The massive changes in the U.S. workforce wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have been called the “Great Resignation,” “Big Quit” and “Great Reset.”
First observed in the beginning of 2021, the “Great Resignation” has been a nightmare for employers as they scramble for workers in a tight labor market. Workers, however, describe quitting as a path to better work-life balance, better pay and different working conditions.
Lancaster County’s unemployment rate returned to pre-pandemic level in October but the labor market is still trying to recoup about 10,000 workers.
LNP | LancasterOnline asked readers to share their resignation stories and responders said they quit to retire or work for themselves.
One set of data supports those anecdotes that within the labor force some have struck out on their own: the number of business establishments.
Even as the labor force declined, the number of business establishments in Lancaster County continued to grow from 13,803 in the first quarter of 2020 to 14,035 in the first quarter of 2021. By June 2021, there were 14,100 establishments. The data, which lags by several months, represents businesses that pay unemployment insurance, which is about 95% of businesses.
During that same period, SCORE, a nonprofit that helps small business owners, experienced an uptick in inquiries and a greater sense of urgency from some small business owners, said Joann Brayman, vice president of marketing for its local chapter, SCORE Lancaster-Lebanon.
Brayman said that through the pandemic the local SCORE chapter increased its cadre of volunteers to 84 from 70. Volume of mentoring sessions was up 33% in 2020 during the peak of the pandemic to 3,869 from 2,910 the previous year. In 2021, the number of sessions was still high at 3,696, as businesses sought advice on pivoting and people with side hustles turned to them to make more money.
About 50% of the businesses were startups – not much of a change from pre-pandemic times, Brayman said. What did change was a sense of urgency from people with small side businesses, she said. Some had lost jobs or made decisions about changing their life path.
Here is what happened to four Lancaster County residents when they decided to quit their jobs in the middle of a pandemic:
Taking a risk
Michelle Meek, 46, had been working as a massage therapist for 20 years when the pandemic hit. Her job, not essential, was put on hold in March 2020 and her life turned upside down.
It was during that shutdown, before businesses were given the green light to reopen in June, that Meek decided she needed a change. She didn’t want someone else making decisions about her safety. It felt like she had to jump through other people’s hoops to make any money.
“I really felt my profession was in someone else’s hands,” said Meek, who grew up in Ephrata and lives in Lancaster.
If she was going to be touching people from the general public, she wanted to be in control of how that happened including if she wore a mask and how many people could be in a room at a time.
That epiphany started a conversation with client David Stout, owner of Lititz Springs Inn and Spa. Soon, Meek was on a path to owning her own spa – Das Spa – inside Stout’s business in Lititz.
Her husband, too, faced a reckoning with the long hours and irregular schedule that came with his job as a restaurant general manager. He now works for wholesale small engine and parts distributor John E. Landis in Lancaster doing inside sales.
Meanwhile, her mother decided to take advantage of the hot housing market and sell her home. She now lives with Meek in Lancaster, helping with childcare.
The pandemic had forced them to take risks, Meek said – and she was glad they took them.
Meek now has five massage therapists and two aestheticians working for her.
“I was offered an opportunity, a chance to serve tourists and locals and it’s a great little town for tourism,” she said. “It was a huge decision but (Stout) made it an easy decision.”
“We’re to the point where we turn business away,” Meek said. “I don’t have therapists to meet the demand – I know that’s industry wide.”
Through the pandemic, Meek said her family unit became much more of a priority. She has a 12-year-old daughter.
“Talk about COVID rearranging your life!” Meek said. “My only regret is why I didn’t do this before. It’s comfortable when someone else is signing your paycheck. The financial unknowns were probably my biggest hurdle.
“COVID had us all reeling. COVID pushed me into the financial unknown so I thought, ‘why not?’ I have an amazing family – they wouldn’t let me be out on the street.”
Mixing it up
Collin Dawkins, 27, of Landisville, was working in the health care industry when he decided to quit his job as an operations director for a non-emergency medical transport company to sell his own cocktail mixes and run his consulting business.
The Millersville University graduate’s career had grown with the Harrisburg-based integrated medical transport startup. He was commuting to Harrisburg to oversee operations that included 100 employees and a fleet of vans, drivers and supervisors to transport people in wheelchairs to and from nursing homes, dialysis and doctor appointments.
Then the pandemic forced layoffs, and the business scaled down. Salaried employees were driving clients. He understood why that happened but said it wasn’t what he signed up for.
He thought he would stay until the company sold to a buyer and would pick up a windfall but he started to realize he was ready, even happier, to do his own thing.
“I guess there wasn’t an off switch. It was hard to kind of get away,” he said. “We had a couple of side hustles that we were working on growing. Instead of being available for this company I decided I could do it for myself.”
It is still an all-hands-on-deck kind of operation, but the work is for his own businesses: Sunday’s Best Bloody Mary Mix and Vacca Dawkins Consulting LLC. The consulting business shows consumers how to leverage new users bonuses given in online gambling. He’s making more money now than in his previous job, he said.
The bloody mary mix started in May of 2020. He says it’s now the most-followed bloody mary mix on Twitter. Based in Lancaster city, the mix is used at several restaurants, bars and breweries in the area, and has been shipped to customers in all 50 states.
Dawkins already started to plan ways to expand the Sunday’s Best brand, a business he runs with his wife.
“I love that I get to choose what’s going on,” Dawkins said. “I definitely work more hours but I get to choose what I do.”
Brenda Redcay Strausser of Denver enjoyed her job as an administrative assistant at the same real estate agency for 26 years. Friendly and outgoing, she loved being in the office and talking to agents. She had reached a good place: Her longevity had earned her five weeks vacation.
Then everything shut down in March 2020 and then many of the agents started working from home. She was brought back part time and she hung on, hoping she’d get her old job and benefits back.
“I was not happy about that,” she said. “I really thought it would be a month or two. When it just kept going on and on it didn’t look like they would bring me back. That is when I decided to retire.”
She hung on until March 2021, a month before she turned 65.
“With COVID it wasn’t even fun in the office anymore,” she said. “Everyone was working from home and that really took away from it. All of that kind of contributed to it (her decision to retire).”
Since then, she’s found a new life. She has finally got to try pour painting, and when she wants some money beyond Social Security she has sold her blood plasma.
“The pandemic changed things too much, so it was time, and it’s been great,” she wrote in an LNP | LancasterOnline Facebook post.
She volunteers with Blessings of Hope in Leola and cares for her grandchildren so her daughter can keep working.
“I home-schooled them, which was challenging,” she said. “But it turned out for the best.”
Adam Mentzer, 39, of Manor Township, was a career social worker until March 2020.
“I worked for a private school that was closed due to the pandemic in March 2020 and we had just opened in January 2020 and did not have a large student body at that time,” Mentzer wrote to LNP | LancasterOnline.
The company, Specialized Education Services Inc, decided to keep everyone on through the end of March and then furloughed all staff except for three people, Mentzer said.
“In July of 2021, I was told that my position would be eliminated and the school positions restructured,” Mentzer said. “I continued to look for social worker jobs but was feeling very burnt out from the work at the same time.”
In late 2020, his neighbor asked for help with a few handyman jobs that he booked through the app, Thumbtack. Soon, Mentzer had created his own profile on the app.
By April 2021, he had formally started his own business: Adam’s Handyman Services Lancaster LLC. He decided he wasn’t going back to social work. He’s maintained his social work license and added handyman certification.
He said he’s now earning more than the typical social worker salary (the median range in Pennsylvania is about $58,000 to $62,000). More important to Mentzer is that his hours are flexible. He can schedule his work to suit his life and put his creative energy into his own kids.
Had the pandemic not happened, Mentzer said, he might still be looking for social work jobs.
“Now I don’t have to worry about dropping my daughter at day care at 7:30 a.m.,” Mentzer said. “My job is 9 to 5 because I say so.”