Opinion: We should not have to guess why Americans are quitting en masse

A sign outside a restaurant in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn on March 29. (Bloomberg News)
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Opinion by Jennifer RubinColumnistYesterday at 10:00 a.m. EDT1560

Something is happening in the workforce. In April, some 4 million Americans quit their jobs. August topped this figure, with 4.3 million quitting their jobs.

Labor churn is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is one of many anomalies caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It matters greatly why people quit in such large numbers. Perhaps as jobs came back online, workers returned to more desirable positions. Maybe, with so many openings, competition for wages increased and employers outbid one another for workers.

It could also be that the delta variant has prompted workers to rethink some workplaces. And it might be that people are not well. A new NPR poll finds: “The strain that the pandemic put on Americans’ day-to-day lives is having serious repercussions. A lot of Americans are struggling with anxiety and sleeplessness: Half of households report at least one person in the home has had serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress or sleep in recent months.”

Perhaps a significant number of people figured out how to work remotely, or switched to jobs that allowed them to do so.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, during an interview with CBS News, pointed out that women’s participation in the labor force is declining in part because they carry the greatest share of child-care responsibilities. She argues that the reconciliation bill would address women’s issues with paid family leave and subsidized child care.

We know what is not a cause: unemployment benefits. Extended federal support either ended or was reduced for millions of people in early September, so they plainly were not giving up work to sit on the couch and collect a check.

Instead of guessing — or worse, allowing politicians to favor explanations that fit their political agenda — it behooves us to find out the cause or causes of this phenomenon. Academics, private pollsters and government researchers need to get cracking.

We should be finding out a lot more about who quit and why they did. Have more women than men quit? Have retail employees and others who deal with the public (e.g., airline attendants) had enough of the epidemic of rotten manners and even physical abuse they receive? (Axios reports, as have many outlets, that some “businesses have shut down in support of their employees. Some industries have provided self-defense classes and banded together on public awareness campaigns.”)

The reason for getting data should be evident to those who still believe in good public policy. If the issue is child care, then the president’s Build Back Better agenda is essential — and may not be enough. If the issue is fear of covid-19, the administration needs to start suing states that are attempting to ban lifesaving mask and vaccine mandates. Certainly, if a national mental-health crisis is to blame (after more than 18 months of a pandemic, a recession and insane politics, it would be a miracle if that were not the case), then we seriously need to look at mental-health campaigns, insurance benefits and workplace/school training to help supervisors and co-workers recognize evidence of serious stress. And if the cost of going to work is too high, we need to make certain transportation dollars are well spent to lower or eliminate public transportation fees.

It is so common for people to latch onto data and pronounce the “take” before gathering data that it might seem quaint to plead for facts. But to govern effectively and relieve emotional and economic distress, we better figure out what the problems are before we misdirect billions, if not trillions, of dollars on programs that miss the mark.

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