Burned out frontline workers are seeking out the lesser evil in their job searches

 


Former flight attendant Jada Magwood recalled passengers verbally assaulting her on multiple occasions during the COVID-19 pandemic — including when a police officer had to escort an intoxicated, violent traveler off her plane.

Magwood recently left the travel industry for a job at a tech startup. She didn't plan on quitting, but the burnout from passenger violence prompted her to seek out jobs without much customer-facing interaction.

Flight attendants, like retail workers and nurses, have endured unruly, and at times violent, behavior from customers over the past year. Some Americans are aggressively opposing mask mandates, while others might be lashing out due to the trauma of the pandemic, experts and workers said.

Workers, in general, are ditching their usual sector in search of greener pastures. A Prudential survey from April 2021 found that one in five respondents switched jobs during the pandemic, while 26% said they planned to seek new employment after the coronavirus threat subsides. 

The abuse "heightened the feeling of being disposable to our airlines during the pandemic," Magwood said. "At the end of the day, I got to a point where I was not getting paid enough to deal with situations like that."
Southwest flight attendant cleans the aircraft
Flight attendants are quitting for jobs in different industries due to the uptick in unruly passengers. 
Southwest Airlines

Searching for the lesser evil

After months of coping with the abuse, many frontline workers are desperate to find different jobs with new problems that they're not used to dealing with, gigs that represent the lesser evil. That means beleaguered restaurant staff wants to work at warehouses. Tired warehouse workers are desperate to get into retail. Exhausted retail workers are pondering going back to nursing school. And so on. 

Magwood said she recognizes working at a tech startup won't be easy, given the industry's high rates of burnout and sometimes long work hours. But her company offers mental health days and the ability to work from home permanently, both of which are a welcome change after months of dealing with unruly air travelers. 

"As a flight attendant, you don't have the luxury of being able to take 10 minutes for yourself unless you want to stand in the lavatory for those 10 minutes," she said.

Like Magwood, Jessica Walsh spent much of the pandemic dealing with what she called "snippy," short-tempered customers in her job in the paint department of Menard's craft store in the Midwest.

Walsh said she regularly had to choose between asking sometimes violent customers to put their masks on or letting the shopper potentially expose her to COVID-19. Eventually, she left for a receptionist gig. Walsh said she appreciated how seldom she interacted with clients face-to-face at her new job.

"A lot of people seem to have found other work or expressed moving into different industries; I have a couple friends that have gone back to school," Walsh told Insider. "The idea seems to be: 'Get away from retail.'"

worker csat
Warehouses are targeting restaurant workers for recruitment. 
Callaghan O'Hare for Insider

Workers and employers are crossing industry lines to find new opportunities

It's not just employees. The ongoing labor crunch has even prompted a few employers to reach across industry lines in order to attract new applicants. Some supply chain companies strapped for staff are specifically targeting quick-service restaurant employees.

"We've found that those types of workers have made a nice transition to warehouse work. They're very hard workers and used to hourly work," Maggie Barnett, the COO of logistics provider ShipHero, told Insider. 

But the ongoing exodus is likely going to hurt some sectors more than others. Dr. P.K. Kannan, the Dean's Chair in marketing science at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, told Insider that restaurant workers in particular "found other options" after eateries shut down.

But the challenging hiring environment could also prove to be an opportunity for blue-collar workers looking to make a big change.

"If you've ever had a dream company you've wanted to work for, then now is the time to go for it," Mathieu Stevenson, CEO of hourly work online marketplace Snagajob, told Insider. "Some hourly employers that we work with are basically saying, 'We will interview anyone who is willing to work with us as long as they meet the minimum criteria.'"

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