Why Are US Workers Quitting Their Jobs in Droves?

A recent New York Times article investigates why quitting can spread within a workplace. By only asking white-collar workers, it misses much of the story.

Food service is one of the industries with the largest increase in workers quitting. (Getty Images)

Last week, the New York Times published an article about what the writer dubbed “quitagion,” the phenomenon of quits spreading within a single workplace as one person’s departure inspires others to leave, too.

It’s a real phenomenon — when your coworker decides that they’ve had enough, it can lead you to consider whether you, too, should quit. Unfortunately, the article opens as follows:

Something infectious is spreading through the work force. Its symptoms present in a spate of two-week notices. Its transmission is visible in real time. And few bosses seem to know how to inoculate their staff against this quitagion.

Given that a real, sometimes deadly virus is still spreading through the workforce, particularly among those who perform arduous and largely low-paid food-manufacturing and service, logistics, and health care work, the cutesy opening is somewhat callous. None of the workers interviewed for the story are from those sectors, an absence that both explains the tone deafness and offers a lesson in blind spots: if your assumed audience is white collar — and at the New York Times, it is — you may also mistake that milieu’s problems as universal rather than, perhaps, one small part of a higher-stakes story.

Everyone interviewed in the article is white collar; many of them leave their jobs to pursue self-employment. We meet a digital marketing employee who quits to focus on her “coaching business,” an employee at a Silicon Valley tech start-up who leaves to, well, also start a coaching business — what “coaching” entails, I have no idea — and an employee of an Orange County, California, school who quits to pursue freelance social-media marketing.

All well and good, but given the lack of context in the article, you might mistake this for the typical pandemic story. The article mentions an important statistic, which is that more than 4.5 million people in the United States left their jobs voluntarily in November of 2021, a record high. But it fails to note what types of jobs are seeing the most quits, as well as the under-discussed second part of the story of the “Great Resignation,” which is that people are taking other jobs.

It’s true that some quits are by people who are choosing to become entrepreneurs, but that number is relatively small. In the latest Department of Labor data, the industries with the highest increase in quits are accommodation and food services; health care and social assistance; and transportation, warehousing, and utilities. These are sectors where that “something infectious” that is “spreading through the work force” is COVID-19.

While every person will have their own particular reasons for quitting, we do have a rough picture of what’s driving switches to different industries. In health care, long-standing practices of understaffing, particularly at for-profit facilities, have boiled over into a fundamental breakdown in the ability of workers to do their jobs; some one in five health care workers have quit since the pandemic began. In food service and accommodation, there is a sense that low pay and the high risk of contracting COVID-19 are not worth it anymore.

David Dayen at the Prospect dubbed this phenomenon the “Great Escape.” Workers suspect that they can find jobs that pay higher wages — never mind that inflation is now eating up those gains — and more sustainable, dignified working conditions. So they are taking that leap. It is fundamentally a story of decades of immiserating, dangerous, insulting work at low pay that has only gotten worse during the pandemic, and the possibility of something better, even if it is still not enough.

That accords with what workers have told me over the past two years. It is restaurant workers quitting after learning that their employer was withholding information about positive cases of COVID-19 among their coworkers, or simply saying no to a job that now entails enforcing public-health standards, and for a subminimum wage. It is health care workers quitting because they feel that they are actively helping to kill their patients.

The US nursing home industry alone has lost some 425,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic. These workers were at the center of some of the earliest, deadliest outbreaks of COVID-19 — in part because their low pay led them to work at multiple facilities, unintentionally speeding the spread of the virus. Some of that industry’s quits are about early retirement, and others are about caretakers moving to the likes of Amazon, which at least offers higher pay.

Of course, Amazon workers themselves have been hit hard by the pandemic, too. I have spoken to many who were stricken with grief and fear at the height of the pandemic as the company failed to communicate about COVID-19 cases in warehouses and provided inadequate PPE. At this very moment, there are Amazon warehouses where hundreds of workers are out on COVID leave. These high stakes in turn drive quits in the workplace that is nonetheless hiring more new employees during the pandemic than any other employer in the United States.

Not every article has to do everything, but if one opens by speaking of a metaphorical virus but fails to mention the real one that continues killing workers, and only inquires into the psychology of why one small fragment of the working class is quitting in a moment when the majority of such quits are taking place among another fragment, it does the reader a disservice, meriting a friendly corrective.