- As stories about labor shortages continue to pop up, it might seem like no one’s working.
- The truth, of course, is far more complicated — just like the strange economy right now.
- Importantly, the pandemic is still ongoing, and workers have a lot more options.
It’s a common refrain right now: No one wants to work. It’s a twist in the story of a not-quite-post-pandemic economy that left millions of people unemployed, as understaffed businesses struggle to hire and workers quit en-masse.
But, as always, the economy is complex, and so are the myriad of people who keep it running. A simple phrase doesn’t capture all of the complexities of why people may or may not be working. If you want to inject some nuance into your next conversation about the labor shortage, here’s what to know.
The pandemic is still going on
If the Delta variant has taught us anything, it’s that COVID is still spreading — and it’s still impacting the economy.
For instance, childcare — or lack thereof — has emerged as one potential driver keeping parents out of the workforce. With schools and daycares shuttered, some parents left their jobs to provide care. Others may have lost their roles, and delayed searching for new ones while their kids were at home. Either way, they may not have returned to the workforce yet.
Sociologist Jessica Calarco tweeted recently about the challenges facing parents as children remain unvaccinated and variants spread, noting that classrooms and daycares may have to temporarily shutter as cases come up.
“Given that kids aren’t going to be eligible for vaccines any time soon, and with Delta spreading rapidly, we should expect a whole lot more of this to come. I won’t be surprised if we end up with a whole bunch more 2-week gaps (or longer) in childcare this fall,” she wrote.
COVID fears have also kept some older workers out of the workforce. They were disproportionately impacted by job losses early in the pandemic, and some have called it quits and retired altogether.
Fed Gov. Lael Brainard said that labor shortages should fade by fall as schools reopen and fears abate, along with federal unemployment benefits.
Workers are taking advantage of more options
A huge amount of workers are quitting their jobs, which seems counterintuitive. In May, 3.6 million workers quit their jobs — but it may be because they are taking advantage of new opportunities.
Wages in industries that are having difficulty staffing up — like leisure and hospitality — are on the rise, but they’re still relatively low compared to other fields. Dr. William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and chief economist at the AFL-CIO, previously told Insider that “workers who are employed are finding ways to get jobs in the sectors that are expanding and hiring.” Those sectors might offer higher wages, or at least more consistency than their prior roles.
It’s what Insider’s Aki Ito calls The Great Reshuffle: An unprecedented labor market, coupled with a rethinking of what workers want out of both work and life, has led many to exit their positions or seek out new ones. The market out there for workers is competitive, and many are finding higher salaries or better positions as they depart their old roles.
And yes, some workers may not be returning because they’re benefiting from enhanced unemployment benefits. As Insider previously reported, the consistent pay from unemployment — as well as the fact that it’s higher than what some workers made before — has caused some to rethink work.
“I just think that UI has just at least fixed everyone’s brain enough to see how f—ed up the wages are,” Matt Mies, an unemployed 28-year-old, previously told Insider.
But, as always, the picture is still nuanced. Many workers will find themselves cut off completely — including those who have been frantically searching for work.
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