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Worker Voices Project: Perspectives from Ohio

"The insights discovered through this work are invaluable to my organization as we try to service workers affected by the pandemic. The labor market created by this unique event and the behavior of workers in response to it have sent us scrambling to understand the dynamics at play."

– David Megenhardt, executive director of United Labor Agency and Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland board member

This summer, the Community Development Departments across the Federal Reserve System are collaborating on the Worker Voices Project (WVP), an effort to hear perspectives from workers— particularly low-wage workers and workers of color—to better understand their experiences with employment both now and during the pandemic. The WVP builds on an understanding that policies impacting workers are often created without considering the perspectives of those the policies directly impact. Ultimately, this project aims to better inform research and policy decisions by factoring worker experiences into economic conditions.

There is much value in hearing directly from workers. David Snipes, grants director for the Greater Ohio Workforce Board Inc., notes, “This project, and themes from it, are critical components for assisting us in tailoring a workforce system that is more inclusive, resilient, safe, productive, and equitable.” And Laurie McKnight, director of Area 14 Workforce Development Board, points out that the WVP can help address the current hiring challenges that employers are experiencing, as “it will allow us to help businesses see what changes would make them more attractive places to work.”

The Cleveland Fed held its first WVP listening session on June 15. This Notes from the Field entry highlights two themes that surfaced during the listening session. The themes are consistent with what our outreach team has been hearing throughout our region and overall reflect that workers are looking for more than simply a decent wage. Workers are prioritizing the aspects of a job that aren’t necessarily related to compensation; this is known as job quality in workforce development circles.

Listening session participants acknowledged that the criteria they use to evaluate employment opportunities has evolved over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rising inflation has exacerbated their overall sense of dissatisfaction with available jobs and further compelled them to closely evaluate a job’s working hours, responsibilities, pay, and benefits before accepting new positions.

  • Participants said their perspectives about work have changed and that they are less willing to take on roles they feel do not serve their financial and personal needs. With the added burden of inflation on their household finances, participants are looking at job package elements beyond salary, such as employee benefits, because they feel that their earned dollars no longer go as far.
  • Participants claimed that hiring and job requirements have not lowered. On the contrary, many said that employers want more skills, certifications, and responsibilities for the same salary as prior to the pandemic. Participants considered this tension particularly frustrating within the context of inflation.
  • Participants consistently articulated a desire for opportunities that offer long-term career growth. Even participants who are comfortable with their current earnings mentioned this.
  • Caretakers in the group expressed the importance of quality time with their children. This priority has increasingly motivated them to take only jobs that position them to work while their children are in school or otherwise occupied.

Participants highlighted how a company’s management of COVID-19 health concerns and related layoffs early in the pandemic impacted workers’ perception of their employer and desire to stay in their roles. For many, this experience continues to influence decisionmaking as they change jobs and navigate potential job opportunities.

  • Participants recalled how their employers managed COVID-19 safety protocols and pandemic-related layoffs and emphasized the need for employers to establish and model appropriate behavior for company safety and morale.
  • One participant left her role after witnessing the harsh and dishonest approach her employer took when laying off her colleagues, many with whom she held personal relationships.
  • Another participant recalled the frustration of managing workers in a warehouse with no enforced safety protocols or support from leadership to maintain a safe environment. The participant felt that enforcing protocols was an undue burden that resulted in a high-tension work environment and threatened the safety of employees and their families and the production of the warehouse.
  • A substantial portion of the participants who worked in warehouse settings felt unsafe early in the pandemic. Many noted that these conditions motivated them to pursue jobs in different workplace settings or that would not require them to manage people in-person.

The themes that emerged from the listening session are no surprise to our local workforce partners. Of workers’ prioritizing job quality, Jill Rizika, president and CEO of Towards Employment, said this: “The workers we heard from are seeking what we all seek—a workplace that is safe, that offers living wages and benefits, that allows for professional growth and work–life balance, and a support system that offers affordable, quality childcare during the hours they need to be at work. Employer practices and government policies that support and incentivize these components will create better jobs and stronger communities.” We could not agree more.

Many thanks to our local partners for helping to recruit participants for the listening session; without them, the WVP could not be possible:

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