The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pandemics have long created labor shortages. Here’s why.

They change labor dynamics, which sometimes enables workers to make new demands

A man eats breakfast at a restaurant advertising that they are hiring in Annapolis, Md. on May 12. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
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The receding pandemic seems to have left a labor crisis in its wake. April jobs numbers were weaker than expected. Record high percentages of small business owners report that they can’t fill job openings. Social media has lit up with pictures of signs posted on the doors of closed shops, declaring that there’s no one there to work.

Congressional Republicans and some state governments blame the federal government’s most recent stimulus package, claiming that its direct payments and expanded unemployment insurance provide a “perverse incentive” that keeps workers at home.

But the reality is more complicated. National employment data still show more job-seekers than job openings, and economists have found little evidence for stimulus spending’s adverse effects on employment. It seems more likely that a confluence of factors — health concerns, caregiving responsibilities, career changes and, yes, a desire for higher wages — is driving labor shortages.

Our present debate over labor supply and the social safety net harks back to another post-pandemic employment crisis: the worker shortages that followed what is known as the “Black Death” of the mid-14th century. In England, the crisis led to the introduction of the first national labor laws, a response to worker demands for higher wages and better conditions after enduring dangerous work during the pandemic. In response, the elite found new ways to repress workers and maintain a class hierarchy, reminding us of the stakes of the conversation about labor today.

Unlike today, the source of the post-plague labor shortage is easy to identify in the case of the “Black Death”: mass mortality. At least half the population in affected areas died. A chronicler in Rochester, Kent, wrote that parents brought their children’s corpses to mass churchyard graves upon their own shoulders because no one could be found to cart away bodies.

The same chronicler added that, with so few workers left, survivors “could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent unless for triple wages.” Lords were forced to work their own fields and serve their own meals. The chronicler noted that laborers, meanwhile, could turn down employment offers, thanks to the alms given out at funerals. Sound familiar? Such comments, however, reflected the bias of the chronicler’s class more so than reality. He wrote for the employers, not the workers.

Contrary to such claims, in fact, the records of the immediate post-plague period suggest something else happened. Employers and workers renegotiated contracts. Workers gained the ability to vote with their feet, relocating to better opportunities if necessary. Many augmented this new bargaining power by organizing to coordinate their demands.

In short, the plague’s shock to labor supply provided workers with what the economist Albert Hirschman would describe later as new powers of exit, the ability to leave an employer, and voice, the ability to assert demands in the workplace.

But lords and chroniclers moralized against such changes. The Rochester chronicler declared that the new situation was “an inversion of the natural order”: the lowly were exalted, and the great suffered. Another lamented that landlords were forced to “pander to the arrogance and greed of the workers.” Their complaints reflected elite discomfort at an altered playing field.

Governments responded accordingly.

Across Europe, a raft of new legislations was enacted to regulate prices and wages. King Edward III of England, for instance, introduced a national system of labor regulation for the first time. The 1349 Ordinance of Laborers mandated that all able-bodied workers under the age of 60 accept employment at the same wages they would have been paid before the plague in 1346. If they refused, they would be fined or jailed. It also forbade giving alms to able-bodied beggars on pain of imprisonment.

Such efforts to limit the wages and freedom of workers only expanded as the plague recurred over the next 40 years. In 1351, Parliament introduced the even more restrictive Statute of Laborers, citing the “exceptional greed” of workers and “the great damage of the great men” that it caused. Vagabondage, begging, movement across county lines and wage increases were all proscribed. Moving to find new opportunities became a crime — a 1360 statute, introduced at the beginning of a second wave of plague in England, even permitted fugitive workers to be branded on the forehead.

Thousands of laborers and artisans fell afoul of these new laws — and faced consequences for it. In the early 1350s, for instance, the plowman William de Caburn got in trouble while looking for work. He had two criteria: he would only commit to service for a day or at most a month, not a year, and he wouldn’t take salted meat for his lunch, only fresh. Those demands were illegal.

No one in de Caburn’s village of Limber would hire him for fear of the repercussions. So he moved on, looking for work elsewhere. That was also illegal. We know about de Caburn’s transgression today because his case is recorded in an indictment produced by the justices of laborers charged with enforcing the regulations. De Caburn’s ultimate fate is not recorded. Penalties for similar cases, determined by the discretion of the court, ranged from fines to imprisonment to public humiliation in the stocks.

The laws stayed on the books until the 19th century. Over the centuries, they provided a legal architecture for labor regulation that reinforced the hierarchies that the plague had once threatened. Single women’s wage-earning was curtailed by a regime of compulsory servitude. The statutes also provided a foundation for coercive practices across the British Empire, including laws that limited the freedom of formerly enslaved people after abolition in the 1830s.

In other words, the post-pandemic laws became tools for centuries of repression.

And yet, wages and prices both rose in the second half of the 14th century. The laws could not undo the consequences of demographic change and the experience of the pandemic. They also inspired popular resistance. In 1381, peasants and craftspeople rose in rebellion across England, nearly overturning the government in the process. The great revolt began with an attack on justices of the peace charged with collecting taxes and, not coincidentally, enforcing the Statute of Laborers. When the rebels met with the besieged king in London, they demanded the statute repealed. The Peasants’ Revolt was ultimately defeated. But it revealed the depths of popular anger and the mismanagement of the ruling class.

As in 1349, there’s no going back to the world as it stood before the pandemic, but the history of repression and strife that followed the Black Death need not be repeated today. Claims about “perverse incentives,” whether from federal stimulus spending or funeral alms, should be treated with skepticism.

As the legal machinations after the plague reveal, the Rochester chronicler’s supposed “natural order” is in fact artificial, produced by human institutions and political choices. The tragedy of covid-19 provides an opportunity to change it, for better or for worse.