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Millions Of Workers Say 'I Quit' As Restaurants And Hotels Reopen

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's being called the great resignation. As the pandemic winds down, workers across the U.S. are quitting their jobs in record numbers - 4 million in April alone. And restaurants and hotels are feeling it the most. NPR's Andrea Hsu has been looking at what's going on, and she's with us now. Hey, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So this is such a strange moment. A year ago, restaurant and hotel workers were getting laid off in droves. And now people are eating out again, traveling again, and workers are quitting.

HSU: Yeah. In March and April, just as the pandemic was easing, just as restaurants were getting back to full service again, 1.3 million people left jobs in hotels, bars and restaurants.

FADEL: So why is this happening?

HSU: Well, people are feeling confident that they can find another job. You know, you go into any restaurant, and you see help wanted signs on the doors and on the windows. And this is coming off a year when lots of people were reassessing what they do for a living. I talked to this one hotel worker who worked the night shift at the front desk. She was making $17 an hour dealing with difficult guests who were demanding things like free upgrades. And she was envious of friends who were working at home. So the other week, she quit, and now she's looking for a job in the music industry as an executive assistant.

And I also talked to a restaurant manager in San Diego, Jeremy Gombieski (ph). Now, he was furloughed last December, and suddenly he had all this time at home with his kids. He told me it made him realize how much he values being able to make dinner for them and spending Christmas morning with them. And he says it's made him think hard about a lot of things.

JEREMY GOMBIESKI: You know, who I'm working for, what I want out of life now because working 50, 60 hours a week for what they're paying just - it isn't worth it anymore.

FADEL: But if you quit a job, you can no longer collect unemployment. So how are people getting by in between jobs?

HSU: Well, in Jeremy's case, he was getting unemployment until last week. And he said that was a big help. It gave him the time he's never had before to consider doing other things, other careers. He's been working in food service since he was 16, and he's 42 now. So he says he does have enough savings to last a month or two, but he's out there interviewing for jobs already. And you know, Leila, Republicans have been arguing that this is the problem with enhanced unemployment benefits, that it's keeping people home. Eight more Republican states ended those benefits as of today. But workers I've talked to - they're happy that they haven't had to rush out to find a new job. And some people like Jeremy are taking the opportunity to switch fields.

FADEL: And some would argue that companies should be paying more. How is all this, all these people quitting, affecting employers?

HSU: Well, restaurants are having a really hard time finding workers right now. And we have seen wages go up. Everyone from McDonald's to the Olive Garden are bumping up the hourly pay. I ordered a pizza from Domino's the other night, and it came with this flier announcing a $500 sign-on bonus for all positions.

I also talked to David Willocks. He's the chef and owner of a small farm-to-table place in Newport, Ky. It's called the Baker's Table. And he told me normally when they post a job, they get three to six applicants, but now they'll have nobody applying for weeks. And this despite the fact that their lowest paid staff start at $14 an hour. That's almost twice the minimum wage in Kentucky. But he has found something good in all of this. He says people who have come to work for him now really want to be there. It's like they've taken the job after asking themselves the tough questions.

DAVID WILLOCKS: Do I want to be in the service industry? Do I want to be a cook? Do I want to be a server? And so we've got drastically less applicants. But I've actually found that we've actually hired better people.

HSU: And here's another thing, Leila. David Willocks said after a year of having the tables spaced further apart, he's realized that they were too crowded before. So going forward, they're just going to be a smaller restaurant.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Hsu, thank you so much for your reporting.

HSU: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.