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Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

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In Our View: Smart legislation can help ease labor shortage

The Columbian

The numbers don’t add up. Nationally, there are approximately 11 million job openings — and only about half that many people seeking employment. The result is that employers are having a difficult time hiring workers to serve their customers and grow their businesses.

An unemployment rate of 3.4 percent is decidedly good news; it matches the lowest rate since 1953. But those numbers are accompanied by an economic oddity — even if every person who wanted a job were to take one, there still would be some 5 million unfilled positions.

Rep. Kevin Waters, a first-term Republican legislator from Stevenson, has no delusions about solving that problem. But he has offered a proposal that could provide help in Washington. House Bill 1730 would allow people aged 18-21 to work in establishments typically off-limits to people under 21.

“This bill is about helping our state’s workforce,” Waters said. “There are so many businesses, especially restaurants and bars, that can’t find and hold onto good help. It would also open up more opportunities for individuals under 21 looking for work. So, this is a win-win for both job seekers and employers, and a win for Washington.”

Underage workers would not be allowed to sell or serve alcohol, or even interact with patrons. But they could work as dishwashers or cooks or other kitchen staff.

The idea is a pragmatic approach to a pressing problem. And while the proposal will not erase the labor shortage in Washington, it provides an opportunity to explore an issue that has been an unexpected result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nationally, according to recent numbers from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are 3 million fewer people in the labor force than there were in February 2020. Officials attribute this to several factors, including: early retirements; an increase in savings, allowing would-be workers to remain on the sidelines; and a lack of access to child care.

The child care shortage is particularly noteworthy and demanding of attention.

In spring 2020, 3.5 million mothers left their jobs, and female participation in the workforce remains at its lowest rate since the 1970s. A full economic recovery and a return to stability will require policies that make child care more attainable and more affordable — making it possible for both mothers and fathers to work if they so desire.

Overall, according to the Chamber of Commerce, Washington has a strong labor force. There are 95 available workers for every 100 available jobs, one of the highest rates in the nation; at the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota has 39 available workers for each 100 job openings.

In part, Washington’s strong standing is due to years of legislative action that has made it among the best states for workers. A high minimum wage, paid leave policies and workplace safety protections have helped make our state a desirable place to work.

The impact is evident with comparisons to other states. The areas facing the most severe worker shortages typically have a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour — the federal minimum. It is not a coincidence they have difficulty enticing people to work.

Smart legislation can help entrench Washington’s status as a good place for employees, keeping people in the workforce, enticing workers to move here and providing a balance that works for both job creators and employees.

As Waters said about his proposal, “Even simple bills like this can go a long way in easing our workforce shortage.”

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