We have local manufacturers flying in workers from elsewhere just to get product out the door. They rent local hotel rooms for the workers. They pay for the car rentals. We have local businesses who shuffle workers from one store to the other, just to patch over gaps in services. We have restaurants offering to pay $25 an hour for waitstaff, and getting no response. We have four thousand nursing positions open statewide, yet we graduate less than 150 new nurses each year. Our hospitals spend millions paying services to bring nurses in from elsewhere. When the Koffee Kup Bakery closed in Burlington last month, tossing 156 people out of work, almost immediately the location was flooded with signs from other companies offering them immediate employment. We have employers trying to fill their ranks, but they test for drugs and 40 percent of those who apply fail the test.
Vermont’s employers are desperate. They can’t find the employees they need to keep their doors fully open. Today, it’s the number one challenge facing Vermont. The longer this vacuum persists the longer it will be before Vermont’s economy fully recovers.
Finding qualified employees is one thing; that’s been an issue long before the pandemic struck. Vermont’s employers are also accustomed to an environment in which the struggle to get qualified employees is a function of the free market. Today, however, they are also dealing with the tailing edges of a government support system that makes hiring people doubly difficult.
The average unemployment benefit in Vermont is roughly $640 each week, counting the federal supplement. That works out to be about $17 an hour, including Social Security and Medicare taxes. When you speak to local business owners they are acutely aware of the obvious: their employees, and applicants, have done the math. If they can collect $17 an hour and stay at home, doing nothing, there is little incentive to return to work, even at a higher wage. If, for example, the business owner offered $20 an hour, the employee would be pocketing an extra $3. And, they’d have to work. What sort of incentive is that when they can stay home and go fishing?
This doesn’t explain all the employers’ woes. People quit their jobs for legitimate reasons, including personal safety [the virus], child care that was neither affordable or available, and school systems that were shut down. The issue of safety is quickly coming to an end. So is remote learning. Thankfully. Not so with child care. Our child care needs loom as a barrier to full employment and to employment that is gender friendly. Until we get this right, the goal of right-sizing our workforce will remain beyond our reach. Pretending otherwise is pure denial.
Beyond child care what we are dealing with now can be separated into two parts; the immediate. and the so-called “long tail” of what the pandemic leaves behind that we have yet to experience or understand. The immediate is the drive to return to unemployment policy prior to the pandemic. In September, the federal share of employment [$300 a week] is set to disappear. That should push people back into the workforce. The state should be actively requiring people to search for work as a requirement for unemployment. [A really low bar.] There also needs to be a much firmer response to the obvious levels of outright fraud; people who quit their jobs and then lie about why. There is no reason taxpayers should be picking up the tab when there is a surfeit of employment opportunities. There is also no reason the state should not spend the time necessary to look at cases past and adjudicate when appropriate.
What looms in the back of the mind, however, is asking to what have we conditioned ourselves. When an employee tells an employer he or she is quitting because they can make as much on unemployment as they can in the job, and that alone is the reason for their departure, how are businesses to interpret that message looking ahead? What happens when people are idle for so long? What’s the return like? Have we blessed not working? Have we just expanded the population that knows how to game the system? Will this labor shortage force us to rethink how we approach public education and the real-world skills our students need to be gainfully employed, I.e., skilled labor positions like plumbing, electrical, construction, etc.?
Perhaps the most pertinent question for Vermont is why we lag other states in restoring our employment levels. We’re near the bottom nationally, and despite our success in getting people vaccinated, minimizing the safety issue, economists are expecting the job growth this summer to be slow to modest. Why? What separates us from what other states are doing?
Understanding why is important because the slower we are in returning to pre-Covid employment levels the longer it will be before our economy fully reopens. Understanding why also opens the debate on how, as a state, we can retool our collective approach to the changing workplace. We must address the child care issue if we are to remain competitive. We must rethink how our educational system can be upgraded so that 50 percent who don’t go on to college graduate with the skills necessary to be employed and to be productive. We must get broadband to those who don’t have it, or who can’t afford it.
With all the money that is being pushed our way, it would seem most appropriate to prioritize why it is that we’re struggling to get people back to work.
by Emerson Lynn