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Millions of workers left jobs this year, shifting the balance of power with employers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We turn now to a story about America's workers. This year there was a fundamental shift in the balance of power between employers and the millions of people who work for them. NPR's Andrea Hsu has a look at how we got here.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Remember at the start of the pandemic, when we were all talking about the people who kept showing up to work at grocery stores and restaurant kitchens? We called them essential workers, heroes. Well, in 2021, many of them said, enough.

JEREMY GOMBIESKY: I realized that, like, it's not cool to be living paycheck to paycheck.

LAMAR CORNET: Working 50, 60 hours a week for what they're paying just - it isn't worth it anymore.

MARY WATERS: I was sitting in the parking lot, and I just said, I can't walk in there. I just cannot do it.

HSU: That was Mary Waters (ph), who stocked freezers at a grocery store, along with restaurant workers Jeremy Gombiesky (ph) and Lamar Cornet (ph). They're just a few of the millions of people who walked away from jobs this year, more than 4 million a month since July with low-paid workers in restaurants, hotels and retail leading the way.

ENRIQUE LOPEZLIRA: We're still in a pandemic. There's still a lot of risk. A lot of the hazard pay that was given to these workers has ended, but the conditions haven't changed.

HSU: Enrique Lopezlira directs the Low-Wage Work Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Too many jobs in America, he says, are still not good jobs, especially amid a highly contagious virus.

LOPEZLIRA: So these workers still have to, you know, be in close proximity with customers and other workers. A lot of these jobs still don't have health insurance or paid leave.

HSU: And a lot of workers have said, I'm not okay with that. So with workers leaving in droves, one thing has changed. Employers are paying more. Wages this year rose faster than they have in decades. Latoya Beatty, who owns Little Pandas Learn-N-Play in Martinsburg, W.V., knew she had to do something after months of struggling to hire day care teachers.

LATOYA BEATTY: I've had people schedule an interview with me and don't show up for the interview. I've had people come in for an interview and didn't show up for the job.

HSU: So over the summer Beatty raised her starting pay from $10 an hour to 12. She still didn't get a flood of applicants. Now, day cares operate on very thin margins, and Beatty has stiff competition for workers from large corporations like Amazon that are paying upwards of $15 an hour.

BEATTY: Yeah. It's a challenge.

HSU: Remember the Fight for 15? Well, $15 an hour is now the de facto minimum wage in some parts of the country. Inflation has erased those wage gains for a lot of workers. But the lopsided labor market, with employers desperate to hire and workers not so desperate for jobs, has disrupted the balance of power between workers and their bosses. Here's Berkeley's Enrique Lopezlira again.

LOPEZLIRA: We are seeing that workers are exercising their voices more.

HSU: Especially those who are organized.

LOPEZLIRA: Publicly, we're seeing the largest support for workers and for unions since the '60s.

HSU: It's helped to have a labor-friendly administration in the White House and a union man heading the Labor Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTY WALSH: If you have it in your blood, you have it in your blood.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, yeah.

HSU: That's labor secretary Marty Walsh, former Boston labor leader, paying a visit to striking Kellogg workers outside a cereal factory in Pennsylvania. This year we saw workers in manufacturing, health care and other industries demand a bigger piece of the pie, especially, they say, after what they've been through over the past year and a half working tirelessly through the pandemic. But even as workers have made gains, companies still hold a lot of power. The Kellogg strike ended a couple of weeks after the cereal maker said it was going to hire permanent replacements. And it's important to remember that only 1 in 9 workers in the U.S. is part of a union, way down from decades past. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHIAS VOGT'S "SCHWARZBACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.