Why Do So Many Workers Struggle To Stay In The Game?

Aakash Kumar
Founder & CEO
February 1, 2018

This post is the first in a series that will explore three pervasive but rarely considered factors underlying job insecurity today. Click here to read the second post in this series.

It is well-understood that certain aspects of the American workforce are undergoing a profound, structural transformation. This transformation is driven, in large measure, by the advent of the truly mobile worker who is enabled by technology and retains unprecedented levels of freedom and flexibility at work. Liberated from the proverbial factory floor, this segment of the workforce is now empowered to “do their own thing” and, for the most part, this freedom is a clear positive.

Yet, specific challenges lurk beneath headlines about the burgeoning independent workforce – challenges that must be candidly acknowledged and addressed before they, too, evolve into intractable socio-economic hurdles. These are challenges that exist outside of the typical discussion points: a lack of affordable transportation; a lack of affordable on-demand childcare and senior care; and the inability to work around criminal records. Each carries its own unique set of challenges, but also opportunities and innovations for change. The first installment in this series focuses on the problems. The solutions – and the ideas around innovations – will follow in subsequent posts.

Transportation. One of the most surprising impediments to a robust, modern and adaptable workforce is accessible transportation, which is a uniquely important and confounding factor for many. Even if one has workplace flexibility, they nonetheless must be able to – literally – get to work. But for millions of workers, many of whom work part-time or seasonal jobs, transportation is an added and unwelcome expense. The data affirms the inherent challenge: a survey conducted by Express Staffing revealed that 12% of businesses identified transportation issues as a determining factor in whether employees accepted jobs.

Public transportation options may be unavailable – particularly in rural areas – or just too costly. And, if anything, curbs on municipal spending on public transportation have made things worse. Consider that New York City residents, who have unprecedented access to 665 miles of track that reaches all five boroughs, nonetheless have the longest commute times in the country. A Harvard study on upward mobility found that commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder. As for private transportation, the expense of a personal vehicle or a taxi, coupled with fuel costs, can be all together prohibitive.

Family care. Despite headway on workplace equality and generally enlightened HR policies, the lack of affordable, on-demand care for children and seniors provides another significant barrier to a world-class workforce. At the most basic level, the sheer cost of reliable child care, especially for low-income earners, can be insurmountable. Add in the fact that many shift workers are deprived of reliable schedules, and a cauldron of instability, unexpected need and unanticipated expense can result. And the cost to employers is also acute when workers must improvise to care for their loved ones.

The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP provided a list of sobering statistics concerning the impact of family care on employment, such as: 49% arrive to their place of work late, leave early, or take time off; 15% take a leave of absence; 14% reduce their hours or take a demotion; 5% turn down a promotion; 4% choose early retirement; 3% lose job benefits; and 6% give up working entirely. Statistics from an earlier AARP study, also reported by the Alliance, show that 69% of working caregivers caring for a family member or friend report having to rearrange their work schedule, decrease their hours, or take an unpaid leave in order to meet their caregiving responsibilities.

Caring for one’s family is a fundamental need. The ability to earn a living to support that family is also a fundamental need. The US must work towards harmonizing these two imperatives whereby the pull of domesticity and earning a living are not mutually exclusive.

Criminal records. A significant – but little-discussed – issue facing a substantial percentage of the working population is the burden of a criminal record. Many Americans have a criminal background (upwards of 70 million according to some estimates, provided by Brennan Center for Justice), many of which include minor, victimless offenses. But in a disturbing number of instances, employers don’t discriminate: a crime is a crime, and even minor offenders are foreclosed from gainful employment out of a perceived risk that they represent a workplace threat, or can’t be trusted. Most application processes, for example, do not allow for a delineation in the scale of criminality – such as the difference in possessing marijuana (now becoming more legally and morally acceptable) and arson (hopefully never acceptable). Many employers simply will not incur the cost of a background check once an applicant has disclosed a criminal history, and/or they will not delve deeper into failed background checks. This “one size fits all” approach to prior criminal conduct severely limits an otherwise employable person from finding meaningful work. A vicious cycle is thus created whereby the impossibility of finding work leads back to a life of crime and a tipping point of recidivism just to make ends meet. The data is convincing: the Sentencing Project found that more than 60% of those incarcerated are unemployed within one year of release from prison, and that former inmates that do find work will take home 40% less in annual pay than their counterparts.

The American workforce continues to evolve and, in broad strokes, provide new possibilities, increased freedom and enhanced opportunities for upward mobility. But we shouldn’t allow these positive developments to obscure the remaining structural hurdles that impede productivity and true worker satisfaction – to say nothing of the drag they impose on the economy at large. Fortunately, there are myriad examples of enlightened companies and individuals that are working to provide innovative solutions – a topic that will be explored in depth throughout this series.

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