At the start of July, job seekers in North Carolina struggling to stay afloat breathed a sigh of relief when Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 116 — a measure that would have ended the $300 weekly federal unemployment supplement. While we’ve all seen headlines about a supposed labor shortage, Cooper’s action rightfully highlighted the fact that there are a variety of factors at play right now. For instance, among many other roadblocks to employment, there’s a childcare shortage and the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25 since 2009. Unfortunately, when it comes to discussing the state of the economy, the needs of job seekers are often excluded from the narrative.
Recently, in an effort to get a better gauge on the reality that confronts job seekers, a North Carolina employer, Bryanna Hopson at HIRE Strategies, asked a question in an unemployment-focused Facebook group:
Here’s a summary of what we learned from job seekers’ responses:
People want to work. While many have been applying for jobs for months or even since before the pandemic, they haven’t seen progress. Whether they are just starting out or have an advanced degree, they want a chance to prove themselves, and for their employer to remember that they’re people with lives and not just there to help with profits. Many people applying to jobs are being told they are overqualified or turned away due to missing a desired skill, while others say they want employers to be more willing to train them if needed. Many report that employers seem to instead be focused on seeking the most highly qualified candidates, even for entry level positions. How are people to get back to work, even for entry level jobs, if they aren’t given a chance? Many commenters reported feeling frustrated at being referred to as “lazy” when they truly want to work.
Treat people like you need them, want them, and like humans.
They want to make a livable wage. Unemployed people say they want to return to jobs with higher wages that are more realistic for getting by in today’s economy, naming between $11 and $18 an hour as an acceptable range. North Carolina’s minimum wage has remained at the same rate as the federal level ($7.25) for the past 12 years, despite repeated attempts by lawmakers to increase it statewide.
People say they want to be paid for what they have to offer so that if they’re bringing bonus skills, like being bilingual, they expect to be compensated for that added value. Many workers report finding job listings that require a college degree, but only pay $9 an hour.
Workers recognize, “there is a fine line between what we need and what [employers] can afford to give us.” They acknowledge that the demand for an increased wage is a different thing, but the cost of childcare, rent, and living overall has increased dramatically, and those needs must be met so working people can have fulfilling and less stressful lives. The cost of living is much higher than it used to be, and wages should reflect not only the increased cost, but also the demand for workers.
They want to have flexibility and paid time off. Employees value paid time off in the form of paid sick days, vacation time, and paid family leave so they can prioritize taking care of themselves and those they love and maintain a healthy presence at work. For some, their career isn’t their whole lives and their families come first, so they want an understanding that when things come up outside of work, they need the time to deal with caregiving logistics, or tend to children who need childcare or are returning home from school. Flexible hours and the option to work from home were mentioned repeatedly as ways to help people maintain both work and personal needs. Ultimately, many working parents really need flexibility so they can not only get their work done, but also show up for their kids.
They don’t want to be judged based on their age. Whether just starting off or later in their career, people ask employers not to be afraid to hire them based on their stage in life. Discrimination towards aging workers is a real concern for people who cannot retire yet and want to keep working but find themselves excluded from opportunities.
“Don’t be afraid to hire 60-plus-year-olds,” said one respondent. “No one seems to want to hire older people,” another lamented. People want to be desired as employees, comfortable, safe, and accepted at work, no matter how old or who they are.
They want benefits. People need health care and good benefits to ensure their needs are met. Benefits add value on top of the salary and work environment, but with reasonable premiums, deductibles, and co-payments, benefits will make everything better and not hurt take home pay as much. When hours are cut or people are only finding openings for part-time or contract work, that does little to help working people find the stability and benefits they and their families can count on.
Employers and elected officials, are you listening?
Lindsay K. Saunders works with the Workers’ Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice Center.