Members Only | December 20, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Want to end the Great Resignation? End the pandemic

It’s not a problem that can be solved by making the lives of poor and working people, and immigrants, more miserable. 

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As they have since the summer, employers continue to struggle to fill empty positions. Unfilled jobs through the end of October hit 11 million, only slightly down from the record high 11.1 million openings in July. The Great Resignation also continues apace; 4.2 million people quit their jobs in October, down slightly from 4.4 million in November.


Nor is it a problem that can be solved by insisting we end covid restrictions or by rolling back mask and vaccine mandates, per the hypocrites at Fox.


Some economists, in-line with the blame-the-poor-then-punish-them tenet of conservative philosophy, have argued that the Great Resignation is the result of too generous unemployment benefits. They believe government should essentially starve workers into taking whatever jobs are offered at whatever salary, no matter how degrading or unsafe. In line with this strategy, some Republican governors ended enhanced benefits early, and nationwide, extended unemployment benefits for the pandemic ended in early September. But there was no rush go back to work. These latest numbers confirm that trying to impoverish people into taking jobs hasn’t been effective

If expanded benefits aren’t to blame, what is? With the economy expanding at historic rates, why aren’t people eager to grab up jobs? Economists will probably be trying to answer that question for years, if not decades. But there are some plausible, if tentative, answers.

First, the ongoing pandemic is extremely disruptive and traumatizing. It led some workers to reconsider their career options and their relationship with employers. For example, in May, I interviewed a meat cutter whose employer demanded he come back to work in his public-facing job in January 2021 before vaccines were available. He refused, quit and became disillusioned with the industry. He’s hardly the only worker to learn his employer didn’t value his safety or that of his loved ones. He decided to change his career trajectory as a result.

Some have suggested death by covid has contributed to the shortage. While this makes intuitive sense, at the moment experts do not believe it’s a major factor. Covid disproportionately strikes people who are past retirement age or who have disabilities that can keep them out of the workforce. As a result, experts estimate that covid accounts for only 4.3 percent of 3.5 million people no longer in the workforce. 


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While covid deaths may not explain vacancies, health problems related to the pandemic are another matter. Numbers remain tentative, but studies suggest there may be 750,000 to 1.3 million people suffering from long covid so severe they can’t return to work. If the higher number is accurate, that could account for a third of job shortfalls.

Another issue: when people become seriously ill, loved ones have to care for them. The pandemic has disrupted schools and child care. Some daycares may no longer be open; some parents may be afraid to expose young children, who could not be vaccinated until recently. 

Covid has sparked an explosion of domestic care needs. The brunt has fallen to women, who have left jobs at alarming and disproportionate rates. In September 2020, 863,000 women dropped out of the workforce compared to 168,000 men. That wasn’t a typical month. Some returned to work. But a year later, the proportion of mothers of children 13 or younger was still 4 percent below pre-covid levels. For men with children 13 or younger, the decrease was only 1 percent.


The cause of it all is clear enough. Covid kills people. Covid disables people. Covid forces people to stay home to care for loved ones. Covid prevents people from crossing borders to search for work. A massive, global pandemic is bad for workers, employers and for the economy.


Another factor is a major decline in immigration. This, too, is mostly driven by covid. The Trump administration reveled in grotesquely cruel immigration policies intended to discourage and prevent immigration. However, these policies had only limited success. In 2016, the number of green cards for legal immigrants hit a record of 1.2 million. By 2019, it had declined slightly to about 1 million, on par with levels in 2015.

Things changed rapidly during the pandemic. Countries throughout the world have tried to restrict travel to prevent viral spread. Individuals have also been reluctant to move across borders, temporarily or permanently, because of health concerns. As a result, issued visas cratered in 2020, falling by more than half, from 8.7 million to 4 million. Many of those missing 4.7 million visa holders were tourists or temporary visitors. But as many as 700,000 of them, according to the New York Times, could have gone to jobseekers. 

Biden lifted the Trump covid ban on legal immigration in February. Immigration visas are up this year, doubling from 138,544 in January to  290,312 in September. That’s still anemic compared to the 646,913 visas issued in September 2019. The Congressional Budget Office estimates a shortfall of 2.5 million immigrants in the 2020s thanks to covid. 


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Again, it’s difficult to know right now exactly which of these factors have been most consequential in keeping people out of work. But the cause of all of them is clear enough. Covid kills people. Covid disables people. Covid forces people to stay home to care for loved ones. Covid prevents people from crossing borders to search for work. A massive, global pandemic is bad for workers, employers and for the economy.

This is not a problem that can be solved by making the lives of poor and working people and immigrants more miserable. Nor is it a problem that can be solved by insisting we end covid restrictions or by rolling back mask and vaccine mandates, per the hypocrites at Fox. 

If we want to go back to normal, we need to end the pandemic. Until then, employees are going to struggle with caring for and protecting loved ones. And employers are going to have trouble filling jobs.


Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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