Ellen Booth, 57, studies at her kitchen table to become a certified
medical coder while her cat, Juji, sits on a bed behind her in Coventry,
Rhode Island.. When the restaurant she worked for closed last year,
Booth said it gave her "the kick I needed" and she started a year-long
class to learn to be a medical coder. When her unemployment benefits ran
out two months ago, she started drawing on her retirement funds. Booth
hopes to pass her upcoming exam and soon hit the job market. (AP
Changed by pandemic, many workers won’t return to old
By Dee-Ann Durbin, Stephen Groves, Alexandra Olson, and Joseph Pisani
The Associated Press
May 19, 2021
There’s a wild card in the push to return to pre-pandemic life: Many
workers don’t want to go back to the jobs they once had.
Layoffs and lockdowns, combined with enhanced unemployment benefits
and stimulus checks, gave many Americans the time and the financial
cushion to rethink their careers. Their former employers are hiring
again — and some, like Uber and McDonald’s, are offering higher pay —
but workers remain hesitant.
In March, U.S. job openings rose 8% to a record 8.1 million, but
overall hiring rose less than 4%, according to government data.
Nate Mullins quit his job as a bartender last November after clashing
with managers over mask rules and worrying that he would spread the
coronavirus to his immune-compromised sister.
Mullins’ unemployment checks don’t match what he was making at his
Oak Harbor, Washington bar, but they’re enough to get by while he looks
for jobs that would provide healthcare and retirement benefits.
"This opportunity to take a step back and really think about what
you’re doing really changed my mind," said Mullins, 36. "(It) made me
think long-term for the first time."
Workers like Mullins are one reason U.S. hiring slowed in April.
Employers and business groups argue that the $300-per-week federal
unemployment supplement gives recipients less incentive to look for
work. Several states have begun requiring those receiving the benefits
to show they are actively searching for work, and a few will stop
providing the supplement.
But Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist who researches low- and
middle-income workers with the Economic Policy Institute, said health
concerns and childcare responsibilities seem to be the main reasons
holding workers back.
In April, she said, at least 25% of U.S. schools weren’t offering
in-person learning, forcing many parents to stay home. And health
concerns could gain new urgency for some workers now that the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said fully vaccinated
people can stop wearing masks in most settings.
Shierholz added that unemployment benefits are designed to give
workers the time to find jobs that are better suited to their abilities.
"We want people well-matched to their skills and experience," she
said. "That’s what helps the economy run better."
Higher pay for workers can push up inflation, which jumped in April
as the economy struggled with widespread shortages of raw materials and
parts amid a faster-than-expected reopening. If companies are forced to
raise prices to cover the cost of higher wages, that could slow the
recovery and reduce Americans’ purchasing power.
For now, most economists see labor shortages as likely to be
temporary. As more Americans are vaccinated, fewer will worry about
getting sick at work. Schools should reopen in September, freeing more
parents to return to work, and the extra $300 in unemployment aid is
also set to expire in early September. Those steps should bring more
people into the job market.
Sarah Weitzel gave birth to her second child in February 2020. She
was on leave from her job at a Victoria’s Secret store in St. Louis when
the pandemic threw her life into chaos.
She got a text telling her she was furloughed. Then her husband lost
his restaurant job. In financial straits, they sold their home, moved in
with friends, survived on unemployment insurance, and fell deeper into
In the fall, Victoria’s Secret offered Weitzel part-time work that
would pay $12 an hour, but she declined. She and her husband, who now
works long hours at a new restaurant job, can’t afford childcare.
"Something just kind of broke, where I thought about how hard I was
working for this job that paid about $32,000 a year," Weitzel said.
Weitzel, 31, got accepted to Rung for Women, a St. Louis program that
offers career coaching and training for jobs in high demand, including
banking, healthcare, customer service, and technology. In the fall, when
her oldest daughter starts preschool, Weitzel hopes to get part-time
work in a new career.
Mark Smithivas drove for Uber and Lyft for four years before he
abruptly quit last spring out of concern for his health. He has spent
the last year taking technology classes in a federal worker training
Smithivas, 52, just received his second vaccination, but he doesn’t
want to go back to ride-hailing. He worries about carjackings and other
crimes targeting drivers in Chicago, where he lives.
"I always viewed this job as temporary, and I really do want to find
something that fits my career and background better," he said.
Some workers say the pandemic helped them prioritize their mental and
After a lifelong career as a bartender, 57-year-old Ellen Booth was
in constant pain from lifting ice buckets and beer kegs. But without a
college degree, she felt she had limited options.
When the restaurant she worked for closed last year, she said it gave
her "the kick I needed." Booth, of Coventry, Rhode Island, started a
year-long class to learn to be a medical coder. When her unemployment
benefits ran out two months ago, she started drawing on her retirement
funds. Booth will take an exam in the coming weeks to get certified,
after which she will hit the job market.
Shelly Ortiz, 25, used to love her career as a restaurant server. But
things changed last June, when her Phoenix restaurant reopened its
dining room. She wore two masks and glasses to protect herself, but
still felt anxiety in a restaurant full of unmasked diners.
Sexual harassment also got worse, she said. Patrons would ask her to
pull down her mask so they could see how cute she was before tipping
Ortiz quit in July after she learned that the restaurant didn’t
deep-clean the bar after a bartender was potentially exposed. She and
her partner, a teacher, curtailed their spending, and Ortiz returned to
school full time. This month, she is graduating from Glendale Community
College with a degree in film and a certificate in documentary
Ortiz stopped receiving unemployment benefits in November, when she
did some part-time film work. Money is tight, she said, but she’s never
been happier. And she doesn’t think she’ll ever be a restaurant server
"I don’t know if I could do it with a smile anymore," she said. "I
don’t think it should be an option for anyone to treat any worker the
way that service industry workers are treated in America."
In a tight labor market, some workers are also finding that if they
hold out, they might get a better job than the one they left.
Taryn Henderson spent six years working at Best Buy before she was
unexpectedly let go in February.
"They didn’t value the work I put in, the time I put in, because I
got laid off," said Henderson, 24, a college student who lives in
Austin, Texas. "It was just really discouraging."
At first she focused on her schoolwork, living on her unemployment
checks and a severance payment that gave her 10 weeks’ worth of pay. But
soon she was anxious to work again, and thought a new job that valued
her more would make her feel better.
After a few months of searching, she found another job with a music
streaming service. She’ll start later this month and will make $10 more
per hour than the $17 she made at Best Buy.
"As long as I’m making enough money that I can support myself, the
people that I love and I can get to travel every once in a while, I’m
good," said Henderson. "I think this job will afford me the
opportunities to do that."
AP Economics Writer Christopher Rugaber contributed to this report.
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