Is this the year you take time off for a career transformation, to further your education, or to offer care for a loved one during a time of need? No matter your reason for stepping out of the workforce, you’ll need a cash crash pad to rely on. “In today’s world, it’s important for people to feel empowered to make dreams happen, but it’s also important to plan before you leap,” explained Marie O’Keefe, a Northwestern Mutual financial advisor.
Before you make any rash decisions or put in your two-week notice on a whim, make sure you’ve got a solid financial game plan in place so that no matter where you land, you’ll be standing on solid ground.
Make a budget
Before you make any moves to leave your current position, make sure you have a detailed budget in place for how you’ll cover your time out of the workforce, said Julia Ramhold, consumer analyst for DealNews.com. “If you’re quitting to take a sabbatical, your budget will determine how long you can go without working,” Ramhold said. “If you’re quitting without another job lined up, budgeting will help you figure out when you absolutely must have another job in place.”
Like your regular budget, it will include all your big-ticket expenses like mortgage or rent, food, phone, and internet. But also create a separate spreadsheet to analyze all your other expenses – your negotiables and non-negotiables. And be prepared to make some tough decisions when you don’t have regular cash coming in.
“Be prepared to tell your friends you can’t go out as often for dinner, or take part in their shopping spree for a new wardrobe,” Ramhold said. “If you think you’re going to be suffering from FOMO, have some free or cheaper suggestions lined up so that you can still hang out with your friends without draining your funds.” Preparing ahead of time will help you make those calls about what you’ll still pay for and what you’ll skip.
Revisit your credit score
If there’s any chance you’ll need to apply for a loan or credit card after you’ve quit, personal finance expert Trae Bodge encourages a second look at your credit score now, just to be safe. “If your credit isn’t in great shape, take the time now to try and improve that score. If you need to apply for a loan in the near future, your employment history could work against you, so a better credit score can improve your position,” she said. What does this look like in action? Say you quit your job and then you and your partner decide to purchase a home together. Since your income will be at zero, the loan you’re able to qualify for will be solely based on your spouse’s income. Make sure that’s not a concern for you before making the leap.
Arm your army
There’s strength in numbers. If you don’t let your squad know about your exit strategy, they can’t support you. Certified business coach Ivy Slater says to be vocal about your career goals and reach out to friends, friends-of-friends, and mentors for their advice and guidance. “We are much more successful when we work together and understand the value of our network,” she said. To go a step further, start cold emailing or messaging leaders in your dream industry or company. Perhaps they will take you up on the offer to meet for coffee and allow you to get some valuable networking time in before you make the leap.
Vacation time and healthcare concerns
Before you put in your notice, Slater urges professionals to check how much vacation time they have left. Most of the time, companies will allow you to use that paid-time-off before you head out the door. Not only does this give you more time to look for a new job while being paid, it’s important to take advantage of every benefit you have before you lose it, namely your health insurance. Career transition expert Wendi Weiner reminds professionals that there are penalties for being uninsured under the current administration. Before you head out of the office for good, make some phone calls to common providers in your state to explore your options. And talk with your human resources lead about what COBRA options you may have post-employment. And remember, sometimes you’re insured for a few weeks past your last date, but confirm that information to make sure.
To play it safe, Weiner also suggests starting a side fund for medical-related necessities “If necessary, look into a short-term insurance plan that can cover you for a few months before your new plan kicks in so you have measures in place, as you never know what can happen in terms of a health crisis or health emergency.”
Don’t forget about debt
Even if you’re taking a break from the 9-5 grind, that doesn’t mean that your student loan bills, credit card bills, and other debt obligations will conveniently go away. Bodge says it’s essential to create a master game plan for how to handle what you owe. “Take a look at your mortgage, student loans, credit cards, and your car loan to see what kind of interest rates you’re paying. If you’re paying a high APR on your credit cards, mortgage, or both, make moves to shift that debt to a lower interest option,” she said. “If you end up being out of work for a while, you don’t want your debt to be working against you.”
Know what’s next
If you’re looking to pivot within your career, sometimes the grass can appear greener – and the cash thicker – than it really is. As Northwestern Mutual’s O’Keefe reminds, before you throw everything up in the air to see where it lands, it’s essential to know what you’re getting yourself into. “Research online what the average pay is for the job you’re seeking, ask people you know in the industry what they make, or find someone that is higher up in the industry you aspire to be,” she said. “Mentors are a great idea when switching careers in general, but they can certainly help with compensation advice so you’re going in with your eyes open.”
But that’s not all. June marked another record low, with just 1.3 million workers being laid off or fired. In March 2020, that number was around 13 million, while from 2019 to 2020, it hovered between 1.7 million to 1.9 million a month.
DataTrek Research, an economic research group, tracks quits by something it calls the “take this job and shove it” indicator, which looks at quits as a percentage of job separations. That was a record 69.3% in June, meaning employers were more reluctant than ever to let workers go, and workers were more willing than ever to quit.
Jessica Rabe, DataTrek’s cofounder, told Insider by email that a high quits rate “typically reflects elevated worker confidence, which makes sense in the current environment given outsized labor shortages. People tend to leave their jobs when they find a better opportunity, and we think part of the high quits rate reflects the trend of many Americans relocating to the suburbs and out of urban areas throughout the pandemic.”
Rabe also said that Americans over the age of 55 are increasingly choosing to retire, which has been a primary driver of the so-called Great Resignation.
Another factor, per Rabe: Continued fears over the coronavirus and the possibility of new infections. While the Delta variant wasn’t quite raging at the time the June numbers were recorded, an analysis from payroll platform Gusto found that, in states opting out of unemployment benefits early, workers were more likely to come back in places with higher rates of vaccination.
Meanwhile, wages are going up across sectors as employers try to lure in new workers. That trend – alongside reports of businesses struggling to hire – have prompted some to say the country is in the midst of a labor shortage.
Heidi Shierholz, the director of policy at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, previously told Insider that this isn’t a “damaging” labor shortage – hiring was still up in industries like leisure and hospitality as pay went up, showing that growing wages might be the key to getting workers back.
And if employers don’t pay up, they might just get told to take that job and “shove it.”
Job openings keep hitting record highs, as 10.1 million positions were open in June. But quits were high again, too: People voluntarily leaving their jobs rose to 3.9 million from 3.6 million in May – close to the record-breaking 4 million quits in April, the highest level since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking this data in 2000. Quits have been over 3.6 million for each of the last three months, also something that hasn’t happened in decades.
This all points to a skyrocketing labor market, fueled by huge demand from employers reopening and expanding after last year’s lockdowns and by a labor supply crunch from workers seeking better, safer, and higher-paying jobs.
Workers’ desire and ability to hold out for better opportunities can also be seen in findings that 48% of the unemployed are frustrated with their search because they can’t find the right jobs in a survey by remote and flexible jobs site FlexJobs.
The quit rate remains especially elevated for leisure and hospitality workers, holding strong at 5.3% in April, May, and June. There were 778,000 quits in leisure and hospitality, and restaurants and hotels will likely continue to struggle to find workers to fill open positions without raising pay.
Leisure and hospitality had 1.65 million positions open in June, while the sector hired 343,000 workers that month. The high levels of hiring, quits, and openings all show an industry in flux after a tumultuous year, as workers leave for better prospects and employers scramble to lure them back.
Taken in total, June marks yet another month of more workers than ever quitting their jobs – especially in traditionally low-wage industries. If the last three months are any indication, that’s a trend that’s still holding strong.
The overall quits rate in June was 2.7%, and quits went up noticeably in the South, rising to 3% from 2.8%. While the quits data is from June, prior to the Delta variant roaring throughout the country, many workers could be holding back out of COVID-19 concerns.
According to JOLTS data, that region saw both increased quits and job openings, as well as hires, in the month of June. The Wall Street Journal also reported in June that the Northeast was seeing unemployment drop amidst high vaccination rates, with jobs in leisure and hospitality picking up.
An analysis by economist Luke Pardue at payroll platform Gusto of states that opted out of federal unemployment early found that workers came back in more vaccinated states, while they stayed at home in the less vaccinated ones – suggesting that fears over covid and vaccination are keeping workers at home, not cushy unemployment benefits.
Another reason why workers might be quitting: They’re holding out for higher wages, which are also going up. They might also just be burnt out. A July survey from Joblist, first reported by Bloomberg, found that one in three service workers wouldn’t return to the industry, and half wouldn’t return to their old roles. They wanted better pay, conditions, and benefits.
The openings are up and the quits are up. There hasn’t been anything like this in decades, and there’s no reason to believe it will stop anytime soon.
It’s a common refrain right now: No one wants to work. It’s a twist in the story of a not-quite-post-pandemic economy that left millions of people unemployed, as understaffed businesses struggle to hire and workers quit en-masse.
But, as always, the economy is complex, and so are the myriad of people who keep it running. A simple phrase doesn’t capture all of the complexities of why people may or may not be working. If you want to inject some nuance into your next conversation about the labor shortage, here’s what to know.
The pandemic is still going on
If the Delta variant has taught us anything, it’s that COVID is still spreading – and it’s still impacting the economy.
For instance, childcare – or lack thereof – has emerged as one potential driver keeping parents out of the workforce. With schools and daycares shuttered, some parents left their jobs to provide care. Others may have lost their roles, and delayed searching for new ones while their kids were at home. Either way, they may not have returned to the workforce yet.
Sociologist Jessica Calarco tweeted recently about the challenges facing parents as children remain unvaccinated and variants spread, noting that classrooms and daycares may have to temporarily shutter as cases come up.
“Given that kids aren’t going to be eligible for vaccines any time soon, and with Delta spreading rapidly, we should expect a whole lot more of this to come. I won’t be surprised if we end up with a whole bunch more 2-week gaps (or longer) in childcare this fall,” she wrote.
COVID fears have also kept some older workers out of the workforce. They were disproportionately impacted by job losses early in the pandemic, and some have called it quits and retired altogether.
Fed Gov. Lael Brainard said that labor shortages should fade by fall as schools reopen and fears abate, along with federal unemployment benefits.
Workers are taking advantage of more options
A huge amount of workers are quitting their jobs, which seems counterintuitive. In May, 3.6 million workers quit their jobs – but it may be because they are taking advantage of new opportunities.
Wages in industries that are having difficulty staffing up – like leisure and hospitality – are on the rise, but they’re still relatively low compared to other fields. Dr. William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and chief economist at the AFL-CIO, previously told Insider that “workers who are employed are finding ways to get jobs in the sectors that are expanding and hiring.” Those sectors might offer higher wages, or at least more consistency than their prior roles.
It’s what Insider’s Aki Ito calls The Great Reshuffle: An unprecedented labor market, coupled with a rethinking of what workers want out of both work and life, has led many to exit their positions or seek out new ones. The market out there for workers is competitive, and many are finding higher salaries or better positions as they depart their old roles.
And yes, some workers may not be returning because they’re benefiting from enhanced unemployment benefits. As Insider previously reported, the consistent pay from unemployment – as well as the fact that it’s higher than what some workers made before – has caused some to rethink work.
“I just think that UI has just at least fixed everyone’s brain enough to see how f—ed up the wages are,” Matt Mies, an unemployed 28-year-old, previously told Insider.
But, as always, the picture is still nuanced. Many workers will find themselves cut off completely – including those who have been frantically searching for work.
A lot of people remain unemployed, even though the number of job openings is high and businesses are desperate to hire. Americans that do have jobs are quitting at record-breaking rates. In other words, a major reshuffling is going on in the labor market.
As it turns out, a confusing labor market is nothing new, said Dr. William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and chief economist at the AFL-CIO. Spriggs told Insider that low-paying jobs and older people remaining in the workforce were both surprising features of the last 20 years of the American economy. And what seems weird right now is actually just an “unwinding” of these two trends giving way to higher-paying jobs and younger workers.
The labor shortage is actually healing major dysfunctions in the 21st century economy, Spriggs explained.
A Brookings analysis from 2019 found that 53 million Americans work for low wages – which comes to 44% of workers ages 18 to 64. And it’s not just teenagers; more than half of those low-wage workers fall between the ages of 25 and 50.
“It was very hard to explain how, in the 21st century, we gained so many low-wage jobs,” Spriggs said.
Now some of those past patterns are “unwinding,” said Spriggs. He attributes some of that to more consistent hours in some sectors, like those benefitting from the rise of online shopping. Workers – especially women, who have had a rockier recovery – are flocking to industries like construction, transportation, and warehousing.
“With this transition going on, the workers who are employed are finding ways to get jobs in the sectors that are expanding and hiring,” Spriggs said.
Older workers stuck around longer than expected
The other “really strange thing” about the 21st century labor market was that the number of workers over age 50 has been on the upswing, and participation for people under 25 fell. Spriggs pointed out that there was much talk about the 21st century being the “age of the computer.”
“I think everybody thought that people over 50 will continue to retire and people under 25, this would be the best cohort ever if you were young, because you will have to backfill all those jobs,” he said.
Instead, younger workers were unemployed at higher rates than older workers after the Great Recession, and were then hit harder by COVID job losses.
The pandemic might have evened out generational representation as a wave of older workers opted (or were pushed) into retirement over COVID fears, layoffs, and bleak industry outlooks. The Retirement Equity Lab found in an October report that, for the first time in 50 years, workers over 55 were unemployment at higher rates than the younger cohort.
After teen unemployment dropped significantly in May, it leveled out in June, coming in close to pre-pandemic levels. Insider’s Ayelet Sheffey and Madison Hoff reported that some expected teens would step in and fill the labor shortage, but June’s jobs report seemed to disprove that theory. Spriggs agrees that “there’s no evidence of that so far.”
The current labor market rollercoaster could create lasting change beyond temporary signing bonuses and other measures employers are using to lure in workers.
“Maybe because of the shift in demand, we finally shift to some of these other jobs that aren’t necessarily higher paying,” Spriggs said, but ones with more hours. That’s a potential advantage for workers: “The annual pay is much higher.”
I’m a risk-taker. But leaving my high-paying job at a tech startup in 2012 with a one-week old baby – with no plan – meant my family’s income went from comfortable to zero overnight.
My husband was developing a wind farm in Chile and not getting paid. But I knew I needed to leave the toxic workplace I’d been in for two years.
Nine years into running my business, a brand story and content strategy firm, I’ve had time to look back on the mistakes I made, the stints of success, and the six things I wish I’d known before going out on my own.
1. Nobody is their strongest alone
Early on, a phone call to my old boss landed me multiple massive content projects for several large companies. So in the first few years, I didn’t have to work hard to get clients – which meant I also became overly confident. Eventually I had nothing in place to help me get more work, but I was stubborn, wouldn’t admit that I was frustrated, and didn’t seek out a mentor because I thought I knew everything or could figure it out on my own. This caused me to lose several years of growth and income.
In the past few years, I’ve joined a mastermind group, read and listened to countless business books and podcasts, and have taken close to a dozen online courses – all part of my quest for mentorship.
2. Normalcy isn’t the goal
Fitting in is the best way to be forgotten. After a client chose not to renew my contract because I “wasn’t 100% necessary” for their growth, I took a business course online. It made me realize everything I was not doing – like differentiating myself .
My first task was to define my “Dream 100” – the list of people I really wanted on my client list. Easy. Then I had to define what my secret sauce was that would make me different. It took me six months to nail down the process I’d used with past clients and put it into a legible framework I could sell to a higher number of different clients.
3. Fail quickly, fail often
My dad used to say, “you never learn less” after anything disappointing happened to me, and it would drive me insane.
But after getting humbled several times as an entrepreneur (ie. losing a job bid), I realized he meant that experimenting is how you find your edge, even when some of those experiments completely bomb. Once I accepted that failure was inevitable, I felt less trapped by perfectionism and more free to try new things, create new programs, and go after my “Dream 100.”
4. Be more interested than interesting
Years into my business, I started listening aggressively to my ideal clients, and moved from trying to be interesting myself to being wholly interested in what they needed. This moved my client roster from start-and-stop to a steady stream, and thus recurring revenue.
5. Be prolific
A few years back, I went back to my roots and started writing again – this time with a strategy. I began penning blog and guest posts for brands and entrepreneurial magazines, sending weekly emails, and answering HARO requests. This has allowed others to see how I work and think, what frameworks I use, and how I impact others, which has led to even more opportunities. Just recently, an article I wrote got selected to be in a book being published by Thrive Global.
6. The back of the statue matters
When I first started working solo, I hated all the unsexy stuff that needed to happen on the back end of my business. But when I started to have a referral drought, I admitted that having no system (the back of the statue) was impacting my reputation and positioning (the front of the statue that people could see). It took months of toil, late nights, and a full-time virtual assistant to get my systems dialed, but now I communicate my process with clarity.
Lindsay Yaw Rogers coaches high-achieving entrepreneurs and athletes on how to create powerful brand stories to to stand out, create partnerships, and position themselves as a leader.
In May 2021, workers were still quitting their jobs in droves – yet another strange facet of the slowly recovering economy.
According to recently released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.6 million workers quit their jobs in May, a month when there was one available worker for every job open (and there were 9.2 million jobs open). In April, the quit number was a record-breaking 4 million.
DataTrek Research has its own tracker for how many of the job separations in a month were from quits – the “take this job and shove it” indicator. That indicator reached its second-highest rate recorded in May 2021, with 67.8% of job separations driven by quits.
This number was higher in the particularly quit-heavy leisure and hospitality industry, Axios first reported; it came in at 76.4%.
The number is still slightly lower than April’s record-breaking high of 68.8%. Jessica Rabe, DataTrek’s cofounder, told Insider that quits are still driven by reduced access to childcare and fears of infection. Also significant: Workers relocating to the suburbs from urban centers.
But quits – and the “take this job and shove it” indicator – may have peaked in April. Schools are set to reopen in the coming months and enhanced unemployment benefits ending could get more people back in the labor force.
“We think the bulk of people disenfranchised by their jobs have quit by now, given this difficult nature of the pandemic over the last year,” Rabe said. “We think the only caveat is if the Delta variant or others do take off and we get another raft of workers in customer service jobs quitting their jobs again, even with higher wages, but it won’t likely be as big as the first wave.”
Yes, wages are on the rise
That reading comes as leisure and hospitality workers say they’re not going to return to their previous positions. Insider’s Grace Dean reports that a third of hospitality workers said in a Joblist survey that they won’t ever return to the industry.
Those respondents want a new work experience, along with higher wages and better benefits. That’s not to say that leisure and hospitality isn’t growing: The sector made up 40% of jobs gains in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and added 343,000 payrolls. Wages also grew for leisure and hospitality workers at a breakneck speed, soaring 7.1% in the past year.
Even so, the quits rate in leisure and hospitality was 5.3% in May. That could be due to those wage hikes raising low wages to just slightly less low. In June, the average hourly earning for nonsupervisory private employees was $25.68. It was nearly $10 lower for leisure and hospitality workers, coming in at $16.21.
Those conflicting numbers show a strange new pandemic trend: High unemployment, coupled with high job openings. Generally, unemployment is driven down as job openings go up – since people are presumably filling those roles. That doesn’t seem to be happening here.
“The large labor shortage and elevated quits rate also shows employers are not raising wages enough,” Rabe said, “which is constraining hiring.”
At 21 years old, I started working as a part-time teller for a large national bank. Over the next decade, I held various roles that included seller, supervisor, and manager before transitioning to a non-customer facing program manager role at a smaller regional bank. There I was responsible for overseeing email messaging, inbound chat, and social media by creating and updating policies and procedures, establishing escalation guidelines, and interfacing across multiple teams. I enjoyed the fast pace and autonomy of the work.
Around 2018, I became interested in financial education.
After reading the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” I started having conversations with friends and family about saving, investing, and building credit. The more I learned, the more I wanted to share, so I decided to build a passion project around financial empowerment, to represent not only an underserved community, but a lack of diversity in content creators geared towards that community.
Over time, I became a financial literacy influencer on social media, wrote two books, and gave a TEDx talk.
While my passion project picked up steam, it also led to condescending remarks and questions from my employers around where my loyalties lie with the company. I was repeatedly asked to document any work I did outside of my role, from contributing to publications to speaking at conferences – despite that work being separate and done on my own time.
In February of 2021, I began to have anxiety about keeping my job amid the pandemic layoffs.
I found myself having to constantly reassure leadership of my commitment to the bank. Anxiety and fear turned into frustration and anger as I felt I was was being assigned unrelated tasks to keep me “busy,” given conflicting instruction on projects and assignments, and required to document my business interests and activities outside of the company.
That slow boil feeling also included me receiving the smallest merit increase I’d received, coupled with the comment that I should be grateful because “some people got nothing” and attempts to surveil and micromanage how I spent my time both on and off the clock. Ultimately it began to feel like a hostile environment. It started to take a toll on my mental health – I was angry, anxious, unfulfilled, and unhappy.
On May 28, I submitted my resignation via email effective immediately, concerned about retaliation attempts had I given a full two weeks’ notice. Leading up to this, I’d been sharing my frustration on the job with my small Twitter community since February, so I decided to share my decision to quit in what would become a viral tweet.
My manager immediately attempted to call and text me for an explanation, but by that time I’d made up my mind. I stuck around long enough to see the termination notice go out, and then I logged off with a sigh of relief.
On Twitter, I was immediately celebrated for sharing my story with likes, retweets, and comments that included “I’m next” and “I’m proud of you” as I shared my plans to continue building my passion project without limitations and fear. Since quitting, I’ve been focusing on monetizing my experience and thought leadership in personal finance via coaching, consulting, and digital content creation.
Mental health is a taboo topic, especially for men of color, and it’s not talked about nearly enough.
The most crucial thing I’ve learned from this experience is realizing the importance of my mental health. I’ve taken to reading and writing more as well as sharing my story via social media. I intend on starting a podcast and Youtube channel that speaks to not only my journey, but aims to highlight and support those on a similar path. I don’t have regrets, but I would advise anyone considering making the leap of quitting to ensure you have a strong support system, financial backing, and the stomach to handle the rollercoaster of emotions to follow.
The thoughts expressed are those of the writer. Insider confirmed his previous employment.
Rahkim Sabree is a personal finance influencer, author, speaker, and financial coach who focuses on helping entrepreneurs and business leaders optimize their financial future. Visit his website or connect with him on Twitter.
Kendra wasn’t usually one to get mad, especially not on the job. She’d joined Dollar General in 2019, as a longtime homemaker hoping for a change of pace. She loved chatting with the regulars who filed into her small-town location. She was meticulous about all the little tasks that went into keeping the store clean, organized, and running smoothly. Kendra had even worked her way up to the role of key-holder, the store employee responsible for opening and closing.
But then came the pandemic, and Kendra began to watch the stress start to “roll downhill.” The headwaters of the strain seemed to be visits, announcements, or corrections from regional and district management. The negativity seemed to submerge Kendra’s store manager, who became overwhelmed and less communicative toward her team. Soon, Kendra herself would find herself drowning in an increasingly fraught work environment.
“By the time you get down to that lowly stay-at-home mom that just wanted a part-time job – who is earning less than a hundred dollars a week because she’s making $7.25 an hour and only working 10 hours a week – it’s not worth it,” Kendra told Insider.
She says she’s not the “type of person” who acts out of anger. Yet, in the springtime of 2021, Kendra rage-quit her job.
Kendra isn’t the Dollar General worker’s real name. After verifying her employment records, Insider is protecting Kendra’s identity because she is concerned about getting her ex-boss in trouble with management. She said her manager is a “good person” who is simply under pressure.
On her last shift, Kendra says she could tell her store manager was displeased with something. During the pandemic, Kendra said she felt like she was constantly dealing with passive-aggressive and snide remarks, instead of clear direction.
“It’s like, if I’ve done something wrong, just tell me, you don’t have to be mean about it,” Kendra said. “Just tell me.”
The manager declined to share what the problem was, and the conversation got heated. So Kendra walked out, and never went back.
The phenomenon of rage-quitting is as old as work itself. Some people prefer to end things with a bang, not a whimper. So things like bridge-burning, walking off sans a two weeks’ notice, or even making a scene are nothing new when leaving a workplace. But the American workforce seems to be primed for rage-quitting at the moment – especially hourly workers in low-wage occupations like retail, which make up a giant portion of the workforce. In fact, hourly workers made up 58.1% of the US workforce in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Recently, multiple Dollar General employees at a store in Maine walked off the job after posting notes decrying the company’s work culture and pay. Similar incidents have occurred at Chipotle, Hardee’s, and Wendy’s around the country. Meanwhile, employers are complaining of a tight labor market, in some cases accusing unemployment benefits of luring potential workers away.
But there’s also evidence that many hourly wage-earners are simply fed up with their jobs. A study from the human resources assessment platform Traitify found that one in four respondents were at least “somewhat” less happy with their job than they were a year ago.
Gigs in industries like retail have long been denounced over low pay and high stress. But will the boiled-over rage of workers fresh off a life-altering pandemic – and any resulting labor shortage – finally prompt a major shift in working conditions?
‘So done with that job’
The pandemic itself had an outsized influence on worker’s decision-making. In some cases, workers who spoke with Insider cited the coronavirus as a primary reason for their unhappiness on the job, and their ultimate departure.
That was the reasoning behind Crista’s choice to depart from their job at PetSmart. Crista is also a member of the labor rights group United for Respect.
“I was really concerned about bringing COVID home from my place of work,” they told Insider.
Those fears grew as they watched managers and coworkers continuously flout mask requirements within the stores, even as COVID-19 deaths spiked. Crista says they found the work environment “callous.”
“It’s definitely hard to report stuff to the boss when the boss is breaking the rules, too,” they said.
Crista lives with their mother, who is 62. Their decision to quit was informed less by “rage” than by a deep dread over potentially infecting their loved one. Still, it amounted to a hasty departure. Crista can even pinpoint “the exact moment” they realized they needed to leave.
“My coworker was talking about how masks are so inconvenient to wear,” they said. “And she said, ‘If any of y’all get COVID from me, then sorry, not sorry.’ So she literally was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t care if you get sick, I just don’t want to wear my mask.'”
After thinking it over at home, they decided the “amount of pay” wasn’t worth the “lack of safety.” They called into work to put in their two weeks notice.
“The team lead said, ‘Just write it down on a piece of paper and don’t say anything about why,'” they said.
“I found it very strange and concerning that they would rather not hear why someone found a company to be a bad fit, especially during a global pandemic,” Crista said.
Crista says they went in to hand-deliver the note, but couldn’t find a manager. They left after situating the letter on a doorknob, and never received another call from PetSmart.
“PetSmart should know that there’s a huge disconnect between the corporate policies that have been put in place versus what their management and their staff actually do at their stores,” they said. “And that there needs to be some oversight and enforcement.”
In a statement sent to Insider, a PetSmart spokesperson said that the company remains committed to measures like “enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, face covering requirements for associates and customers, daily health screening for associates, and many other steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams and pet parents, and since the beginning of the pandemic, we have continuously directed our stores to adapt business practices to meet or exceed all applicable health and safety guidance, as well as other best practices for retail store operations,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, we have significantly invested in personal protective equipment, including cloth face coverings, KN-95 masks and gloves for associates, cleaning supplies, physical barriers in our stores, and other items to protect our associates and customers.”
Insider also spoke with Helena, a former employee at a fast-fashion retailer. Insider verified her work history and is using a pseudonym to protect her identity over concerns about retaliation.
Helena says she had a number of relatives died from COVID-19, and she was often stressed about her boss taking the side of maskless shoppers over her own team.
“I was like, you know what, this company and the employees here just don’t care about anything other than the bottom line,” she said.
But things came to a head after Helena took a moment to check her phone at work, looking for updates on a relative who had just had a stroke.
“My manager went on the walkie-talkie for everyone to hear, saying, ‘Do me a favor and put your phone in your locker,” Helena said. “This was right after the mass shooting where the employees couldn’t even call home because they were made to put their phones in their lockers.”
During the April FedEx hub shooting in Indianapolis, workers trapped inside the facility were unable to call or text loved ones because of the shipping giant’s policy against cellphones at work.
The next day, the manager sent a long text out to the store workers about staying off their phones while on the job.
“This company furloughed us at the beginning of the pandemic,” Helena said, thinking to herself: “Why are you working so hard for them? They pay you $10 an hour and you have to do way more work. They don’t care about you.”
Helena had always given two weeks’ notice before leaving a job, so she penned a resignation letter and went to work her next shift. At closing, she found herself getting yelled at by her manager once more, as she tried to deliver her two weeks’ notice.
“I was just so done with that job,” she said.
She decided to just not show up the following day.
“When they texted me to ask me where I was, I told them I was revoking my two weeks’ notice,” she told Insider. “It felt so good to know that I would never have to work there again.”
Gypsy Noonan, another United for Respect member, thought about quitting Walmart many times. She was often assigned as the sole cashier in the store, a task which she found incredibly stressful. Noonan says that work-related stress ended up causing her seizures. But she ultimately managed to hold off until she was offered a new opportunity. She gave her two weeks’ notice, but then found herself assigned to work the cash registers alone, once more.
She requested backup from her team lead, and from other coworkers. Everyone refused.
“At this point, it’s like a light bulb went off and I was like, I’m not doing this. I don’t have to do this. I refuse to let myself be abused by the system. And I walked out the next day”
‘Just trying to survive’
Some experts say that the spate of rage-quitting could signal a sea change for hourly workers. Quincy Valencia, the vice president of product innovation at hiring platform Hourly by AMS.
She began her career in big box retail management where she said “you enjoyed your workers, and the best ones you wanted to keep, but if someone quit, it was not a big deal. There were 10 people waiting to take that job.”
Now, Valencia said that attitude “boggles” her mind.
“A bad experience with the cashier is going to ensure that a customer doesn’t come back,” she said. “Nobody cares who your financial analyst is. And yet these industries have always taken more time and more care in trying to hire the right people into those [corporate] roles, than in hiring the people who are upfront.”
She said that there’s a “twisted mentality” around hiring hourly workers, in particular. Namely, jobs like working as a cook at a fast-food joint or a clerk in a grocery store are seen as a “rite of passage” for high schoolers, a frequently touted myth.
“Even now, the debate is going on about how these workers shouldn’t make $15 an hour, because these should be for high school students,” she said. “I would counter that this is sort of off-topic. So what, you can abuse them because they’re not raising a family?”
Valencia said that this attitude “cannot” continue to pervade the talent acquisition community.
“This category of worker – particularly in retail – has driven our economy over the past, especially here through this pandemic,” she said. “And now there’s a big mismatch right now between job availability and applicants for those jobs.”
But still, that doesn’t mean that going through with rage-quitting will empower workers on an individual basis. Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources expert with a focus on fixing work, told Insider that she’s concerned about the long-term implications for rage-quitters forced to find a new job on the fly.
“Why would you give up your known crappy job for an unknown, potentially crappy job?” she told Insider. “There is this tendency – especially when we’ve been sheltering in place for so long – like, ‘I’ve just got to get the hell out of here.’ But that instinct to just flee is always the wrong instinct.”
Ruettimann said that employees considering rage-quitting on the spot should try to give themselves “permission to take this process slowly” and to focus on gathering information on truly promising new opportunities before resorting to drastic measures.
For her part, Kendra, the former Dollar General worker, says that she doesn’t feel good about quitting out of anger. For now, she is enjoying spending more time with her husband, who she rarely used to see because of all the night shifts she worked. She also feels that there was no reason for her to continue subjecting herself to a high-stress environment for so little pay.
“I feel bad about it,” she said. “But in this country, everyone’s making money except for the ones actually doing the work.”
Kendra tries to avoid driving by her old Dollar General. The sight of the distinctive black-and-yellow sign makes her sad, thinking about all the workers “just trying to survive.”
Berndt Erikson worked as the nightly closer and key-holder at a Dollar General in the small town of Eliot, Maine. After every shift, he’d count up the money generated by the store and clean up before heading out.
But when he closed up shop on May 3, he knew he wouldn’t be going back.
Erikson and his fellow employees walked out of the store that day, leaving signs on the windows highlighting what they say were unacceptable working conditions at the retailer.
He said that understaffing, low wages, and frustration over a lack of communication from the company’s district management ultimately led to his decision to move on. In total, two employees and a manager quit the store, leaving one sole staffer remaining.
“Out of respect for these individuals, as well as the value we place on open and direct communication with our employees, we do not plan to comment on their employment status further,” Dollar General told local news station WMTW in a statement. “Our Eliot store remains open to provide the York County community with convenient, affordable access to everyday essentials.”
The company did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment.
Erikson had started at the Maine Dollar General in January 2020, after getting laid off from a local Super Shoes store. But very quickly, he said, the Dollar General began hemorrhaging workers. Pay for workers stayed around $13 an hour on average, which Erikson says was not a living wage in that part of Maine.
“People started to try to find better jobs, or they just had enough of being worked to death and being disrespected by both corporate and customers,” he told Insider. “We were already understaffed the entire time I had worked there, but it got to a point where we were not able to keep up.”
Keeping lean store staffs is a part of Dollar General’s business model, and one of the reasons the chain has been able to expand its footprint at such a rapid rate. In 1992, the company operated 1,522 stores in the US. As of February 26, 2021, Dollar General has a fleet of 17,266 stores across 46 states.
However, critics say that having so few employees to man the stores creates an unsafe environment, leaving workers as targets for robberies and violence. In Erikson’s case, he said that anti-maskers and anti-vax customers often screamed at employees, adding further tension to an already-difficult work environment. Meanwhile, requests by store managers that he receive a raise for his work were often ignored.
“They figured that they had me trapped in a job that I couldn’t get out of. To some degree, they were right,” he said.
But eventually, Erikson said, he decided that it would be better to seek out work with a different employer. And he’s not alone. As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, many business owners have complained about a tightening labor market, with employees quitting their minimum wage jobs to seek higher-paying roles.
The day before Erikson quit, the store manager left. He later called the acting district manager numerous times to say that he couldn’t man the entire store from opening to closing, but never heard back. Fed up, he and his coworker wrote up the signs – even including a special message to Joe, a beloved regular customer who’d often buy them sodas – and locked up the place at 4 p.m. that day.
The store opened back up the next day, with assistance from the acting district manager.
-Andy “Pass the PRO Act” O’Brien (@aobrien2010) May 4, 2021
“The Dollar General walk-out in Eliot is yet another example of service sector realizing the true value of their labor after suffering with low wages, poor treatment and lousy working conditions,” Maine’s AFL-CIO union communications director Andy O’Brien said in a statement to Insider. “While business owners are constantly whining and complaining about how they can’t find enough people to work for them, they still refuse to pay living wages to attract employees and the workers are fighting back.”
O’Brien added that, in the case of Dollar General, workers say the company expects in-store salaried employees work 70 to 80 hours a week. O’Brien said that a bill in the Maine legislature could make most salaried employees earning up to $55,000 a year eligible for overtime pay, which would “prevent the kind of blatant exploitation of salaried employees that Dollar General continues to get away with.”
The walkout at the Dollar General in Eliot isn’t the only flicker of labor unrest to occur in the state in recent months. According to O’Brien, “the pandemic and the sacrifices frontline workers have had to make” have sparked a recent victory for striking shipyard workers, an ongoing strike by delivery drivers and mechanics, and successful union drives among nurses and museum workers in the state.
“When working people win, other workers become inspired and that’s why we’re seeing more of these kinds of wild cat strikes and walk outs,” O’Brien said. “It’s an exciting time to be alive.”
Erikson told Insider that he’s well aware that he may be retaliated against, or black-balled from future retail jobs. But he said he’s glad that his story has resonated with frustrated retail workers around the country, based on the reaction on social media. He also said that, in a way, his experience at Dollar General has helped bolster his self-esteem.
“I eventually got fed up with it and started to see my own self worth,” he said. “I actually gained the confidence to fight back, which is probably what led to me leaving in style. So thank you, Dollar General.”
Are you a Dollar General employee or a retail worker with a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.