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From essential to expendable
I’ve noticed a growing number of signs hanging up at businesses reminding customers to be nice to their employees. Beyond the simple fact that you should be nice to other people regardless of how you interact with them, it’s a crazy shift from less than two years ago when many low-wage workers were being consistently praised for their willingness to work in the middle of a pandemic. At the time, it seemed like society was finally recognizing the hard work of grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, and hotel staff. Now, businesses are having to post signs reminding people that those workers are still people and still deserve respect. In less than two years, these workers have gone from essential to expendable.
Remember when they were essential?
We’ve had a labor shortage since the start of the pandemic, but that’s been amplified as US workers quit their jobs at record rates. Anecdotally, most people seem to have adjusted their shopping expectations. Some businesses aren’t open as late as they used to and some open later in the day than before. Even if the operating hours haven’t changed, shoppers generally don’t expect to see as many employees as in the past. As everyone adjusts to this new normal, businesses are realizing it’s easier to blame the pandemic than their work environment, even if customers are finally catching on.
At the start of the pandemic, people were trying to figure out if they qualified as an “essential worker.” If they couldn’t work at home, they also wanted to know if they could earn hazard pay for working during the pandemic. We hadn’t ever really used the term before the pandemic, but immediately recognized that people working in healthcare, supermarkets, and the post office were essential to everyday life. They risked their lives so the rest of us could work from home.
During the summer of 2020, A LOT of people took the time to share their appreciation for essential workers. Some companies set up websites that people could submit comments of gratitude for employees. Newspapers were publishing opinion pieces on the importance of thanking essential workers.
While nurses and medical workers have continued to receive praise over the past two years, there was a brief moment in time when many of America’s forgotten workforce was suddenly being recognized by political leaders at the highest levels of government:
It didn’t take a lot of time to find that tweet. I just did a simple Twitter search to find a tweet praising grocery store workers. There were a lot of other verified accounts from that summer praising grocery store workers right alongside healthcare workers. These posts weren’t unique to Twitter. You likely saw them on your Instagram feeds, discussed in LinkedIn posts, or posted by friends on your Facebook feed.
If you didn’t see it on your social media channels, you may have seen it in your neighborhood. Thank you signs were posted on billboards, at local schools, and some people even bought yard signs to show your support for their neighborhood grocery clerk:
Absent all the pandemic issues, it seemed like working conditions for low-wage workers would finally start to improve. People appeared much more caring of the individuals doing jobs that others didn’t want to do and earnings were starting to increase in a sector that hasn’t seen much growth in a very long time. But after a year, as people started getting tired of the pandemic restrictions, it seems like some people have decided to act like it’s “business as usual” and go back to being the awful people they were before the pandemic.
Are we back to treating them like they’re expendable?
When I wrote about the labor shortage in low-wage markets last summer, I hypothesized that part of the issue may be a compensating differential story. The traditional low pay for a lot of these jobs wasn’t enough to compensate for the risk of contracting covid in addition to the crappy work environment that these places are notorious for harboring. These new signs asking people to be nice are lending more credibility to that hypothesis.
While low-wage workers are earning higher wage rates than they did in the past, it may not be worth it if it means putting up with the return of poorly-behaving customers. I worked in these types of jobs throughout high school and college, and they can take a real toll on your physical and mental health. And that was before the pandemic! Over the past year, it seemed like society was heading in the right direction and starting to really think about how important these jobs are in our current society. At some point though, we just sort of quit treating them like the humans they are. We went back to calling them lazy.
Many of the same workers who were once thanked publicly by governors and presidential candidates are now being called lazy and selfish for quitting a toxic work environment. While some businesses are asking customers to be nice, there are also a lot of other businesses that have posted signs calling workers lazy and blaming them for not wanting to work.
If the past two years have shown us much of anything, it’s that people don’t want to work… for a crappy boss. A McKinsey survey found that compensation wasn’t the driving factor of people quitting, but that most respondents noted they did not feel valued by their manager (54%) or organization (52%) or that they did not feel like they belonged (51%).
Put yourself in the shoes of a local business struggling to find workers. Your current employees are getting frustrated with how much work they have to do and another employee just texted you to let you know they’re quitting. You’re frustrated, short-staffed, and need to let people know that service may be a bit slow today. You decide to hang up a sign letting people know that the store is short-staffed that day and ask for patience. You let your frustrations get the best of you and instead hang up a sign like this:
We generally give a lot of credit to managers for being savvy in the face of difficulties. Workers are smart, too. If a business is short-staffed, they likely also have “now hiring” signs posted in the windows as well. It’s unlikely that a potential applicant would want to work for a manager who resorts to posting signs like this instead of recognizing the difficulties these jobs entail. It’s no wonder some of these places continue to be short-staffed. It’s time for businesses to adapt to this new environment.
As the omicron variant continues to sweep across the country, workers are finding themselves stuck in the same position as the summer of 2020. This time around, they’re facing a contagious virus without the assurance of hazard pay, social distancing, or cleaning protocols. As more workers call in sick, the ones left behind are stuck doing more work for less pay. Last week, more than 8,000 workers went on strike at a Kroger-owned grocery chain over pay disputes.
Economic Roundtable also released the results of a survey last week of around 30,000 Kroger employees in Colorado, Washington, and California. The report was commissioned by local United Food and Commercial unions and found that many workers were having trouble making ends meet. Around 42% of respondents said they relied on borrowing money from family and friends to pay for basic needs over the past year and 34% said they cut portion sizes or skipped meals because they couldn’t afford food. 14% of respondents reported being unhoused. Kroger earned an estimated $4 billion in profit last year.
What can we do?
There was broad support among the American public for the larger infrastructure plan, but that was scaled back in order to get it passed in Congress. A lot of the components of that plan would help low-income earners. There was also overwhelming support before the pandemic to raise the national minimum wage to $15 per hour, which would be the highest it has ever been after adjusting for inflation. A lot of minimum wage legislation has been addressed at the state level, but more could be done nationally. There’s likely no single policy that will help everyone, but it’s a start in the right direction.
On a more personal level, you could consider donating to charitable organizations. There are a variety of organizations, both national and local, that collect financial donations to provide relief to people who have been impacted by the pandemic. CNN’s Impact Your World has compiled an interactive list of donation opportunities to help those affected by the crisis. If you want to donate more broadly, Feeding America is a good place to start and one of my favorite national organizations.
It feels weird to end a newsletter on economics with advice that doesn’t seem to be specifically tied to economics at all. It’s a behavior that we teach kids every single day, but don’t seem to expect from ourselves or those around us. Be nice to each other. A little kindness goes a long way. This isn’t really “pandemic advice” at all, but maybe it can be a good reminder. Say please and thank you when you’re interacting with others, especially if they are serving you or trying to help you. Hopefully, you don’t need a sign to remind you to be nice to people. If you do require a sign to remind you to be nice, you should consider staying home and not interacting with these people at all.
There were an estimated 3,117,800 workers employed in the food and beverage stores subsector as of December 2021 [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
There are 63,419 supermarkets & grocery stores in the US as of 2022 [IbisWorld]
The median hourly wage for cashiers was $12.03 in May 2020 [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
Kroger’s CEO, Rodney McMullen, received a $22 million compensation bonus in 2020 [Securities & Exchange Commission]
The United States has only spent 77.47% of its total pandemic budgetary resources [US Treasury Department]