Improving the Conditions of Low-Wage and at-Risk Employment: Identifying the Problems and Their Solutions

Friday, January 16, 2015: 4:30 PM-6:15 PM
Balconies J, Fourth Floor (New Orleans Marriott)
Cluster: Work, Family, and Family Policy
Symposium Organizer:
Anna Haley-Lock, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Anna Haley-Lock, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Social workers have a long history of fighting for just and humane work conditions for vulnerable workers, and social work researchers have meaningfully contributed to the growing scholarly attention to the impacts of employment vulnerability on individual, family, and societal welfare.  This collection of papers aligns with that focus, investigating both wage and non-wage employment supports – such as paid sick days, retirement benefits, subsidized health and disability insurance, job flexibility, and job training – for three purposes: to illuminate variation in the availability of strong wages and other benefits across jobs and workers; to examine economic and other impacts of their availability, or lack thereof; and to consider private and public approaches to promoting access to good pay and other benefits, and thus enhancing the well-being of low-wage and displaced middle-wage workers.

Jobs toward the bottom of the U.S. labor market are increasingly precarious in many respects, including being contingent, “non-regular” or temporary status, involuntarily part-time, and lacking stable eligibility for fringe benefits (Bernhardt, et al, 2009; Kalleberg, 2009; Lambert, et al, 2012). Concurrently, the decline of the US manufacturing industry has placed many formerly economically secure middle-wage workers into the high risk status of having to rebuild their skills and careers at a time when surviving American firms decreasingly offer job training and mobility opportunities. In both cases, wages but also a range of other supports can play a large role in determining whether a worker can thrive in, or move on successfully from, a job. We consider these features of U.S. employment within a current political context that emphasizes pay rates, including raising the minimum wage; yet the research presented in this panel suggests that an array of factors in addition to wages can “make or break” the financial sustainability of employment for workers, especially those with limited access to compensating resources outside of the workplace.  

The first paper reviews discretionary employer provision of paid sick days, retirement benefits, subsidized health and disability insurance, and job flexibility that, when absent, limit low- and middle-wage workers’ capacity for asset development over time. The second paper examines the prevalence and correlates of “job lock” – the phenomenon of workers’ being dissatisfied with their jobs, but locked into them due to dependence on employer-provided health insurance – among a nationally representative sample of the American workforce.  The third piece investigates the extent to which human capital investments and assets, along with household economic vulnerability, predict financial well-being for apparel manufacturing workers 10 years after being laid-off, even after workers were given severance packages and job training in preparation for new employment. The last paper draws on an ongoing evaluation of Seattle’s recently-adopted paid sick and safe days ordinance to examine barriers to workers’ access to the benefit even in the face of a legal mandate for its provision. Each paper reviews employment provisions that critically shape individual and family outcomes from work. In turn, the papers explore workplace and public policy strategies for promoting the financial viability of jobs.

* noted as presenting author
A Job Is More Than Income: The Role of Employment Capital in Producing Long-Term Financial Stability
Hannah Thomas, PhD, Brandeis University; Janet Boguslaw, PhD, Brandeis University; Sara Chaganti, MA, Brandeis University
The Challenge of Finding Good Jobs in Hard Times: A 10-Year Follow-up of Displaced Apparel Manufacturing Workers
Cynthia Rocha, PhD, University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Steven Stothard, MSW, University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Denise Denton, MSW, University of Tennessee, Knoxville; K.B. Martin, PhD, Tennessee Technological University
Protecting Health and Pocketbooks? Early Outcomes of the Seattle Paid Sick & Safe Days Ordinance
Jennifer L. Romich, PhD, University of Washington; Tracy Brazg, MSW, University of Washington; Chantel Johnson, MSW, University of Washington
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