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Fed up with poor quality jobs

Commentary Photo by Rachael Flores

Photo by Rachael Flores

October 22, 2021By Juan Carlos Ordóñez

Many workers have had enough with poor quality jobs.

A record number of workers quit their jobs this past August, according to figures recently released by the U.S. Department of Labor. Some 4.3 million Americans said goodbye to their employer, eclipsing the previous record of 4 million set in April of this year.

Meanwhile, all across the country, workers fed up with their working conditions are going on strike or threatening to do so. “Never in a decade of covering organized labor have I seen this sort of wave of labor uprisings bold enough to smash into mainstream consciousness,” a labor reporter recently wrote.

Oregon is no stranger to Striketober. Earlier this month, workers at Kaiser Permanente voted to authorize a strike and health care workers at the McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield carried out a two-day strike. And in September, a national strike of Nabisco workers that began in Portland came to an end after workers won a better deal.

While future research may explain what exactly ignited this upsurge, some of the likely causes are not hard to discern. The pandemic may have reset attitudes toward work, having revealed that many poorly paid jobs are, in fact, essential. Workers now have the option to look for better jobs, because the economic recovery following the initial crash has led to a tight labor market. And it likely hasn’t gone unnoticed by workers that the fortunes of the rich have ballooned during the pandemic.

Ultimately, the current mood reflects a deep dissatisfaction with the pre-pandemic status quo, one where workers lacked power and poor quality jobs abounded. As we examined in detail recently, on the eve of the pandemic, at a time when Oregon enjoyed one of the strongest job markets on record, more than half of all jobs in the state paid too little to support a family. For a family of two or more to afford basic necessities, a job needed to pay above $20 per hour in 2019. Yet, about 55 percent of all jobs in Oregon that year failed to provide a survival level wage. A full third of all jobs in the state paid less than $15 an hour.

Low pay is only part of the problem. Workers toiling in low-wage jobs often contend with additional challenges, such as skimpy or no benefits like health insurance. Sometimes, the job doesn’t provide enough hours of work — it’s only a part-time job. And sometimes, workers must contend with unpredictable work schedules that can wreak havoc on family life and prohibit taking a second job.

The prevalence of poor-quality jobs helps explain why economic insecurity is so widespread, why so many Oregon families struggle to make ends meet.

There is a lot that Oregon lawmakers can do to help fix what ails the labor market. Our report lays out a series of recommendations Oregon lawmakers can implement to address the problem of poor quality jobs, ranging from improving workers’ ability to negotiate for better pay and working conditions, boosting worker incomes, and making basic needs more affordable.

Workers are fed up with poor quality jobs and are doing something about it. So too should Oregon lawmakers.