Shift Work

Shift Work

“For the past four decades, submarines have run on a watchbill known as sixes, which divides sailors’ time into six-hour chunks: six hours on watch, six for other duties and studies, six for personal time and sleep, then back on watch. The creation of an 18-hour day saw each sailor putting in six extra hours of watch time every 24-hour period. The problem is that his activities ceased to align with his biological rhythms,” writes Mary Roach in her book Grunt.
For many humans, shift work doesn’t align with our biological rhythms. Not all of us are sailors working sixes, but when our shift work doesn’t align with our biological rhythms, it can still throw us off, diminish our performance, and cause all kinds of problems for our daily lives. To me, it seems that shift work is a leftover of the industrial revolution, and something we are more or less stuck with, especially in a globalized world that seems to be increasingly moving toward an always on – 24 hour schedule.
Studies have shown that shift work among nurses is bad for performance and healthcare, but getting nurses to give up 12 hour, three/four workday shifts is difficult. Roach writes about the problems submariners have with shifts that don’t align with their circadian rhythm, and force them to work when their bodies need sleep. And all of us have probably felt the challenge of working in the mid afternoon when our minds can’t seem to concentrate on anything important. We force ourselves to push through times when we are not at our best because our shifts demand that we be on when our bodies would prefer us to be off.
But none of us really seem to want to do anything about changing our shifts. Some people who are creative and work for themselves, like my uncle or Tim Ferris with his Four Hour Workweek, can build a schedule that is flexible and aligns with their body and performance, but most of us are stuck working a schedule driven by our customers or our bosses. “As flawed as it is, we’d perfected it,” Commanding Officer Bohner is quoted by Roach as saying in the book. Making changes to nursing schedules, adjusting the expected daily working hours for everyone in the country, and adjusting our hours of operation is hard. It is easier to simply perfect working in imperfect conditions, even if that means putting up with bad performance.
I hope in the future we will be able to change this for many people. I hope we can find ways to get people into a work rhythm that better aligns with each individual’s circadian rhythm. The benefits would be important. Nursing and hospital safety could be better. Daily performance and happiness for workers  could be better. This could translate into real improvements in people’s lives, and I think it is worth striving toward, even if it would be hard to shake up all the pieces and start over without the same shift work.
Minimum Wage and Jobs Worth Doing

Minimum Wage and Jobs Worth Doing

“There is some evidence,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless, “that lowering the minimum wage does create more low-wage jobs. But that is not the same as creating more stable jobs in which workers come to care about the enterprise that employs them or take some pride in doing useful work.”
I like this quote and think about this idea all the time. Many of the low-wage jobs available to people at the lowest socioeconomic status in the United States are awful. They don’t pay well, they don’t have future growth opportunities, and society seemingly accepts that people working in such awful jobs will face repeated abuse from customers. We know these jobs suck and wouldn’t want our kids to have to deal with them. If we worked in a crummy food service job right out of high school or while going through college, then we know how bad they are, and hopefully have some sympathy for people working in such jobs. Nevertheless, many of us find it easier to criticize people for not working such awful jobs than criticize business owners for allowing such awful jobs to exist.
Our country often has debates about what the minimum wage should be, and while Jencks’ book is now outdated in terms of the research he cites, it is still the case that economists are often mixed on the debate as to whether raising the minimum wage increases job loss and whether lowering the minimum wage would promote jobs. Either way, the debate doesn’t get at the reality that many of the minimum wage jobs that exist are barely jobs worth having. When you factor in travel time, disrespect that comes with such jobs, and the sometimes overly demanding requirements of jobs, it is not hard to see why people don’t want to work them or don’t last in them once they do take them. Focusing just on a jobs count is inadequate compared to thinking about job quality and actual engagement and productivity. Moving forward we need to think beyond the numbers of people working and start exploring the role they are filling, whether the job is flat out awful, and whether there are more productive and rewarding things we could have people do. When viewing the jobs world in this light, future developments in automation are not as scary. Who cares if Walmart checkers lose their terrible jobs if we can find more rewarding jobs for them that suck less? This should be the mission of society and our economy, not simply hiring the maximum number of people for minimum wage work.
The Last Hired, The First Fired

The Last Hired, The First Fired

In the United States our economic system is more or less a meritocratic system. It is not a perfect meritocracy (we all know someone who got a job because of a parent or well connected uncle rather than their skills), but for the most part, hard working people are able to get promoted based on their effort, talent, and skills. If you deserve an opportunity to advance you can normally find an avenue forward, even if it is winding and has some setbacks along the way. For most of us this works to our advantage and helps keep our economy, universities, and public institutions moving forward. But for the homeless people in our society, this turns into a crushing system that doesn’t provide second chances.
“The homeless are clearly the last hired and the first fired,” writes Christopher Jencks in his book The Homeless. Our system of meritocracy awards the hard working and those who are willing to show up early, stay late, and put on a smile in the face of upset customers. Homeless people often have trouble on all of these fronts, partly due to the very nature of their homelessness. They may not have good transportation to a job, making it hard to be early. If they have to be in a shelter by a certain time or risk losing their spot, then they cannot stay late on a job. The stress, anxiety, and disrespect of homelessness often makes it hard for the homeless to have good people skills, meaning they have trouble with performance on the low-wage jobs available to them.
On top of this, being homeless itself is a ding against someone in our meritocratic system. The homeless are seen as defective, so even if someone sets out to be hard working and courteous on a job where they have the right skill set for success, they start further behind everyone else. They are only offered a job when no other employees could be found. Starting behind everyone else means they have more ground to cover to catch up and be seen on par with everyone else. They are constantly under more scrutiny. This makes them vulnerable to being fired even if they are trying hard and doing well. When work is slow and layoffs happen, the homeless are often easily justified as the first fired in our meritocracy.
Any system is going to have shortcomings and the systems of meritocracy in our workplace are no exception. Most of us can do well in meritocratic institutions, but outliers on the extreme ends, the hyper-wealthy and the homeless, don’t have the same experiences in a meritocracy as the majority of us. The homeless can’t get a good start in a meritocratic system, and are penalized before they even try to begin.  I would argue that we need a universal jobs guarantee to ensure that the homeless can find some type of work to do, even if it is ultimately menial and meaningless, to help them get a foothold and avoid being the last hired and first fired from any job they try to maintain. Guaranteeing we can get everyone some type of paid work will enable the poor to find a benefit in participating in our meritocracy rather than being a left-out extremity.
Working Versus Dependent

Working Versus Dependent

One of my favorite ideas from the world of political science is the Social Construction Framework. In the framework, social constructions, that is ideas and concepts that people hold about groups of people, end up determining what types of policies can be adopted. The ways we think about people shapes the ways we treat people. We think of veterans as having made a great sacrifice for the nation, and as a result, we adopt policies that benefit veterans. We see people who commit crimes as having wronged society and consequently we develop policies that punish criminals.
Elliot Liebow reflected ideas from Social Construction Framework in his book Tell Them Who I Am when writing about the ways that homeless women saw and understood themselves. He wrote, “the women recognized only two classes: a working class and a dependent class, with each group claiming to be the deserving poor.” In this example there are two groups that share commonalities, but are differentiated by their work status. The social constructions around each group, the ways we (and they) think about the groups, was in flux, with each group trying to adopt a more favorable view than the other group. Adopting a more favorable construction would hopefully lead to more favorable policies in the long run.
First, the working poor wanted to be seen as the deserving poor because they were making an effort to participate in society, to contribute to the system, and to show that they were hard working and not lazy. They deserved aid because they recognized an unspoken expectation in the United States, we won’t help you unless you make an effort to work. Deservingness, according to this group, was determined based on how hard someone tried to make it on their own.
The second group was those who were not working, but still saw themselves as deserving. The group which was not working included women who had disabilities and could not work, women who faced discrimination and couldn’t work even if they wanted to, and women who had fallen on hard times and didn’t know where to go to get back on track. They were truly deserving because they had no other alternatives, no resources beyond what welfare and shelters could provide, and no hope of getting out of their current situation. They saw themselves as more deserving because they had no way to make money. Those who were working, on the other hand, should be able to get by without continuing to take handouts. In the view of the second group they were truly destitute and in need of aid whereas those who were working didn’t need the aid and assistance as much.
What Liebow’s quote demonstrates is the constantly changing nature of social constructions within the Social Construction Framework. How a group is seen, the framing used to describe the group, and the outcomes of those perceptions and perspectives is always in flux. Groups compete for favorable positions, all in an attempt to improve political and social outcomes. Subjective opinions and feelings often matter more than cold hard facts within a world dominated by the Social Construction Framework. The distinctions can be razor thin between one deserving group and another deviant group, meaning that even slight shifts in perspective can be the difference between how someone from one group is treated.
Understanding Why Some Homeless May Not Want To Work

Understanding Why Some Homeless May Not Want To Work

“On one hand,” writes Elliot Liebow in Tell Them Who I Am, “the women desperately want and need the money, the independence, and the self-respect that most of us have come to expect from a job. On the other hand, to get a job and keep it, the women must run an obstacle course at the end of which is a low-pay, low-status job that offers little more than they have without it.” In his book Liebow explains that most of the homeless women he spoke with in his book wanted to work, or at least they saw the benefits that work would provide and wanted those things. However, few of the women he met were actually working.
Women didn’t work because it was difficult to actually obtain a job and difficult to keep a job once they had one. They were not respected during the job search process, and the jobs they landed often put them in places where customers could be rude to them, where the threat of losing the job could induce additional stress and anxiety, and where the work required such great travel and time costs that the cost benefit analysis barely made working worth the effort. For the women at the lowest socioeconomic level, jobs were seen as necessary but insufficient to improve their position in the world, and as a result some simply dropped out and decided it was not worth trying.
A point from Liebow’s quote that I think is worth exploring in more detail is how low-wage jobs available to homeless women are low-status jobs, and how such jobs don’t help integrate individuals into society. No one wants to feel like an outcast, and if we feel that what we do doesn’t matter and isn’t respected, then it is hard for us to get up, put ourselves together, and put in the effort of getting to work and sticking it out through the whole day. In our society we are all constantly looking to improve our status one way or another, and one way to increase our own status is to diminish the status of others, creating a bigger gulf between us and them, even if our status doesn’t actually raise. Relative to those who lose status, we look better. I think this is part of the problem with the low status jobs that homeless people may be able to find. Those who are barely above the homeless are incentivized to keep the lowest-status jobs as low status as possible, to keep themselves marginally better in the status race than the working homeless.
Our country celebrates work, but only certain kinds of work. For the lowest status work, we sometimes accept disrespect and inconsiderate behavior. We certainly don’t do much to praise those who do the lowest status work. Lunch counter servers, lawn service personnel, and janitorial staff are crucial to the smooth functioning and high standards of our society, but people who do these jobs are not well respected. It is little wonder that many people who find themselves choosing between homelessness where they don’t have to be around disrespectful people while they complete menial tasks, chose unemployment over work. Dead end jobs with no prospect for life improvement are not inviting, yet they are often the only option for those who want to work. The increase in status over being unworking and homeless is marginal, and if we don’t make an effort to increase the status of those low-wage workers, we won’t be able to convince them that putting in the effort and actually working is in their best interest.
Many Homeless Want to Work

Many Homeless Want to Work

It is tempting to look at homeless people and people with signs on street corners and hold the opinion that the person simply needs to get a job and all their problems would be fixed. If they would get a job, even if it was physically demanding, low-wage, and/or a dirty job, they wouldn’t be begging for money or sleeping in shelters. We assume people don’t want to work and would rather beg and take a hand-out.
However, when Elliot Liebow spent time among homeless women in Washington DC and interviewed them to understand their lives, he discovered that many of them did want to work, but were prevented from finding and maintaining a job by a number of factors beyond their control. He writes, “At a very general level of unexamined beliefs, most women accepted the proposition that a job is the way out of homelessness. But when they confronted their own concrete situations, they knew this was not true for most of them.” Liebow examines many of the barriers that the women faced with working, and also highlighted how several of the women he met in shelters did have jobs, but still could not rent an apartment.
Some jobs are too far away for someone to commit to. Job security is a challenge for any homeless person, where one slip up or unfair customer could lead to the loss of their job. Additionally, night shifts are not possible for homeless people with no place to sleep during the day, and jobs that don’t have predictable schedules can be extra challenging for homeless or low-income individuals to maintain. If your work schedule is unknown in advance, it is hard to plan appropriately, and if you can lose shifts when things get slow, that means that your housing could be in jeopardy.
Liebow also stresses that it is not simply the money and the desire to no longer be homeless that motivated the women he spoke with to work. “For most people …” he wrote, [the] social value of work is experienced, at the individual level, as a principal source of independence and self-respect.” Work is something we take pride in. Few of us truly want a job where we get paid to sit on our rear ends without any expectations that we actually do anything. While we all work toward retirement, we also want to have meaningful and fulfilling work to do. Liebow continues, “it is through work that we engage the world and become a part of it, and through work that we lay claim to membership in the larger community and, in getting paid for our work, have that membership confirmed by others.” Many homeless individuals want to work, to get money and get off the streets, but also to be accepted members of their society. This is a reality we don’t all recognize or understand (even about ourselves) and we don’t always recognize the barriers that keep people from finding a job that will help bring them back into society in a meaningful and productive way.
Keeping a Job

Keeping a Job

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about homeless women who make an effort to work and earn paychecks. Detailing the experience of a woman named Gwen, he writes,
“Keeping a job could be as difficult as finding one. Keeping a job might mean having to suppress an awareness of one’s real-life situation. Gwen struggled against that awareness. Once, when she had to go to her salesclerk job the next day, she was trying very hard not to be discouraged and not to worry about the fact that The Refuge [the homeless shelter where she was living] would close the next week. You’ve got to have a clear head on a job, she said if your mind is on your troubles, you can’t do your job. Customers want you to pay attention to them, and that’s what your boss wants you to do, too.”
When we think about homeless men and women our first thought is often that these people need to get a job and begin earning money so that they can afford a place to rent and get off the street. When we logically express what each person needs to do we recognize that there is a chain of events taking place. First is securing a job, second is keeping that job long enough to earn a paycheck, and third is being able to afford a place to live to escape homelessness. Somehow, when we casually make this suggestion, we fail to recognize the time that may be involved in each of these steps. We fail to realize that this simple, orderly process that we expect everyone to follow likely requires working a job while not having a place to live.
Liebow’s quote shows how absurd this idea can be. Homeless individuals can hardly be expected to first obtain a job when they live in a shelter and don’t have a stable living situation. Employers will not want to hire someone without reliable transportation to work, who might be coming to work hungry, and who is likely going to be distracted on the job and face numerous troubles outside of work that make it hard for them to perform well. If they do extend a job offer to someone who is homeless, then that individual is likely to have difficult times ahead of them as they try to get their life on track, and that means they may not have the mental toughness and on the job focus to grit through rude customers and challenging work tasks.
This reality is another argument in support of housing first programs. People need to have someplace secure, where they know they can go at the end of the day, in order to put their best selves forward in work. It is truly an argument for expanded social safety net programs in general. Those who contribute to such programs often complain about the costs they bear and the lack of benefits they receive (since they are not the homeless and needy ones) but fail to see how much they could benefit if more people were more productive on the job and were ultimately more productive in society. People are expected to work in the United States, but often they are under-supported and challenged outside of work to an extent that makes both finding and keeping a job nearly impossible. More support upfront may seem wasteful and may seem undeserved, but it may be better for the system in the long run.
Values, Contradictions, and Paradoxes Surrounding Jobs

Values, Contradictions, & Paradoxes Surrounding Jobs

In his book about homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow writes, “values and behavior around jobs and work are awash in ambivalence, contradiction, and paradox.” Liebow goes on to explain the complex relationships of homeless women and work. Many women, he writes, do work or do want to work. Some women hold more than one job, some only work intermittently, and some work random gigs for people they know. Some homeless women do avoid work, while others are afraid to try looking for work because they don’t have a fixed address or phone number to use when applying. Overall, there is a huge variation for homeless women when it comes to their experience with jobs and paid work.
The variation of work and jobs among homeless women shows us that working and homelessness is more challenging than the simple idea of homeless people needing to get a job to get off the streets. Some of the ambivalent or paradoxical ideas around work relate to the idea that one can be working, or want to be working, and still find themselves homeless. It is not hard to imagine why some people give up trying to work when they see others work hard but remain stuck on the streets or still others search for jobs and face constant let down with not being hired due to their appearance, their lack of recent work history, or because of their homelessness itself. It is also not hard to imagine that some women would like to work, possibly just to avoid boredom, but are afraid to try because they don’t want to be outcasts on the job or be looked down-upon by co-workers or customers for living in a shelter or in a car.
Ultimately, I don’t think the relationship that most homeless women have to work is all that different than the relationships most housed people have with work. We all strive toward retirement. We work hard, so that one day we won’t have to work any more. But when we meet someone new, pretty much the first thing we ask is what they do for work. And if they were a wealthy person who never had to work, we look down on them, even if we wish we were in their shoes and didn’t have to go to work every day. We too are living paradoxes when it comes to work and jobs. Some of us work simply to avoid the boredom, to escape our family lives, or to avoid disappointing other people. Some of us love our jobs and would do them even if we didn’t get paid. And some of us are frustrated by those old boomers who just won’t retire to let us take over the top spots that we have been striving so hard to reach – not because we necessarily need more money, but because we want the prestige and title to impress others.
In reading about homelessness, and in my personal interactions with homeless individuals, I am always surprised (which itself I find surprising) when I hear homeless people talking about work. I never expect us to share something in common around work, but the conversations I have heard fit with any conversation complaining about the tedious and unpleasant parts of a job. I’ve heard first-hand the ambivalent and often paradoxical thoughts toward work that Liebow wrote about. The easy way to think about homelessness and work is to assume the homeless don’t want to work. But the reality is much more complicated than the simple assumption. The reality is that all of us have more complicated views and feelings about work than we want to admit, and that include the homeless.
Unemployment Statistics Miss Informal Labor

Unemployment Statistics Miss Informal Labor

“Reported high rates of joblessness among black men with little education obscured the fact that many of these men did regularly work, if not in the formal labor market,” writes Matthew Desmond in Evicted. Labor force participation rates are important because they inform national policies and discussions regarding the economy, society, and how we understand ourselves relative to others. What Desmond’s quote shows is that national labor force participation rates don’t capture a full picture of work, and as a result, our policies, discussions, and interpretations of the world of work may be inaccurate.
Desmond’s focus is on the way that landlords are able to access poor tenants as a form of free – or sometimes low paid – unregulated labor. Poor tenants, especially in the reporting from Desmond poor black men, are available for hire in exchange for breaks on rent or quick cash. Payments are not often up to minimum wage standards and requirements, and the work can range from relatively unimportant fence painting to crucial code compliance updates for landlords’ properties. A tenant may be hired to help paint a hand rail or may be hired to repair a roof, and when their work is under the table, then their safety can be at jeopardy. Nevertheless, as Desmond shows, informal labor is common among unemployed men.
Our welfare and assistance policies are designed so that able bodied young men must meet certain requirements before they can receive any benefits or aid. Many policies require work, community service, or job search activities before any benefits will kick in. Informal labor doesn’t count in this system, so men cannot be seen as deserving of aid if they only find work in the informal labor sector. Informal labor may help poor men get by, but it doesn’t help them get ahead.
The fact that many poor men find work within informal labor markets should tell us that these men can function within society and can find productive ways to earn money. It tells us that these men have been shut out by various structures and systems that don’t permit them to work in formal economies. When landlords come around and help get these men to a job then they do work, at least enough to get by. They don’t all do a great job once they are working, as Desmond shows in his book, but with a little help they can get started. I Think this is an important point to consider. Often the arrangements are not fair and  the work is not great, but informal labor does take place, and can tell us a lot about the people whose work is not counted elsewhere and the types of systems that could be built to reach them.

How Men & Women Experience the Threat of Eviction

How Men and Women Experience the Threat of Eviction

The poorest people in our country are often in danger of being taken advantage of or exploited. For low income renters, their need for shelter and limited housing options means that they have to negotiate deals to avoid eviction or try to work out better arrangements with more powerful landlords. In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows how these negotiations differ for men and women and how these arrangements can be particularly exploitative and dangerous for women.
“Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women – already taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations – could not spare the time. … When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.”
Gender disparities in our nation translate into different experiences of exploitation and danger for men and women in our lowest socioeconomic ranks. Low skill and low wage men are expected to work and produce, and this expectation affords them extra opportunities to find ways to pay their rent and avoid eviction. Landlords, Desmond explains, are more willing to offer men the chance to work off late rent by providing them some form of manual labor that will help benefit the landlord and their tenants or properties. Rarely do women receive the same offers, and Desmond explains that women rarely seek out similar arrangement themselves. Various gendered norms and expectations end up making it harder for women to skate by with odd jobs at the lowest levels than men who are given extra chances, even if those extra chances are physically demanding and potentially dangerous.
Desmond’s quote also hints at another gendered norm that makes life in the lowest socioeconomic status harder for women than men. Women are expected to take care of children, if they have any, and this means they have less time and flexibility in picking up extra work for their landlord in exchange for rent. Welfare often requires that an individual spend a certain amount of time in school, searching for a job or working, or engaging with certain productive volunteer activities. Women who try to adhere to these requirements, all while caring for kids or men who did not try to meet such requirements, could not possibly take on more gig work to make a little extra cash to avoid eviction.
Finally, Desmond’s quote highlights the exploitative and dangerous reality that many low socioeconomic status women find themselves in. The gendered disparities and power disparities between these women and their landlords often means they have nothing to negotiate with for rent other than their bodies. Trading sex for rent is dangerous for the women, exploitative, and in many ways degrading. It is not the case that every individual facing eviction experiences these realities exactly as I have described them based on gender, but it is often the case that the threat of eviction manifests differently for men and women, in part due to larger gender biases that exist within our society.