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.

In the Fight Against Poverty, Work Is Our Most Powerful Weapon

From today’s Harvard Business Review by Leila Janah:

Fourteen years ago, I left suburban Los Angeles to teach English in rural Ghana. I’d expected, like so many young people with bleeding hearts and big dreams, to make a difference by donating my time as a schoolteacher for six months. Upon arrival in the village, I was shocked to discover that my students, avid listeners of Voice of America and BBC radio, already spoke English quite well, and some could speak to me about President Clinton’s state visit to Africa. These were blind or partially sighted kids from families earning less than $3 a day.

How was this possible? I’d learned from countless TV specials on war and poverty in the continent that Africans needed aid. They needed us to send food and clothes and to build wells and schools. But on the ground, almost every poor person I spoke to told me the same thing: “We don’t want aid, we want work.” I spent the next four years studying development economics at Harvard, designing a special major to focus on African development, and later working at the World Bank to further understand the problem of poverty and how to fix it.

My conclusion after all this time isn’t so novel. But it bears repeating because we’ve lost our way: Work is the most powerful weapon we have to fight poverty and all its downstream effects, from child malnutrition to maternal mortality, both domestically and abroad. We need to modernize workforce training, incentivize companies to hire low-income people, and encourage consumers to support those organizations that #GiveWork, not aid.

Last year, the 2,000 largest companies spent an estimated $12 trillion on goods and services, a lot of it directed to suppliers that mine or harvest raw materials or make and grow things in poor countries. The fair trade movement was a strong first step in working to access these reserves of capital to fund poverty reduction directly. Started in the 1950s, it pushed purveyors of commodity goods like coffee, chocolate, sugar, and cotton to adhere to a rigorous set of core principles, including deliberately working in marginalized communities and paying living wages. And the results have been good. For example, Starbucks sources all its European espresso beans from fair trade certified producers, and Dutch company Fairphone sells the world’s first entirely fair trade Android phone, with batteries made from ethically mined minerals.

But I believe we now need something broader and simpler to mobilize companies and consumers to think differently about aid: a model called “impact sourcing,” which pushes for workforces (whether directly employed or employed through suppliers) to be economically diverse enough to include some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. This shift could, by our estimation, lift millions out of poverty in a single year.

Read the entire article here.

American households finally earn more than they did in 1999, but poverty and inequality are on the rise

From today’s Los Angeles Times “Business” section by Don Lee:

Income inequality

After a long period of plodding economic growth, significant earnings gains over the past two years have finally enabled the average American household to surpass the peak income level it reached in 1999.

The median household income in the U.S. climbed to $59,039 last year, up 3.2% from 2015 after adjusting for inflation, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

That comes on the heels of a 5.2% jump in income in 2015, the highest annual percentage increase on record.

The back-to-back increases brought the median income — in which half of households earn more and half less — above the previous peak of $58,665 in 1999.

The median household income in California rose 3.4% last year to $66,637, surpassing the earlier high of $65,852 in 2006.

The national measure of poor people in America also improved significantly for the second year in a row: The poverty rate fell last year to 12.7%, from 13.5% in 2015 and 14.8% in 2014.

That translates into a decline of about 6 million people in poverty over the last two years.

The latest poverty rate is comparable to 2007, the year before the Great Recession took hold. But there were still 40.6 million poor people in the nation last year. A household with two adults and two children is considered poor if their total income was less than $24,339.

“We consider 2015 and 2016 to be the turning point on the real median household income front, as employment and wage gains, combined with modest consumer price inflation, have boosted the well-being of many American households,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., executive director of IHS Markit, an economic research firm.

“Real median household income has finally completed its nine-year slog of digging out of the ditch,” he said.

But the annual Census report was not as glowing beneath the surface, and economists are concerned that budget proposals curtailing things like food stamps could thwart continuing progress.

The impact of Trump’s promised tax reform could also change trends for the poor and middle class.

While the latest data showed solid gains for blacks and Latinos and younger adults, median incomes for full-time, year-round workers, men and women, were essentially flat in 2016, reflecting sluggish wage growth that has persisted into this year.

What’s more, a key measure of income disparity remains at the highest level in at least a half century.

And although the median income for urban dwellers jumped 5.4% last year to $61,521, households in rural areas saw their earnings basically stagnate at less than $46,000.

Read the entire article here.

Class Actions Lawsuits by Women Could Fight Discrimination in Tech Industry

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Anita Hill:

The recent leak of a Google engineer’s screed against the company’s diversity initiatives is a reminder that the notion of Silicon Valley as the seat of human progress is a myth — at least when it comes to way the women behind the latest in technology are treated.

The tech industry is stuck in the past, more closely resembling “Mad Men”-era Madison Avenue or 1980s Wall Street than a modern egalitarian society. It may take the force of our legal system to change that.

The leaked memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” called on the company to abandon its efforts for gender diversity and replace them with a focus on “ideological diversity.” The author even claimed that biological differences make women poorly suited to engineering. While the document may be unusual in its explicit embrace of this kind of backward thinking, the attitudes that underlie it are nothing new in Silicon Valley. Google’s decision to fire the employee responsible for the memo neither dispels the notion that a systemic problem exists nor solves it.

Since a former Uber employee published her blog post detailing her experience with the ride-sharing company’s toxic, male-dominated culture, a stream of female coders, engineers and others have come forward to discuss their experiences with sexual harassment and hostile, discriminatory workplace cultures. Companies like Google, Tesla, Twitter, Microsoft and Oracle face allegations of sexism in the form of individual lawsuits and Labor Department inquiries.

Sadly, these types of cases represent only one element of the industrywide discrimination against women in tech. There’s also an alarming gap in pay and promotions, which has devastating effects on women’s careers.

Read the entire editorial here.

In Sweltering South, Climate Change Is Now a Workplace Hazard

From today’s New York Times by Yamiche Alcindor

GALVESTON, Tex. — Adolfo Guerra, a landscaper in this port city on the Gulf of Mexico, remembers panicking as his co-worker vomited and convulsed after hours of mowing lawns in stifling heat. Other workers rushed to cover him with ice, and the man recovered.

But for Mr. Guerra, 24, who spends nine hours a day six days a week doing yard work, the episode was a reminder of the dangers that exist for outdoor workers as the planet warms.

“I think about the climate every day,” Mr. Guerra said, “because every day we work, and every day it feels like it’s getting hotter.”

For many working class people, President Trump’s promise to make America great again conjured images of revived factories and resurgent industries, fueled by coal and other cheap fossil fuels. Such workers gave more of their votes to Mr. Trump than they did four years before to Mitt Romney, helping him eke out victory in November with narrow wins across the Rust Belt. Latino votes fell off for Democrats as well,from the 71 percent that went to Barack Obama in 2012 to the 66 percent that went for Hillary Clinton last year.

But to Robert D. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who some call the “father of environmental justice,” the industrial revival that Mr. Trump has promised could come with some serious downsides for an already warming planet. Professor Bullard is trying to bring that message to working-class Americans like Mr. Guerra, and to environmental organizations that have, in his mind, been more focused on struggling animals than poor humans, who have been disproportionately harmed by increasing temperatures, worsening storms and rising sea levels.

Read the entire article 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.

A New Kind of Tech Job Emphasizes Skills, Not a College Degree

From today’s New York Times by Steve Lohr:

ROCKET CENTER, W.Va. — A few years ago, Sean Bridges lived with his mother, Linda, in Wiley Ford, W.Va. Their only income was her monthly Social Security disability check. He applied for work at Walmart and Burger King, but they were not hiring.

Yet while Mr. Bridges had no work history, he had certain skills. He had built and sold some stripped-down personal computers, and he had studied information technology at a community college. When Mr. Bridges heard IBM was hiring at a nearby operations center in 2013, he applied and demonstrated those skills.

Now Mr. Bridges, 25, is a computer security analyst, making $45,000 a year. In a struggling Appalachian economy, that is enough to provide him with his own apartment, a car, spending money — and career ambitions.

“I got one big break,” he said. “That’s what I needed.”

Mr. Bridges represents a new but promising category in the American labor market: people working in so-called new-collar or middle-skill jobs. As the United States struggles with how to match good jobs to the two-thirds of adults who do not have a four-year college degree, his experience shows how a worker’s skills can be emphasized over traditional hiring filters like college degrees, work history and personal references. And elevating skills over pedigree creates new pathways to employment and tailored training and a gateway to the middle class.

Read the complete article here.