Health care workers left in droves during COVID-19—here’s where they went

As the United States transitions out of the COVID-19 crisis phase, the pandemic’s long-term impact on the health care industry remains unclear. In recent months, hospitalization rates have lowered and new case counts remained well below peak-pandemic records, but health care professionals have still been dealing with COVID-19-related burnout and fatigue.

A December 2021 survey of more than 500 health care workers and first responders found that 38% of respondents reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, 74% experienced depression, and 75% experienced anxiety due to the pandemic. More than half of survey respondents said the pandemic reduced the likelihood of remaining in their field.

In a separate study conducted by McKinsey in November 2021, 32% of registered nurses surveyed in the U.S. said they were considering leaving their role—an increase of 10 percentage points since the previous survey less than 10 months prior.

The pandemic overwhelmed America’s health care system and the professionals who keep it running. Not only were they performing life-saving acts every day, but they also carried the psychological pressure of the hero narrative—fulfilling an idea of someone strong, tireless, fearless, and who ultimately prevails.

For more than two years, they confronted patient deaths and faced uncertainty about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. They bore witness to the emotional trauma of others with little opportunity to process their own. One of the most significant sources of anxiety and depression over the last two years was not having the physical resources or support to do their jobs, according to health care professionals.

Violence against health care workers has been on the rise over the last decade. According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health care and social service workers were five times more likely than all other workers to experience workplace violence, comprising 73% of all nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses requiring days away from work.

According to a 2020 National Nurses United survey of more than 15,000 registered nurses in the U.S., roughly 20% of participants said they faced increased on-the-job violence. This behavior is attributed to COVID-19-related staffing shortages, changes in their patient population, and visitor restrictions.

The health care system is again overwhelmed by labor shortages and patients who delayed care during the pandemic. While much of the health care sector has seen a rebound in employment figures since the initial dip in 2020, nursing homes and elderly community care facilities have continued seeing a drop in employment through November 2021, according to a Peterson-Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of BLS data.

Many workers are leaving the field for entirely new industries. Timetastic used U.S. Census Bureau data to compare which industries health care workers switched to after exiting the health care field between the third quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. While the dataset focuses on national numbers, data from Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee was not included.

According to the BLS, the health care industry includes ambulatory health care services, hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, and social assistance. This includes home health aides, licensed practical nurses, and health services managers. Read on to learn more about the industries health care workers joined during the pandemic.

A woman sitting on her desk working on financials.

#10. Finance and insurance

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 3.8%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 11,643

Occupations in the finance and insurance industry include accountants, auditors, insurance sales agents, loan officers, and bank tellers. Depending on one’s role within the industry, professionals can earn a median annual salary ranging between $36,000 and $79,000.

A hairstylist is styling another woman's hair at the salon.

#9. Other services (except public administration)

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 4.0%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 12,275

Hairdressers, cosmetologists, dry cleaners, and automotive mechanics are some of the professions that fall within this BLS category. The median salary for workers in these industries can range from $28,500 to $61,000. The average number of vacation days accrued after 20 years of service in these roles (15 days) is about the same as 20 years of service in private health care.

A man is hard at work at a manufacturing plant.

#8. Manufacturing

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 4.1%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 12,584

Manufacturing roles include machinists, production workers, testers, sorters, weighers, and assemblers. Industry professionals can earn a median annual salary anywhere between $32,000 and $64,000 depending on the specific role. Nonsupervisory employees in the manufacturing sector work on average nine hours more per week than nonsupervisory health care workers.

A teacher is working with two students on their tablet.

#7. Public administration

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 4.4%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 13,392

Public administration encompasses federal, state, and local government agencies that oversee public programs. This can include education, veteran affairs, and public housing. Agencies in this sector typically organize and finance the production of public goods and services, most of which are provided for free or at low cost.

A commercial truck driver working.

#6. Transportation and warehousing

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 4.9%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 15,005

The largest share of workers in the transportation and warehousing industry is truck and tractor-trailer drivers. As of 2021, there were more than 1.1 million truck drivers in the U.S. However, the BLS also includes airline pilots, flight engineers, bus drivers, railroad conductors, and yardmasters in this category as well. Median annual salaries within this industry range from roughly $49,000 (as a truck driver) up to $207,000 (as an airline pilot).

Two men are sitting at a desk working on a new project.

#5. Professional, scientific, and technical services

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 7.8%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 23,951

Lawyers and architectural and civil drafters are among the most common professions in this industry, earning an annual median salary between $60,000 and $128,000. Other services within the scope of this industry include accounting, bookkeeping, and payroll services; computer services; consulting services; research services; advertising services; photographic services; translation and interpretation services; and veterinary services.

A head chef and his employees work on prepping for the busy night ahead.

#4. Accommodation and food services

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 8.9%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 27,168

This category covers most of the restaurant and hotel business and encompasses roles like prep and line cooks, chefs, waiters, waitresses, and hotel staff. The median annual salary for roles such as these is roughly $30,000. Workers receive less time off on average compared to health care workers, with just five days after the first year of service, and 12 days even after 20 years in the industry.

A teacher is standing in front of the class going over numbers.

#3. Educational services

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 10.4%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 31,850

Elementary, middle, and high school teachers; teacher assistants; and school administrators are all part of the educational services industry. This category does not include special education or vocational instructors. Compensation ranges depending on the role, with teacher assistants earning a median salary of roughly $29,500, and school administrations earning just under $100,000. When looking at median weekly earnings, both union and nonunion members in educational services earn more than health care workers.

Two retail employees are hard at work discussing clothing inventory and sales.

#2. Retail trade

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 12.7%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 38,675

Cashiers, salespeople, customer service representatives, clerks, order fillers, and managers in most retail stores are covered within the retail trade sector. Median annual salaries can range from $27,000 (for nonsupervisory roles) to roughly $39,000 (for store managers). At roughly $19.50, the average hourly earnings for retail trade workers are roughly half that of health care workers.

A janitor is mopping the floor at a local high school.

#1. Administrative and support and waste management and remediation services

  • Industry’s share of exiting health care workers: 25.7%
  • Total workers who entered per quarter: 78,393

This broad category encompasses janitorial services, waste collection, office administration, telemarketing, and a host of other agencies and services. Professionals in this industry are often supporting the day-to-day operations of other organizations. Higher paying roles in this category, such as office clerks, earn a median annual salary of roughly $37,000.