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Let’s get back to work. America depends on it

March 21, 2022, 11:16 AM UTC
A woman working in a respiratory mask equipment factory.
The labor shortage gives workers a rare opportunity to negotiate better terms–and employers are willing to listen.
Chandan Khanna—AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. economy is sputtering. One of the key obstacles to recovery is America’s unprecedented staffing shortage—and it’s only getting worse.

Employers can’t find the employees they need to survive and thrive. The shortage has been halting business expansion and economic growth. No one is immune, whether you’re a mom-and-pop restaurant owner or the head of North America’s largest COVID-19 testing swab manufacturer.

Since the pandemic began, our team has worked around the clock to meet sky-high demand for tests, producing hundreds of millions in the process. However, we cannot run at full power—not in this economy.

On any given day, Puritan Medical Products operates at less than full capacity, as we search for the human capital that continues to elude us. Other companies in our industry are operating at even less capacity. From Maine to Tennessee, there are simply no workers available.

We are not alone. Nearly 50% of small business owners have job openings that can’t be filled. Some 93% of those trying to hire report few or no qualified applicants for their open positions.

One contributing factor is the expansion of federal aid to working Americans, who came to rely on government assistance in the midst of state and local restrictions. While well-intentioned, “free” money flooding the economic system has slowed the return to work, with employers losing their leverage in recruiting talent. The transition from unemployment to employment increased in U.S. states that opted out early from expanded federal unemployment benefits, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Enough is enough: America needs to get back to work. There is nothing worse for a business than uncertainty. At Puritan, uncertainty is the status quo. We are weighed down by unstable demand, with the need for COVID-19 test swabs fluctuating as variants come and go. The Omicron wave accelerated demand, and we were not ready for it. Our existing workforce couldn’t ride the wave at peak capacity.

The benefits of work are undeniable. Employees gain financial flexibility and purchasing power that even government handouts can’t match. Employers are now offering more robust benefits packages than ever before, incorporating sign-on bonuses, 401(k) matches, and remote work flexibility with standard pay.

Blessed with unprecedented leverage, employees should take advantage. Now is the time to negotiate for the highest standard of work-life balance in U.S. history. Trust me: Employers like myself will listen. We need you. In addition to providing full benefits, Puritan pays fully trained employees a minimum of $15 an hour—higher than the hourly minimum wage in Maine.

Money aside, working will make you a happier person in the long run. New research suggests the return to in-person work is linked with an improved sense of wellbeing.

The U.S. economy will never reach its full potential without the full contributions of employers and employees, working together in harmony. America is not America if people aren’t working.

Today’s staffing challenge transcends economics. It comes down to Americans’ sense of personal responsibility and the greater good.

For many months, our duty was to quarantine and socially distance ourselves. Now, our duty is to work.

Timothy Templet serves as executive vice president of sales at Puritan Medical Products, headquartered in Guilford, Maine.

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