To work or not to work? That is the question

By Steven Feldman I have a few questions for you. Have you noticed that the service you get in restaurants these days has taken a big step back? Do you find that the stores you frequent open an hour or two later or close an hour or two earlier? Have you tried visiting a local establishment on a Saturday or Sunday, only to find that it is currently closed on weekends? Are you having trouble filling what are considered lower-paying jobs, such as warehouse workers?

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably getting a little frustrated. Things that we used to take for granted are now gone. It’s not the ‘new normal’, believe me; it’s just the current state of affairs. Please don’t blame COVID-19. Please don’t blame the Delta variant. The economy is coming back just fine. Perhaps the culprit is the extended unemployment benefits as part of the CARES Act, which will hopefully expire after Labor Day. (This is not intended as a political column. It is simply stating the facts.)

The retail industry and restaurants are currently struggling to find workers, as are many other industries that employ low-paid staff. The labor shortage is not due to so many workers being quarantined at home with a case of COVID-19. If anything, they are quarantined on the beach with an extra $300 a week on top of their regular unemployment benefits. This is despite an estimated at least 9 million unfilled jobs.

Who can blame them? Two people have told me that they make almost as much money now as they did when they worked. A side job here, a side job there and maybe even more money.

Dustin Aaronson, Krystal Bates and I had lunch at one of our favorite restaurants a few weeks ago. The service was terrible. Dustin angrily called the manager to him. He apologized profusely and simply said, “We can’t get anyone to work. We’re just pulling corpses off the street. That should change in a month.” Then he bought us a round of drinks.

I was recently in Puerto Rico. Many restaurants were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays or closed their doors at 8pm. We found a four star restaurant that supposedly had a 9pm availability. When we arrived I was told they didn’t have our reservation. When I showed the confirmation, we were reluctantly seated. The manager came over and informed us that it would be a 90 minute wait. Apparently there was a problem in the kitchen. Has there been a fire? No, just no one to cook the food. “The government here pays people to stay at home,” the manager said.

There is one restaurant in Florida that I frequent: Rocco’s Tacos. The Palm Beach Gardens outpost closed in late November due to a fire. They wanted to reopen by Cinco de Mayo. It lasted until July. Why? “We’ve been renting for a week and three people have come in,” said the owner.

Weekly coronavirus unemployment benefits of $275 from the state of Florida and $300 from the federal government were his biggest barriers to hiring. “If you pay people to stay at home, those are the consequences.”

If I had to go to the mall, I’d try to get there when they first opened at 10am, or maybe after the gym, sometime between 8pm and 9pm. That no longer happens today. My 84-year-old mother doesn’t help with her banking on Saturdays either.

Floor manufacturers and retailers have been complaining for months that they cannot fill the vacancies. Suppliers are frustrated by the labor shortage in the ports. Ironically, there are some who actually ask for an extension of the benefits. Twenty-six states have halted benefits, calling them a “barrier to people returning to the workforce,” where many jobs await, though some not so glamorous.

Some people believe the answer is to just pay people more money. But a hardwood floor worker recently told me that if you pay people too much now, you won’t be able to cut their pay when the extended benefits end. Its competitors who don’t pay too much will eventually have a cost competitive advantage in terms of labor.

This should all end in a few weeks. But it brings up another point: we’ve probably taken these people who fill lower-paying jobs for granted. You enter a restaurant and the only person you interact with is your server. You hardly ever think about the cooks and busboys. It took a pandemic and an incentive not to work to appreciate them.

The same goes for the people who work in retail. Or in the ports. Or in your warehouse. Or wherever you have witnessed a breakdown. These people play an important role. Remember, the next time you walk into a restaurant after 8pm, your table will be clean and your food will come out the way you ordered it. Just sayin’.

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