What Do Workers Want?

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Pundits and politicians are talking about how to get back to normal as COVID (hopefully) winds down into an endemic disease like the cold or flu. As usual, they have grand plans. But instead of forcing their preferences on others, they should ask what workers want.

Fortunately, Pew polling has asked questions that policy makers won’t (hat tip to my colleague Christine Hall). It’s safe to go back to the office in most places, but it turns out that a lot of workers don’t want to. Of people who can do their jobs from home, 59 percent still are. Of those, 61 percent say this is their personal choice.

COVID might be the reason a lot of people started working from home. But once they tried it, many of them liked it.

Employers across the country have a lot of adjusting to do if they want to fill all those job openings—and to keep the talent they have.

At the same time, while the numbers clearly tilt in a certain direction, they are far from unanimous. Wise employers will not mandate one approach or the other, and neither will regulators.

So in the spirit of returning to normal, and in making normal better, here are a few policy ideas that can help people pursue their own plans, rather than those of politicians and    ideologues:

  • Get inflation back under control. Rapid price changes make it difficult for workers and employers to figure out fair pay rates. Inflation also wipes out pay raises. Nominal wages went up by more than 5 percent last year, which is usually a fantastic gain. But because inflation was 7.5 percent, real wages actually went down by about 2 percent.
  • Loosen zoning requirements so people can work from home without fear of violating a zoning ordinance. Nashville recently undid its ban on home recording studios, for example.
  • Ditch plans to force independent contractors to accept formal employee status whether or not they want it. That means no more AB5-style laws in the states, and no federal PRO Act.
  • Bring some sanity to occupational licensing. Roughly a quarter of all jobs now require some sort of government-granted license. There is no good reason for the number to be that high.

Policy makers have plenty to do to keep them busy as the COVID emergency recedes. The key point is for them to see their job as enabling other people to pursue their dreams, rather than forcing their own vision on others.