Employment and Jobs

For Labor to Be Genuinely Valued, We All Have Work to Do

September 3, 2021  • Maureen Conway

This Labor Day amid continued crisis, honor and recognition of workers couldn’t be more warranted. Americans have come to appreciate the important role many workers play in our society – from health care to food production to package delivery and more – and also have had the time to notice that these workers we’re relying on don’t have very good jobs. Many are poorly paid. Others do work that is dirty, dangerous, demeaning, or simply dull. And some have jobs that are all of those things – low wages are often correlated with other undesirable job characteristics. But these workers don’t have to have such bad jobs. The quality of jobs is shaped by a variety of choices, such as policy choices, consumer choices, and business strategy choices. Over the past several decades, the accumulation of these choices created today’s job quality crisis. This Labor Day and beyond, we should all consider how to make better choices so America’s working people can earn a living and live with dignity.

To begin, it’s necessary to recognize that we do indeed have a job quality crisis. This is clear from the large and growing proportion of jobs that don’t provide sufficient earnings for people to achieve a minimally decent standard of living. There are simply too few good jobs and too many poorly paid jobs, and that trend has been getting worse. Researchers at Brookings find that a whopping 44% of the US workforce earns low wages. But as anyone who has ever had a job knows, there is more to job quality than wages. Benefits are obviously important, and so too are the conditions in which one works, how one is treated by coworkers, supervisors, and customers, the content and purpose of the work and more. In its survey of over 6,600 workers, Gallup identifies 10 dimensions of job quality that are important to a broad range of American workers – and finds that only 40% of US workers report having a good job. Importantly, job quality is a powerful predictor of quality of life, with only 32% of workers in bad jobs reporting a high quality of life as compared to 79% of workers in good jobs.

In a country that views hard work as foundational to the American Dream, how did we end up overrun with bad jobs? It is, of course, complicated. Factors from global trade to declining unionization to technological change have contributed to downward pressure on workers’ wages. Small businesses struggle mightily with the costs of health care and other benefits, and many simply don’t provide them. It seems the quest to offer ever cheaper goods and services has taught both employers and consumers not to value people’s time and labor. These dynamics have been exacerbated by a policy framework with a singular focus on economic growth, crowding out consideration for human wellbeing and encouraging the proliferation of anti-poverty policies that encourage the growth of poverty wage work.

The pandemic, and the plight of essential workers, has made our growing job quality crisis harder to ignore. And the inequities of our job quality crisis, in which women and workers of color bear the heaviest burden, have become glaringly obvious. The situation is sometimes ascribed to market forces, as if human agency is not involved. But market forces are simply the sum of society’s choices, and if we do not like the corner markets have forced us into, then we can make different choices. If Americans truly value work, those values should be reflected in our choices – as employers, as consumers, as citizens.

Business leaders have choices, and they can choose to improve the quality of work. It’s time for employers to build better business models – ensuring workers are treated with respect and that they receive the pay, benefits, and workplace protections they deserve. We know this approach promotes not only worker motivation but also business success. Sunrise Treatment Center, for example, was recognized as a top local workplace in Cincinnati for introducing 7% higher pay for frontline workers and offering high-quality health insurance, paid leave policy, and retirement benefits. Simultaneously, it saw rapid business growth and 93% employee retention. In addition to livable wages and benefits, businesses can also implement approaches like worker-owner models that give employees a stake in business and address longstanding inequities of wealth generated through business assets.

Policymakers have choices. They can choose to respond to worker constituencies by upholding basic standards for work while promoting full employment. Increasing wages, expanding access to health insurance and paid leave, strengthening worker protections, and expanding access to collective bargaining for public and private sector workers are among the variety of policy choices that can help improve job quality and promote economic strength. Rather than subsidizing substandard compensation of employers, government could invest in human capabilities and job creation and encourage the design of better jobs. Education and training investments are important, but so too are investments in health, wellbeing, and child development. From avoiding contagion to improving productivity, investing in workers’ health benefits us all.

People have choices. Consumers should question their taste for ultra-cheap goods or services and the practices that make them available. Of course, we cannot research the labor practices of every company that we purchase an item from, especially when information on job quality is often hidden. Engaged consumers should demand regulations in line with their values around work – regulations that one wants to apply to their own job should apply to all jobs – and demand that taxes are invested in the equitable enforcement of these regulations.

This Labor Day let’s choose to improve job quality, and put that American Dream back within reach of America’s working people.


#JobQuality is a choice, and we can choose to make it better. This #LaborDay and beyond, let’s work to ensure America’s working people can earn a living and live with dignity.

The pandemic, and the plight of essential workers, has made #jobquality and inequity harder to ignore. If we truly value work, it should be reflected in our choices – as employers, consumers, and citizens.

Business leaders have choices, and they can choose to improve #jobquality. It’s time to build better business models – ensuring workers receive the pay, benefits, workplace protections, and respect they deserve.

Policymakers can choose to improve #jobquality by increasing wages, expanding access to healthcare and paid leave, strengthening worker protections, and expanding access to collective bargaining.

The quest to offer cheap goods and services has taught us not to value people’s time and labor. As consumers, let’s support businesses that center #jobquality, and demand stronger regulations for those that don’t.

In a country that values hard work, how did we get overrun with bad jobs? ? Global trade; ✊ Declining unionization; ?️ Tech change; ?️ High costs for small business; ? and a focus on growth over human wellbeing.

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The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.

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