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At a town hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Wednesday night, President Joe Biden appeared to side with progressives on the issue of the so-called worker shortage sweeping the country, saying that it’s a low-wage issue instead.
When an audience member and restaurant owner asked the president how he plans to incentivize people into returning to work, Biden pointed out that workers have shouldered disproportionate blame for businesses not being able to find workers. He challenged the Republican narrative that people are lazy and would rather collect unemployment than return to work and said that it’s the businesses that must attract the workers with appropriate pay and benefits.
“There’s some evidence that maintaining the ability to continue to … have to pay your rent so you don’t get thrown out and being able to provide” are priorities for people in considering their financial situation, the president said.
He suggested that many people may be shifting industries, saying “I think it really is a matter of people deciding now that they have opportunities to do other things and where there is a shortage of employees, people are looking to make more money and to bargain.”
Biden told the business owner that, if businesses want to attract more employees, they should offer higher pay because people won’t settle for $7 or $8 an hour. “If you make less than 15 bucks an hour working 40 hours a week, you’re living below the poverty level,” the president said. Indeed, studies have shown that even $15 an hour isn’t enough for people to cover basic expenses, especially for families.
The president’s remarks echo what progressives have been saying over the past several months. As many businesses are reopening and rehiring in this stage of the pandemic, business owners and corporations have complained that expanded unemployment benefits are to blame for unfilled job openings, fueling Republican grievances.
But research has shown that many frontline workers are unwilling to work to serve increasingly hostile customers while making low wages, especially while risking exposure to COVID-19 at their workplace or while using public transit. Wages have largely stayed stagnant since before the pandemic, writes the Economic Policy Institute, but with workers having to wade through anti-mask and anti-vaccine customers, “The wages for a harder, riskier job should be higher.”
As One Fair Wage found in a survey of restaurant workers earlier this year, of restaurant workers who have considered leaving their jobs during the pandemic, an overwhelming majority cite low tips and wages as a reason to leave. The second most common reason for wanting to leave, meanwhile, was fear of COVID.
Restaurant owners, anecdotally, have shown that low wages may be the underlying problem: as The Washington Post reported, when Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor in Pittsburgh posted job openings that paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25, they didn’t get applications for months. But when they raised the starting wage to $15, they got more than 1,000 applications in one week. Restaurant owners across the country, the Post found, have had similar experiences.
Many workers may also be recognizing new opportunities, as Biden suggested, and moving to jobs that have more consistent expectations and hours, even if they don’t pay more.
Progressives lawmakers have pushed back on the argument that the unfilled vacancies are due to unemployment benefits. “We don’t need to end $300 a week in emergency unemployment benefits that workers desperately need. We need to end starvation wages in America,” wrote Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) in May. “If $300 a week is preventing employers from hiring low-wage workers there’s a simple solution: Raise your wages. Pay decent benefits.”
Biden echoed that sentiment on Wednesday, saying he’s seen “no evidence” that additional unemployment checks are stopping people from working.
Though Biden pushed for $15 an hour wages on Wednesday, however, he did not fall in line with progressive messaging on how to raise the federal minimum wage. Biden insisted that the filibuster in the Senate — currently blocking a wide swath of Democratic priorities like infrastructure, climate and a higher minimum wage — is not only necessary, but somehow is preventing chaos in the Senate.
But the Senate is already in chaos, with every major Democratic proposal being completely held up or blocked outright by Republicans, even when Democrats make major concessions. Luckily for the party, Biden’s approval or disapproval isn’t strictly needed to get rid of the filibuster. Unluckily, Senate Democrats need unity on the subject that they don’t have.