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What went wrong
January 20, 2022
When the pandemic first hit, fewer customers and high production costs forced many businesses to lay off workers. The labor force participation rate in the U.S. dropped to 60.2% in April 2020, a record low since the 1970s. Now, as places start to open up and people fall back into old consumption patterns, businesses are struggling to keep up.
Employees are also quitting at record highs, with one in four workers quitting their jobs in 2021 according to people analytics firm Visier. COVID-19 concerns, burnout and low pay are some of the driving factors.
COVID-19 brought in a host of questions surrounding safety, especially since vaccines were not available at the start of the pandemic. This was part of senior Peter Adams’ decision to take a break from working.
“One of my grandmothers was getting hip surgery and we didn’t know anything about COVID, we just knew it was a new virus, so I just took a few months off [while] she was recovering,” Adams said.
At Stuff Etc, Ghabel found safety to be the make-or-break factor in staying at her job.
[I quit] because they weren’t able to keep me in a safe environment where I felt like we were doing the necessary precautions”
— Abigail Ghabel
“[I quit] because they weren’t able to keep me in a safe environment where I felt like we were doing the necessary precautions,” Ghabel said. “We did require masks, but most of the people that went there did not care, and it was really hard to keep things clean.”
This sentiment seemed to spread locally within Iowa City and throughout the country.
“A lot of my coworkers quit at that time because a couple of them were still in college and colleges were closing, [and] a couple of them still live with their grandparents,” Ghabel said.
As more job opportunities become available, the motivation to get one remains low, even for workers who were laid off.
“I think it’s just a lot harder for people to get back into that mode where they want to go back to work because everyone’s like, ‘I need to get work. I need to find a job,’ but there’s no motivation,” Ghabel said. “[People are] putting so much stress on the individual to find a job … It’s exhausting.”
Certain jobs also require extra steps and training to get hired, creating more barriers that might discourage potential employees.
“With COVID, a lot of lifeguards didn’t get recertified, and a lot of new lifeguards weren’t getting certified. People found different jobs because pools weren’t open,” Greer said.
Businesses are struggling to keep their current employees from losing motivation. Adams, an employee at Target, has noticed that the overwhelming work environment the shortage creates has led to a cycle of burnout.
When you don’t have enough people, people are getting burned out before you can hire more.”
— Peter Adams '22
“The current metaphor for the Starbucks in the Target store is that it is a revolving door, because everyone except two of the baristas there quit all at once and our team leader quit in solidarity with them,” Adams said. “There is a lot of demand being put on people and some people were just like ‘I can’t do this.’ … When you don’t have enough people, people are getting burned out before you can hire more.”