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Labor’s love lost: Local voices speak on shifting job market

MORGANTOWN — Nobody wants to work anymore.

It’s become a common refrain recently, a simple explanation for a complicated situation, as stories of understaffed stores, restaurants and warehouses circulate month after month.

But just because something sounds good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

“We believe people do want to work. People are interested in providing for their family, if they have one. People are interested, especially typically those that will apply with our organization … in learning and growing,” Chief Operating Officer for Coalfield Development Ryan Stoner said.

For the past decade, Coalfield Development has worked with community colleges and nonprofits throughout southern West Virginia to remove barriers to work for people at a disadvantage, whether that’s because of substance abuse issues or the decline of the region’s coal industry.

Normally, the program has a high success rate for placing program members in good jobs, but recently that has changed.

“We’re seeing folks that will interview for a job, accept a job and then leave after a few days or a week. And so that’s been sort of puzzling,” Stoner said.

He believes what he is seeing can be better categorized not as an aversion to work, but as a lack of commitment. 

“It’s maybe as if folks are interested in a shorter-term opportunity and not willing to commit yet. I don’t know if that’s related to how the job market seems to be so volatile or how you attribute that,” he said.

Something is happening, but what?

There is no denying that something is happening in the labor market.

Last year, consumption was dampened as people stayed at home during pandemic lockdowns. Then consumption surged as vaccines became ubiquitous, requiring businesses to quickly re-staff to meet the demand. But a component of the economy as far-reaching as the labor market can be slow to conform to rapid changes.

“Unemployment is still higher than it was before the pandemic. It’s not like the labor market has completely adjusted,” said Samuel White, Ph.D., of the West Virginia University Institute for Labor Studies & Research. “There’s a lot of churn going on.”

In April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a national quit rate of 2.7%, the highest since the current series of reports began in 2000. By the end of September, that rate had increased to 3%. For comparison, the rate of layoffs and discharges remained just under 1% in the same time period. 

“Even though it doesn’t sound like a lot, it is. …When you think about it in those terms, workers were three times as likely to quit their job (as) be laid off,” White said.

With that 3% quit rate representing over 4 million workers leaving their jobs, it is difficult to zero in on a single reason that explains why. 

“It’s not just the wages. It’s, say, for the restaurant and hospitality industry, it might be safety related to going, working in a restaurant, bar, whatever, may give people pause now in a way that it might not have before,” White said. “I think people are voting with their feet.”

Enough time, at last

“Every person, whether they realize it or not, has the choice,” Stoner said. What has changed is the unprecedented opportunity to have time to consider that choice.

“The time to think through it, taking the time to process and to not feel like you’re in that rush or that hustle and really think, ‘What’s the best thing for me? What’s the best thing for my family?’ All the variables involved.”

For many people, pandemic lockdowns were the first time in their working lives where they had a meaningful amount of time away from work.

“I’ve been working … since I was like 15 or 16,” said local comedian Cody Cannon, 34. Cannon has worked in the restaurant industry for years and recently quit his job at a chain restaurant in Morgantown.

“The pandemic gave me a lot of time off,” he said.

When lockdowns first came into effect, Cannon was sent home for several months. Even after his restaurant reopened, limited capacity meant he could only get a few shifts per week. 

“I was exercising, I had time and energy to exercise every day. … I was able to write. I started a podcast. That is severely inhibited when you’re putting in hours upon hours,” he said.

“It made me redefine the purpose of working. Working a restaurant can get tiring, but it’s something I enjoy. But I’m never gonna work myself 60 hours a week between two restaurants ever again,” Cannon said.

That personal touch

With so much of the national conversation surrounding employment focused on employees, it is easy to forget that employment is not a one-way decision, made exclusively by the employee. 

“I can see where employees see that they have a little bit more power in that dynamic,” Morgantown Art Bar owner Stephen Wilson said. When Wilson and his partner took over the downtown Morgantown venue in September, they knew they would have to offer more to their prospective employees.

 “You can’t run a restaurant or any type of business without employees and when people band together and demand to have their value matched, that’s an issue for the employers,” he said.

Wilson said his own experiences in the service industry, working at an hourly rate influence how he runs his business today.

“When I was hourly, I always thought how counterproductive it seemed to try to minimize the role of the hourly worker. If it wasn’t for those small guys, the line cooks, the dishwashers, the place falls apart,” he said. “As an owner, I knew that I wanted my employees to know that I understood the importance of the role and didn’t want them to feel minimalized.”

When looking at labor statistics and market trends, it can be easy to discount how important personal relationships can be to the success of any business. Cannon cited issues with his manager at the restaurant as a motivator for his departure.

“I just decided enough was enough. And it felt like getting out of an unhealthy relationship, like, ‘Oh my God, why was I still there after all that time?’ ” he said.

Making the decision to quit doesn’t mean everything clicks into place, however. Workers like Cannon still have to contend with a volatile labor market, as well as inflation putting financial pressure on other parts of their lives. Cannon is already looking for new work.

“I do not feel comfortable,” he said with a laugh. “Right now I’m not panicking because I have interviews scheduled and want to take this week for me. I have enough to pay rent with, but if they’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t want to start you until after Christmas,’ I’m going to be hurting.”

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