One afternoon in June, coming back from their lunch break, Marcus* started to feel a sharp, tearing sensation in their left shoulder. The housekeeper had been making 40 hotel-room beds a day, nearly double their usual workload; travel might have picked up again, but the hotel still had only half of its usual cleaning staff. Marcus worked through the pain that flared up as they tossed fresh white sheets across mattresses, smoothed down creases, and tucked in crisp corners, thinking, If I’m careful, it won’t get worse. The next day, their shoulder was in so much agony the 29-year-old had to ask their colleague to follow them and change the bedding in each room. Marcus went to see a doctor, who said they shouldn’t lift anything for a week. But there was no one else to cover the shifts, and Marcus’s boss bought them a sling so they could keep working. For the next three weeks, they didn’t even get a day off.
The hospitality company Marcus works for has been struggling to both hire new employees and keep its existing ones. Two of their colleagues recently quit, along with a few new trainees who just stopped showing up, adding even more time to Marcus’s work week that already stretches up to 60 hours. They weren’t surprised, since the starting pay can be as low as $11 an hour, while “you could go to any of the fast-food places and get at least $4 more,” Marcus says. There’s no doubt in their mind that their shoulder pain came from overexertion; their colleague, who does laundry for the hotel, recently had to get surgery on her arm after developing carpal-tunnel syndrome. Marcus feels the company would rather see employees physically suffer than fix its staffing problem by bumping up pay and time off. “I feel almost betrayed,” they say. “Why aren’t they taking care of us?”
As more businesses reopen, an unprecedented number of Americans are walking away from their jobs in restaurants, factories, offices, and hospitals. A record 4 million people quit in April, followed by another 4 million the next month. And the next. Some left to chase deeper fulfillment or to finally escape dead-end jobs with the cushion of enhanced unemployment checks. Many furloughed workers didn’t return to positions that exploited them and put them at risk of catching COVID-19. The so-called great resignation has created a seismic power shift that has already forced corporations like McDonald’s, Walmart, and Starbucks to boost wages or offer perks to entice new hires. There has been an endless parade of Schadenfreude-inducing headlines about employers who are now on their knees begging for staff like desperate suitors. But for those still toiling in these threadbare workplaces, the great resignation has led to even greater exploitation. While the mass exodus may improve conditions in the long term, in the meantime it has been devastating to those left behind whose unbearable workloads have led to depression, substance abuse, and trips to the hospital. After all, not everyone can quit.
Unsurprisingly, one of the highest concentrations of quitters is in the service industry, notorious for its low pay, nightmare customers, and long hours. You can’t scroll through Twitter without seeing a viral photo of a sign taped to a restaurant door with some version of “We are short-staffed. No one wants to work anymore.” There’s not much incentive to: the average hourly wage in food service still hovers around $8, which adds up to barely more than the government’s $300 weekly unemployment benefit. This spring, Nathan Schut watched almost a dozen of his 30 colleagues at Chipotle quit, frustrated by rock-bottom pay and short-staffing that began when the pandemic hit and never got better. The 23-year-old, who was recently promoted to management at a Minneapolis location, has been pushed to the brink of total exhaustion this past year. Last summer, he worked three 18-hour shifts in a row and had to spend the night sleeping on a chair in the store’s office. “It really made me question whether or not this is worth it,” he said. “Before drifting off, I was thinking, When is this going to get more manageable?” A few months ago, Schut says he almost got in a fight with a Chipotle customer who shouted at him for forgetting a side of vinaigrette with his order. “I gave it to him, but I also told him to back up,” Schut says. “He just about took a swing.”
At bars packed with people desperate to live out their fantasies of a hot vaxx summer, staff are also struggling to make it through shifts full of unruly crowds. New York bartender James Gustave feels like an on-call doctor, his phone ringing in the wee hours of the morning with desperate pleas for an extra hand now that so many of his colleagues have left the service industry for more balanced lifestyles. The 37-year-old often works double shifts with roughly a third of the usual support, forcing him also to act as security guard, barback, and server to impatient customers filled with pent-up energy. “I think everyone feels newly 21 again,” says Gustave, who works at two Brooklyn bars, including the notoriously rowdy Union Pool. “I’m like ‘Dude, you’re 30, what are you doing on a table?’”
In June, a drunk woman who stumbled into the bar later passed out on the sidewalk and had to be taken away in an ambulance. When he heard the sirens, Gustave didn’t even know what had happened: He had been on the back patio busing the packed tables himself since there was no one else to do it. “I felt really guilty,” he told me. Normally, he would have sat the woman in a booth and kept an eye on her, but he “was spread too thin.” After talking to the paramedics outside, Gustave came back to find a line had formed inside the bar, full of people who were pissed off that he had to make a backlog of frozen piña coladas and margaritas before taking their orders.
In retail, workers are also struggling to grin and bear it through customer meltdowns. “I cannot get over how nasty people have been,” says Stevie,* who works at a pet store in Arizona. “We’re getting cussed out every other day.” She’s missing half of her necessary colleagues on the floor — in the spring three new hires just stopped showing up — creating congestion at the cash register and angry shoppers. A few months ago, a man told Stevie the price of ferret food was “fucking ridiculous” before swiping it off the counter and storming out. Another called her a “fucking idiot” for improperly bagging his cat food. Moments like these have left Stevie weeping in her car and have worsened her depression; the 30-year-old recently increased her SSRI dose after she began having suicidal and violent thoughts related to work. (“I’m just hoping one day a customer pulls a gun out on me,” she said.) Her hair has started to fall out from the stress, and she now vapes weed every morning before her shift; sometimes she spikes her coffee with booze. Still, it’s not enough to make her leave. She needs the money and worries that any other job involving customer service will be just as bad.
The great resignation, as it turns out, doesn’t apply to everyone. Even at a time when some employees have more options than ever, the most marginalized groups, like immigrants and low-wage workers, aren’t living in some job utopia; they often lack the resources to apply for government benefits, shop around for new gigs, or go any length of time without a paycheck. And while, yes, there are an unprecedented number of open jobs, many have long hours, pitiful benefits and don’t even pay enough to cover basic expenses.
Marcus the housekeeper, who earns $15 an hour, says most job listings they’ve seen are minimum wage ($9 an hour in Nebraska) or come with unappealing demands like early hours or dress codes that ban brightly dyed hair or tattoos. But in addition to cash, they also worry that quitting would leave their colleagues “even more high and dry.” While many workers flee toxic jobs, others feel a responsibility to stick around. Schut told me he felt a “sense of duty” toward his colleagues, many of whom have been through the same grind of crazy shifts and cranky customers. Stevie feels protective of the animals in her pet store, which she says are increasingly getting sick and dying without enough staff to care for them. “We just lost a guinea pig,” she said, adding that hamsters and fish are also among the casualties. “The animals are going to be the ones that suffer most. And that’s what’s pissing me off.” Bosses are happy to coast on employee loyalty, but eventually a person’s mind and body begin to break.
Now, those left behind are working themselves sick, sometimes even to death. In July, Frito-Lay factory employees in Kansas made headlines when they went on strike over staffing issues and low wages that they said had led to heart attacks and deaths. For many, sacrificing their own health to get through the relentless hours has become an expected part of the gig. Marcus recently went an entire month without a day off, which, in addition to the shoulder pain, exacerbated their chronic kidney issue; they didn’t have time to refill their daily medication, which led to muscle aches, dizziness, and nausea; and on a recent Sunday, their arm cramped up so bad they could barely move it. Some workers have even ended up in emergency rooms. One Burger King in Nebraska was so short-staffed that general manager Rachael Flores was rushed to the hospital after becoming dehydrated and almost passing out. It was late June, the store’s air-conditioning was broken, and the skeleton crew was struggling to keep up with their workload in temperatures that reached more than 100 degrees. So Flores quit, along with most of her 13 colleagues, a few of whom replaced the regular Burger King sign with “We All Quit. Sorry for the Inconvenience” — a photo of it went viral.
In many workplaces, the great resignation has put more than just overworked employees in danger. After a year of staring down mass death during the pandemic, the number of nurses calling it quits is on the rise. Hospitals are struggling to properly care for patients, leading to fatal or near-death situations. A lawsuit filed by four Detroit nurses alleges that dozens of patients died in their hospital last year because they were too understaffed to care for them. One nurse in Massachusetts told me a man she wasn’t able to monitor closely enough while juggling four other high-risk patients had stopped breathing and had to be rushed to the ICU (“I remember saying to one of my colleagues, ‘This is gonna be a lawsuit,’” she said. “If I were a family member, I would do everything I could to bring that hospital down.”) She and hundreds of her colleagues at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester have been on strike over working conditions for almost half a year. (In a statement, a spokesperson for St. Vincent disputed the understaffing claims. “This appears to be another attempt to damage the hospital’s reputation,” they said, adding that a recent industry report found the nurses’ staffing levels to be “excellent.”)
Even employees in fields like accounting, marketing, law, and tech who don’t spend all day on their feet are scrambling to cover their former colleagues’ workloads without losing their minds. Ralph Taylor, who works for a tech company, took on customer service in addition to his job as a content writer when the staff was whittled down by almost half last winter. In the spring, things got so busy that the 25-year-old was spending up to 12 hours a day in front of his computer getting regular headaches and sleeping only four-to-five hours a night. A few months ago, Taylor was so worn down that he fell asleep during a company Zoom meeting and woke up to a call from his manager asking why he hadn’t been answering her questions. “I was so stressed out,” he said. “It was embarrassing because other people were on the Zoom as well.” Teachers are especially burned-out from navigating the pandemic’s insane demands, and one-quarter are now thinking of leaving the classroom for good. When a Nebraska elementary-school teacher I spoke with lost a dedicated assistant last year, she stopped being able to take bathroom breaks. One day, she realized her period blood had leaked through her pants and onto her chair. There was no one to watch her students, so she tied a sweater around her waist and stood for the next hour and a half until class was over.
There’s a snowball effect that takes hold: As short staffing makes crushing jobs even more untenable, the employees who stick around start to bail. Schut recently worked an almost 12-hour night shift with one-third of the necessary staff. He gave notice the next week, unable to stand another day hiding in the walk-in cooler gasping for air during his now-regular panic attacks.
The only silver lining may be that employees now feel a little less replaceable knowing that their bosses are hesitant to let anyone go. Stevie has started “putting in the bare minimum” at her pet store, forgoing small tasks like taking out the trash at night or setting up product displays. “What are they going to do? Fire me?” she says, laughing. “No one’s willing to work and put up with some of this stuff.” While Marcus used to complete “every single step” while cleaning rooms, they now sometimes skip dusting and mopping. But they worry that slacking off too much will only backfire on their colleagues, who would be the ones left to clean up the mess. “That’s the only thing that holds me back,” they say.
The great resignation doesn’t feel empowering, Marcus says, just like an opportunity to switch one shitty job for another. For now, they would rather stick with the enemy they know and push for a raise in the fall. But no amount of money will erase the resentment they feel toward an employer who has worked them to the point of injury over the past year. While Marcus scrambles to make enough beds during double shifts that often slide into overtime, they often watch the owner drive a fancy car home at the end of his eight-hour workday. “It is exhausting,” they say. “It just feels like they’re not living the same life.”
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.