Published September 1st, 2021 at 6:00 AM
The final step in her colleagues’ march toward unemployment is burned into Birdie Hansen’s memory, an unforgettable marker of dark days during the Great Recession, when she was working at a skin care company in New York City.
Quarter after quarter during 2008, laid off staffers boxed up their personal belongings, shuffled through security, and bent into the black Lincoln town cars the company had hired to usher former employees to uncertain futures.
“It was like a funeral procession,” recalled Hansen, who missed being one of the casualties by landing a job with the online team immediately after the elimination of her sales and marketing position.
She was only a few years out of Boston University at the time. A career move four years later took her to Los Angeles, where she met her husband, David, who grew up in Overland Park. They moved here about five years ago to be closer to his family, purchasing a house in midtown.
Both in their late 30s, the Hansens are part of a generation whose scars from the global financial crisis of the late 2000s hardened them well to weather the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think millenials view job security as something you get from employers,” Hansen said.
A thousand glass jars sitting in the parlor of her house illustrate that point. They are supplies for the candle-making business that unexpectedly flickered to life for Hansen during the pandemic.
Accidental entrepreneurism is just one outcome of a broader phenomenon brought about by a pandemic that has upended lives to such an extent that many people are rethinking their relationship with careers, employers and workplaces.
For those fortunate enough to control their own destiny, the phrase “great resignation” has entered the workplace lexicon. But even laid off workers are taking whatever time they have in looking for work to reassess what they want to do and how they want to do it.
Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data depict turmoil in the labor market as employees make choices about where — and how — they want to work.
One choice is to quit.
The BLS recently reported that people voluntarily leaving their jobs rose to 3.9 million in June from 3.6 million in May — close to the record-breaking 4 million quits the bureau had recorded in April.
The trend is likely to continue. A new Bankrate.com survey found that 55% of people in the workforce say they are either somewhat or very likely to search for a new job over the next year.
Economists and employers are fretting about a growing mismatch between open jobs and available workers.
The 10.1 million job openings nationwide in June — many in customer-facing service jobs — was the highest level since record-keeping began in 2000. Notably, there were more open jobs than the nearly 9 million unemployed workers in July could even fill.
Despite the pandemic, the U.S. economy has remained remarkably resilient.
The National Bureau of Economic Research last month reported that the pandemic-induced recession in the U.S. lasted just two months early last year, making it the shortest recession on record.
CNBC reported the precipitous 31.4% drop in Gross Domestic Product in the second quarter of last year as the economy nearly ground to a halt was followed by a “massive snapback” the next period with a 33.4% increase in output.
Federal stimulus spending that went directly to families has helped rev up the economy. So too has the additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits paid by the federal government, which is scheduled to expire Sept. 6. Early in the pandemic the federal government added $600 per week to supplement state unemployment payments.
Many Republican-led states, including Missouri, ended participation in the enhanced federal unemployment program in advance of the September cutoff, saying the additional assistance exacerbated labor shortages by paying people to stay home instead of working.
In his May announcement that Missouri would end its participation in the federal unemployment programs the next month, Gov. Mike Parson said that although the state unemployment rate stood at only 4.2%, there were 221,266 known job postings across the state.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that there are now more unfilled job openings than unemployed people available to fill them.
“The solution to close this gap is not the excessive spending of taxpayer dollars by the federal government,” Parson said in a statement, “but rather getting people back to work and to a sense of normalcy for themselves and their families. Today’s action ensures that we will fill existing jobs as well as the thousands of new jobs coming to our state as businesses continue to invest and expand in Missouri.”
Even so, two recent studies concluded that yanking the additional unemployment benefits did not increase employment in the states that did so. The studies suggested that ongoing COVID fears, child care concerns and early retirements are playing large roles in the ongoing disruption in labor markets.
As director of research services at the Mid-America Regional Council, Frank Lenk keeps tabs on the regional economy.
The Kansas City area bounced back relatively quickly after the brief recession, Lenk said. But growth is now lagging other parts of the country — continuing a trend from recent recessions. Employment growth is flat, and the unemployment rate has ticked up a little to 5.4%.
The business category that includes Cerner Corp., the area’s largest private employer, is not performing as well as would normally be expected. An anticipated boost from the warehouse industry, which is a regional strength and an area that is booming at the moment, also has not materialized.
In the Kansas City area, there are also fewer job openings than at this time last year. That could mean that local businesses are gradually filling open positions, Lenk said, or it could reflect a recent slowdown caused by the resurgence in COVID cases driven by the Delta variant.
“Everything happened so fast,” Lenk said, “it’s a bit hard to make immediate sense of what we see in the data.”
While the enhanced unemployment benefits may not necessarily be encouraging binge watching instead of work, Lenk said the additional money is providing some workers the cushion to reevaluate their jobs and careers. Households have also been able to save more than usual, with the pandemic shutting down travel and eliminating many entertainment options.
Lenk also said that the federal top-up of unemployment benefits served as an unofficial boost to the minimum wage to around the $15 per hour that many labor advocates have been pushing. Workers who have the choice seem unwilling to go back to their old jobs at the pre-pandemic rate of pay — an attitude influencing white collar office workers as well.
Even with all the economic gyrations caused by the pandemic, Lenk said the employment picture reflects the “normal kind of frictions” one would expect in an environment where consumer demand outpaces the ability of businesses to respond.
It’s not that this worker-friendly market is unprecedented, Lenk said, it just feels that way because the U.S. has not been in a situation like this since the 1960s.
And though worker shortages might be causing headaches in corner offices, the ability to tell your boss to take this job and shove it means more than just an immense dose of self satisfaction to the worker.
“Quits are a good sign for the economy,” Lenk said. “It does mean that people feel like jobs are plentiful and they can latch on to one relatively quickly. No one wants to be out of work for an extended period of time. The freedom to be able to choose is a remarkable thing.”
It is hard to overstate the impact that COVID-19 has had on the notion of work and careers, driven largely by the technological revolution that made remote work so much more feasible in many professions.
This forced time away from the office has cheered workers who hate commutes and love their families. Certainly no one missed seeing a reviled boss everyday. Returning to any bricks-and-mortar workplace — whether it’s at their old company or somewhere new — is an undesirable prospect for many people, especially with the resurgence of the Delta variant.
Emboldened and enlightened by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, many women and people of color, too, have found it more comfortable to work from home rather than navigate potentially hostile workplace environments.
That choice, for women at least, often has been counterbalanced by having to manage virtual school and juggle unexpected child care responsibilities, though for many this disproportionate share of household duties served as a reminder of the glass ceilings and unequal pay they face at the office.
It’s those factors, along with the favorable job market and financial breathing room provided through government support, that local manpower experts said are driving many workers to rethink their jobs, careers, and priorities.
Among those observers are Gary O’Bannon, the former human resources director for the city of Kansas City, Missouri, who teaches courses on HR management and leadership at the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Also positioned to see this fundamental shift in workforce attitudes are Nancy Burford, human resources director at Avila University and president-elect of the Society for Human Resource Management of Greater Kansas City (SHRM-KC), and Kathryn Lorenzen, a veteran Kansas City-area career coach.
Lorenzen noticed a significant reassessment of priorities among prospective clients even amidst the layoffs and furloughs in the early days of the pandemic.
“That was kind of the first shift of people saying, ‘Yes, I don’t think I want another job like the last one. Now I can see what the priorities are for me, and they are not aligned with the last job I had,’ ” Lorenzen said.
Further into the pandemic, Lorenzen started to hear increasingly from people who were still employed and not relishing the prospect of giving up their work-from-home setup.
“The further we get into 2021 that is becoming more profound. They want to seize control of their own destiny because they have had such a mouthful of all these variables they are not in control of,” Lorenzen said. “Employees who are being invited back to the office, and in some cases ordered to, those people are now saying, ‘OK, no — not going to do that.’ ”
Lorenzen is as busy now as she has ever been in her decade and a half as a career coach, and she does not see the pace easing anytime soon, given the seismic shifts in technology accelerated by the pandemic — and the major re-evaluation the pandemic has prompted among working women.
“Women were always underpaid,” she said, “and you layer onto that needs of family, health care, child care and school: It has just been a lot to absorb.”
Lorenzen predicted it will take years for the shakeout among women to play itself out.
O’Bannon’s students range from traditional 20-something undergraduates to graduate students in their 50s. No matter what age, the pivot to remote work and greater autonomy has opened the eyes of O’Bannon’s students to a pre-pandemic workplace that now seems needlessly inflexible.
“I am not sure whether we would’ve gotten to this point if not for the pandemic,” he said, “and people finding out there are more important things than working 60 hours a week for a 40-hour-a-week salary.”
The altered expectations of workers and continued evolution of the workplace, O’Bannon said, will make HR managers an even greater necessity. The my-way-or-the-highway approach to talent management won’t fly anymore, he said.
And for people like Burford that means an even keener focus on employee retention.
She is spending a lot of time these days reminding employees about the benefits that come from working at Avila, whether it’s a generous amount of paid holidays, the availability of mental health counseling, or the flu shots the campus is offering next month.
That whole package is known as the “employer value proposition,” and it is something that Burford and her SHRM-KC colleagues are talking a lot about. The conversations are largely an extension of what they were discussing as part of the hot job market that preceded the pandemic.
“Early in 2019, we saw, ‘It’s the war for talent, and talent won,’ ” Burford said. “And now, it’s kind of like, ‘Yeah, we are still in that place.’ ”
A worldwide tragedy that has claimed the lives of 4.5 million people is an unlikely spark for a surge in the optimism needed to start a business. But in the U.S. alone, new business applications increased by nearly 1 million submissions from 2019 to 2020, with approximately 4.3 million applications last year.
It is pretty much an accident that the Hansen home at 36th and Wyandotte streets in Kansas City is part of this worldwide wave of entrepreneurship, with the home now the center of operations for Gifts By Birdie. The edgy candles include off-color names and are merciless to GOP politicians.
A freelance marketer for the past few years, Hansen needed something to occupy her time last summer when the pandemic claimed one of her clients. So she gravitated toward her interest in candles and drew upon her likes and dislikes from the aromas she experienced working at the Anthropologie clothes store on the Country Club Plaza.
Making candles, and experimenting with different ingredients, was soothing.
“It was a good way to channel my anxieties into something productive,” she said.
Offloading what became an abundance of product to family and friends eventually drove more and more requests. She was swamped by the middle of December, and that is how a hobby turned into a job. The fledgling company already has shipped to 35 states.
David Hansen is now also part of the business, filling orders and working with vendors. He had made a career switch right before COVID hit, but the pandemic dried up business for the restaurant-focused company he was working with.
Frugal by nature, the Hansens are making ends meet. Birdie still does some marketing work, but the plan is to build the candle-making business into a full-time gig.
Having been laid off three times herself, she knows that hard work guarantees nothing when the next recession comes around.
So then, has the pandemic been a good thing for her?
“Gosh, that is a loaded question,” Birdie said with a laugh.
“Making candles has been a bright spot in a very dark time,” she continued, “because I get to make something that makes people laugh, it brings them joy, something that they send to their family and friends or they buy for themselves as a self-care item. So I feel really lucky to be making something that I love, that I am proud of and that brings other people joy.”
Mike Sherry is a former editor and writer for Flatland. He is now a communications consultant for nonprofits and freelance writer.