- As I've interviewed working-class men and women over the last decade, one of the most common stories I’ve heard is the awful working conditions that many have experienced. Tweet This
- “The whole world changed, so what am I still doing here?” Jamie, a former restaurant manager, on the effects of the pandemic on working-class jobs. Tweet This
- In the absence of unions or other associations to advocate for them, the working-class worker is mainly on his or her own, squeezed between customers who are “always right” and corporate executives/ shareholders who demand a profit. Tweet This
In November 2020, a frustrated customer, tired of waiting in line at a local restaurant, accused the general manager, Jamie, of being in her car smoking pot instead of working. Jamie denied this vociferously. She had worked for the restaurant chain for 21 years, and anybody who knew her, she said, knew this was just another irate customer. But her district manager believed the customer over her.
“That was the [last] straw,” she told me. “I didn’t even argue with him.” She put in her two weeks-notice immediately.
“I had wanted to quit for a long time, but I just didn’t have the courage to do it,” she explained. “I don’t have a college education or a husband to fall back on. I’m a single mom. So I hung on to [the job] simply for fear of leaving.”
She earned about $70,000 a year, though it came with 65-hour weeks in a chronically understaffed and overworked environment and a lot of disrespect—whether from customers or her boss.
Jamie did find a job almost immediately as a part-time mail carrier at USPS, which she supplemented by working for Door Dash the rest of the time. Even when she was able to get full-time work with USPS, she only earned about $50,000 a year, a significant pay cut.
Jamie’s restaurant had been severely understaffed, she told me. After being forced to send several workers home during the lockdown early in the pandemic, she could never hire enough workers back.
But the employee shortage, she noted, didn’t begin with the pandemic. “It started with the witch hunt for illegal aliens,” she said. “Those were the people that were the backbone of the restaurant industry.”
The restaurant where Jamie used to work is located in Butler County, Ohio, where the local sheriff has famously adopted a hardline on illegal immigrants. “Richard Jones sent us a pledge not to hire illegal aliens,” she recounted, and her restaurant signed the pledge. For the first time, her restaurant adopted the E-verify system, which enabled them to confirm the eligibility of employees to work in the United States. The changes were immediate. “We lost 7-9 cooks in one day,” she said.
“I understand that you can’t have illegal aliens in your restaurant, but there’s no one to replace them,” she said, adding, “we replace them with drug addicts.”
Drug addiction was “rampant” at her restaurant, according to Jamie, who said it was common to find needles in the parking lot, or someone passed out by the dumpster or overdosed in the bathroom. If they were new employees, they might work one or two shifts, take the cash, and never come back.
Jamie is part of a trend of millions of workers who have quit their jobs since the pandemic began. In October 2021 alone, 4.2 million people quit their jobs, which was close to the record high from the previous month. Organizational psychologist Anthony Klotz called it “The Great Resignation.”
But among the working class, why is this happening now? Over the last decade, as I have interviewed working-class men and women about their family lives, one of the most common stories I’ve heard is the awful working conditions that many people describe.
I’ve been equally struck by what feels to me like another kind of “Great Resignation”: a resignation over subpar working conditions, low pay, and the absence of good benefits. In the absence of unions or other associations to advocate for them, the working-class laborer is mainly on his or her own, squeezed between customers who are “always right” and corporate executives and shareholders who demand a disproportionate share of the profits. It’s a demoralizing place to be in, without power or a voice that counts.
The question is, do all the people quitting their jobs signify a new worker revolution and people standing up for their own dignity, or is it simply laziness?
In the absence of unions or other associations to advocate for them, the working-class worker is mainly on his or her own, squeezed between customers who are “always right” and corporate executives and shareholders who demand a disproportionate share of the profits. It’s a demoralizing place to be in, without power or a voice that counts.
My friend Corrie thinks it’s definitely the former. She worked at McDonalds off and on for 14 years, but she swears she’s never going back. She quit her job there before the pandemic and is now studying Health Information Management. So she applauds the wave of service workers quitting their jobs.
“We have a choice, and we’re tired of putting up with people who only see us as numbers and not people,” she said.
She described bad pay and little-to-no benefits in a work environment where nepotistic managers “guilt trip” you for taking a sick day and a constant line of customers who look down on you. “A lot of the restaurants I’ve worked at still have the mentality that the customer is always right, and I don’t necessarily believe that,” she said, noting that she saw the toll that it takes on the workers. “[W]e’re kind of forced to let [the customer] say or do whatever [they] want,” she explained. “And if we retaliate in any way, then we can be fired or reprimanded.”
People don’t understand how looked down upon fast food workers are... The job itself is really not that difficult. But when you put behind it a bad work environment, toxic people—customers and co-workers—on top of management who either doesn’t do anything, or does a lot and then doesn’t care about you as a person… Who’s going to want to work in an environment like that?
Sarah Jaffe, an independent labor journalist and author of Work Won’t Love You Back, has been traveling the country talking with employees, from restaurant servers to striking John Deere workers. She is hearing similar stories from workers who feel used and squeezed during the pandemic while employers profit.
“So what happens if you have a union, and you have a contract, and you have this whole bargaining process, is you go on strike if you’re not happy with what they’re offering you,” she recently told Roge Karma on the "Ezra Klein Show." “If you don’t have a union, like most Americans, the options seem more limited, and people quit their jobs, and go looking for something better.”
To hear managers and bosses tell it, there’s no doubt that the additional unemployment benefits that were extended in many states until this past summer kept people from coming back to work. According to Jamie, a former general manager of a restaurant, she heard from former employees who said they weren’t coming back to work because they could make just as much or more with unemployment.
But even though most of those additional unemployment benefits have ended, many workers are still quitting their jobs. For her part, Jamie has little patience with someone who leaves the workforce altogether and is dependent on government benefits or other public assistance. However, when it comes to changing jobs, Jamie thinks that’s understandable. The pandemic forced people to wake up and re-evaluate, she said.
“The pandemic was a scary situation,” she noted. “Not the end of the world, but like, oh crap, this could really be dangerous. And here I am miserable all the time. I don’t want to be miserable all the time.”
So why are many working-class workers quitting their jobs? To hear Jamie tell it, drug addiction and a crackdown on illegal immigrants combined to create a shortage of workers before the pandemic. After the pandemic, a combination of factors took place, including expanded unemployment benefits and a re-evaluation of what jobs people are willing to tolerate. What’s interesting about her observations is they don’t fit neatly into a conservative or progressive paradigm, but instead contain elements of both.
I asked Jamie what would have to change in the restaurant industry to make those jobs livable.
“It would be nice if a person could afford to live on [one] salary,” she said. Without real change, Jamie said she envisions more flux in the future. As she said of her own decision to quit, “The whole world changed, so what am I still doing here?”
David Lapp is a co-founder of Braver Angels, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.