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“It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”


Work in Context Essays

John Bouman

Sargent Shriver National Center
on Poverty Law

A client I will call Nancy sought help to fight an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent. She had been fired for failing to appear at her retail job after learning of her work schedule the night before she was due at work; she could not secure child care on such short notice. Nancy was denied unemployment compensation on the grounds that she had been “discharged of misconduct” for failing to appear for work, a viable disqualification for unemployment insurance in most states. She missed the deadline for appealing the denial of eligibility because her apartment had insecure mailboxes and the notice never arrived. Because she lived from paycheck to paycheck, Nancy had no savings to cope with this emergency.

Nancy had an ambition to qualify for better jobs by going to community college for computer training, but the logistics of attending school while working low-paying jobs with unpredictable schedules had stymied her. She thought she might be able to concentrate on school if she could find student aid or qualify for a short period of public assistance, but she was told that public assistance (and child care assistance) are not available for people trying to go to post-secondary school.

A lawyer could help with several of Nancy’s problems but, at its heart, Nancy’s story is about how layers of problems affecting millions of workers combine to keep them in poverty. The growing service economy produces low-paying jobs, while higher paying jobs require credentials and qualifications many workers do not have. The employers of low-wage workers pay minimum wage, do not provide predictable schedules or family leave, routinely contest unemployment compensation claims, and do not create career paths. Benefit programs do not support workers when they pursue the training and education that might lead to better jobs. And with low pay there is no capacity to build savings for emergencies, school, or to access stable housing in non-violent neighborhoods. More than this, Nancy’s situation did not on its face involve the other pervasive issues that block the successes of low wage workers, including family and community violence, sexual harassment, criminal records, and racial and ethnic discrimination.

There is so much to do to improve opportunities for workers in poverty, to support their hard work and ambition. Each improvement matters. Due to the individualized way these factors combine to block upward mobility for different workers, significant progress in any one area tips the balance towards success, while not for all, but for a substantial number of workers. There are many ways to improve upward mobility and quality of life for low wage workers, and all of them are well worth the effort.

Marca Bristo

President & CEO
Access Living

People often ask, “What do you do?” Typically, the answer reflects jobs people perform in order to provide for themselves and their families. Within that question, there is the assumption that people will work from early adulthood until retirement age. Because work consumes so much of our lives, employment influences how others judge us and how we measure our own success. What does this mean for people denied employment because of a legacy of structural and social barriers?

Work is critical to the self-fulfillment of people with disabilities, just as it is for non-disabled people. Yet, physical access and misinformation about the cost of accommodations prevent people from work. Just as often, people with disabilities are denied the opportunity because they are trapped in stereotypes that people with disabilities can’t work. According to the 2014 Disability Compendium Report, in the United States during 2013, “33.9% of civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community were employed, (Disability Compendium, 2014, page 13).” The employment gap is more stark for disabled people of color. In 2013, just 26.5% of black men and women with disabilities ages 21 to 64 were employed.

Of the people with disabilities who do work, some are underemployed, not advancing, or trapped in sheltered workshops that pay minimum or sub-minimum wage. Some providers defend the practice of sub-minimum wage, protecting their own economic interests and projecting the archaic myth that, unable to perform meaningful work, people with disabilities should be relegated to menial tasks such as sorting buttons.

Hope emerged with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Yet, in the past 25 years the employment gap has not significantly changed. The landmark legislation prohibits discrimination in the workplace, but it is not an affirmative action law. Understanding this, advocates recently have pushed for stronger affirmative action rules. Efforts paid off in 2013, when the U.S. Department of Labor announced a new rule enforcing federal contractors to set a goal of employing people with disabilities as 7% of the workforce.

If effective, the new rules will demonstrate what people with disabilities already know: not only are people with disabilities valuable contributors in the workplace, we are leaders of innovation and change.

But if the broader employment sector fails to follow the example of and meet the 7% goal, people with disabilities will not be the only ones to suffer. If we don’t recruit and embrace the talents of workers with disabilities, we could be shutting the door on the next Stephen Hawking, Temple Grandin, Marlee Matlin, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Employing people with disabilities isn’t about doing the right thing. It’s about strengthening and diversifying our workforce, and it’s about building stronger communities.

Sara Horowitz

Founder & Executive Director
Freelancer’s Union

Freelancing is becoming the new normal in America. There are now nearly 54 million freelance workers nationwide according to a 2015 study the Freelancers Union helped commission. These workers (38% of whom are Millennials) contribute $725 billion annually to the United States economy. As the availability of jobs with traditional 40-hour work week and corresponding benefits packages that long-sustained the middle class grow scarce, people across the economic spectrum are searching for new options for making a living.

Gone are the days of the gold watch and robust retirement plan. In its place is a new era of work, one that lacks traditional stability but allows for unprecedented flexibility and freedom. Out of necessity, freelancers are leading the way. They are building professional networks to line up new gigs, utilizing skill sets across multiple industries, and pooling resources with others to create co-working spaces. Calculating how much they need to cover their expenses, freelancers are able to plan their work life accordingly.

Managing your own time isn’t just rewarding, it’s practical and efficient and frees up more time for other pursuits—whether it’s family or travel, dedicating more time to exercise, or learning a new skill. Independent workers are asking themselves, “how do I want to put my life together?” and realizing they should not have to sacrifice to lead fulfilling lives. However, this tradeoff currently comes without a reliable safety net to support this workforce.

Even when they are working, however, freelancers don’t enjoy the essential healthcare and retirement benefits associated with salaried employment. Under the Affordable Care Act, some freelancers who do not qualify for subsidies are struggling to cope with rising healthcare costs. With episodic income, it can be impossible for freelancers to plan for retirement when they are forced to dip into their savings during periods between jobs. Unlike traditional employees, freelancers have little recourse against wage theft. According to our research, 7 out of 10 freelancers have struggled to be paid, losing an average of nearly $6,000 per year.

As this workforce continues to grow, we must create new labor protections and systems of portable benefits that enable workers to be secure in a flexible economy. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act in NYC will extend first-of-its kind protections against nonpayment and late payment by clients who refuse to honor their contracts.

Today’s leading edge workers realize their mix of wage work and passion work can and should be a source of personal fulfillment. Being “on your own” doesn’t mean “going it alone” and freelancers are working together to create a new, re-imagined version of the American Dream by embracing a new and truly meaningful independence.

Candice Jones

Former Director
Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice

The crisis of creativity in American job creation has the nation falling back on some its oldest and ugliest habits. Our use of prisons is a return to the practice of using human capital as an engine of economic growth in small towns across America.

I saw this firsthand in my role as the head of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, the agency that runs prisons for children in
Illinois. As the number of youth in my custody declined, and the State budget crisis raged on, the next step seemed simple: we needed to start closing our prisons, and redirecting the dollars back to the communities where our youth reside.

The debate that ensued was not what I expected. I was prepared for opposition, including a veiled debate about jobs in the impacted community, but I expected conversations to focus on public safety and youth outcomes. I was wrong. The debate over jobs was not at all veiled, and questions about what was best for kids were largely nonexistent. The hearings and media coverage around the prison closure centered almost exclusively around the impact this would have on the local economy. We know from research that prison often does not help kids and may actually harm them. When we make decisions to send youth to prisons, we do so with the knowledge that we are increasing the odds those very youth will continue to live a life of crime. By contrast, researchers continue to produce studies that reinforce local interventions, not prison, as more likely to get a youth back on track and improve community safety.

Then why are we still so reliant on prisons as a juvenile justice response to “help” our country’s most at-risk youth? The truth is that this nation still relies heavily on the use of black and brown youth from urban neighborhoods across America to generate jobs. These children—many of whom will be categorically locked out of the job market for the rest of their lives—are used as warehouse widgets to keep America working.

The future of jobs in any community is a worthwhile and necessary conversation. I more than anyone want to see the citizens of
Illinois gainfully employed. But our economy cannot continue to be built on the backs of kids who desperately need our support. As a state and nation, we need to have the jobs conversation, but let’s focus it on helping small businesses succeed, recruiting industry to our communities, and training a competitive workforce. I want that conversation on jobs to include justice-involved youth as likely candidates for jobs, not the vehicles that will drive it.

This nation’s history should have us scrutinizing the way we are using our justice system and the abysmal outcomes it consistently delivers. We must acknowledge that in our effort to offer the dignity of employment to some, we categorically dehumanize others.

Only then will we be able to create a new path forward.

Anne Ladky

Executive Director
Women Employed

Women Employed began right around the same time that Studs Terkel was putting the finishing touches on his landmark book, Working. The stories he recorded remind us of the ways women workers were treated then: “stewardesses” were required to leave their jobs when the married women were assumed to be working for extras (called “pin money” at the time). Women with college degrees couldn’t break into professional jobs. Fortunately, some of the conditions his subjects described are long-gone. And millions of women have entered jobs and industries that used to be men-only. Yet other problems, like unequal pay, harassment, and lack of respect for the jobs women do, are still with us.

Today we are tackling the barriers facing working women in an environment in which low-paying jobs are growing faster than other jobs in our economy. The old compacts with employers regarding benefits, retirement, and the terms of employment have eroded. Unions are under attack. This is an enormous challenge for the millions of working women who are struggling to afford the basics of life.

Women are the majority of low-paid workers—in retail stores and restaurants, hotels, childcare centers, the homes of our elderly
parents and the disabled. They’re in food service and warehouses and call centers. They’re in jobs we all depend on. Despite what
people often say, these jobs do require skills. The problem is that they’re undervalued and underpaid. Work schedules change constantly,
so women, many of them parents, never know from week-to-week how much they’ll earn. They can’t plan, they can’t budget, they can’t arrange for or afford quality childcare. Their jobs don’t meet what many people think of as a basic standard of decency.

Conditions in the low-wage workplace today harm individuals, take a toll on their families, and cost all of us as the need for public supports grows. One solution is education and training to prepare for better jobs, but often low-paying jobs are themselves a barrier
to entering and succeeding in college. Education is important, but it can’t be the only answer. We need to improve basic standards
so that the jobs women do become good jobs. That means raising the minimum wage, ending the tipped sub-minimum wage and abusive scheduling practices, and ensuring that every employee has the right to earned sick time and paid family leave. Times have changed,
and government-enforced standards and employer practices need to change as well.

It’s time to focus once again on the realities of working people’s lives, appreciate the value of their work, and make sensible decisions about how work is rewarded. We can restore hope and opportunity to more people by changing workplaces for the better. It’s up to us.

Thomas E. Perez

United States Secretary of Labor

As in life itself, the one constant in the history of work in America is change.

Since the Industrial Revolution, when most workers left farms and moved to cities, our society has engaged in an ever-evolving negotiation about our relationship to work. Hours of work, wages and benefits, safety and health hazards, retirement—each has posed a fundamental question. And together, we have tackled those questions, applied solutions, established the terms of our social compact. Today, we again face questions, but they are not necessarily new, nor are they limited to the on-demand and tech economy. What’s happening across the economy is broad and deep. Changing work and employment relationships impact sectors from hospitality to retail to tech; changing family relationships impact the kinds of support workers need.

We are a nation of dreamers and experimenters. Innovation is America’s middle name, and the key to long-term success has always been inclusive innovation that benefits everyone. And the so-called “structural changes” we are seeing now—for example, changes related to globalization or technology—do not mean that we have to accept inequality and vast opportunity gaps. I refuse to shrug my shoulders and say that the degradation of work is the price we pay for smartphones, or that the necessary cost of receiving same-day online purchases is denying someone his or her basic employment protections.

The Labor Department’s mission is to champion the rights and well-being of workers, and we will do so no matter what form their work takes. It doesn’t matter whether the workplace is virtual or brick-and-mortar, or whether the work is associated with a mile-long manufacturing facility or a website. We will continue to enforce labor standards and advocate for the men and women who make our economy tick.

To navigate the changes we’re experiencing—to make sure the future of work is one of dignity, security and upward mobility—we must reaffirm our values. We need to first return to principles, following the North Star that has always guided us toward greater progress. We need to recognize that America is strongest when more people have more, when the economy works for everyone and not just a privileged few, when we create shared prosperity.

I believe the future of work is ours to shape, consistent with the best American traditions of forward progress and fundamental fairness. We can do it by thinking long-term, by prioritizing the next generation over the next budget cycle or quarterly earnings report. We can do it in a way that holds fast to our values.

Ai-jen Poo

National Domestic Worker’s Alliance

On any given day you could walk into any neighborhood, look around at the houses and apartments, and not know which homes are also workplaces. On the other side of those doors, there is a quiet army of mostly women—often women of color—working. Their work is skilled and emotional, difficult and rewarding, critical and yet invisible.

They care for our children, ensuring that they receive attention and nurturing during some of the most formative years of their development. They support people with disabilities to live full, independent lives. And they enable our aging loved ones to live in their communities, aging at home on their own terms, even as they become more frail. This growing workforce of professional caregivers makes all other work possible, yet their work exists just below the threshold of our public policy and popular imagination.
It is ever-present and still invisible.

This invisibility has defined domestic work for as long as anyone can remember, and more of us are becoming part of the story. Our cultural notion of productivity and value is associated with a time in history when we produced more things we could touch. Today, much of our workforce provides services. We cook, serve, and deliver dinner. We drive people to work. We keep people healthy. We help people find new clothes. We assist. We care. Harder to hold than the goods of old, we produce time, health, information, and peace of mind for other people.

Yet somehow in our human service-driven economy our very humanity is becoming invisible. Our contributions have become less visible and our work less valuable. We serve more and connect less. What we have left is a few winners and too many losers locked in a profound battle over the dignity and value of work itself. How could so many of us be worth so little?

But the story does not end here. Each day, each moment, is a beginning. At any point, we can choose to see one another. You who drives the bus—I see you. You who checks me in for my flight—good morning. You who rises before the sun to brew coffee for me and thousands of others on our way to work—thank you. You who helps children cross the street—thankful for you. We see one another, and we realize we need each other. We awaken to the possibility that it is humankind—you and I—whose work makes this world. We can remake it again and again. We can decide that all work has dignity—beginning with the least visible among us; all life has value—and become fully human in the process.

Neera Tanden

President & CEO
Center for American Progress &
Center for American Progress Action Fund

The American middle class has long served as a beacon of economic opportunity and immigrants from every country—including my own parents—have come to our shores in search of a better future. But in recent decades, American workers have fallen behind. With stagnant wages and limited benefits, working families have struggled simply to put food on the table and gas in the tank.

Today, most families need two incomes to make ends meet—sometimes that is not even enough. For a married couple with two children, disposable income (money for everything from groceries to clothing to savings) fell by $5,500 between 2000 and 2012. While our economy continues to recover, many of the jobs that have come back have lower wages than the jobs that were lost. A 2015 study by the Federal Reserve notes that 47% of Americans—more than two-thirds of whom make less than $40,000—cannot cover a $400 emergency expense without having to sell something or borrow money. This comes even as American workers are more productive than ever. Since 1973, productivity has increased 75% as wages have increased by less than 10%.

We know that increasing workers’ incomes creates more demand, reduces turnover, and increases productivity for businesses and our economy. We need wages that meet the needs of modern families, and jobs that offer decent benefits. But to create change in our workplaces, American workers also need a voice. Study after study has shown that a major driver of inequality over the last 30 years has been the decline of labor unions. Unions have always been among our nation’s strongest advocates for policies that help working families, such as the minimum wage and paid family leave. But as American workers have lost critical protections, companies are requiring their employees to work more and more for less and less.

The evidence is clear: our economy is stronger when employees are empowered to organize for fair wages, decent benefits, and a better workplace. But we’re failing the St. Louis fast-food worker who goes days without eating because her rent is more than her paycheck. We’re failing the single mother in Los Angeles who worked a minimum-wage job for 6 years, only to be fired for taking maternity leave. We’re failing the Brooklyn father of two who immigrated to America in search of a better life, working 72 hours a week at a supermarket just to make ends meet: “Sometimes I wonder if it was worth me migrating to this country. Chasing that American Dream, that often feels more like a nightmare.”

By raising wages and giving workers the voice they deserve, we can reclaim that dream, fulfilling once more the promise of a middle-class life in America.