction of benefits. Somehow, that didn't happen, but why?

Of the estimated 8.4 million who were technically "unemployed", there still remained 10 million job vacancies. That didn't include those who were underemployed, overqualified for the job they had, or who were employed but quietly looking to switch jobs, or had simply dropped off.  Prior to Covid, there was little choice when it came to having a job and paying the bills. That all changed.

Between 2021, just as things started easing back to normal, and now, we reached a 20 year high in the number of people who quit their jobs. 63% of those who walked away from their jobs cited low pay as the primary reason.  As an aside, did you know that if the minimum wage had been tied to the rate of productivity (how much income someone generates in an hour), the minimum wage would currently be $26.00 by now?

Another 63% indicated a lack of opportunities to advance. 57% said they felt "disrespected" at work or unappreciated by their bosses and fellow employees. Ironically, more women quit than men. 20% compared to 18%. When it came to race, 24% were Hispanic and Asian. 18% were black while 17% were whites. The majority, 22%, had no more than a high school education. 24% were low income. 18% were middle income. Finally, there was evidence of worker blowback and all it took was a pandemic.   

Prior to Covid, most people felt they had little hope of being able to do much about their employment situation. Namely, try to find another job (which may be just as bad or worse than the one they have, even if the pay was slightly better), try to improve their educational status part time or quitting and going full time (45% said they had no or little say in choosing their hours, which made returning to school a tough choice). Either way meant more debt and added stress.

48% quit over childcare issues, stating their employer was unwilling or unable to work with them and forcing them into a no-win choice. Interestingly, 18% said they quit because their employer required they provide proof of a Covid vaccine, which remains a contentious issue with conservatives.

Meanwhile, a large segment decided to cash out of their investments, such as their 401k, stocks, and savings accounts to prolong their protest. Some opted to sell their homes for rental property in order to avoid rising property and other taxes. Others lived off credit cards which were soon maxed out. Those able to moved back home with their parents or other relatives, while some consolidated their living accommodations into defacto dorms. A few turned to existing government programs and charities to help with clothing, rent, medical care, or food.

But perhaps it was the fear that the government and media so skillfully implanted in people's mind which changed their priorities. Polling would seem to indicate it was. In recent polls, many stated they had used their time off to rethink what they wanted out of a job, especially those in the service industry who had been demanding higher wages and better working conditions pre-Covid.

However, the trouble with their demands  is that many, if not most of these jobs were never intended to be long term. They were meant to be part time and temporary jobs for those just getting started in the job market or students picking up some extra cash. Entry requirements were fairly basic with the emphasis being primarily on reliability, good people skills, and a willingness to follow direction.

But with the declining academic performance of high school graduates, an increase in dropout rates, and rise in the number of single parents with no work experience needing a job, that all changed starting in the 1970's. Unable to secure higher paying jobs, many turned to minimum wage entry level jobs as family sustainable jobs. These often required longer shifts and/or multiple jobs to make ends meet. Workers began to demand middle class pay and benefits for what were entry level employment.

To accomplish that, employers would have to double or triple their prices, which would drive off customers. But with an abundance of pre-Covid  applicants, why bother? Now that pool of applicants (as well as existing employees) were gone, employers saw no choice. The result was higher wages and better benefits for workers, but also a cutback in  hours, early closures, and  existing employees doing more.  For some employers, that wasn't a solution.

Some companies turned to automation to remove their dependence on these temperamental workers. However, their capitalist mindset dictated passing the cost of automation on to their customers. Higher prices means less demand. Less demand means fewer employees doing more. So merry-go-round turns.

The pandemic has changed the face of the economy. It enticed older workers, mainly baby boomers, to hang it up earlier than planned, leaving Millennials to pick up the slack and opening the door for the emerging Gen Z workforce; many of whom just graduated from high school.

Initially they'll have plenty of jobs to choose from, but with rising prices, fewer of small businesses (which have historically been the economic backbone of America), and increased automation, they'll need to get some diverse experience under their belts as quickly as possible. Post-Covid years will surely be remembered as the Age of Diminished Realizations.

The pandemic also, for better or worse, resulted in a selloff of homes for apartments or condos. Some have moved downtown for convenience sake, assuming downtown is safe and can provide the necessities they need like grocery stores, pharmacies, and good schools for their kids, and adequate shopping and entertainment.  Others have opted for smaller communities for similar reasons.

But what will happen as those who cashed out of society begin to run out of money, as surely many are by now? Having exhausted their private safety nets, they have little if anything to fall back on. Federal Covid relief is a thing of the past. Most states have long since cut off unemployment benefits beyond just a few weeks given the abundance of available jobs. But those jobs will soon vanish as the recession and rising prices takes hold. Then what?  Already 11.4% of Americans live in poverty. When combined with those who live near the poverty line, that figure jumps up to 32% or one in three Americans.

Prices are already shooting up at unprecedented rate. Gas, utility, and food prices are quickly outstripping income, especially for those on fixed incomes. Our usual political infighting and bungling isn't helping.  The system has intentionally been broken in favor of the 1%. Reform won't cut it. How much longer will we tolerate this? How much longer can we tolerate this?

Oh, that panhandler I mentioned at the beginning? In several polls, many panhandlers admitted that they could make as much or more money standing on a corner begging money than working most entry level jobs. Incidentally, many panhandlers work in teams, giving each other breaks, looking after each other's stuff, and splitting their earnings. Has this the image of the new American entrepreneur? 


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Majority of workers who quit a job in 201 cite low pay, noopportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected

Minimum wage would be $26 dollars an hour if it had grown inline with productivity

These two demographic trends are driving the 'Help Wanted' inside so many business windows


'Help Wanted' signs indicate lack of decent job offers, not people unwilling to work


13 reasons that help explain labor shortage

'Help Wanted' signs are everywhere. Where did all the workers go?

Does half of the U.S. live "in or near" poverty?

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