As I stopped by a Dollar General store on a Sunday afternoon around the end of August, to my surprise, it was closed, and the sign posted on the front door had a frantic call for employee help. It was handwritten on pink paper, probably by an exhausted manager, asking all who saw it to tell their “mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles” that this store was hiring. After getting over my initial disappointment of not being able to buy my bulk items of toilet paper and paper towels, along with grabbing a can of Lay’s Stax Mesquite BBQ chips, I thought to myself, “this labor shortage really is serious.” “Help Wanted” signs are everywhere. We wait much longer in self-checkout lines in grocery stores with often only one or two clerks manning these stations. We see shopping carts scattered across parking lots and empty shelves in the household and packaged goods sections because certain shifts are stretched thin. When I’m in a grocery store and I see little things out of order, such as a misplaced box of cereal or a condiment on the wrong shelf, I’ll take the time to put these items where they belong. Small gestures such as this can take some of the stress off store associates who are working long hours.
It appears that we are going to be dealing with labor shortages for a while as we are still grinding our way through the pandemic. A July survey from the National Federation of Independent Business found that “49% of owners reported job openings that could not be filled, a 48-year record high.” NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg explained that owners are seeking qualified employees, but efforts to hire are being hampered by supply chain interruptions. The disruptions in the supply chain have had an impact on all of us since consumer demand for products and services is high. For me, simply shopping for a 13-ounce container of Vaseline has resulted in searching skin care aisles in Walmarts between my commute to work from Columbus to Lima, Ohio.
With the current supply chain breakdown and fewer workers in stores, many folks are noticeably frustrated and want things to get back to normal quickly. “Why aren’t people going back to work?” has been the main question at the center of the contentious debates in Washington on whether unemployment compensation during the pandemic has made too many slothful. Indeed, the $600 per week additional payments combined with state unemployment benefits did result in many Americans receiving more money than they earned at their previous jobs, especially those who had low-wage positions in the hospitality industry. Now that most states have cut off the extra unemployment compensation, large numbers of people still are not reporting to work, and job openings are not being filled. One reason I believe that people are not applying for the new positions available is due to low wages that are not sufficient to meet the fair market rent for housing in major cities. For example, a recent report from the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio and the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that, in Columbus, most potential workers cannot afford to live here because nine of out ten of the most common jobs do not pay enough. The report stated that the average renter in Columbus makes $16.99 an hour but would need to have at least a $19.83 hourly wage to afford the fair market rent of $865 for a two-bedroom apartment. The conclusion was quite direct. You can’t recruit people to work if they will struggle to survive.
People need to feel a sense of dignity and value when working. Ecclesiastes 3:13 comes to mind in these difficult times, which says that every man “should enjoy the good of all his labour; it is the gift of God.” Workers can’t enjoy their labor if their jobs barely pay enough to make ends meet. I’m not an economist, but common sense shows us that employers will have to offer better wages and benefits to fill open positions and get people back to work. If this doesn’t happen soon, those “Help Wanted” signs may become permanent fixtures.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.