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John Colson: Burnout, not laziness, causes worker shortage

John Colson
Hit & Run

I heard an interesting tidbit on NPR the other day — it appears that Britain, like the U.S., is suffering from a severe shortage of workers in key industries. The story I heard focused on a shortage of drivers for trucks (they call them lorries over there) delivering fuel to customers, which has caused a fuel-shortage crisis at the gas pump throughout the United Kingdom.

My wife and I turned to each other and declared almost simultaneously, “It’s happening everywhere, not just here!”

We were referring, of course, to the fact that even in the Roaring Fork Valley, a shortage of workers has caused businesses to close their doors on certain days of the week, or even to shut down entirely until things improve — meaning, from the standard business perspective, until people decide it is time to get back to work and stop whining.



That unhappy fact hit us where it hurt — our empty stomachs, that is — just recently, when we stepped out for a rare night at a local drinking and dining establishment, only to find it was closed because of a lack of staff.

The NPR story got me to wondering, just what is going on here? How can it be that so many people are opting to not return to work, even though the conventional wisdom states in somewhat vague and often contradictory terms that it’s safe and OK to do so?




In reaction to the worker shortage in the U.K., by the way, an enterprising reporter asked the man who apparently will be Germany’s next chancellor, Olaf Scholz (he, if very narrowly, won the recent election to replace retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel) if Germany could help Britain weather the crisis, a question that brought laughs from the attending press gallery.

Scholz’s reply, maintaining that the labor shortage in Britain can be blamed on Brexit, also brought some laughs, though it’s likely the British journalist asking the question did not join in the hilarity.

Anyway, back to conventional wisdom, a report from the Reuters news agency cited the British transportation minister as saying, “It is now safe to return to work.” Period, end of discussion, at least for that particular bureaucrat.

But here in the U.S., things apparently are not so stark, and the pandemic is being blamed for the fact that a lot of jobs are going unfilled right now.

Right wing pundits and politicians, perhaps naturally, blame the workers themselves, claiming that so many people are collecting supposedly socialist-style government handouts (a.k.a. extended unemployment benefits and other wage assistance) that they feel no need to go back to work.

In other words, workers are lazy, and if they can scrape by on unemployment they will, of course, refuse to get back to work.

I don’t buy this simplistic argument, nor do many others.

For one thing, I have twice in my life resorted to unemployment insurance to keep my boat afloat during jobless periods, and I did not enjoy it or feel it somehow entitled me to loaf around endlessly.

No, as soon as possible I returned to work, both because I ended up with a healthier bank account and because I got bored just sitting around. I needed the social interaction of being on the job, in fact, perhaps more than the added weekly income.

So I believe that those who claim to hold the “U.S. workers are just lazy” point of view are actually parroting the corporate line of attack out of habit, or vindictiveness, or simple intellectual laziness on their own part.

My view is that this current “crisis” actually has been a long time in the making, in part because the U.S. corporate class has gradually made it much more difficult for a blue-collar worker to earn a living wage.

As is well known to most of us, even as the corporate class has slashed wages across the board, corporations and managers have gotten richer and richer off the difference between a living wage and the paltry and ever-shrinking amount paid to your average worker.

Then there is the argument that many working-class people, after spending years of suffering through low-wage jobs with high potential for injury, whether physical or mental health-wise, have simply burned out on the American “work ethic” and are looking for something better.

A recent New York Times opinion piece by Jonathan Malesic, headlined “Our Relationship To Work Is Broken,” makes that very argument — the U.S. corporate class has made it so difficult, so mind-numbing and so potentially injurious to work at so many different jobs that the workers are rebelling.

I’d like to think this is the case and that this rebellion will take on a political reality at some point, so that maybe we can remake this nation into a place where holding a job does not mean relinquishing your dignity, your self-worth, even your health.

If that does happen, all I can say is, it’s about time we started this national conversation, which clearly must be much broader, deeper and more challenging than can be outlined in one personal opinion column.

And any start is better than simply sticking with business as usual.

Email at jbcolson51@gmail.com.


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