The pandemic pushed millions of U.S. workers to join the ‘Great Resignation.’ Here’s why

The September jobs report shows that the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% and job openings are at a record high with wages increased again last month, as companies tried to attract new employees. But more than 25 million people quit their jobs in the first seven months of this year. And it's now called “the great resignation.” Business and economics correspondent Paul Solman explains.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. jobs report for September showed that COVID continues to disrupt the labor market. The government employment was far lower than expected.

    One key reason, back-to-school hiring in public schools was lower than usual. But the report also underscores other complications in the labor market. The unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent, but that was due in part to people leaving the labor force altogether. Job openings are at a record high, and wages increased again last month, as companies tried to attract new employees.

    More than 25 million people quit their jobs in the first seven months of this year, and it's now being called the great resignation.

    Our business and economics correspondent Paul Solman explains.

  • Nancie Picinich-Johnson, Former Librarian:

    We don't want to do this anymore.

  • Alicia Bowen, Cleaner:

    They just didn't care about me anymore.

  • Sam Weston, Former Hotel Worker:

    I'm done. I am not working here anymore. I don't feel safe.

  • Paul Solman:

    Workers like these are quitting their jobs at the highest rate in 20 years, because, for many of us, the pandemic has prompted a professional reassessment. So says Harvard Business School's Tsedal Neeley.

  • Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School:

    We cannot underestimate the extent to which people have experienced such stress, such anxiety, and a ton of burnout in the last 18, 19 months. That is also driving their interest to say, I don't want this lifestyle as it is. I want to change it.

  • Paul Solman:

    Georgetown University's Brooks Holtom has long studied worker turnover.

  • Brooks Holtom, Georgetown University:

    Periodically, people experience shocks that cause them to reconsider how work fits with the rest of their life. All of us for the past 18 months have experienced one of these shocks.

  • Paul Solman:

    As Microsoft futurist and slipper fan Desmond Dickerson told us back in the spring:

  • Desmond Dickerson IBM:

    Forty percent of the global work force intends to leave their job in this coming year.

  • Paul Solman:

    And ever so many have, led by millennials.

    In the last year, the rate at which workers age 30 to 45 resigned rose by over 20 percent. Some of the hardest-hit sectors? Health care and tech. The specific reasons? First and perhaps foremost, burnout.

  • Kaleena Soorma, Director, Patient Care:

    Your staffing is at an all-time low. The morale is at an all-time low. It's traumatic. It's stressful. We're at a breaking point.

  • Paul Solman:

    Kaleena Soorma quit her job as a patient care director at a New York City hospital in August.

  • Kaleena Soorma:

    It's so distressing. You come to work and you have a skeleton crew, and they can't get time off. They can barely even get a lunch break. They come to you asking for something, and you have nothing to offer them. They feel so undervalued. It's hard. It's a tough time.

  • Paul Solman:

    Across the country, the nursing shortage has become acute.

  • Kaleena Soorma:

    There was a point where we could not hire nurses who were below a bachelor's degree. Now, just recently, they opened it up to nurses with an associate's degree. So, there's a desperation there.

  • Paul Solman:

    The virus had other front-line workers on edge as well.

  • Sam Weston:

    When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it just kind of crystallized a lot of the ways that they don't care about employee safety.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sam Weston used to work at the front desk of a hotel in Superior, Wisconsin.

  • Sam Weston:

    I actually took the initiative to place signs around the hotel lobby, saying, like, hey, wear a mask, hey, keep the six-foot distance.

    And my hotel management specifically tore those signs down and directly told me not to put those kinds of signs up, because it would cause a panic.

  • Paul Solman:

    Nancie Picinich Johnson was a librarian on Long Island, New York.

  • Nancie Picinich-Johnson:

    My job was no longer so totally focused on librarianship. I started to feel like I was a mom every single day. Pull your mask up. Pull your mask up. Oh, I don't want to wear a mask. Well, I'm sorry. You can't come into the library without a mask on.

  • Paul Solman:

    A related reason for quitting? Lousy employer treatment, for lousy pay. Alicia Bowen made $12.50 an hour as a commercial cleaner in Ohio.

  • Alicia Bowen:

    Any time I had a family emergency, I was treated horribly.

    For example, my husband passed away in 2015, and I called and said I needed a week off. And they told me how inconvenient it was and that it wasn't going to work out. But it was just years and years of abuse and mistreatment.

  • Paul Solman:

    The shutdown was the last straw.

  • Alicia Bowen:

    I had no backup work, nothing. My hours were cut in half. I felt like this wasn't unfair to me. I'd been working really hard for these people, sacrificing. And I quit.

  • Paul Solman:

    Oscar Garcia was a teacher in El Paso, Texas. Teaching online pushed him over the edge, too.

  • Oscar Garcia, Former Teacher:

    You spend less time teaching in the room and more time documenting contacts with parents, helping students, technical issues.

    And then hybrid, it became worse because you are now in the room with some students, but some students are still at home. I was so tired. And you're going to hear that a lot from teachers, how exhausting it is.

  • Paul Solman:

    For Chicago area data analyst Ricardo Martinez, the crunch came from company demands while he worked from home.

  • Ricardo Martinez, Data Analyst:

    I have got one kid crying over here, another kid that's running by and just wants attention.

  • Paul Solman:

    And then an inflexible supervisor asked why he couldn't make an impromptu online meeting.

  • Ricardo Martinez:

    And they're like, are you working? I don't understand.

    It, like, accelerated, accentuated all of the feelings I had from before about how work-life balance worked at my work.

  • Paul Solman:

    Like many other millennials, Martinez reassessed his priorities and resigned.

    So did Minneapolis area digital marketer Mark Senn.

  • Mark Senn, Digital Marketer:

    Most of my friends are preferring to work remote and have seen kind of a shift in that mentality.

  • Paul Solman:

    Librarian Johnson and her husband, a paramedic, decided to quit their jobs earlier than planned for a new life on a farm in Upstate New York.

  • Nancie Picinich-Johnson:

    We have both been career people for our entire adult lives. And it just got to be too much.

  • Paul Solman:

    But now a question you may be asking: How can so many people afford to resign? Sam Weston is living off savings as he pursues writing and a freelance career in filmmaking.

  • Sam Weston:

    I have been investing, actually, in cryptocurrency, a little bit. And that's been increasing the amount of runway that I have.

  • Paul Solman:

    Seems like a risky way to stay afloat.

  • Sam Weston:

    It is risky, but it's better than working for somebody else who doesn't care for your health and well-being and who won't give you a leg up to actually do something that feels meaningful.

  • Paul Solman:

    And if and when he returns to the work force, Weston will be in a stronger position than before. At the end of July, there were a record 10.9 million job openings. It's an employees' labor market, says Harvard's Tsedal Neeley.

  • Tsedal Neely:

    People have options. And because they have options, their demands and their interests and their tolerance for things that are not aligned with their values on how they want to live their lives, they're going to leave and they're going to look for it elsewhere.

  • Paul Solman:

    Tech worker Mark Senn got a job right away, but, like quite a few resigners, he also has entrepreneurial ambitions.

  • Mark Senn:

    My new role has given me opportunities to work on my start-up, make more money, and it's full-time remote. So, I'm able to be at home and really invest in my home space.

  • Paul Solman:

    Data analyst Ricardo Martinez simply found a better fit.

  • Ricardo Martinez:

    So, I wound up finding a company that said, we understand family comes first.

    And I was able to make a little bit more money as well, but I was not really financially motivated.

  • Paul Solman:

    Nursing supervisor Kaleena Soorma?

  • Kaleena Soorma:

    I resigned for a better position in pay and seemingly a better situation with the staffing and everything, more control that I will have over that.

  • Paul Solman:

    Cleaner Alicia Bowen's sister hooked her up with a much better gig.

  • Alicia Bowen:

    She works for a bank, and they had a cleaning position open at paying $4 more an hour with a 401(k) benefits. And I don't have to drive my car. So I think what I did by quitting kind of did myself a favor big time.

  • Paul Solman:

    How come you didn't ask your sister about other possibilities earlier?

  • Alicia Bowen:

    I really don't know. I was scared that I wouldn't qualify for anything else, or scared that it wouldn't work out. I would get stuck in this. I feel like I don't deserve any better. And I do.

  • Paul Solman:

    And in a reopened economy, employers now scramble to find workers. Their challenge? A labor force that no longer accepts business as usual.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Paul Solman.

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