Too Few Good Jobs? Make Bad Jobs Better

There are far too many low-income workers, attempting to climb toward far too few "good" job openings. So, what can be done?
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For four years, Octaviea Martin, the mother of two young children, worked as a home health aide for a Bronx-based agency. "I never knew how many case hours they would give me each week, and I never had enough hours to make a decent paycheck. They gave me no health insurance, and no benefits."

Having a job is the goal of most every adult in America. Every month, the media obsessively report on U.S. employment figures -- each new job a cause for celebration. Why? A job provides true security: a steady income for food and shelter, access to health insurance, and the essential intangibles of identity and self-respect.

Except, as Octaviea Martin's story dramatizes, millions of jobs in America do no such thing. Many of the jobs our economy is creating today offer only part-time hours, few benefits, little training -- and less respect. They are clerical, retail, and restaurant jobs, and include even essential health and social service jobs, such as personal care and home health aides.

It is worth particularly focusing on home care jobs like Octaviea's, for these jobs employ more than 1.8 million workers nationwide (more than the number of elementary school teachers). In fact, personal care aides and home health aides are now the two fastest-growing occupations in America -- projected by the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to add 1.3 million net new positions this decade, a top-of-the-charts 70 percent increase. This is stunning, since home care aides already account for one out of every 12 low-wage workers in America.

And there is another, more personal reason to focus on home care jobs: These aides are often essential to helping our loved ones live independently at home as they age or become disabled.

Unfortunately, most of those new 1.3 million home care positions will likely be of poor quality: Home care aides earn on average $9.40/hour, hours are often part-time and episodic, training is minimal, and nearly 50 percent live in households that rely on public benefits like food stamps. Ironically, despite serving the health care system, a third have no health insurance.

And throughout the coming decade in America, these types of poor-quality occupations will continue to expand: Of the top ten U.S. occupations slated to contribute the most jobs this decade, three require no more than a high school education, and five require less than a high school education.

In response, policy makers, workforce specialists, and foundations working to improve the employment prospects of low-income people have focused primarily on "building career ladders" -- that is, helping low-income workers climb out of those poor quality jobs as fast as possible. While that is a very important strategy for a number of low-income workers, it is one that simply can't defy the math: There are far too many low-income workers, attempting to climb toward far too few "good" job openings.

So, what can be done? In the absence of good jobs, make bad jobs better. In addition to building ladders for the few, raise the floor for many. And the story behind home health aide Octaviea Martin shows us how.

For Octaviea now works for a different agency, Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) in the South Bronx, and she says the difference is night and day. "At Cooperative, I have a steady income -- at least 40 hours every week -- health insurance, personal days off, and I know who to turn to when I need help."

Octaviea's path, going from a bad home care job to a decent one, is telling, since both her past and current employers provide the same services, in the same city, within the same marketplace and public-funding constraints. Yet Octaviea's current employer, CHCA -- employing nearly 2000 home care workers -- has built a successful business strategy around raising the floor for all its aides.

Instead of part-time employment, CHCA assigns aides to maximize full-time work; it also provides health insurance for many of its workers through its union affiliation; and it trains its own entry-level workers with twice as many hours as the minimum 75 hours required by law. CHCA also employs "peer mentors" and trains its supervisors to be coaches rather than disciplinarians. One result is that CHCA's annual turnover rate, around 20 percent, is half the industry average.

Of course, these remain relatively low-paying jobs, and so public policy reforms are still essential. New York State has taken a huge first step, targeting a higher minimum wage for home care workers -- requiring, by 2014, $10/hour, plus health benefits, for those home care workers funded with Medicaid dollars in New York City. At the federal level, the USDOL has proposed regulations to offer minimum wage and overtime pay protection to home care workers, many of whom are, remarkably, now excluded under federal law.

Similar strategies are possible in other low-wage industries -- and advocates in the restaurant and day labor sectors are engaged in parallel efforts. Therefore, public policy makers and foundations have a critical role to play: Any workforce training funds invested in low-wage industries should be targeted solely to those employers who are pursuing full-throttle strategies to both "build ladders and raise the floor" -- forging bad jobs into better jobs for hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers.

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