The CBS News program “60 Minutes” aired a piece over the weekend called ”The Big Quit,” focusing on jobs data that shows more Americans are quitting their jobs than ever before. The industries seeing the biggest loss and the varying reasons indicate a shift in the power dynamic between employers and their workers.
No, it’s not because of extra unemployment benefits received for an extended time after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the U.S. economy. In fact, as one expert pointed out, once those benefits expired or were intentionally cut short (as Gov. Jim Justice did in West Virginia), there was no great surge of employees rushing back to the sectors seeing the biggest employee shortages — retail, hospitality and health care chief among them.
One restaurant owner said he knows the people who left his establishment weren’t sitting at home collecting checks, but went on to find better opportunities in other job markets.
COVID-19 had an effect on employment, to be sure. The help-wanted signs are everywhere in every town in the United States. What the pandemic did for those who lost their jobs or quit was offer space and time to take stock of their situations and be more selective about what they wanted to do going forward. Resuming low-wage jobs without benefits, paid leave or a flexible schedule was apparently pretty unappealing from this new vantage point.
To paraphrase one employment expert, many American workers are burnt out and they now have some autonomy in where they go and what they do for a living.
It’s true that many who kept their jobs and were dubbed essential workers didn’t receive or couldn’t afford this luxury. But many workers did and could.
The pandemic also ushered in the era of working remotely on a large scale, something many people found they liked.
One of the more interesting interviews was with a man who ran a construction firm. He talked about how he found a potential employee he liked, and called the prospective hire about every day for two weeks, negotiating until the man agreed to take the job. Among the things the employer now offers are paid leave, covering moving expenses and even helping workers pay off student debt.
That interview was perhaps the best example of how the employment landscape has changed over the past two years. Potential hires are now the ones being courted and recruited in many fields, rather than the ones receiving rejection letter after rejection letter as they hustle to try and find work. Just like a college recruiting an athlete must have the best facilities and amenities, many employers must now offer the best perks beyond salary to fill their staff.
Another correlative bit of data mentioned in the piece is that small towns are growing, while big cities are losing population. The theory is that money goes further in a small town, and if a person can work from anywhere, why not be in a place that’s quieter, where the same income can allow them to afford a house, instead of a cramped apartment.
This is an area where, as many have observed, West Virginia could potentially benefit. The state already is seeing population growth in some areas, like the D.C.-adjacent Eastern Panhandle. That hasn’t offset the state’s bigger problem of losing population, as more deaths than births occur each year, and young people still leave the state in droves for better career opportunities after they finish school.
West Virginia has plenty of space, peace and quiet, and natural beauty to offer those who want to escape the frenzied pace of a large city and work remotely. What West Virginia doesn’t have, as also has been noted time and again, is reliable high-speed internet access statewide that allows for remote work.
The state’s continued dependence on coal also ensures that residents now pay some of the highest utility rates in the country, and they’re set to go even higher as the government allowed subsidiaries of American Electric Power to pass the cost of upgrades to outdated coal-fired power plants onto the West Virginia consumer.
In many West Virginia communities, just getting clean water that always runs when the faucet knob is turned continues to be a challenge.
Combine all of these things with a Legislature sending signals that its West Virginia is hostile to anyone who isn’t white, straight and Christian, and it becomes clear the Mountain State is not in the best of positions to attract the types of workers who are flooding small communities in other states.
The recently passed infrastructure bill brings hope that many of the more tangible problems in the state can be addressed in a significant way. The social issues, and breaking the dwindling coal industry’s death grip on energy policy, might take longer to change, and that’s only if change and growth are what those who hold sway over such things in West Virginia really want.