The latest version of a decades-long narrative that Kentuckians lack the motivation to work now says we have a “workforce crisis.” Like in the past, this story from employers ignores the perspective of workers themselves. Listening to them yields a quite different, and better, understanding of what’s really going on in the world of work.
Many Kentuckians have experienced a deterioration of job quality for decades now. Policy decisions have forced unions to decline dramatically, decreasing workers’ voice on the job. Wages have been stagnant as a result even as family costs have increased for needs like healthcare, childcare and housing. Companies have dramatically scaled back retirement and health benefits, and 38% of jobs in Kentucky do not even offer paid sick days.
There has been a broad restructuring of work toward a strategy that views employees primarily as a cost to be minimized, as opposed to an asset to be nurtured. Low-wage jobs in temp agencies have grown 10 times faster than jobs as a whole in Kentucky since 1990. Corporations, including big manufacturers, have increasingly relied on short-term, expendable temps instead of making long-term commitments to strengthening their own workforce.
Economist David Weil refers to that trend as the “fissured workplace,” in which large corporations contract with other companies to carry out major parts of their business and then squeeze those contractors to lower costs — at the expense of workers. This trend is widespread but hidden. Nowadays more than 80% of employees at hotels, for example, don’t actually work for the company whose name is on it.
Other employers offer only part-time work to avoid overtime costs, and increasingly rely on gig workers and other legally and illegally classified independent contractors that lack basic workplace protections and benefits. More companies use just-in-time scheduling, leading to irregular and unpredictable hours that are disruptive for families and their budgets.
These workplace changes result in high turnover as employers churn and burn through employees. Any company complaining it can’t find workers to come in the front door should be asked this question: How many workers are leaving through your back door due to your wages and working conditions?
After years of these trends, many employees are frustrated and fed up. Some like the workers at Heaven Hill and John Deere have gone on strike, and Kentucky led the nation in the share of workers quitting their jobs last month. Others are taking a little time to look for better work, holding on a bit longer with modest savings.
Compounding changes in the workplace are failures of public policy to support workers. The state has cut funding to child care, while half of Kentucky kids live in a child care desert. The growing senior population has not been met with growing public investment in elder care, leaving their working-age children — who often have kids of their own — to bear the responsibility. There is not enough investment in affordable housing, and it’s hard to land and keep a job when you are battling homelessness.
We’ve gone the longest period in history without raising the minimum wage, and it no longer makes work pay. And we haven’t had the public health infrastructure to address community crises ranging from the opioid epidemic to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in widespread worker illness and overburdened caregivers.
Those perpetuating the narrative of a workforce crisis say abundant “help wanted” signs tell us that jobs are easily available. But some employers perpetually leave those signs out because they are looking for highly qualified, responsible employees willing to work for inadequate wages and difficult working conditions. They’re waiting for what human resource professionals call a “purple squirrel” — a person who does not exist.
The low road employment strategy has been bad for Kentucky workers, and is ultimately bad for business too. We need a shift in mindset that sees workers as partners in business success and employers as responsible for treating workers fairly. We must recognize that government investment in people’s needs, from child care to housing, actually helps companies’ bottom lines.
Instead, corporate lobbyists are pushing the same old state policy agenda of cutting vital worker supports like unemployment insurance and enacting tax shifts that reduce income taxes and raise sales taxes — a giveaway to the wealthy that results in ordinary Kentuckians paying more.
We shouldn’t pass policies that make workers lives harsher and more desperate in order to boost corporate profits. Especially when there is a better way — working together to create an economy that benefits us all.
This column ran in the Herald-Leader and the State Journal on Oct. 29, and the Courier-Journal on Nov. 3, 2021.