Pandemic economic woes continue, but so do deep structural problems, especially the long-term growth in the share of low wage jobs

Many are understandably alarmed about what the September 4th termination of several special federal pandemic unemployment insurance programs will mean for millions of workers.  Twenty-five states ended their programs months earlier, with government and business leaders claiming that their termination would spur employment and economic activity.  However, several studies have disproved their claims.

One study, based on the experience of 19 of these states, found that for every 8 workers that lost benefits, only one found a new job.  Consumer spending in those states fell by $2 billion, with every lost $1 of benefits leading to a fall in spending of 52 cents.   It is hard to see how anything good can come from the federal government’s willingness to allow these programs to expire nationwide. 

The Biden administration appears to believe that adoption of its physical infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion spending plan will ensure that those left without benefits will find new jobs.  But chances for Congressional approval are growing dim.  Even more importantly, and largely overlooked in the debate over whether the time is right to replace the pandemic unemployment insurance programs with new spending measures, is that an increasing share of the jobs created by economic growth are low-wage, and thus inadequate to ensure workers and their families an acceptable standard of living. 

For example, according to another study, the share of low wage jobs has been steadily growing since 1979.  More specifically, the share of workers (18-64 years of age) with a low wage job rose from 39.1 percent in 1979 to 45.2 percent in 2017.  For workers 18 to 34 without a college degree the share soared from 46.9 percent to 61.6 percent over the same tyears. Thus, a meaningful improvement in worker well-being will require far more than a return to “normal” labor market conditions.  It will require building a movement able to directly challenge and transformation the way the US economy operates.  

The importance of government programs

The figure below provides some sense of how important government programs have been to working people.  Government support was truly a lifeline for working people, delivering a significant boost to total monthly personal income (relative to the February 2020 start of the pandemic-triggered recession), especially during the first months.  Even now, despite the fact that the recession has officially been declared over, it still accounts for approximately half the increase in total monthly income.   

The government’s support of personal income was anchored by three special unemployment insurance programs–the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). 

The FPUC was authorized by the March 2020 CARES Act and renewed by subsequent legislation and a presidential order. It originally provided $600 per week in extra unemployment benefits to unemployed workers in states that opted in to the program. In August 2020, the extra payment was lowered to $300.

The PEUC was also established by the CARES Act. It provided up to 13 weeks of extended unemployment compensation to individuals that had exhausted their regular unemployment insurance compensation.  This was later extended to 24 additional weeks and then by a further 29 weeks, allowing for a total of 53 weeks.  The PUA allowed states to provide unemployment assistance to the self-employed and those seeking part-time employment, or who otherwise did not qualify for regular unemployment compensation.

Tragically, the federal government allowed all three programs to expire on September 4th. Months earlier, in June 2021, 25 states actually ended these programs for their unemployed workers, eliminating benefits for over 2 million.  Several studies, as we see next, have documented the devastating cost of that decision. 

The cost of state program termination

Beginning in April 2021, a number of business analysts and politicians began to aggressively argue that federally provided unemployment benefit programs were no longer needed.  In fact, according to them, the programs were actually keeping workers from pursuing available jobs, thereby holding back the country’s economic recovery. Using these arguments as cover, in June, 25 states ended their participation in one or more of these programs. 

For example, Henry McMaster, the governor of South Carolina, announced his decision to end his state’s participation in the federal programs, saying: “This labor shortage is being created in large part by the supplemental unemployment payments that the federal government provides claimants on top of their state unemployment benefits.”

Similarly, Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississippi, stated in a May 2021 tweet:

It has become clear to me that we cannot have a full economic recovery until we get the thousands of available jobs in our state filled. . . . Therefore, I have informed the Department of Employment Security to direct the Biden Administration that Mississippi will be opting out of the additional federal unemployment benefits as early as federal law allows—June 12, 2021.

The argument that these special federal unemployment benefit programs hurt employment and economic activity was tested and found wanting.  Business Insider highlights the results of several studies:

Economist Peter Ganong, who co-authored a paper that found the disincentive effect of benefits was small, told the [Wall Street] Journal: “If the question is, ‘Is UI [unemployment insurance] the key thing that’s holding back the labor market recovery?’ The answer is no, definitely not, based on the available data.” 

That aligns with other early research on the impact of benefits ending. CNBC reports that analyses from payroll firms UKG and Homebase both found that employment didn’t go up in the states cutting off the benefits; in fact, that Homebase analysis found that employment declined in the states opting out of federal benefits, while it went up in states that chose to retain benefits. In June, Indeed’s Hiring Lab found that job searches in states ending benefits were below April’s baseline.

In July, Arindrajit Dube, an economics professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, found that ending benefits didn’t make workers rush back. “Even as there was a clear reduction in the number of people who were receiving unemployment benefits — and a clear increase in the number of people who said that they were having difficulty paying their bills — that didn’t seem to translate, at least in the short run, into an uptick in overall employment rates,” Dube told Insider at the time.

Dube, along with five other researchers, examined “the effect of withdrawing pandemic UI on the financial and employment trajectories of unemployed workers in [19] states that withdrew benefits, compared to workers with the same unemployment duration in states that retained these benefits.” 

They found, as noted above, that for every 8 workers who lost their benefits, only 1 found a new job.  And for every $1 of reduced benefits, spending fell by 52 cents—only 7 cents of new income was generated for each dollar of lost benefits. “Extrapolating to all UI recipients in the early withdrawal states, we estimate these states eliminated $4 billion in unemployment benefits paid by federal transfers as of August 6 [2021].  Spending fell by $2 billion and earnings rose by $270 million.  These states therefore saw a much larger drop in federal transfers than gains from job creation.”

An additional 8 million workers have now lost benefits because of the federal termination of these special unemployment insurance programs.  It is hard to be optimistic about what awaits them, given the experience of the early termination states.  And equally important, even if the “optimists” are proven right, and those workers are able to find employment, there is still reason for concern about the likely quality of those jobs given long-term employment trends.

The lack of decent jobs

There is no agreed upon definition of a low wage job.  David R. Howell and Arne L. Kalleberg note two of the most popular in their study of declining job quality in the United States.  One is to define low wage jobs as those that pay less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage.  The other, used by the OECD, is to define low wage jobs as those that pay less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage for full-time workers.

Howell and Kallenberg find both inadequate.  Instead, they define low wage jobs as those that pay less than two-thirds of the mean hourly wage for full-time prime-age workers (35-59).  Their definition sets the dividing line between low wage and what they call “decent” wage jobs at $17.50 in 2017.  As they explain:

This wage is well above the wage that would make a full-time (or near full-time) worker eligible for food stamps and several dollars above the basic needs budget for a single adult in most American cities, but is conservative in that the basic needs budget for a single adult with one child ranges from $22 to $30).

The figure below, based on their definition, shows the growth in low wage jobs for workers 18-34 years of age without a college degree (in blue), all workers 18-64 years of age (in gold), and prime age workers 35-59 years of age (in green).  Their dividing line between low wage and decent wage jobs, equivalent to $17.50 in 2017, is far from a generous wage.  Yet, all three groupings show an upward trend in the share of low wage jobs.  

The authors then divide their low wage and decent wage categories into upper and lower tiers.   The lower tier of the low wage category includes jobs that pay less than two-thirds of the median wage for full-time workers, which equaled $13.33 in 2017.  As the authors report:

Based on evidence from basic needs budgets, this is a wage that, even on a full-time basis, would make it extremely difficult to support a minimally adequate standard of living for even a single adult anywhere in the country. This wage threshold ($13.33) is just above the wage cutoff for food stamps ($12.40) and Medicaid ($12.80) for a full- time worker (thirty-five hours per week, fifty weeks per year) with a child; full-year work at thirty hours per week would make a family of two eligible for the food stamps with a wage as high as $14.46 and as high as $14.94 for Medicaid.  For this reason, we refer to this as the poverty-wage threshold.

The lower tier of the decent wage category includes jobs that pay less than 50 percent more than the decent-job threshold, which equaled $26.50 in 2017.  The figure below shows the overall job distribution in 2017.

The following table shows the changing distribution of jobs over the years 1979 to 2017 for all workers 18 to 64, for workers 18-34 without a college degree, and for workers 18-34 with a college degree.

While the share of upper-tier decent jobs held by workers 18 to 64 has remained relatively stable, there has been a notable decline in the share of workers with lower-tier decent jobs.  Also worth noting is the rise in the share of poverty-level low wage jobs. 

Perhaps most striking is the large decline in the share of decent jobs held by workers 18 to 34, those with and those without a college degree.  The share of poverty level jobs held by those without a college degree soared from 35.7 percent to 53.5 percent.  The share of low wage jobs also spiked for those with a college degree, rising from 22 percent to 39.1 percent, with an increase in the share of both low-wage tiers.

This long-term decline in job quality will not reverse on its own.  And, not surprisingly, corporate leaders remain largely opposed to policies that might threaten the status quo.

So, do we need a better unemployment insurance system? For sure.  Do we need a better funded and more climate resilient social and physical infrastructure?  Definitely.  But we also need a dramatically different economy, one that, in sharp contrast to our current system, is grounded in greater worker control over both the organization and aims of production.  Lots of work ahead.

Playing the capitalist game: heads they win, tails you lose

According to an Economic Policy Institute report, between 28 and 47 percent of U.S. private sector workers are subject to noncompete agreements.  In brief, noncompete agreements (or noncompetes) are provisions in an employment contract that ban workers from leaving their job to work for a “competitor” that operates in the same geographic area, for a given period of time.  In a way, it’s an attempt to recreate the power dynamics of the employer-dominated company towns of old—with workers unable to change employers if they want to continuing working in the same industry.

It is not just top executives that are forced to accept a noncompete agreement.  Companies also use them to restrict the employment freedom of many low wage workers, including janitors, security guards, fast food workers, warehouse workers, personal care aids, and room cleaners.  In fact, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that almost a third of all businesses require that all of their workers sign noncompetes, regardless of their job duties or pay.

As for the impact of these agreements, a number of studies have found that noncompetes lower wages for all workers in the industry, even those not subject to noncompetes.  And then there is this from CBS News:

“In the context of the pandemic, which caused millions of people to be laid off, it’s safe to say at least a share of those workers are constrained [by noncompetes] in pursuing other opportunities during this crisis,” said John Lettieri, head of the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank that advocates against noncompetes. 

Indeed, at least four employers — including an accounting firm and a real estate brokerage — have tried to enforce noncompetes against workers they’ve laid off, with the lawsuits making their way through the courts.

On July 9, 2021 President Biden signed an executive order on “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” that, among other things, calls upon the Chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to work “with the rest of the Commission to exercise the FTC’s statutory rulemaking authority under the Federal Trade Commission Act to curtail the unfair use of non-compete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.”  While it seems likely that the FTC will take some action, the scope of that action remains uncertain.

Noncompetes and their use

There are no federal rules governing the use of noncompetes.  It is up to the states to decide how to regulate their use.  California, North Dakota, and Oklahoma are the only states with outright bans on their use; Washington DC also outlaws them.  Several states have placed limits on the use of non-competition agreements.  Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and Virginia all prohibit the use of noncompetes with low wage workers.  Washington state banned noncompetes for those earning under $100,000. Hawaii has prohibited noncompetes for tech workers only.  On the other hand, there are some states, like Idaho, which have actually passed laws making it easier for companies to enforce noncompete agreements.

Most workers live in states where there are few if any restrictions on the use of noncompete agreements.  And as the results of a national survey that included firms with at least 50 employees show, the use of noncompetes is common in workplaces with low pay (see the table below).  As the Economic Policy Institute report points out, although “the use of noncompetes tends to be higher for higher-wage workplaces than lower-wage workplaces . . . it is striking that more than a quarter—29.0%—of responding establishments where the average wage is less than $13.00 use noncompetes for all their workers.”

Popular outrage has sometimes forced companies to change their policies or state authorities to intervene on behalf of workers.  An example of the former: in 2015 Amazon began requiring its warehouse workers to sign noncompetes.  As The Verge reported:

The work is repetitive and physically demanding and can pay several dollars above minimum wage, yet Amazon is requiring these workers — even seasonal ones — to sign strict and far-reaching noncompete agreements. The Amazon contract, obtained by The Verge, requires employees to promise that they will not work at any company where they “directly or indirectly” support any good or service that competes with those they helped support at Amazon, for a year and a half after their brief stints at Amazon end. Of course, the company’s warehouses are the beating heart of Amazon’s online shopping empire, the extraordinary breadth of which has earned it the title of “the Everything Store,” so Amazon appears to be requiring temp workers to foreswear a sizable portion of the global economy in exchange for a several-months-long hourly warehouse gig.

The company has even required its permanent warehouse workers who get laid off to reaffirm their non-compete contracts as a condition of receiving severance pay. 

The company eventually ended the practice after its actions were widely reported in the media, generating bad publicity for the company.

Jimmy John’s offers an example of state action. In 2016, the attorneys general of New York and Illinois, reacting to public anger, forced Jimmy John to stop its franchises from using noncompetes that forbid its employees from working at any other sandwich shop within a 3-mile radius of the franchise for two years.

The cost of noncompetes to workers

When noncompetes are banned, worker pay rises.  One of the most detailed and complete studies of the wage consequences of such a change is based on Oregon’s 2008 decision to ban noncompetes (NCAs) for hourly wage workers.  As the authors of the study explain:

We find that banning NCAs for hourly workers increased hourly wages by 2-3% on average. Since only a subset of workers sign NCAs, scaling this estimate by the prevalence of NCA use in the hourly-paid population suggests that the effect on employees actually bound by NCAs may be as great as 14-21%, though the true effect is likely lower due to labor market spillovers onto those not bound by NCAs. While the positive wage effects are found across the age, education and wage distributions, they are stronger for female workers and in occupations where NCAs are more common. The Oregon low-wage NCA ban also improved average occupational status in Oregon, raised job-to-job mobility, and increased the proportion of salaried workers without affecting hours worked.”

Earlier studies of the consequence of changes in the use of noncompetes in other states produced similar results. For example, a study of Hawaii’s 2015 decision to ban noncompetes for tech workers showed a 4.2% pay bump for new hires and a 12% increase in worker mobility.

But even a change in law doesn’t necessarily bring an end to the practice, as highlighted by the California experience.  California courts will not enforce a noncompete contract, but that hasn’t stopped many California businesses from including them in their employment contracts.  One reason according to worker advocates, as reported by CBS News, is that most workers don’t know that noncompetes are banned in California: 

As a result, employers in California use these restrictive contracts just as much as employers elsewhere in the U.S., and they have their desired effect: scaring workers away from leaving for better jobs. 

“There’s no disincentive for the employer to include it in the employment contract. The worst thing that would happen is a court would declare [the noncompete] void,” said Harvard’s Gerstein. “There needs to be a disincentive to employer overreach.”

Possible federal action

President Biden pledged during his campaign to “eliminate all non-compete agreements, except the very few that are absolutely necessary to protect a narrowly defined category of trade secrets.”  On the other hand, his executive order speaks to “curtailing” their use.  The best outcome would be an FTC ban on the use of non-competes in all situations and for all workers; noncompetes are just another tool that businesses can use to exploit their workers.

But it may be that the FTC will instead seek to place limits on the use of such agreements, perhaps outlawing their use with low wage workers or establishing federal regulations that restrict their scope and duration.  Although such a step would be an improvement over the current situation, where most states do little to restrict the use of noncompetes, it may well result in an unsatisfying patchwork regulatory framework, much like that of our current unemployment system.

No matter how the FTC rules on the use of noncompete agreements, there are two other actions it should take that would significantly strengthen worker rights. Currently, many workers only learn they are subject to a noncompete agreement after they have already accepted a job.  The FTC should mandate that employers include any noncompete requirements in all job postings.

And as the California experience shows, companies will continue to use noncompetes even if they are not enforceable, relying on ignorance, intimidation, as well as the financial costs of court proceedings, to get workers to accept their terms.  Therefore, the FTC should also allow workers to sue for damages if a business is illegally attempting to enforce a noncompete agreement.

In the meantime, while we await FTC action, the greater the public knowledge about, and voiced opposition to the use of noncompetes, the better. 

The latest argument against federal relief: business claims that workers won’t work

A growing number of business and political leaders have found yet another argument to use against federal pandemic relief programs, especially those that provide income support for workers: they hurt the economic recovery by encouraging workers not to work.

In the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as reported by BusinessInsider

“We have flooded the zone with checks that I’m sure everybody loves to get, and also enhanced unemployment,” McConnell said from Kentucky. “And what I hear from businesspeople, hospitals, educators, everybody across the state all week is, regretfully, it’s actually more lucrative for many Kentuckians and Americans to not work than work.”

He went on: “So we have a workforce shortage and we have raising inflation, both directly related to this recent bill that just passed.”

In line with business claims that they can’t find willing workers despite their best efforts at recruitment, the governors of Montana, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi have all announced that they will no longer allow the unemployed in their respective states to collect the $300-a-week federal supplemental unemployment benefit and will once again require that those receiving unemployment benefits demonstrate they are actively looking for work.

In reality there is little support for the argument that expanded unemployment benefits have created an overly worker-friendly labor market, leaving companies unable to hire and, by extension, meet growing demand.  But of course, if enough people accept the argument, corporate leaders and their political allies will have achieved their shared goal, which is to weaken worker bargaining power as corporations seek to position themselves for a profitable post-pandemic economic recovery.

Wage trends

If companies were aggressively seeking workers, we would expect to see the resulting competition push up wages.  The following figure shows year-over-year real weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers—approximately 85 percent of the workforce.  As we can see, those earnings were actually lower in April 2021 than they were in April 2020. 

In short, companies may want more workers, but it is hard to take their cries of anguish seriously if they remain unwilling to offer higher real wages to attract them.  Real average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers in April 2021 stood at $875.  Multiplying weekly earnings by 50, gives an estimated annual salary of $43,774.  That total is actually 5.7 percent below the similarly calculated peak in October 1972.

Over the last three months, the only sector experiencing significant wage growth due to labor shortages is the leisure and hospitality sector (which includes arts, entertainment, and leisure as well as accommodations and food services).  Wages in that sector grew at an annualized rate of nearly 18 percent relative to the previous three months.  But, as Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz explain,

There is very little reason to worry that labor shortages in leisure and hospitality will soon spill over into other sectors and drive economywide “overheating.”  For example, jobs in leisure and hospitality have notably low wages and fewer hours compared to other sectors. Weekly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers in leisure and hospitality now equate to annual earnings of just $20,628, and total wages in leisure and hospitality account for just 4% of total private wages in the U.S. economy. . . . [Moreover] this sector seems notably segmented off from much of the rest of the economy.

Job openings and labor turnover

The figure below, drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS), shows the monthly movement in job openings, hires, quits, and layoffs and discharges, with solid lines showing their six-month moving averages.   

As we can see, despite business complaints, monthly hiring (green line) still remains greater than during the last years of the pre-pandemic expansion.  And although job openings (blue line) are growing sharply while the number of hires is falling, the gap between openings and hires is also still smaller than it was during the last years of the previous expansion.  In addition, the number of quits (light blue line), which are an indicator of labor tightness, remain below the last years of the previous expansion and rather stable.  In short, there is nothing in the data that suggests business is facing a dysfunctional labor market marked by an unreasonable worker unwillingness to work.

Even with the additional financial support in Biden’s American Rescue Plan, many workers and their families continue to struggle to afford food, housing, and health care.  Many workers remain reluctant to re-enter the labor market because of Covid-related health concerns and care responsibilities.  Moreover, as Heidi Shierholz points out

there are far more unemployed people than available jobs in the current labor market. In the latest data on job openings, there were nearly 40% more unemployed workers than job openings overall, and more than 80% more unemployed workers than job openings in the leisure and hospitality sector.

While there are certainly fewer people looking for jobs now than there would be if Covid weren’t a factor . . . without enough job openings to even come close to providing work for all job seekers, it again stretches the imagination to suggest that labor shortages are a core dynamic in the labor market.

We need to discredit this attempt by the business community and its political allies to generate opposition to policies that help workers survive this period of crisis and redouble our own efforts to strengthen worker rights and build popular support for truly transformative economic policies, ones that go beyond the stopgap fixes currently promoted.

The failings of our unemployment insurance system are there by design

Our unemployment insurance system has failed the country at a moment of great need.  With tens of millions of workers struggling just to pay rent and buy food, Congress was forced to pass two emergency spending bills, providing one-time stimulus payments, special weekly unemployment insurance payments, and temporary unemployment benefits to those not covered by the system.  And, because of their limited short-term nature, President Biden must now advocate for a third.

The system’s shortcomings have been obvious for some time, but little effort has been made to improve it.  In fact, those shortcomings were baked into the system at the beginning, as President Roosevelt wanted, not by accident.  While we must continue to organize to ensure working people are able to survive the pandemic, we must also start the long process of building popular support for a radical transformation of our unemployment insurance system.  The history of struggle that produced our current system offers some useful lessons.

Performance

Our unemployment insurance system was designed during the Great Depression.  It was supposed to shield workers and their families from the punishing costs of unemployment, thereby also helping to promote both political and economic stability.  Unfortunately, as Eduardo Porter and Karl Russell reveal in a New York Times article, that system has largely failed working people.

The chart below shows the downward trend in the share of unemployed workers receiving benefits and the replacement value of those benefits.  Benefits now replace less than one-third of prior wages, some eight percentage points below the level in the 1940s.  Benefits aside, it is hard to celebrate a system that covers fewer than 30 percent of those struggling with unemployment.

A faulty system

Although every state has an unemployment insurance system, they all operate independently.  There is no national system.  Each state separately generates the funds it needs to provide unemployment benefits and is largely free, subject to some basic federal standards, to set the conditions under which an unemployed worker becomes eligible to receive benefits, the waiting period before benefits will be paid, the length of time benefits will be paid, the benefit amount, and requirements to continue receiving benefits.

Payroll taxes paid by firms generate the funds used to pay unemployment insurance benefits.  The size of the taxes to be paid depends on the value of employee earnings that is made taxable (the base wage) and the tax rate.  States are free to set the base wage as they want, subject to a federally mandated floor of $7000 established in the 1970s.  States are also free to set the tax rate as they want.  Not surprisingly, in the interest of supporting business profitability, states have generally sought to keep both the base wage and tax rate low.  For example, Florida, Tennessee and Arizona continue to set their base wage at the federal minimum value.  And, as the figure below shows, insurance tax rates have been trending down for some time.

While such a policy might help business, lowering the tax rate means that states have less money in their trust funds to pay unemployment benefits.  Thus, when times are hard, and unemployment claims rise, many states find themselves hard pressed to meet their required obligations.  In fact, as Porter and Russell explain:

Washington has been repeatedly called on to provide additional relief, including emergency patches to unemployment insurance after the Great Recession hit in 2008. Indeed, it has intervened in response to every recession since the 1950s.

This is far from a desirable outcome for those states forced to borrow, since the money has to be paid back with interest by imposing higher future payroll taxes on employers.  Thus, growing numbers of states have sought to minimize the likelihood of this happening, or at least the amount to be borrowed, by raising eligibility standards, reducing benefits, and shortening time of coverage, all of which they hope will reduce the number of people drawing unemployment benefits as well as the amount and length of time they will receive them.

Porter and Russell highlight some of the consequences of this strategy:

In Arizona, nearly 70 percent of unemployment insurance applications are denied. Only 15 percent of the unemployed get anything from the state. Many don’t even apply. Tennessee rejects nearly six in 10 applications.

In Florida, only one in 10 unemployed workers gets any benefits. The state is notably stingy: no more than $275 a week, roughly a third of the maximum benefit in Washington State. And benefits run out quickly, after as little as 12 weeks, depending on the state’s overall unemployment rate.

And, the growing stagnation of the US economy, which has led to more precarity of employment, only makes this strategy ever more fiscally “intelligent.”  For example, as the following figure shows, a growing percentage of the unemployed are remaining jobless for a longer time.  Such a trend, absent state actions to restrict access to benefits, would mean financial trouble for state officials.

Adding to the system’s structural shortcomings is that fact that growing numbers of workers, for example the many workers who have been reclassified as independent contractors, are not covered by it.  In addition, since eligibility for benefits requires satisfying a minimum earnings and hours of work requirement over a base year, the growth in irregular low wage work means that many of those in most need of the system’s financial support during periods of unemployment find themselves declared ineligible for benefits.

By design, not by mistake

Our current unemployment insurance system and its patchwork set of state standards and benefits dates back to the depression. While President Roosevelt gets credit for establishing our unemployment insurance system as part of the New Deal, the fact is he deliberately sidelined a far stronger program that, if it had been approved, would have put working people today in a far more secure position. 

The Communist Party (CP) began pushing an unemployment and social insurance bill in the summer of 1930 and, along with the numerous Unemployed Councils that existed in cities throughout the country, worked hard to promote it over the following years.  On March 4, 1933, the day of Roosevelt’s inauguration, they organized demonstrations stressing the need for action on unemployment insurance.

Undeterred by Roosevelt’s lack of action, the CP-authored “Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill” was introduced in Congress in February 1934 by Representative Ernest Lundeen of the Farmer-Labor Party.  In broad brush, the bill mandated the payment of unemployment insurance to all unemployed workers and farmers equal to average local full-time wages, with a guaranteed minimum of $10 per week plus $3 for each dependent. Those forced into part-time employment would receive the difference between their earnings and the average local full-time wage.  The bill also created a social insurance program that would provide payments to the sick and elderly, and maternity benefits to be paid eight weeks before and eight weeks after birth.  All these benefits were to be financed by unappropriated funds in the Treasury and taxes on inheritances, gifts, and individual and corporate incomes above $5,000 a year.

The bill enjoyed strong support among workers—employed and unemployed—and it was soon endorsed by 5 international unions, 35 central labor bodies, and more than 3000 local unions.  Rank and file worker committees also formed across the country to pressure members of Congress to pass it.

When Congress refused to act on the bill, Lundeen reintroduced it in January 1935. Because of public pressure, the bill became the first social insurance plan to be recommended by a congressional committee, in this case the House Labor Committee.  However, it was soon voted down in the full House of Representatives, 204 to 52.

Roosevelt strongly opposed the Lundeen bill and it was to provide a counter that he pushed to create an alternative, one that offered benefits far short of what the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill offered, and was strongly opposed by many workers and all organizations of the unemployed.  Roosevelt appointed a Committee on Economic Security in July 1934 with the charge to develop a social security bill that he could present to Congress in January 1935 that would include provisions for both unemployment insurance and old-age security.  An administration approved bill was introduced right on schedule in January and Roosevelt called for quick congressional action. 

Roosevelt’s bill was revised in April by a House committee and given a new name, “The Social Security Act.”  After additional revisions the Social Security Act was signed into law on August 14, 1935. The Social Security Act was a complex piece of legislation.  It included what we now call Social Security, a federal old-age benefit program; a program of unemployment insurance administered by the states; and a program of federal grants to states to fund benefits for the needy elderly and aid to dependent children. 

The unemployment system established by the Social Security Act was structured in ways unfavorable to workers (as was the federal old-age benefit program).  Rather than a progressively funded, comprehensive national system of unemployment insurance that paid benefits commensurate with worker wages, the act established a federal-state cooperative system that gave states wide latitude in determining standards.

More specifically, the act levied a uniform national pay-roll tax of 1 percent in 1936, 2 percent in 1937, and 3 percent in 1938, on covered employers, defined as those employers with eight or more employees for at least twenty weeks, not including government employers and employers in agriculture.  Only workers employed by a covered employer could receive benefits.

The act left it to the states to decide whether to enact their own plans, and if so, to determine eligibility conditions, the waiting period to receive benefits, benefit amounts, minimum and maximum benefit levels, duration of benefits, disqualifications, and other administrative matters. It was not until 1937 that programs were established in every state as well as the then-territories of Alaska and Hawaii.  And it was not until 1938 that most began paying benefits.

In the early years, most states required eligible workers to wait 2 to 4 weeks before drawing benefits, which were commonly set at half recent earnings (subject to weekly maximums) for a period ranging from 12 to 16 weeks. Ten state laws called for employee contributions as well as employer contributions; three still do today.

Over the following years the unemployment insurance system has been improved in a number of positive ways, including by broadening coverage and boosting benefits.  However, its basic structure remains largely intact, a structure that is overly complex, with a patchwork set of state eligibility requirements and miserly benefits. And we are paying the cost today.

This history makes clear that nothing will be given to us.  We need and deserve a better unemployment insurance system. And to get it, we are going to have to fight for it, and not be distracted by the temporary, although needed, band-aids Congress is willing to provide.  The principles shaping the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill can provide a useful starting point for current efforts.

The U.S. recovery on pause, December brings new job losses

A meaningful working-class recovery from the recession seems far away.

After seven months of job gains, although diminishing gains to be sure, we are again losing jobs.  As the chart below shows,  the number of jobs fell by 140,000 in December.

We are currently about 9.8 million jobs down from the February 2020 employment peak, having recovered only 55 percent of the jobs lost.  And, as the following chart illustrates, the percentage of jobs lost remains greater, even now after months of job growth, than it was at any point during the Great Recession. 

If the job recovery continues on its current pace, some analysts predict that it will likely take more than three years to just get back to pre-pandemic employment levels.  However, this might well be too rosy a projection.  One reason is that the early assumption that many of the job losses were temporary, and that those unemployed would soon be recalled to employment, is turning out to be wrong.  A rapidly growing share of the unemployed are remaining unemployed for an extended period. 

As we see below, in October, almost one-third of the unemployed had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.  According to the December jobs report, that percentage is now up to 37 percent, four times what it was before the pandemic.  And that figure seriously understates the problem, since many workers have given up looking for work; having dropped out of the workforce, they are no longer counted as unemployed.  The labor force participation rate is now 61.5 percent, down from 63.3 percent in February.

Dean Baker, quoted in a recent Market Place story, underscores the importance of this development:

“This is obviously a story of people losing their job at the beginning of the crisis in March and April and not getting it back,” said Dean Baker, co-founder and senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Those out of work for 27 weeks or more make up a growing share of the unemployed, and that could have enduring consequences, Baker said.

“After people have been unemployed for more than six months, they find it much harder to get a job,” he said. “And if they do get a job, their labor market prospects could be permanently worsened.”

And tragically, the workers that have suffered the greatest job losses during this crisis are those that earned the lowest wages. 

It is no wonder that growing numbers of working people are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs.

There is no way to sugar coat this situation.  We need a significant stimulus package, a meaningful increase in the minimum wage, real labor law reform, a robust national single-payer health care system, and an aggressive Green New Deal designed public sector investment and jobs program.  And there is no getting around the fact that it is going to take hard organizing and mutually supportive community and workplace actions to move the country in the direction it needs to go.

America’s labor crisis

We face a multifacited labor crisis. One of the most important aspects of this crisis is the U.S. economy’s diminishing capacity to provide employment. This development is highlighted in the chart below, which shows the trend in civilian employment over the last thirty years.  Civilian employment includes all individuals who worked at least one hour for a wage or salary, or were self- employed, or were working at least 15 unpaid hours in a family business or on a family farm, during the week including the 12th of the month when surveys are taken.

As we can see, it took approximately 4 years to bring civilian employment back to its pre-crisis peak after the 2001 recession, and a much longer 6.5 years after the 2008 recession.  The number of years it will take to regain the pre-crisis peak employment level after the end of this recession (which remains ongoing) can be expected to be far greater, with some analysts predicting it could take a decade or more. And of course, new people will be entering the labor force over that decade, generating a serious unemployment problem.

The following chart, which shows the trend in the civilian labor force participation rate, offers additional evidence of the economy’s declining job creating potential. The civilian labor force participation rate is calculated by dividing the sum of all workers who are employed or actively seeking employment by the total noninstitutionalized, civilian working-age population.

As we can see, this measure has been in sharp decline for many years, including over the years of expansion that followed the 2008 recession.  With growing numbers of working-age people, including prime-age workers, forced to drop out of the labor force even during so-called “good times,” there is little reason to expect a significant improvement in employment opportunities in the years following the end of this recession.

These charts make clear that without a significant change in the workings of the economy, working people are facing a future of declining employment possibilities. And it certainly appears that there is no enthusiasm for major economic changes among the most powerful and wealthy in the United States.  According to a recent report, U.S. billionaires saw their fortunes soar by $434 billion during the nation’s lockdown between mid-March and mid-May. And Market Watch reported that the S&P 500 and Nasdaq just booked the best postelection day gains in history.  The reason:

Wall Street warmed to the possibility of a divided U.S. government and further political gridlock in Washington following a contentious election, potentially keeping Trump administration’s tax cuts in place no matter who sits in the White House.

In sum, if we want a meaningful economic recovery, one that serves majority needs, we will have to fight for it.  Among other things, this means finding new ways to strengthen labor-community coalitions and engage people in sustained conversation about the class-contradictory nature of our economic system.

COVID-19 Economic Crisis Snapshot

 Workers in the United States are in the midst of a punishing COVID-19 economic crisis.  Unfortunately, while a new fiscal spending package and an effective vaccine can bring needed relief, a meaningful sustained economic recovery will require significant structural changes in the operation and orientation of the economy.

The unemployment problem

Many people blame government mandated closure orders for the decline in economic activity and spike in unemployment.  But the evidence points to widespread concerns about the virus as the driving force.  As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano describe in a New York Times article, and as illustrated in the following graphic taken from the article:

In the weeks before states around the country issued lockdown orders this spring, Americans were already hunkering down. They were spending less, traveling less, dining out less. Small businesses were already cutting employment. Some were even closing shop.

People were behaving this way — effectively winding down the economy — before the government told them to. And that pattern, apparent in a range of data looking back over the past two months, suggests in the weeks ahead that official pronouncements will have limited power to open the economy back up.

As the graphic shows, economic activity nosedived around the same time regardless of whether state governments were quick to mandate closings, slow to mandate closings, or unwilling to issue stay-at-home orders.

The resulting sharp decline in economic activity caused unemployment to soar. Almost 21 million jobs were lost in April at the peak of the crisis.  The unemployment rate hit a high of 14.7 percent.  By comparison the highest unemployment rate during the Great Recession was 10.6 percent in January 2010.

Employment recovered the next month, with an increase of 2.8 million jobs in May.  In June, payrolls grew by an even greater number, 4.8 million.  But things have dramatically slowed since.  In July, only 1.8 million jobs came back.  In August it was 1.5 million.  And in September it was only 661,000.  To this point, only half of the jobs lost have returned, and current trends are far from encouraging.

The unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent in September, a significant decline from April.  But a large reason for that decline is that millions of workers have given up working or looking for work and are no longer counted as being part of the labor force.  And, as Alisha Haridasani Gupta writes in the New York Times:

A majority of those dropping out were women. Of the 1.1 million people ages 20 and over who left the work force (neither working nor looking for work) between August and September, over 800,000 were women, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. That figure includes 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women. For comparison, 216,000 men left the job market in the same time period.

The relationship between the fall in the unemployment rate and worker exodus from the labor market is illustrated in the next figure which shows both the unemployment rate and the labor force participation rate (LFPR), which is measured by dividing the number of people 16 and over who are employed or seeking employment by the size of the civilian noninstitutional population that is 16 and over.

The figure allows us to see that even the relatively “low” September unemployment rate of 7.9 percent is still high by historical standards.  It also allows us to see that its recent decline was aided by a decline in the LFPR to a level not seen since the mid-1970s.  If those who left the labor market were to decide to once again seek employment, pushing the LFPR back up, unless the economic environment changed dramatically, the unemployment rate would also be pushed up to a much higher level.

Beyond the aggregate figures is the fact, as Heather Long, Andrew Van Dam, Alyssa Fowers and Leslie Shapiro explain in a Washington Post article, that “No other recession in modern history has so pummeled society’s most vulnerable.”

As we can see in the above graphic, the 1990 recession was a relatively egalitarian affair with all income groups suffering roughly a similar decline in employment.  That changed during the recessions of 2001 and 2008, with the lowest earning cohort suffering the most.  But, as the authors of the Washington Post article state, “even that inequality is a blip compared with what the coronavirus inflicted on low-wage workers this year.”  By the end of the summer, the employment crisis was largely over for the highest earners, while employment was still down more than 20 percent for low-wage workers and around 10 percent for middle-wage workers.

Poverty is on the rise

In line with this disproportionate hit suffered by low wage workers, the poverty rate has been climbing.  Five Columbia University researchers, using a monthly version of the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), provide estimates of the monthly poverty rate from October 2019 through September 2020.  They found, as illustrated below, “that the monthly poverty rate increased from 15% to 16.7% from February to September 2020, even after taking the CARES Act’s income transfers into account. Increases in monthly poverty rates have been particularly acute for Black and Hispanic individuals, as well as for children.”

The standard poverty measure used by the federal government is an annual one, based on whether a family’s total annual income falls below a specified income level.  It doesn’t allow for monthly calculations and is widely criticized for using an extremely low emergency food budget to set its poverty level.   The SPM includes a more complete and accurate measure of family resources, a more expansive definition of family, the cost of a broader basket of necessities, and is adjusted for cost of living across metro areas.

As we can see in the above figure, the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law on March 27th, 2020, has had a positive effect on poverty levels.  For example, without it, the poverty rate would have jumped to 19.4 percent in April. “Put differently, the CARE Act’s income transfers directly lifted around 18 million individuals out of poverty in April.”

However, as we can also see, the positive effects of the CARES Act have gradually dissipated.  The Economic Impact Payments (“Recovery Rebates”) were one-time payments.  The $600 per week unemployment supplement expired at the end of July.  Thus, the gap between the monthly SPM with and without the CARES Act has gradually narrowed.  And, with job creation dramatically slowing, without a new federal stimulus measure it is likely we will not see much improvement in the poverty rate in the coming months.  In fact, if working people continue to leave the labor market out of discouragement and the pressure of home responsibilities, there is a good chance the poverty rate will climb again.

It is also important to note that the rise in monthly rates of poverty, even with the CARES Act, differs greatly by race/ethnicity as illustrated in the following figure.

The need to do more

Republican opposition to a new stimulus ensures that that there will be no follow-up to the CARES Act before the upcoming election.  Opponents claim that the federal government has already done enough and the economy is well on its way to recovery. 

As for the size of the stimulus, the United States has been a lagger when it comes to its fiscal response to the pandemic.  The OECD recently published an interim report titled “Coronavirus: Living with uncertainty.”  One section of the report looks at fiscal support as a percent of 2019 GDP for nine countries. As the following figure shows, the United States trails every country but Korea when it comes to direct support for workers, firms, and health care.  

A big change is needed

While it is natural to view COVID-19 as responsible for our current crisis, the truth is that our economic problems are more long-term.  The U.S. economy has been steadily weakening for years.  In the figure below, the “trend” line is based on the 2.1% average rate of growth in real per capita GDP from 1970 to 2007, the year before the Great Recession.  Not surprising, real per capita GDP took a big hit during the Great Recession.  But as we can also see, real per capita GDP has yet to return to its historical trend. In fact, the gap has grown larger despite the record long recovery that followed. 

As Doug Henwood explains:

Since 2009, the growth rate has averaged 1.6%. Last year [2019], which Trump touted as the greatest economy ever, it managed to get back to the pre-2008 average of 2.1%, an average that includes two deep recessions (1973–1975 and 1981–1982).

At the end of 2019, actual [real GDP per capita] was 13% below trend. At the end of the 2008–2009 recession it was 9% below trend. Remarkably, despite a decade-long expansion, it fell further below trend in well over half the quarters since the Great Recession ended. The gap is now equal to $10,200 per person—a permanent loss of income, as economists say. 

The pre-coronavirus period of expansion (June 2009 to February 2020), although the longest on record, was actually also one of the weakest. It was marked by slow growth, weak job creation, deteriorating job quality, declining investment, rising debt, declining life expectancy, and narrowing corporate profit margins. In other words, the economy was heading toward recession even before the start of state mandated lockdowns.  The manufacturing sector actually spent much of 2019 in recession.   

Thus, there is strong reason to believe that a meaningful sustained recovery from the current COVID-19 economic crisis is going to require more than the development of an effective vaccine and a responsive health care system to ensure its wide distribution.  Also needed is significant structural change in the operation and orientation of the economy.

There is a union difference: mortality rates from COVID-19 are lower in unionized nursing homes

We need strong unions, all of us.  Tragically, even during the pandemic, businesses continue to aggressively resist worker attempts at unionization. And recent decisions by the NLRB only add to worker difficulties.

Here is one example of what is at stake: a recently published study of New York State nursing homes found that mortality rates from COVID-19 were 30 percent lower in unionized nursing homes than in facilities without health care worker unions.  By gaining better protection for themselves, unionized workers were also able to better protect the health of those they served.

Although the pandemic makes organizing and solidarity actions more difficult, it is essential that we find effective ways to support worker struggles for strong unions.

Work during the pandemic

Many workers, especially those now celebrated as “essential” or “frontline,” don’t feel safe at work, and for good reason.  Many have been denied needed personal protective equipment (PPE) or even information about the health status of their coworkers.

While surveys find that many employers have implemented new workplace cleaning procedures, they also find that a large percentage of workers continue to work without access to PPE, especially masks and gloves.  Strikingly, according to one study,

If [worker] access to PPE was limited in our data, policies mandating that workers wear protective gear were even more uncommon. Around a third of workers in restaurants, fast food, coffee shops, and hotels and motels reported requirements to wear gloves. This share was dramatically lower (around 12%) in big-box stores, department stores, retail stores, grocery stores, and pharmacies. The share of workers required to wear gloves was even lower in warehouses, fulfillment centers, and in delivery. Mask requirements were vanishingly uncommon across workplaces, at between 2% and 7% in convenience stores, coffee shops, fast food, restaurants, grocery stores, retail, department stores, and big-box stores. Just 12% of those in fulfillment centers reported a mask requirement, which was significantly higher than the 5% of warehouse and delivery workers.

Adding to the danger, many companies are aggressively trying to keep information about worker infections secret from coworkers and the public.  As a Bloomberg Law post explains:

U.S. businesses have been on a silencing spree. Hundreds of U.S. employers across a wide range of industries have told workers not to share information about Covid-19 cases or even raise concerns about the virus, or have retaliated against workers for doing those things, according to workplace complaints filed with the NLRB and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Workers at Amazon.com, Cargill, McDonald’s, and Target say they were told to keep Covid cases quiet. The same sort of gagging has been alleged in OSHA complaints against Smithfield Foods, Urban Outfitters, and General Electric. In an email viewed by Bloomberg Businessweek, Delta Air Lines told its 25,000 flight attendants to “please refrain from notifying other crew members on your own” about any Covid symptoms or diagnoses. At Recreational Equipment Inc., an employee texted colleagues to say he’d tested positive and that “I was told not to tell anybody” and “to not post or say anything on social media.”

These policies may help the corporate bottom line, but they endanger workers and those they serve, and thereby help to spread the pandemic.

Without unions, workers have limited ways to force their employers to create a safe work environment.  One is to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  And, despite fears of retaliation, many workers have done just that.  As a Brookings blog post reports:

Using data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), [the figure below] shows the cumulative number of COVID-19 related workplace safety complaints. Between April 20 and August 20, total COVID-19 related workplace safety complaints rose over 350 percent.

Unfortunately, these complaints have achieved little.  According to the Bloomberg Law post,Many thousands of OSHA complaints about coronavirus safety issues have yielded citations against just two companies—a health-care company and a nursing home—totaling about $47,000.” OSHA has still not issued any regulations that address the pandemic.

OSHA rarely sends out inspectors to investigate complaints.  The Bloomberg Law post describes one case in which a mechanic at Maid-Rite, a company that supplies frozen meat products to military bases, nursing homes, and schools, wrote to OSHA describing unsafe conditions:

The mechanic says OSHA called him to say it would be sending Maid-Rite a letter instead of coming to inspect the plant, and that was the last he ever heard from the agency about his complaint. Letters between OSHA and Maid-Rite show OSHA told Maid-Rite in April to investigate worker allegations itself, and Maid-Rite wrote back saying that it was providing and mandating masks and that 6-foot distancing sometimes wasn’t feasible.

No changes were made and so other workers followed up with more complaints over the following weeks, leading OSHA to finally send an inspector to the plant.  However,

in a break from typical protocol, [the inspector] gave the company a heads-up. “OSHA is here, so do everything right!” a supervisor told staff during the inspection, the mechanic later wrote in an affidavit. Fifteen minutes later, the supervisor returned to say “Never mind,” because the visit was over, the mechanic wrote: “As soon as OSHA left, everything went exactly back to the way it was.”

Unions can help

Unions are far from perfect, but they are one of the most effective means workers have to protect their interests, and by extension those they serve.  That point is highlighted by the results of the above noted study on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes which found that mortality rates from COVID-19 are lower in unionized nursing homes.  This is significant because approximately 43% of all reported COVID-19 deaths in the United States have occurred in nursing homes.

The three authors–Adam Dean, Atheendar Venkataramani, and Simeon Kimmel–focused on nursing homes in New York State, which has had over 6,500 COVID-19 nursing home deaths, second only to New Jersey.  The authors built a model that attempted to explain the variation in confirmed COVID-19 deaths at these New York State nursing homes with an eye to determining if the presence of a health care union made a difference.  They used “proprietary data from 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), as well as publicly-available data from the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) to determine if a labor union represented health care workers in each facility.”

Their cross-section regression model also included a range of nonunion variables as possible causes for the variation.  These variables included: whether or not a facility had an adequate supply of PPEs, including masks, eye shields, gowns, gloves, and hand sanitizer; the average age of residents; Resource Utilization Group Nursing Case Mix Index of resident acuity, which classifies patient care needs based on diagnosis, proposed treatment, and level of needed assistance with activities of daily living; occupancy rates; staff-hours-to resident-days ratios for RN, CNA, and licensed practical nurses; percent of residents whose primary support comes from Medicaid or Medicare; Overall 5-Star Rating; whether the nursing home was part of a chain; whether the nursing home was for-profit or non-profit; and county-level data on confirmed cases of COVID-19 and population.

Their main regression result, confirmed by several sensitivity tests, was that, taking all the other variables into account, the presence of a health care labor union was associated with a 30% relative decrease in the COVID-19 mortality rate compared to facilities without a health care labor union.

In examining possible reasons for this result, they ran two other regressions.  One found that the presence of a health care labor union was associated with a 13.8% relative increase in access to N95 masks and a 7.3% relative increase in access to eye shields. Labor union status was not a significant predictor of access to other types of PPE.  The other regression found that the presence of a health care labor union was associated with a 42% relative decrease in the COVID-19 infection rate.

The struggle ahead

There is good reason to believe that the union benefits found by Dean, Venkataramani, and Kimmel in their study are not limited to New York State nursing homes.  Unions are one of the most effective ways for workers to ensure access to critical PPEs and implementation of safety regulations, things that as noted above workers desperately seek.

But of course, corporations don’t want to pay the higher costs that come with unionization.  They prefer the status quo, where working people are forced to pay far greater costs, individually and collectively.  And even in the midst of the pandemic, the NLRB continues to pass new rules making it ever more difficult for workers to unionize.

Workers are increasingly coming to understand that they cannot rely on OSHA or the NLRB to defend their interests. Thus, growing numbers of workers are bravely engaging in direct action, risking their jobs, to fight for their rights and the safety of their co-workers.  We need to find ways to support them and improve the broader environment for organizing and unionizing. A recent Gallup poll offers one hopeful sign: approval of unions continues to grow.

Times remain hard, especially for low-wage workers

The current economic crisis has hit workers hard.  Unemployment rates remain high, with total weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits continuing to grow.  Recent reports of a sharp rise in median earnings for full-time workers appear to complicate the picture.  However, a more detailed examination of worker earnings and employment not only helps to sharpen our understanding of the devastating nature of the current crisis for working people, but makes clear that low wage workers are the hardest hit.

Earnings growth

The labor department recently published data showing wages skyrocketing.  As Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco researchers reported in a recent Economic Letter:

Recent data show that median usual weekly earnings of full-time workers have grown 10.4 percent over the four quarters preceding the second quarter of 2020. This is a 6.4 percentage point acceleration compared with the fourth quarter of 2019. The median usual weekly earnings measure that we focus on here is not an exception. Other measures of wage growth—like average hourly earnings and compensation per hour—show similar spikes.

The spike can be seen in the movement in the blue line in the figure below (which is taken from the Economic Letter).  As we can see, nominal average weekly earnings for full-time employees grew by 10.4 percent between spring of 2019 and spring of 2020, the fastest rate of growth in nearly 40 years.

While this earnings trend suggests a strong labor market, it is, as the researchers correctly note, highly misleading.  The reason is that this measure has been distorted by the massive loss of jobs disproportionally suffered by low wage full-time workers.  The decline in the number of full-time low wage workers has been large enough to change the earnings distribution, leading to a steadily growing value for the median earnings of the remaining full-time workers.

In other words, the spike in median earnings is not the result of currently employed workers enjoying significant wage gains.  This becomes clear when we adjust for the decline in employment by only considering the nominal median earnings of those workers that remained employed full-time throughout the past year.  As the downward movement in the green line in the above figure shows, the gains in medium earnings for those continuously employed has been small and falling.

Disproportionate job losses for full-time low-wage workers

The researchers confirmed that it was low-wage workers that have disproportionately suffered job losses by calculating the earnings distribution of the full-time workers forced to exit to, in the words of the researchers, “nonemployment” – by which they mean either unemployment or nonparticipation — each month over the past two decades.

They began by estimating the yearly share of full-time worker exits to unemployment and nonparticipation.  As we see in the figure above, in non-recession years, about 7 percent of those with full-time jobs become nonemployed each year—2 percent become unemployed and 5 percent leave the labor force.  During the Great Recession, nonemployment peaked in August 2009 at 11 percent, with most of the increase driven by a sharp rise in unemployment (as shown by the big bump in green area).  There was little change in the rate at which full-time workers dropped out of the labor force.

The severity of our current crisis is captured by the dramatic rise in the share of workers exiting full-time employment beginning in March 2020.  Exits to nonemployment peaked in May 2020 at 17 percent, with 9 percent moving to unemployment and 8 percent to nonparticipation. Not only is this almost twice as high as during the Great Recession, the extremely challenging state of the labor market is underscored by the fact that the share of nonemployed who chose nonparticipation and thus exit from the labor market was almost as great as the share who remained part of the labor force and classified as unemployed.

The next figure shows the share of workers exiting to nonemployment by their position in the wage distribution. The three areas depict exits by workers in the lowest quarter of the earnings distribution, the second lowest quarter, and the top half, respectively.

As the researchers explain,

In the months following the onset of COVID-19, workers in the bottom 25 percent of the earnings distribution made up about half of the exits to nonemployment. In contrast, the top half of the distribution only accounted for about a third of the exits. . . .

Therefore, the recent spike in aggregate nominal wage growth does not reflect the benefits of pay raises and a strong labor market for workers. Instead, it is the result of the high levels of job loss among low-income workers since the start of the pandemic.

Tragically, low wage workers have not only suffered disproportional job losses during this pandemic. Those who remain employed are increasingly being victimized by wage theft.  As Igor Derysh, writing in Salon, notes: “A paper released this week by the . . . Washington Center for Equitable Growth found that minimum wage violations have roughly doubled compared to the period before the pandemic.”

These are indeed hard times for almost all working people but, perhaps not surprisingly, those at the bottom of the wage distribution are suffering the most.

The pandemic, technology, and remote work: the corporate push for greater control over workers’ lives

The U.S. economy is undergoing a major transformation largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic.  One hallmark of that transformation is the explosion in what is called “remote” work.

In 2017, according to a Census Bureau study, only 3 percent of full-time workers in the United States reported that they primarily worked from home.  Today, in response to the pandemic, some 42 percent of the U.S. labor force is working from home—with only 26 percent still working on-site.

Corporate leaders appear to have embraced this shift to at-home work and are pursing the use of new technologies designed to increase managerial control over the remote work process. The response of workers to these changes is still evolving.

The pandemic and the corporate embrace of at-home work

Although most corporations initially viewed the shift to remote work as a necessary short-term response to government mandated closures and consumer and worker health concerns, a number are now planning for a permanent, post-pandemic increase in its use. As the New York Times reports:

Facebook expects up to half its workers to be remote as soon as 2025. The chief executive of Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce company that employs 5,000 people, tweeted in May that most of them “will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over.” Walmart’s tech chief told his workers that “working virtually will be the new normal.”

Quora, a question-and-answer site, said last week that “all existing employees can immediately relocate to anywhere we can legally employ them.” Those who do not want to go anywhere can still use the Silicon Valley headquarters, which would become a co-working space.

And these large firms are not alone.  As Luke Savage, writing in Jacobin, notes:

With the lockdown still only a few weeks old, a survey of company CFOs by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that almost 30 percent were already planning to reduce their business’s physical footprint, with an April study by Gartner suggesting that some three-quarters were planning to shift at least some employees to remote work on a permanent basis.

It’s a different world

Of course, this is not the first time that corporations have embraced remote work.  A number—including such major companies as IBM, Aetna, Best Buy, Bank of America, Yahoo, AT&T and Reddit—actively promoted telecommuting as recently as 15 years ago.  But they all eventually reversed course, concluding that employee productivity, loyalty, and innovation suffered.  Tech companies, in particular, responded by building expansive and expensive new facilities that offered a range of free on-site benefits such as communal cafeterias and gyms to keep employees motivated and loyal.

Because of this history, some analysts doubt that the current corporate celebration of remote work will last long.  But there is reason to believe that this time is different.  Certainly, early indications are that at-home workers remain focused and hard at work.  Savage cites a Globe and Mail article that leads with this head: “Employers used to believe remote workers were happier but less productive. Turns out it’s the opposite.”  The Globe and Mail article goes on to say:

One fear about shifting to a work-from-home culture is that it would lead to operational chaos: missed meetings, spotty WiFi, games of broken telephone (both figurative and literal). Instead, even companies with tens of thousands of employees are finding that the IT infrastructure is holding up and so are lines of authority. Workers are responding to their emails and joining Zoom calls at approximately the right time. Everyone is always reachable.

The Globe and Mail is not alone in finding evidence of high worker productivity.  For example, the New York Times quotes John Sullivan, a professor of management:

“The data over the last three months is so powerful,” he said. “People are shocked. No one found a drop in productivity. Most found an increase. People have been going to work for a thousand years, but it’s going to stop and it’s going to change everyone’s life.”  Innovation, Dr. Sullivan added, might even catch up eventually.

And Bloomberg came to much the same conclusion, reporting that corporate executives at several different finance and investment companies all see evidence of gains in productivity.

Underlying these gains are three potentially long-lasting developments that provide support for the view that the current corporate commitment to expanding remote work needs to be taken seriously. The first is the availability of relatively low cost and easy-to-use online communication platforms like Zoom that allow managers to easily communicate with their workers and for workers to engage in group work when necessary.  The online infrastructure for corporate communication continues to improve.

The second is the recent and ongoing development of technologies that allow management to monitor and evaluate the online work effort of their employees.  As the New York Times explains: “Demand has surged for software that can monitor employees, with programs tracking the words we type, snapping pictures with our computer cameras and giving our managers rankings of who is spending too much time on Facebook and not enough on Excel.”

Of course, corporations have long used technology to monitor and direct work, and large companies like Amazon have pioneered the development and use of software for directing and intensifying the pace of warehouse workers.  Josh Dzieza, writing in the Verge, offers an example:

Every Amazon worker I’ve spoken to said it’s the automatically enforced pace of work, rather than the physical difficulty of the work itself, that makes the job so grueling. Any slack is perpetually being optimized out of the system, and with it any opportunity to rest or recover. A worker on the West Coast told me about a new device that shines a spotlight on the item he’s supposed to pick, allowing Amazon to further accelerate the rate and get rid of what the worker described as “micro rests” stolen in the moment it took to look for the next item on the shelf.

But as Dzieza makes clear, there is also growing availability and use of new software that makes it possible for corporations to easily oversee the work effort of their online workers.  One example is WorkSmart.  Dzieza describes the experience of a software engineer in Bangladesh who was required to download the software as a condition of his employment with Austin-based Crossover Technologies.  Among other things:

The software tracked his keystrokes, mouse clicks, and the applications he was running, all to rate his productivity. He was also required to give the program access to his webcam. Every 10 minutes, the program would take three photos at random to ensure he was at his desk. If [he] wasn’t there when WorkSmart took a photo, or if it determined his work fell below a certain threshold of productivity, he wouldn’t get paid for that 10-minute interval.

Other recently developed software programs currently in use to monitor the work of call center employees could easily be used to monitor home-based employees doing the same work. Recording the number and length of calls is old hat.  These new programs, using artificial intelligence, can now evaluate the “emotional” tone of the worker’s voice during their conversations with customers.  Some programs can even “coach workers in real time, telling them to speak more slowly or with more energy or to express empathy.” The growing corporate interest in remote work can be expected to spur the development of ever more sophisticated products that will allow even tighter control over at-home work and more detailed evaluation of at-home workers.

The nature of the ongoing transformation of the economy is the third reason that this period may well mark the start of a major shift in the location of work.  Simply stated: unemployment is now high and, when possible, workers welcome a safe alternative to on-site employment.

In the past on-site work was the standard corporate practice and most workers preferred it.  Thus, workers were generally able to undermine individual corporate attempts to push them into working from home.  Now, not only is remote work the new norm, because of the virus it has actually become the desired alternative.  With fear of the virus likely to remain for some time, corporations are in a far stronger position than in the past to normalize remote work and win worker acceptance of new work relations even after the pandemic is brought under control.

Benefits and costs

It is easy to understand why corporations are excited about increasing their use of remote work.  One reason is that it will allow them to greatly reduce their spending on facilities.  Gains on the labor side are likely even larger.  Companies will be able to expand their job search, hiring workers who may live thousands of miles away from the location of corporate operations with no need to pay moving expenses and with the possibility of cheapening the cost of labor by paying salaries commensurate with local living costs.  And, as a bonus, the more a company’s labor force is geographically separated and isolated, the harder it will be for its workers to build the bonds of solidarity needed to challenge management demands.

The use of remote work opens up possibilities for even greater labor savings by making possible the reclassification of new hires into independent contractors.  After all, many remote workers are already paying for the equipment they need (desks, chairs, computers, webcam), the supporting technological infrastructure (high speed Wi-Fi), and office maintenance (cleaning).

Of course, most workers also viewed at-home work positively, at least initially.  They appreciated being able to remain employed and work safely from their homes during the pandemic. But the costs of remote work, as currently structured, are mounting up for workers.

As a Bloomberg article summarizes, “We log longer hours. We attend more meetings with more people. And, we send more emails.”  The article highlights a recently published study by the National Bureau of Economic Research which was based on surveys of some 3 million people at more than 21,000 companies across 16 cities in North America, Europe and the Middle East.  The researchers:

compared employee behavior over two 8 week periods before and after Covid-19 lockdowns. Looking at email and meeting meta-data, the group calculated the workday lasted 48.5 minutes longer, the number of meetings increased about 13% and people sent an average of 1.4 more emails per day to their colleagues.

An online survey of 20,262 people in 10 countries by the technology company Lenovo Group Ltd. found that “A disturbing 71% of those working from home due to Covid-19 have experienced a new or exacerbated ailment caused by the equipment they now must use. . . the most common symptoms [being] back pain, poor posture (e.g., hunched shoulders), neck pain, eye irritation, insomnia and headaches.”

Looking just at the United States, a study done by NordVPN, based on tracking when at-home workers connected and disconnected from its service, found that at-home workers logged three hours more per day on the job than before the start of city and state lockdowns.  And a survey of 1,001 U.S. employees by Eagle Hill Consulting found that “By early April, about 45% of workers said they were burned out. Almost half attributed the mental toll to an increased workload, the challenge of juggling personal and professional life, and a lack of communication and support from their employer.”

Given the direction of corporate planning, it is likely that the costs of remote work for workers—physical and emotional—will only increase.  As one public relations executive explained when discussing why his company now views remote work so positively: The technology is better. Moreover, “we have rules now,” he said. “You have to be available between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. You can’t use this as child care.”

Challenges ahead

For many workers, it is the pandemic, with its forced isolation of family in small housing units, that has made remote work so difficult and emotionally wearing.  And, for many, the experience of on-site work before the coronavirus pandemic forced closures was also far from ideal.  Thus surveys show, as the New York Times reports,

Most American office workers are in no hurry to return to the office full time, even after the coronavirus is under control. But that doesn’t mean they want to work from home forever. The future for them, a variety of new data shows, is likely to be workweeks split between office and home.

For example, a survey by the company Morning Consult done in mid-June found that:

Overall, 73 percent of U.S. adults who have careers where remote work is possible report that the pandemic has made them feel more positively about the prospect of remote work. And given the option, three quarters of these workers say they would like to work from home at least 1-2 days a week once the pandemic is under control.

At issue, then, is who will decide the place of work and perhaps even more importantly, the conditions of work, including remote work.  Current indications are that corporations plan to push workers into more remote work than surveys suggest they want, and definitely under conditions of surveillance and evaluation that they will find objectionable.  It is less clear whether those working remotely or threatened with remote work will be able to organize rapidly enough to force corporations to bargain with them over both the location of work and the work process, on- and off-site, including the aim and uses of new technology.

If there is a reason for optimism it is that there appears to be a growing solidarity between white- and blue-collar workers in the tech industry that includes support for unionization, especially at some of the large firms like Google and Amazon. As Tyler Sonnemaker and Allana Akhtar, writing for Business Insider, describe:

Even a year ago, the idea that tech’s cafeteria workers and office workers were on the same page about forming a labor union would have seemed unthinkable.

The recent wave of employee activism and organizing efforts represents a widening rift between the industry’s rank-and-file employees and its executives. For the first time, developers and product managers with higher pay and closer ties to management are siding with their lower-paid colleagues in warehouses, cafeterias, and contract gigs. . . .

Frequent leaks to the media – notable given the historically tight-knit culture at tech companies – and the emergence of groups like Rideshare Drivers United, Tech Workers Coalition, Athena, and Amazonians United are just two signs of the rise in employee activism in recent years. But over the past few months, emboldened by the pandemic and racial justice protests, workers at startups like Away and giants like Facebook have become a vocal chorus of critics.

Passively allowing management to use technology to shape the work process and the resulting final product is a recipe for ever worsening working and living conditions for the great majority of working people. Hopefully, the ongoing worker agitation and organizing in the United States will continue regardless of the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, producing a shared critique of profit-driven work and support for new organizational forms, including unions, that can fight for a more humane economic system.