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More than 2 years into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to roil the labor market

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This Labor Day, we're taking a moment to check in on workers. The pandemic had a whiplash effect on the labor market. Record layoffs in 2020 were followed by record job openings that have continued for more than a year. NPR's Andrea Hsu has been tracking what that's meant for workers. Hey, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: OK. For months, we have heard you say workers are in the driver's seat. Now we're fighting inflation. The economy seems to be in trouble. Are workers still in the driver's seat?

HSU: Well, the short answer is yes. But, of course, not all workers are in the same boat. We have seen some layoffs in some industries like the tech sector and home buying. But, Ari, the latest data shows solid job growth. Layoffs are low. Job openings continued to climb over the summer. And a lot of people are still quitting their jobs, way more than before the pandemic. And that's a sign that workers are confident that they can find other work. So in terms of employment, workers are still in a good place. But whether they're happy or not - that's another question.

SHAPIRO: OK. People are still quitting their jobs. So the great resignation is ongoing. The pandemic epiphanies that people had been having, realizing that they didn't like what they were doing and making a big change - that's still going on.

HSU: Yeah. We're still seeing a lot of churn, especially in low-wage work like restaurants and hotels. I mean, how many times have you gone somewhere and found there was only one person working? I mean, a lot of employers are still having problems hiring. But this year we've also seen a lot of workers say, I don't want to leave my job, but I want things to change. And that's driven a surge in union organizing this year at places like Starbucks and Amazon, Trader Joe's. The workers are asking for more money but also for things that would improve their safety and their well-being. These were issues that were front and center in the pandemic. And we're also seeing workers who are unionized go on strike. These are thousands of health care workers, for example. They're speaking up now because they're burned out and fed up, but also, they know they're in high demand.

SHAPIRO: You're giving a lot of examples of people who have to be on site. What about remote work and the push by bosses to get people back into the office? How is that tug of war going?

HSU: Well, the estimates are all over the place for who's gone back. Kastle Systems, which tracks office card swipes, has found that in D.C., Philly, New York, San Francisco - only 30-some percent of workers are going to the office. And where it's been mandated, it's been controversial. Take Apple. Starting this week, their employees are supposed to be in the office three days a week - Tuesdays, Thursdays and one other day set by their teams. That's according to some internal memos. They can work remotely the two other days, but a lot of workers feel this isn't enough. And this spring some Apple employees published an open letter saying, you know, stop treating us like kids. Let us decide for ourselves. But however this plays out in workplaces, one thing that's clear is that this dramatic shift to hybrid and remote work is permanent for a lot of people. And I think we're just starting to get a sense of what that means beyond the day to day for things like promotions or younger workers who are just starting out or for workplace culture.

SHAPIRO: Speaking of workplace culture, let's talk about quiet quitting, which I think is a terrible phrase to describe what it is. Tell us about it.

HSU: Yeah, let's go to TikTok for a moment.

SHAPIRO: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're not outright quitting your job, but you're quitting the idea of going above and beyond.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Doing what you're paid to do and not sacrificing your well-being in order to do more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Leaving work on time, not checking your emails outside of work hours and not subscribing to hustle culture, which - isn't that what a job should be already?

HSU: Ari, I have been inundated with emails about this - CEOs saying, this is great; employees should set boundaries, others, including Arianna Huffington, who are dismayed by this whole idea. She says quiet quitting is basically just quitting on life. Why not find a job that inspires you and brings you joy? So I see this as another byproduct of the pandemic. How we work, when we work, how much we work - it's all up for debate now, and that in itself is a pretty big change.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Andrea Hsu working from home while I'm here in the studio. Thank you very much.

HSU: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF J. COLE SONG, "FORBIDDEN FRUIT (FEAT. KENDRICK LAMAR)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.