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Focus on the Service Industry

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For all the talk about “Real Work,” which always means blue-collar factory work of some form or another, done by white men, the actual reality of the American workplace is service work. That’s only going to grow. That needs to be our focus in creating labor policy for the future. Ai-Jen Poo and Palak Shah are right on here.

The work force that powers our economy today — in times of stability and in crisis — is a low-wage service work force that is disproportionately made up of black women and other women of color, and largely unprotected by our safety net. These workers take care of us in different ways, and it took a pandemic for the nation to recognize they are the critical engine of our economy.

But we don’t take care of them. At all.

Home care workers took their children to work when they couldn’t afford child care after schools shut down. Janitors lacked the protective equipment they needed to sanitize spaces without putting themselves at risk. These workers didn’t have the option to work from home, and they also lacked paid leave to allow them to isolate themselves if they were exposed to an infected person.

These workers are essential not only in the present. They are essential in the future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the job projected to have the largest percentage increase in employment from 2018 to 2028 is the home health aide followed by the personal care aide, a reflection of the growing older population in America.

Despite the increasing need for these workers, home health aides and personal care aides typically earn less than $12 per hour. And they are overwhelmingly women of color, and disproportionately black women: 87 percent of paid adult care workers are women, compared with 46 percent of nondomestic workers, and about 25 percent of home care aides are black, compared with 12 percent of nondomestic workers.

The workers we need the most aren’t wearing boots and hard hats; they are wearing sneakers or scrubs.

We are at a critical juncture. The future of work will be decided by how we respond to this moment.

I’m hoping to work up a publishable agenda for a new regime of workplace safety in this country this summer. We will see, but protecting our service workers and in fact placing them at the center of our analysis of anything labor has to be a priority.

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