By David M. Greenwald
About 4.5 million people voluntarily left their jobs in November, a new high, up from 4.2 million in October, according to the NY Times, and this marked the most in the two decades that the government has kept track.
“The surge in quitting in recent months — along with the continuing difficulty reported by employers in filling openings — underscores the strange, contradictory moment facing the U.S. economy after two years of pandemic-induced disruptions,” the Times writes, though their own data show that the number of people quitting their jobs have risen steadily since about 2009.
“Much of the discussion about the increase in quitting, sometimes referred to as the Great Resignation, has focused on white-collar workers re-evaluating their priorities in the pandemic,” the Times continues. “But job turnover has been concentrated in hospitality and other low-wage sectors, where intense competition for employees has given workers the leverage to seek better pay.”
Something else caught my eye, however. A study from UCLA which finds “working conditions in the Los Angeles fast-food industry lead to an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission in communities of color, and $1.2 billion in public costs as a result of low wages that have plagued the industry for years.”
That’s no small industry. That part of the food sector in Los Angeles accounts for nearly 150,000 restaurant workers, most of whom are women and people of color.
Like many things in society, COVID did not cause problems in the fast-food industry, it exacerbated them.
The reports noted, “Even before COVID-19, the fast-food sector was characterized by difficult working conditions and high public costs.”
“Fast-food workers faced labor issues related to safety and injury, workplace violence, harassment, retaliation, and wage theft,” the report noted. “The franchise model, which predominates in fast food, incentivized labor violations. Fast food’s low wages have made it difficult for workers to meet their basic needs. More than two-thirds of the families of fast-food workers in Los Angeles County were enrolled in a safety net program at a public cost of $1.2 billion a year.”
But such workplaces are a common vector for COVID transmission and the fast-food worksites “are particularly vulnerable.
“One-third of fast-food worksites had 20 or more employees, suggesting shared equipment, work spaces, bathrooms, and break areas. Other research found that food workers work in moderately close to close proximity; cooks in particular have had the highest increase in mortality of any occupation during the pandemic,” the report found.
It added, “Worker testimony and complaints show COVID-19 outbreaks and employer failures to communicate these outbreaks to workers.”
The overall findings are disconcerting.
“Black, Latinx, and Asian populations had disproportionately higher rates of infection, hospitalizations, and deaths,” the report found. “Nine in ten fast-food workers in Los Angeles were workers of color, and nearly three-quarters were Latinx.”
Women are already vulnerable to sexual harassment, and this has been exacerbated by COVID. Nearly seven in ten fast food workers are women.
Fast food skews young, but two-thirds live in households with four or more people and a third included household members over 55 of years of age. The majority earn low wages, at or near minimum wage, but those wages constitute about 40 percent of their family’s total income.
“Fast-food workers were twice as likely as other workers to fall below the federal poverty line, and over half of those who rent their housing were rent-burdened, spending over 30% of their household income on rent and utilities,” the report noted. “Fast-food workers were one and half times more likely to be uninsured and two and a half times more likely to be enrolled in Medi-Cal than Los Angeles workers as a whole. Only a third of fast food workers received some type of employer-sponsored insurance.”
While this survey and report was conducted in Los Angeles, there is no reason to believe that what is true in Los Angeles would not be true elsewhere.
While it is true that this has been a continuing trend for over a decade, it is also true that COVID has exacerbated the conditions. It seems that the poor work conditions and low pay, perhaps with enhancement risk of infection for fast-food workers, has made many reconsider whether such jobs are worth their while.
But some of this might not be bad news.
“This Great Resignation story is really more about lower-wage workers finding new opportunities in a reopening labor market and seizing them,” said Nick Bunker, director of economic research at the Indeed Hiring Lab.
The Times reported, “For some workers, the rush to reopen the economy has created a rare opportunity to demand better pay and working conditions. But for those who can’t change jobs as easily, or who are in sectors where demand isn’t as strong, pay gains have been more modest, and have been overwhelmed by faster inflation. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta shows that job-switchers are getting significantly faster pay increases than people who stay in their jobs.”
However, overall, Americans are pessimistic.
“Despite the demand for workers and the pay increases landed by some, Americans are pessimistic about the economy. Only 21 percent of adults said their finances were better off than a year ago, according to a survey released Tuesday,” the Times reporting. “Overall consumer confidence is at the lowest level in the nearly five years Momentive has been conducting its survey.”
This is definitely a trend worth watching.