As the economy revs up to meet the rapacious demand of tens of millions of newly vaccinated Americans, employers say they cannot fill their yawning need for labour.

Take Alex Washut. In January he mapped out hiring plans for his two breakfast and lunch eateries in western Massachusetts and figured he’d need to hire 20 new cooks, servers, dishwashers and other staff by May. He has doubled wages in some cases but has managed to hire only five; most of the time, he said, job candidates never even show for their interviews.

At the same time, the US economy is down more than 8 million jobs since before the pandemic, and Federal Reserve (Fed) officials say the true unemployment rate is closer to 10 per cent than the 5.8pc the government report shows.

Analysts estimate US employers added nearly a million new jobs last month, but the question is not why US employers hired so many, but why they did not hire more? What gives? It’s a long list, but here are some of the highlights.

Parents — particularly mothers — cannot work because closures or shortened hours at schools and daycare keep them home to watch their kids.

Employers complain that enhanced unemployment benefits and other government aid are keeping workers on the sidelines, content to collect a cheque rather than work for a living

Would-be workers remain concerned about health risks amid a pandemic still claiming about 700 American lives daily.

Stock market gains have given some older workers the cushion to retire.

Some younger workers are finding jobs in new fields, shrinking the labour pool for the industries they left behind.

Many employers need to fill jobs requiring skills that sidelined workers may not have.

Employers complain that enhanced unemployment benefits and other government aid are keeping workers on the sidelines, content to collect a cheque rather than work for a living. Data released by the Labour Department last week showed more than 16m people are still receiving some form of unemployment benefit, now more than a year into the pandemic.

“We recognise that the labour supply has been affected by the pandemic... (but) are seeing little evidence though that enhanced unemployment benefits are currently affecting Americans’ willingness to work,” Whitehouse spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said last week.

What’s that all add up to? In a nutshell, this: A National Federation of Independent Business survey showed a record 42pc of small businesses had job openings they could not fill in March.

Economists say that if employers need workers so badly, they would raise pay. So far, that’s not happening. US compensation rose more quickly than expected in the first quarter, but the boost came mostly from one-time bonuses to financial sector workers and was not broadly shared.

“The full sentence is ‘I can’t find workers at the wage I am willing to offer.’ Full stop,” said Always Designing for People chief economist Nela Richardson. “You can find workers.”

Eyes on September

Over the next several months analysts will watch intently to see how the labour market adapts to the biggest changes since after World War Two when millions of soldiers returned home and wartime assembly lines shut down. It may be the end of summer before there is any real clarity.

“Ultimately as we get into September and we see schools reopening and some decline in unemployment insurance benefits we do expect for a lot of these labour scarcity issues to be alleviated,” Deutsche Bank economist Matthew Luzzetti said.

Or, as Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester put it last week, as vaccinations rise and more schools return to in-person learning, “we’ll get to that better equilibrium in the labour market between supply and demand.” It is not unusual for it to take time for labour markets upended by a recession to work out kinks.

After the last downturn, Fed surveys showed employers grousing about worker shortages in 2012 when the unemployment rate was above 8pc. When compensation began to rise in earnest several years later, workers flooded back to the labour market.

“What we saw was that labour supply generally showed up,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said last month. “In other words, if you were worried about running out of workers, it seemed like we never did.” This time, with the economy projected to grow at its fastest pace since 1984, the rebalancing may be quicker. The Fed will be watching what happens with wages, and prices.

Back to the kitchen? Nope

Some workers in industries hard hit by job losses, such as restaurants and retail, have moved sectors entirely, said Bill Spriggs, chief economist with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations and a professor at Howard University.

Some people who had low-paying jobs before the pandemic were struggling to cover their bills even before the crisis and may be searching for more financial security, he said.

Richard Bunce, 33, was working as an executive chef in South Philadelphia when the pandemic hit. His eatery shut for six weeks, reopened for takeout, and then shut again.

Laid off, Bunce said he “decided I needed to do something different.” He went to coding school, graduated in December and had a job offer two weeks later. He has since had a couple of offers to get back into the restaurant business. “I don’t plan on doing that,” he said.

Bunce’s gain is the restaurant industry’s loss. Washington-based restaurant operator Knead Hospitality is so desperate for workers it is offering hiring bonuses of up to $1,000 for servers, line cooks and bartenders.

Washut, the Massachusetts restaurateur, said he figures that to entice people collecting unemployment benefits he would have to set starting hourly pay at $19, up from $15 now. That would mean bumping wages even higher for existing staff or risk them feeling short-changed. To pay for all those raises, he would have to jack up prices on his $12 plates of Caribbean jerk chicken hash and eggs. “And who will pay $20 for an order of hash?”

Jimmy Nigg, who runs the Monkey Barrel Bar in Denver, is in a similar boat. He often finds himself in the kitchen making $5.95 cheeseburgers or behind the bar serving $6 craft beer because he can’t find staff, though he now offers line cooks nearly $19 an hour. Still, he’s betting the upward wage pressure is temporary. By September, he said, people will be willing to take “$15 or $16 because they are so desperate.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 10th, 2021


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