Here’s a math word problem for you: If the median price of a house is $799,000, how much does the minimum hourly rate of pay need to be to live in Key West?
Let me save you the trouble of finding a calculator. You and your partner both need to make $26.90 an hour, working full time, to make ends (barely) meet. One of you pays the mortgage; the other pays everything else from income taxes and wind and flood insurance to toothpaste. If your rent is, say, $2,500 a month, you might get away with both of you making about $15 an hour. Check your pay stub. How close are you?
Now imagine you’re an employer posting a position with what used to be a decent hourly rate — let’s say $17 an hour — only to discover no one shows up for the interview. Employers can’t (or won’t) pay enough to attract and retain staff. Workers can’t make a living, much less a decent one. I’m not even sure that a minimum wage of $30 an hour could overcome the labor shortage facing Key West, though it might be a start to rebuilding Key West’s middle class.
Key West has watched this pot of low wages and high prices brew for a couple decades. We have paid scant attention to the steady decline of available employees. While we could not have predicted Covid-19, no one should be surprised (here or around the country, for that matter) that there aren’t enough workers to fill the available jobs. And, until Key West can pay enough to support middle class families, we will continue our inexorable slide toward rich people complaining about slow service at restaurants.
So what’s causing this acute labor shortage? How about a little quiz?
Key West’s labor shortage is caused by:
A. Baby boomers leaving the workforce. Seventy five million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, began leaving the workforce in 2011 and they haven’t stopped, despite the occasional headline about working longer. The youngest are 57. Look around your workplace. These remaining aging boomers are the soon-to-be-gone teachers, cops, doctors, pastors, administrators, heck, even elected officials. There are few to replace them. Don’t believe me? How many times have you had trouble finding a doctor in the past couple years because yours retired? Ask any of Key West’s not-for-profits, businesses and governments trying to recruit executive directors, middle managers and professionals. Demographic experts predicted this labor catastrophe 30 years ago; we didn’t pay attention.
B. Lifestyle changes: Key West depends on 20-and-30-somethings to staff bars, restaurants, water sports and other tourist venues. That’s always been an imported labor force because there aren’t enough local young’uns to meet the demand. Though the myth lives on, the days when Key West was a siren song for 20-and-30-somethings disappeared a couple decades ago. Young boomers came to Key West in the 1970s, ’80s, and even ’90s. Worked the boats and bars. Played in the sand. Created legends, at least in their own minds. Maybe made the island home; most likely went back to the real world to get a job and a life. (And, then moved back after retirement.) GenX and Millennials? They just think those boomers were “quaint.” Even if they wanted to follow their parents or grandparents to MM0, few can afford to do so.
C. Covid-19: See above re: 20-and-30-somethings. They went home. No work, no rent, no food, no fun. Perhaps mom will give me back my room. I’m not betting they’ll be coming back. Been there; done that; got the t-shirt.
D. Immigration clamp down: Our immigration laws and our polarized attitudes about foreign-born residents don’t exactly shout “welcome.” It’s been years since virtually unlimited immigration brought waves of Cubans and then Eastern Europeans from the former Soviet block to the island’s workforce. Add in Covid-19 travel restrictions and, well, immigration has slowed to a trickle. I doubt we will see an uptick for at least a decade; maybe never.
E. Low wages: I spent a couple of hours down the digital rabbit hole this week looking at Key West help wanted ads. There are hundreds of open positions in Key West, even after I discarded all the “work from home” ones and the clearly not-local postings. Hundreds. Decent jobs at decent local companies and organizations. Professional positions and entry-level ones. Full-time; part-time. Signing bonuses. Few at less than $15 an hour; many promising $20 an hour. Not even close to enough. And, if my friends who are trying to hire these days are right, there are few takers. Maybe we can talk if you add 10 bucks — and benefits.
F. “Lavish” unemployment benefits: I’m tossing this one in because sure as June brings hurricane season, someone will blame the entirety of workforce woes on the fact Florida’s unemployment benefit-plus-federal-Covid-bonus is a princely $575 weekly. That’s $14.375 per hour, so, yeah, if some Key West job pays $15, then a reasonable person with some math skills might decide living on the dole makes sense. That federal stipend ends in September and it won’t be long before Florida and other states re-institute the “must be looking for work” documentation required before Covid-19. Here’s my bet: Even when the federal Covid supplement disappears (and it will), there still won’t be enough folks to fill the job openings in Key West.
G. All of the above.
I’m betting all of the above.