Brunell commentary: America’s recovery hinges on people returning to work

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To “Build Back America” people must return to work.

In a U.S. Chamber of Commerce poll released in early December, the findings spell trouble for America’s employers whether they are in the private or public sectors. It found that over 60% of the respondents are in no hurry to return to work and over a third of the unemployed are not actively going after a job or looking at all. 

The problem is growing worse. A large number of respondents feel they can get by for at least another six months before they have to find employment. The survey discovered that one-sixth of the jobless say the amount of the money they are receiving from unemployment benefits and government programs makes it “not worth looking” for work, the Chamber added.

Currently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there are 10.4 million open jobs and people are quitting at an all-time record high. Bottom line: There were 2.3 million fewer workers in the workforce last October compared with the same month in 2019.

COVID-19 has changed work and workers. People, who traditionally commuted to the office, worked remotely. A Harris Poll in October found that 76% of employees want to make work permanently flexible. 

“The desire for work flexibility is being met with a conflicting message — about three-quarters of their employers think they (workers) are more innovative and work harder in the office or on-site,” Harris found.

Not all work can be done remotely or with a flexible schedule. An obvious example is a utility line worker. Electric grid engineers can connect remotely to plan projects, but when electric transmission line goes down, it is a whole other story. Sorting out jobs which can be remote is a challenge, but all jobs need people willing to work.

Employers are raising wages and benefits to recruit workers, but find it troubling when someone is hired and doesn’t show up on the first day or interview just to fulfill obligations to continue receiving unemployment checks.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature suspended the job search requirements at the start of the pandemic. With the economy recovering, job search requirements were reinstated. This means the jobless must look for work and document at least three approved job search activities each week in order to remain eligible for unemployment benefits.

On the employer side, Harris found that a lack of concern for people’s work and life conflicts is a problem. Roughly two-in-five people quit because their employer did not take their concerns into consideration during the pandemic. 

Employer attitudes make a difference. Among those who work fully remotely, 40% who implemented practices and policies since the pandemic resulted in people staying on the job. 

Looking ahead, here’s what needs to happen.

First, President Joe Biden and Congress need COVID recovery programs which encourage a return to work. However, they cannot make it more worthwhile for people who are employable to continue to postpone returning to work.

Second, those providing jobs, need to tailor work sites and jobs to fit into the post-pandemic economy. For example, commuting daily into the inner city is expensive and time consuming. Monthly parking rates are high, the price of gasoline is skyrocketing and pre-COVID traffic congestion is not only time consuming, but frustrating.

One answer is to lease office space outside the city’s core for meeting and internet connectivity space. People can come together and meet while still working remotely. 

Finally, people must realize COVID is not a temporary inconvenience. It is permanent. Finding ways to put people back to work is essential to our post-COVID survival.

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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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