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‘Project Paycheck’ readers weigh in on what’s driving the jobs gap in Berkshires

Among the COVID-weary, coping strategies elusive for 'new and different' stressors (copy)

Grocery stores throughout the Berkshires, including Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, employed measures such as Plexiglass partitions, to keep employees and customers safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Grocery stores are among those looking for help, amid a labor shortage.

In our first Project Paycheck report, I shared theories from local experts (thanks again, folks) on why Berkshire County’s workforce has so dramatically contracted during the pandemic. 

Before our next full installment goes online Monday, I want to present early comments we’ve been getting from readers — you know, people who are experts, writ small, in how the pandemic has affected their lives and jobs.

Here’s a sample that came in through The Eagle’s Facebook page:

— “It's not a work shortage. It's a wage shortage.”

— “Why would anyone want to work these days?”

— "There has always been a shortage of workers in the Berkshires. South county teenagers could pick what they wanted.”

— "They went somewhere with affordable housing and living wages.”

— “Better pay in other areas than what you get here. Cost to live here and low pay has people traveling to other areas daily to work.”

Clearly a theme there, right?

We are also hearing from people who filled out our quick online survey. I’ll recap those once I’ve had a chance to get back to some people about sharing their comments. (Please consider filling it out! Your views matter. Add your voice to our project.)

In the weeks ahead, I’ll zero in on the wage issue. It’s clear to me this is a major factor. What will it take for employers in Berkshire County to reconsider, for real, what they pay for jobs they can and can’t fill.

To be sure, pay in some fields is moving up. Still, the needle isn’t yet moving on workforce numbers, as Jonathan Butler of 1Berkshire told me recently. Are any wage increases to date seen as baby steps, rather than strides forward in compensation?

Not everyone who posted in response to our initial stories was on board with the concept of a labor shortage.

— “Is this like the B.S. turkey shortage story liberal media pushes?”

— “Democrats must be paying people not to work.”

—  “What happened to all the workers? I know so many people receiving food stamps they actually got increases, free health care ... must be nice ….”

The sharpest criticism of the project that’s come in took aim at the way we described the venture at the start: “As with any region, the strength, and resilience, of the Berkshire economy depends on people working and getting paid."

Steve Dew of Williamstown posted a link to our first story and offered a different view on that premise.

“This framing is totally backwards. The strength and resilience of our economy here in the Berkshires depends on employers treating their employees with respect and fairness — and, most importantly, paying them suitable wages,” Dew posted. “One example: Our county's largest employer, Berkshire Health Systems, is notorious for overpaying its administrators and going to war against organized labor over pay and safety for nurses and other frontline workers.”

I called Dew to talk about this.

“It was fair enough as far as it goes,” he told me, referring to the way we described the Project Paycheck mission. “But there’s another side to that."

I asked Dew to talk about what it will take, in his view, to have employers, as a whole, do more to respect and compensate workers.

“It’s very simple: a re-invigoration of the labor movement in this country. Employers are not going to do this unless they’re pushed to,” he said. To his ear, some of the comments from business about the workforce issue sounds medieval: “There’s been an ugly ‘peasants get back to work’ vibe during the pandemic.”

To get on the right side of things, he says, employers should be using this pandemic work crisis to rethink, in a deep way, the entire workplace equation. “If we don’t hold employers accountable … I feel like the message (in The Eagle’s project description) skirts dangerously close to a 'peasants get back to work' kind of approach.”

Dew’s post drew an amen from Dennis Irvine, who replied that my description of the project’s purpose worked to “distract from what’s obvious.” That elephant in the room, he said, is pay. No, more than that. “Genuine living wages,” Irvine posted.

“Everyone deserves enough to shelter, feed, clothe, and maintain their health. Entry level and beyond. I think many people are struggling and local wages are their last resort,” he wrote. “The frightening message in these sort of articles isn't 'where have they gone' but the implicit 'how long will local employers have to hold out until local workers run out of pandemic resources and can be forced into wage/debt slavery again?' It never seems to occur to the employers who complain about a lack of help to offer better wages and benefits.”

One of the most obvious explanations of the “Great Reassessment” of work, or what some call the “Great Resignation,” point, of course, to the pandemic.

One reader said that vaccine mandates are keeping people from working, and wrote: “Drop the mandates and people will work. If there truly is a worker shortage then why are so many companies firing good employees for not getting the shot?”

Amid all the comments came this one from Justin Ellis, whose Facebook account identifies him as the manager of an AT&T retail store.

“I’m hiring! People can start immediately!” he posted.

Naturally, someone replied with a question: What do you pay?

Answer: Minimum wage, plus commission.

Coming next: Behind the scenes at a Dalton restaurant, where the pandemic labor shortage is forcing change.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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