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Changed by pandemic, many workers won’t return to old jobs

Layoffs, lockdowns, plus enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus checks gave many Americans the time and financial cushion to rethink their careers.

Nate Mullins, a former bartender from Oak, Harbor, Wash., is OK with getting by on unemployhment while he looks for jobs with health and retirement benefits. He sees the pandemic as having provided an “opportunity to take a step back and really think about what you’re doing.”
Nate Mullins, a former bartender from Oak, Harbor, Wash., is OK with getting by on unemployhment while he looks for jobs with health and retirement benefits. He sees the pandemic as having provided an “opportunity to take a step back and really think about what you’re doing.”
Elaine Thompson / AP

There’s a wild card in the push to return to post-pandemic life: Many workers don’t want to go back to the jobs they once had.

Layoffs and lockdowns, combined with enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, gave many Americans the time and financial cushion to rethink their careers.

Now that their former employers are hiring again — some, like Uber and McDonald’s, are even offering higher pay — these workers are hesitant about going back

In Chicago, Mark Smithivas drove for Uber and Lyft for four years before he quit last spring out of concern for his health. He has spent the last year taking technology classes in a federal worker training program.

Smithivas, 52, recently got his second vaccination. But he doesn’t want to go back to ride-hailing. He worries about carjackings and other crimes targeting drivers.

“I always viewed this job as temporary, and I really do want to find something that fits my career and background better,” he said.

In Washington, Nate Mullins quit his job as a bartender in November after disagreements with his bosses over mask rules he thought were too lax. He worried he might spread the coronavirus to his immune-compromised sister.

Mullins’ unemployment checks don’t match what he made at his Oak Harbor, Washington, bar. But they’re enough to get by while he looks for jobs with health care and retirement benefits.

“This opportunity to take a step back and really think about what you’re doing really changed my mind,” said Mullins, 36.

Some workers say the pandemic helped them prioritize their mental and physical health.

Ellen Booth, 57, says that losing her bartending job when the restaurant where she worked in Rhode Island closed gave her “the kick I needed.” Now, she’s studying to become a certified medical coder. Here, she’s at home, playing with her dog Rumble.
Ellen Booth, 57, says that losing her bartending job when the restaurant where she worked in Rhode Island closed gave her “the kick I needed.” Now, she’s studying to become a certified medical coder. Here, she’s at home, playing with her dog Rumble.
David Goldman / AP

After a lifelong career as a bartender, Ellen Booth, 57, of Coventry, Rhode Island, was in constant pain from lifting ice buckets and beer kegs. Without a college degree, though, she said she saw only limited options.

When the restaurant where she worked closed last year, she said it gave her “the kick I needed.” Booth started a year-long class to learn to be a medical coder. When her unemployment benefits ran out two months ago, she started drawing on her retirement funds.

Shelly Ortiz, 25, used to love working as a restaurant server. But things changed last June, when her Phoenix restaurant reopened its dining room. She wore two masks and glasses to protect herself but still felt anxious in a restaurant full of unmasked diners.

Sexual harassment also got worse, she said. Patrons would ask her to pull down her mask so they could see how cute she was before tipping her.

Ortiz quit in July after after a bartender was potentially exposed. She and her partner, a teacher, curtailed their spending, and Ortiz returned to school full time. This month, she is graduating from Glendale Community College with a degree in film and a certificate in documentary directing.

Ortiz stopped getting unemployment benefits in November, when she did some part-time film work.

Money is tight, but she’s never been happier, she said. And she doesn’t think she’ll ever be a restaurant server again.

Workers like these are one reason hiring nationally slowed in April.

Employers and business groups say the $300-a-week federal unemployment supplement gives recipients less incentive to seek work.

But Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, said health concerns and childcare responsibilities seem to be the main reasons holding workers back.

Economists see the current labor shortages as likely to be temporary. As more Americans are vaccinated, fewer will worry about getting sick at work. Schools should reopen in September, freeing more parents to return to work, and the extra $300 in unemployment aid expires in early September.

That’s around when Sarah Weitzel expects to return to work. Weitzel, 31, gave birth to her second child in February 2020. She was on leave from her job at a Victoria’s Secret store in St. Louis when the pandemic hit, and she was furloughed.

Then, her husband lost his restaurant job. In financial straits, they sold their home, moved in with friends, survived on unemployment insurance and fell deeper into debt.

Last fall, Victoria’s Secret offered Weitzel part-time work at $12 an hour. She declined. She and her husband, now working long hours at a new restaurant job, can’t afford child care.

“I thought about how hard I was working for this job that paid about $32,000 a year,” Weitzel said.

She got accepted to Rung for Women, a program that provides career coaching and training for jobs in high demand, including banking, health care, customer service and technology. In the fall, when her older daughter starts preschool, Weitzel hopes to find part-time work in a new career.