Racial and Gender Justice Demand Labor Market Innovation :: Fox&Hounds

Christel Deskins

Wingham Rowan is the project lead for Elevating California’s Irregular Workforce based within Pacific Gateway, the public workforce board for City of Long Beach and surrounding areas. Imagine this scenario in the first months of the pandemic. You are low-skilled and employed by a corporate, perhaps in hospitality, retail, distribution, […]

Wingham Rowan is the project lead for Elevating California’s Irregular Workforce based within Pacific Gateway, the public workforce board for City of Long Beach and surrounding areas.

Imagine this scenario in the first months of the pandemic. You are low-skilled and employed by a corporate, perhaps in hospitality, retail, distribution, cleaning, driving, contact center work or similar sectors. Each day you are informed by a workforce scheduling system what time you will be starting work tomorrow, if you are required at all. Once you report for work, the system will start deciding when you will be sent home. This was reality for hundreds of thousands of Angelenos last year. 

Then things got worse.

As businesses contracted from March onwards, these sophisticated tools started slashing hours while ensuring optimal staffing levels for businesses and their customers. So, perhaps, you turned to gig work platforms. Millions of other Americans did so at the same time, which pushed your earnings potential to the floor. After weeks of App-tapping and being poised to rush out on assignments you realise whatever algorithms are running the labor market you are using, they aren’t sending work your way.

This scrabble for odd hours of work is skewed heavily towards communities of color. Pew research in 2018 found 14% of African-Americans reported doing gig work, against 5% of whites. We also know whites are more likely to be doing skilled home freelancing than lower paid contingent work.

The other group disproportionately impacted is women. So many can’t commit to regular work hours because of complex parenting needs or caregiving for a dependant adult. And the whole issue of gig work has a slant towards L.A. County. As LAEDC reported in February, the U-6 measure of partial employment has remained over 10%, stubbornly high compared to similar regions, for several years.

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The way this workforce is treated is a human and economic catastrophe for the region. Resourceful people, who may be unable to get a job or may be seeking work that fits around their fluctuating medical condition, studying commitments or attempts to start a home business, are commoditized and cheapened by an array of labor market platforms. Each person, who could be an asset in the local economy, has negligible control, chances to progress, or stability. Day after day, they do what a platform tells them, when it tells them, for what it decides they are worth. 

Abuses by these platforms have been noticed and a ferocious battle is being waged. California was first in the nation to mandate employment protections for workers on gig work platforms with its Assembly Bill 5 which came into law at the start of 2020. That prompted gig work companies to commit $110m to overturning the law with Proposition 22. Meanwhile many of the companies refused to comply with AB5.

But, even if AB5 wins out, it will only solve some problems for some precarious workers. Many more irregular workers are already W2 employees, summoned at the whim of a scheduling tool rather than users of a consumer platform. Even more people turn to the illegal, off-the-books, word-of-mouth labor market in search of the ad-hoc work they need. Neither side in the legislative battle has a solution to lack of progression, absence of data for work-seekers, inequalities or how to support interventions that could boost strugglers.

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So, where are the public agencies in this? Government has worked to ensure robust, fair, inclusive, labor markets since 1933’s Wagner Peyser Act established nationwide public labor exchanges. The principle has been updated with services like CalJOBs, a publicly provided job board open to any business or job seeker in the state. It’s an alternative to mainstream for-profit job matching sites which can be a poor fit for the low skilled.

The L.A. region is the first in the nation to extend this systematic public support to on-demand workers in a project involving L.A. City Hall, Regional Centers and public workforce boards. A platform has been launched for all types of hourly labor built around protections, progression, stability and control for work-seekers; plus quality of workforce and alignment with local businesses needs. Called CalFLEXI, it is working on a limited scale as a project in Long Beach, run by the City’s workforce board, funded by national and state philanthropies. The platform was first developed in British government programs.

Workers enter skills and credentials into CalFLEXI, then define the types of work they want. The system allows each individual to set or accept wage rates and terms for each kind of work.  Each person can specify how much notice they need, what schedule they want to work. Their experience is recognized and recorded in the system, leading potentially to better wages and advancement. There is an employer of record and benefits.

Getting businesses to book their flexible labor through a platform so obviously dedicated to worker empowerment can be challenging. But organizations are starting to appreciate the business benefits of an unlocked workforce that is not commoditized and algorithmically controlled. 

Preparations for the CalFLEXI launch won the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ prize for the best community-led economic/job development initiative in America.  The service is currently focused on flexible at-home childcare during the pandemic. But plans are in hand to expand across other sectors.  

Established ways of tackling inequality and exclusion must of course continue. But we should also be boosting emerging possibilities. Current challenges are too great to leave any credible solution untried.

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