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Published December 26. 2021 12:01AM
Hinesville, Ga. — Maggie Towne quit her job as a hotel front-desk manager because the pandemic taught her she could squeeze by without her paycheck. Now home with her kids, Towne says her life is much improved, but at the La Quinta hotel she left, an exodus of housekeepers and front-desk workers forced owner Hasit Patel to close the swimming pool and fitness center and sharply reduce room cleaning.
Fannie Lou Brewton left her job as a cook because she didn’t want to be around so many people anymore. She realized, she said, that “I did enough.” She’s delighted that the coronavirus pandemic drove her into retirement, but at Izola’s Country Cafe, where the staff has plummeted from 42 to 12 workers, the owners had to eliminate breakfast, slash their hours and shut entirely on Sundays.
Liberty County, a 45-minute drive southwest of Savannah, is Quit Town USA — one of many places across the country where the pandemic slammed the brakes on propulsive job growth and startling numbers of people have quit their jobs this year, including more than 12 million Americans this fall alone. The result, according to business owners and county officials, is a place where people are thinking about work in new, sometimes revelatory, ways — but also feeling the pain of reduced services, pinched bottom lines and a diminished sense of community.
Workers who have stepped away from full-time jobs say the pandemic helped them discover they can survive on occasional gig work and government benefits. And many Liberty County residents left minimum-wage positions at restaurants, hotels and retail outlets to take jobs at the county’s burgeoning warehouses and distribution centers. The upside: as much as double the pay and more flexibility in work hours. The downside: severe strains at the mom-and-pop businesses they quit — and damaged or severed long-standing social bonds.
From the reduced hours at JJ’s Bar and Grill, where Hinesville residents gather to drink, dance and dine on Puerto Rican specialties, to the county’s search for firefighters and the struggle to find school bus drivers, life in a country that is reevaluating its relationship with employment can be at once better and worse, more flexible and less connected.
In Liberty County, Justin Frasier feels the winds of change everywhere he goes: He owns Just Kutz, the barber shop where half the cutters were let go when everything got locked down, and most didn’t come back when the business reopened. Frasier also owns a CBD shop — same story. And he works at a paper mill, where he says his shifts have grown longer as the company strains to find enough workers to get the job done.
Frasier, a very busy man, is also a Liberty County commissioner, giving him a bird’s-eye view of an economy in which workers suddenly control the steering wheel: At his shops and in the county’s fire, public works and other departments, “the difficulty is finding people who want to work,” he said. “It’s a new frontier. People have learned that it’s cheaper for them to stay home — working costs them more for child care and for commuting and for health insurance.”
Part of the new frontier, he said, has been the loss of some of the moments that bring people together, as local businesses close, trim services or get by with a skeletal staff.
At Just Kutz, barber Jamoll Boutwell missed the banter and brotherhood when he stayed home for months after the lockdown. The pandemic showed him, he said, that life is “every man for himself.” Boutwell, 49, set up a chair in his yard at home and told his customers to come on by. “I couldn’t afford to care about the coronavirus because I had to eat,” he said. “I had to do what I had to do.”
Frasier couldn’t blame Boutwell and his other employees for leaving. His seven barbers have dwindled to three. One is out on his own, making house calls. One got work as a truck driver, for more money. Others stayed home for a while, then found other work.
Frasier pays $11 an hour, plus commissions, at his hair and cannabidiol shops. The few applicants he gets these days “want $30 an hour, which is just impossible,” he said. The result is a community gathering spot that, for now, because of social distancing and unfilled jobs, often feels empty.
After Just Kutz reopened, Boutwell kept his outdoor home barber chair going, hoping to gain safety from the virus. But after a few months without a steady paycheck and repeated entreaties from Frasier, Boutwell came back.
“I missed the camaraderie,” he said. “I realized I’m a barber shop barber. I didn’t want to sit out in my yard, getting ate up by mosquitoes.”
Extraordinary levels of job-quitting are taking place even in places that had been steadily adding positions. Liberty County — home to 65,000 people, still mostly rural but increasingly turning into a suburb of Savannah — added them at a faster pace than the rest of the country, with employment in warehouses doubling in the past five years, creating a jobs-rich boomtown, according to a Washington Post analysis of Labor Department data.
A Target distribution center, the county’s largest private employer, more than doubled its staffing in the years leading up to the pandemic, and the county’s primary manufacturers, including a French chemical company and a paper mill, were growing steadily, said Ronald Tolley, chief executive of the Liberty County Development Authority.
Then, the coronavirus. Schools went all-virtual for almost a year. Child care became scarce, with impossible waiting lists.
Then, as the economy began to bounce back, competition for workers soared and the county became an epicenter of the “Great Resignation.” Over the past few months, Georgians quit their jobs at the third-highest rate in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The warehouses that turned open fields into beehives of loading and shipping could afford to raise wages and keep the flow of new workers strong. Rick Haslett, the operations manager at a new Home Meridian furnishings warehouse, said he received 100 applications for the 50 jobs he had to fill this fall. He had to promise 50-cent hourly raises every six months to draw enough interest, but his $15 hourly wage for laborers was a big boost for people coming from smaller, minimum-wage businesses across the county.
But at those smaller operations, the combination of the lockdown and the federal benefits that got many people through the past two years has meant a workforce that isn’t keen to work.
“The extra unemployment benefits worked extremely well and actually amounted to more income than some workers were accustomed to,” Tolley said, “so they were in less of a hurry to get back to work.”
– – –
Just as his La Quinta hotel in Hinesville was filling up again with guests, Hasit Patel grew massively frustrated as his workers disappeared.
One housekeeper moved back home to Puerto Rico to live with her parents. One took a job at a fast-food place that paid more. One had to be let go after she refused to wear a mask while cleaning, Patel said.
As the crisis mentality eased, the guests came back, many of them connected to the city’s top employer, Fort Stewart, the Army’s biggest installation east of the Mississippi. But most of Patel’s cleaning staff did not return. Nor did many of his front-desk workers.
All across the country, with so many workers quitting, there was a crimping of commerce, an unsettling setback for many business owners. But for Patel, the struggle to find labor felt like a blow to his whole notion of what made America great. An immigrant from India, he believed that the health of the U.S. economy was protected by a constant refreshing of the workforce, an injection of striving immigrants willing to take on some of the unpleasant jobs that many Americans are loath to do — like cleaning hotel rooms.
“I can’t compete with the warehouses for wages,” Patel said. “The government should let us get people from India, even just for six months. The government has to realize there are certain job categories that American people don’t want to do anymore.”
But as many of his existing workers left the hotel, the pandemic had halted the flow of new immigrant workers to replace them. Patel could only try to recruit his former staffers to return.
Monique Rolle, 40, came back to clean rooms, but only two days a week — she didn’t want to expose herself to guests’ germs full time. Then she found a full-time gig at the county’s biggest warehouse operation, a Target distribution center that pays her $15 an hour to move packages from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. — a hefty raise over her $10 wage at the hotel.
“It was nothing personal,” Rolle said. For a little while, she worked at La Quinta a couple of mornings a week and Target at night, “but then I got my bills under control and I could let one go. Target was paying more, so I dropped the hotel.”
Rolle, who lives with her 25-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son, felt safer at the warehouse, where she wears a mask and gloves, than at the hotel, sharing airspace with guests who might be unmasked and unvaccinated.
Patel said his hotel is still suffering from the cumulative effect of all the staffers who have left. Strapped for help, the owner shut down La Quinta’s pool and fitness center, eliminated breakfast for a time, and cleaned rooms only between guests. Patel now has to work occasional shifts on the front desk himself.
It remains a struggle to hire, he said, even after he raised wages from $8.50 to nearly $11 an hour and offered more flexible schedules. One housekeeper who didn’t return told Patel he would clean rooms again but only if he could live in the hotel. “I can’t become a shelter,” the owner said.
Another former housekeeper said she would come back but only if she could have weekends off; the best Patel could offer was one weekend a month off. That wasn’t enough.
Patel keeps calling his former workers, hoping to lure them back. He wonders how their new lives are adding up: “How are they eating? They couldn’t have saved that much.”
Maggie Towne certainly didn’t. She had worked her way up from bartender to front-desk manager and Patel said she had a “bright future in the industry.” When La Quinta reopened, Towne, 40, came back — but only for one day.
Staying home, she realized, was worth the big financial hit. “I walked away because my kids were more important, and because of covid,” she said.
A single mother to a teenager and two college students, Towne decided during the shutdown that she could get by, barely, even though her various benefit checks added up to a 70% pay cut.
She subsists now on $200 a month in food stamps, living in a place paid for by her husband’s disability payments (the couple are separated) and studying criminal justice through an online college paid for by his military benefits (he served for 15 years in the Army). Stimulus checks — part of a federal government response to the pandemic that also included enhanced unemployment benefits and a child tax credit — kept the bill collectors at bay for a while, but now the power and phone bills are piling up again.
“There are days I just don’t know how I’m going to make it to the next day,” Towne said. “It was so much easier when I was working.”
But after two bouts with covid-19, “I just stay away from the world,” she said. “I only leave my house to go to the grocery. I don’t invite anyone to my house.”
Towne considers herself a social person, but after her father died early in the pandemic and “nobody could even walk into the hospital to see him,” she decided not to take chances. And she won’t get the coronavirus vaccine because “there’s not enough research,” so to protect herself, she steers clear of most other people.
“Honestly,” she said, “I don’t think I’ll go back out.”
– – –
When last year’s lockdown forced Izola’s Country Cafe to close its doors for six weeks, Glenn and Lori Poole, the owners of the Hinesville eatery, helped their workers sign up for unemployment benefits and handed out shares of the $165,000 in Paycheck Protection Program money the diner received from the federal government.
But when Izola’s reopened and its signature mac and cheese and cornbread dressing again lured travelers to make a half-hour detour off Interstate 95, the Pooles tried to bring their workers back, to no avail. So many quit permanently that the eatery had to eliminate breakfast, slash its hours and close entirely on Sundays.
“Some just up and leave in the middle of a shift, and you call them at home and they say, ‘Oh, I was tired, so I left,’ and some of them never come back,” Glenn Poole said. “That is new, that attitude that they don’t need the job.”
The new struggle to staff the eatery came at the worst possible time for Izola’s. The restaurant had just gone viral — in a good way — thanks to the urging of the Pooles’ teenage son, who told his parents that the way to get more young diners was to go on TikTok. More than a million viewers later, Izola’s videos showing off each day’s lunch dishes was bringing in swarms of new customers.
The Pooles took advantage of their new popularity: They decorated the place, lining some walls with a dazzling display of vintage neckties. They piped in New Orleans jazz. They shifted the diner’s identity from Izola’s Country Cafe to Izola’s Eclectic Cafe.
But serving the surge of customers was turning into a problem. Some longtime employees moved out of the area, some went back to school — especially high school kids whose parents didn’t want them working amid an unending stream of strangers — and some received more pay at one of the warehouses or even at McDonald’s, which was offering bonuses and $10 an hour.
The Pooles couldn’t find a way to get much above minimum wage, maybe $8 an hour, Glenn said: “We’re a mom and pop and if you don’t have it to give, you can’t give.”
To lure back workers, the Pooles offered to help with food or power bills, closed the self-serve buffet to minimize contact with customers and encouraged workers to get vaccinated and wear masks. But they couldn’t risk imposing a mask mandate on customers, Glenn said: “This is the South. People have guns.”
In a rickety trailer in a mobile park less than a mile from Izola’s, Fannie Lou Brewton looks back on more than a decade of cooking for the Pooles, all the way back through a life of work that started when she was nine, when her family sharecropped on a farm in Metter, Ga., picking corn, beans, watermelon and tobacco.
The Pooles gave Brewton a raise last year, from $8.75 to $9 an hour, but it really wasn’t the money. The pandemic taught her, rather, that after more than six decades of working, it was time to take a seat.
“I am done,” said Brewton, who is 71. “Done, done. I quit because I knew they didn’t have enough people with masks on. I’d wear mine every day, but others didn’t.”
Beyond the “Enter At Your Own Risk” sign outside, it’s dark and quiet inside the trailer. Most days now, she doesn’t see anyone but a couple of her children, maybe a grandchild or two.
Brewton lives on her daughter’s disability check and her own $810 monthly Social Security payment. Put together, they cover the $577 rent on the trailer with enough left over to buy basic groceries and fry up a pork chop now and then.
She doesn’t miss cooking — her greens, cabbage and okra and tomato dishes were highlights of Izola’s menu — though she did let herself be talked into baking eight sweet potato pies for her family’s Thanksgiving.
These days, because of the virus, she mostly stays home. “I look at TV, play some games — poker, solitaire — on the tablet,” she said. “I ain’t going to leave here til God comes and gets me.”
– – –
The Help Wanted signs Donald Lovette sees all over Liberty County mean much more to the county’s top elected official than just some reduced hours and services at retail establishments and government agencies.
As the county struggles to find firefighters, 911 operators and maintenance workers, and Lovette hears from business owners scrambling to fill good-paying positions such as truck drivers and office workers, he worries that Liberty — where per capita income is $22,636, only two-thirds of the national average — will have to make difficult trade-offs. The county is considering raising its property tax rate to offer workers competitive salaries, a change that could have a big effect on home sales and business recruiting.
Any return to life as it was, said Lovette, chairman of the County Commission, will require redefining the relationship between workers and the government benefits they expect. “It’s not that people are lazy,” he said, “it’s that some of them are better off financially by not paying for child care, staying home for a while, using their benefits to pay down some debt. It’s simple economics.”
He knows — as county business owners know — that money alone will not solve this problem.
Michelle Harris, a teacher at Fort Stewart who also runs a trucking company with her husband, Jeffrey, manages their three trucks while Jeffrey is out on the road, long-hauling dog food or flat-screen TVs or hardwood flooring — trips he would far prefer not to make because of blood clots in his legs.
Jeffrey has to go, his wife said, because their usual drivers decided to stay home, getting by on government payments.
“It’s not a question of pay,” Michelle said. Drivers make good money – about $1,300 a week, plus bonuses for certain big loads. “It’s that some people’s attitude toward work has changed. If you’re a couple with five kids and you’re getting $250 credits on each of them, plus the food stamps, you can keep one of you at home and take care of your kids.”
For the Harrises’ business, MJ Express, no drivers means no income — idled trucks cost money. “Gotta keep on moving,” Michelle said. One of Harris’s trucks is in for repairs delayed because the shop can’t find enough mechanics to work. The third truck sits waiting for a driver.
– – –
José Espada figures this can’t last much longer.
Before the coronavirus, Espada’s nightspot, JJ’s Bar and Grill, was finally at the point where he was, as he put it, “seeing money rather than just paying bills.” Tucked inside an Econolodge on Hinesville’s main suburban shopping drag, JJ’s had become a community of regulars, drawn by the pool tables and the karaoke, the dance floor and the down-home Puerto Rican cooking.
But the pandemic whacked his sales by 75% for the first few months, forcing him to slash his staff from 25 people to just six to handle takeout and delivery orders.
Slowly, after he was allowed to reopen at 35% capacity and then at full strength, business built back.
But as customers came back, many of his employees were gone forever. Espada raised wages by a couple of bucks, up to $10 or $11 an hour, “but I’m not a franchise — I can’t afford $14 or $15,” he said.
When the bar shut down, Denise Bunch, a cook at JJ’s for nearly three years, went on unemployment. The national moratorium on evictions gave her the fortitude to stay home for several months, even as she fell behind on her rent. At first, she enjoyed the calm and security of being home by herself, well protected from customers carrying the virus.
But as the pandemic wore on, she missed work, missed people. “You can only Zoom for so long before you’re looking around saying, ‘I need to do something outside this house,’ ” she said.
Yet when Espada called, trying to lure her back full time, Bunch resisted. A former prekindergarten teacher, Bunch, 47, decided she’d like to go back to school, get an associate’s degree and return to the classroom.
“You start thinking about what really doesn’t matter and seeing how you can better yourself,” she said.
Espada has built back up to 16 staffers — not enough, he says. He needs bartenders, servers, kitchen help, at least five people.
“A lot of them got to spend more time with family while we were closed and that changed the dynamic,” Espada said. “Now everybody wants to switch from working nights to just days, and I can’t accommodate that. This is a nighttime business.”
He remains confident that workers will come back. “It’s always been the nature of Americans to work,” Espada said, “to find a way to make some money and better yourself.”
Bunch finally agreed to return — but only part time, she said. When Bunch needed more money, she picked up more hours — as the laundress at the Econolodge, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day, then home for a nap, then over to JJ’s for a 6 p.m.-to-midnight shift.
“I learned that I loved working,” she said, “but I want to do it like I want it, part here, part there, and next, I’ll do something for me. That’s a change. Permanent change.”
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