Margaret Moore worked 13 years in the Department of Children and Families sexual predator unit until July. That's when DCF ended all telework options for its 12,000 employees.
When plans for her unit to return to a suite at the Centre of Tallahassee arose, she complained that DCF was creating a workspace that was the "complete antithesis of everything (that) the Centers for Disease Control and science" recommends. There would be no mask requirements, or social distancing rules, or contact tracing if an infection occurred among the 15-person unit that would be assigned to five-foot-by-five-foot cubicles.
"There was no option not to go into that," Moore said. The 41-year-old mother of three said she felt like she was being forced to be exposed to COVID and feared she would infect her children.
A DCF spokesperson acknowledged receipt of questions concerning Moore's account but did not respond to her allegations.
Moore handed in her two-week notice on a Friday. The next Monday, July 12, DCF ended all telework options and the sexual predator's unit was ordered to report to their cubicles the next day.
Except, of course, for Moore. Her career was over.
"I was given an ultimatum and what I did was quit," said Moore, adding that she is fortunate that her spouse, a Tallahassee Memorial nurse picking up extra shifts during the pandemic, earns enough to keep their household afloat.
Nationally, one in five workers have considered changing careers in the last year
To be sure, the coronavirus pandemic has led many to reconsider how they think about life and career.
Today, there are nearly 250,000 fewer people in Florida's labor pool – the total of those employed and those looking for work – than there were when the pandemic struck in March 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, one in five workers have considered a career change in the past year, according to a Washington Post/George Mason University Poll.
While the construction industry in Florida seems to have rebounded for the time being, and hospitals and the financial sector have added jobs, overall there are fewer people working or looking for work in Florida today than in February 2020, despite a population increase of more than 300,000.
The hardest-hit industries are restaurants, hospitality, and other services-related jobs, including a noticeable number of unfilled positions among white-collar professions like advertising, public relations, teaching, and first responders, records show.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the state's jobs agency, tracks employment in broad categories. Its latest jobs report finds that in June 2021, there were 344,700 fewer Floridians working in the leisure and hospitality sector.
The workforce for healthcare and social service agencies dropped by 65,000 and there are 18,300 fewer people in the professional and business services sector.
Tallahassee's FBMC Management Company calculates that, in June alone, 164,000 people nationwide quit their jobs, whether they had another position lined up or not.
That brings the total number of people who have resigned in the past year to nearly a million, according to an analysis by the firm which advises companies on health care and employee benefits.
While some have argued generous federal unemployment benefits had incentivized people to stay at home, FBMC's analysis indicates other concerns may be at work.
It found 65% of the people who had rejected job offers in May said unemployment benefits were not a factor in their decision. They cited concerns about COVID (35%) and the need to care for family (31%) instead.
"I think the hard-hit industries (service, leisure, restaurants) will have to rethink how they attract and retain employees," said Richard Koontz, who leads FBMC's efforts to find savings in companies health benefits packages to finance other perks, such as life insurance or childcare programs.
Many companies and corporations reduced staff when the coronavirus stalled the economy. A Florida Chamber/West Florida University study found the 2.7 million small businesses in Florida reported they had furloughed or laid off on average 13% of their staff and permanently reduced their workforce by 4.2%.
In February 2020, the businesses surveyed employed 8 people but today have 6.
Some workers feel they 'don't have to live like this anymore'
That may explain some of the missing workers, but not all.
John Russo, the visiting scholar at Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and professor emeritus at Youngstown State University's Labor Studies Program has spent the summer talking to people in D.C. and Ohio about why workers would quit a job without having another lined up.
He notes that, nationwide, people are not returning to their jobs at the rate economists expected: "They're saying that COVID has made them feel like, 'I don't have to live like this anymore,' especially among middle-class working people," Russo said.
Russo notes that many retired Floridians before the pandemic held part-time jobs, such as baggers at the supermarket to supplement their retirement, but have withdrawn while the coronavirus is loose.
He and Koontz also cite a "burnout" culture in professions like public relations, healthcare, restaurants, and welding, but say a lack of childcare and increased automation introduced since the pandemic began, are also factors in the drop in employment.
But this summer COVID looms large in many workers' minds when thoughts turn to work, life, and family.
Ellen Baker is a special education teacher in Palm Beach County. During her workday, she can walk into nine classrooms of 34 students each. Baker has contracted the coronavirus, and then both her 10-year-old and two-year-old grandson tested positive.
"You know, this is my noble profession," Baker told a Mid-County Democratic Club meeting in a teleconference. "And if I got them sick because I went to work, it's just so awful. The guilt I feel about going to work is just so bad."
State Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, is a captain for the Palm Beach County Fire and Rescue Department. The county has been a hotspot since the coronavirus struck Florida.
"We're 100 school bus drivers short in Palm Beach County. We're down school resource officers and teachers have left the profession as have police officers, and EMTs," Willhite said.
While Russo said many service workers are making ends meet in a gig economy, working assignments as a contractor, driving for a service such as Uber, or making restaurant deliveries, Willhite worries about the coronavirus' impact on the essential services people expect, such as a response to an emergency or educating children.
"These are professions where you have to be trained and certified," said Willhite, speaking Wednesday during a break at a Palm Beach Fire Station. "You can't just decide tomorrow you want to be a teacher, a firefighter, or a paramedic – we're in a difficult place right now."
"These are professions where you have to be trained and certified. You can't just decide tomorrow you want to be a teacher, a firefighter, or a paramedic – we're in a difficult place right now."
State Rep. Mat Willhite, D-Wellington