It would be tough to travel two minutes in any direction in Texas and not see a “Help Wanted” sign this Labor Day weekend.

Workers across the state, and the South, and the country find themselves in demand at levels not seen since the post-World War II boom. The flood of federal stimulus dollars – from both the Trump and Biden administrations – not only helped the American economy survive the coronavirus pandemic and kickstart its expansion, but it has apparently provided workers a rare opportunity: they are deciding where and when (and if) they want to work.

The dearth of employees is forcing businesses to get creative. They are offering sign-on bonuses, defined structures for future pay hikes and, most of all, higher starting wages. Some employers are reporting luck with those changes, but many are still having trouble getting applicants to show up for interviews, let alone to hire.

The most popular scapegoat has been the enhanced unemployment benefits Trump and Congress approved last spring – $600 per week on top of whatever one’s state was already offering. That extra money provided big pay raises for laid off workers for much of 2020, and it really angered a lot of employers who were ready for things to back to normal last fall and winter.

Texas and other states are opting out of the extra federal money now, but it doesn’t seem have helped much so far. It would seem that maybe – just maybe – the bosses are going to have to bend over some more to get good help coming in the door.

Workers are now thinking long and hard about where they work and live, and how much it costs them – personally and financially. It’s the first real power workers have had en masse since the 1970s, when union leaders and their members began to split over how dues should be spent and what politics the unions should be promoting.

There is an accepted notion that a job – any job – is better than nothing. Employers have always benefitted from that bedrock assumption. But what if people have used their extra time and benefits to rethink their situations, to decide that they want more for their time and labor?

Adam Kern, senior business development liaison for the north-central Texas branch of Workforce Solutions, sees a “retention revolution.”

“Pay is like No. 6 on the list. Poor leadership has led to more exits than anything else — a lack of common decency, understanding, structure and things like that,” Kern said.

Whatever their motivations, workers seem to be sending a clear message: “Pay us better and treat us with respect – or else.”

It’s not as if employers don’t want happy, contented employees; indeed, most want their people have good quality of life because it makes for better attendance and performance. And good bosses typically like their workers and enjoying sharing in their successes.

The problem facing employers now is just how much they will have to bend to accommodate these new realities. It doesn’t appear to have been enough so far.

Audrey Schroyer, executive director of the Gainesville Economic Development Corporation, thinks things will play out eventually. She said there are too many good opportunities through Workforce Solutions, North Central Texas College and local school districts for workers for them to stay away forever.

What's great, not only from an education standpoint, but also from the employer base that we have here are benefits that are outside of health coverage and what your salary is,” Schroyer said. “Some of them may have education assistance, or they've developed career pathways that outline, ‘If you started here in this position over time, here's where you could end up within our company and you could establish a great career here.’”

We hope she is right, but we also hope returning workers find good fits, both for their bosses and themselves.

Workers are in the driver’s seat now in a way they haven’t been in 40 years. Wherever they are headed, it looks more and more likely that they will get there with better pay and – possibly – newfound appreciation from employers.

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