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The Delicate Art of Leaving Your Job During a Pandemic

In a historically uncertain job market, can this possibly be the right move?

“I worked at a restaurant, and there were no COVID precautions,” says Brian, 20. “No one wore masks. There was no social distancing. Nothing. I left in June. In July and August, they almost had to shut down due to their staff all having COVID.”

Brian, a pseudonym (like most everyone else quoted below), is one of many exhausted and afraid workers who — despite the nonstop challenges of 2020, including a shrinking job market prompted by the coronavirus — felt compelled to abandon his perilous workplace in search of something safer and hopefully more reliable. He did, momentarily landing a job at FedEx. But it was fleeting. “FedEx just fired me for taking time off for COVID,” he claims. Despite calling in sick while awaiting test results, he says they fired him for job abandonment.

While Brian searches for another stable job in a historically unreliable market, he’s attempting to make ends meet by participating in the gig economy. “Uber Eats and DoorDash have honestly been enough for me at the moment,” he tells me. “There’s no lack of people ordering food. I can afford rent, groceries and a little bit of savings, but it’s not at all sustainable if this continues.”

To put it plainly, Brian says, “I’m worried about finding something else.”

Sadly, the conundrum Brian finds himself in has become something of a norm for employees who are unhappy with their gruesome jobs and looking to jump ship in 2020. Capitalism and the coronavirus are collaborating in ways that disproportionately impact our most vulnerable workers, forcing them to choose between their current gigs, their safety and their mental health. “I really wanted to quit my retail management job due to poor working conditions during the pandemic,” says Jenn, 24. “I was really at risk working so closely with the public. My location wasn’t allowed to mention or enforce the mask mandate. As a corporate company, we were advised to not say anything to our customers. On top of that, I was heavily overworked due to the holiday season and being short-staffed — no one wanted to return to work, since unemployment paid more.”

In what Jenn describes as a “really big leap of faith,” she quit. “There was an instant sense of relief,” she says. “I knew I was back in control. I took the following week to visit my family back home and look for jobs online.”

Unlike Brian, Jenn was fortunate to find something else. “I ended up applying to an absolutely wonderful aesthetic medical company and was able to get a job through them within the following two weeks,” she tells me. That said, Jenn credits her success to support from family and good samaritans. “I was lucky enough to have some wonderful people on Reddit and a few awesome family members and friends to help me financially.” If not for that safety net, her transition likely would have been a lot tougher.

The same can be said for Jonathan, 28, who deserted his data analyst gig in September after experiencing “some problems staying sane.” He’s since been WWOOFing — doing manual labor on a farm in exchange for food and shelter — but he still relies on some help from family, and he’s expecting government aid, too. “I’m lucky that my parents can help me pay for some monthly bills,” he says. “I’m waiting for unemployment to kick in.”

Speaking of safety nets, almost everyone who spoke to me about leaving their job during the pandemic had an advantage over the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. Slo, 33, has been cashing in day trading with savings he collected before abandoning his advertising job. James, 29, has been living comfortably on savings he earned before escaping from a “depressing” career in politics. Jessica, 29, has an “emergency fund” thanks to “well above average compensation” that helped her feel “comfortable changing jobs during the pandemic.” But even with these cushions, many are still pining for unemployment benefits, a testament to how tough it is out there right now.

Needless to say, in a market where more than 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March, leaving your job and expecting success requires some kind of safety net. And fearlessness. And perhaps a dash of recklessness, too.

After all, even with savings and a lengthy track record, workers who leave their jobs during the pandemic are gambling with their livelihoods. “Up until two weeks ago, I’d been working as a school teacher for 10 years,” says Lucy, 32. Tired of the same old thing and inspired by “2020’s overall weirdness,” she quit in the middle of a meeting. “I’m still not convinced it wasn’t just an insane impulse decision.”

In a healthy system, everyone should have the opportunity to make that insane impulse decision — to leave a job that makes them feel unsafe, or that they absolutely hate, and expect to be able to find something else. But Lucy, who says she has the “knowledge and experience” to freelance if her sudden career change proves futile, is leery of what her future employment will look like if the market is slow to recover. “I’ll let you know when it backfires and I end up homeless — or if I become a millionaire, so you can include that in an article, too,” she says.