Hundreds of Thousands of Retail Workers Are Quitting Their Jobs, Finding Better Ones

After more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, shops and restaurants are reopening fully but employers are struggling to fill those jobs.

As we transition from more than a year of COVID restrictions into some return to life as before, two jobs sectors are facing a huge shortage of workers: retail and restaurant. Why are some employers having a difficult time enticing workers back? Well, that’s a complicated question.

The staffing issue has been an immense hurdle for retail and restaurant employers across the country since shops and restaurants began opening back up fully, and now in many states, including Michigan, with no mask or social distancing mandates. 

In April, about 649,000 retail workers left the industry, the sector’s largest one-month exodus since the Labor Department began tracking such data more than 20 years ago, Abha Bhattarai reported in an article for The Washington Post last month.

“Many of these workers have been working in a pandemic for over a year … now that things are reopening and other industries are hiring, they all of a sudden have all of these opportunities.” –Abha Bhattarai, The Washington Post

Bhattarai says there are several factors behind the mass exodus.

“Many of these workers have been working in a pandemic for over a year,” she says. “They are drained. They’ve been working in stores that are short staffed. In some cases they’ve taken pay cuts. They’re dealing with unruly customers and the looming fear of getting sick for so long that now that things are reopening and other industries are hiring, they all of a sudden have all of these opportunities.”

She adds these new jobs are better-paying, more stable and more predictable than what the retail and restaurant industries offer.

“It’s become a no-brainer for them to quit if they can make a $1 or $2 extra an hour,” she says.

Related: To Fix Labor Shortage, the Service Industry Needs to Start Humanizing Workers, Restaurant Owner Says

And some are even taking a pay cut. The erratic nature of the retail and service industry means shifts can vary day to day, which makes it difficult to plan for things like child care or a second job.

“Some of the workers I talked to, the retail workers who had quit actually took a pay cut. One man left his 35-year career in retail and took a 30% pay cut, but is now going to be working more predictable hours. He feels like there’s more of a career path in his new industry, and he gets health benefits and things of the sort that he didn’t in retail,” she says.

In general there is a lot of movement in the job market, Bhattarai says.

“We’re seeing a lot more places hire, and that creates new opportunities,” she says. “What does that mean for particularly folks who are in lower paying jobs? It makes it very easy for them to move up if they want to without staying in the same industry necessarily.”

Related: Michigan Restaurants Struggle With Staffing Challenges as More Diners Return

As workers move on, it has put a strain on employers in the retail and restaurant sectors. Bigger employers like Target are considering increasing wages and adding other benefits. But mom-and-pop establishments are struggling, Bhattarai says.

“That’s where we’ve seen a lot of the more stagnant wage growth because these businesses in a lot of ways are struggling themselves. A lot of them had to close down at the beginning of the pandemic and they’re just barely sort of making up for that lost time right now and so they’re in a bind as well.”

Listen: Why so many retail workers are leaving the industry.

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  • Amanda LeClaire
    Amanda LeClaire is an award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. She’s a founding producer of WDET’s flagship news talk show Detroit Today, and a former host/reporter for Arizona Public Media. Amanda is also an artist, certified intuitive and energy healer, and professional tarot reader.