The labor shortage and how the pandemic is shaping the future of work 

Jun 04 2021

Dr. Monique Golden, Social Science Lead for the XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling Prize had the opportunity to interview Dr. Todd Vachon, Director of the Labor Education Action Research Network (LEARN) in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, on the pandemic’s impact on the labor movement and future of work in the U.S. 

Welcome! I am Monique Golden, Social Science Lead for the $5M XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling Prize, a 30-month competition that aims to rapidly train 25,000 American workers to learn new skills via novel training solutions to obtain living wage jobs in growing industries. Currently, there are 10 teams participating in the field test phase of the competition, where teams are to deploy their training solutions to 350 workers within 90 days, and place and retain them in relevant occupations for 60 days. The prize is sponsored by New Profit, under their Future of Work Grand Challenge Initiative. To learn more about XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling, visit

Joining me today is Dr. Todd Vachon, who is an expert in labor and social movements. We are going to hear Dr. Vachon thoughts on the “labor shortage” narrative, and how the pandemic is shaping the future of work. Thanks for joining me! I am excited to hear from you, Todd. Please introduce yourself, your role, and briefly discuss your expertise on labor and social movements.

My name is Todd Vachon, I currently am the Director of the Labor Education Action Research Network (LEARN) in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. As the Director of Rutgers LEARN, I oversee the University’s labor education programs, including non credit classes and workshops for workers, unions, and other justice-focused organizations and public programming designed to: (a) strengthen the community at work, (b) facilitate its organization on a more democratic basis, and (c) address unjustified inequalities of power and wealth in society.

I earned my PhD in sociology from the University of Connecticut in 2018 where I helped to organize the graduate employee union-UAW Local 6950 and had the privilege of serving as the first local president from 2015-2018. Prior to attending graduate school, I worked as a union carpenter with Local 24 in New London, CT for roughly a decade.  I currently serve on the executive council of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, I am Vice President of the Middlesex-Somerset Central Labor Council, representing unions around the county, and I am a fellow with the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO) where I contribute to the development of the Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) program.

I’ve spent my entire adult life being either a participant in or scholar of labor and social movements. My academic research focuses on inequality broadly, with a focus on labor, climate change, and movements for social change. My forthcoming book, co-edited with Tobias Schulze-Cleven is titled Revaluing Work(ers): Toward a Democratic and Sustainable Future and will be available from Cornell University Press in September 2021. My current project is a book about the American labor-climate movement, titled: Clean Air and Good Jobs: U.S. Labor and the Struggle for a Just Transition.

Can you describe the impact of COVID-19 on the working class broadly, and more specifically, how the pandemic helped galvanize the labor movements we’re seeing today?

With the arrival of COVID-19 last year, the need for unions has become more apparent than ever. From the very start, essential workers in retail, warehouses, assembly lines, nursing homes, and hospitals were some of the most vulnerable, typically working with woefully inadequate safety protections and often at wages that do not begin to reflect the true cost of living and value their work adds to society each day. These workers were of course disproportionately people of color who as we know suffered at disproportionate rates due in large part to their occupational hazards. Think about the types of jobs where people are being exposed, and the racial composition of the different industries. The workers are the most vulnerable are typically people of color,

 Unfortunately, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was missing in action from the start, refusing to issue an emergency infectious disease standard for healthcare workers. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued inadequate guidance, which employers could follow voluntarily but was not enforceable. This created an uneven playing field, in which some good employers did the right thing while others ignored the guidance because it was more profitable — leading to massive outbreaks and countless unnecessary deaths in some industries.

 In the face of federal government inaction and an inadequate response by many employers, workers and unions across the U.S. began taking action themselves, demanding better COVID-19 safety and health protections. From nurses to fast food workers, and warehouse workers to librarians, workers fought for and won personal protective equipment (PPE), clean workplaces, hazard pay and, where possible, the ability to telecommute. They joined with worker centers and other allies to support better conditions for non-union workers, including immigrant workers. They fought for furlough plans to keep fellow workers in their jobs rather than getting laid off. To win these protections, they signed letters, organized sick outs, filed grievances, engaged in bargaining and, in many cases, engaged in work stoppages.

 A study by economists from Columbia University using data from a national survey of essential workers, found that union members reported better COVID-19 workplace practices and outcomes than nonmembers. Even adjusting for demographic and workplace factors, union members were more likely to report using PPE regularly at work, to receive PPE and other disinfecting or sanitizing resources from their employers, to receive paid sick leave, and to report being tested for COVID-19. A report by the Economic Policy Institute also cites how unionized workers have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, paid sick time and a say in the terms of furloughs or work-share arrangements to save jobs during the pandemic.

 The fruits of union efforts often benefit more than just their members. Recent research published in the journal Social Forces finds that unions have played a pivotal role in the passage of leave time legislation in many states – a key protection for workers during the pandemic. Looking at state-level variation in social policy and union institutional strength from 1983 to 2016, the authors find that union strength is positively associated with the timing of leave policy adoption.

Taken together, these successful efforts by unions to help protect workers during the pandemic suggest that when workers and communities are empowered and given a voice, they can help to create better outcomes for all of us.

How important is it for us to recognize racial equity and labor movements as concerted as opposed to siloed efforts for social justice? What’s the connection between labor and racial equity movements?

 It is absolutely essential that we see racial justice as labor justice. There cannot be one without the other. Divide and conquer tactics have been used by governments, employers, and others in positions of power since the dawn of civilization. What other way can so few control so many? Unfortunately the US labor movement has had a mixed record with racial justice issues. Many unions were deeply involved with civil rights struggles early on while at the same time others were discriminatory in their hiring and recruiting practices.

 In more recent years, the Movement for Black Lives has made tremendous strides in exposing and challenging racial injustice, and has even won some real policy victories. The policies, while still not sufficient, are evidence of the power of organizing and activism. At the same time, this uprising comes at a period in history when income and wealth inequality are at record levels. The economy for most black people looks decidedly different from the economy for their white counterparts, hence so many of those racial disparities in COVID exposure I mentioned earlier. But even more stark is the difference between the economy for working people overall versus that of the 1% who have seen their incomes and wealth explode astronomically in recent decades.

We are at a critical moment both in the movement for racial justice and in the movement for the right to unionize and bargain for economic justice. Unions, which have been a major force for economic justice for people of color in the past 50 years, are at record low membership levels, due in large part to ferociously anti-union employers and weak labor law protections.

Labor should work alongside the Movement for Black Lives and other social justice organizations to usher in a radically new economic and social order that centers justice, dignity, and equity.

Business owners and GOP politicians claim unemployment benefits have disincentivized workers to return to work. In your opinion, and based on the research that’s available, what are your reactions to this claim?

Well, one thing I always tell my students is that wages are determined by power. Some say, “but what about skills? Highly skilled workers get paid more?” True, but it’s not because of the skill per se, it’s because the power that having those skills gives a worker. A worker who can refuse jobs and be highly selective is a worker who is empowered. A worker who is forced to accept whatever job they can find, no matter how bad because they just need to make some kind of money, is a worker who is disempowered.

There are many ways that worker power can be expanded. One, which I just spoke about, is unionization. By coming together, workers can leverage the power of withholding their labor collectively in order to negotiate for higher pay, stronger safety protections, good health insurance and more. Labor market policies can also increase or limit worker power. Take the minimum wage for example. One thing the minimum wage does is it prevents employers from pitting desperate, disempowered workers, from competing themselves down to $0 per hour. Unfortunately the federal government has been woefully slow to update the minimum wage over the years and it has not kept up with inflation, to the point that it is worth 30% less today than it was in 1970.

 While the minimum wage rate has failed to acknowledge the true cost of living in the U.S. in 2021, the recent CARES Act unemployment insurance benefits have been more in line with reality. So what we have is not overly generous unemployment insurance, but rather overly stingy wages for those sectors of the economy facing a labor shortage – mostly low-wage service sector jobs. Further, another point is those low paying jobs were not great before the pandemic. They still offer the same low pay, irregular hours, part-time and contingent work, and little to no benefits, but they are now also some of the most dangerous in terms of exposure to the virus! The federal unemployment insurance has in effect increased worker’s power. More people have the power to turn down bad jobs and that’s a good thing. Believers in the market know that the correction which is needed is an increase in wages and working conditions in order to attract workers – just like employers do to attract those more empowered highly skilled workers I mentioned before.

Is the United States facing a labor shortage? If yes, what might be the cause(s)? If not, what exactly are we facing, and what is/are the cause(s)?

 So in addition to everything I just said about worker empowerment and the ability of workers to refuse bad jobs I do think there are a few other factors at play as well. Sadly, we have to acknowledge that a large number of workers have died during the pandemic. A lot were essential workers. With the closure of schools and the fears of exposure, many workers, disproportionately women, have been forced to exit the labor market to stay at home and care for family. College students are also living at home and thus not needing to work as much to pay for the independent expenses they would have while away at school. And like I said, the low-paying jobs that employers are having trouble filling are also some of the most life threatening in terms of the virus (or even just trying to convince ornery customers that they must wear masks).

On May 10th, The White House announced reinstatement of the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program work search requirements, which were temporarily halted due to the pandemic. In addition, the workers who were laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic may not turn down a job due to a general, non-specific concern about COVID-19 and continue to receive benefits. How might President Biden’s Return to Work plan impact the working poor?

I think this represents a decline in power for working people, especially low-wage workers. The ability to refuse bad jobs in recent months created a degree of power for workers that we have not seen in quite some time. Employers like Chipotle, Amazon and others have increased their minimum wages in order to attract and retain workers. Taking away the ability for workers to refuse jobs that do not pay a living wage brings us back to where we were before the pandemic. And unfortunately, the disparities created by this disempowerment will again disproportionately impact low-income communities of color. The spoils of highly exploitative labor practices and low wages all go to the top. The suffering, desperation, and need to accept whatever job is available is reserved exclusively for those at the bottom.

 The requirement of unemployed workers to take whatever job they are offered ignores the jobs being offered are often unstable and unsuitable to supporting an individual, much less a family. Many of the jobs created in recent years are precarious gig work, lacking stability, benefits, and predictable income. From Amazon fulfillment centers to chain restaurants, conditions in some workplaces have only gotten worse. Workers in fast food have always suffered the emotional toll of dissatisfied and impatient customers, low wages, and no benefits – now they also face exposure to COVID. The problem is not luxurious unemployment benefits, but bad jobs. The return to work requirement sets the working poor back and undermines many hopes for improvements even as the economy as a whole is poised for a historic recovery.

 Do you think President Biden’s Return to Work plan will challenge or support labor movements seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions for employees?

 I can see this going two ways really. One, as I just mentioned, it has generally reduced the bargaining power of workers, especially in the low wage sector, to refuse bad jobs. However, having experienced a better degree of living in recent months I think the demand for unions and efforts to make bad jobs into better jobs may be greater than it was prior to the pandemic. Essential workers have been called “heroes, “ but still are not paid in accordance with their contribution to society. I also think the general public is more sympathetic to the plight of frontline workers and they now see the true value they actually produce for the economy and society. A strong alliance between consumers and workers could make real progress in improving wages and labor standards at some of the worst employers. But, it is going to require organizing. Lots and lots of organizing.

According to an article published by Industry Week in 2018, the skills gap could cost the US economy $2.5 trillion over the next decade. XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling alleviates the financial and temporal barriers for workers seeking new skills to pivot to growing industries offering better wages. Do you think President Biden’s plan might potentially deter workers currently collecting unemployment benefits from considering reskilling opportunities? For example, If I am required to return to work full time, and making ends meet requires working multiple jobs, how likely is it that I will have the time or resources to pursue reskilling to obtain a better job?

 This is an interesting question. I think we really need to look at the return-to-work plan alongside the various other plans and programs that are coming out of the administration. For example, Build Back Better, the PRO Act, massive investments in infrastructure, incentives and financial supports for job retraining or returning to college. On the one hand, if folks are stuck working untold hours in dead end jobs, that is a real problem and their ability to find the time and money to return to school is very limited. On the other hand, if the administration is able to create free or reduced tuition programs for workers to return to school then we have a different recipe. Our current system places all of the risk and costs of job training and education on students, mostly in the form of debt and often for degree programs that are not guaranteed to lead to a particular job in the end. Measures that reduce the individual risk by lowering the cost of education and making a direct connection between education programs and real jobs at the end would go a long way to address the skill gap. 

How has technology influenced or might influence labor?

The rollout of sophisticated digital tools – including advanced robotics, data analytics, machine learning and the internet of things – threatens to disrupt the distribution, role and nature of work in society. It raises the fear of mass unemployment and social instability. Some researchers predict that technological change will soon allow for the rapid automation of many tasks that are currently performed by humans. Already the pace of changes appears to be accelerating, with the spread of platform-based business models fueling the growth of “gig” and “crowd” work. Even if the imagined takeover by machines has failed to materialize as quickly or extensively as discussed, the immediate prospects for the IT-enabled offshoring of services and even the most limited applications of artificial intelligence will challenge inherited divisions of labor across societies.  Most workers, including far up the skill ladder and those in high-status jobs, will be subject to displacement.

 At the same time it is likely to create new jobs, but jobs requiring different skills and likely located in different parts of the country or the world from where the old jobs were. Many workers are just willing to relocate from their communities, others are fearful of the risk associated with going back to school. Others fear, for very good reason, that the new jobs will pay less, offer fewer benefits, and be less stable than their old jobs. This is certainly the case for fossil fuel power plant workers looking at solar installer jobs.

 Technological change is not a new phenomenon – it has been influencing the economy and labor markets since the dawn of civilization. The major question for me is who is developing the technology and for what purpose? Within a competitive capitalist system, it is typically capitalists who design technologies for the purpose of maximizing profits – often by reducing labor costs. Increasing worker and public voice in the design, rollout and implementation of new technologies can help ensure that they are not designed exclusively for enriching the already rich, but rather they are used to improve the material, physical, and emotional wellbeing of all in society. Strong social wages and safety net provisions are also needed to protect workers and communities in the event of technology-driven mass unemployment events. Eliminating dirty and dangerous jobs is in principle a good thing, but if you are the highly paid worker who has sacrificed 30 years doing that job because it had a pension, you are not going to be pleased to see your job eliminated a few years short of your retirement. These sorts of experiences have fueled a backlash by some sections of society that are experiencing status erosion and feel they are being left behind, some embracing nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and authoritarianism as solutions to their problems.

What we’ve seen exacerbated by the pandemic are the affordable housing crisis, lack of access to affordable childcare and healthcare for all. What should be our nation’s next steps to ensure that American workers are protected in the event another pandemic occurs? What systems or services should be in place?

 To me, the pandemic was one of those moments when we as a society collectively saw that the emperor had no clothes. We have witnessed the high cost of decades of privatization, deregulation, cuts to the social safety net and a general prioritization of corporate interests over human needs. Through the lack of paid sick time, inadequate unemployment benefits, uneven access to healthcare, and unequal broadband access for students, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the deep structural inequalities that define our contemporary society.

 At the time the pandemic struck, vital government agencies had been defunded, understaffed or put under the charge of industry hacks who do not believe in the missions of the agencies they are tasked with running. The production of vital healthcare equipment, like ventilators and masks, had been outsourced in pursuit of cheaper labor and lax environmental regulations. These ideologically driven actions over the past 40 years left the federal government incapable of marshaling the health and safety equipment needed to help critically ill Americans and protect the courageous first responders and healthcare workers trying to save them.

 These problems were exposed by the pandemic, but they are rooted in changes that have been made over decades. We similarly saw these weaknesses exposed when the Great Recession hit in 2008-2009 and taxpayers who were losing their homes at record rates were paying the bill to bailout the reckless Wall Street bankers that were responsible for creating the crisis. In my own research on climate change and labor I am constantly confronted with the problem of transitioning fossil fuel workers into the new green economy. Some of the prescriptions made in these cases, often referred to as a just transition, should be considered more broadly for the whole economy because if there is one thing we know about capitalism it’s that it’s always changing and thus workers and communities are always on the verge of facing the next transition.

Some of the systems that should be in place to ensure workers and communities are well positioned when the next pandemic or recession or climate catastrophe or wave of outsourcing or automation hits include: 1) the decoupling of health insurance from employment, 2) the provision of free or reduced cost education and job training, 3) the direct creation of jobs by the government as employer of last resort, and 4) the expansion of unemployment benefits along the lines of what has been offered by the CARES Act. These are just a few suggestions, but they share one underlying theme, our social welfare institutions in the U.S. are linked to a system of standard employment arrangements. That was great when most jobs were standard full time, career long jobs. That is no longer the case. The system is also highly vulnerable when crises hit and large numbers of people lose their jobs and thus all of the benefits associated with them – such as health insurance in the middle of a pandemic! The more universalistic programs we can have in place, the more economically secure workers and communities will be during times of crisis like we have lived through twice in the past decade. I also think we need to strengthen the right of workers to organize unions and make it easier for worker-owned enterprises to get started. When workers have a voice, they fare better. When workers are the owners, the interests of management and labor are one and the same.

I had so much fun talking with you today and appreciate you for sharing your thoughts on these topics. I always enjoy your leadership and ideas on labor movements and workers’ rights. Thank you for joining us, Todd!

Connect with Dr. Vachon and discover more about Rutgers LEARN.