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Chronicle the changing nature of jobs for Labor Day

August 25, 2014

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Photo by Christina Rutz

With Labor Day only a week away, you may be pondering ways to commemorate the holiday, which was first observed in September 1882 in New York City, according to an account on the U.S. Department of Labor website.

In the ensuing 132 years, the ebb and flow of the organized labor / collective bargaining movements has followed a fascinating trajectory, and a review of the current state of union representation is always interesting this time of year.

Here’s an interesting roundup of Gallup survey results regarding labor unions; note that last year only 8 percent of respondents said they’re a member of a union and most people surveyed expect labor unions to become weaker as time goes on.   And here’s a link to some Pew research about attitudes toward labor unions; it’s fascinating that despite the deteriorating quality of jobs in the United States, from stagnant wages to the “just in time” worker scheduling that prompted this recent New York Times article “Part time jobs, full time headaches,” that the American public continues to view unions in a mostly unfavorable light.

You might want to talk with labor experts, union officials, corporate management, consumers and workers in your area about the cause of the seeming disconnect, even as worker clout continues to wane.  Are there any local efforts underway to establish collective bargaining?  That’s an angle for any beat, from health care to casinos to office work.

Or you could pursue the part-time jobs angle, which is getting a big buzz lately – this column from Al Jazeera America points out that despite the wane in unemployment, “Since 2007 full-time jobs are actually down by 1.6 million, while part-time jobs have grown by 2.7 million.”  Can you find some local case studies/household situations where people are off the jobless rolls but in lower-quality positions than they previously held?  Or newly minted workers fresh out of high school and college, taking part-time jobs to eke by?

Other Labor Day stories include, of course, travel & tourism, shopping & retail sales and even a look at the wind-up of summer road work projects and other efforts that have local economic impact.

However, my bid for the most interesting angle for Labor Day 2014 would be a look at the contingent workforce, whether long-term contractors, short-term temporary staffing, freelance service providers or any other cohort that works for 1099 pay instead of W-2 wages and benefits on the beats you cover.

This trends report from software maker Intuit predicts that contingent workers will comprise more than 40 percent of the workforce by 2020, with traditional pay-plus-benefits jobs increasingly harder to find.  (The entire report is chock full of story nuggets for future use, too; it’s worth a thorough read.)

Here’s an eye-opening report from the consulting firm Accenture that’s quite enthusiastic about “Creating a just-in-time workforce,”  and the benefits of such strategies, like using former workers as 1099 contractors.  (“Outperform the competition,” according to Accenture.  It would be interesting to ask the authors or their counterparts at other agencies about how they suggest workers cope with a perpetual short-term approach to jobs.

Check around with staffing firms about trends in long- and short-term contract work in your area, including the duration of assignments, wages and other conditions.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t seem to have any fresh numbers but these “Contingent and Alternative Employment” tables from 2005 should help you formulate lines of inquiry to pursue now.

The following blog post (I’m not vouching for the blogger, whom I don’t know, but his points are worth noting) about a little-remarked-upon penalty to the freelance worker – self-employment taxes – is worth at least a sidebar.  That extra 7.5 percent right off the top of 1099 wages can come as a shock to people doing contingent work   You might want to ask the IRS if it can parse out any changes over the past decade in reported 1099 vs. W-2 income for your state or region; I’m not finding any analyses online, surprisingly.  (If you do find the data, please share with us!)

Also, what are the implications of a growing class of 1099 workers when it comes to mortgage and auto lending, and other activities like renting that depend on proof of income?  How does it factor into child support arrangements – which of course ripple out economically through a community.  Here is a slightly dated CBS News report, “Temp work raises long-term questions for the economy,” about the shift in relationship between employer and employee.  The secure cradle-to-grave approach that characterized the mid-20th-century relationship between company and worker may have born some relationship to a peak in prosperity; could the current hand-to-mouth nature of participating in the workforce be prolonging economic malaise?  It’s worth asking some of the players and decision makers what they foresee in coming decades.


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