The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
When a cyberattack disrupted the Colonial Pipeline fuel supply to areas in the South and East, friends and family in those areas faced the prospect of long lines for a dwindling supply at gas stations. Meanwhile, in rural northern Wisconsin, I was standing in line at my local farm and home store. After a year of shortages, regular-mouth Ball quart canning jars were back in stock. While trivial in comparison, I was pretty happy to bag my limit of jars (three cases per customer). While I waited to pay, the man behind me in line started counting the people waiting for the two open checkout lanes.
After a year of pandemic-limited social interactions, I’m out of practice at ignoring little dramas that play out in public places. The thespian behind me in line became a regular Greek chorus, helpfully making sure the audience understood the situation: You can’t get people to work and we all know why.
A year ago, the world cheered nurses at shift changes and celebrated those who, despite the uncertainty of a global pandemic, worked to keep grocery stores and other essential businesses operating. We hailed as heroes those who put their lives on the line and their families at risk to meet the needs of their communities. Some of them might have preferred not to be on the front lines but duty and/or economic necessity put them there. And we were grateful.
Now it seems cheers have turned to jeers and the new message is loud and clear: Post-pandemic economic recovery would surely be more robust if businesses weren’t hamstrung by a labor shortage. Those darn enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus checks keep people from getting back to work.
My heart goes out to small business owners trying to get back on their feet. But I am struggling with the notion that workers reluctant or unable to return to jobs in the retail, service and manufacturing sectors are to blame for everything that is keeping us from getting back to normal. It seems like a stretch to think people who were struggling before the pandemic have had a year-long vacation at taxpayer expense. Nevertheless, there are plenty of politicians and influence peddlers (as well as local performance artists) pushing that story.
Maybe it’s time for an unscripted television show starring Washington power brokers used to spending other people’s money. Let’s see how they do with real life skills in my neck of the woods. Make them leave behind their cell phones, credit cards, and government health benefits. Give them a gas-guzzling beater vehicle with a full tank, thrift store vouchers for clothing and housewares, and, say, $600. They can’t ask for help from family, friends, corporate sponsors or donors of any kind. They could stay in my basement the first week. It’s certainly not The Bachelor mansion, but it’s not much different from how many families live after losing everything in a flood, hurricane, tornado or wildfire, or because of an illness or injury, or even a divorce.
Let them try to find affordable, adequate housing in a rural area like this, especially without first and last months’ rent in hand and especially once we cast “families” they must support.
With the current labor shortage, our contestants should have no trouble finding and keeping a job with a starting wage over $10 an hour. Working full-time they could be making $1,600 a month before taxes. If they budget carefully, that should cover rent, utilities, gas and vehicle repairs, groceries, coin-op laundry, a prepaid cell phone, and monthly supplies of feminine hygiene supplies and contraception products. They can’t use SNAP benefits, housing or heating assistance, health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, community health services, or any other public assistance program they ever voted or lobbied against.
Every week instead of a Rose Ceremony they would gather for a lottery of unexpected challenges — sick family member, broken bone, dental emergency, vehicle breakdown, work hours cut, bank overdraft fee, delayed start of the school day due to weather, road construction that triples the cost of their work commute. Might as well throw in the resurgence of a global pandemic, job loss, price hikes due to supply chain disruptions, school closure of unknown duration, and loss of child care. And “written up due to customer complaints about having to wait in line.” May the odds be ever in their favor.
At the end of the season (nobody gets to leave before then), we would evaluate performance. Have they managed to work a full 40 hours or more every week? Have they provided food, shelter, clothing and health care for all members of the “family”? Did they attend scheduled parent-teacher conferences? How much did they save? Were they able to accumulate enough money to buy tools or equipment or acquire training that would help them earn more? Without the power and prestige of their former lives, what did they contribute to the community? What were they grateful for? When they made mistakes did they take responsibility or blame others? Then, instead of letting the television audience vote for a winner, let’s put our contestants on a local ballot and see who gets the most votes from the people they’ve been living and working with. Who would we trust on the school board?
How well do you think those influence peddlers selling outrage about people not rushing back to retail, service and manufacturing jobs would do in those retail, service and manufacturing jobs? More importantly, how well do you think they’re doing in the jobs they were elected to do? Maybe it’s time we hold them accountable for an economic recovery that could be more robust. Is being 100% focused on making sure nothing gets done what we want from them?
As for that farm store drama, I suspect the audience would have given it mixed reviews. For some, I’m sure it resonated with previously held opinions. Others waited patiently for it to be over, like a toddler tantrum — we’ve all seen those in the checkout line. I guess I should be grateful that this performance didn’t include high-pitched wailing.
I’m also grateful that I had three quarters of a tank of gas and a reliable vehicle that day so I could make the 52-mile round trip to town to use the WiFi at the library and luck into the new stock of canning jars. I’m grateful for the stories my mother told of rationing during World War II, and that she taught me how to prepare for lean times. I’m grateful that, despite pandemic-imposed changes to my self-employment income, there was money in the checkbook to pay for gas and canning jars. I’m grateful to be fully vaccinated, along with about a third of my rural county’s population, when in so many parts of the world the vaccine is still in limited supply. I’m grateful there were two cashiers willing and able to work that day.
As for the other lanes with no cashiers behind the plexiglass barriers? Sure, it would be nice if those registers were open and no one had to wait to check out. But who knows what real dramas are playing out in the lives of the characters not on stage in that scene. There may be a plot twist coming in the next act. I’m hoping for a happy ending.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County, Wisconsin.