By HELAINE OLEN
Norma Leiva, a warehouse manager with Food 4 Less in Panorama City, Calif., joined a protest last week in front of the chain’s North Hollywood location. Food 4 Less’s unionized workforce has gone without a contract for months. Kroger, the chain’s parent company, cut its $2-per-hour “hero” bonuses for front-line workers after two months. Meanwhile, CEO Rodney McMullen got a major raise, upping his annual haul to $22 million. “I think that we are essential workers,” Leiva told me, “that we’ve always been essential workers, not just now during the pandemic.”
Such dissatisfaction and tensions can be seen across the U.S. workforce. In the wake of employers complaining about positions they can’t fill, a narrative has emerged of (lazy) Americans refusing to get off unemployment. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has declared today’s worker shortage a “crisis.” But the pandemic recession and fledgling recovery point a fresh lens at an old issue: Millions of Americans earn less than a living wage. It’s no surprise that many don’t want to return to unsatisfactory workplace conditions.
LOW PAY, UNCERTAIN HOURS, FEW PROTECTIONS
Unhappiness has been building for some time over low pay, uncertain hours, and few protections against bullying bosses or workplace abuse. Recall that the Fight for $15 movement emerged in 2012 against low pay, poor workplace conditions and the right to organize. What started with fast-food workers branched into retail, leisure and other sectors. The #MeToo movement revealed the continuing mistreatment of women in a variety of workplaces.
Meanwhile, the United States, unlike other first-world economies, mandates no vacation days. Some 23 percent of American workers have no paid vacation and 22 percent lack paid holidays. Pushback against Organized Labor and state “right-to-work” laws mean most Americans can easily be fired at any time. Little wonder that burnout is a societal phenomenon.
IT’S POSSIBLE A ‘GREAT RESIGNATION’ IS COMING
The pandemic amplified some of these pressures — and has prompted some workers to demand better. Support for unions is up, with even Hollywood producers trying to form one. Other workers are voting with their feet.
Prudential’s annual Pulse of the American Worker survey, published in April, found that one in five respondents had changed professions since COVID-19 hit. Half don’t plan to return to their previous fields. The top reasons? A search for better life balance and pay.
As Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, recently told Bloomberg, it’s possible a “great resignation is coming.”
So far, attention has been focused on the low-wage, high-pressure jobs hit hard by last year’s shutdowns — dining establishments, ride-sharing. Restaurant owners across the nation are claiming they can’t find enough help. Taxis for hailing are few and far between in New York, D.C. and other cities. Uber is offering bonuses in an effort to lure back drivers.
Extended unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly federal supplement — generous by American standards — are likely playing a role in many workers’ reluctance to return. Several Republican governors and corporate CEOs have argued this. Many people “don’t particularly feel like going back to work,” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon recently told the Senate Finance Committee.
IS IT ANY SURPRISE?
Why should that surprise anyone? In the restaurant and hospitality industry, many workers still receive the tipped federal minimum wage of $2.13 an hour. The restaurant industry accounts for more sexual harassment claims than any other sector, with incidents citing customers and co-workers. In recent years, top chefs including Momofuku’s David Chang were revealed to rage at workers on the job.
“People are forgetting that restaurant workers have actually experienced decades of abuse and trauma. The pandemic is just the final straw,” Crystal Maher, a restaurant worker in Austin, recently told The Washington Post.
White-collar work wasn’t in a healthy state either. Even before COVID-19, the pressure to work long hours was immense, with many survey respondents admitting to checking emails after hours and during vacation. With the viral threat receding, many corporate honchos want their office workers back on premises. A large majority of those who began working remotely last year are less enthusiastic — and told Prudential they want to continue working from home, at least one day a week. More than four in 10 said they would try to find a new position if their employer demands a full-time return to the workplace.
PANDEMIC WAS A WAKE-UP CALL
The pandemic made us familiar with the idea of “essential workers” without defining them — or their needs. It’s yet another facet of the conversation on compensation and working conditions that U.S. society has avoided for years.
The United States is famous as a place where people identify with their work; in many circles, you are what you do to earn a paycheck. The pandemic was a wake-up call. It abruptly severed workplace ties for many while leaving others — deemed essential but treated like they were disposable — toiling in less than safe conditions.
Today’s “worker crisis” is really a debate about the terms and conditions under which our jobs are performed and how much we should be paid for them. Think of it as a great reconsideration, one worker and workplace at a time.
(Helaine Olen is an opinion columnist and the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry” and co-author of “The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated.” Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Reprinted from the Washington Post.)