November 22, 2021

What Does All This Mean?


I had experiences twice in the past few weeks that were firsts for me. I visited a chain fast food restaurant to get something quick for Betty. She had just finished a medical procedure that required fasting; she was very hungry.

Inside, I was greeted with a sign that listed several standard ingredients and supplies that were unavailable. 

A few days earlier I entered another well-known chain to see two middle-aged men without the usual clothing of the company, along with two harried teenagers. trying to accommodate both the drive-through customers and those of us at the counter all while running the various cooking appliances and putting together the orders.

It is not my usual practice to be at fast food places very often, so maybe what I saw is the new normal. I am well aware of supply chain problems and the  phenomenon of low-paid workers walking away from burger-flipping positions. But, until last week I hadn't seen the direct impact on what has been a regular part of American Life.

These instances raised a question for me: will Covid and all its effects on both health and attitudes begin to force a fundamental readjustment in part of our social structure? Will a culture built on instant gratification and workers always available to take care of our needs have to rethink this foundational mindset?

The supply-chain issue should not come as a surprise. Yes, Covid has made it difficult for finished products and raw materials to move from place to place. Shutdowns and illness have thrown a monkey wrench into a system built around the idea of "just in time." Keeping inventory limited, knowing that restocking something was just a phone call or computer click away, has shown its vulnerability.

It made quite clear what happens when an economy that is built around having supplies scattered all over the world, suffers a disruption. For those of us old enough to remember the oil embargo of 1973, we watched as things began to shut down, gas stations had lines stretching for miles, and our economic system and national security were being seriously disrupted.

Now, with that lesson way back in our past, we are more dependent than ever on other countries to keep things humming. China is a major problem for us in the world, yet that country owns over 1 trillion dollars of American debt, and simultaneously, is the most important supplier of products that we have come to depend on.

The second part of the "fast food" lesson I learned is the direct impact of both Covid and an awareness that the "invisible" workers are essential to our business model. I quickly add that the term, "invisible workers" is not a judgment on the quality or type of work being done, rather it refers to all the people who work out of sight and are not part of our daily thoughts.

Think of many hospital workers and staff, truck drivers, clerks in retail, warehouses, and grocery stores, and the two teens I saw at the burger place. Think about the people who restock the shelves at the grocery store or the neighborhood Walgreens. When we stop to think about it, the list includes most of the people who keep our world working.

What is happening is that these employees are realizing they have some real power to change the equation that has left them behind any economic recovery. Millions of workers have decided that the wages offered by the companies they work for are unlivable and demeaning. With the demand for people to restaff, these folks are refusing to go back to the old model of minimum wage for long hours. They have the newfound economic clout to hold out for better wages and benefits. 

Consequently, the impact of our dependence on a worldwide supply chain to respond instantly to our needs along with the realization by many on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder that they have more bargaining power than ever before might cause a basic adjustment in how we live.

Being able to order anything we want at any time, expecting shelves to always have 50 different kinds of cereals, and becoming frustrated if our time in the drive-through window is longer than 30 seconds, we may find that Covid has done more than kill 775,000 Americans and over 5 million human beings worldwide. 

Maybe it exposed some inherent weaknesses in a system built around getting whatever we want, whenever we want it, at a price that harms those who provide that service. Maybe we will understand the costs of a society built around convenience and choice at any cost. Maybe Covid and its aftermath will teach us the value of patience and placing value on everyone who works at whatever job they hold, be it a doctor or a shelf stocker.

The next few years will reveal whether we have learned some valuable lessons this time.


22 comments:

  1. "The entire country is experiencing staff shortages. Please be kind to those of us who showed up." We've been seeing this sign or something similar at businesses across the U.S. since the summer. A poignant reminder that life as we knew it has changed, and empathy and appreciation are more appropriate than impatience and annoyance.

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    1. It is shame that it took something as devastating as Covid to force us to "see" the people who work behind the scenes to support our lifestyle.

      Now, we have every opportunity to make up for past slights by showing gratitude and patience, and by supporting efforts to pay these folks a living wage. No one deserves to be mired in poverty so we can live as we have been.

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  2. And then there is Amazon. I ordered something Saturday morning, and it arrived on Sunday. I didn't have to drive to a store and hunt aimlessly to find it. It was just a couple of clicks away.

    I think I saw where Amazon has raised their base wage to $18/hr. Pay people what they are worth, and they will work hard for you. Well, almost all of them. But, the China thing was a big mistake that will be difficult to undo in the coming years.

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    1. I order a lot from Amazon but do attempt to use my "Amazon Day" for delivery: orders are held and brought to me one day a week, eliminating extra trips and packaging. I make use of the delivery feedback form give the driver compliments, too.

      Our dependence on China has the potential to cause us serious harm. I was encouraged to read that some car manufacturers are moving toward domestic chip production. It will take time but is a smart decision. Now we are totally dependent on Southeast Asia.

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  3. Firstly I want to recognize that there has been downward pressure on wages for decades. Certainly outsourcing and off-shoring of so many functions that were once done in-house at many businesses, from HR and IT to emptying the trash, has had an impact. Looking back over my career I don't think I ever worked for a company that wasn't outsourcing, downsizing, or "doing more with less". Even many municipalities (most?) have outsourced garbage collection to private companies that were more "efficient". In fact what the these private companies were really doing was replacing decent paying city jobs that had health benefits with minimum wage casual labour devoid of any health benefit plans. But hey, vote for me I've saved you money on your taxes. Maybe we only have ourselves to blame.

    Part of it I think was just that there were so many of us Boomers out there looking for work. Year after year, decade after decade, there were so many of us entering the labour force, if you didn't want the job there was someone else that did. When that started to level off in the late 1980s globalization began to pick up steam and local labour could be replaced with cheaper offshore labour. Don't get me wrong, there have been huge gains from globalization, products today have greater variety, are less expensive and better built than ever before but it's not without its costs. There's pluses and minuses to everything.

    I think now we have reached the point that was so long predicted, the bulk of the boomers are retiring leading to a labour shortage. I believe the biggest year of the baby boom was 1962 and those people will turn 60 next year. Of course the pandemic shook things up and perhaps that moved forward some retirement dates but it was going to happen in the next few years anyway. The era we've known all our lives, a large and plentiful workforce willing to take almost any job at almost any wage, is coming to a close.

    I don't know where we'll end up. Perhaps we'll go back to a time like the postwar period when jobs with benefits were plentiful and regular pay raises were the norm. Maybe companies will again realize that it's not all about maximizing shareholder value. That it actually is important having a commitment to the workers, the community you operated in, as well as shareholder returns. That paying taxes to improve the community where you are located is a good thing not something to be avoided by whatever loophole you can find (or create through political donations).

    At least there's an opportunity now to rethink how we've organized things over the last 50+ years. Certainly many millennials and younger generations have had a hard time of it with soaring education costs and poor job prospects and if things get better for them that is probably a good thing. But also know if wages rise and job conditions improve things may get more expensive for the rest of us. As I said before, there are pluses and minuses to everything.

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    1. An excellent overview, David. Our nonstop push for lower prices is now presenting a bill that is past due. An economy can only run on the backs of the chronically underpaid for so long.

      We have lived in a dream world where the true costs of supporting our lifestyle has been hidden. Covid and the demographics that you highlight are exposing the weaknesses.

      Yes, costs will rise over time, not because of the current burst of inflation, but because workers will not continue to put our comfort and convenience ahead of their own basic needs.

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  4. We have seen staff shortage at every restaurant we have visited. You now may wait 20 minutes or more for a table and then get into the dining area and see half the table are sitting empty because they have no staff. I hope this isn't the new normal and the situation will eventually right itself. I can imagine the restaurant industry sales will suffer greatly.

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    1. We have seen the same thing: empty tables while customers stack up in the lobby. Until pay levels reach decent levels and benefits are provided, the situation is likely to continue.

      I have always believed in over-tipping service workers because their base pay is so low, and now they have to cover more tables because of too few employees.

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  5. JIT was always a disaster waiting to happen. The problem is when the supply chain straightens out, it will, the first company that goes back to JIT will have the lowest prices. When we click that item on Amazon won't we pick the lowest priced one. The financial incentives are setup to reward the CEO with the best short-term performance. Most of them are gone in 3-5 years. if a 30-year-old decides to enter trucking now aren't they headed for disaster down the road when self-driving trucks come into play. Boomer retirements are exacerbating the labor problems. They will also drive-up medical costs. We will need more immigrants to address this issue but now it is a political minefield that congress will refuse to enter. All of these problems and so many more are best addressed from the top down. I just don't see any leadership coming. Since we pick that leadership perhaps we will take solace during the bumpy ride ahead that we got exactly what we chose. It's never too late to change.

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    1. You have highlighted several issues that play a part in our current situation. That makes it clear this isn't a simple problem that will be solved with just one approach.

      I have always felt the just-in-time model is quite risky. There are so many moving parts that must work perfectly together. In a world as fractured as ours that is an illogical model. And, I believe you are correct: companies are rewarded for the lowest possible costs, but at some point that always backfires.

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  6. Low pay is only part of the problem. Since downsizing in the mid-90s, employees have been being told to just be thankful they have a job. Before that, we were shown in many ways how much the companies we worked for appreciated us. It's time to get back to that model too.

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    1. Productivity models tell companies what their workers should be able to accomplish in a period of time. Make that quota or lose the job.

      When people are treated like machines or cogs in a big wheel they have little incentive. You are quite right. Companies that treat their employees like trusted members of a team and not disposable pieces of a puzzle will be in position to excell.

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  7. The fallout from US companies going overseas to reduce their tax implications is hitting us head-on. So sad they don't want to pay their share of keeping our country going. If all those off-shore companies were still here, there would be good paying jobs and no supposed shortages. Greed feeds many problems.

    The saddest thing about living in a true winter climate, is no more fresh farmer's market food until May. And the summer was so hot, our CSA farmers could not get anything to germinate in order to have a winter share for subscribers. I can't raise enough/store enough from our small city lot to feed us all winter. So now we're dependent again on Costco. Fortunately they always seem to have the organic produce I want on my every 2-3 week grocery jaunt.

    We consistently express our appreciation to servers, tip BIG and leave notes. I will say we don't do fast food joints so that experience is not ours. We mostly go to locally owned places and they seem to not be having an issue with staff.

    As always, great post and good discussion! Happy Thanksgiving to all :-)

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    1. The recent push to increase tax rates on corporations who shelter money off shore, or use stock buybacks to avoid paying their fair share went nowhere in Congress. The 2017 tax cuts primarily benefited the wealthy. Now when the chance comes to repair some fairness, those who approved the cuts reject the notion of returning some accountability to our tax codes.

      Betty and I usually go to locally-owned businesses whenever possible, or least restaurants that allow for tipping and being kind to the person serving you.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Elle.

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  8. Hey Bob! I agree with the others that this is indeed another thought provoking post. As you and many commenters have pointed out, the issue is complex and who knows how and when it will resolve. But something else that I don't think others have mentioned is that any of us who have been spending LOTS of money are contributing to the problem. I read recently that consumer spending is up over 30% of what it was pre-COVID so that alone means that we are all buying way too much stuff. That in turn puts huge demands on supply chains not to mention extra workers just to make, package, ship and deliver all that extra 30% of stuff. Then add in the below living wages in jobs with little respect and value, and here we are. And then there is debt. Debt is a form of slavery forcing people to work at jobs they dislike for companies that they dislike, just to exist. Again there are no easy answers but clearly something needs to shift in our culture and our values if we are ever to find our way through this to a way that works for the majority of us. ~Kathy

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    1. Supply and demand isn't just a concept in an economics book. Too many dollars chasing too few goods causes inflation. We can't have an enormous surge in spending when the supply chain is out of whack, and them complain about increased costs.

      I don't have much sympathy for someone who abuses credit cards and gets in trouble. But, the situation you cite is totally different.

      People are forced into debt or substandard living because of all sorts of problems: crappy pay, child care costs, health emergencies, student debt....the list goes on. The image of a wealthy America has been shown to be a myth for a large share of us. The deck is stacked and manipulated by the wealthy and those in leadership who are beholden to them.

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    2. A few months ago Trader Joe was out of a lot of their vitamins and during most of Covid,also. they ran out of a chili relish Ken loves.., they told me the jars that the relish was packed in had become unavailable. They are now back in stock.Today, my favorite bag of TJ coffee has been out of stock for the second time in this week. A few of my favorite baking mixes are only available on a spotty basis. At my fave consignment store in Mesa last week, a sign on the door says: “We will now close at 4 PM daily due to lack of staffing.” There is a 2 month wait to have one small room recarpeted or floored, at Home Depot, this week. I am becoming used to difference sin our services and availability of products. America may have to learn patience!!! And thrift!

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    3. Instant gratification and having everything we want always available has ended for at least the short term.

      Personally, I think that is for the best. Learning to be satisfied with what we have more often than we want is a lesson we must learn.

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  9. It is amazing to me, how many people I know are blaming ALL of this on the sitting President. I have been told more than once NOT to say it's supply and demand. They refuse to believe in basic economics. Oh how I wish better education of so many.

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    1. The same ones who believe Covid comes from space lasers? For a population who believes in its own intelligence, there are a lot of dangerously dumb people roaming around.

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