To celebrate our family becoming fully vaccinated last month, we looked into having dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. It’s a steakhouse where we ordered carryout from during the pandemic, but found the experience very unsatisfactory; cooked beef apparently doesn’t travel well. We wanted to dine there during a weeknight, but when we called to make reservations, we found the restaurant was only open on the weekend. Apparently they don’t have enough staff now to be open every evening.
It’s a story we’re hearing a lot as we race out of our COVID doldrums — employers don’t have enough workers to meet renewed demand, and nobody’s filling out applications for all the vacant jobs. Initial wages and salaries are increasing; at the grocery store where I’ve worked for over a year, new hires are being offered $11 an hour. That’s what I make now, a fact which would bother me if I was doing this for a living.
But when I do just a little math, I realize working for a living at $11 an hour is impossible.
The poverty level for a single person in my state is at little over $25,000. If I worked at my hourly wage a full 40 hours all 52 weeks of the year (no vacation, unpaid absences etc.), I’d earn a little less than $23,000.
I work at the grocery store one day a week because I enjoy the work. If I needed the income, there’s no way I’d continue working there and earning what are literally poverty wages.
The extension of unemployment benefits is certainly having an effect on the labor market. But I don’t see laziness being the major problem. The wages being offered just aren’t enticing enough. Staying on unemployment rather than working for poverty wages isn’t a sign of apathy, but rather intelligence.
It’s easy to identify a problem, but much harder to fashion a solution. A country-wide minimum wage of $15 an hour doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as it doesn’t take into account regional differences and lead to skyrocketing price increases. COVID has been a disruptive force, and its impact on labor has created a problem that could take years to solve.