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Will we refuse to learn the pandemic’s lessons, again?

One way to solve the labor crisis: Treat essential workers like the heroes we say they are.

In April 2020, cashiers worked at a Miami supermarket.Joe Raedle/Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty I

How much has the pandemic changed us?

Not enough, when it comes to the workers who keep this country going.

Now we don’t have enough of them, and we’re hurting. Restaurants are desperate for servers. Schools can’t hire enough bus drivers or crossing guards or teachers. Supermarkets are trying to lure clerks with signing bonuses. Hospitals and other health care settings are running nurses and other caregivers ragged to cover the duties of those who quit. A shortage of truck drivers means empty shelves and delayed gratification, both downright un-American.

Nationally, 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August — a big chunk of those in hotels, restaurants, manufacturing, and health care. Some have moved on to other jobs, but some have, for now, left the workforce entirely: 5 million who departed it last year have not yet returned.


How did we get here? These are the very workers who were lionized at the start of the pandemic, the people called heroes for showing up to low-wage jobs, delivering essential goods and services to those who had the luxury of working safely at home.

But people have short memories. Once the world opened up again, some of the folks who called restaurant servers, health care workers, and teachers heroes made them miserable with their impatience, their refusal to wear masks, their belligerence.

A bunch of restaurant and retail workers moved on at the start of the pandemic, leaving shuttered restaurants and stores for jobs in warehouses and delivery services and other sectors where jobs were still plentiful, says Françoise Carré, a labor expert and Research Director at the Center for Social Policy at UMass Boston.

Many who remained in public-facing industries were worn down by the stress of their work, the extra duties the pandemic required, the need to make up for staffing shortfalls, and they quit, too. Nursing, for example, is seeing a wave of retirements, as the pandemic closes in on its second year and health care workers burn out. On top of that, a pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 of our loved ones has made people reassess their life choices.


All the adulation from the pandemic’s early days didn’t translate into significantly higher wages for millions of workers. It should have, and still could. In fact, it must.

“In fast food and retail ... workers went the extra mile,” Carré said. “In the beginning, their companies were providing bonuses, but as soon as things started to look better, they withdrew them.”

The worker shortage in those industries would look different if hourly wages rose, she said. At $13.50, the minimum wage is better in Massachusetts than in most states, but it doesn’t come close to covering the cost of living here, particularly for those with kids.

In any case, our labor shortage isn’t going to be solved only with higher wages, Carré said. Drawing people back into our hardest jobs, and retaining them, requires better social infrastructure.

Here, again, the pandemic is supposed to have taught us some lessons: With schools and day cares shut down, more Americans came to understand firsthand how hard it is to work without adequate child care. That goes for workers caring for their parents and other relatives, too.

So here comes the Biden administration with a social infrastructure plan for the whole country that would correct some of the failings laid bare by the pandemic. The Build Back Better plan would drastically cut the cost of child care and elder care for Americans, offer universal free preschool, lower health care and prescription costs, and boost wages for child care and home health workers, among other measures — the benefits of which would accrue to all of us.


Some of this would be paid for with taxes on the rich, leading, predictably, to Republicans trying to sell us on the notion that it’s a giant giveaway. And too many people, including self-defeating Democrats, are falling for it.

The pandemic — and now the labor shortage it triggered — has made it clearer than ever that everyone pays a price when workers must choose between their health and families on one hand, and their jobs on the other.

If we let them down again, it will be clear: All that heroism talk was just empty words.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.