For roughly five years, The New York Times has profiled people with a variety of jobs in its Vocations column. Some of those jobs are unusual, some are mundane, but all are performed by people with stories to tell. For Labor Day, we’re revisiting selected Vocations entries from 2018 to highlight some of the different forms work can take.
Joe Finora is a marine engineer based in New York City who investigates the condition of floating docks and underwater structures. He spoke about some of the hazards he encounters in the depths, such as low visibility and frightening fish.
Jeremy Morris is an actor who plays various 18th Century characters at Colonial Williamsburg. He said his goal is to help visitors understand the social conditions under which black people had to live at that time.
Christina Tan is the state epidemiologist at the New Jersey Department of Health in Trenton. She said that understanding how diseases spread can be data-heavy work, but it is an important component in preventing dangerous epidemics.
From today’s New York Times by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY):
Americans are clamoring for bold changes to our politics and our economy. They feel, rightfully, that both systems are rigged against them, and they made that clear in last year’s election. American families deserve a better deal so that this country works for everyone again, not just the elites and special interests. Today, Democrats will start presenting that better deal to the American people.
There used to be a basic bargain in this country that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could own a home, afford a car, put your kids through college and take a modest vacation every year while putting enough away for a comfortable retirement. In the second half of the 20th century, millions of Americans achieved this solid middle-class lifestyle. I should know — I grew up in that America.
But things have changed.
Today’s working Americans and the young are justified in having greater doubts about the future than any generation since the Depression. Americans believe they’re getting a raw deal from both the economic and political systems in our country. And they are right. The wealthiest special interests can spend an unlimited, undisclosed amount of money to influence elections and protect their special deals in Washington. As a result, our system favors short-term gains for shareholders instead of long-term benefits for workers.
And for far too long, government has gone along, tilting the economic playing field in favor of the wealthy and powerful while putting new burdens on the backs of hard-working Americans.
Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly — so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today. Democrats will show the country that we’re the party on the side of working people — and that we stand for three simple things.
First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.
Over the next several months, Democrats will lay out a series of policies that, if enacted, will make these three things a reality. We’ve already proposed creating jobs with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan; increasing workers’ incomes by lifting the minimum wage to $15; and lowering household costs by providing paid family and sick leave.
Housework is a necessary labor for families, but it is largely unpaid, except when others are hired to do it. Families may pay others to cook, clean or take care of their children, but they don’t pay themselves. This year, Italyconsidered a proposal in which the government, or in some cases the husband or partner, would pay wives for this thankless task. And a few years ago, India considered a similar bill.
Should the family member who does most of the housekeeping be compensated?
Read different perspectives on this provocative question here.
From today’s NYT “Politics” section by Michael Shear and Steven Greenhouse:
President Obama is expected to sign an executive order on Thursday that could make it harder for companies that violate wage, labor and anti-discrimination laws to win federal contracts, administration officials said on Wednesday.
Under the order, Mr. Obama will require federal contractors to disclose any labor violations that their companies committed over the previous three years, with government procurement officials then being advised to steer clear of those with repeated and egregious violations.
“The president’s view is that taxpayer dollars should not reward corporations that break the law,” said an administration official, who insisted on anonymity because the executive order had not yet been issued. The order would affect about $500 billion a year in contracts like those awarded to make Navy uniforms and run federal cafeterias.
Part-time jobs often come with fluctuating, on-call schedules and – because of the uncertain hours – inconsistent pay. This can make it hard for workers to schedule weekly routines, childcare or other means of employment for themselves.
Legislation in the House, proposed this week, would ensure employees get two weeks notice about their work schedules, as well as extra pay to compensate for last minute changes.
Should there be a law limiting unpredictable schedules for hourly and part-time workers?
The American work force has been growing polarized for decades. On one end, there are highly skilled jobs like writing software or performing surgery, and on the other are service jobs like child care and cutting hair. The jobs in the middle, meanwhile, such as factory work, sales and bookkeeping, are shrinking — one of the reasons for the economy’s slow climb out of the recession.
Where did those jobs go? Part of the answer lies in Silicon Valley. It is no coincidence that many of those jobs entail the same repetitive tasks that computers, robots and other machines are uniquely suited to perform, from robots loading conveyor belts in factories to Kayak.com selling airline tickets.
A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows how the recession accelerated the displacement of these midwage jobs. As technology now encroaches on jobs that people assumed would always belong to humans, it is useful to consider those most affected by the job displacement so far: the young, the less educated and men.
A lot of economic research has focused on the polarization of jobs, notably by David Autor of M.I.T. He differentiates between routine tasks that follow well-defined procedures — the kind of midwage jobs that computers have become so good at — and nonroutine ones that require flexibility, problem-solving and human interaction.
The new study, which analyzed data from the Current Population Survey from 1976 to 2012, illustrates that the recession had a disproportionately large effect on routine jobs, and greatly sped up their loss. That is probably because even if a new technology is cheaper and more efficient than a human laborer, bosses are unlikely to fire employees and replace them with computers when times are good. The recession, however, gave them a motive. And the people who lost those jobs are generally unable to find new ones, said Henry E. Siu, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and an author of the study.
Young people and those with only a high school diploma are much more likely to be unemployed and replaced by a machine, he said. And to the authors’ surprise, men are more vulnerable than women.
“When you look at data, women who would otherwise be finding middle-paying routine jobs tend to be moving up the job ladder to these higher-paying brain jobs, whereas men are much more likely to just be moving from blue-collar jobs into not finding a job,” said Mr. Siu, who wrote the study with Guido Matias Cortes of the University of Manchester, Nir Jaimovich of Duke University and Christopher J. Nekarda of the Federal Reserve in Washington.
The changing demographics in the United States play a small role in the loss of midwage jobs, as do policies related to offshoring, unions and the minimum wage. But the study found that two-thirds of the decline in routine jobs is explained by a drop in the number of unemployed people who can get these jobs, and an increase in the number of people who had these jobs and lost them.
And the driver behind those shifts is technology.
“Over the very long run, technological progress is good for everybody, but over shorter time horizons, it’s not that everybody’s a winner,” Mr. Siu said. “Certain demographic groups like the young and less educated in another world would be doing fine, but in today’s world are not.”
The line between jobs that are considered routine and able to be done by a machine and those that require a human brain is a blurry one and becoming blurrier, said Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of M.I.T., authors of “The Second Machine Age.”
“There are examples up and down the spectrum,” Mr. Brynjolfsson said. “It’s a process of scientific discovery. It’s not like we know exactly which task will be next to automate.”
Already, machines are learning to do certain jobs that once seemed confined to humans, from elder care to wealth management to art. The question is what will happen if these jobs also disappear.
From NYT’s “Business Day” by ALICIA PARLAPIANO, SHAILA DEWAN and NELSON D. SCHWARTZ:
In the five years since the United States began its slow climb out of the deepest recession since the 1930s, the job market has undergone a substantial makeover. The middle class has lost ground as the greatest gains have occurred at the top and bottom of the pay scale, leaving even many working Americans living in poverty. The housing industry, once the primary engine of growth and a fountain of jobs, has shrunk, while health care, technology and energy have led the recovery.
After a long climb from the valley, the number of jobs has finally reached the previous peak of January 2008, with gains of more than 8.5 million jobs since early 2010. Still, the working-age population has grown substantially in the last six years, and the nation’s economy, by reliable estimates, is at least seven million jobs below its potential. That has cost Americans hundreds of billions of dollars in lost output.
With the weak recovery from the recession, more than four million people are still considered among the long-term unemployed, out of work for at least half a year. They face considerably dimmer prospects of finding another job as their skills deteriorate and their contact with the world of work fades.
And that does not count the more than six million who have opted out of the labor force altogether, even taking into account demographic factors like the aging of the population.
Economists hope that many such people will be lured back to work as business improves and that wages will rise as the labor market tightens. But for now, the slack in the economy has served to hold down pay; wages for roughly four-fifths of American workers have declined since 2007, after adjusting for inflation.
From the New York Times blog “The Great Divide” by Corey Robin:
Midterm elections are like fancy software: Experts love them, end-users couldn’t care less. But if the 2010 elections are any indication, we might not want to doze off as we head into the summer months before November. Midterm elections at the state level can have tremendous consequences, especially for low-wage workers. What you don’t know can hurt you — or them.
In 2010, the Republicans won control of the executive and legislative branches in 11 states (there are now more than 20 such states). Inspired by business groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, they proceeded to rewrite the rules of work, passing legislation designed to enhance the position of employers at the expense of employees.
The University of Oregon political scientist Gordon Lafer, who wrote an eye-opening report on this topic last October for the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, looked at dozens of bills affecting workers. The legislation involved unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, child labor, collective bargaining, sick days, even meal breaks. Despite frequent Republican claims to be defending local customs and individual liberty, Mr. Lafer found a “cookie-cutter” pattern to their legislation. Not only did it consistently favor employers over workers, it also tilted toward big government over local government. And it often abridged the economic rights of individuals.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has done the unthinkable by proposing rule changes in the Senate to restrict filibusters. The proposed change has been considered before by both parties at different times but rejected on the grounds that lacking an effective procedural tool like the filibuster would make it impossible for the opposition party to stop, or least constrain, the ruling party from doing anything it likes. The political winds of fortune change, so for the sake of fair play, filibuster rules have been left alone.
No longer. The proximate cause of the proposed change by the Democratic leadership is an opposition party that is not only uninterested in governing, but positively antagonistic about bipartisan compromise for the sake of it. As a result, the Senate remains a legislative body ground down by gridlock with tempers flaring on both sides of the aisle.
The immediate cause is a prime example of the Republican Party’s intransigence, however. Party loyalists in Congress have publicly declared they will do everything in their power to frustrate Obama’s presidency out of sheer (sometimes racially motivated) animus. In the Senate the filibuster has been used time and again to block executive appointments made by President Obama, ranging from federal judges to independent agencies like the National Labor Relations Board. For Obama’s entire presidency the NLRB has functioned without full membership because Republican Senators have misused and abused the power of the filibuster to deny hearings for his nominees. This means, in effect, that for the last five years hundreds of labor disputes have gone unmediated, which is the principle role of the board.
Republican opposition to the NLRB intensified in 2011 following its ruling against Boeing’s attempt to move large swaths of its manufacturing from Washington to South Carolina where unions are not as strong and labor laws are more permissive. The ruling angered Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC-R), who is anti-labor and pro-business. He claimed the NLRB is “the Grim Reaper of job creation,” even though we all know from the Great Recession that the real killer of jobs in this country is Graham’s own deregulatory economics. Opposition to Obama’s nominees to the NLRB is fundamentally about the Republican Party’s mission to dismantle much of the progress made by New Deal policies following the Great Depression, including laws that regulate the financial sector from doing its part in causing the Great Recession.
Craig Becker is a labor lawyer for the AFL-CIO and former board member of the NLRB: “There’s a breakdown of what used to be a consensus that the workers should have a right to organize, that this should be protected by the government, and that collective bargaining is a good thing for the country.”
The politics of labor runs both ways, however. Democrats used similar means during George Bush’s presidency to deny political appointments to the NLRB, fearing Bush’s anti-labor appointments would hurt American workers. Now that the tales of have turned, Democrats are understandably tired of taking the blame for America’s problems, a theme Republicans are constantly harping on but bear much responsibility for as well. The stakes are much higher in the current showdown because if nominees are not appointed the board will stop functioning.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesperson, put the point this way: “Republicans want to make this an ideological fight in an effort to dismantle the agency. If the Senate fails to act, the board will lose a quorum in August and be unable to function, which is exactly what Republicans are seeking.”
Sen. Reid’s announcement marks a sharp reversal from the Democratic Party’s usual cowardice and glad-handing. This is an important stand to take as the NLRB protects workers’ rights, and is one of the few means workers, unions, and corporations have for mediating and resolving disputes. Without the oversight of the board, how will disputes get settled? Perhaps Republicans want to return to the pre-NLRB era when disputes were settled by cat strikes, walkouts, and violence. The party is pro-forma in favor of settling disputes with the gun, and without laws to protect their rights, perhaps workers should demand employers respect their rights by arming themselves. How would this change Republicans’ views on gun control?
The Labor Department is reporting that the economy added 200,000 jobs in June, beating the expectations of analysts by about 35,000 jobs. The effective rate of unemployment remained the same at 7.6 percent, indicating that the better-than-expected performance is still inadequate for improving the jobless economic recovery.
Although Wall Street was anticipating the labor report in the hopes that it would signal a healthier economy, the figures and forecasting remain mismatched. The American economy has struggled to improve employment for the millions of individuals who remain out of work. In addition, most workers finding new jobs are discovering that they are worth less now than they were before the Great Recession.
In the New York Times today one worker reported that the inflated expectations of economists did not match her own diminished expectations regarding employment and wages. Sharon MacGregor, 42, of Paterson NJ, like so millions of other Americans who are out of work, is willing to work for much less than she used to earn. With a BA in psychology and 20 years of experience as a graphic designer, she has discovered in this labor market that experience and wages no longer match up.
“Seven years ago, I was making $63,000 a year,” MacGregor said. “If I asked for that now, forget it. I don’t want to work for so much less but I would, just to get back on the market and not to have a gap in my résumé,” she said.
The news from the labor department also prompted investors worrying about the Fed’s recent news that it would begin scaling back the stimulus money it has been pumping into the economy. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke last week said it would quit buying bonds when the unemployment rate hit 7 percent. However, an analysis of unemployment figures over the last year show that the unemployment rate has only dropped .06 of a percent since June 2012. At that rate, it will take another year for the struggling economy to reach a point where the Fed bond-buying program will end.
This is bad news for workers and investors alike. Workers are finding less employment opportunities and less well-paying jobs than before the financial collapse. Investors are finding less opportunities for profits that include job creation, which means most the profit now being generated by companies is dependent on doing more-with-less and shifting the financial burden onto workers desperate for jobs even if they pay less than their experience and skill set demanded several years ago.
Despite the glad-handing talk of economists and politicians alike that the American economy is vital and remains sound, the fact is that overall growth in economic output has been terrible. In the first quarter of this year, for example, the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.8 percent, well short of what is needed to create jobs, bring down the unemployment level significantly, and ensure what jobs are being added are good paying ones that will stimulate growth by encouraging consumers to spend.