Abstract: The Social Construction of Deserved Wage: How Do Low-Wage Hospital Workers Respond to Income Inequality? (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Social Construction of Deserved Wage: How Do Low-Wage Hospital Workers Respond to Income Inequality?

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Independence BR F, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Sara Goodkind, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Kess Ballentine, MA, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Sandra Wexler, PhD, Consultant, University of Pittsburgh, PA
Adela Waton, BA, Masters Student, University of Pittsburgh, PA
Jeffrey Shook, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, PA
Rafael Engel, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose:

In American culture, income is viewed as an indicator of individual value. Vast income inequality and stagnating wages mean that much American work is undervalued. While the Fight for $15 has created important progress in increasing wages for low-wage workers, it has neither provided a livable income for most workers nor been fully accepted by economists and policymakers. Academic and public discussions feature perspectives of employers and policymakers but rarely present workers’ understandings of the importance of their work, attributions regarding the meaning of their low wages, or beliefs about what wages they deserve. In a study of low-wage hospital workers examining the effects of wage increases, the concept of “deserved” wage emerged. This presentation presents this finding and its implications.


This presentation is based upon in-depth interviews with low-wage hospital workers in a union for clerical, technical, and service workers whose contract includes incremental wage increases ensuring a $15/hour minimum wage by 2020. Data were collected across two waves with 69 unique responses. Interviews were conducted by trained interviewers as part of a larger mixed-methods study. The sample was primarily Black (51%) and White (47%) and mostly female (71%), with an average age of 46 (range 22-70) and an average wage of $15.20 per hour. A codebook was developed inductively and collaboratively by the research team and was tested, refined, and applied with high interrater reliability. Interviews were coded and analyzed using NVivo 11. These analyses resulted from preliminary coding with the codebook and subsequent iterative coding.


The idea of a “deserved wage” was raised by many participants early in the study such that it was then explored further through semi-structured interviewing strategies. In the second wave, a general question about “deserved wage” was included. Three themes emerged related to deserved wages. First, participants articulated a clear “deserved wage” construct that related to their foundational role in the broader system of the hospital and community (e.g., caregiving, suppressing infection rates) as well as their specialized training. Second, participants connected to more general arguments for conceptualizing a deserved wage including the role of experience and workplace commitment. Finally, workers related a social justice argument deeply rooted in awareness of both racial and income inequality whereby being paid a deserved wage would ameliorate the injustices of dehumanization and exploitation they currently experience.

Conclusions and Implications:

Workers have unique insight into their experiences and offer a compelling argument for the value of their work. Hospital settings are unique in the broader literature on low-wage workers due to the specialized nature of the work, the fact that employers are not-for-profit, and the reality that many of the most serious community health outcomes, such as infection rates, are truly in the hands of low-wage workers – which workers in this sample reference as a reason that they should be more highly valued. Their concept of a deserved wage eloquently illustrates the continued relevance of unions and of organizing for social work and particularly for the lives of marginalized people.