Millions of Americans who were thrown out of work in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic are now encountering a hot jobs market with businesses eager, even desperate, to hire them.
But amid continued spread of the delta COVID-19 variant, workers are trickling, not rushing, back into the labor market, despite the expiration of augmented federal unemployment benefits and offers of higher wages in some sectors.
Consumers eager to spend money would normally be a boon to the service industry in Charlotte, North Carolina. But businesses here, as in many parts of the United States, can’t find enough workers to accommodate the demand.
Help wanted signs are ubiquitous in storefronts across the city, where, since May 2020, the local unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 14% to less than 5%.
“Oh, there's business here,” Brixx Wood Fired Pizza general manager Lethr’ Rotherttold VOA. "The restaurant stays busy and we're making loads of money, but I don't have the staff to keep up.”
It’s a similar situation at The Giddy Goat Coffee Roasters, an independent outfit with a unique business model of roasting coffee beans in-store and right in front of customers. The coffee shop was launched during the pandemic and has struggled to keep up with demand.
“When we think we’re good [for workers], the volume increases, and we suddenly need more help,” said manager Enzo Pazos. “Two people go to school, that’s two less staff on hand, so it’s kind of like it’s never enough.”
“You’re seeing variations of this same theme of a worker shortage across the country,” economist Matthew Metzgar of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte told VOA.
Metzgar notes that a federal economic stimulus program provided some workers with higher temporary incomes than they had received at their old jobs before the pandemic.
“What’s happening is of course with that higher unemployment compensation, people are less willing to work and people are less willing to accept lower wages,” Metzgar said.
Others who remain unemployed say they are reluctant to take jobs that would put them in close contact with the public at a time when the United States is averaging more than 1,500 COVID-19 deaths a day.
“Most people that have stayed on unemployment have done it for safety reasons, it seems,” job seeker Alex Jordan Ku said. “I have some friends on unemployment, and their safety was their main concern. They haven't been looking for jobs They kind of just went back home to live with their parents so they can be without jobs for a while until things feel safe to them.”
Yet another problem keeping many people out of the workforce has been a shortage of affordable child care – a problem that was exacerbated by COVID-related school closures and remote learning that have forced many parents to remain at home with their children.
That problem may be easing as schools are reopening across the country this fall, but the parents of younger children are still finding it hard to secure placements in child care facilities, which are themselves impacted by difficulty in hiring enough qualified staff.
In a move partly aimed at getting more people back to work, the Biden administration is promoting enhanced child care subsidies as part of a proposed $3.5 trillion plan to fund infrastructure and social safety net programs.
This month’s expiration of supplemental unemployment benefits should force at least some workers back into the labor pool as their bank accounts run dry. But Metzgar says many potential workers are less than eager to return to jobs that pay less than what they received in benefits.
“From the worker’s point of view, there is resistance to coming back to lower-wage positions, and in some situations, there may not be much to entice them back in,” he said.
At a recent jobs fair in the neighboring state of Virginia, securing adequate compensation was on the minds of many prospective applicants, several of whom stressed factors beyond an hourly wage.
“What I'm looking for is something where there's long-term stability, and benefits are important,” Lisette Bez told VOA at the Leesburg, Virginia, event. Even though she has run out of unemployment benefits, Bez indicated she is holding out for a job that includes things like generous health insurance benefits.
“The cost of insurance these days continues to go up. And I think for a lot of people that's a huge concern,” she said. “So it's not just enough to have a job that will pay you a certain amount. You have to have those other things.”
While employers have no control over the pandemic, they do have leeway in what they offer to entice workers, say labor advocates.
“In all candor, raising wages is the only thing that’s going to be bringing people back to work,” Charlotte labor organizer William Voltz told VOA.
Voltz, president of Unite Here’s Local 23, a union for airport employees, said workers need an hourly wage in the $17-$22 range to get by, far higher than the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
“Unfortunately, to live in Charlotte you really have to make a livable wage to be able to afford housing and life’s necessities,” he said.
Amid fierce competition for labor, a growing number of U.S. employers big and small are sweetening wage and benefits packages offered to job seekers. E-commerce giant Amazon.com, Inc. recently boosted its average starting wage to $18 an hour, up from a $15 minimum wage the company set before the pandemic.
In Charlotte, Giddy Goat founder Carson Clough said he expects a certain amount of negotiation in determining compensation for new employees.
“If workers do have requests regarding pay and benefits, I am all ears,” Clough told VOA. “My business partner and I started off with the mindset [in] which we’re going to try and meet high-end wage requests, even prior to the pandemic. I’d be very open to hearing different demands, such as ‘How can I go do this’ or ‘How can this be a part of the package’ or something like that.”
Flexibility and creativity will be key to hiring and retaining workers going forward, according to Metzgar.
“Companies may consider thinking about bringing on workers that could contribute in multiple ways, doing something that brings value to the business. This would be a win-win, it would allow the worker to be invested, while the worker receives a higher wage in return,” the economist said.
“The point is to reimagine some of these positions so that the workers have the opportunity to produce more value, so managers set up workers to flourish to produce value for the company, which again comes with higher wages for the worker,” he added.