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The less things change

SoVaNow.com / November 03, 2021
Waiting around for election results to come in Tuesday, it occurred to me ... maybe this would be a good time to write about something other than politics for a change.

Firing up the Wayback Machine, let’s travel all the way back to early September when extended unemployment benefits ended for jobless workers. You may remember how Uncle Sam provided 26 weeks of additional UI (unemployment insurance) benefits, roughly around $300 per week in Virginia, on top of the standard payments that jobless workers received after millions lost their jobs in 2020 due to the pandemic. Mass unemployment was inevitable with the shutdown in regular business due to COVID-19, and the enhanced jobless benefit was the right policy to pursue amid an engineered (and necessary) economic shutdown. But all that free money also prompted a lot of griping among employers that workers were being spoiled, content to sit on their duffs and cash government checks instead of going back to work. Surely everyone will remember how the line went at the time.

The implication was that once the extended benefits expired, that’s when the tide would turn and businesses would have a much easier time hiring formerly-coddled workers to fill open positions.

It was about three weeks later that the numbers came out from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The upshot? Here’s an Oct. 10 report from CNN:

Out-of-work Americans did not rush back into the job market after beefed-up unemployment benefits ended nationwide in September.

The labor force shrank last month for the first time since May, signaling that more people were opting to sit on the sidelines and not actively look for work, according to the federal jobs report released Friday.

“If unemployment benefits were the driving force behind labor market dynamics, then you would not have seen that effect,” said Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy at the American Action Forum, a right-leaning think tank.

The jobs report, which disappointed on several fronts, came at a time when the nation was contending with both elevated levels of coronavirus cases and a return to school for millions of children.

To be clear, the CNN report (and others like it) was based on one month’s worth in data. The importance assigned to snapshot jobs data really can get out of hand sometimes, since it’s not uncommon for the Labor Department to go back and revise previous months’ reports based on new information that can come in at any time. But just as a lie can run halfway around the world before the truth laces up her shoes, so too can incomplete data skew our understanding of what’s really going on with the economy.

But with additional weeks and months to reflect on this question — did overly lavish payments convince idled workers to stay idle? — the answer is plainly “no.” The labor market continues to be erratic, and it’s not really hard to understand why: when people don’t feel safe at work, many just won’t go back to work.

The cessation of extended UI benefits roughly coincided with the surge of the COVID-19 delta variant. As long as the pandemic isn’t under control — or people perceive it isn’t under control, which is a related but not identical concept — the economy will be prone to disruption as we stagger from one bottleneck and pullback to the next. You see a similar thing happening with the supply chain, as illustrated most starkly by the shortage of microchips. Since most microchips are manufactured in Asia, there’s only so much we can do to speed up a backlog in orders. If you want to draw a broader lesson from the Great Microchip Shortage of 2021, it would be this — don’t outsource production overseas to the point where an international shutdown (or blockade) leaves America’s manufacturing sector hung out to dry. But this is a problem the corporate world largely brought upon itself in its mania to wring more dollars out of the pockets of American workers, and reversing this depletion of domestic manufacturing vigor will take years, not months, to accomplish.

Now that the delta-fueled fourth wave of the pandemic has somewhat subsided, look for the jobs market to come roaring back. Until the next wave hits, that is ....

Which brings us to this, from The Washington Post:

The heads of the five major unions representing members of the New York City Police Department warned that 10,000 unvaccinated police officers were “set to be pulled from [the] streets” as a Nov. 1 vaccine mandate deadline for New York City employees passed.

So far, the number is 34.

Fewer than three dozen uniformed officers out of about 35,000 were placed on unpaid leave on Monday when the deadline expired, in addition to 40 civilian NYPD staff out of roughly 17,000, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a news conference.

Many more await a decision from the city on their requests for religious or medical exemptions, Shea said. In total, 85 percent of NYPD staff are vaccinated, he added.

There were no major disruptions to city services as a result of the vaccine mandate coming into force, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said during the same news conference.

About 9,000 city employees overall were placed on leave-without-pay status on Nov. 1, out of a workforce of more than 300,000, while roughly 12,000 had applied for a religious or medical exemption to vaccination and were waiting for a response from the city, de Blasio added.

Again, this is a single data point, but the idea that workers would walk away from their careers (and forgo their paychecks) in response to being ordered to take a perfectly safe, incredibly effective vaccine or else take a hike was never especially credible. People like to complain about being told what to do — who doesn’t — but when push comes to shove, it’s never much of a surprise when said people fall in line.

As well they should.

(For what it’s worth, the same experience has held true at our local hospitals, both of which have imposed vaccine mandates and seen few very workers quit their jobs as a result.)

The argument for vaccine mandates is rock-solid: you have a right to assert your personal “medical freedom” all you want, whatever it’s supposed to mean, but you don’t have the right to jeopardize the safety of others. (Also, bold statements of personal medical freedom tend to ring hollow when a nurse has to do regular bedside checks of freedom-loving patients who are hooked up to a ventilator.) Just this week, our emphatically right-leaning Supreme Court declined to block a requirement by the state of Maine for health care workers to get vaccinated, even though Maine doesn’t offer a religious exemption. Over on the opposite page, letter writer Jeff Dunson of Clarksville does a thorough job of demolishing the myth that vaccine mandates run afoul of our constitutional rights, so I’ll hand off further discussion on this subject to him.

Bottom line: until we get past COVID-19, lots of things about modern life will remain off-kilter: community life, the economy, education and work routines, and practically every other aspect of day-to-day existence. The pandemic has receded from public notice with the focus on Tuesday’s elections and the plateauing of the delta variant. But it’ll be back if we aren’t careful to get more people vaccinated and keep up other precautions to stop the spread.

The question isn’t when we’ll be done with the virus; the question remains, as ever, when the virus is done with us.

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