COVID-19 has turned the American economy on its head. Initially, it did so by ending 10 years of economic expansion. And now, it is doing so by empowering workers. Workers are in a position to demand higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions for the first time in a long time. Workers have the leverage now. You would think this is something that would be cause for celebration among the entire American workforce. Unfortunately, that has proven to not be the case. Folks have fallen for the outright lie that the reason for the labor shortage is that the American workforce is becoming lazy. The rich and powerful among us have done a great job perpetrating this lie. They have convinced those making $50,000 a year that those making $20,000 a year are the problem. But contrary to popular belief, the American workforce has not suddenly grown lazy. And frankly, it is bullshit to suggest otherwise.
According to the OECD, American workers work about 1,767 hours per year. 435 hours a year more than the average German worker, and 400 more hours a year than the average worker in the United Kingdom. So, members of the workforce are not being lazy, they are reevaluating the role of work in their lives and their compensation. After years of suffering through jobs that offered low pay, unpredictable schedules, and unsafe working conditions, workers have said enough. Folks have decided that it is time they get paid what they are worth. Why is that a bad thing? Particularly when quality jobs have been on the decline since the 1990s, 54% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and 56% of Americans can’t afford a $1,000 emergency. The government, over the last 50 years, has given bailout packages worth trillions of dollars to the banks and billion dollar industries. The only group they haven’t bailed out is the workers. So, now that workers have the leverage, they have decided they are going to do it themselves.
Another reason for the shortage is because of what economists are calling “The Great Resignation.” In 2021, millions of Americans voluntarily quit their jobs. Workers have decided that if their employers show themselves unwilling to offer the compensation and working conditions they deserve, workers will leave those positions for jobs that do offer the compensation and working conditions they deserve. They are taking new jobs that treat them with dignity and respect. And, in case you were wondering, the idea that extended unemployment benefits prevented people from going back to work is also bullshit.
In the states that cut the extended unemployment benefits early, just 1 in 8 beneficiaries found a job after losing their benefits. 7 out of 8 beneficiaries still could not find work. The states that pulled out of the extended unemployment benefits early saw their economy suffer because of their decision. As folks lost their benefits, they reduced their spending by 20%. Which equates to $2 billion dollars of less consumer spending, and less economic growth.
These resignations are frequently occurring in the leisure and hospitality and healthcare industries. These industries have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers in both industries have had to go to work knowing that there was a high probability they would be exposed to COVID-19. The thoughts of catching the virus and passing it on to loved ones are surely constantly running through their minds. So, it makes sense that workers in these industries would be looking for a change to improve their mental and financial health. Especially considering these folks are some of the quiet heroes that have kept society running through COVID-19, and they haven’t received anything in return. Perhaps Derek Thompson, a writer for The Atlantic, put it best when he said that the Great Resignation is “really an expression of optimism that says, we can do better.”
Lastly, folks are reimagining the role of work in their lives. It has been ingrained in American culture that you should work longer and harder than anyone else, even if that means sacrificing other parts of your life that are important to you. The pandemic has made folks realize just how fragile life is. They want to spend more time with friends and family and less time working for an employer that does not value them. Workers have decided they have had enough of a toxic culture that encourages exhaustion and being overworked. This toxic culture has caused 83% of Americans to experience work-related stress and 41% to describe themselves as burned out. The pandemic has proven to be the final straw for many workers who have experienced worsening mental health due to their employers poor response to COVID-19. Workers are finally prioritizing their own well being over everything else.
In conclusion, workers are tired of the bullshit. They are tired of being treated without dignity and respect. They are tired of being stressed and burned out because of work. They are tired of participating in a game in which the winner is predetermined to be the rich. So, just remember the next time the labor shortage comes up in conversation, that this Labor Shortage has nothing to do with people being unwilling to work. Instead, it has everything to do with workers fighting for their families and their dignity. Don’t fall for the bullshit.