“Such a shortage of workers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent unless for triple wages. Instead, because of the doles handed out at funerals, those who once had to work now began to have time for idleness, thieving, and other outrages, and thus the poor and servile have been enriched and the rich impoverished. As a result, churchmen, knights, and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land, and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread.”
William de la Dene, public notary, Rochester Cathedral Priory, Historia Roffensis commenting on post-plague labor conditions
When it comes to pandemics and their aftermaths, there’s precious little new under the sun, including their effect on relationships between workers and employers. COVID-19 is no exception. The passage above, except for its courtly style, could have been written today or earlier this year. Low-wage workers, supposedly grown fat on excessively generous government benefits, have walked away from their pre-pandemic jobs thus bringing the novel experience of a labor shortage followed by shortages of all kinds of products across the economy.
Downscale workers are well and truly up in arms in the form of a cultural phenomenon known as “antiwork”, a ceaseless fount of complaints about wages and working conditions in America. A sub-Reddit thread, populated by over 1 million contributors and commenters, testifies to the salience of the antiwork movement. While it is impossible to tell the extent to which the general public shares the antiwork view, when a million-plus Americans are complaining about the same thing it’s good to pay attention. Perhaps this discontent helps explain the labor shortages, precipitous rise in early retirements, and decline in workforce participation.
Why the sudden revolt against work?
Over many decades, the American economy has depended on a seemingly endless supply of workers (documented and not) willing to work for the sometimes parsimonious wages on offer in our advanced, globally-integrated, highly competitive, and skills-biased economy. If employees didn’t like conditions, well, there was always someone else anxious to take the work. Just five years ago, McDonalds had 50,000 applications lined up for 13,000 jobs.
Then, along came an invisible hand (in the form of a lethal virus) that uncovered some hidden truths: there are a lot of jobs in America that are hard, sometimes dirty, and, especially in a pandemic, downright dangerous. What this adds up to in the unsettled, post-COVID-19 environment, is record job quits and a big gap between the number of jobs on offer – mainly in entry-level service, retail, and manufacturing – and workers willing to fill them. Meatpacking, perhaps unsurprisingly, is one of those occupations.
Along with nursing home residents, Native Americans, and the incarcerated, the men and women working long, hard hours in the nation’s meat plants had some of the highest infection, illness, and mortality rates in the country. These conditions were engendered by a combination of hard physical labor in close quarters and inadequate protective equipment.
But it goes beyond just working conditions and into less tangible, but no less real, issues with how the people who do this work are viewed and treated. Meatpacking jobs were (and are) disproportionately held by undocumented, refugee, and other immigrant workers in mainly conservative, rural states that left workers exposed to employer and government pressures and community indifference during the opening chapters of the COVID crisis. The status of these workers as essential “outsiders” aggravated long-standing problems in an industry that had come to take access to a continuous flow of cheap labor as part of its business model.
In April 2020, one meat packing company ran full-page advertisements national and regional newspapers saying that during the pandemic meat was as important as health care. A few Midwest governors announced that meatpackers who refused to come to work would be considered a voluntary termination for the purposes of unemployment, COVID risk notwithstanding. These governors appealed to then-Vice President Pence to invoke the Defense Production Act to further strengthen employer leverage over their workforces. In one especially egregious instance, managers directed meatpackers to keep working despite COVID symptoms and made bets on how many workers would fall ill.
A confluence of insider political interests, food shortage anxiety, and disregard for the safety and dignity of workers yielded the predictable result: meat packers stayed on the job as illnesses and deaths mounted. Most recent estimates are that nearly 60,000 meatpackers contracted the virus and 269 died, a near-tripling of initial counts. Given spotty and incomplete COVID reporting more broadly, these new figures likely still underestimate the actual toll.
The ironies surrounding how meatpackers are treated continues to this day. Some of the states that imposed the most rigorous “back to work” requirements on meatpackers during the pandemic, are now considering whether to provide unemployment benefits to people who lose their jobs for refusing vaccination. The political class, which was very worried about meatpacker malingering during early-COVID, is willing to accept employee vaccine resistance at face value as a legitimate reason for claiming public subsidy. Meanwhile, the meat producers have required vaccination of employees because they know it is the best way to protect workers and maintain operations. You will search in vain for fairness, justice, or simple consistency in how these mainly minority, immigrant workers are being treated relative to less disempowered segments of the population.
Given this history of labor practices, it is unsurprising that meat packing companies continue to struggle with hiring even as the risk of COVID has fallen. Emsi, the labor market data analysis firm, reports that postings for open positions in meatpacking are up by two-thirds in the past year, and some businesses are offering sign-on bonuses exceeding $3,000. Wages are also rising with some firms paying up to $20 per hour for entry-level meatpackers. In pre-pandemic terms this would have been relatively generous and attractive. With the recent pandemic experience and ongoing labor shortage fresh in worker minds, it is decidedly less so. To help restore the status quo ante, the meat industry is seeking to increase its access to agricultural worker visas.
High product demand plus labor-constrained supply shortages are the central cause of rapid price increases for meat that are contributing significantly to the general inflation plaguing American consumers. Beef is up 20 percent over the past year with poultry, pork and eggs not far behind. As my AEI colleague Lyman Stone said at the beginning of the pandemic, we may have to pay “50 cents more a package for our bacon” as one of the prices of coming to terms with COVID-19-related workplace safety. Perhaps that was an underestimation of the actual challenge the industry and millions of customers are facing.
William de la Dene’s “worthies” of today (those, like myself and many reading this, who had the privilege of working safely from behind computer screens) aren’t yet to the point of raising their own chickens and grinding their own wheat, but the lesson thus far seems clear: when it comes to food products, and especially meat, our just-in-time, high-efficiency, cheap-labor economy is under great stress and experiencing an unusual form of “creative destruction”: a shortage of manual labor is forcing, at least in the immediate term, a backwards reconfiguration of wages and other benefits. Payback, if you will.
We didn’t get here overnight. As Don Stull, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas commented to NPR a few years ago, “Workers are really cheaper than machines. Machines have to be maintained. They have to be taken good care of. And that’s not really true of workers. As long as there is a steady supply, workers are relatively inexpensive [emphasis added]”, a quote that summarizes the situation better than anything else could. No doubt the market will eventually bring wages and working conditions into balance with supply and demand. For now, we know the answer to the age-old question, “Where’s the beef?”
Correction, December 16, 2021, 2:02 p.m.: The piece originally attributed the quotation “Workers are really cheaper than machines. Machines have to be maintained. They have to be taken good care of. And that’s not really true of workers. As long as there is a steady supply, workers are relatively inexpensive [emphasis added]” to a meat processing plant manager. The quote comes from Don Stull. The piece has been corrected accordingly.