If April 2020 was the month of pink slips—as the rapid spread of COVID-19 resulted in the loss of 20.5 million jobs—then Fall 2021 is the dawn of their revenge.
A record-breaking 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August across an array of industries, according to a report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s the highest level since the agency started tracking such data in 2000, and the sixth consecutive month of sky-high quitting rates. Meanwhile, the 7.7 million people who remain unemployed aren’t, for the most part, jumping at the roughly 10.4 million job openings—leaving business after business with ‘Help Wanted’ placards in their windows.
Those stats may seem puzzling. After months of economic- and pandemic-fueled uncertainty, things are finally looking up: schools are reopening, the vaccine is widely available, businesses are expanding, and the economy is broadly resurgent. But, labor experts say, that rosy picture doesn’t take into account the national mood. Americans, they say, are simply burned out—and emboldened by the current labor market.
“[Employees] don’t want to return to backbreaking or boring, low wage, sh-t jobs,” Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, tells TIME. “Workers are burned out. They’re fed up. They’re fried. In the wake of so much hardship, and illness and death during the past year, they’re not going to take it anymore.”
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, says that the conditions are good for workers to exert pressure on their employers. “For at least two generations, workers have been on their back heels,” he explains. “We are now seeing a labor market that is tight and prospects are becoming increasingly clear that it’s going to remain tight. It’s now going to be a workers’ market, and they’re empowered. I think they are starting to flex their collective muscle.”
There’s no single factor driving workforce behavior, economists add. It’s more of a grab bag of diffuse burdens. Wages aren’t keeping up with surging prices. Low-wage jobs often lack opportunities for career growth. A crumbling childcare industry is driving up daycare costs, making work unaffordable. Those who have remained in jobs face increasing responsibility and grueling work conditions punctuated by fears of the next variant of COVID-19. And then there’s just plain old vanilla pandemic fatigue.
Data from big employers across the country suggest that vaccine mandates aren’t playing much of a role. Roughly 99% of Michigan’s Henry Ford Health System’s 33,000 employees complied with its vaccine mandate, according to the local NBC affiliate. In Washington State, University of Washington hospitals reported 97% of staff were vaccinated by the end of September, according to local NPR station KUOW. More than 90% of Tyson Foods’ 120,000-person workforce were vaccinated in the same time frame.
Tuesday’s numbers also offer further proof that expanded unemployment insurance was not a significant factor in keeping people out of work—since more people are quitting their jobs now than they did before the expanded benefit ended in September.
“I’m sure that some economist, some day, digging through some data will be able to prove that there was some effect on the margin of the supplemental UI. But it’s really on the margins,” argues Zandi. “On the top 10 list of reasons why people have been slow to get back to work, that might be number 10.”
The ‘Great Resignation’
Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M who coined the term the “Great Resignation” to describe this budding labor market says the trends may have a silver lining. They may force companies not only to raise wages and increase benefits, but also to offer more flexibility to attract and retain an in-person workforce.
“There’s all this talk about people wanting more flexibility post-pandemic,” says Klotz. “There’s an opportunity here for organizations to get together with workers who have to be in person and say, ‘Within the constraints of our business, let’s obviously raise wages and benefits, but let’s also think about flexibility more innovatively.’”
That’s especially the case for people working in the food service and retail industries. In August, some 892,000 workers quit accommodation and food services jobs and 721,000 quit retail positions, according to BLS data. The healthcare sector also took a hit: 534,000 U.S. workers resigned or quit from health care and social assistance positions.
In both June and July, the rate of voluntary quits was 2.7% of the U.S. workforce. In August, the turnover rate was 2.9%. Those numbers mark unprecedented churn: the 4.3 million people who quit in August 2021 was roughly 20% higher than the number of resignations in August 2019, and more than 40% higher than the number who quit in August 2020.
A workers’ market
When a current employer is unable or unwilling to make a job more attractive, numbers on job openings suggest that burned out workers in many sectors can easily find new ones. “Workers have more bargaining power than they have had in the immediate past or the recent past. If you look at the ratio of unemployed workers, job openings, or just even just the quit rate itself, that does suggest that there’s more power for workers in the form of exiting,” says Nick Bunker, economic research director for North America at the Indeed Hiring Lab. “If they don’t like the situation they’re in now, they can leave.”
That’s what 35-year-old Amy Minas of Illinois did. Frustrated by limited senior staff and insufficient training at her medical lab assistant job, she felt overwhelmed and overworked at the hospital she started working at in May 2019. Things got even worse when the pandemic hit. “It was very difficult to know you were doing such an important job with basically no training and not feeling your employer appreciated your concerns,” Minas says. “With COVID, it just made it that much worse, because of staffing issues and having to do all these COVID tests.” Like many other Americans, Minas has completely switched professions, now providing science tutoring at a local community college.
Recent months have seen a rise in labor activity, including October strikes facilitated by school bus drivers in Maryland and janitors at a Denver airport, and threats of strikes among film and television producers and John Deere employees.
Reich says the current BLS numbers already point at a nationwide walk-out. Workers, after all, don’t have to picket to flex their power in today’s job market.
“People are quitting and they’re not taking jobs,” he says. “That’s tantamount to a strike. American workers have, in effect, called a general strike.”