The City of Lawton took steps last week to solve a problem many businesses are experiencing.

City Council members signed off on a plan to provide pay raises and a new work schedule for employees in the emergency communications department. The action affects those who handle E-911 calls. City officials said the move will put the department in the top 5 in terms of pay.

The emergency communications department is having trouble filling vacant positions, like many other businesses in Lawton and in the state. While the problem for the dispatch center predates the pandemic, many businesses are experiencing a worker shortage.

If you’ve been out to eat or to shop in Lawton, you know the problem is widespread. The wait to get into a local restaurant may be longer than usual because of a shortage of wait staff. And the problem isn’t just in the service industry. Many white-collar positions are going unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants and/or low pay. The health care profession also has seen an exodus of workers as caring for those with COVID takes its toll on nurses and doctors, as well as a migration as health care professionals are lured by lucrative “signing bonuses” at other facilities.

So the city got creative and found a way to hopefully fix its problem. The city will designate $213,500 from the Cellular Phone System Fund to cover the cost of giving employees pay raises. Dispatchers will now make $19 an hour, which puts Lawton in the top 5 cities in terms of pay in the state. The city also worked out a new work schedule so that employees will work seven 12-hour shifts and have seven days off in a 14-day period. The hours may be longer, but dispatchers will enjoy more time off.

City officials hope the moves will reduce turnover in a department that is critical to the health and well-being of Comanche County citizens.

The pandemic has ushered in a new climate in the workplace. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, many workers began working from home. Some have yet to return to a traditional workplace setting. Many like the flexibility and have no desire to return to the office while others crave the interaction with people.

Many also got used to drawing supplemental unemployment from the federal government. An extra $300 a week may not go too far in New York City or Los Angeles, but that is a substantial amount in Oklahoma. An extra $1,200 a month will go a long way in our economy.

Other businesses may have to get creative as well. More and more businesses are holding job fairs just for their specific businesses. We may see more of that in the future.

Workers are in the driver’s seat right now. They are in a position to demand better pay and better fringe benefits. Business owners are going to have to adjust to the new reality and come up with ways to make employment more attractive.

We have to wonder: Has the pandemic created a “new” economy? Or will these issues return to previous standards as we learn to copy with the virus?