Unemployment is hovering near a five-decade low, workforce participation is at the highest level in six years and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell recently called the labor market “strong.”
Yet, 44% of Americans age 18 to 64 are low-wage workers with few prospects for improving their lot, according to a Brookings Institution report.
An estimated 53 million Americans are earning low wages, according to the study. That number is more than twice the number of people in the 10 most populous U.S. cities combined, the report notes. The median wage for those workers is $10.22 an hour and their annual pay is $17,950.
Although many are benefiting from high demand for labor, the data indicated that not all new jobs are good, high-paying positions. The definition of “low-wage” differs from place to place. The authors define low-wage workers as those who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage for full-time workers, adjusted for the regional cost of living. For instance, a worker would be considered low wage in Beckley, W.Va., with earnings of $12.54 an hour or less, but in San Jose, Calif., the low wage bar rises to $20.02 an hour.
“We have the largest and longest expansion and job growth in modern history,” Marcela Escobari, coauthor of the report, said in a phone interview. That expansion “is showing up in very different ways to half of the worker population that finds itself unable to move.”
Nearly 1,000 Amazon employees are walking out of work. More than 45,000 GM auto workers are on strike for the fifth day in a row. In October, about 80,000 Kaiser Permanente employees are set to go on strike.
The wave of labor unrest has become a defining feature of the economy since the 2008 Great Recession. In 2018, a record number of employees went on strike: School teachers, hotel workers, health care workers — even Google employees. Most of them were angry about stagnant wages and proposed benefits cuts, but some were just frustrated with company policies.
But all the walkouts have raised the question of what, exactly, counts as a strike and what are the consequences? Is it the same as a walkout? Is it even legal?
I spoke to four labor lawyers across the country to get a better understanding of what legal rights workers have to throw up their hands and walk off the job — and what right a company has to respond.
One law professor pointed out that a walkout to protest government inaction climate change, for example, is not protected under federal labor law because it’s not related to an employee’s working conditions. But if workers walk out because they believe their employer (like, say, Amazon) isn’t doing enough to make the company sustainable, then that would likely be a protected work stoppage.
“If everyone walks out or calls in sick, it’s still a strike,” Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, an employment law professor at Indiana University Bloomington, said to me. Whether or not the law protects workers from getting fired depends on the context.
Drivers for ride-hailing company Uber Technologies Inc are independent contractors and not employees, the general counsel of a U.S. labor agency has concluded, in an advisory memo that is likely to carry significant weight in a pending case against the company and could prevent drivers from joining a union.
The recommendation by the office of general counsel Peter Robb, who was appointed to the National Labor Relations Board by President Donald Trump, was made in a memo dated April 16 and released on Tuesday.
The general counsel said in the memo that Uber drivers set their hours, own their cars and are free to work for the company’s competitors, so they cannot be considered employees under federal labor law.
A ruling on the case is to be made by an NLRB regional director. Advisory memos from the general counsel’s office are generally upheld in rulings. Any decision could be appealed to the NLRB’s five-member board, which is also led by Trump appointees but is independent of the general counsel.
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.