Workers are 'Rage Quitting' Their Jobs as a Tightening Labor Market Forces Employers to Take Note of Unfavorable Conditions and Low Pay
The waning days of the US coronavirus outbreak have prompted plenty of work-related reflection.
Kendra wasn't usually one to get mad, especially not on the job. She'd joined Dollar General in 2019, as a longtime homemaker hoping for a change of pace. She loved chatting with the regulars who filed into her small-town location. She was meticulous about all the little tasks that went into keeping the store clean, organized, and running smoothly. Kendra had even worked her way up to the role of key-holder, the store employee responsible for opening and closing.
But then came the coronavirus pandemic, and Kendra began to watch the stress start to "roll downhill." The headwaters of the strain seemed to be visits, announcements, or corrections from regional and district management. The negativity seemed to submerge Kendra's store manager, who became overwhelmed and less communicative toward her team. Soon, Kendra herself would find herself drowning in an increasingly fraught work environment.
"By the time you get down to that lowly stay-at-home mom that just wanted a part-time job — who is earning less than a hundred dollars a week because she's making $7.25 an hour and only working 10 hours a week — it's not worth it," Kendra told Insider.
She says she's not the "type of person" who acts out of anger. Yet, in the springtime of 2021, Kendra rage-quit her job.
Kendra isn't the Dollar General worker's real name. After verifying her employment records, Insider is protecting Kendra's identity because she is concerned about getting her former boss in trouble with management. She said her manager was a "good person" who was simply under pressure.
On her last shift, Kendra says, she could tell her store manager was displeased with something. During the pandemic, Kendra said she felt as if she was constantly dealing with passive-aggressive and snide remarks, instead of clear direction.
"It's like, if I've done something wrong, just tell me — you don't have to be mean about it," Kendra said. "Just tell me."
The manager declined to share what the problem was, and the conversation got heated. So Kendra walked out, and never went back.
The phenomenon of rage-quitting is as old as work itself. Some people prefer to end things with a bang, not a whimper. So things like bridge-burning, walking off sans a two weeks' notice, or even making a scene are nothing new when leaving a workplace. But the American workforce seems to be primed for rage-quitting at the moment — especially hourly workers in low-wage occupations like retail, which make up a giant portion of the workforce. In fact, hourly workers made up 58.1% of the US workforce in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Recently, multiple Dollar General employees at a store in Maine walked off the job after posting notes decrying the company's work culture and pay. Similar incidents have occurred at Chipotle, Hardee's, and Wendy's locations around the country. At the same time, employers are complaining of a tight labor market, in some cases accusing unemployment benefits of luring workers away.
But there's also evidence that many hourly wage earners are simply fed up with their jobs. A study from the human-resources assessment platform Traitify found that one in four respondents were at least "somewhat" less happy with their job than they were a year ago.
Gigs in industries like retail have long been denounced over low pay and high stress. But will the boiled-over rage of workers fresh off a life-altering pandemic — and any resulting labor shortage — finally prompt a major shift in working conditions?
'So done with that job'
The pandemic itself had an outsize influence on workers' decision-making. In some cases, workers who spoke with Insider cited the coronavirus as a primary reason for their unhappiness on the job and their ultimate departure.
That was the reasoning behind Crista's choice to depart from their job at PetSmart. Crista is also a member of the labor-rights group United for Respect.
Related: Surviving the Retail Apocalypse
"I was really concerned about bringing COVID home from my place of work," they told Insider.
Those fears grew as they watched managers and coworkers continually flout mask requirements within the stores, even as COVID-19 deaths spiked. Crista says they found the work environment "callous."
"It's definitely hard to report stuff to the boss when the boss is breaking the rules, too," they said.
Crista lives with their mother, who is 62. Their decision to quit was informed less by "rage" than by a deep dread over the prospect of infecting their loved one. Still, it amounted to a hasty departure. Crista can even pinpoint "the exact moment" they realized they needed to leave.
"My coworker was talking about how masks are so inconvenient to wear," they said. "And she said, 'If any of y'all get COVID from me, then sorry, not sorry.' So she literally was like: 'Yeah, I don't care if you get sick — I just don't want to wear my mask.'"
After thinking it over at home, they decided the "amount of pay" wasn't worth the "lack of safety." They called into work to put in their two weeks' notice.
"The team lead said, 'Just write it down on a piece of paper and don't say anything about why,'" they said.
"I found it very strange and concerning that they would rather not hear why someone found a company to be a bad fit, especially during a global pandemic," Crista said.
Crista says they went in to hand-deliver the note but couldn't find a manager. They left after situating the letter on a doorknob and never received another call from PetSmart.
"PetSmart should know that there's a huge disconnect between the corporate policies that have been put in place versus what their management and their staff actually do at their stores," they said. "And that there needs to be some oversight and enforcement."
In a statement sent to Insider, a PetSmart representative said the company remained committed to measures like "enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, face covering requirements for associates and customers, daily health screening for associates, and many other steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19."
"Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams and pet parents, and since the beginning of the pandemic, we have continuously directed our stores to adapt business practices to meet or exceed all applicable health and safety guidance, as well as other best practices for retail store operations," the person said. "Additionally, we have significantly invested in personal protective equipment, including cloth face coverings, KN-95 masks and gloves for associates, cleaning supplies, physical barriers in our stores, and other items to protect our associates and customers."
Insider also spoke with Helena, a former employee at a fast-fashion retailer. Insider verified her work history and is using a pseudonym to protect her identity over concerns about retaliation.
Helena says more than one of her relatives died from COVID-19 and she was often stressed about her boss taking the side of maskless shoppers over her team.
"I was like, you know what, this company and the employees here just don't care about anything other than the bottom line," she said.
But things came to a head after Helena took a moment to check her phone at work, looking for updates on a relative who had just had a stroke.
"My manager went on the walkie-talkie for everyone to hear, saying, 'Do me a favor and put your phone in your locker,'" Helena said. "This was right after the mass shooting where the employees couldn't even call home because they were made to put their phones in their lockers."
During the April shooting at a FedEx hub in Indianapolis, workers trapped inside the facility were unable to call or text loved ones because of the shipping giant's policy against cellphones at work.
The next day, the manager sent a long text out to the store workers about staying off their phones while on the job.
"This company furloughed us at the beginning of the pandemic," Helena said, thinking to herself: "Why are you working so hard for them? They pay you $10 an hour and you have to do way more work. They don't care about you."
Helena had always given two weeks' notice before leaving a job, so she wrote a resignation letter and went to work her next shift. At closing, she found herself getting yelled at by her manager once more, as she tried to deliver her two weeks' notice.
"I was just so done with that job," she said.
She decided to just not show up the following day.
"When they texted me to ask me where I was, I told them I was revoking my two weeks' notice," she told Insider. "It felt so good to know that I would never have to work there again."
Gypsy Noonan, another United for Respect member, thought about quitting Walmart many times. She was often assigned as the sole cashier in the store, a task that she found incredibly stressful. Noonan says work-related stress ended up causing her seizures. But she ultimately managed to hold off until she was offered a new opportunity. She gave her two weeks' notice but then found herself assigned to work the cash registers alone, once more.
She requested backup from her team lead and from other coworkers. Everyone refused.
"At this point, it's like a light bulb went off and I was like: 'I'm not doing this. I don't have to do this. I refuse to let myself be abused by the system,'" she said. "And I walked out the next day."
'Just trying to survive'
Some experts say the spate of rage-quitting could signal a sea change for hourly workers.
Quincy Valencia, the vice president of product innovation at the hiring platform Hourly by AMS, began her career in big-box-retail management, where she said "you enjoyed your workers, and the best ones you wanted to keep, but if someone quit, it was not a big deal — there were 10 people waiting to take that job."
Now, Valencia said that attitude "boggles" her mind.
"A bad experience with the cashier is going to ensure that a customer doesn't come back," she said. "Nobody cares who your financial analyst is. And yet these industries have always taken more time and more care in trying to hire the right people into those [corporate] roles than in hiring the people who are upfront."
She said that there's a "twisted mentality" around hiring hourly workers, in particular. Namely, jobs like working as a cook at a fast-food joint or a clerk in a grocery store are seen as a "rite of passage" for high schoolers, a frequently touted myth.
"Even now, the debate is going on about how these workers shouldn't make $15 an hour, because these should be for high-school students," she said. "I would counter that this is sort of off-topic. So what, you can abuse them because they're not raising a family?"
Valencia said this attitude "cannot" continue to pervade the talent-acquisition community.
"This category of worker — particularly in retail — has driven our economy over the past, especially here through this pandemic," she said. "And now there's a big mismatch right now between job availability and applicants for those jobs."
But still, that doesn't mean that going through with rage-quitting will empower workers on an individual basis. Laurie Ruettimann, a human-resources expert with a focus on fixing work, told Insider she was concerned about the long-term implications for rage-quitters forced to find a new job on the fly.
"Why would you give up your known crappy job for an unknown, potentially crappy job?" she told Insider. "There is this tendency — especially when we've been sheltering in place for so long — like, 'I've just got to get the hell out of here.' But that instinct to just flee is always the wrong instinct."
Ruettimann said employees considering rage-quitting on the spot should try to give themselves "permission to take this process slowly" and to focus on gathering information on truly promising new opportunities before resorting to drastic measures.
For her part, Kendra, the former Dollar General worker, says she doesn't feel good about quitting out of anger. For now, she is enjoying spending more time with her husband, whom she says she rarely used to see because of all the night shifts she worked. She also says there was no reason for her to continue subjecting herself to a high-stress environment for so little pay.
"I feel bad about it," she said. "But in this country, everyone's making money except for the ones actually doing the work."
Kendra tries to avoid driving by her old Dollar General. The sight of the distinctive black-and-yellow sign makes her sad, thinking about all the workers "just trying to survive."
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