Help wanted sign in New Orleans, 2009
Help wanted sign seen in New Orleans, 2009. Image credit: Bryan Nabong

An opinion piece by conservative columnist Henry Olsen in The Washington Post of April 19, 2021, pointed out that many service industry jobs in small businesses and restaurants are not being filled these days, despite a still fairly high unemployment rate (6 percent as of March 2021). Olsen blames the staff shortage on the relatively low coronavirus vaccine rates among younger people compounded by the Biden administration's high unemployment benefits. His solution? Congress should pass laws to compel (or enable) young people getting unemployment benefits to be vaccinated and to actively seek work.

That's pretty odd right there. A conservative columnist who (presumably) wants less government argues for new legislation to force people to get vaccinated, especially when the Republican half of Congress can't even find itself to support a voting rights act. How stupidly dysfunctional and undemocratic is that? No, the answer is not in further legislation. Businesses with low-paying service jobs going unfilled are simply going to have to start offering competitive wages.

An Inconvenient Ancestor

Let's be honest here, business owners complaining about labor expenses and profit levels is not news. After all, the United States was founded on cheap labor. A great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of yours is one out of 256 individuals in that generation of your family tree and in 1860, roughly 25 percent of all southerners owned slaves. Chances are, many if not most people whose families can boast of being in the U.S. for four or five generations have slaveholders in their family trees. As an example, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has two great-great-grandfathers who were slave owners. America, the land of the free... labor. It is a shameful admission that today's small businesses say that they need to impoverish their workers to stay afloat.

Do you know the main reason Amazon workers gave for their overwhelming rejection of unionization? Amazon pays $15 an hour with benefits, twice the Alabama minimum. Apparently, that was a compelling argument for people who have difficult, demanding jobs. The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that had wage growth kept pace with productivity since 1968, the minimum wage would be $24 per hour.

So, I have no sympathy for businesses that say they can't afford to pay people living wages to stay in business. If your workers need to get a second or third job to pay their bills or find themselves in deep debt, then you shouldn't be in business at all. Raise your rates, cut your own inflated wage rate or otherwise shovel your profits back into the people who you hire to maintain that business. Find a successful model that will provide your workers with a living wage, or get the hell out of business.

Unaddressed Alternatives

One alternative also not mentioned by Mr. Olsen might be to jumpstart new immigration policies. In addition to an influx of potential new employees, according to the Survey of Business Owners, immigrants started 25 percent of new businesses between 2007 and 2012, and in some states, New York and California, that percentage rose to 40 percent. About 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies were also founded by immigrants.

For the health and well-being of society at large, Olsen may be right: it might take compelling young people getting benefits to get vaccinated, whether they're residents or new immigrants. But loosen up immigration, raise salaries and benefits packages organically, and increase the number of vaccinated people?

That sounds an awful lot like building back better.


The image by Bryan Nabong is on Flickr, and is used under Creative Commons license Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).