• Many industries are experiencing a tight labor market.
  • Some retail-business owners seem to be blaming that on “lazy” workers.
  • Driving through six states on my honeymoon, I noticed plenty of indignant “help wanted” signs.

It’s a rough time to be a hiring manager.

In April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the number of job openings had hit a record 9.3 million. In many regions, blue-collar industries like retail, restaurants, and warehousing need more workers. Today’s tight labor market represents a continuation of a pre-pandemic trend.

In 2019, a war for talent was raging, but the coronavirus pandemic seems to have spurred specific trends like career epiphanies and rage quitting, a looming exodus of working women due to inadequate access to childcare, and pay hikes from giants like Amazon, Walmart, and Target. The result is a rough labor market for businesses, especially smaller operators.

The tightening labor market is also something I noticed while I should have been relaxing. I recently took time off for my wedding and honeymoon. Leaving our home in Indiana, my husband and I drove to upstate New York and Virginia, logging jaunts through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. We found ourselves in all sorts of small businesses: antique malls, fast-food joints, big-box stores, steakhouses, gas stations, grocers, drugstores, and mom-and-pop shops. Retail is one of those beats you can’t ever really escape.

The “help wanted” signs were everywhere. The rants popped up, too. My husband snapped photos of two screeds accusing the American public of not wanting to work anymore — one from a New York burger joint and the other from a Virginia diner.

A sign that says: "We are short staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did show up. No one wants to work anymore."

We saw this sign at a New York burger joint.

Courtesy of Kevin Greenlee

These signs resembled other notices in viral posts on social media. All seem to blame individual businesses’ hiring struggles on widespread “laziness.” They’ve also given rise to a widely memed retort: “No one wants to work for you.”

A sign posted in a diner with the title "To all our valued customers" explaining that the diner is facing a shortage of workers and asking for customers' patience. A line that says "people don't want to work" is bolded, underlined, and italicized.

We saw this sign in a Virginia diner.

Courtesy of Kevin Greenlee

Most other businesses were plastered with somewhat less passive-aggressive signs touting open positions, even promising signing bonuses. Either way, it’s obvious that we’re in a job market that gives workers in lower-paid sectors a rare advantage.

Still, the sloth-blasting signs bounced around my head as we visited Historic Jamestowne on the last day of our trip. Historic Jamestowne is a cultural heritage site in Virginia, marking England’s first permanent colony in North America. The colony was the product of a joint-stock company’s bid to exploit the area’s resources — and the jumping-off point of evils that came to define the United States, like chattel slavery and the genocide of Native Americans.

Those who learned about this topic in school may remember the narrative that the settlement nearly failed because the colonists were too idle to work. The reality is likely far more complicated. The historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman wrote that colonists were likely suffering from salt poisoning, malnutrition, and disease, along with the psychological trauma of watching their compatriots die.

American workers died during the pandemic. American workers lost loved ones during the pandemic. American workers continue to contend with a deeply flawed healthcare system, debt, an untenable lack of childcare, and a dearth of workplace protections.

Business owners frustrated with the status quo ought to ditch the rants and instead raise wages and improve working conditions. Proprietors can keep up with the other businesses and attract more interested candidates by offering workers a truly worthwhile opportunity.

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