Employer practices

Who Gets What Job? Taking a Racial Equity Approach to Improving Job Quality

Jessica Shakesprere, Batia Katz, Archana Pyati March 03, 2021

This post is the third in a series devoted to exploring the elements of what makes a “good” or “quality” job and understanding the relationship between job quality and economic mobility, that is, the ability to advance and increase earnings in the labor market. These posts will elevate key insights from a new body of work from the Urban Institute that develops an agenda for research on how stakeholders, including policymakers, employers, advocates, and practitioners, can accelerate economic mobility among low-wage workers through elements of job quality. This post explores what it means to apply a racial equity lens when improving access to good jobs; other posts explore a new framework for defining good jobs, evidence on job quality elements that facilitate economic mobility, what workers value in jobs, and a new agenda for research on job quality and mobility. To learn more about this project, visit Building America’s Workforce.

The pandemic has revealed much about the nature of work and who holds a “good” job. Job quality is a multidimensional concept that can vary significantly for workers across the labor market. It is integral to worker well-being and is shaped by several factors, including occupation and employer or hiring entity. Yet we know access to good jobs is unequal across race and other demographics. In fact, the pandemic has highlighted that Black, Native American, and Hispanic and Latinx workers are more likely than white workers to have essential jobs with greater risk of exposure to and transmission of COVID-19 and are less likely to have health insurance coverage in these jobs. But as in health and other outcomes, the pandemic has revealed that racial disparities in job quality and labor market experiences and outcomes are not new, but structural and historic.

Occupational segregation: A key driver in job quality disparities

Labor market segregation at the occupation and industry level is significant and has kept many people of color, particularly Black workers, in lower-quality jobs throughout our history. By one recent estimate, white workers are 50 percent more likely than workers of color to hold good jobs, defined by the study as a job with wages higher than the national median wage, projected stability or growth in the labor market, and lower risk for automation.

For example, Black women are significantly overrepresented in low-wage service positions, such as nursing assistants, personal care aides, and retail cashiers, and Latino men are overrepresented in lower-paying jobs in construction, delivery driving, and food service. This phenomenon is tied to systemic discrimination in education, the places people live, hiring practices, and job referral networks, among other historical and structural barriers. There is also evidence that occupational segregation tends to worsen during economic recessions, as workers of color are subject to an employment pattern known as “last hired, first fired.” Unaddressed, these racial gaps will widen during the COVID-19 recession and recovery.

Differences in employment arrangements can also be a determinant of job quality, one that is highly racialized. Workers in temporary or contingent employment are not covered by standard labor laws, meaning they have less access to benefits and protections, including prompt payment (if at all), paid sick time, and other paid time off. People of color, along with women, immigrants, and people with disabilities, are overrepresented in industries that rely heavily on low-wage, independently contracted labor, including home health care, nail salons, cleaning, and landscaping, highlighting how the structure of workers’ employment is another important dimension of racial inequity in the labor market.

Career advancement and access to benefits within jobs are major areas of inequity

Improving job quality means not only increasing access to existing high-quality jobs but also increasing opportunities for advancement within a current job. Occupational segregation and other forms of employment discrimination lead to workers being overrepresented in jobs with less-promising career pathways. For example, people of color in the restaurant industry are more likely to be limited (PDF) to lower-quality, “back of house” jobs and are more likely to be denied opportunities to advance to more desirable, better-paying, customer-facing jobs. There is evidence that, even within the same field or employer, workers of color are disproportionately less likely to be promoted, more likely to be fired, and less likely to receive favorable performance reviews or additional compensation. In general, workers of color are more likely to have career pathways stalled or disrupted.

Beyond access to better jobs and advancement within a job, racial disparities exist in access to specific job quality elements, and trade-offs may exist between different job quality elements. For example, workers of color are less likely than white workers to have access to paid family and medical leave and even unpaid leave (PDF). If they have access to unpaid leave, many workers of color choose not to take it because they can’t afford to. Even among workers in similar sectors and occupations with lower-quality jobs, workers of color may get further shortchanged. In fact, among all essential workers during the pandemic, workers of color had lower wages on average than white workers in the same fields.

Solutions to advance racial equity in job quality

Advocates of expanding access to good jobs should consider not only how to improve all jobs’ overall quality but also how to improve equitable access to higher-quality jobs and, ultimately, pathways for economic mobility. There may be varying effects for policy levers at the federal, state, local, or firm-specific level. Below we identify some solutions:

Invest in research that includes data disaggregated by race and ethnicity. There is a general lack of job quality datasets and measurement tools, let alone those that include demographic characteristics. In a recent brief, we lay out an agenda for future research on job quality, which includes investing in new data, analyzing job quality impacts, and centering racial equity and worker voice in research studies. By investing in data collection efforts that include racial demographics, stakeholders can create a stronger evidence base for understanding and advancing racial equity in efforts to improve job quality.

Build worker power. By organizing and collectively using their voices, workers have power to equalize access to quality jobs for people of color. A body of evidence shows that labor unions have been important in reducing racial wage inequities, helping workers achieve higher wages, better access to paid leave, more benefits including health insurance, and higher health and safety standards for their workplaces. For workers in nonstandard arrangements who do not have traditional collective bargaining rights, supporting member-based nonprofits, such as the Freelancer’s Union, can help rebalance power disparities.

Engage employers. Adopting job quality practices to further racial equity can also benefit employers because better, more equitable job quality can lead to increased worker retention, productivity, and overall organizational well-being. The National Fund for Workforce Solutions documented evidence of improved worker and business outcomes when they engaged employers in construction, manufacturing, health care, and other sectors in 11 job quality initiatives across the country. Setting higher employment standards, such as equal opportunity in hiring and higher minimum wages, for companies that contract with the federal government can also influence employer practices, long after the companies’ government contracts end. Mandates such as requiring employers who have government contracts to publish employment and job quality data by race and other demographic indicators could be a first step toward addressing occupational segregation and employment discrimination. These policies can have ripple effects even among employers that do not work with the government.

Strengthening labor laws, building worker power, engaging employers, and disaggregating employment data by race and ethnicity are key measures to addressing structural racism in job quality and ensuring workers of color have greater access to good jobs. Another element to applying a racial equity lens to improving job quality is understanding the values and priorities of workers themselves across different demographic groups, which we will explore in our next post.