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Employment and Jobs

Moving Beyond Gratitude: Opportunities to Improve Essential Work

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Among the many unexpected lessons of 2020 was a recognition of the importance of essential workers. We saw how much we rely on the people who work in our food systems, who care for our children and our loved ones, who deliver packages, and who keep our public spaces clean. We learned to say thank you to so many of them, and in this season of thanks, we reflect on how we can do more than say thank you by improving the quality of essential jobs. As the year draws to a close, we discuss the important role of essential workers in our economy and society and a variety of approaches for improving essential work.


Angelina Drake

Angelina Del Rio Drake
Chief Operating Officer, PHI ; Job Quality Fellow, The Aspen Institute; Former Home Care Worker

Angelina Del Rio Drake is the chief operating officer at PHI, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving job quality for direct care workers and quality of care for those they serve. Drawing from her own experience as a home care worker, Angelina has launched several projects to improve job quality in long-term care and provided technical assistance to upskilling, advanced role, and care integration demonstrations across the country. In 2020, Angelina started The Direct Care Worker Story Project to raise the visibility of the direct care workforce by collecting images and interviews from home care, nursing home, and residential care aides across the United States. She authored “Direct Care Work Is Real Work: Elevating the Role of the Direct Care Worker” as part of PHI’s “Caring for the Future” policy report series, and her writing on care has been published by Health Affairs, the American Society on Aging, and The Hill. In 2018, Angelina was named a Job Quality Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

Angelina has held various titles since joining PHI in 2011, including chief of staff and director of development. Prior to PHI, she led grant writing projects to secure public funding for health services technology. Angelina’s creative writing has been featured in national memoir, food, and arts publications. She completed the Developing Leaders Program for Nonprofit Professionals at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and holds a Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Science and Bachelor of Arts in Health Studies from the University of Toronto.

Ya Fav Trashman

Terrill Haigler/Ya Fav Trash Man
Philadelphia Sanitation Worker

As a sanitation worker, Philly community servant Terrill Haigler—a.k.a. “Ya Fav Trashman”—has experienced what happens when we forget to support those who take care of our communities. Now, it has become his mission to bring back a collective sense of accountability for what happens in our neighborhoods. While the pandemic revealed our vulnerabilities, some of these issues we’re facing already existed. Ya Fav Trashman is here to bring attention to the work that maintains life around our homes. As long as we are around, you know that someone is there to push you, your neighbors and community further into a future we can all take pride in. As we know, when it comes to finding a sustainable way of keeping our communities safe, it takes all of us.

Linda Nguyen

Linda Nguyen
Chief of Staff, UFCW 770 ; Job Quality Fellow, The Aspen Institute

Linda Nguyen is chief of staff at UFCW 770, which represents over 30,000 frontline workers in grocery, meatpacking, retail pharmacy, healthcare, and other industries. Since the beginning of the pandemic, she has been working with the UFCW leadership team, staff, and worker leaders to demand and win essential worker rights and COVID-19 protections. She has over a decade of experience building and leading local and national teams that drive campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people, advocating for economic, social, racial and environmental justice through policy advocacy, coalition building, and strategic communications. Prior to joining UFCW 770, Linda cofounded Jobs to Move America and was the driving force behind the expansion of the organization’s work nationally to Chicago and New York. Her work led to the passing of good jobs policies on over $5.9 billion of public projects and the creation of thousands of new union manufacturing jobs and pipelines for low-income communities of color. She is an Aspen Institute Job Quality Fellow and holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of California, Irvine. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner, their son, and pup.

Zeynep Ton

Zeynep Ton
Professor of the Practice, MIT Sloan School of Management

Zeynep Ton is a professor of the practice at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Zeynep’s research focuses on how organizations can design and manage their operations in a way that satisfies employees, customers, and investors simultaneously. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, including Organization Science, Production and Operations Management, and the Harvard Business Review.

In 2014, Zeynep published her findings in a book, The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits. The book draws on 15 years of research to show that the key to offering good jobs to employees, great service to customers, and superior returns to investors is combining investment in employees with specific operational choices that increase employees’ productivity, contribution, and motivation.

After her book was released, company executives started reaching out to Zeynep to understand how to implement the Good Jobs Strategy in their organizations, or to describe how they were already adopting the strategy. Zeynep cofounded the nonprofit Good Jobs Institute to help them transform through assessments, workshops, and longer term partnerships.

Prior to MIT Sloan, Zeynep spent seven years at Harvard Business School. She has received several awards for teaching excellence, both at Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan.

Zeynep lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. A native of Turkey, she first came to the US on a volleyball scholarship from the Pennsylvania State University. She received her Bachelor of Science in Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering there and her Doctor of Business Administration from Harvard Business School.


E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne
Columnist, The Washington Post ; Member, EOP Advisory Council

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University, a visiting professor at Harvard University, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Dionne, a regular political commentator on television and radio, received his DPhil from the University of Oxford in sociology in 1982. He is the author of eight books, including the National Book Award nominee, Why Americans Hate Politics, and two New York Times bestsellers, Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism—From Goldwater to Trump and Beyond and One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported, coauthored with Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann. His most recent is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country, published in 2020 by St. Martin’s Press.


The past year taught us the importance of #essentialworkers. Hear @AspenWorkforce with @angelinaddrake (@PHInational), Linda Nguyen (@UFCW770), @YaFavTrashman, @zeynepton (@MITSloan), and @EJDionne in a conversation on improving #jobquality.

The past year showed how much we rely on the people who make our food, care for our loved ones, deliver our packages, and keep our spaces clean. Hear @AspenWorkforce and guests #talkopportunity on the role of #essentialworkers in our economy and society.

Instead of simply saying “thank you” to #essentialworkers, let’s show our gratitude by improving #jobquality. Hear @AspenWorkforce with guests from @PHInational, @UFCW770, @MITSloan, @washingtonpost, and more.

Video: “Moving Beyond Gratitude: Opportunities to Improve Essential Work.” Featuring guests from @PHInational, @UFCW770, @MITSloan, @washingtonpost, and more. Hosted by @AspenWorkforce. Watch at and join the conversation #talkopportunity.

Opportunity in America

The Economic Opportunities Program’s Opportunity in America discussion series has moved to an all-virtual format as we all do what we can to slow the spread of COVID-19. But the conversations about the changing landscape of economic opportunity in the US and implications for individuals, families, and communities across the country remain vitally important. We hope you will participate as we bring our discussions to you in virtual formats, and we look forward to your feedback.

We are grateful to the Ford Foundation, Prudential Financial,, the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, and the Surdna Foundation for their support of this series.

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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.

Event information
Tue Dec 15, 2020
2:00pm - 3:15pm EDT