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  • Adam Zaiser

The Great Resignation

Earlier this year, on April Fool’s Day, it appears it was Amazon who were made the fools when, despite all their negative rhetoric on the matter, workers in a Staten Island facility became the first of Amazon's facilities to vote in favor of entering a worker union. Of course, just a week later, Amazon filed appeals to the National Labor Relations Board disputing the results of this vote, so whether this union will come to fruition is still very much in the air. Regardless, this was an important win for worker’s rights. Stories surrounding the Amazon union have consistently been “front page” news on major news outlets all this month. But, of course, it’s important not to forget that this is a single facility deciding to unionize at a company that has 1,137 fulfillment centers across the US.

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) investigation into the matter, Amazon had repeatedly interfered with the ability of workers to unionize in ways that constituted a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, the act which established the NLRB. It was the settlement during this investigation which led to this victory being possible.

But this victory comes amidst a period which provides a great deal of context for why a labor union formed at a single facility can manage to be front page news for a month. In March of 2021, the number of resignations that month spiked to 3.7 million, higher than in any other month in the last 20 years. But, this wasn’t an ordinary spike. The rate of resignations hasn’t dropped below 4.0 million since May of 2021. This wasn’t a spike; this was a trend, atrend come to be known as the Great Resignation.

So why is this happening? Many economic conditions have compounded together to make a situation like this inevitable, but, before looking into the many correct answers to this question, it’s important to address some of the incorrect answers.

Lots of news organizations have latched onto a narrative that this “Great Resignation” is more like a “War Against Working”. The way this narrative goes is that people are quitting their jobs because of the unemployment benefits under the CARES Act, and that we’ve created a sort of “anti-work” culture in this country, particularly among younger demographics. This is also why Fox News decided to paint a community on Reddit called the “anti-work subreddit” as a growing movement and driving force behind these resignations. They showed a graph of the subreddit’s growth on air which peaked at 1.7 million users.

You may recognize 1.7 million as a number much smaller than the 4 million people who resigned from their jobs each month between May 2021 and January 2022, the month the chart was aired.

While the claims of unemployed workers abusing the CARES Act may appear to have more validity than claims about the power of a subreddit, they are just as false. Baked into criticisms of Americans quitting their jobs in order to collect unemployment insurance are numerous misconceptions. For instance, critics portray the situation as if workers have the option to quit their jobs and collect unemployment insurance in an amount higher than their salary. While the CARES Act did expand coverage for workers, the “expanded criteria do not cover several situations that many people would consider a legitimate reason to stop working,” such as living with a family member with a chronic health condition or working under an employer who is unwilling to provide adequate personal protection equipment.

Even individuals who qualified for coverage under the CARES Act after being laid off cannot count on insurance providing a constant source of income. The act stipulates that if an employer attempts to rehire such an employee, if they refuse to return to work, they could face losing their eligibility for unemployment insurance.

So if a stable income out of the office is not what’s causing people to resign en masse, then what is? Put simply, people want better jobs. Those leaving their jobs cite dissatisfaction with their “work/life balance” and “with their job overall.” Leading the charge are employees in tech and healthcare; it should come as no surprise that the Harvard Business Review found resignation rates to be “higher among employees who worked in fields that had experienced extreme increases in demand due to the pandemic, likely leading to increased workloads and burnout.”

The Harvard Business Review advises employers to combat excessive resignation using simple yet effective strategies, such as “pay[ing] people enough ” “build[ing] relationships,” “provid[ing] mental health resources, [...] and giv[ing] more paid time off.” Apparently, some people didn’t know that you will retain more employees by treating them as if they are of value to you.

At the heart of the Great Resignation is the collective desire for better employee treatment. For too long employers have taken advantage of a labor market heavily stacked in their favor. The millions upon millions of American workers resigning illustrates the need for reform on a macro level: shorter work weeks, paid overtime, opportunities for advancement, proper health benefits, and similar basic factors that make working a job not just livable, but worthwhile.

For many workers today, the decision to quit is the one mechanism workers have to bargain with their employers. Change doesn’t occur until it is to the financial benefit of those in power.


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