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US Workers Are Still Quitting Their Jobs in Record Numbers

A record number of workers in the United States quit their jobs in November, another sign that worker leverage in the labor market is stronger today than it has been in years. But without organizing, today’s gains for workers will vanish as soon as COVID-era labor market tightness slackens.

A record number of workers in the United States quit their jobs in November, according to the Department of Labor’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary. (Audtakorn Sutarmjam / EyeEm via Getty Images)

A record number of workers in the United States quit their jobs in November, according to the Department of Labor’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary.

The month saw 4.53 million people quit their jobs, up from 4.2 million in October and equivalent to 3 percent of the US workforce. Nearly 7 percent of restaurant and bar workers changed or quit their jobs in November, as did 4.4 percent of retail workers and 3 percent of health care workers; these numbers precede the Omicron wave that is now spreading across the country.

As for hiring, there were 10.56 million job openings, a slight decline from prior months but still high by historical standards (6.9 million people are currently classified as “unemployed”). Hiring was up, with 6.7 million people hired in November, well above the quits, meaning more people are in the workforce than in prior periods (though others have left it entirely, retiring during the pandemic earlier than they might have otherwise planned). While many people are switching sectors — especially health care workers, who have been leaving the sector in droves, ground down by inadequate wages and unsustainable workloads — the latest numbers show that even in leisure and hospitality, another area with a high “switch” rate, hiring is up above quits, suggesting some quitters are finding better jobs within the sector.

Even as inflation continues to rise, in some lower-wage sectors, wage growth is outpacing it, with hourly earnings in the leisure and hospitality sector up 12.3 percent in November. Those who switch jobs —  i.e., many of those who have joined in what has been dubbed the “Great Resignation” — are seeing higher than average wage growth as they find higher-paying work elsewhere. Further, the ratio of worker-initiated quits to employer-initiated firings, what labor economist Aaron Sojourner has called the “labor leverage ratio,” is as high as it’s been in the two decades for which we have data, underlining workers’ power in this moment.

However, there is a long way to go to make up for the decades of stagnant real wages to which the US working class has been subject for decades. (Corporations, by contrast, are enjoying skyrocketing profits, and the richest of the rich have never had it better.)

A tighter-than-usual labor market is a positive thing. It allows people to tell their boss to shove it, and has given some unionized workers, in a variety of sectors, the confidence to strike over intolerable working conditions, knowing their employers will have trouble replacing them (though that hasn’t stopped bosses from trying). That security has contributed to a willingness among such workers to go on the offensive, particularly in seeking to undo two-tier provisions previously agreed to in their contracts.

But the “Great Resignation” can be interpreted in several ways: there is literal resignation from one’s job, and then there is the pessimistic read, a valence of giving up, of not fighting to make things better. This is the tragedy of the disorganization of the US working class — that when conditions align to back collective action, there is no collective with which to fight, no organization, no support. Instead, one is left with individual action, leaving one job for another.

Switching is winning real gains for some workers, who are navigating the job market and coming out of it with higher wages or better working conditions (though, given how many switchers are surely ending up at Amazon, it’s safe to say that some people are seeing higher wages and decidedly worse working conditions). But it does not mean that those gains are locked in; when the market loosens up, when conditions change, there is little stopping an employer from taking away what they have granted, not to mention firing those deemed too expensive or troublesome.

The means for locking in gains is organization. While there has been an uptick in union organizing activity — unorganized workplaces agitating and in some cases, filing for a union election, and already union workers striking or threatening to do so — the level of such activity remains on the floor. That must change if these gains are to be solidified. Otherwise, they will stand as a flash in the pan — a curiosity or a last gasp by a US working class that has been beaten down and sacrificed.