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At first, COVID-19 put people out of work. 

Beginning in March 2020, millions lost jobs practically overnight as government leaders locked down non-essential businesses, and Congress expanded jobless payments to help people weather coronavirus outbreaks. 

But nearly two years in, the entire labor market has turned upside down. Workers are calling it quits, spurring overwork among the remaining staffers and increasing job openings. In August, around 721,000 people quit their jobs in retail and 892,000 in accommodation and food services—industries with the highest quit rates compared to others, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, nearly 4.3 million people quit their jobs across industries, or 2.9%. Workers say the high turnover is the result of jobs that overwork them and don’t pay high enough wages, and in some cases the exodus is forcing employers to reevaluate what they’re offering. Experts point to the need for legislative fixes to see long-lasting change, especially as women, particularly women of color, are leaving the workforce.

Shelly Wigginton, a single mom from Akron, Ohio, left a job at Burger King in September. She would go weeks without a day off, and as an assistant manager she had trouble hiring extra hands because she couldn’t increase wage of $11 an hour. Because of staffing shortages elsewhere, Wigginton said she’s picked up shifts at 10 different locations in the past year. She relies on her grandparents to watch her kids. 

“Everyone is so burnt out, it’s ridiculous,” the 36-year-old said. “They’ve told us that if we didn’t like how we were being treated to go get a better job. Well, now everybody’s quitting fast food and we’re all looking for that better job.” 

She quit and moved into a position at Pizza Hut. She ultimately wants to open a pizzeria or food truck, or even get promoted to train new managers in the industry. 

“I love to teach people. I love to train people how to do new things,” she said. 

Women and women of color, especially mothers, face a “forced choice” to leave their jobs due to a lack of workplace support, according to Elizabeth Gedmark, the vice-president of A Better Balance, a workers’ rights advocacy organization. 

“That has always been true … but we have really seen the pandemic magnify that trend,” Gedmark said, adding the “Great Resignation” is more like the “Great Pushout.” A study published this summer in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that women’s employment rates dropped more than men during the pandemic recession in 2020, with larger gender disparities among workers with kids. 

One industry that could help working moms continue their careers is also facing a shortage: child care providers, some who’ve left for a mix of health or financial factors, according to Nancy Harvey, a child care provider at her longtime business Lil Nancy’s Primary Schoolhouse in Oakland, California. The Washington Post reports child care services lack 126,700 workers from what it had before the pandemic, with less of a rebound than the restaurant industry. 

“They’re not able to meet their bills,” said Harvey, who is also a negotiator for the recent deal between Child Care Providers United and Gov. Gavin Newsom to raise provider rates. 

Harvey has trouble finding providers as well, because she’s unable to pay higher rates than what the state offers. Nationally, the mean hourly wage is $12.88, and she’s already lost an assistant who left to avoid coronavirus risks. But Harvey said efforts like her union make a difference in retaining childcare workers, many who are women of color like Harvey, who is African American. 

“We all agree that it is important to make child care providers whole and we do that by having benefits that corporate workers are able to have,” Harvey said. “We are equally as important as the employee[s] at Google and Microsoft and Netflix.” 

Workers are also exerting their rights through walking out or rage-quitting

“What’s confusing is we’re seeing quit rates high, but also hiring is high. We’re seeing jobs that are open, but we’re also still seeing a lot of unemployed,” said Stephanie Luce, a labor studies professor at the City University of New York. Research shows the expiration of jobless benefits doesn’t lead to drastic increases in employment. She cautioned experts are learning in real-time about the shift. Business Insider reports it could be due to a mismatch in skills, workers relocating, or higher expectations.

“That’s what is the complicated moment, which is a tremendous mismatch in the labor market,” she said. 

Atlanta resident Elijah Lucky quit working as a barista this month after asking for a raise and getting rejected. Based on the response, Lucky, who is trans, doubted how supportive his boss was of him getting top surgery last winter. Putting up with low tips and customers who refuse to wear a mask made him question the job. 

“It’s not worth it for that very small amount of pay,” said the 24-year-old, who’s now a freelance artist. “If I’m so replaceable, then what’s the point?” 

Patricia Campos-Medina, the executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said workers, even if not through formal unions, are demanding basic rights. 

“What we’re seeing is a fundamental shift in the relationship between service workers, low-wage service workers, and employers,” she said. “I think that there’s more organic power building for workers.”

Some employers are feeling that pressure. Amazon has upped its starting wage to $18 an hour, and, along with Walmart and Target, offers college tuition payments for some workers

Near Detroit, Michigan, 45-year-old Marcie Adair said a nearby Amazon warehouse pressured her employer to increase her pay to $15 an hour at an auto-parts shop. It wasn’t enough to keep her at the company where she’d been for 14 years and felt overworked and underappreciated during the pandemic. 

Customers “don’t even pretend to be public-friendly anymore,” said Adair, who transitioned to a security role at a marijuana dispensary making more money. 

Labor experts say securing more meaningful, systemic fixes through laws or unions would be more long-lasting and ensure small business employees don’t flee to larger companies. 

In the meantime, workers are beating back narratives about their so-called laziness. Twenty-year-old Bret Thomas, says he’s willing to work. He quit his $10-an-hour job as a gas station worker in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after getting short-changed for hours he worked.

“These jobs aren’t really even worth it,” Thomas said. “That’s why no one wants to do it.” 

Sydney Pereira is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She covers the intersection between social justice and health, labor, and climate change. Her work has been published in Gothamist/WNYC, Newsweek, Patch,...