There’s an easy fix for complaints about a labor shortage. Cutting benefits isn’t it.  

June 4, 2021 12:02 am

Jason Chadwick, left, who has worked for Kroger for 20 years, leads other workers in a chant demanding the reinstatement of hazard pay during a protest outside of the Kroger on Lombardy in Richmond, Va., September 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boye / For the Virginia Mercury)

Prescriptions for getting Virginia back to work, written by two business leaders from Hampton Roads, are so tone deaf and offensive that I wondered if they were serious. 

The leaders of their local chambers of commerce — one of whom has pocketed an annual compensation package of nearly $300,000 — wrote recently that the commonwealth should reject enhanced federal unemployment benefits of $300 per week extra for struggling Virginians, now that the country is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s an appalling, cavalier attitude by people protected from such challenges. 

The reason people at the bottom of the employment ladder should lose the benefits? Tourism in the region, including restaurants, bars, hotels and theme parks, they said, depends on low-wage workers to meet the merchants’ bottom lines. Many employees, though, haven’t returned yet to the workplace.

That might have something to do with vaccination reluctance; the lack of affordable day care; or having to teach their children at home as the 2020-21 school year finishes. But I digress.

Bryan K. Stephens is president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, and Bob McKenna has the same title at the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. Stephens is the one with the fatter wallet, though recent nonprofit tax forms showed that McKenna takes in six figures a year, too. 

Both officials, obviously, are serving their members and advocate pro-business policies. They prefer the free market. 

I get that. That doesn’t usually translate, though, to looking out for employees.

Stephens and McKenna wrote an op-ed over Memorial Day weekend in The Virginian-Pilot, suggesting people are content to stay home because of jobless benefits. That decision has caused shortages among businesses desperately trying to hire folks. To have a thriving summer, they said, the feds and the state must stop subsidizing people who decline to work – including those who flip burgers, take movie tickets and clean hotel rooms.

“After spending trillions of dollars on pandemic relief, we can no longer afford to pay people to stay at home,” they said. “It’s time to encourage people to get back to work and back to normal, not stay at home and do nothing.”

The chutzpah in this line of reasoning is astounding. 

First, many people who were deemed “essential workers” didn’t have the luxury of working remotely — like the Hampton Roads Chamber staff says it’s doing when you call the Norfolk office. Or which I’m able to do while opining on issues. 

Other folks, though, either had to risk infecting themselves and their family during the pandemic, or quit their jobs. Nor is $300 a week something households can retire on. It’s a stopgap; nothing more.

Second, there’s no mention in the op-ed – none – of the myriad problems the Virginia Employment Commission has had in getting money to the jobless, or the hoops some people have faced in trying to get those benefits.  The Virginia Mercury’s Ned Oliver reported in late April that the state continued “to rank last in the country in key performance metrics tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor.” For claims on appeal, the average wait time was 247 days, the third highest in the country.

Third, the business leaders neglected to say how their chambers regularly opposed a hike in the stagnant minimum wage. The Hampton Roads Chamber, the larger of the two, has references to such previous advocacy on its website. 

When I asked a spokeswoman this week what the position was in 2021, she declined to answer. The Democratic-controlled General Assembly raised the rate this year, from $7.25 an hour to $9.50. The last increase had taken place in 2009, when Congress raised the floor nationwide. 

Plus, the problems in Virginia might be overstated. The unemployment rate here in April was 4.7 percent, compared to the national rate of 6.1 percent. Virginia’s rate in April was 6.6 percentage points down from a year ago. That means conditions are headed in the right direction.

I’ll note here that the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam says its plans to keep accepting unemployment benefits from the feds. 

“Governor Northam is focused on getting Virginians back into the workforce with proactive policies that support workers and their families — including jobs training, access to early childhood education and childcare, tuition-free community college and increases to the minimum wage,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky told me by email.

The folks at Virginia Organizing, a grassroots organization that advocates for the poor and marginalized across the state, say the benefits are needed. 

“Why are workers not applying for the jobs that are available right now? Children are not yet vaccinated, and day care, in particular, is still limited,” Ladelle McWhorter, Virginia Organizing’s chairperson, said in a statement. 

Women left the workforce in droves during the pandemic, she noted. 

“Either their employers laid them off or they had to take family leave to care for children or others,” McWhorter added. “In any case, $300 in unemployment enhancement is such a small amount of a family’s budget, it could not possibly be anyone’s incentive for not going back to work; but the loss of it could harm low-income families in particular.”

“If businesses have trouble finding workers, they should offer higher wages and better benefits (such as paid family leave) that will make it possible for workers who were forced out of their jobs to return,” she said.

The organization directed me to Erika Holliday, a 39-year-old single mother of three in Richmond. The licensed clinical social worker has struggled to obtain benefits from VEC since October; has homeschooled her two youngest children, ages 10 and 12, since virtual learning wasn’t effective; and now worries that she could be evicted at the end of June.

The extra $300 from the feds is a lifeline, she said. “I couldn’t imagine going back fulltime right now,” Holliday said. “It’s just too many moving parts.”  

I wonder if chamber officials interviewed anybody like her. 

Several news articles say temporary shortages some employers faced were solved when they boosted their pay to employees. For example, an ice cream shop in Pittsburgh received a flood of applications after the store more than doubled the hourly wage from the federal minimum of $7.25 to $15. 

A recent article in The New York Times contends a so-called “labor shortage” is more myth than reality. “When a company is struggling to find enough labor, it can solve the problem by offering to pay a higher price for that labor — also known as higher wages,” The Times’ David Leonhardt wrote. 

Later in the article, he notes: “If anything, wages today are historically low. They have been growing slowly for decades for every income group other than the affluent.”

Higher wages can fill job openings. You won’t find that among the prescriptions, though, in the op-ed by the chamber leaders.

What a surprise.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]