News reports and social media have been full of posts alleging that enhanced unemployment benefits make it more remunerative to remain unemployed than to seek a job, and that because of this employers are having trouble filling positions. I want to make some suggestions as to how those positions could be made sufficiently attractive to employees. I will omit the obvious suggestion that employers could raise wages, because that’s the least interesting tactic.
I want to begin my analysis by suggesting that there are actually very few people who will choose to live on meager government benefits, even if slightly less meager than usual. (There are some, of course. I wrote about that in Find Work Worth Doing, back in my Wise Bread days.) Most people prefer the live at the highest standard of living they can manage. In fact, most people build an inflexible household cost structure that provides that standard of living, despite the obvious risk of financial catastrophe in the event of any glitch in income. But that too leads one to the obvious, and still not very interesting, suggestion that employers could attract employees by raising wages.
So, what are some other possibilities? How could employers make hard-to-fill positions more attractive?
Well, every job I ever worked offered a pension. That’s something that almost no private-sector jobs offer any more, so it could be a clear value-add. Related, every job I ever worked offered a retirement savings plan with a generous employer match. That’s something that’s only come back slowly since the end of the financial crisis, but it’s another possible value-add for employers seeking employees.
When talking about things like this in the past (usually about the difficulty of getting Americans to work the sorts of jobs filled by migrant labor), I always asked if the positions being offered to Americans offered health insurance (which of course they never did), and suggested doing so could be a way to make the jobs more attractive to Americans. Now that we have Obamacare that’s much less of an issue, but offering health insurance would still be a value-add.
There are many other ways a job and workplace can be made more attractive:
- The physical space can be made clean, safe, and pleasant.
- Managers can be courteous, kind, and respectful.
- The position can offer paths toward better jobs (promotions, training, mentorship, money for education).
- Allowances can be made for employee needs, such as time off to care for children or elders.
I actually wrote this post though, to talk about one specific way in which unemployment assistance and other government benefits are better than a job: They depend on the law, rather than on the whim of an employer.
The current state of employment law in the U.S. is such that having a job this morning is no assurance of having a job this afternoon. Your employer can change nearly anything about the job for nearly any reason—cut your pay rate, cut your hours, change your duties, require you to work in a hazardous environment, etc. (Of course you have the option to quit at any time, but see above about inflexible household cost structures.)
Only a small fraction of households can afford to live on unemployment insurance, even with the pandemic enhancements—but any household could rejigger their household cost structure to do so, if they cared to. But—and this is the point I’m trying to make here—an employer could easily adjust the conditions of employment that they offer so as to provide exactly the sort of certainty to an employee that government benefits do: They could offer an employee a contract.
In the U.S. almost no (non-union) employees have a contract. Instead they have a job, the terms and conditions of which are usually determined by an employer-written “employee handbook,” which has rules about procedures the employer promises to follow before firing or otherwise disciplining an employee. But they could sign contracts with their employees, committing to such things as minimum hours and term of employment.
They won’t, because they prefer to have maximum flexibility in adjusting their labor costs as circumstances change. But refusing to offer employees any sort of legally enforceable promise about the conditions of employment, makes saying “Nobody wants to work any more” mere spin.
Many people do want to work, and enormous numbers of people want to earn enough money to have a high standard of living. Employers are just playing to the crowd, hoping to maximize their flexibility, minimize their costs, and convince customers to blame “lazy workers” when the company fails at various aspects of providing good service.