In the Employment Situation–September 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics offered positives and negatives. Non-farm job numbers from business and government organizations were disappointing, adding only 194,000 positions. The August additions of 366,000 jobs had been weak, but September was worse.
In the household survey, unemployment fell substantially from 5.2% to 4.8%. The number of unemployed persons decreased by 710,000 and the decline was only fractionally due to unemployed people leaving the labor force. Yes, there were dropouts and the labor force declined. But the number of employed Americans increased by 526,000.
If we dig a little, we find striking differences by age and gender. The number of men 20 and over in the labor force (working or searching for work) increased by182,000; the number of women decreased by 309,000. Of those 55 and older, men added 305,000 jobs but women had 57,000 fewer jobs. Did grandma go home to take care of children and sick family members? Did more women leave the labor force because the jobs they get are, on average, lousier than those men get, and because family needs jumped as the Delta variant spread? (Biden’s reconciliation bill would help here; it adds child-care subsidies and lifts care-workers’ pay.)
There were 7.7 million officially unemployed people in the latest report. However, we at the National Jobs for All Network (NJFAN) know that there are more unemployed than that. Adding just the 6 million people who wanted a job but had not recently searched for one, raised the total to 13.7 million unemployed. But that adds to a puzzle. The latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLT) publication showed 10.4 million job openings in August. So there were a lot of unemployed persons but also a lot of jobs waiting for them. What gives?
Why So Many Unfilled Job Slots?
Conservatives predictably claim that generous unemployment benefits keep people from looking for work. This argument was inadequate six months ago, and it is useless now. The federal unemployment bonuses of $600 and $300 are gone. Only 5 million people receive unemployment benefits now. In June of 2020, 33 million people got something.
Also, we are told that jobs are becoming more attractive. We hear that employers are raising pay and offering bonuses. And wages are on the rise. But why aren’t more people working? For months now experts and reporters have been discussing this puzzle under catchy titles: The Big Re-Shuffle, The Great Reallocation, The Great Resignation, The Big Rethink, and The Revolt of the American Worker. What caused the Rethink and Revolt?
- COVID, the Delta variant, and care issues. Some people are too sick to work, and some are caring for children or COVID victims. In early September the Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey found that 4.65 million people were caring for themselves or someone else who had the COVID. That was twice as many as in July. Also, many potential workers don’t want to be around people who are sick or unvaccinated. The worker-quit rate has been extremely high in food services and drinking establishments. Also, nursing and residential care facilities lost 38,000 jobs in September and are down by hundreds of thousands of jobs since February 2020. These job sectors have many dangerous jobs and often pay poverty wages.
- Lousy jobs. Workers in America are treated worse than workers in Western Europe. Our workers often get paid less, receive fewer vacations and have fewer supports for family emergencies and child care. Workers resented these things, but with low unionization and often unsupportive governments, they felt they had to take it. But they did not like it. Because of pandemic catalysts, simmering resentments have turned into a Big No. It is often individualized in its application but there is a common theme: “We Won’t Work For Peanuts.”
Low pay is the key issue. Money wages–the dollars you see on your paycheck–are rising, but higher inflation is cutting purchasing power. Also, pay is just too low to begin with. In restaurants, bars, and other leisure and hospitality workplaces, hourly wages rose to an average of $16.71, but that is still the lowest wage of any major job sector. And that’s an average. Some employees earn more, but many earn less. In backward states you can find people working in restaurants for $2.13 an hour, plus tips. And often getting only part-time work when they need more hours.
Not that full-time work guarantees a comfortable existence. As June Zaccone points out in the text accompanying NJFAN’s Full Count, in 2020 there were 12.2 million full-time, year-round workers who did not earn even $26,496 a year. The latter is the federal poverty line for a family of four. It is stingy. If you work a full year of 2080 hours at $13 an hour your family will not, the federal government says, be considered poor. Really?
Breaking Points and The Big Rethink
Workers had lousy jobs before the pandemic. Aren’t they used to oppressive workplaces? What shook things up? Psychologist Anthony Klotz, talking to Business Insider, claims that when people come into contact with death and illness, they ask profound questions about their lives. So the COVID plague unsettled people’s attitudes and behavior.
Also key were the pandemic recession and federal income supports. The pandemic recession was abrupt and massive. It smacked 40 million workers and their families. And income loss hit working-class Americans harder than affluent workers. But also, thanks to Democrats who learned from the Great Recession and who had more ideas about how to help people than Republicans, workers received substantial federal income benefits. That helped pay the bills. And it helped people pause a while to think about the kinds of jobs they’d want as the economy recovered. Finally, I suspect that generous federal benefits sent a message to workers that in this rich society people did not have to live all the time under dark clouds of economic insecurity. It was possible to fix things.
Many people have gone back to work, but fewer than predicted. Some are quitting because they think they can find a better job. Will quits go down and employed numbers up as government supports and savings shrink? Yes. But has the COVID plague and the Pandemic Recession etched new possibilities on the psyches of many people? Will more workers be willing to act and organize on the job to make life better for themselves and their co-workers?
Many more workers than in the Great Recession have had a Howard Beale moment. In the 1976 film, Network, Beale yelled to his viewers: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Workers in the U.S. have been pretty angry for years; many have been organizing, for example, to get the $15 minimum wage. Millions are striking by staying home. Unlike Howard Beale and his corrupt employers, workers can do something practical for themselves and their colleagues. The number of workers engaged in actual labor strikes has ticked upward. That number is not yet in the millions of workers, as was true in some past decades, but the seeds of something bigger are sprouting. Most workers are not ready to march with signs that say “Workers of the World, Unite to Bring Down the Filthy Rich.” But neither are they carrying signs that say: “Will Work for Food.”
In addition to government reports and National Jobs for All Network materials, I learned from many sources including Business Insider, Michael Hiltzik and other writers at the Los Angeles Times, including the anonymous authors working for Bloomberg who wrote “U.S. Job Growth Hurt By Child Care Shortage,” (October 11, 2021), and reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Frank Stricker is on the board of the National Jobs for All Network and is emeritus history professor, California State University, Dominguez Hills. His new book is American Unemployment: Past, Present, and Future (2020).