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Column: Solve worker shortage with better pay, conditions

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/7/2021 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 6/7/2021 10:10:13 PM

At least 24 states led by GOP governors — including New Hampshire — are no longer participating in the federal pandemic unemployment compensation program that provides a $300 per week supplement to those who qualify for unemployment benefits. The lawmakers in those states are taking this action based on the premise that the program is a disincentive to job-seeking and its elimination will address the “applicant shortage” employers are facing.

Yet, as a recent story in the Sunday Valley News noted, “studies during the pandemic find scant evidence that increased unemployment payments have disincentivized workers from seeking jobs.” (“Staffing Cuts: Gap between jobs, applicants leads employers to reduce operations,” May 23). If withholding a supplement isn’t the solution to the applicant shortage, what is? Two answers come to mind: higher pay and better working conditions.

While some small business owners and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pressuring state governments to abandon the $300 weekly supplement, a recent article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described the experience of Jacob Hanchar, co-owner of Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor in Pittsburgh, who was able to fill 16 open staff positions “practically overnight.” How? After announcing a new pay rate — $15 an hour as a base wage instead of the previous minimum of $7.25 — Klavon’s received “well over 1,000 applications” for job openings, with 250 applications coming in from Facebook alone. And the decision to raise wages had other positive byproducts. Because the number of patrons increased by drawing in those who “wanted to support a business that is taking care of their employees,” revenues increased more than enough to offset the higher wages he offered. Hanchar also noted that, since he increased wages, the number of workers who leave for better pay has decreased, reducing the expense of finding and retraining new employees.

But low wages are not the only obstacle. A 2019 article by Dana Wilkie of the Society for Human Resource Management reported on a Gallup poll showing that 40% of the workforce felt they had “good jobs” while 16% felt they had “bad jobs.” The balance, 44%, classified their jobs as “mediocre.” The article also included a list of the “10 dimensions of job quality.” The level of compensation was at the top of the list, but the next items on the list included the stability and predictability of pay and work hours, control over hours or job location, job security and benefits.

Of all the items on that list, stable and predictable pay and work hours have the greatest impact on family life and, consequently, on the desirability of that position from an applicant’s perspective. According to a 2017 census report, of the 72.3 million children in the United States living with at least one of their parents, 43% (31 million) live with a parent who does not work a traditional Monday-through-Friday daytime schedule. Moreover, many employees in the service sector are often subjected to “just-in-time” scheduling, meaning they know only a few days in advance what their hours will be and their workdays may change substantially week to week. Worse, shifts may be changed, canceled or added at the last minute. Employees who can’t adapt to these ad hoc schedules are subject to dismissal, making their jobs far more precarious and their lives more stressful.

A meta-analysis conducted by University of Texas professor Carolyn Heinrich cited research finding that low-quality jobs (those with low pay, irregular hours and few or no benefits) are linked with higher work-related stress for parents, which in turn detracts from children’s well-being. The effects of work-related stress on children are particularly strong for single-mother families. Parents whose work “is most likely to have negative effects on their children are the same parents who are least able to take leave, cut their paid work hours, or otherwise secure the resources they need” to provide for their children’s well-being, Heinrich noted.

Would you take a job that failed to provide you with a predictable work schedule? Would you take a job that didn’t offer you predictable weekly or monthly pay?

It is disheartening that, instead of raising pay and improving working conditions to attract workers, the business community often seeks a way to force workers to accept the pre-COVID-19 status quo: low-wage jobs with irregular work schedules, jobs that create stress for parents, jobs that erode the well-being of children. It is even more disheartening to see many politicians reinforcing the perception that “the government is paying some able-bodied people to stay home” while ignoring the continued challenges imposed on low-wage workers by the pandemic, challenges that led to the federal government’s decision to provide a $300 a week supplement through the end of September. And most disheartening of all, New Hampshire, like other states controlled by the GOP, would rather reduce business taxes than help the employees those businesses routinely underpay and overwork.

Wayne Gersen lives in Etna.

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