Georgia Today: Liberty County and the cost of Georgia’s 'Great Resignation'
Liberty County outside Savannah is one place where the number of people quitting their jobs has been extraordinary, even amid the national so-called Great Resignation that's seen record numbers of people quit. Why Liberty County is so hard hit and how the employee exodus is changing the fabric of the community, is the subject of this week's Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: As we enter the third year of the pandemic, it's clear the coronavirus has already changed the way we live. For many Americans, especially some categories of essential workers, the pandemic is a chance to reinvent themselves and find new ways to earn a paycheck — or not. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Today on the podcast, we go to Liberty County outside Savannah, Georgia. Liberty County is one place where the number of people quitting their jobs has been extraordinary, even by the standards of the so-called Great Resignation. I'm joined by Marc Fisher today, who's written about Liberty County for The Washington Post, where he's a senior editor. Welcome, Marc.
Marc Fisher, senior editor at The Washington Post: Good to be with you.
Steve Fennessy: Just to start us off: What is the so-called Great Resignation? When we're saying "The Great Resignation," what are we talking about?
Marc Fisher: We're talking about the very unusual fact that more than 12 million Americans have quit their jobs just this fall. And it's kind of a startling number. Obviously, it's a sign not only of how the pandemic put a hard stop on some aspects of the economy for at least a few months, but it's also very telling about the way Americans are thinking about work and especially lower-paying kinds of jobs that people are fleeing from — really, just reconceiving the way they think about work.
Steve Fennessy: What made you choose to look at Georgia and, specifically, within Georgia? How did you focus on Liberty County?
Marc Fisher: I really wanted to figure out what all these millions of people were doing who had left their jobs. We talked to economists about the reasons why people were leaving, but it didn't really add up for me. I wanted to go out and talk not only to the business owners, but to the workers who had left those positions try to figure out how they're getting by, what their plans are, what they're thinking. And so we looked across the country for two things: first of all, places that had been doing really well before the pandemic. And I also wanted to find a place where people were quitting in large numbers. And as we looked at the federal labor data — they track quits across the country — and Liberty County came up as having the biggest concentration of people quitting their jobs in Georgia. And Georgia was at the time the No. 2 state in the country for people resigning from their jobs. So the combination of that is what brought me to Liberty County.
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk a little bit more about Liberty County, specifically. It's outside Savannah. Of course, we have these warehousing operations that are opening up, probably partly due to the proximity of the Port of Savannah, which gets a lot of the business on — on the Eastern Seaboard. And then we also have Fort Stewart. Is it the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi in the U.S.?
Marc Fisher: Yeah, that's exactly right. And that has always been the kind of economic engine of Liberty County. That's changing now. Liberty County is near the Savannah airport and has a lot of spillover economic impact from that area as as we move toward a more e-commerce kind of society. Target, for example, opened up a very big distribution center. They've more than doubled their staffing in the years leading up to the pandemic. And then there's also manufacturing — a number of big manufacturers — a French chemical company, a paper mill. So this was an area that was really growing steadily. Then along came the virus. And not only did a lot of businesses have to cut back or close temporarily, but also you had a real struggle that people had to get child care, which enabled them to go to work in the first place. And so you saw this kind of downward spiral of people leaving the labor market.
Steve Fennessy: One of the things that that struck me about your story as well is you mentioned that the per capita income in Liberty County is something like $22,000 or $23,000. That number doesn't necessarily indicate — to me, anyway — that there's a great deal of economic prosperity, anyway. Is that an accurate take?
Marc Fisher: It's certainly not an affluent county. It's — it's still mostly rural. There are a lot of minimum wage jobs there. There are a lot of jobs that are just above that. So it's also an interesting place to look at the whole question of economic inequalities and the struggles that low-income workers have had in this country for some years now, as it's become harder and harder to afford a place to live. You know, our economy has really become one of haves and have nots. It's also a place that's very much in transition. You can tell just driving around, talking to people, that it's a place that's going from rural to somewhat suburban in nature, in part because of these new distribution centers and the manufacturing plants. But it's a place that has this unending labor supply from Fort Stewart, from people who are leaving the military service and I talked to a lot of business owners who are really struggling. No matter how well managed some of these places were, they can't seem to figure out how to get people to apply, let alone take jobs that are really not great-paying jobs.
Steve Fennessy: Here's one of the small business owners who are struggling to find enough workers in the pandemic. This is Glenn Poole, a co-owner of Izola's Country Cafe. He's talking to The Washington Post here.
[News tape] Glenn Poole: We had 42 employees before the pandemic. After the pandemic, we had about 15 when we opened back up. We have about 22 employees now. A lot of our people moved. Some of our people retired. Some of them, we just — we don't know.
See The Washington Post's video about the Great Resignation in Liberty County
Steve Fennessy: At least in the early days of the pandemic, people were getting laid off. You know, people were just desperate to hold on to jobs, and now people don't seem to want to stay in their jobs. So I'm curious kind of what you found out when you talk to those people. Let's talk about one example in particular, and that's Hasit Patel. He owns a La Quinta Hotel in Liberty County. You talked to him about how this has affected his business. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Marc Fisher: Yeah, Hasit Patel is an immigrant from India who is kind of the classic American "making it on your own" kind of story. He worked his way up in hotels and then bought one at the La Quinta in Hinesville. And it was doing quite well because he got Fort Stewart right there, got a lot of family members coming to visit relatives who are stationed at the installation there. And he had a lot of workers; he had more than 40 workers. What happened after COVID hit was he had to shut down for a while; he had to lay off nearly everyone. Then, when he was allowed to reopen, he could only reopen at a certain capacity: 35%. And so he was only able to bring back some workers. And what he found immediately was that a lot of those workers didn't want to come back.
[News tape] The Washington Post, Etta Henry, Head Housekeeper, LaQuinta hotel, Hinesville, Ga.: I still think that a lot of people are not coming back to work because they're scared. Cases are still rising.
Marc Fisher: This was at a point when people were starting to get federal payments, the stimulus money. And so for some of his low end workers, they were able to do as well with unemployment checks and other federal benefits as they had been doing, working in very hard, physically demanding jobs.
[News tape] Etta Henry: The unemployment actually did help a lot last year. It actually helped me catch up on bills. But then when Gov. Brian Kemp stopped it, it was just pretty much like, Oh, now I got to go back to the job.
Marc Fisher: After that, the child tax credits kicked in. They didn't have to pay for child care if they were not working. And of course, the eviction moratorium allowed a lot of people to just not pay the rent for some months, and so it seemed to them that they could get by without working.
[News tape] The Washington Post, Justin Frasier, elected official and business owner: It's cheaper for them to stay home. Sometimes it costs them more money for child care. It costs more money for health insurance, where it doesn't even balance out.
Steve Fennessy: And where does that leave someone like Hasit Patel?
Marc Fisher: It leaves him, you know, up a creek because so he finds himself working the front desk, having to help clean rooms because he's so short staffed. He did raise his wages a little bit, but he's very frank about the fact that he cannot afford to compete with the Targets and the Amazons of the world that are paying warehouse workers almost twice as much as he's able to pay his workers. So for those of his housekeepers and maintenance workers who did need to keep working, a lot of them moved over to those warehouse jobs. On top of that, he's not able to do what a lot of the hotels and other employers have done in the past, which was to turn to immigrants. As an Indian immigrant himself, he says he would like to see the restoration of programs where you could bring over kind of a guest worker for six months to fill a space and then those folks go back home. Well, those programs are not happening.
[News tape] Hasit Patel: We're finding it difficult, especially for skilled labor to come. We have one staff who used to do housekeeping during the pandemic, and then she came back. But then Target offered $15 an hour and we were at around $10, so we couldn't compete with that.
Steve Fennessy: Up next, we'll hear how the country's Great Resignation affected Liberty County small businesses and how some are reinventing themselves to stay afloat.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Marc Fisher from The Washington Post. In speaking to the folks who have quit their jobs and have decided either — well, have decided to not go back, is there any conversation that sticks out in your mind that is particularly resonant for you?
Marc Fisher: Yeah, I mean, I spoke to a woman who worked at the hotel. She was a front desk manager; was Maggie Towne. She says her life now at home without her paycheck is actually better than when she was working, in part because she gets to stay home with her kids. Yes, her income is way down from where it normally had been. And it's kind of a struggle. She's, you know, she's eating less. She's going to the store less. But she says that her quality of life staying at home with her kids better than it had been. She thinks of herself as someone who likes to work, who wants to work. But given the situation with the virus, she doesn't want to be out there in a job where she's in regular minute-by-minute contact with strangers who are coming in, some of whom inevitably are not vaccinated. She's kind of made her peace with the idea of being home almost indefinitely. She's gone back to school online. She's found other things to do.
Steve Fennessy: Well, how much does government aid factor into that calculation?
Marc Fisher: Yeah, it's a great question, and I think it's it's significant. We've had kind of a national experiment going on where we have some states where the federal benefits flowed freely and other states where governors tried to cut off some of that aid to people who were not working. And what the statistics tell us is it didn't make any difference really when you took the benefits away from people. The number of people quitting their jobs and staying home remained about the same in those states. Whereas what I saw in talking to business owners and workers who had left their jobs is that it was kind of a mixed bag. But in almost every case, they ended up going back to work in some form. Generally, they found jobs that were better paying. So one of the big takeaways from this period is that people who had been in those lowest-wage jobs have found jobs that are paying 50 to 100% more. And sometimes those are physically demanding jobs like warehouse jobs. But a lot of people also changed their attitude about how long they want to be in a job. So I bet a lot of people who have gone back to work, say, at a warehouse or something like that, for a limited time, a matter of weeks or months, just enough to earn enough money so that they can quit and then do it all over again. These are people who, for the most part, who I was talking to, who work really hard, and in fact, quite a number of them had more than one job. They were working extremely long hours full time, sometimes two full-time jobs with a little catnap in between a day job and a night job. And given the benefits that the government has provided to get everyone through this period, they were able to stay home, supervise their kids, especially during the period when all the education was online. They felt they had to be home for that, and it kind of made people think about what are their priorities in life? What should life consist of?
[News tape] The Washington Post, Denise Bunch, Cook, JJ's Bar & Grill, Hinesville, Ga.: It's definitely opened my mind up to, you know, go back to school and further my education and expand out to see more what's out there. I'm not saying I'm leaving this job, but just to see what might be out there, you know?
Steve Fennessy: In your story, you talk about mom and pops. And it seems that what's emerging from — from these conversations is that the mom and pop simply cannot pay the wages that the larger companies can. And so this has an impact, obviously not just on staffing on those mom and pops, but it also has an impact on the fabric of the community, right?
Marc Fisher: Absolutely. You know, the story of the last 10, 20 years in America is the loss of that kind of community where you walk down the main street and there were lots of little shops run by people you knew, they knew you, and that sort of feeling of local community that we've lost in so many sectors. And this COVID experience has really accelerated that process. I was talking to the owner of a nightclub restaurant in Hinesville called JJ's Bar and Grill. And the owner who had gone into business after coming out of the military at Fort Stewart and had opened up a place there. And it's a really delightful place that has really good food and karaoke and pool tables and you know, just all the things you'd want to bring a community together. And he's having trouble staffing because he can't afford to pay the big salaries.
[News tape] The Washington Post, Jose Espada, Co-owner, JJ's Bar & Grill, Hinesville, Ga.: I'm not a franchise so I can't afford to be giving, you know, $14, $15 an hour. I mean, I got people that put in applications and might try a day or two and they have come back and tell me that it's too much, they're overwhelmed with work.
Marc Fisher: And so he's had to cut his hours because he doesn't have enough staff to cover all the hours well, every time he cuts his hours. So that's one piece of community that's sort of chipped away and one less place for people to go to be with each other and see each other. Talking to the owner of a barbershop in Hinesville, and the same thing is true there. He's had to cut his hours because he doesn't have as many barbers as he used to. So his customers would come up and find a locked door, and they either go somewhere else or just grow their hair a little longer.
Steve Fennessy: Tell us a little bit more about that particular gentleman whose name is Justin Frasier, because as you explore in the story, he has a perspective from both sides, is as an employer, but also as a worker.
Marc Fisher: He's one of the county commissioners so he's an elected official, he's the owner of a barbershop, he's the owner of a CBD store right next door to the barbershop and he's a full-time worker at a paper mill. As an employer he's having trouble getting people to work for what's admittedly a pretty low wage at his barbershop and at his retail outlet. And as a full-time worker at a paper mill, he's finding that that labor shortage there means he's had to work longer shifts, extra shifts.
[News tape] The Washington Post, Justin Frasier: Everyone tries to not talk about it. But this pandemic has put more on our health and wellness than anyone can even imagine.
Marc Fisher: And then as a county commissioner, he has an additional perspective, which is this sort of bird's eye view of an economy where things are kind of upside down. The employers are no longer in charge. The workers who are deciding, Hey, I want this extra benefit. I want this additional pay. I'm going to go to whoever gives it to me. Even if that means that my local mom and pop, that I'd be loyal to and that's loyal to me, ends up on the short end of the stick.
[News tape] Glenn Poole: If you walk down any sidewalk, you will see "now hiring." If you drive down any road in this area, you will see "now hiring."
Marc Fisher: For a lot of these mom and pop business owners, this has been a really trying time. It's also been a time when they can kind of get creative because they didn't have the crowds of customers coming in or they had more time to think about things. And so I saw one place after another where they used this time to, to renovate or to redesign their business or to streamline things. And so, you know, that good old American ingenuity is still at work and people are tremendously devoted to the ideas they have for a business and they're not going to go down without fighting.
[News tape] Jose Espada: Really, I used to get frustrated at the beginning, and right now I'm like, OK, you know, I just got to do what I need to do with what I have and hopefully it will get better.
Steve Fennessy: You know, for years we've heard about, you know, big box retailers kind of siphoning away customers from mom and pops. And now what your story is showing, in very graphic detail, is how they're also siphoning away the workers that kept those mom and pops open — their doors open. Where is this all going?
Marc Fisher: It's going, first of all, toward just a more solidified hold on our economy by those big national chains. The Amazons of the world are really kind of in the driver's seat because they're able to adjust their pay and their benefits to what the labor market calls for in a way that mom and pops can't. And so we're seeing the continuing of the trend away from sort of small, locally initiated businesses being the heart of the community. We've seen in the pandemic that a lot of people are quitting their jobs to go start something on their own, become online creators or something like that. At the same time, the kind of landscape for those small businesses is getting more and more difficult as the big national chains dominate the economy.
Steve Fennessy: How concerned in Liberty County is the local Chamber of Commerce, are the county commissioners, about what this means for the economic future of their county.
Marc Fisher: They're still pretty bullish. They still think the fundamentals that we're making the county a real boom place in the pre-pandemic years are still in place. The good labor pool, people who have experience in the military, so they tend to be good workers, they tend to be loyal and devoted. And so the elements are there for the boom to resume once the pandemic is over. But at the same time, there's an undercurrent of concern about just a shift in our culture, the way people think about work, the idea that maybe it's not worthwhile to devote your life to two full-time jobs at very low pay. That maybe there is a quality of life aspect that has to be balanced against the ability to make just a few more dollars.
[News tape] The Washington Post, Elizabeth Course, Housekeeper, LaQuinta hotel, Hinesville, Ga.: Now people are just looking like, "Well, y'all are still paying the same. I'm still making the same thing and I'm still behind on my bills. There's no reason for me to work. I might as well just sit at home and work it out with my kids rather than get up every day and go to a job that's not paying enough and is not supporting my family."
Steve Fennessy: We hear often from politicians but also from chambers of commerce across the country that small businesses are really the backbone of the American economy, so what does that mean for the backbone of the American economy?
Marc Fisher: It raises a lot of really troubling issues because it's not just those businesses that fail when they're unable to keep going. It's the whole community. And so we all know this just from walking down our main streets of small towns and suburbs and even the neighborhoods in big cities where there's just suddenly all these empty storefronts. That is a really troubling sign for any society. And we've been kind of living with that for a few decades now, but it really accelerated as a result of the pandemic.
[News tape] Charisse Jones, Economic Opportunity Reporter USA Today: The impact of this is really across the board now. About 49% of small businesses said in June that they couldn't find workers to fill their position. And so it really is affecting all regions, different sized companies, small businesses and big businesses alike.
Marc Fisher: And small business people, you know, they're not only the lifeblood of a community, they're not only people who are kind of going out there and make it all on their own. They're also the leading indicator of our ability to care about each other and to create communities that — that work, that are more than every person out for themselves. They're really the canary in the coal mine, and we have to watch out for their health because we all depend on.
Steve Fennessy: As the omicron variant of the coronavirus pushes COVID cases to record highs, Georgia business owners could continue to face worker shortages. The state is among those seeing a massive spike in the number of cases, and students in public school districts across the Atlanta metro area are beginning another school semester remotely. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer, our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.