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BUSINESS MONDAY: Tales from the post-COVID work force –

A record 4 million people quit their jobs in April 2021, according to a Labor Department study released early June, leading some economists to dub this moment “The Great Resignation.”

This might seem surprising given the unprecedented job and financial insecurity experienced by millions of Americans last year. Yes, the economy is finding its footing as businesses resume close-to-normal operations this summer and federal unemployment checks will come to an end in September (in some states, sooner), but the current unemployment rate of 5.9 percent is still well above pre-COVID levels.

So why are so many workers quitting their jobs?

A multitude of factors are in play, some of which have been covered by The Edge in recent months. When Ronny Brizan was laid off from The Red Lion Inn last June, he didn’t collect unemployment and wait to be rehired. Instead, within weeks, he purchased a food truck and opened his own restaurant, BB’s Hot Spot. Financial advisor Matthew Chester wanted more control over his clients’ experience and was attracted to the flexibility of working from home, so he left his job with RBC Wealth Management in May to launch an independent firm.

Ronny Brizan, after losing his job, didn’t seek another but set up his own business.  Here he is, cooking oxtail, inside his Columbus Avenue kitchen in Pittsfield. Photo: Julia Dixon

As specific as these entrepreneurial stories are, the April data released by the Labor Department presents a clear picture of a growing trend, exacerbated by other factors including a continued need for childcare, burnout, demand for higher pay, and ongoing health concerns.

Tyler Ramsay was teaching sixth grade English at Herberg Middle School in Pittsfield when the novel coronavirus surfaced early in 2020. The school, as well as all schools in the state, closed for two weeks mid-March and subsequently transitioned to remote learning for the remainder of the academic year as the virus spread. Pittsfield Public Schools implemented a hybrid online/in-person system when classes resumed that fall and launched a fully remote, independent school called Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy (PPVA) as a second option for students.

Tyler Ramsey head shot
“In September and October last year there were so many unknowns,” said Ramsay, who quit his teaching job at Herberg Middle School after two years. “My family was willing to help so I consider myself lucky.” Photo courtesy Tyler Ramsay.

“If we brought kids back full-time, I wouldn’t be able to teach because of personal and family health issues,” said Ramsay. He applied to teach remotely with PPVA but, due to limited enrollment, was not selected.

“They told me to either come in in-person—they offered more PPE [personal protective equipment]—or take an unpaid leave of absence,” he said. “I had to choose between seeing my family or keeping my job.”

Ramsay would not have been able to afford his Pittsfield apartment or student loan payments without a salary, so he decided to quit. He moved back into his parents’ Framingham home “in a matter of one week” that October.

Despite the hybrid learning plan, COVID cases continued to climb and all Pittsfield schools suspended classroom instruction by mid-November. Ramsay was offered a remote job as a fifth grade general education teacher in Pittsfield, but he was not comfortable with the idea of teaching science and math, which are outside his licensure. He quickly found a remote position with the Nashoba Regional School District in central Massachusetts and, after being laid off this May due to a decreasing need for remote learning as case numbers plummet, will begin teaching sixth grade English in Arlington, Mass. this fall.

“I cycled through three teaching jobs in one year because of health, safety, and budgetary concerns,” he said.

This turbulence has spurred one in four American teachers to consider quitting, according to RAND Corporation’s 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey. Teachers who left the profession during the pandemic ranked health concerns, insufficient pay given the risks and stress of the job, and childcare burdens as their top reasons for leaving.

Heather Boulger, executive director of the MassHire Berkshire Workforce Board, sees local statistics echoing national trends. “About 30 percent [of Berkshire-based workers are] not wanting to go back to work due to child/eldercare issues,” she wrote in an email. “About 40 percent [are] wanting part-time work instead of full-time and/or want to start their businesses.”

Ben, a Williamstown-based software developer who declined to give his last name, was already working remotely for an international company when COVID forced its employees to work a mandatory four-day week at 80 percent pay.

“It ended up being great because it meant I could provide more childcare,” he said of his two-year-old daughter. But the company eventually reinstated full hours and the lack of daycare and other resources put added pressure on the family. “I would have stayed on, but it would have been tenuous.”

With another child on the way, Ben was without many options—until he was poached by another firm, giving him some negotiating power. Now, he’s working four days per week at his full salary. “I wouldn’t have pushed for a four-day week ever if not for COVID,” he said.

Matthew Chester explains why being in the Berkshires is better for his business.
Financial advisor Matthew Chester wanted more control over his clients’ experience and the flexibility of working from home, so he left his job with RBC Wealth Management in May to launch an independent firm. Photo courtesy Tableaux Wealth, taken by Tricia McCormack Photography.

The Labor Department report found that employees in all industries, including white-collar professions, are quitting. A record 700,000-plus workers in professional and business services—a sector that includes accountants, consultants, designers, and engineers—left their job in April, The Atlantic recently reported.

But these numbers point to increased confidence, not apprehension, in the economy. The latest jobs report released on July 2 shows strong employment growth in the leisure and hospitality sectors as well as education, retail, and professional and business services which added 72,000 jobs in June. Wages are steadily rising, too. Average hourly earnings rose 3.6 percent this year, particularly in low-wage professions, signaling shifting power dynamics. With more employers willing to compete for workers, perhaps this is an excellent time to negotiate for flexible benefits, ask for a raise, or change careers entirely.