The worker shortage is a reckoning for employers who neglected their employees

 


During the Great Recession, the refrain among workers was, “I’m glad to have a job. Period.”

A decade later and a year and a half into the COVID pandemic, things have changed. Now employers are glad to have workers – if they can find them.

The nation and North Carolina are in the grip of a worker shortage that is really more of a holdout. Workers are increasingly unwilling to be exploited – especially when a hard job comes with the risk of a COVID infection.

“Folks who’ve been subsisting for decades are fed up,” said Ana Pardo, co-director of the Workers Rights Project at N.C. Justice Center. “They’re not going back to those jobs for little pay and even decent pay when they feel their lives are going to be at risk.”

Somehow, even with federal income and rent supports expiring, they are still holding out. The 26 states that ended supplemental unemployment benefits in hopes of bringing sidelined workers back have seen only a slight increase in employment – and a drop in consumer spending.

Rather than taking low-paying jobs that won’t cover child care and other costs, some workers are moving in with relatives or taking odd jobs to get by. “Folks are collapsing their households. People are pulling tighter together,” Pardo said. “That’s what poor people do when there’s an emergency.”

Some employers are bumping up hourly pay or offering bonuses, but that’s not enough. Employees want workplaces that are adequately staffed, provide benefits, and – in jobs that involve constant potential exposure to COVID – hazard pay.

Shalaya Mabry, the group home worker in Asheville, said the pay at her workplace – ranging from $15.60 to $17.25 an hour – isn’t enough for the difficult work of providing hygiene and other care for autistic adults amid a pandemic. “The turnover rate is ridiculously high,” she said. “We will get people who come in for a week or two and then quit. We have had people quit in the middle of their shift several times.”

The shortage is a long-overdue reckoning for employers who ignored the needs of workers. Oxfam America recently rated North Carolina – an anti-union state with a $7.25 minimum wage and no statewide paid family leave – the worst state for workers.

Now the efforts to keep workers divided and docile are being countered by a common fear of COVID and a collective sense among many that they deserve work that is not only financially but spiritually rewarding.

Christina Jones, a former manager at a Cary restaurant, lost her job early in the pandemic when the employer let all 35 employees go at once – over Zoom. Servers there made $2.13 an hour plus tips. Managers were paid better, but worked long hours and were always on call.

Jones is staying home to care for her two young children while her husband manages a catering service that’s still short of employees despite offering $25 an hour. When she goes back to work, it won’t be in a restaurant. “We had 18 months to figure out a better way of life and I think a lot of people have,” she said.

One of them is Brenjecia Reuben, who made a living in Raleigh as a restaurant server and self-employed DJ. Both businesses dried up when COVID closed restaurants and ended most social gatherings. Reuben took courses at Wake Tech to learn new skills and now she works from home for a Triangle tech company. “I just know a lot of people from different walks of life who are starting to reevaluate what they want out of life,” she said.

Susan Romaine, director of the nonprofit Orange County Living Wage, has prodded companies to offer better pay and benefits. She is seeing a change among employers and employees.

“My gut is telling me this has been a time of tremendous reflection. Employers are thinking about how to redesign their workplace,” she said. “It’s also been a time for employees to step back and really think about the kind of work they want to do.”

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com

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