Workers wield new power in a world shaped by COVID-19. Kansas leaders must adapt, and quickly.

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Businesses would not exist without workers.

It’s been easy to forget over the past few decades as corporations flexed their muscles, organized labor suffered setbacks, and CEOs got richer and richer. Within a year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the employment landscape in Kansas and across the country. Workers are waking up to a general shortage of skills and personnel.

They have the power. Now they have to decide what to do with it.

Kansas politicians also have big decisions to make. Should they pamper desperate businesses or improve the quality of life of those who make those businesses possible?

We know leaders are worried. According to Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter“The quality of the workforce was a top issue in the (Kansas Chamber) survey of business leaders conducted from November 30 to December 7, easily outpacing concerns about taxation, COVID-19, leadership government policy or regulation. Workforce satisfaction dropped to 51%, tied with 2017 as the lowest score in the annual survey. Most expressed concern about the soft skills of job seekers, including the ability to show up on time or dress appropriately.

Let’s translate. SOEs appear keen to hire, with more than a third planning to increase their staff this year. They just can’t find enough qualified people. A punctual Kansan with a clean suit could have his pick of jobs. With an unemployment rate of 3.3%, you might even be able to negotiate a higher salary.

The balance of power has shifted.

“In the driver’s seat”

The Conference Board, a nonprofit, reported this month that labor shortages are the main concern of American CEOs. For context, regulation tied for sixth place in the survey, and corporate taxation tied for ninth. This ranking highlights the existential fear of businesses: businesses cannot operate without people to staff them.

Demonstrators take part in a protest on January 15, 2021 outside McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago as part of a nationwide effort calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

According to Axios news site, “Workers are in the driver’s seat of the labor market, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. It is also starting to change the competitive landscape in the business world. »

Unionized workplaces with higher wages attract and retain more workers, reports the news website. Companies that offer more opportunities for advancement and training do the same. Although small businesses may not have the financial resources of larger ones, they can offer increased flexibility and quality of life opportunities.

Why has the situation changed so quickly and drastically? The pandemic has accelerated demographic changes.

Like Axios also reported, cautious, stock-rich older workers quit their jobs in droves. More mothers have been staying home with their children due to school restrictions or daycare closures. Immigration restrictions have slowed the flow of workers from other countries.

Companies need to hire from a smaller pool of potential workers. The people of this pool have watched closely over the past decades as their relatives and friends have been used and abused.

They saw pension plans phased out and meager 401(k)s put in place. They have seen generous health insurance plans replaced by unaffordable, high-deductible options. They saw families destroyed by ever-increasing demands on parents’ time while children languished. They saw the richest of us grow up obscenely richwhile cowardly politicians have refused to tackle income inequality.

These people do not trust future employers. They do not plan to sign their lives for vague promises. They filled internet forums like Reddit’s Antiwork Community with stories about demanding better pay and quitting jobs after abuse by ignorant bosses.

What free market?

As noted above, smart companies have upped their game in response. Dumb companies have actually taken legal action to prevent workers from taking new jobs.

That’s right, a “Wisconsin hospital tried to break new ground by filing a lawsuit to stop a team of seven healthcare workers from quitting their jobs and taking positions at another hospital,” a said Michael Hiltzik, business columnist at the Los Angeles Times. written this week.

ThedaCare Regional Medical Center in Neenah, Wis., says the lawsuit aims to ensure its stroke patients receive quality care. The effect, however, was to prevent seven workers from taking better paying jobs at another hospital.

Unemployed workers demonstrate in Miami Springs in support of maintaining federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“We’ve definitely entered an alternate universe,” said Joe Veenstra, a labor and employment attorney in La Crosse, Wisconsin. told the New York Times. He added: “We now have managements unable to control the work and ask the courts to stop the free market from happening. It’s just that we live in a topsy-turvy world right now.

I guess the free market only applies to managers, not workers. (Thankfully, a judge dismissed ThedaCare’s arguments on Monday.)

We also saw some petty nonsense in Kansas. Last June, for example, a coalition of state business leaders tried to persuade Governor Laura Kelly will end expanded unemployment benefits. They thought the extra dollars were keeping workers from applying for jobs. Kansas Chamber President and CEO Alan Cobb suggested that businesses were forced to compete with the government.

These expanded benefits ended September 4. Still, the House investigation suggests their expiration hasn’t solved the state’s labor issues. Who could have foreseen this?

A different direction

Let me suggest a new approach. Invest in people, not employers.

This means pouring resources into our K-12 schools and universities. This means continuing education for all ages. This means laws that protect the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain wages and benefits. It means a strong safety net to prevent those going through tough times from falling further.

This means state laws that recognize and protect the rights of all races, religions, and ethnicities, as well as LGBTQ people. We know that young people are looking for welcoming and diverse environments in which to live and raise a family. Kansas could provide those environments.

The era of pampered companies, hoping they move to one state or another, should end. The practice never made a lot of sense anyway, given that most new jobs are created by startups or companies that already have a presence in the state. Large-scale tax cuts, touted by supposedly pro-business conservatives, rob states of revenue and destroy infrastructure in the process.

Kansas has worked desperately to attract and retain business. Now it should work just as hard to attract and retain workers.

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