Unemployment Ugliness

May 11, 2021

Why the food industry should stay out of the struggle over unemployment benefits.

There is an ugly battle brewing between management and labor in this country, and I hope the food processing industry has the sense to stay out of it.

The battle is over unemployment benefits, and whether extending them is a good idea. Specifically, whether the $300 a week federal supplement to unemployment insurance creates an “incentive” for people to “stay home instead of work.”

That supplemental benefit is due to expire in September, but several states are taking it upon themselves to cut it off sooner. Montana, South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and North Dakota have declared that their economies are so much on the mend that their citizens no longer need the extra money. The US Chamber of Commerce has joined in, calling for an end to the extra benefit nationwide.

The Biden administration is trying to address such concerns. In most cases, if you turn down a viable, reasonable job offer, you are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. Early in May, the U.S. Labor Department clarified that a generalized fear of contracting COVID is not sufficient grounds for refusing a job offer and continuing to collect benefits.

But that’s not enough for some governors, who apparently are convinced that their states are chockablock with lazy slobs who need to haul their butts off the couch and get back to work.

“Increased unemployment assistance, which was meant to be a short-term relief program during emergency related shutdowns, [should not be] contributing to a labor shortage that is compromising the continuation of our economic recovery," Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a press conference announcing that her state will cut off the extra benefits starting June 19.

Social media, as they so often do, are intensifying the controversy. There have been pictures all over Twitter, Instagram and other platforms showing pictures of signs in the windows of businesses, mostly restaurants, that say things like “Please excuse the slow service. Nobody wants to work these days.” These are being met with a barrage of backlash, mostly along the lines of, “Maybe nobody wants to work FOR YOU.”

To the best of my knowledge, neither the Consumer Brands Association nor any other food-specific industry organization has weighed in on this controversy. Good. If they’re wise, they’ll keep it that way.

Anyone who has been paying attention knows how the pandemic has heightened tensions between management and labor, especially in the meat and poultry sector, which took the brunt of the impact. Wrongful death lawsuits and allegations of shocking behavior by managers are just the worst of it.

The industry managed to make up quite a bit of ground. Bonuses and overtime pay helped a lot, as did quick attention to safety measures like processing line partitions. What really helped was the insistence by many food processing companies on getting vaccines into the arms of their employees, setting up on-site vaccination programs and even paying incentives for vaccination. And of course, we were all treated to a lot of feel-good corporate propaganda about the heroic front-line workers who risked their lives to furnish us with food.

In much of that, of course, there was considerable self-interest, especially when it comes to vaccines. The food industry is strongly incentivized to get its workforce immunized ASAP.

Now, with the fight over unemployment benefits, we’re at a crossroads. If the food industry joins the chorus of voices advocating a cutoff, because it wants people to be forced back into what might still be hazardous employment, it will risk undoing all the progress it’s made with labor relations. It just won’t be a good look, and all the feel-good TV commercials in the world won’t make it any better.

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