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In The Wake Of The Pandemic, Workers Are Reestablishing Their Values — By Quitting

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More and more workers are saying I'm done. A record 4 million people quit their jobs in April just as employers are facing labor shortages. NPR's Andrea Hsu looked into why this is happening.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Jeremy Golembiewski got his first restaurant job at 16 as a dishwasher at a Big Boy's. He's worked his way up over 26 years.

JEREMY GOLEMBIEWSKI: I love being a host for people, you know. I love getting people food, making people happy.

HSU: But the pandemic took the joy out of his job as the general manager of a breakfast place in San Diego. There were days when just he and the cook were handling all the takeout orders. And when indoor dining resumed...

GOLEMBIEWSKI: Every hour or so, I would have to argue with somebody in the front who didn't have a mask.

HSU: Sure enough, last October he got COVID and then brought it home to his whole family.

GOLEMBIEWSKI: I'm pretty sure that I got it from arguing with somebody at work.

HSU: In December, California went into lockdown for a second time, and he was furloughed. The time away opened his eyes to what life with a family could be like if he didn't have to put in 50 to 60 hours a week at the restaurant or work on holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas.

GOLEMBIEWSKI: You know, I want to see my 1-year-old and my 5-year-old's faces light up when they come out and see the tree and all the presents that I spent six hours at night assembling and putting out. So (laughter)...

HSU: So when he got called back to work last week, Golembiewski quit, putting an end to his unemployment checks, which had been a cushion. He and his wife figure they have enough savings to last a month or two. So she told him, let's find something you're happy with. He's open to jobs in retail, maybe data entry. But one thing's for sure, he only wants to work 40 hours a week.

DANIEL ZHAO: I think that this is clearly a real phenomenon where more workers are quitting than we've ever seen in the past.

HSU: Daniel Zhao is a labor economist with the job site Glassdoor. He says in normal times, high quit rates are a sign of a healthy labor market.

ZHAO: They signal that workers feel more confident in order to actually leave their jobs and find a new one.

HSU: But right now, he thinks there are all kinds of reasons people are quitting. Some people may have just waited out the pandemic to leave a job that wasn't a good fit. Some people are quitting because they can make more money elsewhere. Professor Tsedal Neeley of Harvard Business School is focused on yet another factor. Thanks to the pandemic, she says, workers now feel empowered to speak up about when, how and where they want to work.

TSEDAL NEELEY: We have changed. Work has changed. The way we think about time and space has changed.

HSU: And for a younger generation of workers, that could mean entire careers that look nothing like they would have before. Take Jonathan Caballero, a software developer working out of his basement in Hyattsville, Md.

JONATHAN CABALLERO: This is kind of the way I set up with screens.

HSU: He has four screens in his home office, also a whiteboard - and a guitar.

CABALLERO: When I'm tired of looking at the screen, I just pick it up and (playing guitar).

HSU: Music, he says, has helped him get through the pandemic. Caballero took this job last year knowing he'd someday have to go into the office. Now with that day approaching, he's decided he'd rather not commute 45 minutes each way in a car he'd have to buy.

CABALLERO: Yeah, I don't think I want that anymore.

HSU: He's only 27. But in the pandemic, he noticed his hair was thinning. He thought to himself, I need to start living.

CABALLERO: I mean, I haven't really been through much of the U.S. or the world. All the time I'm always, like, wishing, like maybe - I wish I could be just working by the beach or something like that and maybe after work just go swim.

HSU: Now, he's not uprooting yet. He owns his home and is working to fix up his backyard fence for a dog he got in the pandemic. But a couple months ago, he began looking for a job with better remote work options and soon had multiple offers. He settled on one and now is just waiting on a background check.

CABALLERO: I think the pandemic has changed my mindset in a way. And like, I really value my time now.

HSU: Yes, he says, there are bills to pay, but also life to enjoy.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.