All stories of proletariat revolution begin when a wealthy white woman living in Potomac, Maryland – North Arlington, VA or somesuch – writes at length about people poorer, browner, and less civilized than she. I celebrate CEO of Washingtonian Media Cathy Merrill for volunteering evidence
for my strong suspicion: America’s business leaders, by and large, have not been made enlightened on labor rights by COVID-19’s forced alternative working arrangements.
The current news media discourse blames lazy job seekers for unfilled service work openings. Stories quote small business owners who mostly aren’t willing to re-structure how they treat employees. Merrill feels this way, as do business advocate groups – the Chambers, BIDs, DDAs, Main Streets etc – who aren’t in a position to publically criticize their member businesses.
The Average Voter doesn’t read high-quality reporting
on the current labor shortage/mismatch dynamics; they don’t know how well Laura Hayes’ captures the nuance of reality
. The social media headlines and clips from local news say it all, even when “it” is an economy that demands labor for less than a living wage, for work arrangements that prevent planning families more than two weeks ahead of time, where there’s no paid parental or caregiving leave
, and involves absolutely zero job security.
Unemployment insurance does not dissuade people from applying to jobs that offer them reasonable bargaining power and a wage to live on. Ask Janet Yellin
about this. Ask the academic studies on that trade-off: UI recipients wait longer to take a job, but
“perceived UI generosity was related to increased reemployment quality, both directly as well as indirectly through lower time pressure and financial strain, and subsequent higher mental health.”
People don’t go back to work before they feel ready unless they’re desperate. They’re mostly not desperate now, which is good – this is a frustratingly rare moment of improved social safety net. Much of America’s inequality problem is built on a fallacy that you work alone can get your way out of poverty. I have vivid personal experience
taking jobs that won’t pay my bills just because bringing in some money feels productive. But, that’s a black hole and no amount of work ethic or willpower makes a $900 net take-home pay cover $1,200 rent.
Cathy Merrill’s privilege pamphlet deals directly with the struggle of the hour: powerful people in the economy are usually not receptive to labor that wants to change paradigms coming out of COVID where even and especially the hourly workers, the gig/contingent labor, and “low-skilled” Americans demand and deserve self-determination on the when, how, and why of work. The most powerful people in our economy are taken aback by new realities of workers with improving options and resist the adapt, like Principal Skinner denying the kids’ moral high ground. Joe Weisenthal writes
“Many people (business owners, but also economists and general observers of the world) just take it for granted that there’s always going to be a virtually unlimited supply of cheap labor. Just like people assume that when you turn on the faucet water will come out, people assume that if a restaurant or a store puts up a Help Wanted sign, they will be inundated with applications. … numerous modern business models are predicated on there being a pool of precarious workers with minimal bargaining power. Whether it’s fast food, gig-workers, e-commerce warehouses, their existence is assumed. … We might be getting a glimpse of what an economy looks like where that can’t be taken for granted, and businesses actually have to scramble for labor, or in some cases maybe it isn’t available at all.”
I think there’s an important connection between the thoughts of the Washingtonian CEO – our bad manager
and villain du jour – and the same small business owners your local news quotes that exclaim astonishment that a $1,000 signing bonus and $1-$2 raise isn’t filling up their ZipRecruiter inboxes.
As Charlie Warzel explains
, business leaders will probably eventually adapt to the way workers are starting to demand to be treated. “the business case for remote work will be made — by the same high paid consultants and pundits who sneered at it — as soon as the societal pressure for flexible work reaches a tipping point.” Remote work will normalize when enough high-skill employees quit for better arrangements and company leaders start seeing P&L numbers from reduced office supply costs. I’d complain about you having to use your own laptops for white-collar work, but the company-issued ones come with
mouse and keystroke trackers.