National Labor Shortage is Actually a Nationwide Walkout

Businesses in southern states and nationwide are moving into the holiday season with a rash of vacancies on their sales and service teams. Restaurants across the U.S. have “Now Hiring” signs hanging in windows and doors, promising free food on the side, better wages, even help with college. So far, bosses and managers are still struggling to fill the holes. 

“It got worse right after Covid hit,” says Dr. Karen T. Mays, of Affordable Dentures & Implants, in Columbia, Missouri. “I haven’t had a full staff for more than a year since then. There’s a lot of stress.” 

After more than two years of closures the whole country is suddenly willing to invest in more services and needing more things fixed, more things mailed and more things purchased. It’s also apparently tired of looking at its own kitchen and starved for “out” food, with long lines circling restaurants in some areas. The flood of investment comes at a bad time with food establishments and service organizations still reeling from pandemic burnout. Some restaurants have reduced hours or are skipping days completely because they just don’t have the staff to fill the need. Other organizations, like some FedEx branches, have simply resigned themselves to running with a skeleton crew, even with the frenzied holiday shipping season preparing to pounce. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released numbers recently showing 242,000 people abruptly put down their jobs and walked away in August. The number and rate of layoffs and discharges were little changed at 1.3 million and 0.9 percent, however, so these numbers represent a personal decision by workers, not an angry boss. When added up, a record 4.3 million people, or 2.9 percent of the nation’s workforce, decided they’d had enough and moved to greener pastures. Most of these abandoned jobs were bar and restaurant jobs, or in retail, with a total of 892,000 workers in the food service and accommodation industries dumping their bosses. A total 721,000 retail workers also turned in their notices, along with 534,000 in health care and social assistance workers. 

Robert Reich, a UC Berkeley professor of public policy and a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, had a quick explanation for the walk-off.  

“There is no ‘labor shortage.’ There’s a child care shortage, a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a healthcare shortage,” Reich wrote on Twitter. “Until these shortages are remedied, Americans won’t return to work anytime soon.” 

Politicos and sociologists argue that many parental workers are finding it more difficult to return to work or start a job with little to no affordable childcare. Childcare in places like Washington D.C. costs an average of $21,678 a year, while childcare in Mississippi runs $5,110. But even in a “cheap” place like Mississippi minimum wage is still roughly $7, meaning a full-time job pays only $15,080 a year. With rent averaging $8,400 a year a minimum wage mom spends 56 percent of her income on rent and 33 percent on childcare. That’s almost 90 percent of her annual income, and she hasn’t even included the insurance/loan costs for her car, or food. 

Biden and Democrats in D.C. are working to subsidize childcare in order to draw more parents into the job market, but the GOP is using its razor-thin minority to stomp the idea. Worse, Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin III, of West Virginia, is asking Democrats to dump almost every child-care policy included in President Biden’s Build Back Better stimulus plan. 

Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman urged the nation to invest in childcare, arguing that “Investing in children is not a national luxury or a national choice. It’s a national necessity.” 

Union representatives say the sudden absence or workers represents more than just a war over babysitting. There’s a tactic behind it. The figures, they say, also represent a nationwide strike against the garbage wages and lack of benefits that companies give their workers while cranking CEO pay through the roof. Nationally, CEO pay in 2020 grew 19 percent over the previous year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, despite the pandemic. 

“They’d fix the problems if they’d move the wages up,” said Robert Shaffer, president of Mississippi AFL-CIO. “Hell, workers have already been telling them what’s wrong. We’re the ones who have to eat and buy gas.” 

Shaffer said workers have long lost patience with the nation’s minimum wage, which has not risen since 2009 and has lost 21 percent of its value thanks to rising costs. When the pandemic sent folks home, they learned their pay was so bad that unemployment actually paid better. This realization drove GOP governors like Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to end an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits implemented by the federal government as pandemic relief. Mississippi slave wages simply could not compete with unemployment. 

Shaffer said he was not surprised Reeves ended unemployment this year to run desperate people back to garbage-wage businesses. 

“Tate’s doing his job. His job is to keep workers on the bottom. He just can’t understand why people don’t want to work for nothing,” Shaffer told Lighthouse. “Hell, I’d love to see the last day Tate worked anywhere.” 

The unofficial nationwide walk-off joins smaller, union-led strikes in almost 40 businesses across the nation, including strikes at Kellogg Co.’s cereal plants, nurses in Massachusetts and Deere & Co. factories. 

Senator Bernie Sanders, D-VT, wholeheartedly endorsed the Deer & Co strike, arguing on Twitter that “Profits at John Deere have skyrocketed by some 61% in recent years, while its CEO’s salary has exploded by 160% since the start of the pandemic.” 

“Please do not tell me they cannot afford to pay their workers fairly,” he added. 

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