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The big idea

It turns out Americans are quitters. We don't yet know why.

It turns out Americans are quitters — and in surprisingly large numbers.

The Labor Department reported Tuesday that about 4.3 million people left their jobs in August, a record high that coincides with the surge in the delta variant of the coronavirus that month and in July. This comes after a disappointing September jobs report cast doubt on the economic recovery.

I was curious about why that might be, so I delved into the coverage. And it seems the only thing that can be said with certainty about the quit number is blindingly obvious: Those who left didn’t want the job anymore. But the “why” of that is much less clear — even if the Delta variant is one obvious culprit — as is the question of whether and where they went back to work.

Those questions go hand in hand with another enigma: Millions of unemployed Americans not filling millions of job openings, even after the end of their unemployment benefits. The Republican argument that turning off that cash flow would drive Americans back to work turned out to be wrong

Solving these puzzles could be a boon for President Biden, who campaigned on a promise to smother the pandemic and revive the economy, and who now finds himself struggling to do both after a promising early start with millions of vaccinations administered and millions of jobs created.

Service and retail industry took hardest hits

The two professional areas that saw the highest “quit rate” were jobs that largely entail interacting with customers. Some 892,000 people walked away from jobs in restaurants, bars, and hotels, up 21 percent from the 735,000 who did so in July. And the retail sector saw 721,000 hang it up, up not quite six percent from July.

In its news release, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted “state and local education” sector quits had jumped 25,000 to 70,000, the highest since April. In August 2020, months before widespread vaccination, that number was 128,000.

At the same time, sectors with less exposure to the public — construction, finance, transportation, warehousing and utilities — were mostly steady.

My colleague Heather Long flagged two other phenomena on Twitter. First, that more than 30 million Americans quit their jobs from January to August, the highest since 2019. Second,  Americans are leaving manufacturing jobs “at the highest rate we've ever seen.” That’s pretty notable, considering how much politicians tout manufacturing jobs, but could be a case of workers seeking a similar job for higher pay from a different employer.

The Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLT) report, as the Labor Department data is formally known, doesn’t delve into the why of Americans leaving their jobs. Or into the where of workers’ next stop — some may be quitting for a job in the same industry, others may be leaving the field entirely. 

But my colleagues Eli Rosenberg, Abha Bhattarai, and Andrew Van Dam reported Tuesday: “The phenomenon is being driven in part by workers who are less willing to endure inconvenient hours and poor compensation, who are quitting instead to find better opportunities. According to the report, there were 10.4 million job openings in the country at the end of August — down slightly from July’s record high, which was adjusted up to 11.1 million, but still a tremendously high number. This gives workers enormous leverage as they look for a better fit.”

As Heather wrote back in July, that has put upward pressure on wages, and compensation more broadly. As Heather and Scott Clement documented in August, it’s also leading to worker demands for greater flexibility from potential employers.

And, as Eli, Abha, and Andrew explain it: “The jobless rate has improved since the spring of 2020, but leverage shifted from employers to employees as the pandemic helped draw attention to the plight of low-wage workers. There are a number of other factors that workers are weighing, including health concerns amid the rise of the coronavirus’s delta variant, as well as uneven access to child care.”

“While job offerings were more consistent before the pandemic, the range of questions employers are facing, such as how they deal with remote and flexible work, compensation and bonus packages, gives workers a broader range of positions to choose from.”

The flexibility factor

Over at CNBC, Abigail Johnson Hess dug into a study that found half of working Americans are seeking a professional change

The study found 41 percent of workers say they are thinking about quitting because their company did not care about their concerns during the pandemic, while 76 percent say they want the scheduling and location flexibility that became common over the past 18 months to be permanent.

Asked whether the surge in Americans quitting their jobs is a concern, a White House official acknowledged “barriers to participation” like covid concerns and difficulty getting or keeping child care.

At the same time, the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said “we are seeing companies work harder, offering better wages and more benefits to attract workers” and “worker power is rising.”

Quitters, it seems, can be winners.

What's happening now

Inflation is on the rise, and the WHO will investigate covid-19's origins

Prices rose 5.4 percent this September over last year

Data released Wednesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that “the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to weigh on supply chains, the job market and the Federal Reserve’s own expectations for the economy,” Rachel Siegel reports. The Fed expects the increase to level off closer to the expected 2 percent sometime next year.

  • Policymakers underestimated the threat posed by delta when the surge began a few months ago. On the labor front, the economy gained only 194,000 jobs last month, and officials said ongoing concerns about child care, and fear of the virus, kept people from returning to work.”

Next year, roughly 70 million people will see a 5.9 percent rise in Social Security benefits

This marks the largest benefit boost in nearly four decades, Jeff Stein reports, though “Experts caution that millions of seniors will in reality see substantially less than a 6 percent bump, because Medicare Part B premiums are deducted from Social Security beneficiaries’ checks and are tied to seniors’ income.”

The WHO will organize a group of experts to investigate the origins of covid-19 and other outbreaks

The World Health Organization named 26 scientists to the advisory board on Wednesday, Adam Taylor reports. “The group includes scientists from the United States and China, as well as 24 other nations, and will be formalized after a brief period of public consultation. It is set to consider not only the big, unresolved question of the novel coronavirus virus — how did it first infect humans? — but also establish a framework for future outbreaks involving other pathogens so similar big questions aren’t left unresolved again.”

The FDA is trying to crack down on Americans' salt intake

The agency announced guidelines Wednesday that would restrict sodium in restaurants and from food companies by about 12 percent over the next 2½ years, Laura Reiley reports. “The guidelines are voluntary, but experts say they signal a new willingness on the part of the FDA to crack down on food manufacturers.”

  • “About 70 percent of the sodium people eat comes from packaged, processed and restaurant foods, according to the FDA; not from the salt shaker on the kitchen counter.”

Film and TV workers say a nationwide strike could begin Monday

“The union representing film and television crews says its 60,000 members will begin a nationwide strike on Monday if it does not reach a deal that satisfies demands for fair and safe working conditions,” the Associated Press’s Andrew Dalton and Lindsey Bahr report. International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees President Matthew Loeb said the union set a strike date due to lack of urgency in the negotiations.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

The 2020 Census may have undercounted Black Americans at a significantly higher rate than usual, new analyses say. “If the analyses are borne out, the higher undercounts could have profound implications for a wide array of federally funded services, including Medicaid and Medicare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), highway planning and construction, Section 8 housing vouchers, Head Start and other programs,” Tara Bahrampour reports.

  • “This might be our greatest undercount since 1960 or 1950,” said Marc Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, which sued the bureau last year to stop the count from ending early.

It’s a scary time to be growing up. Teens and parents are bonding over that, Caitlin Gibson reports. political volatility, gun violence, and heightened awareness of racism and climate change are weighing on people across generations. 

  • 51 percent of teens said they felt this is a bad time to be growing up — a steep increase from the 31 percent who gave that answer in a similar poll conducted 16 years ago by The Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University — and 62 percent of parents said the same.”
  • “Even for families who fear for the world their children will inherit, the act of parenting necessitates the search for hope, or at least for a sense of purpose.”

In an unprecedented move, the FDA authorized an e-cigarette and two nicotine cartridge products on Tuesday, Bryan Pietsch reports. The agency determined that the product’s benefit to adult smokers outweighed any potential harms to youth.

  • “E-cigarettes have been sold in the United States for more than a decade with little regulation, but the FDA has been conducting a major review of the products to determine which ones can remain on the market. Last year it told manufacturers of e-cigarettes and other items they’d have to apply to the FDA for permission to continue selling their products.”

… and beyond

A Reuters investigation found Amazon “ran a systematic campaign of creating knockoffs and manipulating search results to boost its own product lines in India, one of the company’s largest growth markets” despite denying the allegations, Aditya Kalra and Steve Stecklow report.

  • “Documents reveal how Amazon’s private-brands team in India secretly exploited internal data from Amazon.in to copy products sold by other companies, and then offered them on its platform. The employees also stoked sales of Amazon private-brand products by rigging Amazon’s search results so that the company’s products would appear, as one 2016 strategy report for India put it, “in the first 2 or three … search results” when customers were shopping on Amazon.in.”

The United Kingdom's worker shortage could threaten its Christmas turkey supply, AFP's Julie Ezvan reports. “Faced with a labour shortage in the poultry sector, farmers across the country have been advertising for workers. But applications are extremely rare.”

  • Worker shortages at supermarkets are compounding the dip in demand, Ezvan reported.

The Biden agenda

No more large-scale immigration arrests at job sites

No more large-scale immigration arrests at job sites, Biden says

The Biden administration has ordered a halt to large-scale immigration arrests at job sites and says it will look for new ways to address employers who exploit workers, Nick Miroff reports.

  • “The deployment of mass worksite operations, sometimes resulting in the simultaneous arrest of hundreds of workers, was not focused on the most pernicious aspect of our country’s unauthorized employment challenge: exploitative employers,” a memo from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reads.
  • “Immigrant advocates and many Democrats who oppose the raids say they punish vulnerable workers, sow fear in immigrant communities and rarely result in consequences for employers.”

Biden administration wants banks to hand over more customer information to the IRS

Biden is calling for a crackdown on $7 trillion in unpaid taxes to help fund his social policy bill. But to track down the missing funds, the administration is asking banks to hand over additional customer information to the Internal Revenue Service, the New York Times's Kate Kelly and Alan Rappeport report. “That has sparked an uproar among banks and Republican lawmakers, who say giving the I.R.S. such power would be an enormous breach of privacy and government overreach.”

 

Hot on the left

The Netflix series “Squid Game" has captivated global audiences, the Associated Press's Kim Tong-Hyung reports, but hits too close to home for some in South Korea. In the show, adults compete in lethal games in an attempt to be released from severe debt. “Squid Game’s global success is hardly a cause for pride, Se-Jeoung Kim, a South Korean lawyer based in Poland, wrote in a Seoul Shinmun newspaper column.”

“'Foreigners will come to you, saying they too watched Squid Game with fascination, and may ask whether [one character's] situation in the drama could really happen in a country that’s as wealthy and neat as South Korea, and I would have nothing to say,' she said.”

Hot on the right

Biden still hasn't named anyone to the Federal Communications Commission, a historic delay that Politico's John Hendel says could soon put Republicans in the majority at the agency. “Congressional Democrats have been sounding the alarm for months, fearing a squandered year on the president’s progressive priorities, such as reinstating net neutrality rules and demanding greater transparency on internet billing. By comparison, former President Donald Trump named Ajit Pai as his FCC chair just three days after being sworn in, and the commission’s Republicans were rolling back net neutrality by December 2017.”

Today in Washington

Biden will meet with business, port and union leaders to discuss ways to address global transportation supply chain bottlenecks at 1:45 p.m. and is then slated to deliver remarks at 2:20 p.m.

  • “The Biden administration on Wednesday will announce that a key U.S. port will begin working ‘24/7,’ in a move officials hope will relieve pressure on an overworked supply chain that has blossomed into a major economic shortcoming,” David J. Lynch reports.

In closing

On Monday, survival was uncertain for this McNugget-sized, two-headed turtle hatchling, Paulina Firozi reports. Now the Associated Press reports that the six-legged creature, nicknamed Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, is thriving.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.