By BEN R. WILLIAMS
By this point, I’m sure you’ve seen one of the signs.
Maybe you’ve gone to a fast food place and seen a sign on the drive-thru speaker announcing that the restaurant is closed for the day due to lack of staff. Maybe you’ve been to one of your favorite restaurants and discovered that the hours have been reduced — they’re closing early on Sundays, for example, or they’re no longer open on Mondays because they’re short-staffed.
So where have all the employees gone?
A vocal contingent would have you believe that they’re all sitting at home, collecting their inflated unemployment checks and watching reruns of Mama’s Family, cackling evilly at the thought of all the poor saps who are still showing up to work.
Of course, all the added federal unemployment benefits from the CARES Act expired in early September, but that’s beside the main point of this article. There’s another major factor at play here, and it’s one that not enough people are talking about.
COVID has pushed a large number of people out of the workforce, and it’s not because they don’t want to work.
To state the obvious, a lot of these people are no longer with us. As of this writing, the COVID death toll in the U.S. is 738,000 and growing. Many of these people, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, were older folks who had already retired. However, since the rise of the Delta variant, COVID is claiming people — overwhelmingly the unvaccinated — from all age groups, many of whom were business owners or members of the workforce.
Of course, tens of millions of people have beaten COVID — there have been about 45.5 million cases, so about 44.8 million have survived the disease. However, there’s also the issue of “long COVID,” the poor folks who survive the disease but have lingering symptoms that last for months. Many of these people are able to go back to work, but a percentage of them have to take a much longer break, and some will never go back to work at all.
How many people suffer from long COVID? Estimates range from half of them to a quarter of them. We’ll go with the lower figure and say a quarter.
That’s 11.2 million people suffering extended symptoms from COVID.
Then there are the folks who never caught COVID but still left the workforce because of it. Statistics show that more than three million Americans took early retirement due to the pandemic. This has disproportionately affected the healthcare industry, as the horrific stress of dealing with an ongoing pandemic and death on an unheard of scale has caused them to throw in the towel.
Then, of course, there are the roughly 1.8 million women who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic, largely due to childcare reasons. With schools and daycares shuttered and no other support infrastructure available, many women had no choice but to drop out of the workforce to take care of their children. Some are beginning to return to their jobs, but the number of women entering the workforce has been stagnant for about two decades now, so it remains to be seen how many will simply find another way to make ends meet.
When we add these numbers together, we’re left with 16.7 million people. Many of these folks (COVID fatalities and long COVID sufferers) may not have been in the workforce to begin with. But if you subtract 16.7 million people from a country with a population of about 330 million, it begins to explain why you may not always be able to get a cheeseburger after 6 p.m.
So what’s the solution?
The other day, a buddy of mine who lives in Roanoke posted a picture on Facebook. It was a photo he had taken outside of a fast food restaurant of a banner reading, “Full time starts at $19/hr.” He commented that he was considering changing careers and slinging chicken sandwiches.
Higher starting wages for entry-level employees isn’t socialism; it’s capitalism through and through, a simple case of supply and demand. The supply of workers has gone down, demand has gone up, and corporations are beginning to realize that if they want to keep their doors open, they’re going to have to pay employees enough to make it worth their while.
When wages go up for fast food employees, it doesn’t mean that wages are going to stay the same for everyone else. It’s going to create a ripple effect throughout the employment landscape. Corporations and industries across the country are going to be forced to pay their employees more if they want to keep them. And considering that wages in this country have been stagnant since the 1970s, it’s about time.
Will the cost of your cheeseburger go up? Yeah, probably, but it’s been going up every year regardless of whether or not there’s a labor shortage; it’s due to a combination of inflation and corporate greed.
But now fast food companies are dramatically raising their starting pay overnight, and it’s not like they’re struggling to make ends meet all of a sudden. They always could have paid their employees more.
The difference is, now they have to.