Eva Lynch worked for years in specialty stores, loving the interaction with customers, the give and take, suggesting cosmetics or outfits or jewelry.
But the pandemic stole that. She had been selling clothing and intimate apparel at a Douglasville store that closed for six weeks in the spring of 2020. When it reopened that May, it just wasn’t as satisfying. People had to keep their distance, their faces hidden behind masks.
The Powder Springs resident eventually quit her job in April of this year to join a staffing firm as a recruiter. Now, she spends most of her days at Hire Dynamics talking to potential workers about what they need in a job, what they hope for, where they are going.
She says her own career switch was in many ways crowdsourced.
“You started to see people making changes,” she said. “You see employees and colleagues making extraordinary changes and they landed on their feet and did well and it makes you think that you can do it too.”
The earthquake upending the U.S. labor market has been dubbed ‘The Great Resignation,’ but that really doesn’t cover it.
People have been quitting jobs at record rates, but they also are switching jobs and professions. And those who don’t quit have been pressing for better pay, rejecting assignments, even threatening to strike.
Hiring has continued to be brisk and the overall number of people working has been rising rapidly. Yet some people who were laid off in the first weeks of the pandemic have stuck to the sidelines. And when people do apply for jobs, many employers report being “ghosted” at hiring interviews. In many states, including Georgia, there are more job openings than job seekers, according to government officials.
Call it ‘The Great Rift,’ a broader breach in the historic relationship of employee and employer, said sociologist Katie L. Acosta, director of graduate studies at Georgia State University.
And 20 months after COVID-19 turned daily life upside down, it’s not certain when we’ll go back to business as usual. Certainly there’s been a change in how many of us think of work.
“The pandemic forced everyone to stop and take inventory of their lives and to consider their mortality,” said Acosta.
For Georgians like Lynch, ‘The Great Rift’ triggered ‘The Great Reevaluation’ and then, eventually, ‘The Great Redirection.’ She’s one of many.
Employed Americans voluntarily left jobs at the fastest pace on record in late summer. In Georgia, 4.2% of jobholders quit in August. Only Kentucky had a higher rate. In September, the quit rate in Georgia dipped to 3.7% of jobholders, still ninth highest among states.
Many Georgians are leaving for new jobs or careers, but some haven’t decided what to do next. The state’s labor force — everyone either working or looking for a job — is 61,459 people smaller than it was before the pandemic.
To fill job openings, many anxious employers have offered higher pay, flexible schedules, skills training and tuition aid. In the three months ended September, U.S. wages rose an average 4.2% from the year before, the steepest rise in three decades.
But we’re still not back to where we were.
“I do not think that it’s a three-month problem. I think we’ve changed. I think the United States has changed. I think the labor market has changed,” said Victoria Grady, management professor at George Mason University School of Business.
And there are many reasons we’ve changed how we view our jobs and work in general, from the practical to the financial to the psychological. Power and politics also are playing roles. That’s a lot of momentum that must be reversed to return to the way things were.
The pandemic intensified practical worries for many families, with most schools closed, many child care centers floundering. Even when they reopened, logistical challenges spurred parents to question their career choices.
Mike Petchenik had been a television reporter at WSB. He loved the job. And he left July 1.
“For 12 years we had juggled and made it work with au pairs and nannies and afterschool care,” he said. “The pandemic pushed me to make a decision that I had been grappling with for some time.”
He is now director of communications at Homethrive, a Chicago-based company that lets him work from home in Sandy Springs. “I’m able to be flexible. My boss knows at 2:30 every day I’m on the road for carpool.”
The pandemic added pressure in other ways. Front-line workers worried about health, while work-at-home professionals confronted solitude and new technologies. There were children, spouses, older relatives, some sick with the virus — demands competing with each other for attention.
Then came the national trauma over George Floyd’s murder, triggering weeks of civil rights marches and counter-protests — some of them violent — followed by a bitterly contested presidential election with results that many Americans still deny.
“You might be able to cope with just your work stresses,” said psychologist Malissa Clark of the University of Georgia. “But the problem is that our systems have been taxed in many ways and then you add things on — piling on and piling on. Our resources are depleted.”
Impacts are different in different demographics. Women often found themselves suddenly thrust back into child care, minorities often found themselves in the highest-risk but lowest-paid jobs. And for everyone there was uncertainty — about the disease, about politics, about the course of society.
People under stress are more likely to make a change, Clark said. “We can only take the stress for so long before we are unable to cope.”
Melanie Hollifield of Lilburn worked in a hospital office for 16 years, but she says she’s had it.
Early in the pandemic, the hospital cut her hours in half, then offered to add back the hours by giving her several shifts in the emergency room testing for COVID-19. It was something she’d never trained for, and besides, she was going to school weekends to become a massage therapist, so she said no.
“I would never go back into health care, being employed by a large hospital corporation. I loved my job and I gave it 100%. But they don’t have your back,” said Hollifield, who is 50 years old.
Politics also has played a role, with the COVID-19 vaccine becoming a polarizing issue for many Americans who see mandates as government or employer overreach. Hollifield’s hospital, Piedmont Eastside, is requiring workers to get vaccinated, but she refused, and decided to let them fire her.
“If I don’t allow it to happen and I don’t allow myself to see just how great I can be at something else, I’ll never know,” she said.
Something else that has emboldened employees and would-be workers: their relative financial power.
In the early pandemic panic, unprecedented government action bolstered bank accounts with enhanced unemployment benefits that only ended recently. Most working Americans also have received several stimulus checks, and federal child payments have increased.
The result is that U.S. savings have risen to record levels, giving Americans unprecedented freedom when weighing potential jobs.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Ilona Knopfler, 46, had poured herself into managing a couple of upscale restaurants. Then, early in the pandemic, as the Buckhead restaurant Le Bilboquet scrambled to stay in business by offering take-out, she had some reflective moments.
“The pandemic made us think — you are spending a lot of time by yourself,” she said. “It’s pretty eerie working in an empty restaurant.”
For the first time in years, she considered her priorities. Her Great Reevaluation took several months, she said. “When you love your job, you do it 100%. And then you wake up and seven years have gone by and you haven’t seen much of your family and you have turned down all the invitations to see your friends.”
Then came her Great Redirection.
Knopfler quit in May of this year, took a few months off, sang at a jazz festival in Pennsylvania, then became an industry consultant. That gives her more control over her time so in a few weeks she can visit her parents who retired to France.
“You realize that life is short and you should tell people that you love them. My father is 85. What am I waiting for?” said Knopfler.
She was bemused to see many others in her business also rewriting their work script, sometimes in ways she found annoying.
“I had seven interviews for a manager position and none of them showed up,” she said. “It’s difficult now to find people in the industry who really want to work. It is a new form of normal.”
Lynch, the retailer-turned-recruiter, said the people she talks to now are emphatic about what they like and what they want.
Some job candidates are in a take-this-job-and-shove-it mood, but more people like their work, but just think they can do better, she said. “They are not always looking for the highest pay. Oh yes, pay is going up, but they want flexibility, they want a good schedule.”
Many human resource departments are acting like the rift will soon close, said Kay Bunch, director of the Beebe Institute of Personnel and Employment Relations at Georgia State.
“HR is just dealing with symptoms,” she said. “There’s a focus on compensation, like signing bonuses. But there isn’t enough talk about finding better paths for workers. It’s like there’s a hole in your boat and you really need to repair it, but right now, you just keep bailing.”
It may be that need will close the risk, that people will run out of savings and take what they need to. The huge number of jobs added to the economy last month means openings are being filled.
But if it was something more than economics that created the rift, then economics will not close the divide, said Alex Bombeck, managing director at North Highland, a management consultancy.
“There’s a kind of Great Awakening, people asking, ‘Is this really what I want to be doing?’” he said.
The precise label is hard to find, but then, the outcome too is uncertain, Bombeck said. “The Great Resignation moniker, it’s misleading. It’s also a Great Migration. People are moving. Some know where they are going. Some do not.”