Real Unemployment in November Was More than Double the Official Tally

The author in a panel about what we can do to build on the worker power that’s growing.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) job report for November 2021 showed that unemployment was just 4.2%. That looks pretty good, but if we add part-timers who want full-time work and people who say they want a job but have not recently searched for one, the real unemployment rate is closer to 9.9%. And job totals in the payroll count are about eight million below where they would be if we had not had a COVID recession. 

It’s a Most Unusual Labor Market

Here are three of the key factors that affect current employment trends.

1. Workplace re-openings mean more job options. Re-openings are made possible by fairly widespread vaccinations, the wearing of masks, and other cautionary measures. Those measures cannot bring a fuller job recovery because millions of people refuse to get their shots and are determined to behave imprudently. Also, partly due to the high number of unvaccinated people, COVID sometimes morphs into more dangerous forms. That means re-openings are problematic and reversible. Dangerous variants are one reason some people do not want to return to work .

2. The job recovery has been better than we might have expected last year, and the main reason is massive federal spending. Trillions of dollars went out to businesses, governments, and individuals starting in the spring of 2020. This year we’ve had President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure bill. We’ll need much more federal spending to get real full employment and more good jobs. 

3. The official unemployment rate may also be rather low because people who would normally be searching for jobs aren’t actively looking. Some of these people make up the BLS’s 5.9 million people who say they want a job but aren’t currently searching for one. I believe there are even more of these wanters-not-searchers. Some quit bad jobs and are looking for better ones. They are on the sidelines but alert to good job opportunities. They may not even tell government surveyors that they want a job, but they do. Just not yet and not any job. We are in a period of pause and reflection. It has been called the Big Rethink, the Great Resignation, and even the Great Escape. 

Turning Points?

In a variety of media there are thousands of testimonies from people fed up with their bosses and their crappy jobs. These feelings are nothing new, but the massive layoffs last spring, the COVID plague itself, and the lack of concern among many employers for worker safety have combined to blow the lid off the volcano of worker resentments. Perhaps a third to a half of U.S. jobs are bad ones: poverty-level pay, no-to-low benefits, authoritarian supervisors, ruthless owners, erratic schedules, and on and on. So, workers are quitting in record numbers–four million a month in July through October. They want something better than they had. And federal stimulus checks and richer unemployment benefits have supported more time for reflection. Some people still have benefit money in their bank accounts. 

Because of the high rate of quits and the reluctance of people to go back to lousy jobs, there are a record number of job openings–10 to 11million a month. And that number of vacancies means, I think, that people must have some confidence they can get jobs when they must work.

As savings shrink, more will have to work. Older people are retiring at higher rates. But others will need jobs. Will most of them return to work with focused anger and a willingness to help reset power relations in the workplace? 

It is refreshing to listen to people who feel comfortable discussing the fact that their jobs stink and that they want something better. People who stay home mean more job vacancies, and that is why some employers have offered signing bonuses, educational subsidies, and other enticements. Even higher wages! Average pay is rising at 5% to 6% a year, and faster in such low-wage sectors as restaurant and hotel work. Of course,  special enticements will disappear when employers want them to. And inflation is now rising faster than the money in workers’ paychecks. Real pay, after inflation, has fallen a bit in recent months. 

We are seeing a little more worker power and leverage than we have seen in decades. There have been a few more strikes and there is now at least one Starbucks outlet with a union. But we need many, many more union members, more collective action on the job, and wide support for an attack on obscene levels of economic inequality and exploitation. Building organizations is hard work, but it is an essential step toward making the Great Resignation more than a brief episode in working-class history.