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What does $300 get you?

Another great post by Melissa Gopnik, SVP Commonwealth

In the last week we have seen the resurgence of the discussion about whether additional federal unemployment payments are behind the current shortage of workers. Does anyone remember that we had this same debate in 2020? Last year, research found that people want to work, but only if they don’t have to jeopardize their health or the health of their families, and they have good quality child care. The only thing that has changed since then is that the unemployment supplement went down, from $600 per week to $300 per week.

Thanks to these extra payments some lower income families, disproportionately Black and Latinx families, have been able to do what many others take for granted – make choices. They have been able to choose to take care of their health, and the health of their loved ones; choose to keep their children safe by staying home with them; choose to increase their skills; choose to not go back to workplaces that are unsafe, physically or psychologically. More recent research found that nearly three million women left the U.S. workforce because of the pandemic, many of them quitting because of a lack of child care options.

White privilege, male privilege, economic privilege–all of these are talked about extensively. What they all have in common is a fundamental privilege denied to so many – the privilege to make choices that reflect one’s own specific situation, values, and aspirations. For some low-income workers, that privilege can be obtained for just $300 a week.

Business owners should focus on why workers, when they gain the privilege of making a choice, are choosing not to work for them. A business model that is built on an HR strategy of having a workforce that is captive – a workforce that is working for you because they have no other choice – should not be economically viable and should not be the driver of government policy.

As an HR professional working at nonprofits for over 20 years, I have interviewed hundreds of job seekers. In the non-profit ecosystem, there is an assumption that applicants want to work for your organization because of a commitment to your mission. Imagine a world where this same assumption could be made for all workplaces. There is instead an assumption that for some jobs people will only take them if they have no other choices. Can we not design a service job that someone actually wants? At Helen’s, a local family-owned restaurant my family has been going to for 15 years, the waitstaff has almost never changed. And I have heard stories about similar establishments in communities across the country. If they can do it, so can others.

We know, intuitively and based on research, how to design a “good” job. It is a job that fulfills not just your basic needs for safety, food, and shelter but also your need for self actualization. A good job is about more than just a fair wage. A good job is where you are treated with basic human dignity and respect. A good job is one where you are not expected to put up with sexual harassment or racism. I could cite the numerous studies that have found that people with jobs that meet these needs are more productive, engaged, and stay longer. But anyone who has ever supervised an engaged employee and a disgruntled employee, or has been one of these employees, doesn’t need data to know this is true. 

The unstated assumption in the US today is that only certain people should be able to choose a “good job”. Lower income Americans are expected to take whatever job is offered to them. The federal unemployment checks have upended that expectation. 

One theme of 2020 was bringing into the light the many systemic inequities built into our economic, political, and cultural systems. The pushback against additional federal payments has exposed the inequity of who gets to make choices about where they work. Business owners and HR professionals should think of this as an opportunity for innovation and experimentation. 2020 was a year of rethinking many of the fundamentals of how businesses operate. 2021 should be the year that we rethink how we design jobs so that everyone has the privilege to pick a job that is good for them and their families. 

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