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Americans are afraid to go to work because of high gas prices

When security software firm KnowBe4 announced plans to return to the office, employees hurriedly texted each other asking where to get cheap gas.

Increasing gas prices and food costs are a challenge for KnowBe4 when calling for employees to return to the office. This company is headquartered in Clearwater (Florida) – one of the places hardest hit by inflation in the US.

What KnowBe4 employees are interested in right now is where they can get a gallon (3.8 liters) of gasoline for $3.50. “It’s too expensive,” said Erika Lance, the company’s head of human resources. Some employees say they want to work from home because going to the office also costs more to take care of children and pets.

A corner of KnowBe4's office.  Photo: NYT

A corner of KnowBe4’s office. Photo: NYT

American companies that plan to call employees back to the office, already stressed by the fear of spreading Covid-19, are now facing inflationary pressure. Employees’ daily expenses – including travel and meals – are much more expensive now than when offices closed two years ago.

US inflation last month was 8.5% year-on-year in 2021 – the highest since 1981. Office occupancy also increased to the highest level since March 2020, or over 40%. However, some workers were shocked by the cost of going back to work. “We’re ready to go back to the office and the question now is can we get back to work?” said Becky Frankiewicz, president of human resources firm ManpowerGroup.

According to AAA, the average gas price in the US hit $4.33 per gallon last month, much higher than $2.60 in 2019. Sweetgreen salad now costs 11.95, up from $11.2 last year. A Potbelly sandwich costs 7.65 USD, instead of 7.2 USD before. An iced latte at Dunkin’s is $3.99, up from about $3.7. And as the labor market is tight, employers are under pressure to raise wages or allow more flexible working.

The shortage of people has pushed wages up, but still can’t keep up with inflation. Wages rose only 5.6% last year. Some business owners are planning to raise wages for fear of losing manpower.

OrderMyGear, an e-commerce platform based in Dallas, recently tripled its corporate payroll from previous years. Other businesses have not yet adjusted wages because they are waiting to see if inflation will cool down.

But for companies that are asking employees to end telework and return to the office, the pressure to raise wages is mounting. “Working remotely was originally meant to stay healthy. Now it’s a cost-cutting measure,” says Frankiewicz.

She revealed that some employees the company contacted are currently looking for work with short travel times to reduce travel costs. Some businesses offer gas cards, travel vouchers, or carpooling options.

ManpowerGroup records five times more workers claiming costs affect where and how they work now than last year. “Before they said ‘I don’t want to work’, now it’s ‘I can’t afford to work’,” she said.

Designer Edith Jacobson (29) travels from Baltimore to Washington three days a week. She once filled the tank for a 2006 Subaru for $45. Now, she has to pay nearly 70 USD. If she took the train, the company would pay for the fare, but that meant an hour and a half journey, forcing her to wake up at 6 a.m.

Also, she couldn’t find an affordable lunch in Washington now. She used to spend $10 on lunch, but now it’s $15. A few days ago, she got a raise, adding $4,000. “The amount sounds small, but to me it’s a huge thing,” she said.

A recent analysis from tech company Square estimates the “lunch inflation” facing workers like Jacobson. Average prices for wraps were up 18 percent from a year earlier, sandwiches by 14 percent and salads by 11 percent.

Casual restaurants are attracting more lunchtime customers as offices fill up again. According to the analysis, orders at fast food stores in the US from mid-March to mid-April increased by nearly 13% compared to the same period in 2021.

Companies are announcing more policies to make employee travel and meals more affordable. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says food prices in the workplace have fallen thanks to an expanded “free lunch program” in companies.

Take OrderMyGear (Dallas) recently asked 165 employees to return to the office from June, at least part-time. The company will provide transit passes for public transport, along with free parking and two or three meals a week, said Jaclyn Unruh, chief human resources officer.

In December 2021, Cambium Learning Group, an educational technology company based in Dallas, told 2,300 employees that they could work remotely. However, the office is still open in January for those who want to use it.

The company has yet to raise wages in the face of rising consumer goods prices. “We’re waiting a bit to see how things return to normal before making adjustments,” said Melissa Yates May, the company’s head of human resources.

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