The Importance of Job Quality
We need a new vision for work, one that is rooted in the ideals of freedom, fairness, and universal human dignity as much as in the persistent pursuit of economic efficiency. For most Americans, work is both a means to support oneself and one’s family and an important source of human connection and social identity. Success at work can expand access to resources that in turn expand choices and freedoms. How communities and businesses should operate to improve job quality and expand opportunity for all has been a central concern of our work as Job Quality Fellows. We can progress toward a more inclusive and equitable future through businesses, workers, investors, government, and others working together to create the good jobs that enable workers to thrive, companies to be productive and profitable, and communities to benefit from healthy, sustainable economies.
Americans see virtue in work and believe hard work should offer a pathway to economic security. But decades of lagging wages, eroding benefits, declining employment security, and insufficient attention to addressing barriers to equity and inclusion mean that too many jobs are not a pathway to an economically stable life. This inequality of economic opportunity and decline in job quality is the central issue leading to the erosion of shared opportunity and economic prosperity. To restore the ideal of work as the pathway to the American Dream, our economy needs more quality jobs.
We come from a range of disciplines. We are community development lenders and investors, business leaders and business consultants, worker organizers and advocates, workforce development leaders and educators, local policymakers, and economic development leaders. We hail from various geographies, including small rural towns and major urban areas, coastal and mountain communities, and red and blue states. But we share a commitment to building better jobs. Achieving effective progress toward ensuring that far more jobs in our economy are good jobs necessitates improving communications and relationships among a wide range of stakeholders. Progress will entail strengthening existing roles as well as shouldering new roles by employers, workers, labor organizations, governments, investors, philanthropy, and the public as consumers and as citizens actively holding their elected representatives accountable.
When the pandemic hit and the labor market cratered, many questioned whether now is the time to focus on job quality goals and practices. But the dramatic increase in food insecurity, the challenges of workplace safety, the crisis of racial injustice, and the moral questions raised by the meager wages and dangerous working conditions of essential workers all underscore the need to improve job quality. We cannot solve inequality, we cannot advance racial justice, and we cannot address the deep divisions in our society without making work work for everyone – which means that now, more than ever, is a moment for investing in quality jobs.
Defining Job Quality
A quality job means one’s work is valued and respected and meaningfully contributes to the goals of the organization. It encompasses having a voice in one’s workplace and the opportunity to shape one’s work life, as well as having accessible opportunities to learn and grow. Quality work affords an individual the opportunity to save, to build the security and confidence that allows one to plan for the future, and to participate in the life of and see oneself as a valued member of a community. In practical terms, a quality job offers:
- Wages sufficient to cover basic living expenses, a stable/predictable income, and opportunities to build wealth/assets;
- Working conditions that are safe, free from discrimination and harassment, and welcoming of and responsive to workers’ concerns and ideas for improvement;
- Stable, predictable, and humane work hours; and
- A package of benefits that facilitate a healthy, stable life. Typically, these benefits include affordable health insurance, paid sick and vacation time, family/medical leave, an adequate retirement savings plan, disability insurance, and life insurance.
Job quality is a continuum and there are multiple avenues for improving the quality of a job. We seek to mobilize solutions that can reverse the decades-long decline in job quality and advance our vision of an economy with high-quality jobs that truly works for everyone.
Ideas for the Next Administration
Federal policy plays a central role in setting incentives and encouraging a range of economic actors to contribute to higher-quality jobs. Based on our experience, we offer a framework and policy ideas that could be the backbone of an agenda to improve job quality and the opportunities for hard-working Americans to support themselves, their loved ones, and to have the freedom to lead lives of their choosing.
These ideas fall into three categories. First, there are policies to establish minimum standards for work. The second category entails incentives for businesses to do what they can to improve the quality of their jobs. The final essential piece relates to care. In childcare and family care, policy shapes job quality and access to quality, affordable care enables work. Given the outsize role of the care industry as a source of jobs and as a factor in job quality, special attention is needed to policies influencing this sector. Finally, we must promote a new narrative that places job quality as a key measure of economic success and that reinforces the fact that good jobs are good business and are essential in a just, inclusive society.
I. Adopt and Enforce Rules/Regulations to Improve Poor Quality Jobs & Working Conditions
The decades-long decline in job quality means that it has become commonplace for hardworking people to find that their earnings are insufficient to cover life’s basic expenses. Food, housing, transportation, healthcare, child and family care, and other essentials too often are unaffordable. Little is available to cover unexpected emergency expenses or to weather interruptions in income. Rules and regulations that set a higher standard for a basic level of compensation are essential to lift working people out of poverty and to reduce race and gender disparities. In addition, policy can play a vital role in reducing basic living expenses, allowing earnings to stretch further. Finally, protecting worker safety is critical to improving well-being as well as reducing the chances of lost income due to illness or injury. Below are examples of policy changes that are important to raising baseline standards for job quality.
A. Increase the federal minimum wage to $15/hour with automatic future increases to reflect rising costs of living. Tax credits, subsidies, and/or technical assistance for the smallest businesses may help these firms provide their workers with higher-quality jobs.
B. Adopt regulations to ensure that healthcare, including mental healthcare, is affordable and equitable across a workforce and is not a barrier to changing jobs, starting a business, participating in education, or taking time off to care for loved ones.
C. Adopt as permanent changes to benefits put in place during the pandemic to include paid sick leave, family care, expanded unemployment insurance, and medical leave.
D. Require provision of personal protective equipment for essential workers, establish clear guidelines on worker health screenings and return-to-work protocols, and offer public subsidies where necessary to ensure availability of materials and ability to adhere to guidelines.
II. Incentivize Employers to Create Better Quality Jobs
Employers play a critical role in determining job quality. Many business pressures encourage business leaders to try to minimize the cost of labor as a way to maximize profits or for some smaller businesses simply as a way to remain viable. Setting basic standards, as described above, can help limit the downsides of this competitive approach. However, businesses can also choose a “good jobs strategy” and compete by investing in a stable, capable workforce to drive business success. Policy can play an important role in incentivizing companies to innovate in the design of jobs so that they improve employee engagement and productivity and give employees a meaningful stake in the success of the enterprise. Below are policy ideas that can incent companies to improve job quality.
E. Government procurement practices should value job quality in the selection of supplier firms. A key component of evaluating job quality should be an assessment of the diversity of a firm’s leadership and workforce. Federal funding and program spending should be tied to job quality metrics including diversity, equity, and inclusion standards.
F. Tax incentives should be revised to incentivize and support firms’ efforts to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve job quality.
G. Technical assistance and guidance should help employers be more intentional about hiring policies and other ways to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as job quality. Public funding for workforce development, small business development, and community development finance institutions could include resources to develop the capacity to offer business technical assistance as well as performance standards that encourage an assessment of job quality for the businesses that receive services.
H. Promote employee ownership and worker cooperative models, which have been shown to have a positive association with quality jobs, by offering technical assistance and access to appropriate financing to support transitions to employee ownership, as well as new business development that includes some form of employee ownership. Funds could be made available to state employee ownership centers, experienced nonprofit organizations, and interested Small Business Development Centers to raise awareness about different employee ownership models among small- to medium-sized businesses and to extend technical assistance and facilitate financing.
I. SEC and other regulations should require large public companies to report on job quality, salary equity, and diversity, equity, and inclusion performance metrics.
III. Improve Access to Child/Family/Personal Care and Job Quality for Care Workers
Policy has a critical role to play in shaping the quality of jobs in the care sector. The decisions made by government actors regarding how reimbursement rates are set for care services and how to regulate those industries have a profound impact on the quality of the jobs created in the care economy, which includes childcare and long-term care for older adults and people with disabilities. Given that the care sector is a large and growing employer in almost every community, directly improving the quality of jobs in that sector makes an important contribution toward improving the quality of jobs in US labor markets. In addition, access to quality, affordable care for oneself and one’s loved ones is essential if working people are going to be able to work productively and support themselves and their families on their earnings from work. Given the outsize role of the care industry as a source of jobs and as a factor in job quality, special attention is needed to policies influencing this sector. Below are a set of policy ideas for improving the quality of jobs in childcare and long-term care and meeting the needs of all who rely on the care sector.
J. Expand the availability and affordability of childcare and long-term care while also improving the quality – including higher wages — of care jobs through public, private, and nonprofit investment and business assistance.
K. Improve Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates to support higher pay for direct care workers providing long-term services and supports with an explicit federal requirement for wage pass-through targeted to direct care workers.
L. The predominance of women and Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in care jobs makes it essential that solutions be gender-, ethnicity-, and race-explicit. Pay, worker safety, legal protections, and other job quality standards should contribute to greater equity.
Implicit in all these ideas is that we have choices–as policymakers, as business leaders, and as members of society. Our choices help determine the quality of jobs. We need a new narrative that recognizes job quality as a choice. For too long our discussion of the economy has remained abstract, with the implication that impersonal and immutable market forces determine the quality of jobs. History demonstrates, however, that this is not the case. Experiences of other countries would also illustrate that different choices can be made. We need a narrative in which people are in control of the quality of jobs and that recognizes the importance of making better choices. We can have a better future of work if we choose it.
Aspen Institute Job Quality Fellows developed these recommendations for a policy agenda for economic recovery focused on job quality and economic inclusion during a set of meetings this Fall. Our opinions differ on some policy questions, but we are unanimous on the need for effective action now. We share this framework to urge policymakers to focus on the quality of jobs and to act to create meaningful change in the lives and livelihoods of all working people.
The Aspen Institute Job Quality Fellows participate in meetings and express their opinion in their individual capacities and not as representatives of their organizations. Institutional affiliations are included only to illustrate the range of experiences and perspectives included.
Emylene Aspilla, Director of Social Responsibility and Community Sustainability, San Francisco International Airport
Betsy Biemann, Chief Executive Officer, Coastal Enterprises Inc.
Amanda Blondeau, Chief Strategy Officer, Northern Initiatives
Amanda Cage, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Fund for Workforce Solutions
Mary Jo Cook, Board Chair, Ganaz
Jose Corona, Vice President for Programs & Partnerships, Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation
Christine Curella, Deputy Director, Business Development & New Economy Initiatives, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives, Office of the Mayor, New York City
Angelina Del Rio Drake, Chief Operating Officer, PHI & former home care worker
Tomás E. Durán, President, Concerned Capital, Inc.
Sarah Kalloch, Executive Director, Good Jobs Institute
Rebecca Kusner, Chief Strategist, R4 Workforce
Jess Kutch, Co-Founder, Coworker.org
Dr. J.D. LaRock, President & Chief Executive Officer, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship
Alison Lingane, Co-Founder, Project Equity
Sean Daniel Murphy, Founder, Always Win Together
Linda Nguyen, Chief of Staff, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770
Rick Plympton, Chief Executive Officer, Optimax Systems Inc. & Chairman, Finger Lakes Workforce Investment Board
Amanda Ream, Strategic Campaigns Director, United Domestic Workers/AFSCME/AFL-CIO
Jennifer Riggenbach, Principal and Owner, JF Riggenbach, LLC
Liddy Romero, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, WorkLife Partnership
Anjali Sakaria, Raise Wages Now Project
Mardia Shands, Workforce Development Professional
Bhairvee Shavdia, Principal, HCAP Partners
Walt Tobin, President, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College
Mandy Townsend, Vice President for Employer Engagement, Jewish Vocational Services – Boston
Tanya Wallace-Gobern, Executive Director, National Black Worker Center Project
Eric Weaver, Founder and Senior Advisor, Opportunity Fund
Caryn York, Chief Executive Officer, Job Opportunities Task Force
Milinda Ysasi, Executive Director, The SOURCE
Justine Zinkin, Chief Executive Officer, Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners