‘We Need to Stop Taking Employers’ Viewpoint as Gospel’

Janine Jackson interviewed the LA Times Michael Hiltzik on the “nobody wants to work” trope for the May 14, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript

Janine Jackson: Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted recently, “This is not complicated. If you can’t afford to pay your employees a living wage, you do not have a viable business model.” It was a response to, first of all, an ostensible reality: a Bureau of Labor Statistics report that the US economy added 266,000 jobs in April, whereas analysts had predicted jobs added would be as high as a million—combined with things like a Chamber of Commerce analysis saying that the extra $300 unemployment insurance benefit provided was resulting in one in four recipients taking home more pay than they had earned working

Well, add that up to the images and memes that listeners may have seen of signs in store windows about how those businesses are closed because “no one wants to work anymore.”

So there’s a factual disconnect here. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has noted that if the connection were between benefits and hiring, you would see states and sectors with high wage-replacement rates for unemployment benefits having more difficulty adding jobs, but that’s not what we see.

But we know that this really isn’t a conversation about data; it’s about interpretations and, maybe even more so, about visions. Do we want a country where a handful of…ahem…white people do well and everyone else—ahem, Black and brown—scrapes by, accepting whatever pay and conditions are offered, including, in service industries, for example, subminimum wage and frank harassment? Well, along with naturally accepting that their children won’t be allowed to advance any more than they did, because they don’t have any power to demand anything else.

Major news media often suggest that economics is a dry field about numbers, not really about people. We know that it’s about much, much more than numbers, and fewer and fewer people buy that particular bill of goods, but we’re all still looking to the day’s paper to help us understand what’s going on in the world.

A major media reporter who doesn’t regard corporate capitalist economic theory as scripture is actually incredibly rare. Michael Hiltzik is business reporter and a daily blogger for the Los Angeles Times, and author, most recently, of Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads and the Making of Modern America. It’s out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Michael Hiltzik.

Michael Hiltzik: Thanks for having me, Janine.

JJ: Like I say, my beef with news media’s frequent presentation of economics is that it’s a dry, analytical field, where there’s a right and a wrong, and everyone kind of knows what it is, and it’s just a question of how we get to it. When, really, there are visions involved. It’s about how much you value people, and how you create an idea of what’s acceptable for an economy around that vision of people.

So I just want to drop you right into this question that we’re now talking about—”nobody wants to work.” Let’s start with just the data: Are there more people looking for jobs than can find them, or is there a labor shortage? Because, if I just pick up a newspaper, media are telling me both things.

Michael Hiltzik

Michael Hiltzik: “They’re complaining about unemployment benefits that they claim are too generous…. It’s an intuitive reaction by business owners who don’t want to pay their employees more.” (photo: Amy Myers)

MH: Well, sure. I think that it’s fair to say that there’s a labor shortage. What the real debate is about is why there’s a labor shortage, why there are businesses that are unable to find the workers that they want. And it’s natural, just as anything is natural, to hear business owners complain about, basically, government policies.

And in this case, they’re complaining about unemployment benefits that they claim are too generous. In fact, there’s no data that supports that notion. It’s an intuitive reaction by business owners who don’t want to pay their employees more, and don’t want to, basically, create more welcoming workplaces, so that they can attract and recruit more workers.

JJ: That’s what’s so interesting. We have often, kind of in the background in news reporting, this very 101 idea of how a capitalist economy works. And there’s supply and demand and, you know…. So wouldn’t this just be a situation where, if workers aren’t filling in, that’s because employers aren’t supplying them with conditions that they want to work in. Why does that then get translated into this moralistic thing about somehow workers are lazy, and they don’t appreciate what it really means to work, and yada yada yada? You know, if it’s dry economics, why isn’t it dry economics?

MH: Sure. Well, there’s a long tradition in this country of holding up people who are unemployed or underemployed as the “undeserving poor”; that if they’re not working, it’s because of their own moral turpitude. And this is very convenient for employers who want to pay as little as they can get away with, who can offer benefits that are as stingy as they can get away with.

But what we’ve seen—and, in fact, we’ve seen this in the last few months, as the economy opens up, or tries to open up— is that businesses that actually are willing to pay more—better than minimum wage, or even much better than minimum wage—and are willing to offer decent benefits, they’re not having as much trouble, and maybe having no trouble, recruiting workers to fill the slots they have.

So the dime, so to speak, has to drop for these employers; they have to stop blaming the unemployment system for their inability to hire. And, of course, whenever I see these signs posted that say, “Sorry for the long lines, or the low hours, at our establishment. Nobody wants to work,” I think the subtext is, “Nobody wants to work for me.”

And it may be that prospective workers don’t think they’re going to be paid well enough. If they’re in the restaurant and bar business, it’s because they know that these jobs are really shaky, that they can be fired for no excuse, and they’re not going to be paid very well to put up with obnoxious managers and obnoxious customers. So they’re going elsewhere.

What we saw in this latest jobs report—which, as you said, was a disappointing 266,000 new jobs created in the month of April—is that we actually saw the best growth in low-wage sectors. We saw perfectly good growth in restaurants and hotels, and bars, where you would expect that if these lavish, so-called “lavish,” unemployment benefits were really the story, that’s where you would see the biggest gaps. But that’s not what’s happening.

JJ: And we’ve also seen, in terms of the analysis, a kind of Covid exception, which is, “Well, maybe it’s not generous”—which you kind of have to snicker at “generous,” the idea of “generous unemployment benefits”—but that those might not be why some people are not seeking work. But some news accounts are saying, well, maybe they have somebody sick at home, maybe it has to do with coronavirus, or maybe their kids aren’t back in school full-time yet, and they still need to be at home to care for them.

MH: Yes, that’s right. There are a lot of reasons

JJ: Yeah!

MH: …why people, workers who are unemployed at the moment, may be reluctant to take jobs, especially low-wage jobs and difficult jobs and arduous jobs, and they include: Fear of catching the virus at their workplace, either from their coworkers or from their customers; an inability to find childcare, or to afford childcare. We’re still in a stage where not all schools are open, I think there are more students that are still learning remotely than there are going to class, and of course that means that their parents, either or both parents, don’t have the flexibility to take any job that’s offered.

So there are a lot of reasons. And what’s striking is that when you read a lot of these newspaper reports, or watch television clips or what have you, it’s always the unemployment benefits that are named first, and these other factors that are sort of also in the background. I would point out that if you look at these news articles and news clips in which business owners are claiming that it’s all about unemployment benefits, you never see a worker actually being interviewed.

JJ: Mmm-mm.

WaPo: As his restaurants’ customers return, a Miami chef is missing a critical ingredient: Workers

MH: You only see business owners, basically talking their own self-interest.

Now, there’s only one newspaper article I’ve seen that actually covers both sides of it. It was a recent article in the Washington Post out of Florida, which pointed out, not only are these other factors in play, but the number of restaurants and bars opening in Miami is at an all-time high. So there’s a lot of demand for workers, and maybe not every restaurant can fill all of its slots, because it’s got competition for workers who will work.

So basically, there’s a myth out there, that it’s all and only about unemployment benefits. What’s really harmful is that we have some governors, who are taking this as read, and are cutting unemployment benefits for workers in their states, supposedly to get them back to work. And we’ve seen this now in Montana and South Carolina, and more states are already lining up.

And I think we’re going to see a lot more of this in red states. When I wrote my last column about this, there was only Montana and South Carolina. Well, as of today, we now have Arkansas joining the club, and undoubtedly will have more, because it’s an easy, sort of intuitive meme to throw around that, “Oh, well, these people are just sitting around at home because they’re lazy.”

JJ: One person said, there’s no incentive to go to work when they can stay on the couch, which I just think would just shock and amaze so many people who are struggling with being out of work, being underemployed, with having children to care for; having the idea that they’re sitting on the couch, I just think, is just amazing. And you point to the importance of sources, as well as ideas, in terms of the impression that media give?

Well, I guess one of the things I’m concerned about is that there seems to be a kind of idea that, among the most critical news coverage, it’s like, “Well, maybe there was something about global pandemic that made the economic system suddenly not work for people, or suddenly not work for women.” Or you could say, “You know what, people have always had somebody sick at home, people have always had a kid who needs care.”

I feel like you can either say, “Our perfect system broke down in a crisis.” Or you can say, “This crisis has exposed that our system is flawed and has problems in it.” So I guess I’m concerned about the economic takeaway from Covid’s impact on the economy.

MH: Sure. What we’ve seen from the very beginning of this pandemic, and the very beginning of the shutdowns and the lockdowns, is that the United States, in terms of how it treats its workers—particularly its frontline workers, the so-called “essential workers,” as we keep hearing them labeled—is that the safety net for the working class is far inferior to the safety net that we see in European countries and Asian countries. In this country, it’s very rare for working-class employees to have access to sick leave.

This became an issue, starting very early in the pandemic, when we actually wanted people to stay home to reduce the transmission of this virus. And we discovered that, well, most people can’t afford to stay home, because they don’t have sick time coming to them. The United States is far behind other countries in providing for childcare for working parents. That’s still the case; it’s still the case that sick leave is rare. Even among the professional class, sick leave is not really very generous in this country.

So these are all flaws in the system that emerged as the tide went out due to Covid. And the question is, are we going to do anything about it? Are we going to continue to complain about this mythical lazy worker, and show how insulting and demeaning we can be in talking about the working class?

JJ: Let me just ask you finally, as a journalist: Does it have to do with who is allowed to speak, or who reporters speak to? Does it have to do with what ideas get consigned to the op-eds, versus what show up in the front-page news stories? What would allow news media to reflect more, I want to say accurately, but also more humanely, on the economic reality facing so many US citizens today? What could help it be less top-down, and see more workers see themselves reflected in the newspaper read?

MH: Reporters and their editors have to spend more time seeking out workers, and not simply relying on what employers tell them as though that’s gospel. I can tell you that I get emails every day from people who say, “Well, I’ve got friends who are employers who say it’s obvious that they can’t get employees because unemployment benefits are so high.”

And my response to them is, how do they know this? When they are interviewing a prospective employee, does the employee say, “Well, I’m making too much on unemployment. I don’t really need to come work for you”? Or does the employee say, “Well, you’re not paying enough,” which is rather a different story?

We need to stop taking the employers’ viewpoint as gospel, because they have an interest in putting out a story that blames somebody else other than themselves. And you have to ask yourself, if you’ve got an employer who’s posting a sign saying, “Nobody wants to work,” is that somebody you want to work for? Somebody who’s got that approach, that it’s the employee’s fault, or the worker’s fault, that they’re not coming to work, rather than the employer’s fault?

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Michael Hiltzik. He’s a business reporter and daily blogger for the Los Angeles Times, author of numerous books, including, most recently, Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads and the Making of Modern America. It’s out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Michael Hiltzik, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MH: Thanks for having me.