Friday, September 17, 2021

In These Tumultuous Times, What Are Employees and Employers Trying?

Especially if you have been reading this blog, you know what on this subject is happening.  Positions, ever more plentiful, are staying open, and numerous companies continue resisting raising pay to get the personnel they need.  Possible workers, between child-care problems, holding out for more money, benefitting from high unemployment payments, and having changes of heart about what they want to do, are staying jobless.  Covid-19 has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated, with so many of them getting sick that infection, hospitalization, and death rates threaten the highest points America reached in total, before shots were widely available.  Our president is trying to get the vaccine into more people, and working to increase overall safety, by requiring it for many jobs. 

Some responses, such as complaining and giving in, are expected.  Yet a handful are more noteworthy.  Which countermeasures have reached the press lately?

First, employers are paying or just plain requiring employees to take their off-work days.  Per “The limits of vacation” (Jenny Gross, The New York Times, August 14th), firms as prominent as LinkedIn and Intuit “have introduced weeklong companywide shutdowns so employees can fully disconnect,” and another, PwC, “is offering workers $250 each time they take 40 consecutive hours off.”  None of this time is additional to what people have already been guaranteed, but, at PwC at least, they are then being asked to lay off their office email accounts.  That is more important than forcing employees to step away for lengths of time that may not be convenient for them.  As Gross pointed out, it is better still to ask workers what would help them, which could result in less along the lines of “installing a volleyball court on the rooftop of an office” (to get people to spend more after-hours time there) or “providing free food during the day” (to facilitate more lunchtime work), when what people really wanted “was receiving fewer emails from bosses during evenings and weekends.”

Second, businesses now have a real and unusual opportunity to experiment with different ways of togetherness.  That was the thesis of Priya Parker’s August 20th New York Times “How Should We Meet?  And Who Decides?”; ideas she mentioned, without much judgment, included assessing a group’s needs before every meeting, implementing new knowledge of what is best done remotely, and shortening the workweek with a commensurate reduction in tasks.  More than anything else, Parker conveyed the value of management trying different things. 

Third, “New surveys show how pandemic workplace policies are shifting” (Sarah Kessler, The New York Times, September 1st).  Such changes include, with percentages of organizations including those now practicing them, requiring vaccinations (52%), tracking worker inoculation status (78%), considering passing along some health-insurance financial impacts to workers (17%), and cutting travel costs even after the pandemic is minimized or ended (84%).  Planned or not, these changes may not be implemented, let alone lasting. 

Fourth, some companies are saying “We’ll Give You a Week Off.  Please Don’t Quit” (Tiffany Hsu and Lauren Hirsch, The New York Times, September 6th).  What’s missing here is whether or not these breaks, often companywide, are bonus holiday time, in place of individually scheduled vacations, or unpaid furloughs.  These efforts, in various significant but not household-word firms, are designed to cut burnout, but sadly often help only temporarily, as employees often return to piles of emails and the same cultural situation.  Worthy experimentation, but no panacea.

Fifth, more are saying goodbye even from good jobs, as noted and investigated in “Why Are So Many Knowledge Workers Quitting?,” by Cal Newport in the August 16th New Yorker.  One cause may be money saved through fewer pandemic spending opportunities.  Another related reason, Newport mentioned, was that “this particular class of workers were thrown into their own Zoom-equipped versions of Walden Pond” as “diversion and entertainment were stripped down to basic forms,” cutting their need for money.  I won’t hold my breath waiting for dumping well-paying positions in favor of financial leanness to become widespread, but it’s hardly out of the question.

Finally, sixth, the fun one, especially to this long-time remote-work hawk: “Some white-collar workers are secretly balancing 2 full-time jobs and earning up to $600,000, a report says.  They drop in and out of multiple meetings to avoid getting caught” (Grace Dean, Business Insider, August 17th).  Isn’t that a fitting response to poorly controlled telecommuting?  This, by the way, is legal, only something that “could breach employment contracts and get people fired.”  Dean’s perhaps unintentionally humorous accounts of tactics include a teacher-technician who dealt with one boss’s request for a video call while running a class for the other by asking his students to take a break and then firing up his second computer, attending simultaneous meetings online and by voice, and traveling, not for training as represented, but to work part-time jobs.  As long as all employees are treated as fervently productive and scrupulously proper, we will get this sort of ingenuity, and it may prove to be remarkably difficult to identify.  Ha ha – who says news about workplace trends can’t be hilarious?

Friday, September 10, 2021

A Summer of Changes in Hiring, With More to Come

With Covid-19 as the root cause, over the past couple of months there has been at least a decade’s worth of developments in how employers and employees get together.

For a summary, see David Autor’s September 5th New York Times “The Labor Shortage Has Empowered Workers.”  This scarcity, if you can even call it that, is not from a lack of people able to take positions – our country’s population growth has slowed, but it is still positive.  We have seen a groundswell of potential applicants wanting more money especially for low-level labor, proximately caused by, in Autor’s view, high unemployment benefits, insufficiently available childcare, and simply that “people’s valuation of their own time has changed.”  For the first time since the early 1950s, “the U.S. doesn’t have a job quantity problem:  instead, it has a job quality problem” (italics his). 

That last sentence explains, as well as anything that short could, “Why America has 8.4 million unemployed when there are 10 million job openings” (Heather Long, Alyssa Fowers, and Andrew Van Dam, The Washington Post, September 4th).  The first answer the authors gave is that “there is a massive reallocation underway in the economy that’s triggering a “Great Reassessment” of work in America” from both sides, as “the pandemic and all of the anxieties, lockdowns and time at home have changed people.”  After learning that the available positions are often in less desirable geographical areas, pay is often below new increased market levels, and many more are in business services and health care than there are unemployed workers with related careers, the disparity makes more sense.

In a USA Today article printed September 5th in the Times Herald-Record, “Labor Dan quiz:  When will the worker shortages end?,” Paul Davidson concluded that this real or imagined phenomenon would run until the end of 2023.  As he did not mention the frequent need for higher pay, or potential policy-loosening moves, it is an open question how much quicker it could be.

Hiring requirements have changed as well.  Per “DealBook:  No vaccine, no job” (Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times, August 28th), “the share of job ads that require new hires to be vaccinated have (sic) nearly doubled in the past month.”  Some companies make exceptions for remote workers, and companies, especially large ones, have been more hesitant to impose that requirement on existing staff.  A more momentous shift has started, also per Davidson from and appearing in the same publications on the same dates, in “No degree?  No experience?  No problem.”  Both requirements are due for frequent elimination, perhaps starting a return to the days when most business positions required no education after high school, and when employers were more willing to leverage the knowledge, as put to me by a career counselor almost forty years ago, that people could be trained for 80% of jobs within three weeks.  From an unexpected direction, we discovered that “an Oregon McDonald’s is so desperate for workers it hung a huge banner outside calling on 14-year-olds to apply” (Mary Meisenzahl, Business Insider, August 31st), a tactic matched by at least one Burger King.  That, though, brings its own restrictions, as, per the New York Department of Labor as a sample, workers aged 14 and 15 are limited to “a maximum 3-hour day and 18-hour week when school is in session,” with 40 weekly hours allowed only when school is closed “for the entire calendar week.” 

Have high unemployment checks held down the numbers of people seeking and accepting work?  We are about to conclusively find out, as, as of Labor Day, “Federal Jobless Aid, a Lifeline to Millions, Reaches an End” (Ben Casselman, The New York Times, September 2nd).  We should see at least part of this change’s effect in the next set of employment numbers, to be released October 8th and reflecting mid-September survey outcomes. 

What changes have been happening on the job?  Barring a preemption from urgent news, I will look at those next week. 

Friday, September 3, 2021

August Jobs Report: Almost Everything Got Smaller, and the AJSN Showed Latent Demand Off 1.2 Million to 18.8 Million

This time, nearly all the numbers in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary decreased.  Starting with net new nonfarm payroll positions, which at 235,000 hit neither one-third of the consensus 750,000 projection nor one-fourth of July’s 943,000 rise, that polarity was also matched for better by seasonally adjusted unemployment (down 0.2% to 5.2%), unadjusted unemployment (down 0.4% to 5.3%), the total number of officially jobless (down 300,000 to 8.4 million), and those out for 27 weeks or longer (down 200,000 to 3.2 million).  Staying even were the labor force participation rate, at 61.7%, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to such jobs while thus far unsuccessfully seeking full-time ones, still 4.5 million.  Increasers were the number on temporary layoff, up 100,000 to 1.3 million, the employment-population ratio, strange since the number working fell, up 0.1% to 58.5%, and average private nonfarm payroll hourly earnings, with an adjustment gaining 19 cents to $30.73.  This time, higher pay seems to have reflected higher wages at the bottom instead of such jobs going away, as employers are, if slowly and grudgingly, raising pay to keep positions filled.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure of how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, also shrunk, decreasing 1,188,000 as follows:

 


Of its 11 components above, ten decreased.  The only exception was spectacular – the count of those saying they did not want a job soared almost 2.2 million, possibly its largest monthly change ever.  That, which had declined almost 1.7 million over the previous two months, more than rebounded, showing that many people rejoining the labor force from mid-May to mid-July and not finding what they wanted went back on the shelf.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless, 40.8%, edged down 0.6%.

On the Covid-19 front, the interval from July 16th to August 16th, in percentage terms, was by far the worst 16th to 16th one so far.  The seven-day daily average of new cases shot up 361% from 30,901 to 142,414, that for hospitalizations jumped 264% from 22,641 to 82,519, and deaths, going from 280 to 704, climbed 151%.  The average daily number of vaccine doses administered rose 47% from 519,678 to 765,555.  A map of the worst places in the country looks much like an 1860s one of Confederate States supporters, with almost all of the highest rates in or near the Southeast.  It is now very much a pandemic of the unvaccinated, with the 38% of Americans with no shots at higher risk than they have ever been.

What can we make of this data?  The statistic that explained the others was the fall in those not wanting to work – that fit with lower counts of both unemployed and marginally employed people, which, with higher latent demand percentages, accounted for the AJSN’s otherwise surprising drop.  It was a sort of consolidation month, with a disappointing number of new positions but others not bad overall and looking more like they did, though with half-again-higher unemployment, before the pandemic.  I can no longer trade heavily on how we have been doing with the coronavirus, as the massive majority of cases are preventable through convenient and long-available vaccinations, so we are left with a moderately progressive outcome.  Accordingly, the turtle took a medium-sized step forward.