'Help wanted' sign a symbol of frustrating labor market

·8 min read

May 16—CANTON — Taped to the door of Little Italy Canton is a "help wanted" sign that's more blunt than others in the area.

"This is a busy restaurant," the sign says.

"Yes, you will be expected to work the whole time you are clocked in," and "No, you cannot have every weekend off."

It ventures further into the cynical and sarcastic, warning: "No, you will not be able to spend your time on social media, texting your significant other or playing games on your cell phone," and, "In case you missed it the first time, no you cannot have every weekend off."

It continues, "Yes you will be expected to show up on time, in appropriate clothing, with proper hygiene and sober."

The pay, it says, is dependent on work ethic.

Owner Jessika T. Furnace, who wrote the notice, said it reflects her personality and the way she runs her business.

She said it's a necessary warning given the hiring pool available.

"There's not many people who want to work at all," she said. "We've had to really put out there exactly what it is we are, and are not, looking for, and it's a sad situation we even had to do that."

The reason for this, she thinks, is because so many people are hiring.

"It's a workers' market where people can pick and choose where they want to work," she said. "It's a bad thing because it lessens the pool of people you can hire from."

The pandemic didn't help, either.

"Before COVID-19, I believe I had 13 to 15 employees," she said. "When we opened back up, I had 5 people."

She blames a large part of that on the unemployment assistance doled out during the early stages of the pandemic.

"The unemployment handed out to just about everyone during COVID was definitely a breaking factor," she said.

Though perhaps less explicit, it seems like help wanted signs decorate the windows of most businesses across the north country. Is it because people just don't want to work anymore?

Not exactly, says Terry R. Vernsey, co-owner of Buster's Restaurant in Ogdensburg.

"There's a help wanted sign in every business in town because everyone is fighting for a smaller pool of people," he said. "In the north country, every year we have a smaller number of kids and population, and every business is looking for workers, from the gas station to the dollar store to Walmart to Buster's, so it's hard to get and retain staff. Everyone is trying to compete for that same worker."

As a result, he said "any business will tell you that they're having trouble finding people to hire and getting people to show up, and the problem today is a lot of them don't stay."

Brian Chezum, associate professor of economics and co-chair of the economics department at St. Lawrence University in Canton, thinks the pandemic may have fundamentally changed workers' attitudes toward minimum-wage labor.

"Rather than arguing that people are lazier or want a better work-life balance, we should ask what changed so that people are less willing to do those jobs at those wages," he said. "People have pretty well signaled that they're not going to take $10 an hour. Even in Canton, you can't hire very readily for $15 an hour."

New York's statewide $15 minimum wage was enacted as part of the 2016-17 budget. As of Dec. 31, 2016, the first in a series of wage increases went into effect. Rates differ based on region and industry "because the increases are calibrated to provide businesses ample time to adjust," according to the Department of Labor.

Generally, New York City employers of 11 or more people were required to pay workers $15 an hour starting in 2018, up from $11 in 2016 and $13 in 2017. Employers of 10 or fewer people in NYC had to adopt the $15 minimum wage in 2019. Long Island and Westchester were rolled into the new general minimum as of Dec. 31.

But the north country, and the rest of New York state, still has a minimum wage of $13.20 an hour for most workers. That took effect Dec. 31 and will remain through the end of 2022. The Division of the Budget and the Department of Labor will then determine the next increment. The general wage outside of New York City has steadily increased each year from $9.70 in 2016.

Other minimum wages vary by industry. All of New York's fast food workers, for instance, are already mandated to receive a minimum $15 an hour. That change took effect in New York City in 2018, and the rest of the state caught up last summer.

Base pay for tipped food service workers is less — the $13.20 hourly rate breaks down into an $8.80 employer-paid wage, plus a maximum $4.40 tip credit. That rate took effect outside NYC at the end of last year. State law allows employers in most industries to satisfy the minimum wage by combining a "cash wage" paid by the employer with a credit or allowance for tips from customers. The tip credit represents money the employer doesn't have to pay if that amount is made up through tips. Employers are required to cover the difference if a tipped worker does not meet the full minimum wage.

Some workers who quit minimum-wage jobs during the pandemic have cited poor wages and conditions.

"I don't understand how businesses expect to find permanent employees at minimum-wage rates," said Sydney E. Harris, who left service-industry jobs around Potsdam during the pandemic.

She said she had to work extra hard as a hostess and barista when businesses first opened back up and people were flocking, but had to deal with hideous disrespect from people who couldn't care less about COVID-19 guidelines.

"It was absolutely not worth the pay to put up with that treatment," she said. "I felt absolutely exploited."

"I definitely think the mentality behind employers was that COVID put so many people out of jobs that they expected tons of applicants for one position that doesn't pay great," Ms. Harris said. "But workers are not going to put up with that anymore. Things just aren't the same after COVID."

She advised job applicants to take advantage of the opportunities now to find better jobs.

"There's no point in working a job where you'll be burnt out in two weeks for someone who doesn't value your time," she said.

Claire Pickard, who also worked service-industry jobs during the pandemic, described the experience as dehumanizing, and rebuked the idea that workers have gotten lazier.

"During COVID, when you were working, you felt very replaceable," she said. "While everyone was saying stuff like 'nobody wants to work anymore and everyone's lazy,' you think to yourself, 'actually no, here I am working hard.'"

"It became obvious that nobody thought these jobs were valid, and as a result these same people had no issue reaming you out if service took longer because of understaffed businesses," she added.

The money, or lack thereof, offered little consolation.

"Truthfully, I think I spent more money on gas to get to work than I made," she said. "You get paid minimum wage and then have to act as though you should be grateful for it."

To Ms. Pickard, it seemed like workers in the service industry "didn't exist as human beings."

Axel Fair-Schulz, associate professor of history at SUNY Potsdam, thinks this is the natural consequence of capitalism, which prizes profit over human welfare.

"I would say capitalism has always been bad, but now it's bad on steroids," he said.

He cites the 1980s as a turning point, "when Keynesian economics ended and the neoliberal paradigm began."

"This is the policy framework associated with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher," he said, which centers around union-busting, privatization, disemboweling public services, and deregulation across the board.

As a result, he said the U.S. economy has degenerated into a "gig economy," in which there's less job security and wages are depressed.

He claims wage labor itself "is an exploitative relationship where workers are exploited by their employers. The employers try to generate profit, and that profit is enhanced by squeezing as much surplus as possible from employees."

"These existing problems and injustices," he said, "came into greater focus during the pandemic."

These problems include being unable to afford basic necessities despite working your life away.

"When you consider food, rent, medical bills, student debt, etc., $15 an hour is not a living wage, and you can end up working endless hours yet never succeed in digging your way out of the hole," Mr. Fair-Schulz said.

Given these conditions, he said it's perfectly reasonable for workers to refuse minimum-wage jobs.

"When you get paid so little that you can't really live off it," he said, "why would you work if it just drains you completely of energy and you can't get by anyhow?"

He praised the fact that workers hold more power now, but doesn't think it can last without large-scale collective action.

"This is not something that developed overnight or can be fixed overnight just because it is a little more advantageous for workers now that employers are desperate," he said. "What is at fault is the entire system."

"Workers in Canton or Potsdam cannot change the system," he added. "But they can start by learning to think of themselves as part of a group or class rather than as individuals."