Essential Workers Deserve Quality Jobs

A Response to Catapult Revisited

August 23, 2021

By MJ Ryan, Senior Director, Workforce Development & Economic Opportunity, Mass General Brigham

Thank you, Jerry Rubin, for another thoughtful and thought-provoking paper on a set of principles upon which I could not agree more. The reexamination of the important concept of quality jobs as we look toward our post-COVID world is an essential, yet worrying exercise.

We can all agree that COVID has shone a bright light on the inequities that have always existed in our economy, especially in places like Boston where income inequality is present in staggering proportions. Some of us enjoy the comfortable reality and benefits of a knowledge-driven, high tech, academic and health-care sector labor market, while far too many barely survive in the service industry—many directly employed by the same industries and even employers where others thrive and prosper. Reminding those at the top of the essential nature of the roles so heralded during the pandemic must remain a top priority, along with driving employers and our policymakers to reward the people willing and able to fill those roles. Those of us who always saw the importance of the lower-paid workforce must never let the world—which came to depend directly on that grocery worker, health care worker, delivery person, name the role—forget the service we relied upon so heavily. It is now our calling to fight for those individuals to ensure their rightful place in an inclusive and equitable economy.

Employer partnerships with a focus on quality jobs are crucial in pushing this priority. Community-based training organizations like JVS will be critical in keeping the “untapped” labor pool in our sights, and their work in gaining support and engagement from employers and policymakers will be invaluable. Employers, training organizations, human service organizations, and legislators must work together to ensure that the multiple barriers to success that face even the most motivated low-wage or unemployed workers are addressed in a sustainable manner. This includes providing wraparound services that people need to enter training and employment, and seriously addressing the demoralizing disincentives that so often inhibit retention. Such disincentives, like the “cliff effect” of losing valuable supports upon gaining a meager increase in income, further the hopelessness of those who have been left out of our economy—whether “booming” or “recovering”—for far too long.

To secure accessible training, inclusive local hiring, fair wages, workable schedules, transportation and child care, as well as public assistance policies, involves major hurdles to be sure. Yet, as Jerry clearly stated, this is nothing new. The absence of these practices and policies has disproportionately kept our Black and Brown neighbors on the sidelines in both good and bad economic times.

COVID and a long year of overdue racial reckoning has shone a bright light, and now we must follow that light toward change. This is a time for action, and if we don’t seize it, this conversation will continue long after we, the well-intentioned, are on the “other side of the grass.” And as Jerry points out, we must set our sights higher, “as we achieve recovery, we should not aspire to an economy and job market identical to the one we just lost with the recession. We should strive for a far more inclusive and equitable economy and job market that truly rewards work with livable wages and economic opportunity.”