Historically, so-called labor shortages have resulted in public policies targeted at training workers for existing jobs or creating new pools of labor for employers, e.g., TANF increased the pool of mothers with young children 'willing' to take low-paid jobs. The last time the US had a sustained focus on improving jobs was in the 1930s with the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act. But now, the Biden-Harris Administration has rekindled this focus with their mantra of 'Build Back Better.' The four papers in this symposium take up the charge to use this moment to advance knowledge and policy to improve jobs and, essential to a social work approach, to reduce gendered and racialized disparities in employment.
We begin by providing an overview of the state of job quality during the pandemic. Two papers provide original survey data on diverse markers of job quality during the pandemic, revealing the prevalence and unequal distribution of problematic conditions by worker race and gender and by industry. These papers provide a framework and metrics to gauge possible improvements to qualities of jobs that matter to today's workers. The other two papers unpack the role that employment standards can play in protecting job quality during times of economic and social uncertainty. Drawing on interviews with frontline food service and retail managers in Seattle and Chicago, the third paper examines variation in managers' implementation of fair workweek laws to identify the organizational conditions that smoothed implementation during the pandemic and the conditions that served as barriers to effective implementation, in turn undermining job quality. The final paper addresses a growing barrier to the enactment of employment standards and thus to improved job quality: state-level preemption laws that prohibit municipalities from enacting standards above those set by the state. The penetration of these laws in Southern states is a concrete example of the racialization of employment protections and estimates of lost earnings a warning of the cost of new forms of discrimination to workers, families, and communities. Together, the papers provide conceptual tools and information useful for increasing social workers' participation in research and policy to improve job quality for all.