Reimagining the Future of Work
By Christina L. Madden
COVID-19 has upended most projections of what the economy – and our daily lives – will look like over the next several years. As economists, banks, and consulting firms scramble to predict economic trends “after COVID,” and “Build Back Better” becomes a theme in recovery initiatives, how can we ensure that this new future we’re building is one that values our workers?
Despite a common narrative about the future of work in which robots and algorithms are rapidly replacing human beings in the workforce, the pandemic has illustrated just how essential our front-line workers are to our economy.
Take healthcare. An aging population in the United States, coupled with an increase in chronic conditions is driving demand for occupations such as home health aides, personal care aids, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, medical assistants, and other related jobs that cannot be easily replaced by technology. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the health care and social assistance sector was anticipated to experience the fastest annual employment growth over the next decade, adding 3.4 million new jobs to the economy between 2018 and 2028. As the Wall Street Journal reports the pandemic is “forcing the fastest reallocation of labor since World War II,” the trend is unlikely to subside.
Yet while the economy, and our nation’s health, depend on these workers, in many cases, these are the very occupations where workers face high rates of exploitation, including harassment and gender-based violence, and which lack basic supports like stable pay (or even a minimum wage), benefits, and opportunities for professional development.
As investors are contemplating their COVID-19 response and recovery initiatives, here are some steps they can take to begin to invest in a future that values workers and, in the process, strengthens our economy.
Step 1. Acknowledge the conditions and safety needs of our workers
Valuing our workers and their contributions to the economy – and very functioning of our society, crisis or not – means to first acknowledge the conditions many of our now-recognized-as-essential workers face on the job.
On top of poor pay and benefits, workers are reporting a lack of basic protections, such as shortages of masks and protective gear, and healthcare workers are increasingly becoming targets of abuse around the United States and across the world. But the lines between what is being caused by COVID-19 and what is being exposed are blurred, and many essential workers’ lives were at risk on the job long before Coronavirus existed.
It is estimated that US healthcare workers are four times more likely to experience physical assault in the workplace than workers in any other American industry. According to the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, nearly 75 percent of the roughly 25,000 workplace assaults reported annually occurred in health care and social service settings, and many additional cases go unreported.
In 2012, 25-year old health care coordinator Stephanie Ross was murdered by a patient during a home visit. Prior to the attack, Ross had documented in her case notes feeling “very uncomfortable” with the patient and had recommended that two people at a time should visit the patient in the future. Her employer, Integra Health, was later found to have been aware of the patient’s violent criminal past and was fined for failing to provide a safe working environment for Ross and other employees.
Workplace violence can take place at the hand of patients, like in the case of Ross, supervisors or other colleagues, or strangers or personal relations who enter the workplace. While violence occurs against all kinds of healthcare workers – from home care providers to physicians – and in virtually all settings, vulnerability to violence is significantly heightened by economic insecurity and shaped by intersecting identities, including gender expression, race, ethnicity, immigration status, ability, age, sexual identity, and other factors.
Health and personal care jobs tend to be dominated by women. According to a 2017 report released by the AFL-CIO, in partnership with Futures Without Violence and the Solidarity Center, the majority of domestic workers in the United States – including those providing home care to children, individuals with disabilities, and the elderly – are women immigrants, and many work temporary jobs with low wages, long hours, and little if any job security. The report points to a survey of 240 domestic workers in California that found that, within the two months prior to the survey, 20% had been threatened or insulted by their employer, while 9% had experienced sexual harassment and 9% had experienced violence at the hands of their employer. More than one third of survey respondents did not respond to survey questions involving workplace abuse.
The report also states that 80% of female farmworkers working in central California have reported sexual harassment, while gender-based violence in the workplace is particularly high in janitorial work – an essential, frontline occupation at a time when constant sanitization is paramount to public health.
ABM Industries Inc., the largest janitorial company in the United States, has been sued multiple times by the federal government (and dozens of times by employees) for failing to prevent sexual violence in the workplace, including several instances of rape. Sexual abuse allegations among janitorial workers was exposed in a PBS special, Rape on the Night Shift, as part of a movement of organized janitorial workers against the exploitation and abuse they endure as part of doing their jobs. In the words of UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program, janitorial workers face a “perfect storm” of conditions and characteristics that make them vulnerable to abuse: a primarily female, immigrant workforce, working in isolation at night as contractors or subcontractors for employers with little accountability and a workplace culture that often lacks policies, protections, and trainings against sexual harassment.
Step 2. Recognize violence as a risk to investments and our economy
Violence against workers has devastating consequences for individuals and families that cause ripple effects throughout society. But it also impacts the workplace which, in turn, creates risks to investors.
Recognizing these risks, Trustees United, a coalition of long-term institutional investors representing a combined $635 billion in assets, uses its collective power to engage companies in promoting policies to prevent and reduce sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. In 2019, they publicized a set of principles calling on corporations to: ensure a work environment free of sexual harassment and violence; end the use of non-disclosure agreements; prioritize diversity; and support policies that promote respect for workers’ rights. For the trustees – which represent CalPERS, CalSTRS, the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System, and the Los Angeles County Employees’ Retirement Association – failing to uphold these principles makes companies vulnerable to significant operational, financial and reputational risks.
Since #MeToo, more and more investors have been acknowledging and acting upon the material risks sexual harassment and assault pose to their investments and have voted at unprecedented levels in favor of shareholder resolutions that recognize that risk in public corporations. These investors are backed up by data: The proportion of Americans who believe that sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem role from 47% in 2011 to 64% in 2017. Wynn Resorts’ market capitalization dropped US$2 billion over a two-day period following allegations of sexual harassment against its CEO. Productivity decreases substantially as a result of sexual harassment due to absenteeism, lower motivation, greater conflict and avoiding interaction with harassers.
Step 3. Imagine a better future and make a bet on it
What if “building back better” meant creating a future where workers were protected from violence in all its forms? Where they were compensated accordingly for their essential contributions, empowered to make decisions within their places of employment, and given the skills, training, and support to adapt to a rapidly changing economy?
Beyond recognizing the risks associated with abuse and exploitation, investors are seeing opportunities to use their capital to upskill workers and create quality, sustainable jobs, in particular for women and people of color. For The 22 Fund, which invests in the US manufacturing sector – where there is estimated to be a shortage of approximately 2.3 million workers due to a lack of technical skills – the jobs gap offers a chance to fuel economic growth in underserved, low- to moderate-income communities.
“If you look at the economies around the world that made it through the  recession – Germany, France, China and Brazil at the time, India, Russia at the time — they’re export based,” said Tracy Gray, The 22 Fund’s Founder and Managing Director, in an interview with Criterion. Manufacturing companies who export, according to Gray, are more resilient and have higher growth potential yet they often face a shortage of investment capital. “With COVID-19, as a country, we’re seeing why that sector is so important. You may have heard we’re still going to be short personal protective equipment for the next wave. There’s no plan for it so, once again, they’re going to need those manufacturers to pivot, and we don’t have the infrastructure for it because these manufacturers don’t have the capital.”
The 22 Fund invests in US manufacturers that pay high wages, offer healthcare benefits, and where there is the potential to upskill workers. “The tech industry is not hiring people of color and women as much as they should. Because manufacturing is becoming more tech-based and tech-enabled, I saw this as the backdoor for people of color, women, and blue-collar workers to get into the tech sector,” said Gray.
“With The 22 Fund we look at how much people are being paid. Because manufacturing has worker supply shortage, you can’t be competitive if you’re paying someone $15 per hour. And if the wages are too low, we don’t say, ‘We won’t invest in you.’ We’ll say, ‘If you want our money, you have to raise your wages.’”
The gig economy offers similarly hopeful examples of investors who are using digital platforms to give workers greater opportunity and more control over their working conditions. Up & Go, for example, was founded to reinstate worker power in the cleaning business, connecting New York-based worker cooperatives with employment opportunities. The worker-owned and designed app isn’t backed by a Silicon Valley venture capital firm – it is self-financed after receiving philanthropic seed grants – and doesn’t hand over a percentage of worker earnings to investors. Workers who join Up & Go’s platform on average receive $5 more per hour than investor-owned apps, and only 5% of the prices paid by customers goes toward transaction fees and sustaining the platform.
Worker organizing on technological platforms is becoming increasingly common and it is believed that the Up&Go model could be used in other industries and other parts of the country.
Investing, ultimately, is about placing a bet on the future. We have the option of a future where robots dominate while human beings are relegated to working in unsafe, exploitative conditions, or a future where workers are supported, protected, and equipped with the skills and tools they need to thrive. Which one are you putting your money on?
Erin Puglia contributed to this article.