A year ago, many front-line workers worried that Black Friday sales at malls and big-box stores could become COVID-19 super-spreader events.

This year, things are a bit different. COVID-19 vaccines are readily available, and the case rates have slowed. Still, workers getting goods to millions of shoppers face a new challenge this upcoming holiday season: intense staffing shortages and historically high levels of job turnover.

More than 3% of workers in trade, transportation and utilities — a category that includes retail workers such as cashiers, stock clerks and delivery truck drivers — quit their job in August, higher than at any point in the last two decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Among retail workers specifically, 4.4% quit in September.

Online shopping exploded in popularity during the pandemic, but with tons of consumer goods delayed in shipment or on back order because of global supply chain issues, getting gifts on time may be a challenge. That could make brick-and-mortar retail stores all the more appealing to customers, particularly late in the holiday season, and add extra pressure on workers.

The so-called “Great Resignation,” especially among retail and warehouse workers, comes as millions more will be shopping this year, many in-person. Among some 108 million shoppers on Black Friday, 64% are likely to shop in stores, up from 51% last year, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation.

Some workers are already struggling to meet breakneck customer demand with a rapidly dwindling staff.

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“I’m looking for work now because it’s getting so bad, it’s not worth staying,” said Melissa Love, a Southern California Walmart worker making $17 an hour unloading trucks and stocking freights, and a member of the labor advocacy group United for Respect. “People aren’t going to do overtime because you’re just doing double the work (covering) for someone else.”

Former colleagues are heading to competitors such as Target — or not working at all, waiting for better jobs to open up. The people who remain only get more disgruntled, Love said.

Retail workers quit, find better jobs

Allie Jambunathans, who had worked at the Macy’s at the Westfield Galleria mall in Roseville, California, quit her job at the end of last year. Since then, all but one of her former co-workers has quit as well.

When Westfield Galleria reopened last year, two people on Jambunathans’s team didn’t return, forcing her and her coworkers to pick up additional shifts. Jambunathans had to cut her hours at her second job to accommodate the scheduling. Things quickly went downhill, she said.

Customers would sneeze without masks on or scream at workers about a return policy. Employees felt pressured to report to work even if they showed symptoms of COVID-19.

“All that pushed me over the edge,” Jambunathans said.

With more employers dangling better pay and benefits to attract more workers, there are fewer incentives for people to stay in their current jobs, especially in retail, said Nick Bunker, the economic research director of North America at job search platform Indeed.

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“Quitting was the best thing I could do for myself and for my mental health,” Jambunathans said.

Warehouse workers protest production goals

Meanwhile, workers and advocates are pressuring companies such as Amazon to improve working conditions for their warehouse workers, who are often stretched to the limit during the holiday shopping season.

Several public health groups and practitioners sent a letter to Amazon recently calling for the company to “prohibit inhumane and hazardous production standards.”

An Amazon statement to various media outlets prior to Black Friday said the average starting wage at the company is more than $18 an hour in some areas and that the company is “inventing new ways” to keep its employees safe.

The actions against Amazon come as a new California law takes effect next year requiring Amazon and other companies to inform warehouse workers of their quotas. The law also prevents employers from using algorithms that block employees from taking meal or bathroom breaks.

The company has defended its practice, saying all facilities follow strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

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“We don’t set unreasonable performance goals,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told shareholders in April. “We set achievable performance goals that take into account tenure and actual employee performance data.”

Lili Farhang, co-director at public-health group Human Impact Partners, said her organization has heard from workers who face continued stress and anxiety about their working conditions.

“For those workers … they never really get breaks from those quotas. Expectations are really high, so that leads to (an) activated body physical response that can translate into health impacts,” Farhang said. “They don’t have any recourse to address some of the stressful conditions.”