Do we want to go back to pre-pandemic work conditions?

Published October 21, 2021

By Tom Campbell

Not since 1942, when women flooded into the workplace in support of the war effort, have we seen a worker revolution such as we are experiencing now. A just-released Duke Fuqua School of Business global survey of Chief Financial Officers reports job openings are at a 20-year high. Total employment today is 5 million below the pre-pandemic peak. How can this be explained in a growing economy?
Some voices say workers are just lazy and don’t want to work, reasoning that many are still living off the overly generous unemployment benefits they received. Others believe the continued fear of the pandemic is keeping some from returning to work. Both are wrong!
A record-breaking 4.3 million, nearly three percent of the workforce, quit their jobs in August. Hiring across all industries is almost two percent lower than before the pandemic. Some retired early, saying their reduced costs of clothing, gas, restaurants and business-related expenses, especially high childcare costs, helped offset the loss of income. As one bumper sticker said, “My take home pay won’t take me home.”
A large number are staying home because they aren’t willing to go back to jobs that pay too little and have bad working conditions. Who can blame nurses, teachers, flight attendants, restaurant, hospitality workers and others from leaving jobs with inadequate pay and abusive treatment from employers and customers? Many quit because they believe they can get a better job and are willing to wait for it.
This revolution reflects a changed work ethic. Over the past century we became a nation of workaholics, bragging about not taking vacations, going into work earlier and staying later in order to get ahead. Instead of working to live we had become a nation living to work. Prior to COVID employers called the shots, setting hours, pay and work conditions, with large numbers willing to accept their conditions. 2020 caused many to be willing to give up paychecks instead of their wellbeing.
The average male worker in 2019 earned no more than his counterpart did 40 years ago, adjusted for inflation. During that same period profitability and executive compensation escalated. In 2020, the CEO of the top 350 firms made 299 times the wage of their average worker. In 1989 that multiple was just 58 times more. The minimum wage hasn’t been increased from $7.25 per hour since 2009. If it had kept pace with productivity gains over the past half century CBS Moneywatch says it would be almost $26 an hour today. Restricting the minimum wage constricts all worker pay. The scales have tilted dramatically against workers.
We are effectively witnessing a worker strike. Even those who remained in jobs are benefitting. The Fuqua study revealed 82 percent of employers had raised pay by an average of 10 percent. Even so, there are large numbers of job openings. 10,000 John Deere workers, including those in North Carolina, are striking for better pay and benefits. Airline, healthcare, motion picture and manufacturing employees, both union and nonunion are demanding more.
Some claim the worker shortage is the reason for supply chain problems. Economist Paul Krugman refutes this notion, saying that in reality “more goods are reaching Americans than ever. The problem is that despite increased deliveries, the system hasn’t kept up with the extraordinary demand. Early this year real spending on durable goods was more than 30 percent above pre-pandemic levels, and it’s still very high.”
How’s this revolution going to play out? For at least the foreseeable future workers will have the upper hand. Wages will continue to rise. Consumers will be willing to absorb some resulting price increases, but not enough to compensate for all the increased costs. Executive compensation will get a big haircut to more historic levels in comparison to average worker wage. Profit margins will shrink some. Workers, with higher pay and more time to enjoy life, will save more and enjoy more leisure activities. 
In North Carolina we will see a continued economic expansion with more people and jobs moving to our state. Will we ever go back to pre-pandemic ways? Do we even want to?