American workers are seeking a better deal from employers — by staying out of the job market

Republican governors cut millions of people off their unemployment rolls, but many are staying away from jobs that underpaid
Photo: Shalom de León/Unsplash

First published at Press Run

When Republicans launched a frontal assault on American workers earlier this year, the press was right there to help them echo their bogus claims. Both should now apologize for smearing the U.S. workforce.

Belittling would-be employees for being “lazy” and living off the government dole as generous unemployment payments swelled during the pandemic, conservatives invented a bogus economic theory that President Joe Biden had created a nationwide worker shortage. (Some members of Congress are still making the hollow claim.)

Then Republican governors in 25 states acted on the hunch by prematurely cutting off benefits for residents over the summer. The insulting story-line was started by the same anti-worker conservative voices in the media who always complain that the country’s social safety net creates a slothful workforce.

The GOP’s Dickensian move to cut off benefits, which costs the states nothing, was supposed to solve the workplace shortage, and send Americans dashing out of their homes and back to work when government checks stopped arriving.

Turns out that cutting off extended benefits has done nothing to boost labor force participation. Will the media hold to account Republican governors who slashed much-needed aid for no reason? And will the media re-examine how they gladly aired GOP attacks on workers and helped legitimize the bogus theory by treating it as authentic?

Because conservatives were braying loudly and making the absurd anti-Biden claims, the press automatically treated the allegations as news, and seemed uninterested if the shaming charges were accurate or not. The press also boosted the Fox News storyline by constantly interviewing employers about the worker shortage, without giving voice to workers, which produced a one-sided view of the conflict.

As I noted at the time, the pro-business talking points were constantly echoed in local news coverage. When WKNB in Youngstown, Ohio, reported on the Republican governor cutting off employment benefits, only business owners who supported the move were quoted, no workers. Same with a local report from the Albany Times Union in New York, which quoted a restaurant manager blaming the worker shortage on the government for “giving them all the money to stay home.” No workers were interviewed.

The larger press problem though, was how mainstream news outlets propped up the phony GOP claims. Last month, the New York Times announced, “Federal Unemployment Aid Is Now a Political Lightning Rod.” After noting that economists dismissed the GOP claim, the Times reported, “The particular complaints that government benefits are sapping the desire to work have, nonetheless, struck a chord among Republican political leaders,” as if that made it all legitimate.

Last spring USA Today took a Both Sides approach, claiming a “debate” was raging over benefits and a worker shortage: Republicans blame benefits, economists disagree. In other words, partisan Republicans, pointing to zero empirical evidence, were throwing out a wild, unproven economic theory, while experts in the field debunked it. That was the “debate,” as Bloomberg called it.

Writing in the Washington Post, Megan McArdle announced unequivocally that emergency unemployment benefits were “holding back the economic recovery,” by giving people a strong disincentive to work. McArdle’s proof? “Anecdotally,” so she was sure it was true. The business columnist confidently predicted that when the remaining $300 federal payments expired in September, the worker shortage would evaporate.  (McArdle also spent years predicting that Obamacare would implode.)

She was wrong. In September, eight million Americans had their federal pandemic unemployment payments stopped, yet just 194,000 jobs were created that month. According to the rhetoric that the GOP spewed in the spring — and which the press gladly amplified — once unemployment checks stopped arriving in bank accounts, employers would have their pick of workers.  

That’s clearly not happening as the workforce participation rate remains at a historic low.


Every indicator confirms that the “lazy worker” claim was nonsense. In fact, today there are more job openings even as the extended benefits have expired. A record number of Americans, 4.3 million, quit their jobs in August. And nearly 800,000 quit without having a new job lined up.

“In almost every sector tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers are quitting at or near the highest levels on record, going back to when tracking began in 2001,” the Washington Post reports.

What’s unfolding is “The Revolt of the American Worker,” as a recent Paul Krugman column in the New York Times put it. “Long-suffering American workers, who have been underpaid and overworked for years, may have hit their breaking point,” the economist wrote.

There’s no question that priorities and lifestyles changed during the pandemic. The disruption prompted millions of U.S. workers to rethink their lives and ask whether it was worth staying in the lousy jobs. We’re witnessing a historical labor and cultural shift underway as Americans reassess their role in the workplace, and it has nothing to do with $300 unemployment benefits.

Hurdles that remain in terms of returning to work include a lack of child care due to an unprecedented shortage of (underpaid) child care workers, a  mismatch between the skills employers want, and would-be employees who have lingering fear of contracting the virus. “Between mid-June and mid-September, the number of people who said they couldn’t work because they were sick with Covid or were caring for someone who had the virus rose by 2.5 million,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

Trying to ding Biden with a made-up claim about today’s employee shortage, Republicans set out to smear American workers. And the press never should have helped.