A Better Way to Think about the Future of Work (Episode 47)

A Better Way to Think about the Future of Work (Episode 47)

Date: 31 May 2018 | posted in: Building Local Power, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
Sarita Gupta, 10th December 2015 – Washington, DC.
***Official Department of Labor Photograph***

When we talk about the future of work, the conversation often focuses on automation and how robots are going to eliminate all of the jobs. Our guest on the Building Local Power podcastSarita Gupta, says that those predictions are often overblown and they can distract us from confronting deeper and more pressing issues about the changing nature of work and the ability of working people to improve their jobs through organizing and policy change.

Gupta is the executive director of Jobs With Justice and co-founder of Caring Across Generations. This week she sat down with ILSR co-director Stacy Mitchell to discuss these issues.

One of the most significant is the explosive growth of contingent work — freelance, temporary, and “gig” jobs, such as delivering packages for Amazon or walking dogs via Wag. These alternative work arrangements are undermining families and communities as people struggle to stitch together multiple jobs while also caring for their families. Gupta points to state and federal labor law reforms that are needed to ensure that companies properly classify employees and that contingent workers have the same rights to organize as regular employees.

A highlight of the episode is the discussion of the care economy. With Baby Boomers aging and the large Millennial generation beginning to have children, Gupta says we have a huge opportunity to tackle several critical problems at once. Now is a great moment, she says, to“rethink our whole care system and really acknowledge the opportunities to create good quality jobs, better supports for working women and men who do have caregiving responsibilities, and to create more affordable and accessible care options for families so they can make sure that their loved ones are living, working, aging with dignity.”

States have a critical policy-making role in helping bring about this vision, Gupta says. She points to a landmark law in Hawai’i that supports caregivers so they can stay in their jobs while continuing to care for their loved ones. The law is helping foster a caregiving sector that is more family- and community-scaled.

Other highlights include Gupta’s discussion of how work in the retail and service industry is often labeled “low-skill” to justify low wages, much as auto work was once labeled low-skill before the industry was unionized; the lessons we can learn from the teachers’ strikes; and how cities are taking the lead in designing policies to protect retail workers from unpredictable scheduling.

“The teacher strikes across the country are so inspiring right now. These are working people who are not only fighting for better wages and benefits, but they are fighting for more funding in the education system. And they’re all in right-to-work states… That that doesn’t stop working women and men from taking action and speaking up and voicing what they believe is needed I think is a hopeful sign of people being able to have a real voice in our democracy.” — Sarita Gupta

Throughout the conversation, Sarita and Stacy mention research and reporting on the the future of work and worker’s rights in America:

  • Jobs With Justice — Sarita’s organization, Jobs with Justice, has been winning campaigns that build power for working people; advancing a sustainable and powerful network of grassroots coalitions; supporting the growth and leadership of local leaders and activists; and developing strategic alliances nationally and globally that strengthen the movement for workers’ rights, economic justice, and our democracy.
  • Caring Across Generations — Sarita is also a co-director of this organization whose mission is as, “A movement of Americans of all ages and backgrounds, sparking connections across generations and strengthening family and caregiving relationships.”
  • Leading the Fight for Jobs With Justice — Kimberly Mitchell is a single mother who works as a senior make-up artist at Macy’s in Washington, D.C. She is one of many people across the country engaged with Jobs With Justice in leading campaigns that allow men and women to have greater certainty about their work schedules.
  • San Francisco Retail Workers Bill of Rights —The Retail Workers Bill of Rights is a comprehensive set of policies introduced as two separate pieces of legislation by San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar and Supervisor David Chiu that “will encourage full-time work and job security, mandate equal treatment for part-time workers and give workers more predictable schedules, including requiring 14 days’ advance notice of their schedules while discouraging last-minute schedule changes and abusive on-call shifts.
  • Kūpuna Caregivers — In 2017, Hawaii passed a landmark law to support caregivers so they can stay in their jobs while continuing to care for their loved ones.
  • Why Aren’t Wages Rising? The Answer Sounds a Lot Like Monopoly (Episode 42) — Marshall Steinbaum, who’s Research Director at the Roosevelt Institute, joins Building Local Power host and ILSR co-director Stacy Mitchell to discuss his research and how elected officials can fix the broken market for labor.
  • The Labor and Small Business Alliance Behind San Francisco’s Landmark Retail Workers Bill of Rights — Our article from 2013 detailing the political backing for the San Francisco Retail Workers Bill of Rights.

Sarita recommends this book for our audience:

Stacy Mitchell: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power. I’m Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance. We have a great show and a great guest for you today. We’re gonna be talking about work, about the ways in which jobs and the nature of employment have changed in recent years, and also about how work might look in the future, and how working people are coming together to push for policies to improve that future.

My guest is Sarita Gupta. Sarita is an expert on the economic, labor, and political issues affecting working people, particularly women and those employed in low wage sectors. She’s the executive director of Jobs With Justice, a national organization that’s leading the fight for workers’ rights and an economy that benefits everyone. She’s also a co founder and co director of Caring Across Generations, which is working to build a movement to transform the way we care. Caring Across Generations has a vision for a world where everyone can age with dignity and caregivers are respected and supported.

Sarita, welcome and thank you for joining us today.

Sarita Gupta: Thank you for having me.
Stacy Mitchell: There’s a lot of talk these days, when people talk about the future of work and how jobs are changing, there’s a lot of talk about how the robots are coming, that automation is gonna eliminate a lot of jobs, and I’m curious from your vantage point, really working on the front lines, of the challenges that working people are facing. How much should we be worried about automation?
Sarita Gupta: The future of work is definitely a top of mind for so many people in this country right now, and it’s all in the news, it’s all we hear about. The image that comes to mind for everyone, as you said, is robots are taking over. I think the truth is that the research is actually showing us that that’s simply not true. The future of work is something that people are predicting and projecting what might be coming in the future, and I would say there’s a first phase of research that was done that really put out pretty dire numbers, like 47% of our jobs were gonna be automated. The truth is, as more deeper research is being done, what we’re finding is actually jobs are not all gonna be automated. There may be tasks within jobs that may be automated, but jobs as we know it won’t disappear completely. They may alter a bit, and the percentage right now in the most recent research is like 5% of jobs where some of that will happen.

Having said that, that doesn’t change the fact that there are some growing trends that we continue to see around the changing nature of work that are concerning and that we do need to be addressing as a society. First and foremost we continue to see a rise of part time, temporary, sub-contracted work, which we use the term contingent work, but we see a continued growth of that type of work, which involves often misclassify workers as independent contractors, and we certainly see the growth of independent contractors. Often what we hear is this is a good thing, this creates more flexibility for workers.

But the reality is, the growth of contingent work has tremendous implications on working women and men and their ability to have economic stability and sustainability in their lives, because so much of what we see happening is people having to hold down multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. They’re not receiving benefits on the job because they’re part time or they’re temporary, so they don’t have access to health care, they don’t have access to retirement security or any of the kind of benefits that tend to come through a traditional employer or employee relationship. That has tremendous implications on the overall sustainability and ability for working women and men to actually participate in our economy in a meaningful way if they aren’t actually making enough money to survive and thrive, which is what we’re starting to see happen as a result of this trend.

The other trend I would wanna lift up is we’re also in the midst of a massive demographic shift in this country. The implications of that are we’re a rapidly aging nation. Every eight seconds, someone turns 65 in this country. That’s 10,000 people a day. And people are working much longer in terms of age than ever before. The implications of having an aging workforce also plays into the changing nature of work, and what aging workforce may want in terms of flexibility and more part time work vis a vis younger generations. Those are some of the push-pull dynamics that we see playing out in terms of trends right now that are important to keep in mind as we think about how we shape our future.

But the truth is joblessness does not have to be our future, and robots taking over does not have to be our future. In fact, there are many jobs that the needs are growing for certain jobs, particularly jobs that have been in the low wage sectors of the economy and have frankly been pretty poor quality jobs, like care jobs as an example. In a moment, I talked about the demographic shifts as a rapidly aging nation, more and more of the caregiving responsibilities for families are growing, and people will depend on a care workforce. We have an opportunity now to actually create new care jobs, create them to be better quality jobs, that don’t pay poverty wages but actually pay living wages that can provide benefits and really ensure that the workers have dignity.

Stacy Mitchell: What I really love, when I’ve heard you talk about this idea of the caring sector, the caring economy, and really what Caring Across Generations has done, is you could look out there and … Say that there’s these huge problems. We’ve got this growing population of people who are aging and you need some level of care to live full lives but often can’t afford it, or they’re stuck with these really narrow options of how that care might be provided. At the same time we’ve got this large and growing population of caregivers, in some cases family members, in some cases professionals, but in most cases facing real economic pressure, because they’re either trying to juggle caring for family members and working and all the rest of it, or they’re professionals who are really underpaid in a lot of cases.

What I love about Caring Across Generations is that you and your co founders and the others involved in this movement and this initiative have looked out there and said, “Actually, this is a real huge opportunity, that there’s a way in which we could use these trends and these forces to actually transform the economy moving forward.” Can you talk a little bit about what that vision looks like and how we can think of it as an opportunity?

Sarita Gupta: In the care sector, there’s growing demand for care work in our society right now, and it’s not just for elder care but for child care as well. If we talk for a moment about the demographic shifts, going back to that, we have a rapidly aging population, but we also are experiencing the first wave of millennials having children. There are four million people a year who are turning retirement age, and there’s four million babies born right now a year. Most people are actually need child care and elder care supports. The need for care is exploding. That trend gives us such a huge opportunity to rethink our whole care system in this moment and really acknowledge the opportunities to create good quality jobs, better supports for working women and men who do have caregiving responsibilities, and to create more affordable and accessible care options for families so they can make sure that their loved ones are living, working, aging with dignity.

We believe we’re at a moment now where we have to think very innovatively about the kinds of policy solutions that allow us to actually create the kinds of jobs that we want. Similar to the care sector, I think that’s true in so many other sectors right now. A fascinating thing about the demographic shifts we’re in is in the ’60s, when you looked at population numbers, it was a population pyramid. You had the older population was smaller than the younger generations. But the reality is, by the year 2035, our older population will be bigger than the younger generations. So we’re moving from a pyramid to actually a column or a pillar.

If you think about it that way, there’s so much opportunity in that trend. Imagine the need to build housing for seniors, permanent housing and housing for children and families, or transit systems that meet the needs of the youngest and the oldest in our societies. There’s so many expansive ways to think about what we’re going to need and how we are deliberate in planning for those needs on the front end, and to make sure, going back to the conversation about work, that we are actually creating opportunities for people to have good quality jobs that allow them to sustain themselves and their families. That’s where the promise is in this moment, I think.

Stacy Mitchell: So it’s not really that we have a lack of work or a lack of need out there, it’s really how do we think about this as a society in a way that structures that work that can benefit people and communities and actually get it done in a way that makes sense.
Sarita Gupta: Absolutely. I think the other element of the conversation about work in this period is sometimes the conversations about the future of work actually distract us from the conversation that I think as a society we’re struggling with given all these trends. That is what is the role of government, and what does the role of government need to be, and what can people in our society depend on from government in terms of a social safety net. We’re in a moment when our social safety net is under attack.

But I often think about it in the discourse that’s happening around this idea of portable benefits, which is great, and it’s great that people are talking about it and thinking about it, but when we ask ourselves how did we get to the point where we’re asking and needing to think about portable benefits, it’s important to remember our own history. Post World War II, the US, unlike every other country in the world, made a decision that basic benefits like health care and retirement should be tied to an employer versus there be an explicit role for the government to play.

I think we’re actually swimming in that conversation right now. But it’s getting taken over by this idea of robots, when really at the heart of it the conversation is about what is the role of government, what is the role of employers, what should we be expecting as a people from our government in helping us be able to have healthy lives.

Stacy Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I so agree with that, and I also feel like the conversation about robots distracts us from the nature of power and who has it, and so much of it, of course, is coming from Silicon Valley, and this idea of, “Okay, we’re gonna take over the world and reorganize everything to our benefit, and we should all be worried about automation.” But really it feels like the question is, “Wait, can we go back to the part about you taking over the world and reorganizing it to your benefit?” I think we live in a democracy, and this is not something that we should be ceding control over and accepting this dystopian future with some crumbs on the margins for all of us.
Sarita Gupta: That’s right, Stacy. The thing I would lift up in relationship to that is in a moment when there is such explicit attacks on collective bargaining rights and unions in particular, and you position that in relationship to a conversation of contingent work, which makes it harder, especially if workers are being misclassified as independent contractors, they’re denied a lot of basic protections, including the right to organize and collectively bargain. It really limits the voice of working people to have a say in our politics and our democracy as a whole.

The other thing I think we have to think about is the question of power, as you said it. Who has power, who does not have power, and what do we need to insure that whatever systems we design in the future and the types of jobs we create in the future are really helping to fuel the ability for working people to be able to come together and negotiate with any entity that has any decision making and power over their wages, their conditions, and their overall well being. That’s particularly important given we’re waiting on a Supreme Court decision of Janus v AFSCME, which would essentially decimate collective bargaining for the public sector, so it’s important for us to not lose sight of how critical it is for working people to be able to have voice and agency in shaping their jobs and their futures.

I‘m really clear looking at the teacher strikes across the country, which are so inspiring right now, from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona. In Kentucky. These are working people who are not only fighting for better wages and benefits, but they are fighting for more funding in the education system that’s been defunded in too many states. And they’re all in right to work states. These are teachers who technically don’t have the right to be in a union the way that we understand it in non right to work states. But the fact that that doesn’t stop working women and men from taking action and speaking up and voicing what they believe is needed and necessary, I think is a hopeful sign of our ability to make sure in the future we’re continuing to create pathways that really support working people being able to have a real voice in our democracy.

Stacy Mitchell: I wanna go back and ask you a little bit more about contingent work, because that feels like such an important issue, but I wanna stay a little bit with this thread for a moment. I’m struck by the ways in which unions have shrunk to a smaller share of the workforce, we have a lot of ways in which labor law has been altered to make it harder for people to act collectively on the job. As you noted, we have this Supreme Court case coming down in the next few weeks about public sector workers. At the same time, we also have some really exciting things that have happened. I’m thinking of the Fight for 15, for example, the teachers’ strikes, which I’m struck by the way you put that, that these aren’t just about teachers not just talking about wages and working conditions, but they’re talking about school funding and how do we think about educating our children. It’s a labor movement that’s part of a broader social movement maybe in a way that labor used to organize.

When you look out at this landscape, what inspires you, and are there ways in which the organizing that’s happening outside of traditional unions, on the one hand it seems really exciting, but I also don’t wanna overlook the fact that in some ways this is organizing from a much less powerful position. How do we think about that as we move forward?

Sarita Gupta: There’s so much happening in the landscape that is truly inspiring, you’re absolutely right about that. I mentioned the teachers. I would lift up the Fight for 15 campaign, which really has made a huge difference. Think about, not only have we won minimum wage campaigns in states and cities and counties across the country, but we’ve actually changed the conversation. People are actually having conversations about wages in ways that weren’t happening before, and really being bold in their demands around what wages can and should be in order to be meaningful and supportive for families, particularly low income families and people who are in low wage sectors of the economy.

Retail workers is another. All these exciting predictable scheduling campaigns that are happening across the country. Because people are demanding that we should have control, we should at least know when we’re scheduled to work. We should know that we’re getting enough hours of work. Imagine …

I think a lot about a really good friend of mine. Her name is Kimberly Mitchell. Kim was a leader here in Washington, DC. She was a worker at Macy’s. She is in a union, and the company decided to go to an automated scheduling system. When that happened, she saw drastic cuts in her hours, and an enormous unpredictability of hours, which had huge implications on her budget, let alone her ability to care for her daughter, make it to parent teacher conferences, or make it to soccer games, or make it to things, let alone being able to schedule her own medical appointments and things that she needed.

Kimberly has been a big part of fighting for predictable scheduling campaign here in DC, to say “We need to put a stop to this,” much like what was won out in San Francisco with the Retail Workers Bill of Rights.

But Kimberly’s story is also important, because later Kimberly actually talked to me about her care story, that she has a care story. She also is a caregiver to a grandmother who had cancer. Kimberly’s story for me was again an eye opener of, when we talk about contingent work, there is so many dynamics at play here. When you have part time work and you have to piece together work, and then we don’t even take into account the kinds of caregiving responsibilities that people have. That’s what we need to address as a society as a whole. We need to understand … Then the fights for paid leave across the country, which is another very inspiring set of fights that are happening, in addition to paid sick days campaigns that have been winning. But paid leave, and sick days, and predictable scheduling, and minimum wage higher, Fight for 15, these are all important wins and components of how we better a whole sector of contingent work to make them more sustainable for working people moving forward.

Those are some of the ways in which I’m inspired by campaigns that are in motion right now. Then certainly the coming together of labor with community, with worker centers, with a broad ecosystem of groups to demand more. I think a lot about the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike. That really was framed as a fight for the common good. That was about education. It was about transportation and housing, and being able to take those demands to the bargaining table with the county and with the city to say we actually as teachers care about what is happening to our students, and therefore we together are negotiating for a better deal, and I think we’re seeing a lot of those kinds of campaigns happen around the country, which is also tremendously promising in this moment.

Stacy Mitchell: I wanna come back and underscore this issue around hours and just in time scheduling, because for people who have not worked in jobs where that’s the case, it’s really shocking to realize how it works. Essentially, scheduling starts to happen via computer, it happens at the last minute, and you don’t know when you’re gonna work week to week, how many hours you’re gonna get, and it could be at any time of the day. Particularly if you’re working, say, at Wal-Mart or a big retailer that might be open 24 hours a day, it can play complete havoc. You try to think about taking care of your kids and everything else that goes on in life. The policy that some cities have been passing – I know San Francisco you mentioned – talk a little bit about what that actually does.
Sarita Gupta: Sure. In San Francisco, Jobs Adjusted San Francisco organized a table and a campaign with a number of partners in the city to push for a Retail Workers Bill of Rights, and what was won was essentially two weeks’ notice on schedules. That was really important, so workers knew two weeks in advance what their work schedules, or know what their work schedules are. And it really demanded … Or, what we won was the ability for employers giving more hours to workers before hiring more part time workers. Because a big issue that we were hearing from retail workers in San Francisco was, “You can raise our wage, and it won’t mean anything if we don’t have enough hours of work.” Essentially, in the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, we were able to add a provision in there about the need for more hours of work to be given to the existing workforce before hiring new workers by these retail companies. That was really significant. This ordinance impacts 40,000 workers in San Francisco.

What’s exciting is now through the enforcement of this ordinance, we’re able to talk to hundreds of workers. Every few weeks we’re talking to workers to make sure they know about this law, that they understand what their rights are, and really engage them in ongoing civic engagement. I don’t know how else to say that. We really, our intention all along was not just to win this campaign, but to make sure that these retail workers also had a voice in building their own worker organizations and be able to continue to have leverage, build power and leverage, to make further policy changes that would better their lives and their working conditions, as well as be able to negotiate directly with employers on a wide variety of issues. There have been great partnerships in San Francisco, building that out right now as we speak.

Stacy Mitchell: One of the organizations that was around that table when that legislation passed in San Francisco that our listeners might be particularly interested to know about was the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance, which is a group of independent retailers in the city. What was interesting is that the big retail chains, they used this just in time scheduling and this cycling through part time people rather than giving people full time hours as a way to really cut their labor costs to the bone. It’s a tool for keeping the labor costs really low. When Jobs With Justice reached out to the local merchants group, they were like, “We don’t have computerized scheduling, and we just don’t operate in that way. If someone’s scheduled for a shift, we don’t send them home early. We don’t make changes at the last minute. It’s just not how we work by and large at the scale that we’re operating. We’re not this automated, giant system.”

One of the things that they were saying is that part of the cost of just in time scheduling is that it creates an unlevel playing field, that employers who don’t treat their workers that way, who don’t try to cut labor costs to the minimum, are at a competitive disadvantage against those who do, the big chains that do. It was an obvious campaign for them to get involved in. But to me I think speaks to there are more opportunities out there for making common cause, because it feels like in a lot of ways the big issue in our economy right now is concentrated power. If you’re on the outside of that, the losing end of that, whether you’re a farmer or small business person or working person, you’ve all got something in common. Is that your sense?

Sarita Gupta: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. The example you shared from San Francisco is a perfect example of what we’re talking about. I think a lot about the One Fair Wage campaigns across the country that are happening, that are attempting to eliminate the tipped wage, which often puts workers, especially women, in very vulnerable positions, right where they feel like they have to endure harassment on the job in order to get the tips they need to survive. We’re promoting One Fair Wage across the country. We see a handful … Well, actually many high road employers coming forward and saying, “Absolutely, we should do away with the tipped wage. Let’s do this better. We can in fact do this better.”

Or I think about the paid sick days and the paid leave campaigns across the country. This is especially happening around paid leave. Most people don’t realize in the US – I’m always amazed – that we are one of two countries in the world that does not provide paid family medical leave. There is great work happening across the country to change that, to change state policies, local policies, and there have been so many small businesses that have come forward to say, “This is a good thing and we support this, and this is why we need policy in place to help support our ability to actually provide leave.”

So you’re absolutely right, Stacy, that there’s a lot of room for coming together right now and shaping policies of the future that are both good for local economies, and they’re really good for working families.

Stacy Mitchell: You’re listening to Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, and co director of Caring Across Generations. I’m Stacy Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance. We’ll be right back after a short break.

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And we’re back with Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, and co director of Caring Across Generations.

Sarita, I wanna go back to a couple of points in the conversation where there are different roads we could have gone down, and I wanna go back to some of the ones that we didn’t. I wanna talk a little bit more about the contingent work, and in particular, I wonder if you can help us get oriented to what all these jobs are, because I think there’s a lot of variety of types of jobs that are in there. What are some of the companies that are prominent in this space?

Sarita Gupta: One thing I’ll say is there’s a big assumption when we talk about contingent work that it’s all in the low wage sector, which is actually not true. This is an issue that’s cutting across – the issue of part time and temporary work and subcontracted work – is actually cutting across the economy, which is really important to understand.

Some of the major corporate actors who are implicated in promoting contingent work are certainly … Amazon is a big one. Amazon’s been in the news, and you know this as well as anybody else. But Amazon is a major retailer, a major retail company, a major logistics company, a major player in our economy right now, is really a bad actor in terms of contingent work. We see the endless stories in the warehouses of working people who are frankly working under pretty hazardous conditions with very little ability to voice their concerns and their need for change without being retaliated against. Amazon, Wal-Mart certainly is a big retailer who has over the years, as many of us have campaigned for Wal-Mart to be a better company, in terms of how the treat their employees, they’ve been a big promoter of contingent work.

And, we see it certainly in the restaurant sectors, we see it in health care, it’s growing in health care, and frankly it’s even growing in education. There’s a lot of subcontracted work, there’s a lot of temporary work in the fields of education right now. Certainly in manufacturing, we have been seeing a lot of work subcontracted. The auto industry is a great example of major companies, the Fords and General Motors and all, having these subcontractors who are making the auto parts, and a lot of that work is moving to the South right now in right to work states. We’re seeing a lot of the contingent, work happening across the economy, not only in the low wage sectors right now.

Stacy Mitchell: Yeah, I saw a statistic that basically all of the net new job growth that we’ve had in the last 10 years has been contingent work, and that almost one out of every five US workers is now in some sort of alternative work arrangement. What’s driving this trend? What’s at the root of why companies are doing this?
Sarita Gupta: Well, Stacy, it’s what you said earlier. It’s about driving the labor costs down. If you hire workers on a part time basis or a temporary basis, you’re not responsible for providing benefits, so as taxpayers, we are actually footing the bill for providing basic benefits to working people. It’s keeping the labor costs down. That’s the number one reason why we see this playing out.

It’s also frankly to prevent the unionization of the workforce. We’ve seen endless companies where the workers were employees, like had a traditional employee-employer relationship, then suddenly these workers are misclassified, and they’re misclassified as independent contractors. There’s a long history of that in companies like FedEx and others. Or even if you look at the whole taxi industry. At one time taxi workers were in fact considered employees. They were not independent contractors. When that shift happened is when we saw some of the basic protections, wages, needs of taxi drivers fall. The quality of the work really fell in terms of these being good, sustainable jobs. That’s why we see so much active taxi worker organizing happening across the country right now.

Stacy Mitchell: Yeah. Companies like Uber, and this idea that you don’t really work for them when they control really every aspect of your work seems … It’s a disconnect. And I think as you pointed out earlier it also means that they can’t organize, because they’re technically independent, and therefore it’s like they would be colluding, if you will, if they organize. We have state laws and federal laws around misclassification, which is this idea that an employer can’t just decide all of a sudden that you’re a subcontractor, that if the nature of the work arrangement is that you meet all of the typical criteria of being an employee, an employer can’t just say, “Oh, you’re a subcontractor” to get out of all the obligations that come with being an employer on their own. There’s a set of rules at the state and federal level that govern that.

As I understand it, we haven’t been that great about enforcing those, or they really haven’t kept up with the changing times. It sounds to me, although we hear a lot about the companies saying, “Oh, well the purpose of this is flexibility. People wanna have flexibility,” and that sort of thing. But really it sounds like from a lot of these jobs if state and federal government stepped in and said, “No, no, no, I’m sorry, you can’t misclassify workers,” or, “If they are really independent subcontractors, then they have to have more power over their work in order to qualify that way.” That the companies would say, “Oh, well …” Suddenly the flexibility idea would disappear because it really is just about cost.

Sarita Gupta: That’s right. Often, when I hear the flexibility argument, the question I pose is that flexible by choice, or is it forced? I meet so many workers. If you get into Ubers and Lyfts, for example, and you talk to people, and you say, “Tell me about your work,” more often than not, I meet drivers who say, “Well this is one of three jobs that I have, and the reason I drive an Uber or a Lyft is because my other jobs don’t give me enough hours of work, and I don’t make enough, and I don’t have benefits, so I have to pay out of pocket for a lot of things, so this helps me.” It’s such a crazy conversation.

If you had a choice of a full time job that provided benefits to you, would you take it over driving a Lyft or an Uber or whatever kind of flexible job out there, I don’t mean to target the Uber and Lyft drivers, because again, we see this happening in many sectors. And more often than not, people are like, “If I could get a good job that pays well and gives me benefits, that would make my life so much easier than trying to piece together three, four jobs,” which is what we see all the time. That’s what I feel like I run into majority of the time.

We have to be very careful about the way in which the language of flexibility is used, and really be thoughtful about asking the question, is it true flexibility, is that really by choice, or is it because they have to, because they don’t have any choice? That’s an important component of many elements of contingent work. The misclassification piece is huge. It’s a huge problem, and you’re absolutely right, there’s not enough enforcement of the laws that are on the books, which is why we also have to figure out how to continue to work with local labor agencies as much as we can where it’s possible. I’m really heartened by the number of community based organizations right now that are doing community based enforcement of some of these laws across the country.

Stacy Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I got to know you through our mutual concern about the retail sector. It’s a big sector of the economy. It’s like one out of every 10 private sector workers is in retail. It’s a sector that … We’ve had the rise of big box stores and Wal-Mart and now Amazon, and often very low wage jobs, as well as a lot of impacts on local economies and communities. One of the things that you often hear, or is a part of the way that I think our society talks about work and wages, is this notion that we used to have good jobs because they were manufacturing jobs, and manufacturing jobs are good jobs, and then we’ve gone to this service sector economy, and that’s why we have low wage jobs, and these jobs are low skill.

In thinking about that and talking to Wal-Mart workers, for example, over the years, I’m never … When they talk about what they do, what their day is like inside … It doesn’t strike me as low skill. It seems like a job where you’re juggling a lot of different things and a lot of different demands from the public, and many different types … it does not strike me as low skill. It seems like pretty high stress and a lot of stuff going on. Is there some magic to manufacturing jobs? Were they really so much more skilled that that’s why wages were good, and why retail wages are bad?

Sarita Gupta: I wanna remind us of history, and that back in the day, auto work was considered low skill, low pay work.
Stacy Mitchell: Oh really, I didn’t know that.
Sarita Gupta: Yes. Before all the strikes of auto workers happened, the assumption was you’re on an assembly line, and so it’s low skill work, and you could be paid very low wages. It was because working people were able to really come together and organize and demand better and unionize that they were able to really shift that. Over time these auto jobs became good pathways to the middle class jobs. They are middle class jobs.

I say that story because there’s a way in which it’s true. There’s a narrative, and we culturally believe somehow service sector jobs mean they have to be low wage jobs. That’s simply not true. We actually can reimagine what service sector jobs can and should be given, again, the growing needs of many of the services in our economy right now. There’s no reason why service sector jobs can’t be good middle class jobs. There’s no reason for that. That’s the push through the Caring Across Generations campaign that we’re making, is how do we have these jobs that have been poverty wage jobs that the workforce is largely majority women, lots of women of color, lots of immigrant workers, very many of them are dependent, about 30 percent of them are dependent on food programs. They’re dependent on the social safety net. And they don’t have the right to organize and collectively bargain. This has been a workforce that’s been historically excluded from basic labor protections in our country due to a legacy of slavery.

When you understand all of that, and you realize there’s a growing need for care workers in our society, what prevents us from reimagining these jobs to be good high paying jobs where there’s a real pathway to your point of the Wal-Mart workers who you talked to, a real pathway for training and career ladders that actually allow people to have a pathway into a career versus be stuck in a job. We can reimagine a lot of service sector jobs in that way. We don’t have to abide by this paradigm that service jobs equals low wage jobs. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us to think about that.

As we think about jobs moving forward – this is a little bit off the topic of retail – but there are really good efforts under way right now about how we create more access to good career pathways. One sector is the construction sector. How do we create more pathways for women and people of color who have historically been excluded from these career pathways. How do we create more access and supports for women and people of color into these jobs that are good, well-paying jobs with real training and growth opportunities. And if we can look at that and make that happen, again, we shouldn’t limit our imaginations and what’s possible in the service sector as well.

Stacy Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’m so struck by the opportunity around caring jobs, in part because it seems to me that not only is there an opportunity to make this really valuable work be well paid and well supported, but also the fact that there are no guarantees in this world, that any of us can have any illness or disability suddenly befall us, and in fact, given the nature of mortality, that’s a place where we’re all going at some point. The only guarantee that really is out there is the guarantee that we could provide for one another and the idea of structuring a society in which you know that you’d be taken care of by someone who’s able to take care of themselves and their own families, and who brings all of these skills and love and care to that work that they do.

Also, the opportunity to have it be smaller scale and more community based care, both at home in a supported way or in smaller scale, different kinds of arrangements that people could make if we had the right kinds of policies in place.

I know that states are sometimes … I think states are beginning to lead the way on how do we make policies to make this vision happen. It seems to me that that’s a message that there would be so much popular support for, given those dynamics. I read some about something that’s happening in Hawaii, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that law, and if there are other good examples like that?

Sarita Gupta: Absolutely. States are on the front lines of this issue of care. States are really contending with this question of how do we adequately support our rapidly aging populations? Across the country, we are seeing really exciting state level campaigns that are beginning to address this, and a campaign that we recently won about a year ago was in Hawaii. It’s called the Kapuna Caregiver Program. This program essentially provides a financial benefit of $70 a day to working family caregivers who are caring for an aging adult in their lives. The money can be used towards transportation costs, home care services, respite care, home modifications, meals, whatever working family caregivers need in order to both stay in the workplace and care for their loved ones.

This campaign was really born out of talking to so many people in the state, particularly women who are saying that they often felt like as their caregiving responsibility was growing that their only option was to leave the work site, because they couldn’t afford the care that they needed for their loved one. We heard endless stories of people saying they need more supports in order to truly stay in the workforce.

It’s worth saying for a moment, the reason I’m so proud of the campaign that Caring Across advocates won in Hawaii is it was a huge step in the direction that we need to go. But it also is a way that we address this new trend, which is we’re seeing actually a decrease in women’s labor force participation. First time in decades.

Stacy Mitchell: Wow, I didn’t know that. Huh.
Sarita Gupta: Yes. The reason, one of the major reasons for that, is because of caregiving responsibilities, whether it’s child care or it’s elder care or spousal care. And of course, that has huge implications for women. If they’re leaving the workforce, studies have shown, if you’re over the age of 50 and you leave the workforce, you are essentially losing about $303,000 in wages, social security benefits, and private pensions. That’s a lot of resources to be lost out of the pockets of people. What we’re seeing is trends of women aging into poverty as a result.

Again, we can rethink the kinds of supports that working family caregivers need in order to stay in the workforce and care for their loved ones, which is one major tenet of our campaign. Building off of the Hawaii victory, in Washington state, there’s great working being done by advocates in Washington state to move a long term care trust act, which is doing something very similar, like creating a financial benefit for any working person over the age of 18 who is caring for somebody else and/or themselves to make sure that they have the supports in place for long term care. Again, this is creating more options for families.

Those are two really exciting campaigns that are in motion. Certainly, in your great state of Maine, we have this incredible ballot measure that’s moving for universal home care. This ballot measure is really important, because it’s an opportunity to ensure that people have access to home care services and supports, and if one will create an influx of money into the system, that it will allow for the creation of good care jobs, and the training and support of a workforce that is very much needed in the state of Maine.

Stacy Mitchell: That’s great. That’s a lovely note to close our conversation on. I do have one final question. We often ask people who come on the show if you have any kind of recommendation. It could be a reading recommendation or a watching recommendation, and it doesn’t have to be related to your work. It could be anything at all.
Sarita Gupta: I just finished reading an incredible book called When They Call You a Terrorist. This book was written by Patrice Kahn-Cullors. She’s one of the co founders of Black Lives Matter. It’s an incredible narrative of her own story. She talks about a lot of her life journey that led her to start the Black Lives Matter movement. I think it’s also one of the most thoughtful books that talks about work in the way that we’ve been talking about, because she really highlights her mother’s experience with work, her own experience with work, and really how all these issues are so connected. You can’t talk about work and not talk about care, and you can’t talk about care and work and not talk about health care. You can’t talk about all of this and not talk about criminalization of communities. It’s a beautiful read that certainly I have found inspiring and would really encourage people to pick up and read.
Stacy Mitchell: That’s great. Say the title one more time.
Sarita Gupta: When They Call You a Terrorist.
Stacy Mitchell: Great. We will put a link to that on our show page so people can find that. That’s a terrific recommendation.

Thank you so much Sarita for taking the time to talk with us today.

Sarita Gupta: Thank you so much. It’s great to be with you.
Stacy Mitchell: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website, ilsr.org, and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media. Once again, please help us out by rating this podcast and sharing it with your friends.

This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez and Nick Stumo-Langer. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Disfunction Al.

For the institute for Local Self Reliance, I’m Stacy Mitchell. I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: By Office of Debbie Stabenow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Nick Stumo-Langer
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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer is Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He runs ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.