The numbers and the stories bear it out. The “Great Resignation” is a term coined by Anthony Klotz, a professor of business administration at Texas A&M University, to describe the unusually high rate of people quitting their jobs in 2021. What’s going on?
2021 job quits are on track to shoot past the 2019 record high of 42.1 million workers. In August 2021 alone, 4.2 million workers gave notice they were leaving.
Sources: BLS: Quit Levels and Rates and Job Openings, Hires, and Quits set record highs in 2019
The trend line for job quits during 2020 was in the opposite direction. People with jobs held on to them to ward off an even more uncertain future as a new, scary pandemic unfolded. One could conjecture that the surge in 2021 quits simply reflects the number of those who’d delayed making their exits a year earlier. But a closer look reveals the pandemic spurred individuals to reflect on the very nature of work and how it fits into what’s meaningful to them.
By mid-2020, workers who’d been furloughed due to the pandemic suddenly had time to rest, reflect, and — due to unemployment benefits from the federal government — pay their bills and make ends meet. Called “lazy” by some, the reality for many of these workers was that getting off the hamster wheel of long hours under constant pressure gave them clarity about wanting a humane work life.
An August 2021 episode, “Stories from the Great American Labor Shortage,” that aired on the New York Times’ The Daily podcast, interviewed restaurant workers and owners about their pre- and post-COVID work world. Caleb Orth, a restaurant worker in a prestigious establishment in Portland, Oregon, described how working there before COVID was “more than a full-time pursuit.”
“When I say that I worked there, what I mean by that is, I worked there 80 hours a week. I worked there from, you know, 11:30 in the morning until one o’clock in the morning most days,” he says. “…You don’t eat meals at appropriate times. You’re always standing. You’re working so hard.”
But after COVID shut restaurants down, Orth literally saw his body change. “The bags that were under my eyes forever — for years — went away. My feet stopped hurting, and I never had really thought about how much my feet hurt all the time, but they did. My back stopped hurting. I was going to bed at a reasonable hour and waking at a reasonable hour, rather than going to bed at, like, 4:00 in the morning and waking up at 11:00 a.m. And I was eating healthy and exercising. My girlfriend and I were going on daily bike rides at the time, all over the city. … Oregon is beautiful in the spring, and there were all these things that I never, ever had time to experience.”
The stark difference in how Orth felt before and after the COVID-induced timeout gave him plenty to think about. While the restaurant industry offered him enough money to live on, the job served his employer more than it served him. “I don’t want to have to live like that anymore,” Orth says.
The Child Care Hurdle
Working 80 hours a week simply isn’t feasible for people with small children, unless they’re willing to not see their kids much and can afford the cost of child care. Ariel Gosselin, a decades-long restaurant worker, told The Daily that the pandemic, coupled with giving birth to a baby, led her do some basic math. If she worked an hourly position making $15 an hour, would she make much more than covering the cost of child care? Adding to the frustration, Gosselin’s experience in restaurants brought her in contact with what she called “the worst of the worst.” She decided she was through with “somebody screaming in your face that the pandemic is not real, and guys just thinking that they can touch you and that’s OK.” For now, saving on child care and losing the work stress is keeping Gosselin at home. But she realizes this too, will “be a struggle.”
Who’s to fix this?
Restaurant workers aren’t the only ones reaching the conclusion that their job isn’t meeting their needs. The job search website Indeed conducted a 2021 survey of 1,500 employees that showed worker burnout is on the rise among various age groups, experience levels and industry sectors. As the data and the stories mount about people quitting their jobs, there’s a growing realization that inflexible workplace culture and low pay and benefits are often the sources of stress, and employers need to make changes so that both the company and employees can thrive.
There’s a growing realization that inflexible workplace culture and low pay and benefits are often the sources of stress.
Employers can provide the time . . .
Typically, worker burnout is approached from the perspective of self-care. Individuals are urged to exercise, eat right, meditate, or use social support networks to vent their frustrations. While there’s no doubt these types of strategies help, “nobody is really pointing to the problem, which is that chronic job stresses have not been well managed (by employers),” Christina Maslach, a burnout expert and U.S. social psychologist, told Timein a story about worker burnout.
Finding time to exercise, for example, is hard when working multiple jobs, or rushing straight from a job into parenting duties. Affording a gym membership might not be an option for a low-wage earner. Buying ingredients and preparing healthy, nutritious meals is a challenge when a job demands a majority of your waking hours and its paycheck barely covers necessities.
A MercerMarsh spring 2021 survey gathered input from over 14,000 employees globally about what health and well-being services they valued most from employers. Flexible working arrangements and time off for health-related appointments ranked highest, with over half of employees saying that was highly or extremely valuable to them. Workplace policies to encourage work-life balance were also highly ranked.
Signals are starting to emerge that employers are getting the message. A number of companies, including Marriott International, LinkedIn, the dating app Bumble, and web browser Mozilla either shut down their companies for a paid week off in 2021, or offered additional paid “relief days” or “TakeCare Days Off.” Others are experimenting with shorter workweeks. In Iceland, recent trials with shorter workweeks found that efficiencies such as fewer meetings and time management training allowed workers to shave three to five hours off their week. Without losing pay or productivity, the end result was beneficial to employees and employers alike.
While the pandemic added stress to jobs, it was perhaps a triggering event that led to recognition of how stressful the workplace is in general — and that it’s important to step away from it for periods of time. “We have one life — and are we working to live, or are we living to work?” asked Rachel Deutsch, director of worker justice campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, in a VOX story about shorter workweeks. Indeed, the current 40-hour workweek only came about as workers formed unions and collectively agitated against the 14-hour days some employers demanded up until the late 1930s. Passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 established a nation-wide standard of overtime pay for more than 40 hours of work in a week.
. . . and better compensation
While companies want the best and the brightest, compensation levels don’t seem to reflect that. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a 0.9 percent decrease in real average hourly earnings when comparing August 2020 to August 2021. Looking at longer trends doesn’t improve the picture. According to analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, or EPI, productivity increased 61.8% between 1979-2020, while hourly pay rose by just 17.5% over the same period. While the ubiquitous “help wanted” signs, together with enticements of signing bonuses and higher starting wages would seem to indicate workers should be in for a wage bump, the real solution will need a more holistic approach, including changes in labor laws and policies.
EPI identified decades of policy changes that eroded the foundation that had kept workers from sinking. Small or no raises to the minimum wage; unchecked unemployment; labor policy that fueled an employer edge over unions; industry deregulation; dismantling anti-trust and financial regulations — these and other policy changes not only led to weak pay gains, but a slower pace of productivity increases in recent decades.
Signs of change
Some recent changes indicate that workers may be regaining lost ground. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reinstituted the Prevailing Wage law that had been repealed in 2018 by Republican lawmakers. Strong prevailing wage laws prevent bringing a lower-paid workforce into an area and depressing wages for all. “By reinstating prevailing wage, we are ensuring that working people get treated with dignity and respect, and that starts with a fair wage,” Whitmer said in an October announcement at the United Association (UA) Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 333 Training Center.
And not all construction company employers were happy about Michigan’s Prevailing Wage law being repealed in 2018. They had already experienced the days before its enactment when taking on a lower-skilled workforce willing to work for less meant that productivity, quality, and safety were all negatively impacted. The cost of change orders and even litigation was more than any short-term cost savings from paying workers less. The Prevailing Wage law also provided a funding source for construction trades union training programs which were highly valued by employers.
Challenging the Governor’s reinstitution of Prevailing Wage will likely come from Republican lawmakers and some construction businesses, though hopefully this time enough pressure and evidence of its positive impact will thwart backward steps.
A wave of worker strikes, or threats to strike, has branded the month of October as “Striketober,” even though it’s been more than one month in the making. With 184 strikes so far this year by workers in industries from health care to manufacturing, there’s pressure on employers to do more than offer praise for the essential work their employees perform. Even President Joe Biden signaled he understands the motives moving working men and women onto picket lines when he said, “If you think that’s what you need, then you should do it.”
Strikes are never undertaken lightly. Workers resort to the action when they strongly believe they must take a stand to improve their standard of living and increase opportunity for those they love. In this sense, Striketober can be seen as one path toward addressing what the “Great Resignation” is all about.
Getting policymakers, employers and workers on the same page about the measures needed to craft desirable workplaces will take time and political will. The idea that “everybody does better when everybody does better” has its detractors, but American workers are flexing their muscles in enough ways to give hope that our workplaces will sustain, rather than drain, the tremendous talent and skill needed to keep America great.