Bars and restaurants are reopening–something for which we are all grateful–but according to media reports, having trouble finding workers. Republicans are jumping on those reports, arguing that employers just can’t compete with unemployment insurance checks. It’s the standard GOP argument that helping people breeds “dependence,” — that workers would rather collect benefits than go back to work.
A 2020 study by Yale economists found that–convenient as that argument may be–it’s wrong. Unemployment benefits don’t create a disincentive for job seekers.
Recent reports suggest that the pandemic has cost America’s economy 2.5 million restaurant jobs and closed more than 100,000 eateries. Now, just as the nation begins to return to whatever “normal” looks like, the restaurants that made it through 2020 can’t find staffers.
A recent Brookings report looked at Census survey data from early April. It found that 37% of small businesses in the hospitality and food sectors were affected by worker availability, compared to 16% for all small businesses.
So–if those Yale researchers are right, and the dearth of restaurant workers isn’t attributable to sloth enabled by unemployment compensation–what is causing the problem?
One likely factor is the unusual timing. When everyone is trying to hire at the same time, it is harder to find workers. Add to that the fact that easing of the pandemic does not equate to defeat of the pandemic. Many workers–especially those who will face the public as servers, hosts and the like–remain fearful, and not without reason.
But a substantial and overlooked reason for the problem is Trump’s immigration policy.
Restaurants (and for that matter, farmers) have long been dependent upon immigrant labor, and Trump’s policies (if hatred of Black and brown people can be dignified by the label “policy”) sharply curtailed the supply of those workers. Of course, pointing out that consequence is incompatible with Republican’s anti-immigration orthodoxy.
An ugly truth further complicating the situation is the fact that food establishments don’t depend exclusively on legal immigrants. A study from last year pointed out the significant extent to which restaurants rely on undocumented workers–and how they exploit those workers’ fears of deportation to underpay them.
Undocumented immigrants as a whole pay billions in taxes and a higher effective tax rate average than the top 1 percent of taxpayers (8 percent versus 5.4 percent).
And, as they often work in the back of house — as line cooks, bussers, dishwashers, and janitors — they’re largely invisible to the dining public. In reality, they’re the backbone of the industry. And yet, many are unable to obtain health insurance even though they perform backbreaking work day after day. Most didn’t receive a $1,200 stimulus check from the government, and they often fear getting tested for COVID-19 or obtaining care for fear of deportation.
The next time a GOP flack attributes the scarcity of workers to “dependency” caused by government largesse (a dependency that somehow doesn’t affect the wealthy and corporate beneficiaries of sizable subsidies), you might connect the dots for him.
You might also ask GOP opponents of immigration if they are willing to pay higher prices for fruits and vegetables, and more for that hamburger, if farmers and restaurant owners have to pay something close to a living wage to attract workers in a tighter (and Whiter) labor market. (For the record, I would be willing to pay more if I could rely on the assumption that the people picking produce and waiting on my table–whatever their ethnicity– were being paid a fair wage. )
Bottom line: anti-immigrant rhetoric grounded in barely veiled bigotry may generate votes, but rational, comprehensible and humane immigration policies are more likely to reopen your favorite watering hole….