American Crossroads

Quality Jobs

By Alfonso Flores-Lagunes

Efforts to restart the economy could focus on equitable wages and benefits.

Special Series: American Crossroads
Eight faculty experts bring context and historical perspective to this year’s election.

With the nation facing historic unemployment, voters will surely have concerns about jobs and wages on their minds come November.

While neither President Trump nor Joe Biden have detailed their policies regarding the labor market, we can extrapolate—based on Trump’s current policies, and on Obama administration policies, when Biden was vice presi-dent. Both leave room for improvement. Both candidates need to lay out how their policies will create not just employment, but quality employment that includes reasonable compensation packages.

While the past few months have revealed weaknesses in the job market, the truth is we’ve been building to this low point for over 30 years. Despite one of the lowest unemployment rates in the history of the country only a few months ago—something many pointed to as an indicator of a “great” economy—the elephant in the room was the stagnation of wages and increasing economic inequality.

This troubling trend has numerous causes, including the erosion of the minimum wage; competition from low-wage workers in other countries; increasing automation of production; a decrease in unionization; and the disinvestment of firms in their workers, aided by weak labor laws. In combination, these factors tilt the bargaining power toward employers at the clear cost of employees.

We need to foster the creation of jobs in a way that does not further hinder workers’ compensation.

For the current administration, that tilt has been evident. Its tenet is to create jobs by decreasing regulations—chiefly labor laws and environmental regulations. And while the number of jobs did increase, these were not quality jobs for the majority of workers. According to the Brookings Institution, as of November 2019 more than 40 percent of the labor force was classified as “low-wage.” And despite working full time, more than 10 percent of workers fall below the poverty line, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Many workers are classified as subcontractors, ineligible for benefits such as unemployment and health insurance.

The pandemic and ensuing recession have laid bare these pitfalls, with countless unemployed workers ineligible for unemployment insurance. Many employees classified as essential workers found themselves working through the pandemic with no means to demand necessary protections. These factors disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic workers, who are more likely to fill precarious jobs not covered by unemployment insurance and whose current unemployment rate is substantially higher than the national average.

The market system has a natural tendency to favor employers over employees. How do either of the candidates and their parties intend to offset that imbalance?

Voters need to seriously ponder the need to strengthen worker-protection laws, and to improve workers’ access to key benefits such as health insurance and paid sick and maternity leave. We should foster the creation of jobs in a way that does not further hinder workers’ compensation—for example, judiciously raising the minimum wage while minding potential jobs losses.

As voters, we should be concerned with the well-being of a sizable portion of U.S. workers because, more urgently, we should be concerned with the viability of the labor market and that of the U.S. economy.

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