Cash compensation is the most common and basic reason for working. It has recently changed in some ways and may do that more soon. What have we seen and considered over the past several months, and how good or bad is it or would it be?
First, per an undated chart from Yahoo Finance, we now have 30 states plus the District of Columbia with minimum wages more than the national $7.25 per hour. Given that each decided to mandate a level above that of the whole nation, that is favorable. It is better still when cities or counties set higher or lower rates, such as in Oregon where, as of July 1st, Portland will have $14 lowest hourly pay with the rest of the state at $12.75. When the cost of living varies so much across the country, with southern Texas’s $7.25 buying much more locally than Hawaii’s $10.10, it is clear to leave that national floor where it is and let smaller areas choose for themselves.
Another good thing, since it is a result of the free market reacting to the pandemic and its effects, is that “Some workers finally have the upper hand in the job market” (Denitsa Tsekova, Yahoo Money, May 13th). While there is no reason for the number of positions to approximate the number of people wanting to work, there is also none for jobs, at all places and times, to be scarcer than people willing to fill them. Here we have workers refusing opportunities that are unsafe, unsuitable, or just pay too little, making employers do more than post an ad and get bombarded with applicants. The situation will shift back, especially as unemployment compensation resumes requiring people look for work, but will fluctuate, and that is fine. A similar message came from Neil Irwin’s June 5th New York Times “Workers Are Gaining Leverage Over Employers Right Before Our Eyes,” in which the author noted that “companies are becoming more willing to pay a little more, to train workers, to take chances on people without traditional qualifications, and to show greater flexibility in where and how people work.” As the perceived labor shortage continues, employers will also need to dig deeper in identifying candidates, to think “more expansively about who is qualified for a job in the first place,” and to disregard certification requirements, such as those for teachers, originally implemented to shrink the number of candidates. If there are not enough applicants for entry-level business positions, that could mean a return to not requiring bachelor’s degrees, or possibly even any college at all – that worked well before the 1970s and could succeed again. All of these emerging and possible changes are, and would be, healthy.
We had a different view than the usual from Rick Newman in the May 24th Yahoo Finance. It was titled “Jobs are back – but pay isn’t,” but could have said job listings instead. I documented the growing gap between hiring and advertisements nine years ago in Work’s New Age, and it is still with us. Newman cited “a recent study by Bank of America” which determined “that the average pay of open jobs is lower than before the pandemic in 12 of 15 sectors” and “flat” in another. For better or worse, employers will get workers only at fair market pay, and as always, if they don’t, that means, broadly but accurately, that they need to boost it. The reason that “Wage Growth Is Holding Up in Aftermath of the Economic Crash” (Ben Casselman and Jeanna Smialek, The New York Times, June 3rd), per Newman, is that the raises are going mostly to existing jobs.
Wrong ways to go are amply included in Kevin J. Delaney’s March 20th New York Times “What Is Work Worth?” Forcing an end to situations in which “low-wage workers at companies including Amazon, McDonald’s and Walmart rely on public assistance such as food stamps to make ends meet” (usually a result of low hours as well as low pay, and better than if they had no job at all) and “women and people of color generally earn less than their peers” (illegal and the source of serious penalties if caused by discrimination), would be naïve and anti-market. Any line manager will tell you that if you “set pay for positions, not people,” employees will improve far less than if they can get merit raises, and few observers of any kind would think workplaces would be more dynamic if they returned to pay based on seniority. The same is true for the author’s invoking the old saw that workers need “a wage that can support their families,” which may be nonexistent or contain other earners, is impossible to define, and cannot be implemented without stopping those willing to earn less and being able to live on it.
Over the 150 to 200 years since the Industrial Revolution’s United States widespread beginning, workers’ pay has varied. It will continue to do so, even after this minor if real pattern break we are experiencing now has completed. The choice we face is how to control it. If we choose well, we individually as well as collectively will prosper. If we do not, we will not. It is up to us.