Employment and Jobs

Making Labor Day Count for Workers

September 1, 2023  • Maureen Conway

It’s Labor Day, a signal that summer is coming to a close. One last, long weekend to enjoy a trip to the beach, a backyard barbecue, or just a little relaxation before it’s back to the office. At least, that’s the holiday for the salaried, college-educated professional classes. But what often escapes notice on this holiday is that for many workers in the US, Labor Day is just another day at work — or, if their place of employment is closed, it may be a lost day of pay.

While Labor Day was established as a day off for ordinary workers, millions of US workers — in retail stores and restaurants, in delivery vans and app-taxis, in factories and on farms — don’t receive any paid holidays — not even one, not even Labor Day. The US is unique among nations in its lack of mandated paid leave. While countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe mandate that workers receive a minimum number of paid holidays, paid vacation days, and other types of paid leave, workers in the US are not entitled to paid leave of any kind.

What also escapes notice is the deterioration in workers’ wages and working conditions over the past half century. The simple fact is that conventional metrics of labor market health focus entirely on numerical questions — the quantity of jobs — or binary ones — whether people are working at all. But they do very little to assess the quality of jobs and how job quality is changing. This singular focus ignores critical aspects of worker well-being. Are workers earning enough to cover basic living expenses? Are their workplaces safe and free from harassment and discrimination? Do they feel a sense of dignity and respect in their work? These questions are relegated to the sidelines, perpetuating an incomplete understanding of the true state of labor in the US.

Some of these questions we could address with existing public data, but questions about worker well-being are rarely asked. For example, the most recent “jobs report” from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that the leisure and hospitality sector was among the sectors adding the most jobs. But one must dig through the data tables to learn that workers in this sector, which employs approximately 11% of the total private sector workforce, have weekly earnings averaging a mere $537, an amount that would not support a decent standard of living in most of the country. You won’t find this insufficiency noted in the press release, other than a comment on wages’ general direction — rising or falling —or their potential for inflation in light of rising interest rates. Nor will the BLS comment on what it might mean to try to live on that level of income.

All this assumes that workers are even acknowledged by our data, but many continue to be left out entirely. Most notably, farmworkers are not counted in the regular employment reports, and other sources of data offer irregular and conflicting counts of the numbers of such workers. For example, the US Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture reports more than 2.4 million hired farm workers in 2017, while the BLS estimates that there are 1.4 million hired crop workers for its National Agriculture Workers survey in a similar timeframe — a difference of more than a million people in an industry that is not very large to begin with. While there may be real differences between these two groups, the different definition is unlikely to account for such a large discrepancy. It’s hard to interpret this inconsistency, and the continued exclusion of farmworkers from regular counts of workers, as anything other than a lack of public concern. It’s a similar story for nannies, app-based drivers, and others in nonstandard work arrangements, whose presence in the data is only partially apparent. You can see it in the employment rate, which comes from household surveys, but not in earnings reports, which are drawn from employers. Excluding their experience yields only an incomplete picture of our economy, and it biases our understanding of how workers are holding up. In short, they are not counted because they do not count.

Nor should we overlook the fact that household surveys fail to inquire about health and safety as well, as data on occupational illness, injuries, and fatalities rely exclusively on employer reports. In addition to ignoring workers’ perspectives, this likely results in an undercount. Even so, there are publicly collected and reported data on occupational fatalities and workplace injuries and illnesses that could be used to address questions of job quality and worker well-being, but these data are released infrequently and with a substantial lag. For example, the most recent report on occupational fatalities noted that “There were 5,190 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2021, an 8.9-percent increase from 4,764 in 2020,” but it was released on December 16, 2022, long after the close of 2021, and on a Friday heading into the holidays, when it was not likely to receive much attention.

There is a saying that what gets measured gets managed, but that isn’t true if no one ever looks at the data. To understand whether our economy is working for working people, we need to start by asking better questions of the data that we already have and to collect more complete data moving forward. The growing divergence in the economic fortunes of Wall Street and Main Street, and the widening economic inequality that has been destabilizing our economy and society, has been brought about in large part because of the steady decline in the rewards of work and the deterioration in the quality of jobs. For too long, policymakers and the public have been operating on the belief that people just need to get a job and maintain a connection to the labor market to earning a dignified living. But that’s not true. People don’t just need jobs; they need and deserve good jobs. And it’s time our measures of economic health took note of that.


This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Learn more

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.

* indicates required

Mailing Lists