The recent labor shortage in the United States has left many wondering why it seems that Americans do not want to work. We have seen three million more eligible workers choose to leave the workforce compared to February of 2020 according to The United States Chamber of Commerce. Despite what your boomer parents may have to say about the work ethics of Gen Zs and millennials during your Thanksgiving meal, workers have elected to stay away from the workforce for valid reasons. In short, people understand that current working conditions in many companies are simply not worth the limited amount of compensation.
By and large, it looks like people are leaving the workforce in search of better pay and more benefits. This runs counter to the “American dream” — that hard work means you can make it in life. But, the fact of the matter is that the American dream has been dead for ages. The incentive to work minimum wage jobs has slowly declined over the last decade because of the toil they create, and that trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Even a $15 an hour minimum wage — what just six years ago was the gold standard for progressive activism — is becoming increasingly more difficult to live on in America. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Minimum Wage calculator, in 2022, the living wage for an American family of two working adults and two children is $24.16 per hour. Thus, a $7.25 minimum wage makes it nearly impossible for a family to survive, in turn bolstering the argument in favor of the $15 minimum wage, which is no longer as radical as it used to be. However, as statistics show, even a $15 minimum wage may not cover the needs for some Americans.
The situation in the United States is horrifying compared to many of the nation’s peers. America ranks last in the “developed” world when it comes to employee benefits according to Zenefits, a human resources management company. Paid vacation and sick days in America compared to Europe are abysmal. In fact, the Center for Economic Policy and Research notes that we are one of the few industrialized countries in the world that doesn’t require paid vacation days for our workers. Also according to the CEPR, Europeans receive 20 days of mandated paid leave at the very least. Maternity leave in the U.S. is also remarkably inconsistent compared to other countries. Here, maternity leave is contingent on individual companies and is not governed nationally, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor. However, in most places in Europe, women are required to receive a minimum of at least 10 paid weeks off while some places like Italy have a minimum of at least 21 paid weeks off .
How can we improve the conditions for workers in the U.S.? Though companies play a role in deciding their policies and culture, it is ultimately up to our government to define how we can apply workers’ needs into law. According to the International Monetary Fund, raising the federal minimum wage to keep up with inflation would reflect a European approach to empowering workers. As of 2021, 62% of Americans are in favor of a $15 federal minimum wage, according to the Pew Research Center. While I noted that this would not necessarily provide a family with the resources they need, it certainly would thread the needle in the right direction when it comes to the well-being of workers. What’s more, a federal mandatory maternity leave of at least eight weeks is not only feasible, but absolutely necessary to support working families. It is imperative that our representatives do their due diligence and represent their constituents.
These benefits are all incentives for people to work. There is a reason why western European employees are much more satisfied with their jobs than Americans. Ireland’s Central Statistics Office notes that 90% of Irish people reported being happy with their jobs, whereas only 49% of Americans reported positive feelings towards their jobs. It’s a reflection of businesses and governments in those regions listening to their workers. In the U.S., it’s apparent that businesses avoid evolution and stick to the old ways of finding how to exploit their workforce by any means necessary. The issue of the United States’ worker shortage shouldn’t fall on workers. It should fall on our businesses and governmental institutions that have only recently been forced to acknowledge their defects as a direct result of the worker shortage.
This column presents the view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Dartmouth or its editorial board.
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