American workers deserve better and it starts with treating them as persons.
We recently passed the one-year mark since the onset of the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns in America, and still much about the future of work in our country remains uncertain. Shifting work culture and questions about the future of workers’ rights and workers’ autonomy, including the ability for some to continue working from home, ensure that there is no clear picture of what the post-pandemic workplace will look like. In addition, ongoing conversations regarding the federal minimum wage cast additional layers of uncertainty in the fight for fairer workers’ protections. Particularly in light of Employee Appreciation Day earlier this month, all of these unknowns seem to beg the question: does America actually appreciate its workers?
If we have learned anything from our experience living through the pandemic, it is perhaps this: employees, on the whole, require greater protections in the workplace. The spread of a deadly disease has proven the importance of mandated sick leave for all workers; a lack of workplace protections for many overlooked essential workers, like those in restaurants, grocery stores, and nursing homes, have become apparent; and the fact that many laid-off workers were able to earn more on unemployment for a period of time than they would at their jobs demonstrates the necessity of raising the federal minimum wage.
Given these realities, it’s clear that much work is left to be done to ensure a brighter post-pandemic future for American workers, who have carried the weight of the pandemic on their shoulders perhaps most heavily. Further, we can look to sustainable businesses as a model for the workplace in guaranteeing greater workers’ rights and autonomy and ensuring that employees are empowered to thrive.
Why The Way Our Workers Are Treated Isn’t Working
As we learned early on in the pandemic, many of our country’s workers are not adequately shielded in the face of unforeseen events that disrupt everyday work, including a personal health crisis, a debilitating life event, or, in this case, a global pandemic. This is most clearly evidenced by the experiences of our frontline essential workers, such as those working in grocery stores and retail, bus drivers, health and nursing aides, and those in cleaning services. Essential workers who kept their jobs may have early on received a form of “hazard pay” from their employers, but are now largely overlooked despite the ongoing threat of the virus. And according to a 2018 study, nearly half of these workers are earning less than a livable wage to support a family. (Brookings) Essential workers are also more unlikely to have healthcare than non-essential workers, with 13% of essential workers uninsured compared to 8% of non-essential workers. (PR Newswire)
Yet perhaps the most glaring example of workers “falling through the cracks” is that of gig economy workers, who are self-employed and don’t receive employer-sponsored benefits like healthcare, paid time off, or job security, as well as other protected rights of employees like workplace anti-discrimination. Many of these essential gig economy workers, such as those working for Shipt, Instacart, and Uber Eats, played a critical role during lockdowns by delivering food and groceries to Americans, but “struggled to get protective equipment, like masks and gloves” to complete their deliveries. (WEMU) Unfortunately, while gig workers are afforded greater flexibility to choose and set their own working hours, the gig work structure often “shifts power away from workers toward corporations, and employers often use them as a way to avoid complying with labor laws.” (Center for American Progress 1)
There is also the glaring reality before us that our federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, which is being deliberated in Congress, is both unlivable, outdated, and unjust. As we’ve explored in previous articles, the current minimum wage is worth 28.6 percent less than it was in 1968. (Economic Policy Institute) Perhaps more telling is the reality that a minimum wage earner cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S., nor can they afford a one-bedroom apartment in 95% of U.S. counties. (CNBC) Further, nearly three-quarters of Americans enrolled in major public benefit programs, including SNAP and Medicaid, come from working families, evidence that minimum and low-wage “paychecks do not generate enough income to provide for life’s basic necessities.” (UC Berkeley Labor Center)
The Sustainable Business Model & Steps to a Better Future for Workers
How can we address these problems that afflict a substantial segment of the workforce? For starters, we can turn to sustainable businesses as a model for better treatment of workers and more worker-friendly business practices.
As sustainable businesses aim to create shared value and tend to be mission-driven, employees are treated as important stakeholders, which contrasts with the traditional business model of primarily serving the needs of shareholders. Because employees are as important–if not more important, in some instances–as shareholders, sustainable businesses are more attuned to employee feedback and tend to create workplace environments with increased worker autonomy. Employees who work within these businesses also tend to feel a greater sense of purpose and increased morale, which improves productivity and employee retention. By embracing triple bottom line business practices and creating value for all stakeholders, sustainable businesses also appear to be “better positioned to anticipate and react to economic, social, environmental, and regulatory changes as they arise.” (Harvard Business Review)
Sustainable businesses also embrace a critical business practice that boosts employee retention and makes a company more likely to thrive: offering employees a fair, livable wage. Businesses who invest in their employees with higher wages not only reduce employee absenteeism and turnover, but also recognize that employees are customers, too, who are more likely to frequent their business and other small businesses when they have more spending money in their pockets. (American Sustainable Business Council)
Certainly, there are other actions needed on the federal level to protect workers and lift low-wage employees out of poverty. As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, universal healthcare is absolutely essential for all Americans, as even those with insurance are at risk of serious, or even catastrophic, financial burdens when a serious health event occurs. As we’ve also noted, many workers, including the self-employed, are not guaranteed healthcare by their employers and must choose between being uninsured or paying for coverage they can scarcely afford. Further, healthcare attached to employment only ensures that workers are in a more precarious position than those of other highly developed nations, as workers may be less likely to leave their places of employment for entrepreneurial ventures or other reasons, and losing one’s job could potentially be a death sentence if it means also losing one’s healthcare coverage.
As we alluded to earlier, raising the minimum wage also ought to be considered. Studies indicate, raising the minimum wage to $15/hour would lead to wage increases for more 28 million workers, where the average affected worker who works full-time would see a $3,900 increase in annual wages, “equal to a raise of 20.9 percent.” Overall, though, raising the minimum wage to $15/hour would “directly or indirectly lift wages for 39.7 million workers,” which constitutes about a quarter of the wage-earning workforce. (Economic Policy Institute) This would be particularly crucial in lifting working Americans out of poverty, especially Black and Hispanic workers, who are disproportionately employed in these jobs. (Center for American Progress 2)
While some promising efforts are in the works, such as movements to raise the minimum wage, the pandemic has more clearly revealed the inherent flaws in our system that put our country’s employees at a relative disadvantage compared with those of other highly developed countries. Appreciating employees with company initiatives that aim to boost employee engagement is a good start, but a better solution is raising wages, increasing employee autonomy, and ensuring all Americans have access to high quality, affordable healthcare. In responding to our original question–whether America actually appreciates its workers–we would answer with the following: there is significant room for improvement.
Center for American Progress 1
Economic Policy Institute
UC Berkeley Labor Center
Harvard Business Review
American Sustainable Business Council
Center for American Progress 2
Image Credit: Created by, Ted Eytan. Used under license