There’s an old fable about a scorpion and a frog trying to cross a stream. The scorpion begs the frog for a ride across the water and the frog is apprehensive to trust the deadly arachnid. Finally the frog relents, assuming that the scorpion will not risk its own life by killing its ride, which inevitably is exactly what happens when the scorpion stings the frog halfway across the stream because stinging is what scorpions do.
This moral is applicable to many different aspects of our topic today: the new $1,000 sign-on bonus for Citrus County workers making less than $15 an hour. The program is an attempt to combat the labor shortage problem many local businesses now face.
The current political and media climate would draw battle lines on this issue. If you’re conservative, the labor shortage is the fault of lazy freeloaders gaming the system and if you’re progressive then the labor shortage is the fault of greedy fat cats unwilling to pay their workers a fair wage.
This is where most conservative media commentators would steer into their political base lambasting the sign-on program through using both aggregate data of fraud in similar programs and singular examples of someone abusing the system to trigger our fairness foundation, especially since the CEO of the nonprofit facilitating the bonuses told the Chronicle this week that there will be no way to prevent scammers.
Let’s try a different approach but retain a conservative message.
Self-interest is not as ugly as it is ubiquitous. It’s okay to act in our own self-interest but what is not okay is subsequently feeling guilty for it. Once we personally feel guilty, despite the universality of the shared trait, we cast blame onto others rather than admit we’re experiencing it ourselves.
What we need to do is understand the common ground and forgive each other, or more importantly, forgive ourselves. Businesses and workers don’t need to be feeling guilty over acting in their own self-interest but they do need to stop blaming each other for the problem.
Objectively, labor is just another input into supply and demand like any aspect of market economics. Demand for labor is high right now as life returns to normal but supply is still low which should in theory drive up wages.
Businesses have been hesitant to hire workers at these higher rates, but instead of properly addressing why, it has become easier to blame the worker for not wanting to be hired at the original rate in times of balanced supply.
The problem isn’t a greedy business or a lazy worker but rather that the blame is misplaced at each other rather than the true culprit. Generous government assistance is why workers are staying home.
Once state and federal programs are scaled back, which is already starting, then the market will be able to act more efficiently. While state and federal governments are recognizing the need to reduce intervention to fix the problem quicker, unfortunately our local government has gone in the opposite direction with this sign-on program.
The Citrus County Commission and Chamber of Commerce saw this labor shortage problem caused by government wage assistance and determined the solution was more government wage assistance. This is only going to prolong the problem in the name of help.
It’s easy to return to our fable and think of businesses as the frog and government as the scorpion. Businesses, however, are not the frog.
The frog is the worker, entrepreneur or employee, who has been there the whole time. He or she acted against their own self-interest in pursuit of doing what is right. This is the teacher, the front desk worker, the restaurant owner or whoever you may be. Like the frog with the scorpion, you had every incentive to turn your back on the system but chose to help others anyway.
I don’t blame businesses or potential employees for acting in their own self-interest. This is a universally shared trait so we need to stop pretending like it’s the fault of one side. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for the vast majority of people, owners and workers alike, who didn’t.
I do hope this program temporarily provides workers with the wages they'll earn and businesses with the help they so desperately need, but my admiration is with the frogs who will most feel the betrayal of seeing others rewarded by our county commission for acting in their self-interest. That stings.