When restaurants, retail stores and hotels were forced to shut down in the early days of COVID, millions of workers were laid off.

However, now that those industries have largely reopened – and in many cases are experiencing high demand – the workers just aren’t coming back. That’s caused some to point fingers at the generous unemployment benefits now available.

Instead, it’s something much bigger.

COVID and its strange, unprecedented effect on the economy has given people in low-wage industries an opportunity to reassess their work lives. At the same time, demand for their services has given them more say in where and how they work.

After decades in which employers have held the power, and used it to propagate low-wage jobs that don’t even cover essential expenses, the economy is undergoing a fundamental shift – at least for the meantime.

It’s a strange thing to have a labor shortage while so many people remain unemployed. But then again, evidence exists that this isn’t a labor shortage at all – it’s really more of a shift, happening slowly in front of our eyes, in response to an ongoing public health crisis and the biggest economic shock in generations.

Take Maine’s tourism-related industries, such as hospitality and food service. For one thing, they’ve been struggling to find enough employees for years – as have most Maine industries – a dynamic made worse this summer by the lack of foreign workers.

What’s more, those industries, and others facing the same situations, are dominated by high-stress, low-wage jobs, often with inconsistent hours, few benefits and little security. Too many of these jobs are built to satisfy employers, not workers.

There’s evidence that, given an opportunity to reflect on their status during their time off, or while they continued to serve sometimes-angry customers in workplaces vulnerable to the virus, many of these workers have decided to make a change.

At the same time, the demand for workers is giving them more choices. So rather than return to their old position, workers are looking to move within their industries to employers who have more to offer, or to change industries altogether.

Either way, they’ve been willing to wait for the right opportunity, rather than take the first thing that comes along and return immediately to the workforce – particularly when COVID is reappearing, and they are worried about their health, the health of their families and how they would care for their children when they’re out of school.

That’s likely part of the reason why just 400 Maine workers applied for a state program offering $1,500 for someone who reenters the workforce. It’s not the unemployment benefits that are keeping people at home – it’s the lack of child care, concern for their health, and a desire to do something besides work at a job – or two – that doesn’t even pay the bills.

“What’s being called a labor shortage is still a health shortage, a wage shortage and a care shortage,” one labor economist told The New York Times.

Indeed, in the states where unemployment benefits have been cut off, this decision has failed to push people back to the workforce.

What will? Some employers have found out that raising wages helps, as does increasing benefits, flexibility and respect in the workplace.

Who knows how this will shake out. COVID has affected the economy in ways that are just beginning to become apparent, and predicting the future is a fool’s game.

But the early returns show an economy tipping toward workers, for the first time in decades. It’s up to employers to adapt.


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