Part of the Future of Work issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
For Maria Martinez, the future of work has never looked particularly bright. In most of her 25 years as a dishwasher at a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Southern California, she had never gotten a raise beyond the minimum wage hikes mandated by the government. Before the pandemic hit, there were three people helping with her shift. Now, it’s often just her. Martinez keeps asking her bosses for help — business at the hotel has picked back up again — but for the moment, they’re not really budging. “The workload has increased, and it’s just me, by myself,” she says.
Martinez, 70, feels like no one appreciates the work she does or the work of people like her. Until recently, she was making $15 an hour, thanks to California’s minimum wage increases, but she says she’s still struggling. “Life isn’t like it used to be. The pay isn’t enough for this day and age,” she says. “We’ve got to figure out if we’re going to pay rent, pay bills, eat or not eat, and that’s got to change.”
It should change, but will it? For people like Martinez, the work revolution that’s supposedly going on across the country right now doesn’t feel very revolutionary.
The zeitgeist is characterized by a certain sense of optimism about the future of work and the power of the worker. Wages are rising (albeit not as fast as inflation), especially for the lowest-wage workers. Companies are scrambling for employees, in turn giving those employees more bargaining power. A raft of news stories has declared that remote work is here to stay, a celebration of a moment in which, maybe, there’s finally greater work-life balance.
But what does the future of work actually look like for the majority of Americans whose jobs require them to show up in person? Despite all the buzz about high-profile union efforts last year, union membership actually fell in 2021. Wages aren’t going up as fast as they were, and any hope for an increase in the federal minimum wage is, at least for now, dead. Many of the circumstances that have made the current moment possible, including unprecedented support from the federal government, are fading or already have expired in the super-speed recovery.
For many workers, the current state of work looks very much the same — or even worse. In many ways, so does the future.
“We have seen four and a half decades of rising inequality, of wage stagnation for working people for most of that period,” said Heidi Shierholz, president of the progressive-leaning Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist at the Department of Labor. “These couple of months of employers having to compete for workers is not going to fundamentally change that.”
From a policy standpoint, there is a plethora of ideas on the table for creating a more stable, prosperous situation for America’s working class. Changes like strengthening worker protections, bolstering unemployment insurance, putting in place higher minimum wages, making it easier to unionize, and mandating paid leave could make a real, sustained difference in people’s lives.
Martinez emphasized throughout much of our conversation that she didn’t really mean to complain. She’s always liked working. But she’s dedicated years to her employer, and she feels like she’s always given 100 percent. The situation just feels so unfair.
“Lots of work, little money,” she said. She recognizes she’s not unique in her situation. “There are so many people with stories just like mine.”
In recent weeks, Vox spoke with more than two dozen workers who are often left out of the conversation about what the future of work looks like for them. We focused on people who don’t work from home: food servers, farmers, truck drivers, teachers, home health aides, housekeepers, bank tellers, retail associates, and people whose bosses just want them to work in person.
A murky picture emerged. Some workers are facing new challenges (more danger on the job and more work with fewer colleagues), while others are facing old ones (low wages, uncertain hours, lack of benefits) that still haven’t budged. It’s worth noting that in-person workers are more likely to be people of color and, more specifically, women of color, meaning they’re the ones losing out most if things don’t change.
Some people have made strides and seen improvements in their workplaces, but is that enough? We asked workers what would make their futures brighter. We also asked policy experts to weigh in on what it would take to turn these incremental gains into genuine change.
There’s a real risk that the future of work, for millions of people, will be exactly the same. But it doesn’t have to be.
During the early days of the pandemic, when the country was under lockdown and a wide swath of businesses ground to a standstill, many employers had to cut back on workers, if not lay them off entirely. Now, as business has returned, companies aren’t necessarily restaffing. In some instances, that’s because it’s difficult to find workers, but many of the people we spoke to believed it was because their employers are trying to get by with fewer workers. Despite the tight employment economy, there are still 1.6 million fewer jobs now than there were pre-pandemic. The people who are left behind at these jobs have to take on the brunt of that work.
The result is many people report that the amount of work they do has risen drastically. More than half of workers who stayed at their jobs reported taking on more responsibility when their coworkers left, with 30 percent struggling to get the necessary work done, according to a survey last summer by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Robyn Nikkel, who worked at a national retail bank in Tennessee and has since moved to a Florida location, says her job got harder after her bank permanently shut down branches it had temporarily closed earlier in the pandemic. While some customers switched to online banking, many did not, which made her branch busier than ever.
That strain was especially onerous earlier in the pandemic when the bank suspended incentive pay, which employees like Nikkel, who get money for signing up customers to checking and credit accounts, rely on. Her employer has since brought it back.
“We had double or triple the foot traffic, and we were doing a ton of work. But we were still basically getting paid the same amount of money even though the bank had a record profit year,” said Nikkel, who’s now trying to find a job with better work-life balance and wages to help her pay off student debt. “I don’t mind having to work hard, but I just felt like the strain that they were putting on the few staff that they did have at the bank was really hard.”
While these cutbacks are perhaps good for the companies’ bottom lines, they risk alienating their employees and customers in the long run. Because in some cases, less is less. Many of the workers we spoke to felt that the cutbacks were also hurting customers, who in turn take their frustrations out on them.
Beth Schaffer, a server at a franchised Denny’s in South Carolina, says that before the pandemic, each shift would have multiple servers, a dishwasher, cooks, and a manager. Now, since it’s so slow, it’s just her and a cook. When it does pick up, things get hectic. “When my cook’s busy cooking, I have to maintain the whole entire store by myself,” she said. That means longer waits, uncleaned tables, and upset customers.
She says she can’t do things like give clients their veteran’s or elderly discounts since there’s no manager to authorize those decisions. “Because I can’t give them their discount, they don’t want to tip me. So I make $4 for those two hours they just sat there,” she said. Her server wage is $2.13 an hour (where the tipped minimum wage has been set since 1991). If tips don’t bring that up to $7.25 an hour (where it’s been since 2009), the company is supposed to make up the difference. However, that requires some onerous reporting to get, and she said in practice it doesn’t actually happen.
In a statement the company sent to Vox, Denny’s wrote that “[S]ervers working at Denny’s company-owned restaurants receive a substantial premium above the full minimum wage in each respective state,” working out to about 165 percent of the minimum wage. The vast majority of Denny’s nearly 1,500 stores in the US are independently owned rather than company-owned. Denny’s did not respond to questions about franchised locations.
Even frontline workers — nurses, hospital staff, home health aides — who Americans banged pots and pans for earlier in the pandemic, are struggling. While people in these industries told Vox that they felt more appreciated than they used to, that appreciation hasn’t necessarily translated to better working conditions.
Susie Rivera, a home health aide in Texas who helps her clients with “all the activities of daily life,” from buying food to using the toilet, works 80 hours a week for two separate clients. While one pays well and has good benefits, the other doesn’t. And the situation of poor pay and benefits has predominated her four decades in the industry, leading to a severe shortage in the field that will someday affect us all.
“I’m thinking, who the heck is going to care for me when I’m that age if we’re not enticing this kind of work for the younger generation?” said Rivera, who is 65 and getting closer in age to her clients.
Home health aides make, on average, $13 an hour and often don’t get benefits for what can be some of the most grueling work, emotionally and physically. Meanwhile, there’s more need for home health aides in the next decade than workers in any other occupation, as people in the baby boomer generation, like Rivera, increasingly need their services.
Bad conditions have made it hard to hire or retain workers in that field and many others, and that’s affecting the old and young alike.
Hiring shortfalls for bus drivers mean kids have longer bus rides, as two bus routes get combined into one, Eric Griffith, a longtime school bus driver in Florida, told Vox. “The stress levels are higher because you’re dealing with more kids, you’re dealing with more work than you would normally,” he said, saying more crowded buses mean more disciplinary infractions and driving distractions. Griffith believes shortfalls could be fixed with better pay. “We really have to go farther in trying to recruit and make sure that our drivers are properly compensated for the things that we do, which is a lot.”
Making matters worse, while many Americans have been able to eke out more pay during the pandemic — nominal wage growth, or the actual amount people are paid, has grown faster than it has in years — inflation has knocked out a lot of those gains. Indeed, when factoring in inflation, the average annual wage gains of 5 percent that people got in February were actually real wage decreases of 2.6 percent. And plenty of workers haven’t had pay increases at all.
Martinez has seen her bills go up for electricity and gas, and the property insurance on her house just doubled. She and her husband, who has been on disability for over a decade after having open heart surgery, are struggling to figure out how to pay for it all. “It’s money that before you could save for an emergency,” she said. She’d like to retire, but it just feels impossible. “If I stop working, what we’d get from Social Security is very little, and our expenses are a lot.”
While the dominant narrative is one of worker bargaining power, many employees told us they rarely get a say in how their jobs are done.
A directive will come down from the bosses or from corporate stating that XYZ is now the new norm. Sometimes, those directives make sense. A lot of the time, what the people in charge think is happening or should happen doesn’t quite line up with reality. Workers on the ground might have a better idea of what would actually make their work better and the business as a whole run more smoothly. In unionized nursing homes, for example, where workers have more say in how their work is done, there was more access to personal protective equipment and lower rates of Covid-19 deaths. But more often than not, workers aren’t asked.
The disconnect between workers and bosses appears on the job in all sorts of ways. We heard from teachers in Florida who were dealing with arbitrary rules, like having to physically be in a school building for online parent-teacher conferences, even though the internet connection was much better at home. Two hotel housekeepers told us that getting rid of daily housekeeping means that when guests leave, rooms are incredibly dirty and take much longer to clean, but they have the same amount of time as before to clean them. A barista in Detroit said management was insisting that they make coffee on a broken espresso machine that burned them.
Peter, who works at a UPS warehouse in New York and asked for us to withhold his last name to avoid risking his job, says he believes that corporate directives are meant to squeeze every last drop out of the workforce. He works in the preloading section, the part where people load the trucks, and where workers are not only among the lowest paid in the operation but also face strict and unrealistic expectations. The company dictates how many packages they’re supposed to load in a shift and tries to calculate how long their movements should take, down to the step count. Meanwhile the workload is very high, as online shopping has remained elevated.
“These people are saying, ‘Oh, well, this person should be doing X number of steps every time they walk into the truck, and if they’re taking more than that, that’s why it’s taking them longer, so they should find a better way to do this or to do that.’ It’s almost always people who’ve never actually had to do it.”
It seems obvious to him that different people will have different performances based on how much experience they have, or just something as simple as how tall they are. But that never quite gets translated up.
“We haven’t had a conversation in this nation, pandemic or not, about changing and really empowering workers as owners, not widgets,” said Solana Rice, co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation, which advocates for economic policies that reduce racial disparities. “Workers are still a line item on a corporate spreadsheet.”
Even workers who supposedly have more control over their jobs have felt the constraints of their employment.
Mike Robinson, a 61-year-old Lyft driver in Los Angeles, wouldn’t normally have qualified for unemployment insurance. But thanks to temporary changes that allowed gig workers and freelancers to get support during the pandemic, he did. When pandemic unemployment ended in September 2021, he lost his benefits and went back to Lyft.
But now Robinson says Lyft has lowered its rates, so he works more hours for less pay. High gas prices are also eating away at his paycheck. (In March, Lyft announced it would add a 55-cent surcharge per ride for gas for at least 60 days, to go to drivers.) In January, he got Covid and missed work for two weeks. Because he’s a contractor, he wasn’t paid any sick leave during that time, either. “We don’t have insurance. We don’t have sick pay,” he said. He’s now working more to try to make up for his lost pay. “My wife is working, we got by, but what if there’s someone else that doesn’t, that he’s the only income?”
Gig workers like Robinson, as well as low-wage workers of all kinds, are much less likely to have health insurance than traditional workers, since their jobs don’t usually supply it. In 2021, Lyft began to offer people in California who drive on average 15 hours per week a health care subsidy after the passage of Proposition 22, which lets gig economy companies classify their workers as independent contractors, in the state.
There are policies that have been enacted previously in the US and elsewhere that could provide solutions for work. There are also potential solutions that haven’t been tried.
The response to the pandemic was evidence that the government can do more. The US government undertook tremendous efforts to support the economy when the pandemic hit — efforts that helped regular people stay afloat and put the country on a solid path to recovery. These include policies that, if they were left in place in some form permanently, like being codified into law, experts say could make the future of work much brighter.
“We’re not lacking in solutions, we’re lacking in the will to implement them,” Shierholz, from EPI, said. Those policies include better pay and benefits, a voice on the job, predictability, and better safety and health.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, passed in the spring of 2020, temporarily put in place a number of measures to support the economy and workers, including enhanced unemployment insurance, loans to small businesses to try to keep people on payrolls, and money to state and local governments, among other measures. The federal government also pushed through a $900 billion stimulus package in December 2020 and then the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which included unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and expanded health insurance coverage, among other measures, aimed at helping the economy and supporting working people.
“There hasn’t really been a cultural change, and to the extent there has been a change, it’s because of the CARES Act, and it’s because there were very deliberate economic decisions made to run the economy really hot,” said Matt Darling, an employment policy fellow at the Niskanen Center, a think tank.
For months, the federal government doled out stimulus checks. It added on extra funds to weekly unemployment benefits and expanded the pool of workers who were eligible. This gave some workers the time and space to drive up their own wages by holding out for better paying jobs. Despite handwringing from some economists and politicians that expanded unemployment would keep people out of the workforce, evidence suggests that wasn’t the case. People didn’t flood back to the workforce when expanded state and federal benefits expired.
“That was such a huge benefit to workers both in terms of stabilizing people’s incomes but also in giving them a little more leverage, giving them a little more bargaining power. It’s astonishing that that basically seemed to have no effect on the number of jobs,” Darling said. “We could definitely have much more generous unemployment insurance benefits.”
Other ideas to improve unemployment insurance include putting in place automatic stabilizers that kick in to enhance the program when recessions hit. That would mean benefits would be tied to certain economic conditions, such as unemployment, and would phase out as the economy improves. Many states have outdated unemployment systems that are hard to navigate and run on old technologies, much of which was not addressed during the pandemic. That could be fixed, too. The government could also tighten requirements around benefits so they’re not so different from state to state, and expand the eligibility pool, among other potential measures. There have been proposals along some of these lines in Congress.
Paying workers more is one of the most obvious ways to help. Earlier in the pandemic, many companies put in place hazard pay to better compensate some workers, but in most circumstances, that hazard pay was short-lived. In 2021, with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, there was also real momentum around the idea of a $15 federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 for more than a decade. Multiple states and localities are raising wages to $15 an hour or have minimums in place above the federal level. Many experts, politicians, and advocates are calling for an increased federal minimum wage to ensure a more solid floor for all workers.
Some political figures have begun to call for a higher minimum wage than $15, noting how long the fight has gone on already. Others say a federal minimum wage should be above $7.25 but say $15 is too much.
There’s disagreement among economists about the economic implications of a $15 federal minimum wage. Evidence suggests it would lead to significant pay increases for many workers, though there are concerns it could also cost some workers their jobs (concerns that some experts argue are overstated). Regardless, the conversation around a $15 minimum wage has currently died off in Congress.
Making it easier to unionize could also help. On Capitol Hill, many Democrats are backing the PRO Act, which would bolster protections for workers to organize. The bill passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. Evidence shows that unions can help raise wages, increase job satisfaction, and reduce income inequality, among other improvements. Shierholz also said that unions can help reduce the impact of structural racism because they can benefit workers of color and help raise their wages.
Additionally, wider adoption of worker standards boards, in which a group of employees take part in decision-making in their industry or with policymakers, could ensure worker protections and minimize the disconnect between workers and employers. In the past few years, a number of states and local governments have formed standards boards of varying kinds to help guide everything from compensation to safety.
The same goes for paid leave. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a federal paid leave program, meaning workers are largely at the whims of their employers or state governments. Paid sick and family leave has been left off of the agenda in Congress for now, but if it were put in place, it would, again, help millions of workers, especially low-wage ones.
More protections on the job would also make work better for everyone. Last year, OSHA issued a rule known as an emergency temporary standard that required health care employers to take measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 among employees, including providing personal protective equipment and screening patients for symptoms. Extending this rule beyond health care workers to other high-risk industries like meat processing and retail — or to all workers, as was originally intended — could ensure more safety for workers, as well as consumers.
Treating the ever-growing ranks of gig workers as employees — the state of California is fighting back and forth with gig companies over this — would guarantee them the same protections as traditional workers, such as minimum wage, protection from discrimination, and overtime pay. It would take bigger policy changes to grant them things that higher-paid workers get, including health care and paid sick leave.
And there are even bigger policy proposals that would change the future of work, such as universal health care, a federal job guarantee, and universal basic income. Other ideas include scrapping non-compete clauses and improving the problem of asymmetric information between employers and employees. More broadly, a strong economy is, of course, a main contributor to a strong job market and, in turn, better jobs.
Schaffer, the Denny’s waitress, wants a $15 minimum wage and health care, which the government could, presumably, make happen, because her employer won’t do it on its own. “We don’t get no paid sick days. I have no health insurance,” she said. “Denny’s and all these billion-dollar corporations, McDonald’s, they need to listen to what the workers are saying.” The president of Denny’s, which has a market cap of $866 million, bragged on a recent company earnings call that it was one of only two restaurants on Newsweek’s list of “most-loved” places to work (it was number 73 overall).
While some workers have reason to be optimistic about the future of work, the past couple of years have made it glaringly obvious that many Americans have reason to think the opposite. For all the talk about how there’s no going back to the way things were before, it’s also not guaranteed that the way forward will be a meaningful improvement for millions of workers.
We know what the future of work could and should look like, but it’s not going to happen unless the economy remains strong and there are active policy decisions around it.
“It’s on us not to just let things get back to normal but actually continue to support workers who are making these demands in their companies and in their work sites, and to try to leverage what we have left of this moment to ensure those standards continue beyond the pandemic,” said Erica Smiley, executive director of Jobs With Justice, a labor rights organization.
Martinez and her colleagues unionized last year with Unite Here Local 11, and they successfully negotiated a contract with Hilton this March. It’s been an uphill battle, but one they believe is worth it. The company initially offered a 35-cent-per-hour raise, but the union’s collective bargaining power eventually helped it win more.
Employees are set to get a $3- to $4-an-hour increase over the next three years and were able to reduce their health insurance costs by nearly 50 percent. Martinez now makes $16.75 an hour. In a statement, a Hilton spokesperson said the company believes the agreement will be “beneficial” to their team members and the hotel. For Martinez, they’re benefits that she feels are long overdue.
“We’re asking for a fair salary, insurance we can afford for our families,” Martinez said, “and above all, respect and recognition.”
Rani Molla is a senior data reporter for Recode, covering business, technology news, and the future of work.
Emily Stewart is a senior correspondent for Vox, writing about the intersection of business, politics, and the economy.