This week, our team talked to a lot of hesitant people. We heard from those who were skeptical of getting vaccinated about their decision-making this morning. And for Tuesday’s episode, we spoke with both employers and prospective employees across the country to get a better sense of why so many Americans are reluctant to return to work.

Both are extremely personal decisions with significant social ramifications. So in this newsletter, we wanted to take a closer look at the latter — digging into the context and proposed solutions for America’s labor shortage. Then, we take a look behind the scenes at how our team is thinking about covering recent news related to race and identity.

Like many of us, the American labor market is “sick with the virus,” with companies complaining about a shortage of workers that is slowing the country’s economic recovery. The employers we spoke to for Tuesday’s episode said that generous unemployment benefits, which have incentivized workers to stay home, are to blame (a sentiment echoed by Republican lawmakers).

But the reality is more complicated. While many states are halting federal unemployment benefits, employees still aren’t rushing back to work. Many experts have proposed solutions: They say increasing wages (which many companies have), ensuring workplaces are safe, and building more flexible scheduling options will re-engage workers. But the workers we spoke to in our episode say that the problems run deeper and that a fundamental reimagination of American work culture is necessary. So what could that look like?

Both companies and the federal government are scrambling to find an answer. The United States has historically ranked low in assessments of workplace protections, accused of a “systematic violation of rights” by the International Trade Union Confederation. Now, President Biden is declaring that this moment provides an opportunity for employees to “demand to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.”

For help envisioning a future of work that is both dignified and flexible, we asked economists and researchers to point to international comparisons that could help Americans imagine a new future.

Fabian Stephany, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute studying the gig economy, believes that the pandemic is expediting the “platformization” of work or the allocation and monitoring of labor via digital platforms. This business model pervades the growing, and increasingly precarious, the gig economy.

With more people working online, he believes we need to imagine new ways of ensuring that flexibility for employees and the efficient allocation of work for employers don’t come at the cost of worker protections. He points to the world’s first collective agreement for a platform company — between a Danish union and Hilfr, a company connecting clients to cleaning services — as one example in which workers were able to secure “holidays, sick pay, pension contributions and a minimum wage of19 euros per hour.”

This kind of bargaining relies on strong unionization. But in the U.S., many gig economy workers are classified as contractors, not employees, limiting opportunities for collective bargaining.

Dr. Stephany sees opportunities for governments to change federal policies to better support workers, such as the European Union’s establishment of minimum rights for gig economy contractors. Dr. Stephany also points to Estonia, Lithuania, and Sweden’s facilitation of easier tax payments and income reporting for Uber drivers, a policy that eases friction in platform workers’ access to social security benefits.

American women are struggling to re-enter the workforce after many gave up their jobs in response to the disproportionate demands placed on them during the pandemic.

Now, working mothers are facing brutally hard choices about whether to stay home or to search again for work. This decision has been made easier for many British women who, thanks to the country’s furlough policy, stayed employed throughout the pandemic with the government choosing to pay partial salaries in the interest of avoiding mass unemployment. “This means it has been seamless to bring those employees back to work when demand picked up again,” said Thomas Pope, deputy chief economist at the Institute for Government, based in London.

Still, new polling shows nearly a third of British parents are concerned their caring responsibilities will make them more vulnerable to layoffs when furlough ends. “I do not think that extending the furlough scheme, especially once the economy is ‘back to normal, is the solution to potential problems for working parents,” Pope said. “Instead, any solution will be related to flexible working, which we would expect many employers to adopt.”

In both countries, Amanda Taub, our Interpreter columnist, points out that supporting flexible re-entry is essential to avoid long-term regression in gender equality. She points to Sweden, which heavily subsidizes daycare and has one of the highest rates of female labor participation in the developed world, as one example of success. She also identifies the need for more predictive policymaking, including clarity around reopenings, and a functioning health care system as essential support for parents planning their return to work.

Lawmakers, economists, and advocates are working to extend a handful of key federal aid programs established at the beginning of the pandemic, many of which are scheduled to end just as the delta variant has caused Covid caseloads to rise across the U.S. yet again.

Already this week, following pressure from House Democrats, the CDC extended the federal eviction moratorium through October 3 after it lapsed over the weekend. Now, other Congressional Democrats are calling on the White House to extend the pause on federal student loan payments scheduled to expire at the end of September, the Washington Post reports.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups are also dialing up attention to extend pandemic-era unemployment benefits programs that are set to expire on Labor Day, September 6.

Will pandemic unemployment benefits be extended?

The March 2020 CARES Act established three new federal unemployment aid programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which covers those not traditionally eligible for aid, including freelancers and gig workers; Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Compensation (PEUC), which extends aid to those who’ve exhausted their state’s benefits period, which averages around 26 weeks; and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), a $600 weekly boost that was reduced to $300 per week to help people recover more of their lost wages.

The March 2021 American Rescue Plan Act extended these benefits to Labor Day. But policy analysts were concerned the date was chosen without consideration to what the state of the virus would be in the U.S. at that time.

Now, “exactly what advocates feared would happen with the last extension to September 6 is now happening,” Jenna Jerry, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, tells CNBC Make It. “We knew Covid wouldn’t be over. And it’s not. With the delta variant rising and places going back to having mask mandates, we’re taking steps backward and ending aid when people continue to need and rely on them.”

The public health crisis could “make people think twice about this cutoff of benefits,” says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

However, “people are holding out hope for that extension, but to be honest, there’s not a lot of political momentum behind it right now.”

Stettner says it’s not clear that enough lawmakers would support the continuation of jobless benefits because critics are primarily focused on whether the $300 weekly boost disincentivizes people from finding new work.

Businesses across sectors, especially in leisure and hospitality, are having a hard time filling a growing number of job openings. In response to sluggish job growth in April, the governors of 26 states announced plans to end pandemic unemployment programs early through June and July.

A handful of economic analyses in recent weeks show there hasn’t been a strong correlation between states cutting off aid and immediately seeing improved job-search activityhiring, or employment.

The U.S. labor market added a better-than-expected 943,000 jobs in July, according to the latest jobs report, but economists caution these numbers don’t consider state breakdowns and therefore can’t determine the impact of states canceling pandemic unemployment benefits on hiring.

What happens if benefits lapse

Stettner says while the focus remains on ending the $300 boost, allowing PUA and PEUC programs to end would cause a “unemployment cliff” for roughly 7.5 million people and their families after September 6.

As of mid-July, roughly 9.4 million people were drawing benefits from one of these programs, making up more than 72% of Americans collecting unemployment insurance overall.

By nature, people on PUA don’t qualify for any other type of unemployment insurance, so these recipients will not have another safety net to recover lost wages.

Some long-term unemployed people claiming PEUC could move over to Extended Benefits, a federally funded aid program that triggers “on” depending on their state’s unemployment rate.

Benefits have been extended during other recessions

“We’ve extended unemployment benefits before,” Stettner says. “They’re usually kept in place several years into a recovery period with the understanding unemployment happens fast, but reemployment takes time.”

While he sees little political support for continuing the $300 weekly benefit, “that doesn’t mean we have to cut off everything.”

Following the 2008 financial crisis, Congress created and extended emergency unemployment pay through December 2013, at which point 1.3 million people were cut off from jobless aid.

Even so, critics have said the 2013 cutoff was too early, based more on calendar dates than economic conditions for some of the most vulnerable workers. At the time Congress let aid expire, the Black unemployment rate was over 10%, and the national rate was elevated too, Stettner says.

As far as today’s conditions, the overall unemployment rate fell to 5.4% in July, according to the latest jobs report, but is higher for Black (8.2%) and Hispanic (6.6%) workers.

Lawmakers have set expiration dates and extended pandemic unemployment benefits several times since March 2020, leading some economists to advocate for setting a phaseout period based on economic conditions, like the unemployment rate, rather than a calendar date.

Groups are calling for unemployment insurance reform

Many worker advocacy groups, including Unemployed Action, ExtendPUA, and Unemployed Workers United have been working with policymakers to improve unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic with the ultimate goal of more long-term systemic reform, Jerry says.

Advocates say permanently expanding the pool of workers eligible for jobless aid can improve an inequitable unemployment insurance system. Americans most likely to be supported by today’s temporary PUA and PEUC programs — the long-term unemployed, self-employed, freelancers, gig workers, part-time workers, and caregivers — are also disproportionately Black, Hispanic, Asian, women, and low-income earners.

“Unemployment insurance is an essential program,” Jerry says, “but it was created in the 1930s and exclusively left out predominantly BIPOC workers. Over the years we’ve made some progress toward reform, but the need for PUA, PEUC and FPUC further demonstrate how much further we need to go.”