Strategies for Helping Low-Income Workers in Uncertain Times

Posted May 27, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Gig worker for a driving service

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has caused mas­sive job loss­es and dis­rupt­ed the lives of mil­lions of work­ers, espe­cial­ly those who already had unpre­dictable hours, low wages and lim­it­ed ben­e­fits. In light of such cir­cum­stances, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion is revis­it­ing a report, Tak­ing Action, released in late 2019, with 12 case stud­ies and rec­om­men­da­tions for how law­mak­ers, employ­ers and edu­ca­tion and work­force devel­op­ment pro­fes­sion­als can bet­ter serve and improve con­di­tions for work­ers in the face of a rapid­ly chang­ing economy.

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has exposed the ways those already strug­gling to get by — par­tic­u­lar­ly young African Amer­i­can and Lati­no work­ers — are hurt most in an eco­nom­ic down­turn,” says Alli­son Ger­ber, a senior asso­ciate in the Casey Foundation’s Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic Oppor­tu­ni­ty. The cur­rent employ­ment cri­sis will require a host of fed­er­al, state and local actions. But improv­ing the lives of work­ers over the long term will require new strate­gies from law­mak­ers, employ­ers and edu­ca­tors, includ­ing inno­va­tions aimed at devel­op­ing fam­i­ly-sup­port­ing jobs and ensur­ing that employ­ees have the skills and sup­ports nec­es­sary to suc­ceed mov­ing forward.”

The report, which was fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey and Joyce foun­da­tions, recommends:

  • Hir­ing work­ers from high-unem­ploy­ment com­mu­ni­ties. Peo­ple in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or as well as low-income areas often strug­gle to obtain employ­ment that pays fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing wages and ben­e­fits. In the cur­rent eco­nom­ic down­turn, pub­lic and pri­vate employ­ers should tar­get hir­ing efforts towards those com­mu­ni­ties that are hard­est hit.
  • Giv­ing work­ers greater agency. Work­er agency and high­er lev­els of employ­ee engage­ment lead to improved work­place con­di­tions as employ­ees are bet­ter posi­tioned to make sug­ges­tions that can improve safe­ty, increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and lead to oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­nal mobil­i­ty. This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant today, as employ­ers look to increase safe­ty and imag­ine new ways of orga­niz­ing workplaces.
  • Improv­ing con­di­tions for gig work­ers. The report notes that many gig work­ers, who are often treat­ed as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors, need access to ben­e­fits, such as health care cov­er­age and paid leave. These work­ers were par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble when the econ­o­my began to falter.

Spot­light on build­ing bet­ter online work­force learning

One case study in the report high­lights a top­ic of increas­ing inter­est to employ­ers and work­force orga­ni­za­tions dur­ing the pan­dem­ic: how to pro­vide work­force train­ing and skill-build­ing pro­grams remotely.

The case study fea­tures South­ern New Hamp­shire University’s Col­lege for Amer­i­ca, a large­ly online pro­gram where stu­dents across the coun­try can earn work­force cer­tifi­cates or bach­e­lors or asso­ciate degrees in areas like busi­ness, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and health­care. The pro­gram, which launched in 2012, has two pri­ma­ry features:

  • Self-paced lessons. The pro­gram does not offer sched­uled class­es; stu­dents com­plete their degrees on their own time, access­ing course mate­ri­als when­ev­er they like. That means those jug­gling respon­si­bil­i­ties like fam­i­lies and jobs can take their time. That kind of flex­i­bil­i­ty is impor­tant today, as peo­ple strug­gle to man­age respon­si­bil­i­ties and wor­ries relat­ed to their school, work and fam­i­ly life dur­ing the pandemic.
  • Cen­ter­ing skills-build­ing. As opposed to tra­di­tion­al grad­ing, Col­lege for Amer­i­ca uses a mod­el called direct assess­ment,” in which stu­dents com­plete projects to demon­strate what they’ve learned. Stu­dents can resub­mit assign­ments an unlim­it­ed num­ber of times until they have mas­tered a skill — a process that seeks to build per­sis­tence and prob­lem-solv­ing abilities.

Because of the flex­i­bil­i­ty and low cost of the pro­gram, under­rep­re­sent­ed com­mu­ni­ties take great advan­tage of Col­lege for Amer­i­ca. Through 2018, 67% of enrollees were first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents; 70% were women; 29% were African Amer­i­can; and 18% were Latino.

There are many edu­ca­tion­al and train­ing mod­els out there,” Ger­ber says. We hope that prac­ti­tion­ers will review the details of this pro­gram — and oth­ers in the Tak­ing Action report — to glean take­aways for their own work.”

Learn about the chal­lenges young work­ers face because of the coro­n­avirus pandemic

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