Recent news has been discussing the problem of high numbers of unfilled job openings despite continued high unemployment, and high numbers of people collecting unemployment benefits. Many of the job openings are in the retail and food industries that have qualification requirements easily met by many of the unemployed people.
There are even stories of places that have signs in their doors declaring that they are closed because of their lack of employees. These include places that recently were having a lot of customers. The business is eager to hire people to meet the demand, but no one is applying. These are in areas where there should be many unemployed people near enough to work there.
This is a new phenomenon. Previously, a business would have a pile of job applications so that they can rapidly fill any openings. There are no piles of applications any more.
There are discussions about how to solve the problem. Most of these discussions suppose that the root issue is the lack of financial incentives. Workers will return when the wage offers are increased enough, or when government offers some kind of incentive to hold a job for a year. Employers who can afford higher wages are still not getting the applicants they need. I imagine that there could be a wage level that will attract the workers, but that level is far above what most of these businesses can afford.
Some discussions point to the current unemployment benefits being too high so that there is more incentives to not work. They propose reducing these benefits, or at least to impose more burdens on the unemployed to show efforts to find a job, and that they are accepting offers they receive.
Even with the recently augmented unemployment benefits due to the pandemic issue, there should be more people taking up these jobs. Working is not an entirely economic calculation. The economic argument considers the final take-home or disposable income from unemployment benefits and from working. The economically rational choice is to pick the option that brings more spending money. Fewer people are taking jobs because they are able to spend more money when they are not working. This can be true without impacting the business’s ability to fill their openings. Businesses may just need one more person to work for them.
My intuition is that there normally would be someone who would rather work even when they have more spending money when not working. This is especially true for some local business. A person would not have to commute far to get to work, and when working will be serving people from the same area. For the jobs that involve customer interaction, there will be occasional bright spots in the day when there is a chance to meet someone and briefly talk about something about the local area.
I have never worked in the retail or hospitality businesses, but I have heard from people who do. Prior to the pandemic, when I talk to people who worked in these areas, they would mostly talk about their bad experiences and how they didn’t like the work. Despite their complaints, I got the impression that they actually did like some aspect of the job. They just prefer talking about the bad parts of the job.
There is a reward that occurs when the worker does something that satisfies the customer, or gets the customer to compliment you. This may happen rarely, but when it does, it can cancel out a lot of prior unhappy experiences. The service exists for the satisfied customers. The worker may strive to minimize the dissatisfied customers, but ultimately he tolerates the dissatisfied. There will be other customers who will appreciate the service.
The current disruption is where there are a lot of unfilled job openings despite still high unemployment. By the rules of supply and demand, the this has to be solved by increasing the incentives to work. As mentioned above, the solution is to increase the financial incentives that will lead to inflation because the owner has to increase his prices to cover his higher labor costs. This is probably going to be necessary because no one is considering the non-monetary imbalances.
Just like in the financial calculations where people have more spending money by not working, people who normally enjoy their jobs are finding that they are getting more satisfaction by not working. In both cases, there are increasing more benefits for not working and decreasing benefits for working. In my example of non-financial rewards of having satisfied customers, the Internet is providing person satisfaction rewards through social media, online gaming, etc. The modern Internet experience can satisfy the appetite of a person who thrives on meeting new people and doing something that satisfies the people he meet. The recent period where people spent the better part of an entire year not working gave them lots of opportunities to discover Internet alternatives to their work addictions.
On the other hand, the work environments have largely lost their appeal by the requirements to always wear a mask, and to operate at reduced capacity in order to achieve social distancing. I am describing a person who thrives on interacting with people. This interaction involves closeness and the ability for both to read each other’s facial expressions, especially expressions that are involved in optimal customer experiences. In the context of restaurants or bars, the capacity restrictions mean the establishments will never have that crowded conditions that lead to satisfying work experiences.
Using the Internet at home provides abundant opportunities to interact with mask-less faces on a one-on-one basis in a transaction of mutual satisfaction. This does not have to involve money. The satisfaction is helping a person who has a problem.
Using the Internet at home also provides abundant opportunities to serve large crowds in the form of online gaming or as being a monitor for live chats or multiple participant video meetings. The chat monitor gets satisfaction when there are more people involved in the chat and this brings more opportunity that require the monitor to intervene. In some cases, these may involve some monetary compensation, but I argue that the person is also compensated by being involved in a crowd-serving or crowd-pleasing role.
Both of these experiences once were automatically expected from retail or hospitality jobs. People took those jobs with the expectation that they would see customers, or that they will work through very crowded periods.
I have a habit of eating alone, so when I eat out I tryin to choose off-peak times. I learned that the absolute worst time to go to a restaurant is when I would be the only person in the dining room on a weekday where they are not expecting a big crowd later. The place is open based on their posted operating hours, but they are not really operating most of those hours. People who work in these places want to be busy pleasing customers. It is very awkward when there is only one customer to please, and he is just trying to enjoy his meal while reading a book.
When eating alone, the best experience is when the place is packed. When service arrives at my table, the server is energized. This too is more than a little awkward. On the busiest nights, the server is somewhat relieved to reach my table because they know I would be easy to please. On the other hand, the server is annoyed that an entire table is wasted on just one customer when there are multi-person parties waiting. Overall my impression is that workers have an energy of satisfaction when they are busy serving lots of customers.
The satisfaction of busy periods comes from multiple sources. One is the queue of waiting customers to serve so that the server is constantly busy. The other is the need to maximize the non-verbal communication. A lot of the communication between server and customer involves body language and facial expressions. As I write this, I am imagining a restaurant scenario, but the same occurs in retail when a sales person is helping a customer decide on a purchase. Most places are optimal when they are crowded with customers.
The recent news is that businesses are eager to re-open but cannot find workers. These businesses have made the investments to placate the health department’s demands. They have all their doors and windows adorned with the appropriate warnings to not enter if you had symptoms in the past several days, and then masks are required for entry. They all have updated employee rulebooks that require their wearing masks at all times, including when the place is empty. The employees have the added duties of constantly sanitizing any surface that a person even comes close to touching. The place has the bar area closed, and half of the tables that is normally would have.
I walked by one place that had a large sign in the entrance with rulebooks for the customer. There is a list of all the activities where the customer must wear a mask. More importantly, there is a sign that tells customers to not talk to people at other tables, and to certainly not join a table that is different from the one they were assigned.
The sign also proclaimed that other customers in the place want to be left socially-distanced. This is amazing. People want to go out, and yet when they go out, they want to be left alone. It does not make sense.
I’ll mention another place, this one an exercise place, with a sign that declared that distance makes the heart grow fonder. That is an euphemism for the reality that distance makes the heart ache. I don’t want to go into a place that wants to ache my heart.
I think again about the workers who are declining the new opportunities. Ultimately, they may be seeing these opportunities for what they really are. These are opportunities to torment their hearts. They have to wear masks and stay distant from customers. They are not allowed to experience the serving of crowds, let alone the larger opportunities for tips or wages. They would be entering an empty workspace that clearly is optimal being more crowded. They look at the wage offered and compare it to the working environment. I don’t blame them for saying no.
If the opportunity is to spend their day mostly alone and isolated, they can do that from home where there is no requirements for mask wearing and for sanitizing everything ever 30 minutes. At home, they have access to Internet where they can be part of as big a crowd as they desire.
There is parallel issue emerging with people who have jobs, but they spent most of the last year working from home. The employers are trying to get them to return to the office. I believe this is essential for a lot of reasons I won’t discuss here. The employees are rebelling against returning to the office. They are saying, with some justification, that they are able to work adequately productively from home, or there may be business advantages that would be lost if they had to be in the office. Meanwhile, the employers and building owners are taking strides to comply with health department demands and also to make the place appear less vulnerable to spread of disease.
Similar to the retail or hospitality businesses, the building’s entrances are adorned with signs forbidding entry if the person had symptoms in the recent past, and forbidding entry to the mask-less. Many have new guard stations who have a new duty to do a temperature scan before permitting access further into the building. Inevitably, there will be a health-passport check, with the need for updating the test results every few days.
Another change is with the entry doors. In the past there may be multiple entry doors. People could enter or leave any door, but if one is a revolving door, people were encouraged to use it because it prevented the drafts from opening a normal door. The revolving doors save energy.
Most of the revolving doors are now permanently locked with a sign to use the other doors. This is subtle, but profound, at least to me. I have been conditioned into thinking that the appropriate entryway was the revolving doors. The standard doors were reserved primarily for people with packages or large rolling bags. Over time, I began to perceive the normal doors as service doors and not entry doors. Entering these doors feels close to like entering the building from the backend loading dock. It is a subconscious kind of impression. If revolving doors exist, then they are the appropriate doors to enter or leave for work.
That may be just my impression. Seeing the revolving doors locks gives me the impression that the business is closed. I am reminded of the times I come in to work after working hours or during weekends. There is an impression that I am there only because I have specific permission to be there at that time. Now, the door is permanently locked, and thus I’m permanently in the status of not belonging in the building unless I have a specific permission to be there.
This goes back to the people who have been working from home. At a subconscious level, everything indicates that the office is as closed as it would be on a weekend or holiday. They look their options as being the same as when they have to do work during a holiday or weekend. If they can work from home, they will not even attempt to disturb the office building with their presence.
The building is obviously closed, despite any claims made by the management.
Returning the potential workers in retail or restaurant businesses. The business owners are not getting unsolicited job applications. They are not even getting inquiries from help wanted signs or ads. I vaguely recall my own youth when I would entertain the prospect of working at this kind of job. When I see an ad, I would physically check out the place before I would respond. I would not apply to a business that appears to be closed for business.
Now all the businesses have signs that tell many potential customers to stay away and warns everyone that a mistake can force the business to close for long time. Ultimately, the business owners are deluding themselves into thinking they are still alive. Not a lot of people want to work for a zombie business.