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By Brad Tuttle
October 15, 2021
A nurse waits for her next patient at an emergency room.
Getty Images

Is America a nation of quitters? It could look that way based on the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which shows that a whopping 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in August.

The number of workers walking away has been elevated for months this year, in a trend that's been dubbed "the Great Resignation." But the figures from August represent a new high, with 2.9% of the workforce voluntarily leaving their jobs — compared to between 2.5% and 2.8% for the preceding four months and just 2.1% in August 2020.

Why are so many workers quitting? In a press release, the BLS states simply that "the quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs."

The high levels of quitting seems to be a good indication that people are not happy with their jobs — often due to low pay and difficult working conditions — and also that they see better opportunities elsewhere, which is unsurprising given that companies must compete for employees due to a much-heralded labor shortage. The number of job openings in America fell slightly in the most recent report, but it's still near an all-time high.

As you'll see in our list below of jobs that workers are quitting in droves, many are positions that routinely deal with the public, on the frontlines of the pandemic. And many of them don't have salaries that many workers feel are high enough to justify the risks and stress of all that entails.

So, naturally, people in these positions are looking elsewhere and finding news jobs with higher pay or better conditions, when they can. Or they're possibly leaving their old industries in search of entirely new lines of work.

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As the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it this week, "Long-suffering American workers, who have been underpaid and overworked for years, may have hit their breaking point." Here are the jobs being quit by workers in huge numbers lately:

Nurses, health care workers and hospital employees

Roughly 534,000 workers in the BLS's health care and social assistance category — which includes nurses, hospital employees and other healthcare workers — quit their jobs in August 2021. That's over 100,000 more than how many quit in August of 2020 (404,000). (BLS data groups these numbers into broad categories, so it's often difficult to tell exactly which specific kinds of positions people are quitting.)

While the August 2021 quit numbers represent a new peak in this category, tons of these employees have been leaving their jobs for months: 499,000 in April, 472,000 in May, 502,000 in June, 532,000 in July.

It shouldn't come as a big surprise either. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses and hospital workers have been asked to work extra-long hours, under tense circumstances, and the pay often isn't great. Early on in the pandemic, there were vast layoffs too.

According to a recent Morning Consult poll, 18% of healthcare workers have quit their jobs during the pandemic, and another 30% say they've considered leaving. Burnout and insufficient pay have been named as the top reasons for those who quit.

Certain kinds of nurses are especially likely to feel like quitting. In another survey, from American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, 66% of nurses in critical care said that working through the pandemic has caused them to consider leaving the nursing profession entirely.

Child care and residential facility workers

These workers also fall under the BLS's health care and social assistance category, and they too are quitting in sizable numbers.

Child care employment is still down over 125,000 positions compared to before the pandemic, the Washington Post reported, and 80% of child care centers said they were experiencing staffing shortages this past summer. Low pay is probably the biggest reason for the shortage; daycare workers usually make only around $12 an hour.

Likewise, home health aides and residential care workers are generally low-paid positions — the former have median annual earnings of around $27,000 — and they too are leaving their jobs. As of July, nursing homes and residential care facilities employed 380,000 fewer workers than they did before the pandemic.

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Retail workers

America's retail workers have had it especially rough during the pandemic. More than 2 million retail workers were laid off by the spring of 2020 due to shutdowns, and many of the employees who kept their jobs — in supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential stores — found themselves on the front line of the pandemic, at heightened risk of being infected.

And the pay in many retail jobs is quite low. Median hourly wages for cashiers, retail salespeople and stock clerks were $12 to $13 in 2020, according to the BLS.

Are you noticing a pattern? People are especially prone to be quitting positions with low pay and high stress this year. Among the positions grouped under the BLS's retail trade category — mostly, workers in stores open to the public — 721,000 quit in August 2021, compared to 505,000 the same month in 2020.

Hotel and restaurant workers

Restaurant, hotel, entertainment and hospitality workers are also among the employees who have had enough this year. In some cases, the resignations in 2021 have been dramatic, like when all the workers at a Burger King in Nebraska walked out and left behind a "We all quit" sign.

While other resignations haven't been quite as dramatic, they've still been very large in quantity. A total of 971,000 workers in leisure and hospitality quit in August 2021, and most of them (892,000) were categorized in the accommodation and food services fields. In other words, they're mostly hotel and restaurant workers.

Slightly less than 7% of these workers nationally quit in August 2021 — 6.8%, to be precise. That's the highest rate of quitting by far of any industry catalogued by the BLS. (Retail trade had the second highest quit rate in August, at 4.7%.)

Roughly 700,000 hotel and restaurant workers left each month in April, May and June of this year, and then the number of quits rose to 735,000 in July before spiking to just under 900,000 in August.

Why are so many of these workers taking their talents elsewhere? As many employees and union activists say, the nation isn't suffering a labor shortage so much a "wage shortage."

President Joe Biden framed the issue in a similar way when asked about the labor shortage this past summer. His advice to businesses who were struggling to hire or retain workers was simply: "Pay them more."

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