Here’s why workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers

IIf April 2020 was the month of the pink slips – the rapid spread of COVID-19 resulting in the loss of 20.5 million jobs – the fall of 2021 is the dawn of their revenge.

A record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August across a range of industries, according to a report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It’s the highest level since the agency began tracking this data in 2000, and the sixth consecutive month of sky-high dropout rates. Meanwhile, the 7.7 million people who remain unemployed are mostly not jumping on the roughly 10.4 million job openings, leaving company after company with “Help Wanted” signs at their Windows.

These statistics may seem confusing. 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 generally recovering. But, say labor experts, this rosy image does not reflect the national mood. Americans, they say, are simply exhausted and emboldened by the current job market.

“[Employees] I don’t want to go back to back-breaking or boring, low-wage, crappy jobs,” Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, told TIME. “The workers are exhausted. They are fed up with. They are fried. After so many hardships, sicknesses and deaths over the past year, they will bear it no longer.

Read more: How COVID-19 is decimating the child care industry

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, says the conditions are right for workers to exert pressure on their employers. “For at least two generations, the workers have been on their heels,” he explains. “We are now witnessing a labor market that is tight and the outlook is becoming increasingly clear that it will remain tight. It will now be a labor market, and they are empowered. I think they are starting to flex their collective muscle.


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There is no single factor that determines workforce behavior, economists add. Rather, it is a catch-all of diffuse charges. Wages are not keeping up with soaring prices. Low-wage jobs often lack career development opportunities. A crumbling child care industry is driving up child care costs, making work unaffordable. Those who have kept their jobs face increasing responsibilities and grueling working conditions punctuated by fear of the next variant of COVID-19. And then there’s just plain old vanilla pandemic fatigue.

Data from major employers across the country suggests vaccination mandates don’t play much of a role. About 99% of Michigan’s Henry Ford Health System’s 33,000 employees have complied with its vaccination mandate, according to the local NBC affiliate. In Washington state, University of Washington hospitals reported that 97% of staff had been vaccinated by the end of September, according to local NPR station KUOW. More than 90% of Tyson Foods’ 120,000 employees were vaccinated during the same period.

Read more: American workers realize now is the perfect time to strike

Tuesday’s figures also offer further evidence that the extension of unemployment insurance has not been a major factor in keeping people out of work, as more people quit their jobs now than they did before the end of extended benefits in September.

“I’m sure that one day an economist, by digging into some data, will be able to prove that there was an effect on the margin of the additional unemployment insurance. But it’s really on the fringe,” says Zandi. “On the list of the top 10 reasons people have been slow to return to work, this might be number 10.”

The “great resignation”

Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M who coined the term “great resignation” to describe this nascent job market, says trends can have a silver lining. They can require companies to not only increase wages and benefits, but also provide more flexibility to attract and retain an in-person workforce.

“There’s all this talk about people wanting more flexibility after the pandemic,” says Klotz. “There’s an opportunity here for organizations to come together with the workers who have to be in person and say, ‘Within the confines of our business, let’s obviously increase wages and benefits, but also think about flexibility so more innovative.'”

This is especially the case for people working in the restaurant and retail industries. In August, some 892,000 workers left jobs in accommodation and food services and 721,000 left jobs in retail, according to BLS data. The health care sector has also been hit hard: 534,000 American workers quit or resign from health and welfare roles.

Read more: The COVID-fueled exodus of women from the workforce is hurting us all

In June and July, the voluntary quit rate was 2.7% of the US workforce. In August, the turnover rate was 2.9%. These figures mark an unprecedented rate of churn: the 4.3 million people who quit in August 2021 were about 20% higher than the number of quits in August 2019, and more than 40% higher than the number who quit. resigned in August 2020.

A labor market

When a current employer is unable or unwilling to make a job more attractive, job posting figures suggest that burnt-out workers in many sectors can easily find new ones. “Workers have more bargaining power than they had in the immediate past or the recent past. If you look at the unemployment ratio, job vacancies, or just the quit rate itself, that suggests there is more power for workers in the form of exit,” says Nick Bunker, research director economy for North America at the Hiring Lab indeed. “If they don’t like the situation they are in right now, they can leave.”

That’s what Amy Minas, 35, from Illinois did. Frustrated with the limited number of senior staff and insufficient training in her job as a medical laboratory assistant, she felt overwhelmed and overworked at the hospital where she started working in May 2019. Things still went wrong. worsened when the pandemic hit. “It was very difficult to know that you were doing such important work with virtually no training and that you didn’t feel like your employer appreciated your concerns,” Minas says. “With COVID, it just made it worse, because of staffing issues and having to do all these COVID tests.” Like many other Americans, Minas has completely changed careers and now teaches science classes at a local community college.

Read more: Pandemic fuels union interest among frontline workers

Recent months have seen an increase in union activity, including October strikes facilitated by school bus drivers in Maryland and janitors at a Denver airport, and strike threats among film producers and television companies and John Deere employees.

Reich says current BLS numbers already point to a nationwide walkout. Workers, after all, do not have to picket to exercise their power in today’s labor market.

“People quit and don’t take jobs,” he says. “It is equivalent to a strike. American workers have indeed called for a general strike.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com.

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