The Big Quit

    With the pandemic, some workers second guessed their relationship with employment and moved on. Now what?
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    the big quit reflects on the restaurant industry during the pandemic.
    Patrick Mulvaney. Photo by Ryan Angel Meza.

    The Sacramento region’s unemployment rate hit a low of 2.9% this past May, before rising slightly to 3.4% at the start of summer. Both numbers are among the lowest unemployment rate data in the city’s history.

    As in so much of the country, however, the historically low unemployment rate masks a more complicated truth. During the pandemic, huge numbers of people throughout California quit their jobs. In August 2021 alone, for example, 400,000 Californians left their place of employment. And in many months throughout 2020 and 2021, vast numbers of workers upped stakes and either opted out of the labor market altogether—which is partly why the unemployment rate is so low—or chose the moment to rethink their careers. As of this past summer, the labor force participation rate in California (the percentage of working-age adults either employed or actively looking for jobs) was just 61.7%; that compares to 63.4% in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, and 66% in 2008, just before the housing bubble burst.

    As the economy recovered, jobs were there for the taking, but millions of Americans weren’t taking them. That presented a huge opportunity for those who didn’t like their jobs—were bored, tired, underpaid or felt underappreciated—to leave those jobs and look for something better.

    For a while, it became so hard for some businesses to find staff that they had to reduce their hours—cafes would shut at 3 p.m., restaurants by 8:30 or 9 p.m.—or days of operation. In August, CNBC reported that three times as many businesses were offering signing bonuses to new employees as was the case pre-pandemic. Airports couldn’t find enough staff to get luggage from planes to terminals. Transport systems struggled to find bus drivers. Hospitals ran short of nursing staff.

    For restaurateur Patrick Mulvaney, the pandemic completely changed his workforce.
    For restaurateur Patrick Mulvaney, the pandemic completely changed his workforce. Photo by Ryan Angel Meza.

    The Great Resignation, as commentators have dubbed it, affects people of all ages and all walks of life. Disproportionately, however, it has swept up younger workers, those with fewer family and financial responsibilities and more of an ability to take a chance, as well as middle-aged workers desperate for more stability and more reliable benefits. Many of those who left were service-sector workers—people who had either lost income during the  pandemic or who saw a tight labor market as the economy rebounded from COVID shutdowns. They saw desperate employers willing to offer high wages and good starting perks to new employees, swallowed deeply and made the jump.

    I worked for Mulvaney’s [downtown restaurant] starting in ’06,” says 43-year-old Andrew Willsen. “I’ve been in restaurants about 21 years. Waiting tables in Sonoma, being a sommelier, a manager. I was working at Waterboy in March 2020, and then the restaurant closed for two years.”

    Willsen had been looking for a career change for several years, as he found that being on his feet for hours at a stretch was too wearing on his middle-aged body. The restaurant business was exhilarating at times, he says, but it also led to “stress, repetitive strain injuries; you’re walking on cement or tile, walking 10 to 12 miles a day.”

    At the start of the pandemic, many of Willsen’s friends quit the restaurant business. “They got into other sales jobs—tech, marketing—or in local government, for the city or county. And once they did that, they decided to never go back to restaurants. They had downtime and got used to spending more time at home and with their families.” Many workers in what restaurants call the “back of the house”—the kitchen—quit, says Willsen, to start their own catering business, work for Amazon or take construction jobs.

    For Patrick Mulvaney, one of Sacramento’s best-known restaurateurs, the pandemic entirely changed his workforce at Mulvaney’s B&L. During the shutdown, restaurants had to cut their staff down to the bare minimum, to the few needed to cook takeout orders, clean the kitchen, perhaps staff the front-of-the-house food sales sites that many restaurants improvised, acting as gourmet markets while they tried to sell off their surplus produce. Then, as the economy stumbled toward reopening, Mulvaney’s had to grapple with chronic staffing shortages as large numbers of former employees had moved on to other forms of work. “People were saying, ‘I’m not sure if I want to work or where I want to work,’” Mulvaney says, recalling those difficult months. “We struggled, because we didn’t have the labor.”

    To encourage workers to come back, Mulvaney, like many other restaurant owners, restructured his restaurant’s tipping policies, instituting tip sharing with back-of-the-house employees who in the past had-often been left out of the process. Slowly, he was able to rebuild his fractured workforce, though even today it’s still not as large as it was prior to March 2020. (He estimates that, industrywide, the workforce is about 15% slimmer today than it was pre-pandemic.)

    “It took eight months,” says Mulvaney. “It was painful. We lost a lot of the institutional knowledge, the teachers who teach the next generation. I don’t know if there’s ever been a space where there just aren’t the middle- and upper-level folks. It’s something all of us in the industry talk about. Where are the folks we used to rely on and in some ways took for granted? We find ourselves in the trenches more. It’s more tiring, but it’s also invigorating.”

    Willsen, who has asthma, hunkered down when the pandemic first hit. Then, he started to re-evaluate his life. He had a teenage daughter, but she lived with her mom and stepdad. He’d been in a long-term relationship, but it had recently ended. He decided it was time to downsize and sold the house that he had shared with his ex-girlfriend.

    He rented a 15-by-15-foot storage unit, kept what would fit in there and got rid of the rest of his possessions: couch, table, a bunch of other furniture, wine, many of his books, TV, even his computer. “I’m trying to have less things,” he reasoned, “a smaller footprint.” He decided to think of the COVID era as his “Great Reset.”

    As the pandemic dragged on, Willsen started writing for blogs and other websites. He was interested in climate change and political extremism, and he wanted to explore why society was so good at ignoring existential risks—such as deadly new viruses—until they literally threatened the social fabric. When the lockdown lifted, rather than go back to the restaurant world, Willsen was ready to try something new. He began podcasting, started  painting and made plans to head to the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende for three months to write a book.

    For Erika Noonan, a longtime hairstylist in a midtown salon, the pandemic crystallized all of her insecurities about employment, stable wages and access to benefits.

    Erika Noonan
    Erika Noonan. Photo by Ryan Angel Meza.

    Noonan had always loved cutting hair, but she had two young kids, now 4 and 12. She was also in her 40s and had started to think about what she wanted her retirement years to look like. She knew that she wanted more reliable benefits, and a secure paycheck that wasn’t at the mercy of inconvenient shutdowns.

    Like Willsen, she had found her work taking a physical toll; standing all day long cutting hair was exhausting. When she was with a client, all was right in the world—she’d always loved shaping other people’s hair and talking with them during their haircuts, rinses and head massages. But when she stopped at the end of the day, she was tired. Then, when the pandemic shut down her K Street salon, she felt deeply vulnerable.

    “I realized the government can shut you down—and you’ve still got to feed your kids,” she says. It was something akin to a shattering realization. “The times are very unsettling, scary. The pandemic happened suddenly; things changed. I feel like things are more volatile. It’s always good to have stability.” Reluctantly, Noonan decided to apply for state employment. She got a job as a tax technician with the Franchise Tax Board. It was, she says, customer service work, helping answer taxpayers’ questions.

    “Now we’ll get medical for sure, retirement at some point,” she explains, as if justifying a move she’s still not comfortable with. “You get sick pay and vacation pay and holiday pay.”

    Without that, she says, her family would be reliant on Covered California or MediCal for their health insurance. She didn’t miss paying hundreds of dollars a month in health care premiums for herself and her two children. But she did miss the salon, so she has still been working there on weekends to supplement her income—and to get her fix talking with clients.

    “The pandemic kind of shifted the way I thought about life. In terms of security, there’s no security for me in hairdressing, and no guarantee we’re going to be working,” says Noonan. “The government can come in and say you can’t work. I feel like I’m one paycheck away from being homeless.”

    Amanda, a young woman who lives in midtown and worked at a large social justice organization near the Capitol (at her request, Sacramento Magazine is not using her real name or identifying her place of employment), says the past two years have involved lots of introspection.

    For years, she felt she had been talking a good game about social justice. But as the pandemic wore on, increasingly she wanted to be more hands-on in crafting solutions rather than simply identifying problems. She became disillusioned with the world of politics that she had been immersed in for years. She wanted, she says, to do something toward immediate, on-the-ground change.

    “I was looking at where is power and where does power lie?” she says. “The answer is money. I don’t know if I believe in the political system [anymore]—which is an awful place to be if you’re working in it.”

    She says she saw politicians free up large amounts of money for food assistance during the height of the pandemic, only to remove those benefits after the immediate emergency had passed, even though the poverty and the need remained.

    “The pandemic showed me the hollowness of the system,” she says. “Things could be better. They are better in other countries and places.” She felt more and more disillusioned. “Why are we working?” she would ask her friends. “What does work mean? What is the impact on our health? Waking up depressed every day about work is not healthy.”

    She started craving community. “I think of tree roots, holding onto each other; in a storm they hold onto each other and sway. I think people are like that.”

    This summer, after two years of struggling with her feelings, Amanda was offered the opportunity to do hands-on social justice work at a different organization. It better aligned with her new priorities. With a sense of relief, she quit her old job and prepared for this new chapter in her life. “I’m in my mid-30s, have been an adult for a while. I want to go from talking about problems to solving problems.”

    For Adam Schmidt, the crisis was less one of existential identity and more one of burnout. He was, quite simply, tired.

    “I was in the restaurant industry for close to 20 years,” he says. “I started when I was 18, and I left the day before my 36th birthday. I toughed it out through the pandemic; it was about six months ago that I left. I wasn’t physically able to do it. I was a server in fine dining atmospheres—at Mulvaney’s, then Allora, Ella and Localis.”

    adam schmidt reflects on the pandemic and Sacramento’s Great Resignation
    Adam Schmidt. Photo by Ryan Angel Meza.

    For years, Schmidt, who didn’t have a college degree, wanted to leave the restaurant world behind. But when he applied for office jobs, he felt he wasn’t given a fair shake, perhaps because potential employers figured his skills wouldn’t translate easily to sedentary office work.

    Then the pandemic hit, the Great Resignation kicked in, and an employment shuffle began. “I saw people making that leap,” says Schmidt. “So I decided to leap. People started to suddenly give me interviews.”

    Within short order, Schmidt got his mortgage license and went to work as a mortgage loan officer. After six months, he quit that new job, and—at the urging of a friend who was already working for the company—took a new one as an insurance specialist at an electronic records startup. He works remotely from home helping clients having problems billing insurance companies.

    “It’s much less demanding than the restaurant business, for sure,” he says. “I do miss being on my feet and being active. It was a big adjustment.”

    Despite that nostalgia, the missing “going into battle every day” feeling, he has no regrets. “In terms of stability, in terms of my career, I can actually move up. The benefits are way better. I mean, you actually have benefits. I’d not had health insurance for I don’t know how long—since I was 26 and got kicked off my parents’ insurance. The ability to have paid time off is huge. In the restaurant industry, your vacation costs twice as much—because you’re not just spending $1,000; you’re also losing $1,000 by not working.”

    Looking back on the pandemic, Schmidt thinks that, despite the horrors, he emerged in a better place. “It’s something my wife and I talk about. We met just before the pandemic and found it was a blessing for us. We were on unemployment. We made a ton of money, saved up; we were able to buy a house.” His wife quit her corporate job and pursued her dreams as a freelance graphic designer. When a few restaurants began hosting outdoor dining again, he returned to work and, he says, raked in huge amounts of tips. Customers were suddenly treating staff more kindly. “Everything was shut down, nowhere to go, so what were you going to spend your money on?”

    Moreover, he says, laughing, the pandemic clarified for people what they were willing to put up with and where they drew red lines. “People stopped tolerating things they used to tolerate,” he says, “such as rude management, inconsistent hours, the [different levels] of money people were making.”

    For Schmidt, Sacramento’s Great Resignation was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “When there are lots of jobs and not a lot of people who want to work them, it opens up doors for people like me,” Schmidt says. “People who don’t have college education but have a lot of skills.”