Oct 13, 2022 - Economy & Business

Why your boss can't quit you

Data: FRED, BLS; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

Companies might have learned a lesson from the mass firings of March and April 2020: Think twice before pulling the layoff trigger.

Why it matters: That's one increasingly popular explanation for the historically low level of layoffs and unemployment in the U.S. economy.

  • The popular term for the theory is "labor hoarding," and economists and finance writers started speculating about it in the summer.
  • "[Companies are] definitely hanging on to workers for dear life just because they're so scarce," Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, told the New York Times, in a piece this week about the trend.

Zoom out: The phenomenon might mean that even as the Federal Reserve increases interest rates to fight inflation and cool the economy — it won't trigger the kind of job loss that happened decades ago when Fed chair Paul Volker used the same playbook and drove unemployment over 10%.

Between the lines: There's no hard and fast indicator that would definitively show that hoarding is happening, but there are ways to suss it out, Kathryn Anne Edwards, an economist at the Rand Corporation, tells Axios.

  • Some of those metrics, like a low level of layoffs and a high level of job openings, are clearly happening now, she says.
  • Another sign would be if workers aren't getting as many hours as they want from employers — a signal that companies are hanging on to more folks than they might actually need.
  • There is some anecdotal evidence there, too, she says, but it's not yet showing up in a government statistic that specifically tracks that measure.

The big picture: Workers aren't as abundant and expendable as they once were, Edwards points out. Big demographic shifts were already underway in that direction before the disruptions of COVID-19 — boomers aging out of the workforce, and declining immigration.

  • The pandemic accelerated those shifts. Some workers retired earlier than planned; others became sick and disabled.
  • Meanwhile, companies didn't help matters by laying off an extraordinary 22 million people over just a two-month period.
  • "It turns out that when you lay off 22 million people and send them into the labor market, they might not come back," Edwards says.

Yes, but: Employers had a hard time rehiring and retraining into the super-fast economic recovery; many are still short workers. So, it's possible they're not really hoarding yet — just trying to get back to some equilibrium.

  • As Axios reported earlier this week, that's a lesson learned in the freight rail industry, which is now rethinking its go-to playbook of layoffs in a downturn.

The bottom line: If this keeps up, it would be another sign that a shift in the power dynamic between workers and their bosses is here to stay.

  • But it's probably too early to say for sure if companies are "hoarding," economists told Axios.
  • "This labor market is not straightforward," says Edwards.

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