Although 9.7 million people are actively seeking employment, businesses have reported major labor shortages. Why the disconnect? Well, wages are low, unemployment benefits are high, and pandemics are scary. Additionally, there are still plenty of caretaking needs at home.
Low Wages and Unemployment Benefits
According to NPR, 2 out of every 3 workers are making more from unemployment benefits than they were from their old jobs, a discrepancy that raises “awkward questions for workers, bosses and policymakers.” Underpaid employees like food service workers and even teachers may be weighing the risks and benefits of returning to work and finding that a minimum wage job is worth less than their health – especially considering the generous unemployment benefits from state and federal governments. Other workers may have used their time in quarantine to acquire new skills or start searching for higher-paying jobs.
While conservatives are quick to blame unemployment benefits for the labor shortage, liberals point out that low wages and subpar working conditions are equally if not more at fault. As one preschool teacher explains to NPR:
“It's terrible to say, but we're all doing better now…It's hard to think about going back to work in this pandemic and getting paid less than we are right now when we're safe and at home in quarantine.”
The teacher raises another issue that may be keeping unemployed employees from returning to the workforce – safety concerns.
While many Americans are getting vaccinated, employees may have a hard time shaking off a year of “safer at home” messaging, and the possibility of contracting a deadly disease in the workplace is still discouraging people from returning to their jobs. This is particularly true for families with unvaccinated members at home, like immunocompromised individuals and young children.
Speaking of young children, many children have not returned to school, which can make it difficult for parents to return to work.
Many parents were forced to leave work to meet their caretaking responsibilities, and those responsibilities have not ended. More women than men left the workforce during the pandemic, and more than half of U.S. schools were still participating in remote learning or hybrid learning in May of 2021.
Workers who must stay home to care for their children or older relatives may not be eligible for unemployment if they refuse to return to work, but they may be entitled to leave pay under new federal laws. Similarly, Newsweek emphasizes that workers who cannot get vaccinated or have other health problems may be entitled to reasonable accommodations from their employers.
What Should I Do If My Employer Asks Me to Return?
If you were furloughed during the pandemic, and your employer asks you to go back to work, or if you receive a new job offer, you should consider the offer carefully. For employees in Tennessee, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development says:
“If you fail to return to work when called or accept suitable work when offered you are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits.”
Before rejecting an employment offer and making yourself ineligible for benefits, you should speak to your employer about any concerns that may be keeping you away from work, including low wages. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your employer, consider meeting with a local employment law attorney to discuss your rights and legal options. In some cases, a lawyer will be able to help you negotiate a new contract, and in others, you can stay at home and replace unemployment benefits with federal leave benefits.
At Donati Law, PLLC, we are dedicated to finding what works for you and seeking justice one client at a time. You should not be put in an unfair situation due to disability or another health problem, nor should you tolerate unsafe working conditions.
If you are having a dispute with your employer, call us at (901) 209-5500 or contact us online to discuss your situation with our dedicated attorneys.
We have been helping people like you with employment law concerns since 1980, and we are confident in our ability to help you navigate this difficult and uncertain time.