The blog of the Urban Institute
August 5, 2019

Minnesotans Who Lost Jobs Reveal Instability of Low-Wage Work

August 5, 2019

Describing working a low-wage job in a factory, Francine, a mother from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, said, “I've never seen so many people cry so much in my life. Coworkers and myself.” She also experienced an unfriendly work environment. “The older ladies there who had been there for a while, they treat you like crap,” she said.

Francine eventually left the job because she was expected to continue to lift heavy objects after injuring her hand. Francine’s story is one of many featured in our new report exploring how workers in low-wage fields in Minnesota experience challenges to work stability.

The report focuses on workers who left or lost jobs in industries known to employ many low-wage workers, including retail, manufacturing, hotels and restaurants, health care and social services, and administrative services (temporary hiring agencies). Our conversations with workers revealed how jobs in these fields often make it difficult to maintain steady employment, leaving workers with no choice but to turn to supports outside of earned wages, such as public assistance, to make ends meet.

Several job characteristics drove the instability that workers experienced.

Inconsistent hours and scheduling

Many workers in our study had worked jobs where managers changed their schedules and number of hours frequently. Workers sometimes had to leave their jobs because they could not maintain their child care arrangements when their schedules changed.

Some workers left jobs because changing hours led to income fluctuations that made it hard to pay bills. Income changes also affected workers’ eligibility for the public assistance programs that they needed because their wages alone did not cover basic expenses.

Lack of family leave

A common reason for job loss among workers was the inability to take time off to attend to family needs. Workers reported that managers did not offer any flexibility to accommodate their needs, even in cases when showing up to work sick would have been unhealthy for employees and customers. Some workers had been fired for taking time off because of pregnancy complications or to care for a sick family member.

Hostile work environments

Workers told us several stories about instances of workplace harassment and discrimination that had contributed to job losses. A few workers said that when they reported coworkers who made racist or sexist comments to their managers, their managers had sided with the offending employees. Managers and other employees then made work unpleasant for the workers who had reported the offensive behavior, and the employees eventually decided to leave to escape these hostile work environments.

Inadequate compensation and room for advancement

Some workers said they felt unable to stay at previous jobs because the jobs paid too little, did not offer benefits, or did not provide the number of work hours they needed to support their families. A few workers mentioned that they had left jobs because the jobs didn’t offer opportunities to gain training or experience that would allow them to move up to positions with more responsibilities and better pay.

Intolerable daily tasks

Some workers explained that they felt compelled to leave jobs that involved tedious, exhausting, dangerous, or disgusting tasks. Some of these jobs involved standing all day and preparing the same food items or moving items along an assembly line repeatedly.

Some workers said they couldn’t stand to do these things anymore and quit. Others mentioned leaving jobs that involved lifting heavy objects because injuries or pregnancy made these jobs feel unsafe. The physically exhausting and extremely personal nature of work as a personal care assistant led some workers to burn out and leave the field.

Power imbalances between managers and employees

Many workers described leaving jobs where managers had total control over their working conditions, leaving workers no opportunities to ask for improvements.

Workers often described work situations where they faced retaliation (including being fired) for reporting workplace harassment, asking for time off to care for a sick loved one, or asking for a schedule change that would align with their child care arrangements. In some cases, all workers needed to keep their jobs was a small accommodation from management, but they weren’t able to ask for what they needed without negative repercussions.

These findings suggest that policymakers and employers should turn their attention to improving conditions in low-wage jobs to help workers achieve greater stability in their work and family lives.

A seasonal farm worker labors in a milking shed at Bill Sorg's dairy farm in Hastings, Minnesota, on October 3, 2018. (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images).

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