“Will Not Work for Peanuts”: September Employment Report Shows Worker Resistance

In the Employment Situation–September 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics offered positives and negatives. Non-farm job numbers from business and government organizations were disappointing, adding only 194,000 positions. The August additions of 366,000 jobs had been weak, but September was worse.

In the household survey, unemployment fell substantially from 5.2% to 4.8%. The number of unemployed persons decreased by 710,000, and the decline was only fractionally due to unemployed people leaving the labor force. Yes, there were dropouts, and the labor force declined. But the number of employed people increased by 526,000.

When we dig a little, we find striking differences by age and gender. The number of men age 20 and over in the labor force (working or searching for work) increased by 182,000; the number of women decreased by 309,000. Of those age 55 and older, men added 305,000 jobs but women had 57,000 fewer jobs. Did grandma go home to take care of children and sick family members?  Did more women leave the labor force because the jobs they get are, on average, lousier than those men get, and because family needs jumped as the Delta variant spread? (Biden’s reconciliation bill would help here; it adds child-care subsidies and lifts care-workers’ pay.)

There were 7.7 million officially unemployed people in the latest report. However, we know that there are more unemployed. Adding just the 6 million people who wanted a job but had not recently searched for one raised the total to 13.7 million unemployed. And here’s the puzzle. The latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLT) publication showed 10.4 million job openings in August. So, there were a lot of unemployed people but also a lot of jobs waiting for them. What gives?

Why So Many Unfilled Job Slots?

Conservatives predictably claim that generous unemployment benefits keep people from looking for work. This argument was inadequate six months ago, and it is useless now. The federal unemployment bonuses of $600 and $300 are gone. Only five million people are receiving unemployment benefits now. In June of 2020, 33 million people got something. 

Also, we are told that jobs are becoming more attractive. We hear that employers are raising pay and offering bonuses. Average wages are rising. But why aren’t more people working? For months now, experts and reporters have been discussing the question  under catchy titles: The Big Re-Shuffle, The Great Reallocation, The Great Resignation, The Big Rethink, and The Revolt of the American Worker. What caused the Rethink and Revolt? 

  1. COVID-19, the Delta variant, and care issues. Some people are too sick to work, and some are caring for children or COVID-19 victims. In early September, the Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey found that 4.65 million people were caring for themselves or someone else who had the coronavirus. That was twice as many as in July. Many potential workers don’t want to be around people who are sick or unvaccinated. The worker-quit rate has been extremely high in food services and drinking establishments. Also, nursing and residential care facilities lost 38,000 jobs in September and are down by hundreds of thousands of jobs since February 2020. These sectors have many dangerous jobs and often pay poverty wages. 


  1.  Lousy jobs. Workers in the United States are treated worse than workers in Western Europe. Our workers are often paid less, get fewer vacation days, and have fewer supports for family emergencies and child care. Workers have long resented these disparities and much more, but with low unionization and unsupportive governments, they felt they had to take it. But they did not like it. Because of pandemic catalysts, simmering resentments have turned into a Big No. It is often individualized in its application but there is a common theme: “We Won’t Work For Peanuts.”

Low pay is the key issue. In restaurants, bars, and other leisure and hospitality workplaces, hourly wages rose to an average of $16.71.That is still the lowest wage of any major job sector. And that’s an average. Some employees earn more, and many earn less. In some states you can find people working in restaurants for $2.13 an hour, plus tips, and often getting only part-time work when they need more hours. 

Not that full-time work guarantees a comfortable existence. If you work a full year of 2080 hours at $13 an hour, your annual wage of $27,040 puts you slightly above the federal poverty level of  $26,500 for a family of four.  Think about that.

Breaking Points and the Big Rethink

Workers had lousy jobs before the pandemic. What shook things up? Psychologist Anthony Klotz, talking to Business Insider, claims that when people come into contact with death and illness, they ask profound questions about their lives. The COVID plague unsettled people’s attitudes and behavior. And, I’d add, in Amazon warehouses, grocery stores, meat packing plants and many other workplaces, employers’ lack of concern for workers’ safety and their low living standards became clearer than ever. 

Also key were the pandemic recession and federal income supports. The pandemic recession was abrupt and massive. It smacked 40 million workers and their families. Income loss hit working-class Americans harder than affluent workers. But thanks to Democrats who learned from the Great Recession and who had more ideas about how to help people than Republicans, workers received substantial federal income benefits. That helped pay the bills. And it helped people pause a while to think about the kinds of jobs they’d want as the economy recovered. Finally, I suspect that generous federal benefits sent a message to workers that in this rich society it is possible to fix things.  

Many more workers than in the Great Recession have had a Howard Beale moment. In the 1976 film, Network, Beale yelled to his viewers: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” U.S.workers have been furious for years; many have been organizing, for example, to get the $15 minimum wage. Millions are striking by staying home. The number of workers engaged in actual labor strikes and protests has ticked upward. That number is not yet in the millions of workers, as was true in some past decades, but the seeds of something bigger are sprouting. Most workers are not ready to march with signs that say “Workers of the World, Unite to Bring Down the Filthy Rich.”  But neither are they carrying signs that say “Will Work for Food.”  


In addition to government reports and National Jobs for All Network materials, the author  learned from many sources including Business Insider, Michael Hiltzik and other writers at the Los Angeles Times, including the anonymous authors working for Bloomberg who wrote “U.S. Job Growth Hurt By Child Care Shortage,” (October 11, 2021), and reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post