Employees find new freedom through pandemic

As burnout combines with poor working conditions and irate customers, some employees have started saying no.

Signs are posted on a number of businesses across the nation. “Due to an understaffed kitchen, wait times may be longer than normal, and we apologize.” It was around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that these signs started popping up, but it is surprising that as other aspects of daily life ruined by the pandemic are starting to heal, these signs are not going away. In just August 2021 alone, the US Labor Department announced that 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs, furthering the surge of the Great Resignation.

At the start of the pandemic, the economy faced trouble very quickly as citizens stayed in their homes and limited their interactions at stores and restaurants. Businesses, especially ones that were locally owned, were only receiving a fraction of the income they had in years past. For many businesses, they were forced to make difficult decisions due to this limited income, either laying off employees or closing down entirely. This was the beginning of the labor crisis.

Many employees who were laid off sought out new positions, but with a number of businesses unable to hire more employees with their limited funds, it was a futile search. A number of families can relate to this experience at the beginning of the pandemic as Harvard University’s Economic Tracker project claimed earlier this year that there were 37.5 percent less small businesses than the year prior.

As the COVID-19 pandemic wore on, though, there began a shift in the workforce from being laid off to actually deciding to quit. For those employees that remained hired when others were let go, they experienced pay and vacation cuts to minimize company spending. At some companies, this decrease in pay could have even been paired with an increase of hours. A trend began of employees deciding to quit their jobs in an effort to pursue better working conditions. This was the beginning surge of the Great Resignation, the effect on the world of so many employees deciding to quit their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was most commonly seen in the service industry, particularly restaurant and retail where employees often make minimum wage or slightly more for hours of effort each week. According to the BBC, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 6.8 percent of food service workers quit while 4.7 percent of workers in retail quit during August 2021.

There are a number of reasons motivating employees to quit this far into the pandemic. Poor working conditions, though, are cited as one of the largest reasons. At the height of infection rates, there were companies that would not protect the health and safety of their employees, either not requiring masks to be worn by customers or not social distancing tables. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) may not have been supplied or other products that could minimize the spread of infection. Many employees reported that at their workspaces, they felt unsafe going to work.

This was especially true in school districts, where some schools did not require children to wear masks to school or school districts that still had employees teach in person while others shifted to virtual learning. Many teachers trended on social media and Buzzfeed for showing what their schools supplied as “COVID-19 protection,” panning their cameras to show a bottle of hand sanitizer and a box of Clorox wipes that was allegedly meant to last an entire year. For many teachers, they purchased PPE with their own money and were not reimbursed by their districts. There was little support extended towards their safety.

Not only did employees have to put up with poor working conditions, but they also battled rude customers on the daily. Hundreds of videos circulated online and through news sources of customers or employees recording interactions that quickly escalated into arguments. Some of these interactions were of customers refusing to wear their masks even though they had been asked multiple times or even customers arguing with fast food workers over their orders or retail workers over their returns.

All of these scenarios summed together with the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion caused by surviving a global pandemic clearly equated to burnout in employees around the world. Healthcare workers who were pushed to the edge showed the way their multiple layers of masks left their skin indented and bruised from hours in the emergency room. Teachers gave interviews with news sources to describe the absolute loss they feel having to teach to turned-off cameras through a non-interactive zoom classroom. Fast food and retail workers are still earning minimum wage for no satisfaction. The workforce is exhausted.

People choose their jobs for a reason, whether that be the student interactions, getting to save lives or work in the kitchen of a favorite restaurant, but the COVID-19 pandemic robbed many of that joy for their job. As Derek Thompson in “The Atlantic” says, “we may instead look back to the pandemic as a critical inflection point in something more fundamental: Americans’ attitudes toward work.” Resigning instead of fighting for better conditions, to petition for higher minimum wage and to heal from burnout, the Great Resignation is rooted in what all major events that occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic are rooted in: the urge and fight for change.

Employees find new freedom through pandemic on Tulsa Collegian