As essential workers were rendered visible by the COVID-19 pandemic, so too was the unsettling fact that they are poorly paid and experience limited opportunities to advance, unpredictable schedules, and minimal worker protections or benefits.
Jobs are returning to the economy, yet many of these workers feel newly empowered—and newly supported through financial supports from the government—to decline jobs they might have taken before the pandemic. Job quality has become a central calculation for workers who can now afford to search for jobs with better pay or benefits or those that are simply a better fit for their personal circumstances. Job quality is also increasingly at the heart of a national reckoning with work and long-standing inequities in the US labor market.
The Urban Institute is engaged in a multiyear research project aimed at developing a common framework for understanding job quality and setting a research agenda to build evidence to inform policy, advocacy, and employer-led efforts to create good jobs, particularly for workers in low-wage, low-quality employment. Urban and WorkRise cohosted a June forum that convened leaders from government, academia, employer-serving organizations, and worker advocacy to share perspectives on job quality and considerations for charting a postpandemic path toward good jobs for more workers. Here are five key insights from the event:
Although fundamental, wages alone don’t define quality jobs
While wages are a nonnegotiable aspect of job quality and are often a proxy for other nonwage elements, a good job must include features beyond compensation, panelists agreed. So long as the United States lacks universal health care and pension coverage, employer-provided health insurance and retirement will continue to be essential job quality elements, said Arne L. Kalleberg, Kenan distinguished professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of several studies on precarious work and job quality. Control over one’s schedule and autonomy over one’s work have profound effects on job retention and satisfaction, mental health, and other health outcomes. Opportunities to advance and gain new skills through work experiences or training have implications for long-term earnings and economic mobility, he noted.
A “more holistic” definition of job quality beyond wages is also more likely to lead to “long-term change rather than tinkering around the edges,” said Pronita Gupta, special assistant to the president on labor and workers at the Domestic Policy Council. Good jobs not only provide family-sustaining wages but offer opportunities for progressive wage growth and benefits, career advancement through education and training, and worker voice. An expansive definition of job quality can help “undo structural racism and persistent inequalities that have undermined opportunities for women and people of color” in the labor market, she said.
[The forum also featured a panel of workers sharing their perspectives on job quality. Read more here.]
Additional job quality measures and benchmarks are needed to promote accountability
As the adage goes, we can’t manage or improve what we don’t measure. As executive director of the Good Jobs Institute, Sarah Kalloch works with employers who are interested in transforming bad jobs into good jobs. Yet many employers use metrics that are insufficient to create lasting change. For example, employers say they pay competitive wages, but these are often based on market wages rather than living wages. Kalloch and her team do a “living wage assessment” using MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to determine whether the company’s wages meet a standard of living beyond subsistence for its employees.
Similarly, companies will share a list of benefits they offer, but analyzing uptake by workers reveals more about the effectiveness of benefit design and implementation as well as disparities in access across gender and race or ethnicity. Employee satisfaction surveys can provide useful information but need to be compared with harder metrics such as turnover, which is significantly higher in low-wage industries such as retail, food service, and hospitality. Holding companies accountable to commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion made in 2020 in response to protests over racial injustice must include job quality benchmarks. “I can’t think of anything more important than ensuring all employees, particularly women, workers of color, and diverse workers, have quality jobs,” Kalloch said.
The government must also do more to develop fine-grained statistical indicators to drive research, policy, and the creation of high-quality jobs, said Alex Hertel-Fernandez, deputy assistant secretary for policy and evaluation at the US Department of Labor. Government surveys are some of the most comprehensive sources of data on employment, but they lack measures of many job quality features that workers value, such as scheduling control and worker voice and power, he said. “Being able to say something about [these elements] on a more disaggregated basis could be quite powerful,” he said.
Hertel-Fernandez cited the example of the Contingent Worker Supplement to the Current Population Survey as an innovative response to a need for data on workers in nonstandard and alternative work arrangements. Initially fielded in 1995, the supplement was the result of collaboration between the government, policymakers, advocates, and other labor market stakeholders. The time is ripe for a similar effort to expand knowledge of job quality using the data collection power of federal surveys, Hertel-Fernandez said.
Employment status significantly affects job quality
Whether workers are classified as employees or independent contractors determines whether they are covered by wage, antidiscrimination, and other worker protection laws and whether they are eligible for social insurance programs such as unemployment benefits. Independent contractors are generally excluded from these legal protections and programs and from employer-provided benefits such as health insurance and paid leave. By some accounts, contractors are a growing segment of the workforce, and misclassification of employees as contractors is on the rise. Exclusion of contractors from essential protections and benefits “needs to be addressed if we’re concerned about job quality,” noted Deborah King, senior adviser with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and former executive director of the 1199 SEIU Training and Employment Funds.
Worker power is both a catalyst for and reflection of job quality
Worker power—the ability of workers to collectively organize and bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions with employers—is “both something that workers value in its own right and the means through which [workers] secure everything else,” Hertel-Fernandez said. Yet union membership has been declining for 40 years and was 10.8 percent in 2020—about half of what it was in 1983.
The parallel deterioration of unions and job quality is not an accident or coincidence, noted Anmol Chaddha, principal with the reimagining capitalism group at Omidyar Network. Unions can be credited for improving wages, benefits, and working conditions of jobs across many industries, including manufacturing, where “bad jobs were made into good jobs” by collective action by workers. Worker power and voice will continue to be important levers for improving job quality in industries where wages are low and where barriers to unionization exist. Michelle Wilson, director of evaluation and learning at the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, said it is also critical to understand “who is and who isn’t being served” by organized labor and to acknowledge patterns of racial exclusion perpetuated by unions themselves.
For its part, the administration is explicitly supporting policies that expand worker power and voice, which Gupta described as a “critical mechanism for ensuring greater job quality.” President Joe Biden has endorsed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a measure that strengthens workers’ ability to unionize and increases penalties against employers for labor law violations. The PRO Act passed along a party-line vote in the US House Representatives and is now stalled in the US Senate. The American Jobs Plan—a massive proposal to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure through robust job creation—calls on Congress to pass the PRO Act and includes additional protections for workers and unions: $10 billion in enforcement of fair wage and antidiscrimination laws, a requirement that employers who win infrastructure contracts remain neutral toward employee organizing, and additional penalties when employers violate health and safety rules. Biden also issued an executive order establishing a task force to identify ways the federal government can support and promote worker organizing.
Understanding motivation and pursuing context-specific solutions can drive employer engagement
Wilson explained that the National Fund’s model for improving job quality is understanding employers’ motivations and identifying business practices they are likely to adopt. “We believe employers are responsible for job quality through job design,” she noted, although it is also important to engage employers around context-specific solutions that will work for them. The fund has developed a job design framework that is a “menu, not a mandate,” enabling employers to design jobs that will attract and retain workers while also meeting their business goals.
Wilson noted that the movement for job quality can’t be a “march to a monolithic response” but must be responsive to the needs of both employers and workers, a view echoed by Kalloch: “We need to be able to focus on wages and many other aspects of what makes a job good not just for employees but also for employers,” she said. “There is a path to higher wages that can drive service and productivity. This is not a zero-sum game. Good jobs are also good for business.”