After 10 years at her job, Nancy Johnson walked away on New Year’s Eve. Her employer offered good health benefits and made use of her more than two decades of medical billing experience. But she’d hit a wage wall.
The Carbondale resident had even become a certified medical coder because it was a path to better pay. But while it moved her up a salary bracket just before the pandemic, she didn’t get a raise. She documented all the new things she did over the next 18 months. Management’s response? That was her job, even though her wages hadn’t changed.
“At the end of the day, I wasn’t valued. My contribution wasn’t valued. The work I did wasn’t valued,” said Johnson, who quit to start her own business. She now runs RevUp, which helps independent medical providers get money due to them from insurance companies.
Johnson may be part of the so-called Great Resignation, but she hasn’t given up. She’s excited about her future as a medical provider advocate, a business she’s thought about starting for three years. While the pandemic was difficult for many employers and workers, the convergence of numerous job opportunities in a recovering economy combined with workers emboldened by choice has created a unique period in American labor history. Workers are moving to something better — and not just for their bottom line.
“What price my soul?” Johnson said. “My beliefs and values and principles are no longer congruent with those of the hospital for which I was working my ass off.”
The Great Resignation moniker is a bit of a misnomer, economists say.
“This moment that we’re in could more accurately be called the Great Reassessment or even the Great Upgrade because these workers are resigning and they’re using this time to rethink the relationship between work and their life,” said Luke Pardue, an economist with payroll service provider Gusto. “Many of us before just tried to fit our lives into our work and this pandemic has caused us to reassess that relationship and try to fit work into our lives.”
Though Colorado had the nation’s highest rate of job quitters in October at 4% of all private nonfarm workers, fewer quit in November, according to the monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That aligned with other trends showing employers in Colorado making more hires and posting fewer job openings in the same period. The U.S. figures were the opposite — quit rates and the number of job openings were up.
“This is probably the most disruptive — and I don’t mean disruptive in a negative way — but disruptive labor market that we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” said Ryan Gedney, a senior economist at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. “And let’s be honest here, it’s all driven by the pandemic.”
Gedney cautioned against reading too much into the month-to-month change, since it’s based on small samples and could be revised. The numbers also don’t include the surge in COVID cases due to the omicron variant. It’s better to step back and look at it longer term. Colorado quit rates, at 3.5% in November, are still quite high. In 2019, quit rates were around 2.5%.
Business disruptions caused by COVID’s spread have not abated. As companies reopened and began hiring last year, they competed for the same workers. Infections took out or quarantined multiple workers simultaneously, leaving staffing shortages and causing restaurants to limit their hours. Employers had to offer higher wages to attract new applicants.
With new options plus pandemic benefits, such as federal relief checks and unemployment, workers also had time to make decisions, which is a bit unusual, said Alex Padilla, an economics professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“I do think that the pandemic forced more people to stay at home, which exposed them to more social media. They had more free time so they had the opportunity to engage in more ranting and observe what other people were doing,” Padilla said. “They were also able to see (people) who complained about the pandemic while enjoying a very luxurious life. That got some people upset. They want better working conditions.”
That was a tactic the King Soopers employee union in Colorado took when it sought higher wages and better benefits. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 often mentioned the CEO of Kroger, which owns King Soopers, and his $22 million paycheck. Denver-area grocery workers picketed for nine days before voting on a contract implementing hourly raises of $2 to $5 this year, with additional increases and better health benefits for three years.
Depending on one’s perspective, the constant need for employees has helped the economy recover and provided more opportunities for workers even as there are still supply-chain issues, materials shortages and health concerns. But this is also adding to employee workloads, which, in turn, may lead to more workers leaving.
“There’s a shift to putting more hours on people who can work. And we’ve seen that in some (data), like the involuntary part-time work, or people who work part time but would prefer full-time hours. That’s really dropped, particularly in the last six months,” Gedney said. “For individuals who want more hours, that’s great. But for those who are already working as many hours as they can and are working more, that could definitely lead to burnout.”
Why they quit
Coloradans who shared reasons why they left their job in a pandemic had similar themes: job dissatisfaction, burnout and excessive workload, especially after coworkers left.
“Fatigue from being asked to do more with less for years upon years,” said a middle manager from Denver. “Left due to low staffing and excessive workload,” said a guy from Salida. “Housing,” said another.
Employers seemed unaware that workers had options and did little to retain existing staff.
Andrew Winter left his job as a professional research assistant at Anschutz Medical Campus in June. He’d been working various roles for five years but grew frustrated with the low pay, poor benefits and “emotionally/mentally abusive working culture of academia,” he said.
“Anschutz took my passion for biomedical research science and crushed it into a million pieces,” said Winter, who now works for the Communication Workers of America Local 7799.
It’s a “hell of a time for workers to stand together and demand better,” he added. “COVID has amplified all kinds of issues with working conditions and wages everywhere.”
Not everyone wanted to leave their job or company. Bethany Howell, who lives in Del Norte, quit in July. She felt burned out trying to get her board to support her in thinking differently about how a rural community can support small nonprofits.
“I would have left this job eventually regardless of the pandemic,” Howell said in an email, “but because of the shift in employer thinking, I was able to find a job that has a higher salary rate and allows me to work primarily from home in a statewide capacity and travel as needed.”
Other reasons for leaving a job were “lopsided compensation” between executives and employees, surveillance tools used on staff and the expectation to be available 24/7. Some people quit because coworkers and customers didn’t wear masks.
Kirsten Bell said in an email it was the two-hour commute after express buses from Longmont to Denver were eliminated: “What was a fairly straightforward 1.5-hour trip turned into 2+ hours of transferring and waiting around. The drive on I-25 became scary.”
For others, it was about the pay. More than a few people said they moved to jobs that offered double-digit pay increases.
“I quit two jobs in 2021 due to drama in the workplace and stagnant, uncompetitive wages,” said Chuck Vanderwist, who lives in Montrose. “By leaving my stingy telecom employer who boasted record profits while simultaneously awarding 3% to top performers, I gained 30% more compensation in 2021, along with better health benefits and a more flexible schedule.”
Employers do need to pay attention to existing staff and not just focus on hiring replacements. The pandemic “woke me up to the idea that I should not have to suffer at work, and contributed to my motivation to look around,” he said.
Wages have been going up. According to the latest report from the state department of labor, Coloradans working at private, nonfarm companies saw average hourly earnings increase to $33.28, from $31.20 a year earlier. That’s about $2 more per hour than the national average.
But there were people who were just ready to move on. “Just thought it was time to quit. (I) had been doing this for about 40 years,” wrote John Daniel from La Junta. He left in November.
Many who could, retired early, including Ilana Stern, who worked remotely in Durango for a national research agency.
“The funding for my position was cut, and I was told they would try to find other funding to keep me on part time, but I decided that if I wasn’t going to be full time (and have my health insurance completely covered) it wasn’t worth it to me, so I chose to retire in mid-November,” Stern said. “I’m 58, and my husband is retired, and we have sufficient resources that my relatively low salary barely makes a difference.”
And others said leaving during a pandemic was coincidence. The Diamonds, a Breckenridge couple who both left teaching last May, had planned to retire anyway. Both were 58 and early retirement was planned before the pandemic, said Mike, who taught high school.
“Although our final two years of teaching were challenging, due to the additional stress and requirements from Covid, we did not retire due to the stress of COVID,” he said in an email. “In fact, we decided to stay for our last year of teaching because we didn’t want a new teacher to enter the profession during the challenging times of COVID.”
Colorado’s higher quit rates make sense, said Gedney, the labor department economist. Just think about which industries were hurt the most in the pandemic: restaurants, hospitality and tourism. Colorado has high concentrations of all of those.
Those industries tend to have high turnover because of the nature of the job and ease of getting another one. They’re largely also in-person jobs and not cushy work-from-home gigs. Nationwide, the quit rates in accommodation or food service jobs reached 6.9% in November, the highest of any industry. All industries combined had a quit rate of 3.0%.
“In 2019, Colorado had one of the top 10 concentrations of leisure and hospitality (jobs) in the nation. And Denver has a really high concentration of restaurants compared to other metro areas. And obviously, we have the ski areas and the resort areas,” Gedney said.
Colorado also has long had a younger population than many other states. Younger workers tend to switch jobs early on in their careers, while older workers have already been there, done that.
Younger workers and people employed in hospitality industries are now getting job opportunities that may not have been available to them before the pandemic.
The JOLTS quit data looks at more than just people who quit. It also tracks layoffs (Colorado tied for 9th highest rate in the U.S. for November) and separations (also 9th), which include retirement, death, disabilities and people who moved to a new location. Back in August, Colorado had the highest rate for both layoffs and job separations in the U.S.
Many older workers have left the workforce since the pandemic began with adults 55 and older being one of the largest age groups to leave. A recent Pew Research Center report found the percentage of adults 55 and older who are now retired crossed 50% in the third quarter of 2021.
Ultimately, the state’s pandemic economy is recovering. As of December, 89% of the 375,000 jobs lost since February 2020, before the pandemic, have returned. While more people have moved to the state and there are still thousands of people on state unemployment, Colorado has recovered faster from the pandemic downturn than the U.S.at large.
“Colorado has a fairly strong economy compared to the U.S. If we look back to 1990, Colorado’s annual payroll growth rate is twice that of the U.S.,” Gedney said. “There are a ton of opportunities out there. Workers are taking advantage of that, as they rightfully should, to … find higher wages and find jobs that best suit them. It’s why we’ve seen these numbers increase substantially over the past six to nine months.”
Whether it’s a Great Resignation or just a reassessment, maybe it’s just a period that happens in any worker’s life. It just isn’t usually so compressed and involving such a large audience. Stern, the Durango woman who retired, said she changed her way of thinking about work 20 years ago.
“For me, the reassessment happened because we took some time off and went traveling and we came back and I was like, I don’t want to sit in an office all day. I don’t want to have a commute,” said Stern, who then moved to Durango with her husband and took an “underemployment” job as a computer programmer in order to work remotely. “I think a lot of people are feeling that after the pandemic shifted their jobs around.”