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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

Just a quick language warning - this episode is about work, so there's going to be some swearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEP)

RYAN THOMAS: OK. I'm Ryan Thomas (ph). I'm in Los Angeles, Calif.

JESSI: And I'm Jessi (ph), and I live in Los Angeles, Calif.

THOMAS: I think we've both come to a consensus on this matter. Working's terrible. It's the worst.

JESSI: Yeah, don't do it. Don't put yourself through that. Stay home with your cat.

THOMAS: It's pretty fun (laughter).

JESSI: Yeah, I'm literally making pot cookies right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON KELLEY, DANETTE M. DUFILHO AND SKINNY WILLIAMS SONG, "WE DON'T CARE")

THOMAS: OK. That's it. That's why there's a labor shortage.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON KELLEY, DANETTE M. DUFILHO AND SKINNY WILLIAMS SONG, "WE DON'T CARE")

ARONCZYK: A labor shortage - that is what a lot of people have been calling this moment. Here in the U.S., when the pandemic hit, 22 million jobs just went poof, gone, raptured by a tanking economy. Since then, jobs have come back, but workers sort of haven't. In fact, a lot of people are quitting. Right now, there are a lot more job openings than there are people looking for work. And that usually does not happen. Economists are waiting for more data trying to understand this. Meanwhile, people are floating lots of vaguely sociological explanations. And so we decided, let's do our own informal survey. Let's find out what is going on in your world of work. So we asked you to tell us, are you hiring? Are you quitting? Are you looking for work? And you called us back from all over the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEP)

CARLOS: Hi, PLANET MONEY. My name is Carlos (ph), from western Florida.

NICK: Hey, PLANET MONEY. My name is Nick (ph), and I live in rural Virginia.

LUCY: I'm Lucy (ph) from Baltimore, Md.

MATTHEW: Matthew (ph) in Bozeman, Mont.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I am originally from Mexico City.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I live in Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I am a critical care nurse working in London.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The labor market's wacky right now, so I'm interested to see what you guys gather.

ARONCZYK: The labor market is wacky right now. So we gathered up your calls, listened to what you told us, called up some experts, and we have come to some conclusions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEKSANDRS HROMCOVS, ET AL.'S "GET THAT GROOVE")

ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. You may have heard of the Big Quit or Striketober or the Great Resignation. Today on the show, we have our own take, our own newly coined phrase to describe what is going on out there in the world of work. We are going to reveal it in this episode and see if we can get it to catch on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEKSANDRS HROMCOVS, ET AL.'S "GET THAT GROOVE")

ARONCZYK: This episode is going to sound a little different from what we usually do. It's going to be less talking and more listening. First up, job seekers. And just a note, we are not using everyone's last name because some of you don't want to jeopardize your current or future work.

So right now, there are 7 million people looking for work, and there are 11 million jobs available. It should be a good time to find a job. But, of course, that's not the experience everyone is having. And that's clear from your calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEP)

JILL: Hi, PLANET MONEY. So I've been unemployed for two years now, which is astounding and terrible.

ARONCZYK: This is Jill (ph). She called us from Seattle.

JILL: Honestly, I still can't figure out the system. It's impossible (laughter). I've spent money on coaching and, you know, help. But that's its own industry, so hard to know if - how much help you're getting there. I work more than full-time hours looking for work, volunteering, networking. It's the most demoralizing, never-ending process. And in the meantime, I've drained my retirement account, and it's amazing I'm not homeless now. It's terrible. And I'm a great employee, so I hope we can fix it.

ARONCZYK: Calvin (ph) from Greeley, Colo., also had problems to report.

CALVIN: My daughter - she's 17. She's applied for tons of jobs - Target, Old Navy, Chick-fil-A, Chili's, Panera Bread - and she has not got a job. So I'm calling b.s. on this whole labor shortage thing. I think they don't want to pay people, is what it is.

ARONCZYK: Pay comes up a lot in your calls and in any discussion of this so-called labor shortage. A lot of you are saying that there isn't a lack of workers. It's just that employers aren't offering enough - not enough money, not enough benefits, not enough to make work worth it. And so at the very same time that some people are desperate for work, there are others of you who are having a different experience. You are not working because you are just done. You are part of the more than 4 million Americans who, in October alone, said bye to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEP)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I am leaving my job, and I don't have anyone to go to (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Part of why I quit was because...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Because they refused to let me work from home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Because I had a 2-year-old home from school.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Because I wanted to have a little time off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Because of COVID.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: And so I quit that job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: I quit that job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: And no, I'm not looking for any more work.

ARONCZYK: Not even looking for work - that is pretty weird. Most people have to work, right? Remember Ryan and Jessi, those people baking pot cookies at the start of the episode? When we heard from them, we wanted to know, how are you pulling this off? They're both 33, no kids, just one dependent if you count the cat. And they have spent years building up their careers in the film industry. Turning down work is actually kind of new for them.

Is there a labor shortage because of the two of you?

JESSI: (Laughter) No. I don't...

THOMAS: I do feel like we are, like - we're both kind of burnt out. And, like, the union for lighting that I'm in, they can't find anybody. And (laughter) the biggest indicator is that I am getting phone calls to work. And, like, I say no to everybody.

ARONCZYK: Ryan, are you not working at all?

THOMAS: I am working. But I'm trying to, like, change careers, basically. TV is just like - it's kind of horrendous. You know, I worked all of the time. Like...

JESSI: Yeah.

THOMAS: ...I would do a TV show and then would do another TV show and...

JESSI: And then you'd shoot stuff on the weekends.

THOMAS: And then I'd shoot stuff on the weekends. So I would...

JESSI: Yeah.

THOMAS: ...Work like 80, 90 hours or some, like, just, like, ridiculous amounts. But I don't know. I do feel like COVID and the pandemic - just being home for a very long, extended period of time and then going back to work and then, like, hating it - and it's just like - I don't know - just like, what are we doing?

ARONCZYK: When work shut down for them at the start of the pandemic, they lived off savings. And they could do that because their expenses are pretty low. Plus, they got a few months of those higher COVID unemployment payments. And then in the middle of last year, work did start up again, and that is when they snapped. The schedules that they'd been used to suddenly felt too intense and unsustainable. Now Ryan's trying to switch from doing lighting to cinematography. The schedules are saner. The day rate is higher. So those are the only jobs he's willing to take.

How many days, like, in this past month did you work?

THOMAS: Oh, my God. That's an embarrassing number. But I'm looking now, and I see, one, two...

JESSI: (Laughter).

THOMAS: I think I worked four days.

JESSI: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: And, Jessi, what's your story? How many days did you work last month?

JESSI: Oh, that's going to be zero.

(LAUGHTER)

JESSI: I work in set decoration. I also work in film and also work in TV and do long shows. I for sure have a long TV gig lined up, but it's not until February. So I should be looking for smaller, shorter jobs in the meantime, and I'm just really struggling to bring myself to do that. Just - I think we're in a lucky situation. We have very cheap rent. We have money saved up.

THOMAS: I've gotten very into budgeting.

JESSI: Yeah. He loves his budget.

ARONCZYK: He loves his budget?

JESSI: I think there's literally a line item called fun.

THOMAS: That's - that is correct, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: There is a line item called fun.

JESSI: I'm in a group chat with my other unemployed friends called funemployment (ph) chat. We meet up. We go to lunch. Someone quit their job the other day, so we went out and celebrated (laughter). We Googled earliest happy hour in LA and went there.

ARONCZYK: The answer to how are you pulling this off is you're budgeting.

JESSI: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: You're taking enough work to get by. You're...

JESSI: And we have pretty low cost of living.

ARONCZYK: Low cost of living.

THOMAS: Low cost of living.

JESSI: For Los Angeles.

ARONCZYK: Right. Will you ever work again?

JESSI: Yeah. Unfortunately, yes.

THOMAS: Yeah, probably.

ARONCZYK: So it feels like a pause. Like, it doesn't feel like a...

JESSI: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: ...Forever not working. It feels like a just not working right now.

JESSI: It's just not working right now. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERS JOHAN GREGER LEWEN'S "STREET GROOVE")

ARONCZYK: If you are on the other side of all this quitting or pausing, if you're an employer trying to staff up a restaurant or your office needs a new HR person, or if you're a manufacturer trying to get your puzzles or slippers or whatever random doohickeys out in time for Christmas, then for you, this labor shortage is very real and very hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEP)

GARRETT: Hey, PLANET MONEY. This is Garrett (ph) from Denver, Colo., where I run a liquor store. It's definitely been a strange past few months. It became seemingly impossible to hire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: It's really hard even to get people to come in for an interview.

GARRETT: No one was responding to ads.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: We've placed a sign up in the window.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: We've lessened restrictions on background checks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: We hire remotely.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: We are bussing contingent workers from out of state.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: We offer telehealth coverage. We've offered hiring bonuses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: We have starting bonuses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Referral bonuses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: We are paying for room and board.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: We've increased the starting hourly wage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: We have to pay them almost double the minimum wage.

GARRETT: In the end, we raised our starting pay from about $14 an hour to more like 16 an hour. And it seems to have worked - for now at least.

ARONCZYK: So yeah, it is very competitive out there if you're trying to hire. And at least one of you is dealing with this problem by literally grabbing people off the street.

TORI YOUNG: My name is Tori. I'm calling from Las Vegas, Nev., where I own a commercial cabinet company. We have been trying to find people to work for us for well over a year now. We have had people schedule interviews and not show up. We have had people get hired for jobs and not show up the first day of work. Our last hire, actually, my husband saw. He was working at a car wash, and he was washing my husband's car and was paying immaculate detail to what he was doing. Husband walked up to him, asked him how much he was making. He said nine bucks an hour. He handed him a business card and said, if you'd like to learn a trade, give my wife a call. We're always looking for people who are hard workers. Called me a couple weeks later, and he's hired.

ARONCZYK: So I called up Tori Young in Las Vegas, and she says that that guy she hired from the car wash - it's going well.

YOUNG: He was making $9 an hour at the car wash. We hired him at 13. He's never been late. He's worked overtime. He shows up every day. I mean, I actually just gave him a raise last week because he's doing such an amazing job that, you know, hopefully he'll be around forever. So that's, like, how we're hiring people right now, is, like - literally, I see this kid walk past my window almost every day around the same time. And I literally thought to myself, like, maybe I'll go find out what he's doing. Like, he's always on time for wherever he's going. Like, maybe he wants a job.

ARONCZYK: This is just some random guy outside of your window, and you're like, that guy looks punctual.

YOUNG: Oh, yeah. I watch you walk by. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ARONCZYK: What time does the guy walk by your window?

YOUNG: Usually around 11:30 - it's usually Mondays and Wednesdays and Thursdays. So I'm like - that's the point that I'm at. It's just a daily struggle to get the product out in the time it needs to be out with the employees that we have.

ARONCZYK: Tori, how serious are you about the guy who walks by at 11:30 in the morning (laughter)?

YOUNG: I am really serious about it. You're the second person that I've told about it. So if I come to one more person - I'm like, hey, I think I'm probably going to hire that guy - I would probably walk outside and ask him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: So employers like Tori are desperate. And some of you - you employees - you know that that's the case. Right now you are super in-demand. And so carpe diem. Go get something better for yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEP)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: I think the pandemic has changed my views of work. I'm being a little more demanding, which is different for me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: I was able to secure a 65% pay increase.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: I received a 62% pay increase.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: I have more than doubled my income.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: I actually just landed a job with a 401(k) and health benefits.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: Vacation time and meaningful mat leave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #24: I was able to find a job which is so much better.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: So it has gone well for me.

ARONCZYK: As we were listening to all these messages and having these conversations with you, we started to have this vision of the labor market in our minds - on one side, employers kind of used to having the upper hand in job negotiations who are now realizing that they don't; on the other side, employees discovering new powers, using those powers to negotiate for what they want. And when they don't get it, they might just opt out.

Ryan and Jessi, the people budgeting for fun, they just found themselves in the middle of an actual negotiation, renegotiating a union contract. They are part of IATSE, the union for stagehands and technicians, the people literally behind the scenes making TV shows and movies. Now, some of the union membership wanted to get a better work-life balance for people, to raise wages and limit all of those 14-hour days.

JESSI: There was a lot of hope built up that there was going to be some change. And there was this viral Instagram account that was just people sharing anonymous stories about bad working conditions. And it built up a ton of momentum, and everyone was very excited for some massive change, and it felt like it was coming. And then it was just like, OK, here's your little contract that is maybe a step backwards a little bit. So I think everyone's pretty disheartened. A lot of people are leaving the industry.

ARONCZYK: Are you guys disheartened?

JESSI: Yeah, by that for sure.

ARONCZYK: What if this is actually not, like, the Big Quit and not the Great Resignation but, in fact, like, the Great Renegotiation?

JESSI: Yeah, that is what it feels like more for my particular case. It's just this is the time that I pause and think about, you know, my relationship with work and how to make it less toxic than it has been. So Great Renegotiation is a way better way to put it.

THOMAS: Yeah, I like that a lot.

ARONCZYK: The great renegotiation - that is our newly coined phrase. That's what we think is going on out there. A renegotiation not just of pay and benefits, but also of our relationships to work itself. We ran it by an economist.

Karin, you're an economist. There's this idea that we've been thinking about to describe what is going on out there. We've decided it's not the Great Resignation. We think it's the Great Renegotiation. What do you think?

KARIN KIMBROUGH: The Great Renegotiation...

ARONCZYK: Yeah.

KIMBROUGH: ...Is a phenomenal way of capturing that shift in bargaining power that has moved from the employer to the employee.

ARONCZYK: And you're not just being polite because we came up with a fun name.

KIMBROUGH: It's a fun name. I'm not being polite, although I think I'm a polite person. I was thinking of the Great Reset.

ARONCZYK: Too late, Karin. We're already working on the T-shirts. Anyway, Karin Kimbrough is the chief economist at that company you can't avoid when you're looking for work or to hire, LinkedIn. And there she's been able to see all of these dynamics play out in real time.

KIMBROUGH: We were able to see very quickly at the beginning of this year that employers were throwing up job descriptions. And, in fact, now we know that there are twice as many jobs on our platform as there were a year ago.

ARONCZYK: No kidding.

KIMBROUGH: We could see it right away. Job availability is there. There are jobs if you want them.

ARONCZYK: Karin can also see would-be employees being more selective, and she can see what they're selecting for. She says people are negotiating over a lot of things, not just pay and benefits.

KIMBROUGH: People are nearly 2 1/2 times more likely to look at a remote job when it's offered to them versus a job that's not remote. They're more than 2 1/2 times more likely to apply for a remote job. So the job seekers like remote, and I don't think they want to go back.

ARONCZYK: Before the pandemic, 1 in 67 jobs being offered were remote jobs. Now it's about 1 in 6 because that's what employees want - and some employers, too. Now, Karin actually doesn't use the term labor shortage. She doesn't think it's an accurate description of what's going on.

KIMBROUGH: I think that the workers are there, but the terms haven't yet drawn them off the sidelines. They are hesitating or being more choosy for a variety of really good reasons. They may say, I don't want to take the risk, and in order to make it worth my while to go out there and work again, you need to actually pay me a little bit more. In some cases, I think it's really legitimate. People looking for dignity of work. They're looking for fairness and transparency. And when they see those options in a role, they will apply.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BROOKLYN'S "BLUE WAVE")

ARONCZYK: Coming up next, a company where the management and the workers renegotiated everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BROOKLYN'S "BLUE WAVE")

ARONCZYK: OK, so we're in the middle of this Great Renegotiation, as we're calling it. And this next message you're about to hear, it was one of the most surprising ones we got about the reset of power between workers and bosses.

ANNABELLE ROBERTS: Hi, PLANET MONEY. I'm a company based out of Paris in France. And we had employees, but then there were rumors that some of them were going to quit. And with the Great Resignation, we totally panicked 'cause we wouldn't be able to develop our software if they quit. And so we just told everybody they could get paid whatever they want. And we said, you can choose your own hours, you can choose your own salary, and you can choose your own job. And that worked really well. So that was a good thing. But we were pretty scared there for a minute. Hope it helps. Big fan of the show. Thanks.

ARONCZYK: When we heard this message from Annabelle Roberts, we were like, come on. Choose your own salary - is that really what happened? So we called her up.

ROBERTS: So we're a training company, and COVID pretty much destroyed our business.

ARONCZYK: Annabelle's Canadian. But like she said, she lives in France, where some of the same labor issues are playing out. She told me that she and her co-founder, Alexandra, they run a small company with 10 employees called Present Perfect. They do communications training, like how to give a speech or presentation. It was all in-person until the pandemic forced them to go online.

ROBERTS: We're actually, like, developing a platform, and we're developing software now - like, personal development software and all that kind of stuff.

ARONCZYK: It felt like her company was on this new, exciting track. And then all of these people she knew started quitting their jobs.

ROBERTS: It actually started when my husband, who is a journalist - he was like, I'm going to quit my job. I'm like, what? He's like, yeah, I'm sick of it. I'm not going back. He's like, it's bullshit. And he left. Like, my husband, who would never quit his job, quit his job. And then I started to have clients quitting their jobs. So with my business partner, I'm like holy shit. I'm like, if this happens to us, we're in a bad way because we need to get this platform out. Like, what are we going to do? And we had always, like a lot of companies, tried to get the best talent we could for the least amount of money possible, right?

ARONCZYK: I guess that's what you're supposed to do.

ROBERTS: Right? And for a long time, we had been feeling bad about that. And so I was like, well, what should we do? And Alexandra's like, well, I think maybe we should offer to give people a raise. And I'm just like, yeah, but money's just money. Like, money is cheap, you know? Like, they see everybody, and they're just like, oh, they're just giving us a raise so we don't quit. And she's like, oh, well, what can we do? And I'm just like, I feel like we should do something to show them how important they are and that they matter.

ARONCZYK: So this is when Annabelle has that idea. Let the employees say how much they want.

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, we asked our accountant, can we - if we asked everyone how much they want to get paid and we just paid them that, do you think we could do that? And he was like, that is the worst idea ever. Don't do that.

ARONCZYK: But they did that.

ROBERTS: We said, look; we need you, and we need everybody to be really happy to come to work because we have so much work ahead of us. But if we do well, we can make the pie bigger for everybody, but we need all hands on deck. So here's what we're going to do. Come back to us - it was at the beginning of the summer. Come back to us at the end of the summer with a number. This number has to be a number that you are happy to come to work for this number, but you have to be able to tell us the value that you're going to generate for this number. And whatever this number is, we'll pay it.

ARONCZYK: And is that a specific list - like, the value - like, I'm going to do this, this, this and this? Or is it more like, I am going to bring an X amount of money for our company?

ROBERTS: I mean, value's relative. But it honestly had to be, like, lasting value, right? And so the art designer came back, for example, with a big number, and we're kind of like, ooh, that's a really big number.

ARONCZYK: But Annabelle says that this art director - she's super hardworking, she can finish projects faster than anybody - the value of her work to the company is very high. But still, it was a very big number.

ROBERTS: So we were like, oh, my God. Like, we literally can't afford that. And so we actually ended up negotiating with her and came up with an arrangement where some of it was monetary compensation, and then we negotiated a work-from-anywhere policy. We negotiated extra vacation days. And we're like, are you happy with this? She's like, yes, I'm happy with this. Like, OK.

ARONCZYK: And you did this with each of your employees?

ROBERTS: Yes. But there were some employees that were like, no, I don't want a raise. And we're like, OK, well, you know, why? Like, why do you want to - because my job right now is Monday to Friday, 35 hours a week. I have a out-of-office responder on my email, like if an email comes in after 5, saying, you know, I work 9 to 5, so I'll get back to you (mumbling). And that's a standard of life that I want to keep. And I'm like, OK. OK, cool. You know?

ARONCZYK: Did anybody ask for less money (laughter)?

ROBERTS: No. Nobody asked for less money (laughter).

ARONCZYK: So you did this kind of wild experiment. How is it going? You're in month - what is this? - like, Month 4 of it, about.

ROBERTS: Yeah, it's going really well, actually. So what happened was it just kind of, like, pushed the standard of excellence through the roof. You hear all the time, like, nobody will work as hard as the founder, right? And I feel like I'm working with a bunch of founders. So I feel like I have hit two birds with one stone, basically, by getting people to be responsible and own the fact that they work at this company that's trying to build this thing, and they're totally on board with it, and they want to get out of bed every morning and feel great about their compensation package.

ARONCZYK: By the way, we did talk to an employee of Annabelle's, and the employee said, yeah, that's how this went down. So there you have it, the wildest dispatch we got from you, our listeners. And what it all comes down to is compensation. That is what all of the upheaval in labor markets this whole Great Renegotiation is about - what employers should pay in return for time, skills, ideas, loyalty. And in this strange moment, workers have more power to say, this is what I'm worth.

(SOUNDBITE OF VASCO SONG, "HEDONISTA")

ARONCZYK: It's the holiday season, and, yes, we have swag. I just looked. There is a festive PLANET MONEY mug available. It's green. It's got the squirrel holding a martini glass on it. And it could be yours. Just go to shop.npr.org/planetmoney.

We'd love to hear from you. Email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok - @planetmoney.

Today's show was produced by Dave Blanchard, who came up with the idea for the Great Renegotiation - tip of the hat to you, Dave - along with help from Emma Peaslee and Corey Bridges. It was mastered by Isaac Rodrigues and edited by Molly Messick. PLANET MONEY's executive producer is Alex Goldmark. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF VASCO SONG, "HEDONISTA")

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