Yet in industries such as manufacturing, construction, and transportation and warehousing, quits barely increased. In professional and business services, which includes fields such as law, engineering, and architecture, where most employees can work from home, quitting was largely flat.
Other factors also likely contributed to the jump in quits. With many employers desperate for workers and wages rising at a healthy pace, workers have a much greater ability to demand higher pay, or go elsewhere to find it.
The data from August is probably too early to reflect the impact of vaccine mandates. President Joe Biden's mandate was not announced until Sept. 9. United Airlines announced its mandate in early August, but it was one of the first companies to do so. And layoffs were unchanged in August, the report found.
The government said Friday that job gains were weak for a second straight month in September, with only 194,000 jobs added, though the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% from 5.2%. Friday's hiring figure is a net total, after quits, retirements, and layoffs are taken into account. Tuesday's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, includes raw figures, and showed that total hiring in August fell sharply, to 6.3 million from 6.8 million in July.
The data is “highlighting the immense problems businesses are dealing with,” said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, in an email. “Not enough people. Not enough equipment and/or parts. Meantime, customers are waiting for their orders, or waiting to place their orders. What a strange world this is."
Quits also rose the most in the South and Midwest, the government said, the two regions with the worst COVID outbreaks in August.
When workers quit, it is typically seen as a good sign for the job market, because people usually leave jobs when they already have other positions or are confident they can find one. The large increase in August probably does reflect some of that confidence among workers.
But the fact that the increase in quits was heavily concentrated in sectors that involve close contact with the public is a sign that fear of COVID also played a large role. Many people may have quit even without other jobs to take.
The sharp increase in job openings also has an international dimension: Job vacancies have reached a record level in the United Kingdom, though that is partly because many European workers left the U.K. after Brexit.