It’s a perfect Saturday afternoon with the sun shining and we’re strolling along the avenue looking for a place to have lunch. We’re vaccinated and eating out again and starting to feel hopeful the world might be on the mend.
The first restaurant we stop in has a slew of picnic tables outside and a bar open to the breeze and hardly anyone there, but they can’t seat us for thirty minutes despite all the empty tables because they’re so short on staff they have only one waiter and one cook.
The next place down the block has a sign it’s looking for wait staff and cooks, but its doors are closed. Another restaurant we pass looks full, so we keep going and end up at an old favorite where there are tables outside and huge garage-like doors open to the bar inside. A few tables are occupied inside, a few outside. There’s no host or hostess so we seat ourselves at one of the outside tables.
No one comes to serve us. One of us heads to the bar to place an order but is reprimanded and told table service only (due to everything that’s going on, we’re told). Someone would be right with us. It takes a while but eventually a server comes and takes our order. He’s masked as all restaurant employees are these days. We aren’t.
He’s nice enough but he’s buried trying to wait on more tables than he can handle. We wait for our drinks and wait for our food, but don’t complain. We can see what the situation is.
The situation is that restaurants and other low-paying service establishments and businesses cannot find people to work. There is still a pandemic going on and will continue to go on now that the rate of vaccinations has stalled. Some won’t get the vax, others are still afraid of exposure. And then there are those pesky stimulus payments and extended unemployment benefits.
Lots of people seem to think the unemployment benefits are encouraging people not to look for work, and that people are lazy and would rather not work if they didn’t have to. I disagree.
Finding the right unemployment benefit levels is a tricky balancing act of providing as much of a social safety net as possible while encouraging people to get back to work as soon as they can. But research has shown that the dollar amount of unemployment benefits does not statistically affect employment levels.
Yet some states are halting the enhanced federal unemployment benefits program to force people back to work, whether you are able-bodied, a single parent with young children, or an immunocompromised person at high risk for a debilitating case of COVID.
But who can blame anyone for not wanting to take a job that pays a pittance and puts their health at risk? Hey, you—want a job? How about $7.25 an hour (federal minimum wage), no benefits, no paid sick leave? At 40 hours a week, that’s a sterling $15,080 a year, as long as you show up for every single shift and work every damn hour on your schedule. At that wage rate, you qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, phone and computer subsidies—pretty much every government assistance program that supports you when your wages won’t.
A study by MIT concluded that a living wage in the United States is $16.54 per hour, or $68,808 per year, in 2019, before taxes for a family of four, which includes two parents working full time and two children. The report also stated: “A single mother with two children earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour needs to work 138 hours per week, nearly the equivalent of working 24 hours per day for six days, to earn a living wage.”
Whether mom and pop or corporate behemoths, businesses often don’t pay living wages for lower-level jobs. I’d like to see a huge increase in the minimum wage at the federal and state level—in every state, for every business. I’d bet that businesses willing to pay better wages would have no trouble finding workers for open positions.
Let’s do an experiment: end the extended unemployment benefits (with exceptions for hardship cases) while simultaneously increasing pay to a living wage.
I wonder what would happen. I might iron my apron and go back to tending bar and waiting tables like most writers did in their twenties. But not today. Here comes our drinks. I’m leaving one hell of a big tip for our server.