Looking Back: How We Actually Value ‘Labor’

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

December 19, 2023

Throughout 2023, the Pulse presented several distinctly different perspectives on how today’s society values ‘labor.’ The conversation is a response to recent events that have compelled a reflection on how society ‘works’ and how those who keep it running are compensated. It’s not about how each individual worker performs. Instead, it’s about how a community system flows because of the labor its workforce performs. The advent of the ‘essential’ employee highlighted how sometimes menial labor provides the highest value available at that moment. The question is, ‘How did one type of occupation become so much more ‘valuable’ in society’s eyes than another that provides as much or more actual worth to the community?’

The data revealed that how labor is ‘valued’ often has little to do with its level of effort or even the consequent high value of its outcome. Instead, workers are too often compensated based on aspects that have almost nothing to do with their skill level or capacity and much more to do with their status.

 

Status as a ‘Value’ Determiner

A plethora of studies indicate that the ‘value’ of human labor is often assigned unequally and that there are three primary ‘classes’ of workers that bear the brunt of those inequities:

Those at the bottom of the economic scale,

Women, and

Migrants.

The Economically Disadvantaged

Typically, workers in this group perform the community’s ‘hidden,’ sometimes deemed ‘menial’ tasks, such as janitorial work, rote clerical activities, and agricultural activities. The work itself is often not intellectually demanding but instead involves sometimes strenuous physical effort to perform. Because the qualifications for the job are usually minimal, most of these occupations are at the very bottom of the pay scale, typically garnering only minimum wage or slightly above.

What was remarkable about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it showcased how critical these jobs are to keeping society humming. These occupations were deemed ‘essential,’ and the employees providing the labor were compelled to continue working after the shutdown even though doing so posed a risk of catching the virus.

More than half (62%) of California’s farm labor was deemed ‘essential’ even though those jobs pay only an average of about $16 per hour.

The lowest-paid workers in most healthcare settings were also suddenly considered ‘essential’ because they kept those facilities sanitary.

In retrospect, it seems decidedly unfair that those who perform roles that are deemed ‘essential’ to the foundational management of the country and workers who were asked to risk their lives to continue doing so should also be some of its lowest-paid workers. However, up until the pandemic hit, that’s the way this particular form of labor was ‘valued.’

Women

Despite comprising more than half (51.1%) of the population and despite the 1967 passage of the American Equal Pay Actcompanies continue to pay women less than their male counterparts for performing the same job duties. On average, full-time female employees are paid only 83.7% of what men are paid for the same work, which results in a deficit of ~$10,000 per year in wages. Much of the disparity is due to lingering but unfounded concerns about ‘family’ intrusions into the work environment, a notion that presumes women are still absorbing the bulk of domestic responsibilities while working full-time. Men are not typically subjected to the same limitations.

In other circumstances, women are also not paid at all for much of the labor they perform in their homes and in service of others. Around the world, females perform 2.5 times as much non-paid labor (housekeeping, caregiving, etc.) as men; this statistic doesn’t change even in countries that enjoy high economic stability.

The data suggest that long-time cultural norms continue to influence not just how much female workers get paid but also how the value of their labor is calculated.

Immigrants vs. Native-born Workers

America is a land populated by people who came (or whose ancestors came) from somewhere else. Today’s immigrant community makes up approximately 14% of America’s population and comprises 18% of its workforce. Almost half of this group is Hispanic, another quarter is Asian, and nearly 10% have African heritage.

Together, America’s foreign-born workers perform a significant percentage of the country’s ‘essential services:’

    • In California, 69% of agricultural workers are immigrants.
    • In Nebraska, immigrants comprise 66% of that state’s meat packaging industry.
    • In Alaska, 70% of the state’s seafood industry is of foreign descent.

In addition to those labor contributions, these communities are also responsible for a sizeable volume of consumer spending. A 2019 survey reveals that the nation’s immigrant population, in general, is responsible for spending over $1.4 trillion annually in U.S. markets. They are also more likely than native-borns to open a new business and to work in the burgeoning STEM industries. Immigrants also file more than 75% of the patents developed in U.S. universities.

Despite these notable contributions to the country’s economy, immigrants are typically paid ~12% less than natural-born workers at the national level and more than 25% less than their comparably educated, native-born colleagues in California.

 

Pay Disparity is Expensive

These data demonstrate that the ‘wage gap’ in the United States and worldwide is vast — and expensive. The ‘gender gap’- the difference between average wages for men and women- may amount to as much as $7 trillion in reduced global economic activity. Those lost dollars would cover living costs that now often limit the opportunity to work, such as child care or caregiving expenses. With those issues managed, the workers who would normally do those chores are able to find paying work to earn a better living, pay more in taxes, and lessen the economic burden on social services. Employees who are paid equally for doing the same work are less likely to quit prematurely, which reduces the expense of hiring and training new workers. Almost all studies demonstrate that when people are appropriately compensated for their work, regardless of the type of work it is, they are more willing to contribute and participate in their community as responsible citizens.

 

Looking ahead into 2024, these evolutions in how ‘work’ is perceived will continue, and several emerging influences will significantly impact the direction those adaptations will take. Two, in particular, have already compelled alterations in workflows and investments: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the newly launched federal Infrastructure Bill. Each of these phenomena refocus the context in which ‘work’ occurs, as well as how it’s performed. And for both, the community college system is gearing up to build the appropriate workforce to move them forward.

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