As we start emerging from the immediate public health threat of the pandemic, the hot topic of conversation and concern in the workforce development community is, “Where are all the workers?” Whether you are a restaurant owner, nursing home, hotel, manufacturer or even a one-stop career center, it seems that many employers are finding it extremely difficult to find skilled workers. Some businesses are blaming the additional unemployment benefits (FPUC) that the federal government offered to help people afford to stay home during the height of the pandemic, saying that in some cases workers are making more on unemployment than they were working. In some cases, people are saying, “people don’t want to work.” Worker advocates say the continued lack of access to child care, disparities in vaccination take-up and access, along with disparate rates of COVID infection among populations of color are making it hard to return to some low-wage jobs in sectors like food service, hospitality and retail, where there are still high numbers of continued claims. So, what is going on?
In October 2020, MWA partnered with MassINC Polling Group, with support from the MassHire Greater Brockton Workforce Board, to include several questions of interest to our members. Some of the findings are still relevant today:
- In October, 52% of unemployed respondents were not planning to look for a job, enter a training program, or enroll in a certificate or degree program in the next 6 months.
- Of those respondents, 66% said that the main reason that they were not planning to look for work or enter training or education was due to family care (children or other) or their own health concerns.
Massachusetts was one of the hardest hit states during the pandemic, one of the first to shut down its economy, and now leads in overall share of vaccinated residents. However, disparities still exist, and as of April, the vaccination rates for people of color in Massachusetts, particularly in low-income communities, was much lower than the rate for white residents in those same communities. These are also the same people who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the recession that accompanied it.
Anecdotally, the story is that unemployment benefits, particularly the additional compensation provided by the federal government to help people make ends meet while being required to stay home during the shutdown, were too rich and are a disincentive to these workers returning to minimum wage jobs. In Massachusetts, the minimum wage, while on the way to increasing to $15/hour over time, is currently only $13.50/hour. Many of the jobs most in demand are customer facing jobs, which during the pandemic were those that carried health risks to workers. Minimum wage, it turns out, isn’t enough to risk one’s life for, or that of their loved ones. And some of the jobs these workers left weren’t all that great to begin with.
Schools are reopening across the state, but continue to face intermittent targeted quarantines when a student test positive for COVID-19, and child care supply still is not back to meeting near to the demand that existed prior to the pandemic (and there were waiting lists even then). Women with children are still not able to return to work in many cases.
In a market economy, when demand exceeds supply, wages rise. We still aren’t seeing that yet.
Until workers feel that their health and safety are secured, along with the health of those that they care for, don’t expect them to be running back to low-wage work. This is a rational choice, not one borne out of laziness.