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OPINION

Help wanted, but many workers aren't interested

Posted on June 3, 2021

OpinionColumns

Tom Campbell

Tom Campbell

All across North Carolina, “Face Masks Required” postings on businesses are being replaced by “Help Wanted” signs. But a recent jobs report indicates there were more than 8.1 million unfilled jobs in the U.S., and folks aren’t rushing to fill them.

Why? The most common answer is that when people can get $300 weekly federal unemployment checks on top of state unemployment averaging another $216, they have no incentive to work. Are there that many people who just don’t want to work? It goes much deeper.

Let’s do the math. If you are a parent with one child in North Carolina, you pay an average of $178 per week for child care or $324 for two kids. The combined federal and state average unemployment benefit amounts to $516 per week. Deduct just the amount of child care for one child and you receive $338 per week.

Even a job paying $15 per hour for a 40-hour week nets you just $84 per week more than unemployment, and that’s before FICA and withholding are deducted. Would you work 40 hours for essentially $2.10 per hour? I think not. So, one solution is we need to help provide safe, reasonably priced child care.

Gov. Roy Cooper has reinstated a provision that, as of this week, people receiving N.C. unemployment benefits have to prove they are actively seeking a job. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis think we can solve the problem by joining other states shutting down federal unemployment benefits due to expire Sept. 6. They think that will force folks back to work.

Our state Senate just passed a bill to pay unemployed people up to $1,500 as an incentive to go back to work. These approaches might help, but they don’t get to the real issues.

Let’s look at this from a different perspective. Perhaps the problem is not that unemployment benefits are too high, but that too many jobs pay too low. Instead of waiting for politicians to raise minimum wages that haven’t changed in more than a decade, some in lower-paying jobs are going to force wage hikes because they refuse to go back to jobs in restaurants, production and non-supervisory manufacturing, warehouses and the service industry — the jobs most unfilled. They have decided it isn’t worth it to be harassed and used by increasingly angry, demanding and sometimes abusive customers and supervisors.

Restaurant servers and others who count on tips are only guaranteed $2.13 an hour, an amount that hasn’t changed for 30 years. And many of these low-wage positions don’t provide benefits or a guaranteed schedule of weekly hours.

Even those in higher-paying jobs are reexamining their lives. Many aren’t eager to return to long commutes for a job working in a cubicle in a high-rise building. They have enjoyed renewed relationships with their families. Even those reporting they worked more hours than pre-pandemic say they adjusted their schedules for a walk with the dog, playing with kids, a leisurely lunch or dinner and less stress — good things that resulted from the past year.

We have become a country of workaholics, striving ever harder to climb the ladder to get ahead. Samuel Huntington in his book, “Who are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity,” says Americans, “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability and retirement benefits, and retire later than people in comparably rich societies.”

We proudly boast that we never take our full allotment of vacation days. European Union countries require at least 20 non-holiday vacation days every year. Maybe these countries can teach us something.

Our mantra has been that we live to work. Many Europeans work to live, meaning they work as much as needed to provide the lifestyle they desire.

North Carolinians are not lazy. We’ve always worked hard and taken pride in what we do. But things have changed.

Instead of not being willing to work, maybe the message being sent is that folks aren’t willing to work the way things were pre-COVID. 

Tom Campbell is a North Carolina Hall of Fame broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program “N.C. Spin” that aired for 22 ½ years. Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.

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