As the world began to emerge from more than a year of pandemic-related uncertainty in May 2021, an avalanche of photographs showing signs about businesses being “short staffed” because “no one wants to work” appeared on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
The Facebook post linked above included an image of the same sign, with the following lament:
This is a Sonic in Albuquerque New Mexico. I guess if you pay employees more on unemployment than when they work, they tend not to work. Who knew ??
A number of news organizations covered a McDonald’s sign of the same sort, with some inaccurately describing it as “brutally honest”:
We are short staffed.
Please be patient with the staff that did show up.
No one wants to work anymore.
That widely-shared photo of the McDonald’s sign above appeared to originate with an April 2021 TikTok video by user @brittanyjade903 (but it looked as if other McDonald’s locations used similar tactics):
@brittanyjade903Y’all, Our McDonald’s is savage AF ????????♬ Oh No No No – Music Falcon
Claims weren’t always in the form of signs; another common version of the “nobody wants to work any more” lore existed as anecdotes, and an April 2021 post to a Tennessee restaurant group complained of a short-staffed Sonic Drive-In. A May 5 2021 post to a public group for residents of Sarasota, Florida presented the claim in more of a rumor format:
The McDonalds on Clark Road is supposedly closed because they can’t find enough help.
Posts in the “no one wants to work anymore” genre typically didn’t fill in the blank as to why people supposedly don’t want to go to work, but a popular-in-screenshots tweet about Burger King and socialism did:
That example laid out the entire cluster of rumors: the tweet led with an example (a purportedly understaffed Burger King in the morning), evidence of the problem (only one visible worker), padding in the form of anecdotes (“everywhere in Ohio,”) and a call-to-opinion (blaming the vague issue of “socialism,” rather than an ongoing, virulent pandemic spread by an airborne virus for the supposed problem).
Advancing the rumors were a steady stream of transcription-style articles, reporting the appearance of the sign and including comments reiterating unverified claims, thus giving them an additional layer of perceived legitimacy:
According to local media, many restaurants are struggling to hire staff now that businesses and activities are being reactivated following pandemic-related restrictions.
“The number of customers arriving has already returned to pre-COVID numbers, so people are coming back, but we don’t have all the staff we need to do the job to serve them,” a Tampa, Florida business owner told one station.
The owner of a store in Memphis, Tennessee, said she had to close her business until she found people willing to work.
“They are taking advantage of the stimulus money (given by the government), the tax credits, (the checks for) prolonged unemployment and they prefer to accept those benefits instead of going back to [work],” the restaurant owner told a local channel.
Comments attributed to the restaurant owner in the final line were not corroborated at any point, but they served to cement the idea that “stimulus money” and “prolonged unemployment” were depriving hard-working Americans of their Big Macs and Diet Cokes. Some regional news sources seemed more than happy to publish the rumors as though they reflected reality:
“I think part of it is, it’s almost like we’re competing with unemployment,” administrative assistant Dory Nuñez said. “… Why would anybody want to, I guess, start at a minimum wage job when they can be earning more money … on unemployment?”
“It’s a big struggle,” Twisters COO Bahjat Shariff said. “People are making a lot more money being unemployed than employed, and the world is coming back to dine-in and eat-in a little bit at a time, so the stimulus really paused people applying to jobs.”
Shariff said the company is looking to hire 50 employees, but referral bonuses, sign-on bonuses and other incentives have yet to attract a large applicant pool.
“The additional money that people are getting while they’re unemployed, plus the fact that they don’t have to seek jobs as they normally would, is creating a difficult environment for people wanting to hire,” said Ernie C’deBaca, president and CEO of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce.
“I think it’s pretty easy to connect … unemployment benefits to it,” M’tucci’s president John Haas said. “I think a lot of us feel like a lot of people have chosen not to go back to work yet, because they’re still receiving the benefits.”
Notably, business owners and administrators largely stuck to anecdotal descriptors: “it’s almost like,” “it’s pretty easy to connect,” and “a lot of us feel.” The excerpted portion did not indicate competitive wages were available, but rather “sign-on bonuses” and “other incentives,” without specifying what those might be.
However, that was not always the case in local coverage. A Memphis-area Fox affiliate reported pushback from local officials, as well as a restaurant chain’s parent company objecting to the signs on an affiliate Outback Steakhouse:
Commissioner Tami Sawyer grabbed a picture from Facebook of the sign at the Outback Steakhouse and shared it on social media.
The sign is now removed but it said: “Due to the stimulus money and tax time, people just do not want to work. For the Outbackers that do show up for work, we ask for your understanding and patience. They are doing the very best to ensure your dining experience is what you have come to expect from Outback.”
“This falls into this whole ideology that working-class people are lazy and you send them a tax refund or stimulus and they don’t want to do anything and the reality of the matter is we are in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Sawyer.
On Twitter, Outback Steakhouse responded. It said the sign was not company-approved and was removed from the door.
Outback sent FOX13 a statement as well. It said, “This is not our position and we have addressed this situation with the employee.”
An April 2021 CNN Business article delved into matters such as people moving away from cities, loss of transportation and childcare, and workers entering new industries as concurrent contributing factors to a perceived labor shortage. In an April 26 2021 Eater.com report about industry staffing trends, Alice Cheng, chief executive officer of hospitality industry job search engine Culinary Agents, said she was confident that staff would “come back in waves” and “on their timeframe,” which would “take a little bit of time,” adding that no one “wants to hear that.”
In other words, there was no shortage of workers; there was simply a shortage of workers unwilling to to be paid already low, ever-dwindling wages while putting themselves and their families actively at risk during an ongoing global pandemic that has killed millions and sickened millions more in order to ser.
And an equally viral response to one popular Twitter iteration of a sign at the Albuquerque Sonic refuted the primary theme of discussion — lazy workers:
Discourse and Data
On April 23 2021, a Reddit user shared a photograph of one of the signs to r/weirdcollapse. In a comment, the same account (u/TheHipcrimeVocab) posited that the messaging was coordinated:
There are numerous posts showing this exact same sign with the exact same wording all over the country. It’s clearly a coordinated campaign, most likely organized by the Chamber of Commerce or a right wing think tank.
The message is clear: the benefits Americans are getting are causing them to be lazy and indolent it’s a serious economic crisis. The signs aren’t there for the customers, the signs are there as part of a campaign to move public sentiment against any expansion of worker benefits in the US which, even today, is one of the skimpiest in the developed world.
It’s shocking the extent to which we’ve built our entire economy in the US around service jobs paying starvation wages. Then we justify it by saying that there are just jobs for teenagers or mothers with kids in school. This despite the fact that Walmart and McDonald’s are the largest private employers in the country.
Most of the argument seems to be that restaurants are too low-margin and won’t be able to operate if they pay their workers more. People making that argument appear to not see the obvious conclusion that if this is the case then the economy is fundamentally broken. Nowhere even in Econ 101 textbooks does it say that capitalism can only work if entire industries are only capable of paying starvation wages (even though history has demonstrated this fact over and over again).
I also suspect the lack of immigration is also having an impact–these businesses all popped up when there was a seemingly unlimited supply of immigrants–legal and otherwise–to do these jobs. That pipeline seems to have dried up.
The people complaining about “muh 18 dollar hamburder” seen to be unaware that there is an alternative: just buy food at the grocery store and cook it home. That’s what we did when the largest employers in this country were General Motors and IBM.
As Patrick Wyman notes, “…it feels like a lot of what’s supposed to be discussion about the functioning of labor markets is actually an argument about social order, the supposed virtues of hierarchy, vertical ties of dependence, and disciplining the masses.”
That comment linked to an April 21 2021 Substack piece by journalist Anne Helen Peterson, titled “The ‘Capitalism is Broken’ Economy.” Peterson described the scope of the signs and public reaction to them, teasing out some subtext and writing:
You can find similar stories in Toledo, in Chicago, in Albuquerque, in Salt Lake City, in Vermont, in Lexington, in Richmond, in Nebraska, in Rhode Island, in South Carolina — truly all over the U.S.. Many of the business owners in these pieces channel Sen. Lindsey Graham in some way, suggesting that unemployment benefits have made workers lazy.
In Waterville, Ohio, for instance, there’s this sad, sad song about the difficulties finding workers at Dale’s Bar & Grill — which somehow fails to mention that the owner is a Covid hoaxer (he believes that doctors have been falsely labeling deaths as Covid-related) and has brazenly violated masking rules, and did not require employees to wear masks.
Stick with me here, but what if people weren’t lazy — and instead, for the first time in a long time, were able to say no to exploitative working conditions and poverty-level wages? And what if business owners are scandalized, dismayed, frustrated, or bewildered by this scenario because their pre-pandemic business models were predicated on a steady stream of non-unionized labor with no other options? It’s not the labor force that’s breaking. It’s the economic model.
Subsequently, Peterson speculated that the pandemic had amplified and exacerbated the problem, not created it:
The models up and down the American economy are unsustainable. They have been built on the belief that profit — and, in many cases, exponential growth — should, as a rule, supersede labor conditions. In ‘knowledge’ jobs, they have been guided by the false idols of productivity and workism; in the retail and hospitality industry, these conditions have been facilitated by anti-labor campaigns, perverse private equity imperatives, and lax (or non-existent) regulation of the gig economy.
The pandemic did not create these conditions. It simply made them even more impossible to ignore — and created scenarios in which some workers (not all, but some!) have been empowered, perhaps for the first time in their working lives, to opt out.
On May 4 2021, former Chief Economist of the United States Department of Labor Heidi Shierholz wrote about the myth of “disinterested workers” for the Economic Policy Institute (EPI):
There are lots of anecdotal reports swirling around about employers who can’t find workers. Just search “worker shortages” online and a seemingly endless list of stories pops up, so it’s easy to assume there’s an alarming lack of people to fill jobs. But a closer look reveals there may be a lot less to this than meets the eye.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that recruitment intensity is cyclical. It tends to be stronger when the labor market is strong, and weaker when the labor market is weak. This means that when a job opening goes unfilled when the labor market is weak, as it is today, employers are even more likely than in normal times to be holding out for an overly qualified candidate at a very cheap price.
This points to the fact that the footprint of a bona fide labor shortage is rising wages. Employers who truly face shortages of suitable, interested workers will respond by bidding up wages to attract those workers, and employers whose workers are being poached will raise wages to retain their workers, and so on. When you don’t see wages growing to reflect that dynamic, you can be fairly certain that labor shortages, though possibly happening in some places, are not a driving feature of the labor market.
Shierholz explained that there were “far more unemployed people than available jobs in the current labor market” in May 2021, and dug a bit deeper into the features of a labor shortage:
… when restaurant owners can’t find workers to fill openings at wages that aren’t meaningfully higher than they were before the pandemic—even though the jobs are inherently more stressful and potentially dangerous because workers now have to deal with anti-maskers and ongoing health concerns—that’s not a labor shortage, that’s the market functioning. The wages for a harder, riskier job should be higher.
Another piece of evidence against widespread labor shortages is the fact that the labor market added more than 900,000 jobs in March , the seventh highest percent increase in jobs in the last half century. It is difficult to imagine that labor shortages were creating a large impediment to hiring when hiring was happening at such a scale. Further, despite many anecdotes of restaurants in particular not being able to find workers, the labor market added 280,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector in March , the sixth highest percent increase in the last half century, even though average weekly earnings for nonsupervisory workers in that sector equate to annual earnings of just $19,651. With these kinds of numbers it is difficult to take the claims of widespread shortages very seriously.
Discourse on social media posts featuring the signs typically and dutifully involved recitation of the claim that higher unemployment benefits “cause” a labor shortage. Shierholz once again debunked the claim:
One question people raise is whether the expanded pandemic unemployment benefits keep workers from taking jobs. Right now, for example, unemployed workers who receive unemployment insurance benefits get not just the (very meager) level of benefits they would get under normal benefits formulas, but an additional $300 a week. That means that some very low-wage workers—like many restaurant workers—may receive more in unemployment benefits than they would at a job. Is this making jobs hard to fill? There was a lot of fuss about this same question a year ago [in 2020], when workers were getting a $600 additional benefit a week. There were several rigorous papers that looked at this question, and they all found extremely limited labor supply effects of that additional weekly benefit. If the $600 a week wasn’t keeping people from taking jobs then, it’s hard to imagine that a benefit half that large is having that effect now … counterintuitive reports about employers not able to find the workers they need really captured the public’s imagination. But a look under the hood reveals that beyond the anecdotes there is little evidence of a real shortage.
That passage linked to three citations — a February 2021 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper (finding “little impact of job gains from the benefit reduction,”) a July 2020 [PDF] paper by the Tobin Center for Economic Policy at Yale University (finding that “the workers who experienced larger increases in UI generosity did not experience larger declines in employment when the benefits expansion went into effect,”) and a July 2020 paper with an abstract that stated in part:
… applications-per-vacancy were higher during the COVID-19 crisis than before. This is because job vacancies decreased by 64% during the crisis, while job applications only decreased by 21%. Job applications decreased before the CARES Act, and remained relatively stable until June 2020. Second, applications and applications-per-vacancy were slightly lower in occupation-states with a larger increase in the replacement rate after the CARES Act, but these differences are not entirely explained by the CARES Act. Overall, our evidence suggests that employers did not experience greater difficulty finding applicants for their vacancies after the CARES Act, despite the large increase in unemployment benefits.
A May 5 2021 article in The American Prospect (“Is Unemployment Insurance Behind the Fast-Food Labor Shortage?”) again explained that staffing issues were worsened, but not caused, by the events of 2020 and 2021:
The fast-food and restaurant industry was already experiencing the highest turnover rates of any U.S. industry before the pandemic, when restaurant employers also struggled to find workers while avoiding pay raises to do so. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for workers in food preparation and serving-related occupations was $13.30 an hour in May 2020, and for fast-food workers the average was $11.80 an hour, among the lowest hourly wages of any industry.
Prospect.org spoke to workers who had recently left the industry, one of whom cited below minimum wage hourly rates and increased risks during the ongoing pandemic:
As a [Sonic] carhop, [Zella] Roberts made just $5 an hour, below the minimum wage, because she relies on tips for much of her income and the tipped-worker minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour. Roberts noted she would often have to work the drive-through window, where she wouldn’t receive any tips but still had an hourly wage of $5.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize their tips are actually making up a huge percentage of the wage we live on,” said Roberts. “During my time at Sonic, I’ve been clocked in as a carhop and expected to take intercom orders, except that’s a separate position that starts at $9 an hour, but I was expected to do that while still getting paid $5 an hour.”
She quit in early April 2021 due to the low pay and poor working conditions, which she said included customers violating COVID-19 safety protections.
Additional evidence of a pre-existing problem appeared in an article from January 2020 (just before the U.S. restaurant and fast food sectors were affected by the pandemic), “There’s an easy solution to the fast food labor shortage”:
America’s fast food industry is in a pinch. While we shouldn’t overstate how strong the current economy is, it’s definitely doing better. That means more job offers with higher wages, which means lower-pay industries like fast food are having trouble finding workers. Labor shortages abound, turnover in the sector — which comes with its own costs to business — has reached brutal levels, and restaurants are running afoul of regulators in their efforts to get more productivity out of less staff.
What’s funny is that all these problems have the same solution: Pay workers more! That will widen restaurants’ pool of available workers, and keep the workers they do have happier on in the business longer.
That piece concluded:
When it comes to why it can’t hike pay, the fast food industry’s excuses are less than they appear. And those excuses will keep dwindling the more the labor market heats up.
Social media has been blanketed by photos of “no one wants to work any more” signs and melancholy local news reports that either tacitly or outright blame stimulus payments or enhanced unemployment for a purported labor shortage in 2021. Credible economic papers indicated that those benefits were not a meaningful factor; indeed, a January 2020 article reported a low-wage worker “shortage” and delved into its causes well before the pandemic began. Nevertheless, plenty of effort went in to examining whether there was a brand-new shortage of workers due to bolstered unemployment (there isn’t), and no evidence anywhere suggested that “no one wants to work any more.”