The Great Resignation

A ‘perfect storm’ in the labor market is causing many workers to re-evaluate their priorities.

For Jaryd Gallant, the pandemic was the push he needed to leave the restaurant and bar industry, nearly two decades after he first started washing dishes and bussing tables at the age of 12. 

The 31-year-old San Francisco resident had been working at Last Rites, a bar in Duboce Triangle, since 2019. Then, in March 2020, Gallant — like so many of his peers — lost his job and his health insurance.

As the pandemic swept into the United States, much ink was spilled about the suffering experienced by members of the service industry — and rightfully so.

But with the extra unemployment benefits going into his pocket every month and plenty of free time on his hands, Gallant decided to see if he could still “hack it in college” and finish the bachelor’s degree he had started eight years prior. 

When he first enrolled in college, Gallant was living in Florida, working at a chain restaurant and toying with the idea of becoming a teacher. But the career path would mean a roughly $25,000 a year pay cut, and he eventually decided to drop out to “pursue the restaurant industry more seriously.” 

Now, with California reopened for business and a vaccine mandate in place to enter San Francisco restaurants and bars, Gallant has been picking up the occasional shift. But his time in hospitality is coming to an end as he hopes to start an internship next month; he’s currently getting his master’s in urban planning at San Jose State University.

Gallant is one of millions of Americans who are participating in what experts are calling “The Great Resignation.” Burnout, a dearth of viable childcare options, toxic work cultures, low wages, and the fear of contracting COVID-19 on the job have driven many workers to put in their two weeks.

“Right now, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of churn in the labor market, and it’s because the pandemic has been a perfect storm in some senses,” says Daniel Zhao, a labor economist at Glassdoor. “It has not only forced Americans to re-evaluate what they find important in their careers and their lives, but it’s also given them the leverage to seek that out.”

It’s a stark contrast from a year and a half ago when the pandemic shut down the U.S. economy, and job losses soared to record highs not even seen in the aftermath of the financial crash. 

Low-income workers –– especially in the service industry –– bore the brunt of the impact as their white-collar neighbors safely transitioned to working in sweatpants and baggy T-shirts from the comfort of their couches. 

While the Great Recession had a long tail, the economy’s COVID crash has been relatively short lived for many Americans. The national unemployment rate declined once again in August as the country added more than half a million jobs –– with more than 100,000 of them in California alone.

It’s a job-seekers market, economists say, so much so that some industries are grappling with dire labor shortages as they rush to staff up following the state economy’s pivotal June 15 reopening date. 

The restaurant industry in particular has been reeling from the number of workers who’ve yet to return to their jobs. Gallant, who says he had an overall positive experience at Last Rites, is nonetheless unsurprised. Working at restaurants and bars can be physically taxing, he says. 

“Up until moving to San Francisco, I never really had health insurance while working at a job where it’s really easy to get hurt,” Gallant says. “Not to mention there’s a ton of pressure in a lot of places to do drugs or drink or stay out late and eat bad food and just do things that aren’t healthy for you. I’ve seen a lot of people get burnt out. I’ve seen a lot of people literally die.” 

At many of the bars he’s worked at in the past, Gallant says there was an expectation to work long shifts, resulting in 14-hour days, five days a week.

On top of that, the minimum wage for tipped workers in some states is still low. While working in Massachusetts a number of years ago, he said his base pay was $2.37 an hour. 

“If you had an off day at the bar, if it snowed, if it rained, you walked away with $50 for a 14-hour shift, and they don’t care if you can’t pay your rent or not,” he says. 

CLOCKING OUT

Gallant is not alone. Hospitality workers are quitting their jobs at much higher rates than other industries. In June 2020, leisure and hospitality workers quit their jobs at a rate of 3.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By June 2021, that number had risen to 5.3 percent –– well above the quit rate of any other industry. 

“I think the reality of this pandemic really woke a lot of people in the restaurant business to how some people in society find them very disposable,” Gallant says. “That’s always been the case, but this sort of exposed that. A lot of people are realizing they can do a lot better for themselves and are making a change, making a transition.” 

Enrique Lopezlira, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center, has studied California’s labor market over the last year and a half. While unemployment rates have been declining, Lopezlira says workers who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic have yet to recover. 

According to the Labor Center’s research, many of the “adverse employment trends” are the result of occupational segregation: the overrepresentation of women and Black and Latino workers in industries impacted the most by the pandemic.

Aside from those who lost their jobs, Lopezlira says he’s heard that many low-wage workers aren’t willing to come back to their jobs. Anecdotally he says some of those reasons have included fear of the risk of exposure to the highly contagious delta variant and the low quality of many minimum-wage jobs. 

“Many of these jobs don’t pay benefits, paid leave, retirement and so forth,” he says. “Some workers realized during the pandemic that their jobs were precarious because of the quality of those jobs, and maybe they’re wanting to not come back to those same jobs.”

While Gallant says he recognizes the privilege he has to be able to afford to go back to school and transition into a new career, others are not so lucky. Lopezlira says the Labor Center is still analyzing more data, but a preliminary review of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey from May and June found that less than half of households earning an annual income of $50,000 or less were reporting difficulty paying their bills. 

Many workers who recently quit or lost their jobs have survived thanks to CARES Act money, additional unemployment benefits, student loan payment deferrals and the moratorium on evictions for unpaid rent. But Lopezlira fears what will happen when policies like the eviction moratorium expire and low-income households are unable to pay tens of thousands of dollars in back rent. 

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

While quit rates continue to rise, the number of workers considering quitting their job and finding alternative career paths may be much higher. In July, the Washington Post, in conjunction with the George Mason Schar School of Policy and Government, surveyed 1,000 adults in the D.C. region on topics relating to the pandemic. 

They concluded that nearly one in three workers in the United State. under the age of 40 have considered changing their occupation during the pandemic.  

Alexandra Crosswell, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, explains the trend by pointing to the toll chronic stress takes on the human brain.

The concept is called benefit finding, or post-traumatic growth, she says. It’s the idea that positive results can emerge following major stressful events. 

“You have that opportunity to reflect on your life and redirect it in the direction that is more in alignment with your values or your changed values,” Crosswell says. “That reflection time helps people redefine what they want to do with their careers.”

But burnout could be contributing to people leaving their jobs, as well. At the core of burnout is stress. And, according to Crosswell, one of the key drivers of stress is uncertainty.

“Uncertainty has been really the definition of what’s going on for us over the past year and a half, because our brains are always trying to predict what comes next, and right now we can’t,” she says. “So there’s all this energy being put into trying to predict and plan for the future, but because we can’t, it’s almost like wasted energy. That wasted energy translates into being more tired and more unsure and then eventually more burnt out.”

WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Josh, whose name has been changed to protect him from possible repercussions at his job, sees burnout as a rampant problem in the tech industry. For the past three years, he’s worked at Atlassian –– a Sydney, Australia-based software company with U.S. headquarters in San Francisco. 

Josh says the in-office perks the tech industry is famous for — free food, nap pods, ping pong tables — are now viewed cynically by many: Providing homey amenities in the workplace only nudges employees to put in longer hours and ultimately leads to burnout. But over the past 16 months, as he and so many of his colleagues have been working from home, Josh says burnout has become even more “invasive.” 

Like many, the pandemic has pushed him to re-evaluate his priorities and consider whether he still wants to work in tech. For years, he’s been mulling quitting his job. The pandemic has been his tipping point.

“Especially living in the Bay Area and seeing how the tech industry has affected the Bay Area and advanced gentrification tremendously, it really made me question how closely tied I want to be to it,” he says. 

He said he’s also felt the strain of being a working parent during the pandemic. Over the past year and a half, women who are their family’s primary caregivers have faced much higher rates of unemployment than men, as many have left jobs to help their children with online school.

In Josh’s case, he’s the primary caregiver for his and his wife’s two children. But like many other people who work from home, Josh’s job has bled into his personal life as companies expect employees to be more productive than before –– even if that means longer hours and being overly accessible by text, Zoom, and Slack messaging. 

“I started taking a lot of late meetings to accommodate my co-workers [in Sydney], and that just kind of slowly became expected of me — because it was easier, because I was working from home,” he says.

The situation has only grown worse as the pandemic has dragged on, he adds. In the beginning, his managers were understanding as employees grappled with the trauma of a global pandemic with no end in sight. 

He claims the compassion and care to prevent burnout at Atlassian is now non-existent. Josh says management has become almost combative with working parents like himself and that employees often are monitored on Slack during work hours.

A spokesperson for Atlassian says the company has been thinking about burnout even before the pandemic began. Aside from resilience and burnout toolkits, extended parental leave and burnout training for managers, the spokesperson says the company’s Team Anywhere policy allows employees to work remotely and block out time in their day to pick up their children or eat meals. 

In a statement, Chief Administration Officer Erika Fisher said the company was in “new territory” with COVID compounding burnout. 

“We know that what we’ve done in the past isn’t enough, and that’s why we have been trying new approaches and trying to understand what works and doesn’t,” she says. “To that end, we have prioritized rolling out new benefits to our employees to ensure they have the resources they need to take care of themselves, such as extended leave, mental health, counseling and resources, manager training on burnout and resilience, and our flexible work policy that allows each employee to choose where and how they work.” 

A few weeks ago, Josh received a job offer at a nonprofit he says aligns more with his values than working in tech. But taking the job would cause a significant financial strain on his family. 

“It’s difficult because I’m either left to remain in the toxic work environment that I’m in or take another job in the same company or another job at another tech company and maybe the exact same thing will end up happening,” he says. “There’s no guarantee that I’m not going to be in a toxic work environment at the nonprofit either.”

If Josh takes the job, which is remote, it would most likely mean leaving the Bay Area and uprooting his children from their school and friends. He’s done the math and it’s just not financially feasible for him to stay as rent and home prices continue to rise. 

For now, he’s weighing his options to decide at what cost he’s willing to stay at his current job. But one thing he’s sure of is that his self-worth isn’t tied to his job. 

“Work’s not going to love me back no matter how hard I try,” he says. “So, I’m not going to give it my life when it’s not going to give me that in return.”  


Grace Hase is a contributing writer. Twitter @grace_hase

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