Proof Retail Jobs Don’t Need to Be Bad

From today’s New York Times by Eduardo Porter

Bethamy Magrow is grateful that the minimum wage in New York City is rising to $13 at the end of next month. Earning the current minimum of $11 an hour at a Times Square fashion retailer and scheduled to work some weeks for only 19 hours, the 25-year-old sales worker realizes she doesn’t quite clear New York’s poverty line.

It would be nice if her schedule didn’t change so much from week to week, she told me, so she could set up her doctors’ appointments in advance. But at least New York bars retailers from changing the schedule from one day to the next. In any case, jobs she has had at Whole Foods and Pokéworks, a restaurant on Union Square, were no better or worse.

Millions of Americans have similar stories to tell. For all the talk about the “end of retail,” it is one of the largest employers in the country, accounting for about one in eight workers in the private sector. For every miner toiling in the United States, there are almost 25 retail workers. Manufacturing, the apple of President Trump’s eye, doesn’t employ nearly as many.

Typically paying full-time employees less than $33,000 a year, well below the midpoint across the economy, retail jobs have become the work of the lower class, the main source of support for Americans left behind by economic change.

This raises a fairly urgent question: If retail work sets the living standard for so many low-income families, why doesn’t it get more attention?

Read the entire article here.

Employees do want their job to matter, but meaning at work can be hard to find

From today’s Chicago Tribune by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz:

Jennifer Ruiz holds her patient’s trembling hand as she presses a stethoscope to the frail woman’s chest and belly. She compliments the woman on her recently painted fingernails. She cheerfully asks how she’s feeling, knowing she’ll get no answer from the little curled body in the big hospital bed but for a penetrating stare.

Ruiz, a hospice nurse, finds her work deeply meaningful, in part for reasons that are obvious: “We get to be there for people during some of the most tragic and tough times in their lives,” she said.

But even those who shepherd the dying and their families through the fear, heartbreak and mystery of the end of life can lose sight of a job’s meaning in the stress of the day-to-day, if their employer doesn’t foster it.

“You have to fan that flame,” said Brenda McGarvey, corporate director of program development at Skokie-based Unity Hospice, where Ruiz works. “It’s your responsibility.”

A job’s meaningfulness — a sense that the work has a broader purpose — is consistently and overwhelmingly ranked by employees as one of the most important factors driving job satisfaction. It’s the linchpin of qualities that make for a valuable employee: motivation, job performance and a desire to show up and stay.

Meaningful work needn’t be lofty. People find meaning picking up garbage, installing windows and selling electronics — if they connect with why it matters.

But many Chicago-area employers seem to be missing an opportunity to tap this critical vein.

In a survey conducted by Energage for the Chicago Tribune’s 2017 Top Workplaces magazine, local employees regarded their employers more positively than the national average on nearly all measures, but companies fell significantly short in response to this statement: “My job makes me feel like I am part of something meaningful.” Meaningfulness also was the only measure that did not see any improvement among Chicago-area respondents this year, compared with last.

Read the article here.

House GOP passes bill that rolls back “joint employer” protections for workers

From yesterday’s New York Times by Christine Owens:

House Republicans on Tuesday took another step in their campaign to cheat workers out of fair pay and workplace rights. On a vote largely along party lines, the House advanced a bill to roll back longstanding “joint employer” protections for workers contracted by big companies like Apple or Alaska Airlines.

For years, when two companies both control the terms and conditions of employment, they are also both considered responsible for workplace violations like wage theft, sexual harassment or safety problems. So if a window washer working for a contractor fell because safety equipment was improperly installed by the company whose building he was cleaning, he could sue both the contractor and the larger company for damages.

But under the bill passed on Tuesday, large corporations that outsource jobs would get virtually full immunity from workplace violations, while the typically smaller, poorly capitalized local businesses that provide the workers would bear all the liability. This could leave these small businesses exposed to bankruptcy, leaving workers in danger of having no remedies at all.

Contracting out work is not necessarily bad; it’s often a smart way for companies to efficiently handle certain tasks, like payroll administration and cleaning work.

But the problem is that many companies also contract out to lower compensation costs and, sometimes, to avoid basic legal responsibilities to workers. Even when such cost-cutting is not the top reason a company outsources, workers usually suffer.

Read the entire article here.

WeWork and the Death of Leisure

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” by Ginia Bellafante

This past week, Hudson’s Bay, whose story begins 347 years ago in the fur trade, making it the oldest company in North America, announced that it was selling Lord & Taylor’s flagship store, on Fifth Avenue, several years after it had acquired the department store chain through a deal with a private-equity firm.

The buyer would be WeWork, the office rental outfit very much rooted in the virtue-and-shell-game ethos of 21st-century capitalism. The founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey got together in a building on the Brooklyn waterfront where they both worked — Mr. Neumann as the proprietor of a company called Krawlers that produced padded clothes for babies — and quickly realized that they could make money from all the vacant space they saw around them by simulating the atmosphere of the Silicon Valley workplace, fueling the dreams of young entrepreneurs who always wanted to appear as if they were having fun. Over the summer, seven years into its existence, WeWork reached a $20 billion valuation.

On the face of it, the transformation of a department store — the first in the country to install an elevator — into the headquarters of a start-up is simply a story of the new economy cannibalizing the old. Traditional retail businesses have been in decline for a long time; the cult of shared goods and services enabled by technology is ever ascendant.

The first iteration of Lord & Taylor was a dry goods store on Catherine Street in Lower Manhattan that opened in 1826. The 676,000-square-foot Italianate building in Midtown it eventually occupied in 1914 (a building for which WeWork is now paying $850 million) stood not merely as a monument to turn-of-the-century commerce but also as the grand testament to what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the rising culture of “conspicuous leisure.”

Leisure, Veblen wrote, “does not connote indolence or quiescence.’’ What it conveys is the “nonproductive consumption of time,” by which he was not anticipating the 10,000 hours people would fritter away playing Minecraft, but any time spent away from the activity of labor. In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter. Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridges in London, dictated that “a store should be a social center.” To that end he installed an ice rink and shooting range on the roof of his store and exhibited the first plane to fly over the English Channel.

Read the entire article here.

How the wealth gap between restaurant goers and their servers is​ widening

Andrea Gillette lined up the bottles of fruit-flavored cocktails behind the bar. The guy who leans a ladder against the big chalkboard to write out the day’s fresh fish selection had just about wrapped up.

Floors were swept, sliced lemons were crammed into a plastic bin, the trendy garage-door-style windows facing the shaded patio thrown open. Corey Ahrens brewed coffee.

Chip Kasper, the general manager, called out to the weekday crew at Fish City Grill, a bright, modern seafood restaurant at CityLine, a massive$1.5bndevelopment 20 miles north of downtown Dallas. Anchored by an almost 10,000-worker State Farm campus, CityLine also features a crop of buzzy fast-casual spots, a Whole Foods Market and a salon offering eyelash extension packages for upwards of $300.

It’s one of a handful of projects that have shifted the economic center of gravity of the nation’s fourth largest metro area; as a result, the northern suburbs of Dallas are some of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

“Got nine minutes to pre-shift!”

A little over a year ago, Fish City’s owner was worried this wasn’t going to happen.

In the roughly two decades since Bill Bayne and a partner opened Half Shells – the seed of what would become a chain of 20 restaurants – Bayne said he and his wife, who now own the Fish City company, have made a point to remember the names of workers at every level.

He takes pride in his ability to retain workers in an industry that sees high turnover. Still, as he prepared to open the chain’s outpost at CityLine he encountered an unanticipated hurdle.

He couldn’t find workers.

Bayne recalled sending his longtime kitchen manager, Frankie Argote, to “ride the rails” in search of people who looked like they might be cooks and to restaurants, where he asked managers whether they had employees who might be able to pick up more shifts. Argote recalled coming back and asking his boss, “Do we want to be cooking or serving?” Because he was struggling to find enough people to do both.

“This [location] has been probably the most challenging,” Bayne said.

As major corporate employers have swarmed places such as CityLine and the areas that surround them, a corresponding explosion of restaurants and bars has left business owners such as Bayne tapping into an almost-dry well of talent. Over the last five years, the number of jobs in food services and drinking places in the Dallas-Plano-Irving metropolitan division increased by 30.4%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That’s almost twice as fast as growth in those jobs nationally, which was 17.9% for the same time period.

But thanks to a range of factors, the fertile job-hunting fields north of Dallas are essentially off limits to many prospective workers.

Read the entire article here.

Gamers vs. Gainful Employment: Young Men Are Choosing Leisure Over Labor

A noticeable trend has emerged in the last decade: younger men are staying out of the labor force for longer periods of time or altogether. The cause? Economists increasingly focus on the growth of the “gamer” culture: men play more video games than women, and apparently they prefer the leisure of gaming to the frustration of personal growth that comes with gainful employment in the economy.

Past studies have shown an increasing prevalence of younger men to either avoid work or otherwise work intermittently, instead staying home and playing video games all day. This trend has intensified with the development of online gaming, where individuals play other individuals in live action games that happen in real time through various internet game providers.

According to a recent paper published by the economists Erik Hurst, Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils and Kerwin Charles at the Bureau of Economic Research:

By 2015, American men 31 to 55 were working about 163 fewer hours a year than that same age group did in 2000. Men 21 to 30 were working 203 fewer hours a year. One puzzle is why the working hours for young men fell so much more than those of their older counterparts. The gap between the two groups grew by about 40 hours a year, or a full workweek on average.

Although many economists have pointed to other factors including technological innovation, globalization, and the rise of service sector work, the paper argues that a significant percentage of younger men staying away from work can be traced to the rise of the “Gamer Culture.” That raises important questions about the gender gap at work, including the wage gap, but also whether productivity is stifled by a culture of technological fetishism that worships gadgets that enhance leisure activities rather than increase actual productivity on the job.

For a thorough review of the paper and this growing trend, read here.

Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs

From today’s New York Times by Jack Ewing:

SINTRA, Portugal — The rise of robots has long been a topic for sci-fi best sellers and video games and, as of this week, a threat officially taken seriously by central bankers.

The bankers are not yet ready to buy into dystopian visions in which robots render humans superfluous. But, at an exclusive gathering at a golf resort near Lisbon, the big minds of monetary policy were seriously discussing the risk that artificial intelligence could eliminate jobs on a scale that would dwarf previous waves of technological change.

“There is no question we are in an era of people asking, ‘Is the Robocalypse upon us?’” David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an audience on Tuesday that included Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and dozens of other top central bankers and economists.

The discussion occurred as economists were more optimistic than they had been for a decade about growth. Mr. Draghi used the occasion to signal that the European Central Bank is edging closer to the day when it will begin paring measures intended to keep interest rates very low and bolster the economy.

“All the signs now point to a strengthening and broadening recovery in the euro area,” Mr. Draghi said. His comments pushed the euro to almost its highest level in a year, though it later gave up some of the gains.

But along with the optimism is a fear that the economic expansion might bypass large swaths of the population, in part because a growing number of jobs could be replaced by computers capable of learning — artificial intelligence.

Policy makers and economists conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out. That has, in part, nourished the political populism that contributed to Britain’s vote a year ago to leave the European Union, and the election of President Trump.

“Generally speaking, economic growth is a good thing,” Ben S. Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said at the forum. “But, as recent political developments have brought home, growth is not always enough.”

In the past, technical advances caused temporary disruptions but ultimately improved living standards, creating new categories of employment along the way. Farm machinery displaced farmworkers but eventually they found better paying jobs, and today their great-grandchildren may design video games.

But artificial intelligence threatens broad categories of jobs previously seen as safe from automation, such as legal assistants, corporate auditors and investment managers. Large groups of people could become obsolete, suffering the same fate as plow horses after the invention of the tractor.

Read the entire article here.

Is the Gig Economy Working?—For Some, But Not For Most Workers

From this month’s The New Yorker magazine by Nathan Heller:

The American workplace is both a seat of national identity and a site of chronic upheaval and shame. The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.

Support for the new work model has come together swiftly, though, in surprising quarters. On the second day of the most recent Democratic National Convention, in July, members of a four-person panel suggested that gigging life was not only sustainable but the embodiment of today’s progressive values. “It’s all about democratizing capitalism,” Chris Lehane, a strategist in the Clinton Administration and now Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, said during the proceedings, in Philadelphia. David Plouffe, who had managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign before he joined Uber, explained, “Politically, you’re seeing a large contingent of the Obama coalition demanding the sharing economy.” Instead of being pawns in the games of industry, the panelists thought, working Americans could thrive by hiring out skills as they wanted, and putting money in the pockets of peers who had done the same. The power to control one’s working life would return, grassroots style, to the people.

The basis for such confidence was largely demographic. Though statistics about gigging work are few, and general at best, a Pew study last year found that seventy-two per cent of American adults had used one of eleven sharing or on-demand services, and that a third of people under forty-five had used four or more. “To ‘speak millennial,’ you ought to be talking about the sharing economy, because it is core and central to their economic future,” Lehane declared, and many of his political kin have agreed. No other commercial field has lately drawn as deeply from the Democratic brain trust. Yet what does democratized capitalism actually promise a politically unsettled generation? Who are its beneficiaries? At a moment when the nation’s electoral future seems tied to the fate of its jobs, much more than next month’s paycheck depends on the answers.

Read the entire article here.

What the Poverty Rate Tells Us About the Overall Economy

From yesterday’s NYT “The UpShot” Blog by Jared Bernstein:

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau will tell us whether the share of population that’s officially in poverty went up, down or stayed the same in 2013. There’s tons of other data in the release, like the change in the real income for the median household and information on health insurance coverage.

Because the data is a year old, financial markets ignore it. But political markets pay a lot of attention, as do policy analysts and advocates who work on poverty and middle-class economics. And, of course, these being the early days of the Affordable Care Act, the health coverage data will doubtless also get a close look. My own interest is that of the policy wonk who focuses on the nexus between the overall, or macro, economy and living standards of middle- and low-income families.

It’s an important set of numbers. Although one must always be careful not to read too much into one year’s data, 2013 represents the fourth full year of an economic recovery that officially began in the second half of 2009. Yet this recovery has been uniquely unforthcoming for the poor, the unemployed and even many people in the middle class.

Poverty, as officially measured, has held steady at about 15 percent of the population since 2010, and unfortunately, I expect it to do so again this year. I expect the real median household income to do a little better, up by maybe 1 percent.

Why, if I’m right, should the poor and middle class have gained so little by Year 4 of the recovery? That relates to the answer I tend to give when someone asks me how the economy is doing: Whose economy are you talking about?

Yes, various indicators improved in 2013. Real G.D.P. was up, but no faster than the year before (a bit above 2 percent); same with payrolls. And while the unemployment rate fell seven-tenths of a percentage point in 2013, from 8.1 percent to 7.4 percent, more than half of that was from people dropping out of the labor force. That’s not exactly a sign of strength. In fact, the share of the working-age population with a job barely budged last year.

The real wages of low-wage workers were generally as torpid in 2013. For example, if we look at the hourly wage of those in the bottom third of the pay scale, it averaged a bit above $10 per hour over both 2012 and 2013. However, a stagnant low wage is actually an improvement, because real low wages fell sharply earlier in the recovery. And the real median hourly wage went up 1 percent last year, providing a slight bump to the middle class.

Government policy didn’t help much in 2013, though the official poverty rate captures only some of the antipoverty spending by federal and state governments. For example, unemployment insurance benefits are counted, but the value of nutritional support or the earned- income tax credit (a wage subsidy for low-wage earners) is not.

Fiscal drag — fiscal policy that slows economic growth — was actually a big negative last year, taking 1.5 percentage points off economic growth by most estimates. The relevant parts of that policy for low- and middle-income households would include the ending of a tax break for wage earners (the payroll tax holiday) and less in unemployment insurance benefits.

I used statistical models that forecast the 2013 poverty rate based on the movements of the variables discussed above. Because it’s hard to make a case that the rising tide lifted too many rowboats last year, the models I run predict no statistically significant change in the poverty rate. (The rate could tick down a tenth or two, but that would be statistically indistinguishable from no change at all).

That said, there’s some chance the poverty rate will come down more than I expect. First, there’s just the momentum of a cyclical variable: Eventually the recovery sprinkles at least some of its benefits on low-income households and poverty falls a bit.

Also, there were some changes in the composition of the population last year relative to earlier years that could push the rate down. There was slower growth in immigration and a smaller share of the population in mother-only households (both groups have higher-than-average poverty rates).

Finally, inflation was low in 2013, only 1.5 percent, and that means a smaller nominal gain in income becomes a larger real gain. That’s one reason I predict that nominal median household income grew a bit faster than 2 percent last year. So it is possible they eked out a small real gain thanks in part to such minimal price growth. I expect real growth in the median household income in the 0.5 to 1 percent range.

It’s important to put these results in historical context. I expect poverty to still be 2.4 percentage points above its rate of 12.5 percent in 2007; that’s an additional 7.5 million poor. And even if I’m right about the bump in the real median income, it will still be 7.6 percent below the 2007 level, representing a loss of over $4,000.

In other words, if I’m in the ballpark, Tuesday’s release will be another reminder of why many Americans still feel pretty gloomy about the recovery: It hasn’t much reached them.

Summer Job Isn’t What It Used to Be

From NYT “OpTalk” Blog, September 9, 2014 by Anna Altman:

Once upon a time, hard-working high school students who took a summer job or worked part-time during the school year got an edge over their unemployed peers. Not only did they earn some pocket money — which many students saved for college — but they were also likely to see increased earning potential long after they graduated.

Not only that, teenagers would prove their work ethic, make professional connections, increase their self-confidence and become more likely to graduate from high school in the first place.

But according to a recent article by Jessica Leber in Fast Company magazine, a summer paycheck no longer comes with many of these advantages. Ms. Leber cites a study published last month by Charles L. Baum and Christopher J. Ruhm for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study looked at two groups, one of high school students in 1979 and another of students in 1997. It shows that, today, high school seniors who also work 20 hours a week are less likely to have increased earning potential later on than they might have been in 1979.

In concrete terms, the 1979 group was likely to see an 8.3 percent increase in wage-earning capacity, compared with a 4.4 percent increase for the 1997 cohort.

Furthermore, the earlier group was more likely to move into better-paying fields. “Senior year employment was predicted to decrease the probability of subsequently working in the relatively low-paid service sector for the 1979 cohort but to increase it for the 1997 cohort,” Mr. Baum and Mr. Ruhm write. For the latter group, the increase in the likelihood of low-paid service work offset “a portion of the benefit of the early work that otherwise would have occurred.”

Overall, Mr. Baum and Mr. Ruhm’s study concludes that working as a student isn’t what it once was: “Work experience during the high school senior year continues to predict positive effects on labor market outcomes 5-11 years after the expected date of high school graduation, but these beneficial consequences have attenuated fairly dramatically over time.”

That students who work during high school may be at a disadvantage for later earnings seems to confirm the degree to which the economy is proceeding on two tracks: one for low-wage earners, and another for students who are in a financial position to pursue internships or other opportunities that lead to connections.