A workers’ market, in Virginia and elsewhere, awaits anyone still on the sidelines

April 21, 2022 12:03 am

A company advertises a help wanted sign on April 09, 2021 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Norfolk’s top administrator wants to raise the minimum wage for municipal employees by an eye-popping $6 an hour, to $18, in the budget year starting July 1. The city has more than 800 vacancies out of 4,844 permanent positions. 

Chesapeake, the state’s second-largest city, would boost its minimum wage from $11.17 an hour to $15. It has roughly 4,000 employees. 

Not to be outdone, Richmond’s mayor wants to bump that city’s minimum to $17 an hour and provide a 5 percent salary increase to many workers. Some 95 percent of police officers and firefighters would receive at least a 10 percent pay increase under Levar Stoney’s proposed budget. 

Businesses in the commonwealth already have made similar moves, going above the state’s current minimum of $11 an hour. They include institutions like Blue Ridge Bank, which announced last year it had increased its minimum wage from $15 an hour to $17.

Don’t call this hiring binge “altruism” on the part of government and business leaders, however. Far from it. 

This is a necessity, as localities struggle to fill jobs during what we all hope – maybe foolishly – are the last gasps of the COVID-19 pandemic. New daily deaths have fallen recently, but the country is still closing in on 1 million fatalities since the crisis started in early 2020.

Many communities either kept vacancies open, trimmed positions or reduced services. For example, Chesapeake, after a months-long hiatus, only recently restarted pickups of bulk household and yard waste. Residents had to pile up their dreck or haul it themselves to drop-off sites.

Since employees left offices and jobs behind as the pandemic raged, a sizable number have never returned. They reassessed the traditional work-life balance, and folks crafted something new for themselves and their families. That’s a good thing.

The result? Cities and counties around the state are Desperately Seeking (More Than Just) Susan to provide essential services. They’re willing to pay significantly better than before, cough up four-figure signing bonuses, and offer enhanced benefits. 

Communities are trying to forgo rate increases to fund the additional employees. Norfolk, for instance, will pay for its hiring initiative “by the projected revenue growth across multiple sources such as real estate and other property tax revenues, sales, meals, hotel, and admissions tax revenue, and others,” Kelly Straub, a city spokeswoman, told me by email.  

Some 275 city positions in Norfolk are vacant now and pay less than $18 an hour – the proposed minimum in the fiscal year budget starting July 1.

 All of this means people, especially on the lower end of the wage scale, can flex their muscles and leverage a career in ways virtually unheard of in recent decades. It’s a dizzying time for laborers and employers alike. People can weigh what’s available and craft a better standard of living.

This is happening during a period of low unemployment in Virginia – just 3 percent in March, less than the national average of 3.6 percent – and fewer people actively seeking work than in previous years. The situation also says something about how employers often ran roughshod over workers, simply because the latter had little clout to alter the landscape.

How times have changed.

“The employment market has evolved, and competition for employees is fierce,” Norfolk City Manager Larry “Chip” Filer noted in his recent budget message. “We are feeling the crunch most acutely in positions that provide ‘core’ services. Job seeker expectations are higher than they were two years ago, and those expectations include going beyond higher pay.”

Vinod Agarwal is an economics professor at Old Dominion University and deputy director of its Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy. He told me this week many local and state governments laid off employees when the pandemic struck, because they feared revenues would fall short. The lack of money didn’t always happen, though, because federal stimulus money helped fill the gaps.

Unemployment is now low in Virginia, he said, but the labor force outside the home also is smaller than pre-pandemic. Many people, including senior citizens fearful of catching COVID-19, left the job market; it’s not clear how many will return.

“The name of the game has changed,” Agarwal added. “You have to find out how to recruit workers and how to retain workers.”  

Today’s job market also highlights the detestable falsehoods some business types uttered while enhanced federal unemployment checks kept people afloat. Some chambers of commerce officials blithely urged ending the $300-a-week payments early because “essentially, not working is being subsidized.” Bars, restaurants, hotels and the like needed employees.

The tone-deafness of this tack was disgusting. Many who could apply for these jobs, shortly after COVID vaccines became available, would still risk catching the virus. The ones advocating the cutoff of stimulus checks could work remotely and remain safer.

Those checks ended in September. Yet, many public and private employers still struggle to fill vacancies. 

If you’re on the sidelines, it’s a great time to re-enter the market. Employers are begging for you to return. 

Make sure opportunity, aspiration and your desire all match. 

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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]