America has practically made a religion out of hard work.

According to the International Labor Organization, we put in almost 500 more hours on the job per year than workers in France and 260 hours more than people in Great Britain. We even clock 137 more hours a year than workers in Japan, where they had to invent a word for “died from overwork.”

In America, “workaholic” is a compliment.” “Work-life balance” is a joke.

So, it’s surprising to see conservatives fret about an epidemic of laziness that is supposedly infecting the post-COVID economy. The culprit, they say, is the too-generous unemployment benefits that went into effect in March, which pay people so much to stay home that they don’t feel like showing up to work, and their lack of industry is going to drag the whole economy into stagnation.

There’s a lot of evidence to say this is nonsense. With many schools still closed, day care – if you can find it – outrageously expensive and a viral disease still killing people, there’s more than one reason that a minimum-wage job does not look like such a great opportunity.

But putting that aside, you wonder if the conservative critics are really listening to what they are saying. After decades of telling us that the best economic results come from liberating “job creators” with lower taxes and less regulation, they now say that economy can’t roar without workers.

If they don’t have people willing to work long hours for low wages, neglecting their health and families to barely make ends meet, all that entrepreneurial energy is wasted. It’s the wage earners who make the economy go, not the stockholders or private equity speculators who have been the big winners in the U.S. economy for decades.

I’ve always felt that way, but it’s nice to hear them say it.

We have learned a lot from COVID. It’s exposed weaknesses in our health care system and our polarized politics. It should also permanently change how we value workers.

When the country was divided into “essential” and “non-essential” categories, we could all see who stayed home and who stayed on the job.

Sure, doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and EMTs were essential. But so were nursing home aides, grocery clerks and delivery drivers.

It became obvious that some of the most essential workers were also the lowest paid and lowest status members of the entire workforce.

There isn’t a place in Maine where someone earning minimum wage can afford to live, even if they are working 40 hours a week.

There are still thousands of Maine workers for whom sick days are an option for their employer. We are the only rich country in the world that doesn’t provide paid leave for parents when they have a baby.

In Maine, we should be used to worker shortages by now.

For years I wondered when Portland’s high-end restaurant scene would hit its natural limit: Would there be a point they would run out of people who could afford to fill their table with $20 “small plates”?

Surprisingly, the answer is no, or at least not yet. But before COVID, restaurateurs were hitting another limit: They were running out of dishwashers. There just weren’t enough people around who could work long hours in a hot kitchen at wages that wouldn’t pay the rent in an expensive city with no late-night public transit to get them home to the places where they could afford to live.

It wasn’t just the restaurants that had trouble hiring. Workforce shortages were reported in every industry, and Maine’s shrinking workforce has long been identified as a cause of economic decline.

Workers didn’t get lazy all of a sudden, and we don’t need to starve them back to work.

Now that we all agree how important they are, we need policies that help the people who really make our economy go.


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