Friday, April 30, 2021

The carceral state and the labor market [feedly]

The carceral state and the labor market

Mass incarceration is a core feature of contemporary society in the United States. According to the most recent available data, more than 2.1 million people are housed in America's local jails and state and federal prisons (BJS 2020b; BJS 2020c). Expressed as a share of the population, 639 of every 100,000 people in the country are in prison or jail, the highest incarceration rate, by a substantial margin, among the world's rich democracies (Figure A) and three times higher than the rate that prevailed in this country prior to the 1980s (Figure B).

Figure A
Figure B

Incarceration is not just massive–it is also highly racialized. Relative to whites, the incarceration rate is almost twice as high for the Latinx population, almost three times as high for Native Americans, and more than four times higher for African Americans (Figure C).1

Figure C

In many important respects, however, mass incarceration is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the most recent data available, in addition to the 2.1 million people in prison and jail about 10.1 million people were arrested; 3.5 million were on probation; 0.9 million were on parole; and anywhere from 14.0 million to 15.8 million had a history of incarceration or a felony conviction or both. As with the incarcerated, the population that has a history of incarceration or a felony conviction or both is disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Native American. (OJJDP 2020; BJS 2020a; Bucknor and Barber 2016)

The more than 15 million adults, disproportionately of color, with histories of felony conviction has profound implications for the functioning of the U.S. labor market (Bucknor and Barber 2016; Petach and Alves Pena 2020; Larson et al. 2020). The employment effects operate through multiple, often mutually reinforcing, channels.


The most direct way in which the criminal justice system affects the labor market is by removing more than two million people, overwhelmingly of working-age, each year from the labor market. In discussions of criminal justice, the term "incapacitation" usually refers to removing convicted criminals from society to prevent them from committing further crime during the period that they are incarcerated. Incapacitation, however, also removes those same individuals from the ability to participate in the national labor market.

Many state and federal prisoners do work while serving their sentences, but they do not participate in any meaningful way in a labor "market" while in prison. Federal inmates are required to work if they are medically able, but the jobs they perform (food service, orderlies, groundskeeping, and other jobs) currently pay between 12 and 40 cents per hour.2 Pay in state prisons varies but is consistently very low. According to an analysis by the Prison Policy Institute, pay rates for most jobs in state prisons in 2017 were as low as 0 cents per hour (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas) and only $1.00–$2.00 per hour for some jobs in some states (Alaska, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming) (Prison Policy Initiative 2021).

Meanwhile, the main government survey of the labor market, the Current Population Survey, which provides official monthly estimates of the unemployment rate and the employment-to-population rate, does not gather data from residents of prisons and jails. As a result, government labor market statistics systematically exclude the incarcerated population.

Post-incarceration supply effects

The impact of incarceration on the labor market is not limited to the immediate incapacitation effects. The time spent in prison and jail can reduce the ability of inmates to succeed in the labor market long after they return to their communities.

Most obviously, inmates miss the opportunity to gain on-the-job work experience, which economists have identified as important for acquiring the skills that lead to higher wages, especially early in an individual's work life. Some jobs also come with general or job-specific training that can further increase the financial returns to work experience (Becker 1962; Mincer 1974; Altonji and Williams 1998).

The incarcerated population has on average, a much lower level of educational attainment than the rest of the U.S. population. While data on the educational data for the incarcerated are scarce, according to the most recent data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, about one fourth (25%) of the formerly incarcerated lack a high school degree, compared to about 13% in the country as a whole. Only 4% have a four-year college degree or more, compared to 29% nationally (Couloute 2018). In principle, prisons and jails can provide inmates with opportunities for education and training that could assist them after their release. In practice, these opportunities are poorly funded, limited in scope, and of inconsistent quality. As a result, inmates generally acquire little or no additional educational or vocational training while incarcerated (Bender 2018; Council of State Governments 2020; Sawyer 2019; Hobby, Walsh, and Delaney 2019).

A job can also build networks of coworkers that can help in job search with a current employer or in the labor market more broadly (Berg and Huebner 2011; Smith and Broege 2019). Inmates not only miss out on these expanded job networks, but their time in prison and jail may potentially serve to build thicker networks with people engaged in criminal activities.

The negative "labor supply" effects of incarceration are not limited to the impact on job skills and job networks. For many inmates, incarceration can have serious, long-term consequences for physical and mental health. Incarceration can reduce health after release directly through exposure to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV, or more indirectly through exposure to acute and chronic stress (Massoglia and Pridemore 2015). The health effects for Black men may be particularly severe (Schnittker, Massoglia, and Uggen 2011).

Legal restrictions on individuals with felony convictions

Individuals with a criminal history, especially a felony conviction (even those who have never been incarcerated because of that conviction) face a host of legal barriers to employment. In a recent comprehensive analysis of the "collateral consequences" of a criminal history, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights calculated that more than 19,000 local, state, and federal laws directly limit employment prospects for individuals with criminal convictions. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 2019, Figure 1). Other collateral consequences of a criminal history that may indirectly reduce employment prospects include barriers to "obtaining housing, receiving public assistance, getting a driver's license, qualifying for financial aid and college admission, [and] qualifying for military service." (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 2019, pp. 1-2) The Commission cites legal scholar Michael Pinard to summarize the impact: "the United States has a uniquely extensive and debilitating web of collateral consequences that continue to punish and stigmatize individuals with criminal records long after the completion of their sentences." (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 2019, pp. 2)

Felony histories, stigma, and employer discrimination

Even absent explicit legal barriers to employment, employers may still discriminate against workers with a criminal record. An arrest, time in prison or jail, or a felony conviction may come with a stigma that makes employers less likely to make job offers (Holzer 1996; Holzer, Raphael, and Stoll 2004; Pager 2003, 2007) thereby reducing the employment prospects of those with a history of involvement with the criminal justice system.

Sociologist Devah Pager with various co-authors has conducted several careful "audit" studies of employer behavior toward job applicants of different races and ethnicities with and without felony convictions. In a study in Milwaukee in 2001, Pager sent matched pairs of actors to job interviews, where the trained male "applicants" varied by whether they were Black or white and whether they had a criminal record or not (Pager 2003). Applicants with a criminal record were much less likely than applicants without a criminal record to be given a call back interview. Only 17% of white applicants with a criminal record received a callback—half the 34% rate for white applicants with no criminal record. For Black applicants, the callback rate for those with a criminal record was only 5%, compared with a 14% rate for Black applicants without a criminal record. The combined effect of racial discrimination and a criminal record is evident in the Pager's finding that Black applicants without a criminal record had a lower probability of a callback (14%) than white applicants with a criminal record (17%).

In a subsequent study in New York City in 2004, Pager, Western, and Sugie (2009) followed a similar methodology and found that "a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent (28 vs. 15 percent) (p. 4)." As in Milwaukee, they found that "the negative effect of a criminal conviction is substantially larger for blacks than for whites" with "the magnitude of the criminal record penalty suffered by black applicants (60 percent) …roughly double the size of the penalty for whites with a record (30 percent) (p. 4)."

The 2004 audit study also included Latino test applicants. Pager, Western, and Bonikoswski's (2009) analysis of the findings, which focused primarily on racial discrimination rather than discrimination against workers with a criminal record, did not report the direct results of the impact of a criminal record. They did note, however, that in their data a "white felon" had a callback or job offer rate lower (17.2%) than the average for all whites (31.0% for whites with and without a felony conviction). Consistent with the results in Milwaukee, the callback and job offer rate for whites with felony convictions (17.2%) was higher than the corresponding rate for Latino (15.4%) and Black (13.0%) with a "clean record" (Pager, Western, and Bonikoswski 2009, Figures 1 and 2).

Mass incarceration and related forms of government control over the millions involved with the criminal justice system are, through the channels described above, a threat to the economic well-being of those directly involved. Even more than that, the scale and the scope of what some scholars have called the "carceral state3"— from arrest to probation, imprisonment, parole, and post-incarceration and post-felony monitoring and control — are an active impediment to the functioning of the U.S. labor market, with particularly damaging effects for communities of color.4


1. For further discussion of the racial dimension of the U.S. criminal justice system, also see Alexander 2010, Kunsal 2005, Nellis 2016, and Sabol, Johnson, and Caccavale 2019.

2. See, for example, Federal Bureau of Prisons, "Work Programs," accessed February 21, 2021.

3. As sociologist Katherine Beckett (2018) has noted: "…many recent analyses seek to…map the development, operation, and effects of criminal justice institutions (including the police)…Studies aimed at this broader objective often us the term "carceral state" to call attention to the expanding role of penal institutions, broadly defined, in the lives of the poor and in communities of color" (p. 237)

4. For a recent empirical analysis of the connection between incarceration local labor markets, see Luke Petach and Anita Alves Pena (2021) and Ryan Larson et al (2020); for a recent empirical analysis of state differences in incarceration rates, see Sarah K. S. Shannon, Christopher Uggen, Jason Schnittker, Melissa Thompson, Sara Wakefield, and Michael Massoglia (2017). For a seminal discussion of the penal system as a core labor market institution, see Western and Beckett (1999).


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Altonji, JG, and Nicolas Williams. 1998. "The effects of labor market experience, job seniority and job mobility on wage growth." Research in Labor Economics 17: 233–276.

Becker, Gary S. 1962. "Investment in Human Capital: A Theoretical Analysis." Journal of Political Economy 70, 9-49.

Beckett, Katherine. 2018. "The politics, promise, and perils of criminal justice reform in the context of mass incarceration." Annual Review of Criminology, 1: 235–259.

Berg, Mark T., and Beth M. Huebner. 2011. "Reentry and the ties that bind: an examination of social ties, employment, and recidivism." Justice Quarterly 28, no. 2: 382-410.

Bender, Katherine. 2011. "Education Opportunities in Prison Are Key to Reducing Crime" (blog post). Center for American Progress, March 2, 2018.

Bucknor, Cherrie, and Alan Barber. 2016. The price we pay: Economic costs of barriers to employment for former prisoners and people convicted of felonies. Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2016.

Council of State Governments. 2020. Laying the Groundwork How States Can Improve Access to Continued Education for People in the Criminal Justice System. February 2020.

Couloute, Lucius. 2018. "Getting Back on Couse: Educational exclusion and attainment among formerly incarcerated people." Prison Policy Institute.

Hobby, Lauren, Brian Walsh, and Ruth Delaney. 2019, A Piece of the Puzzle: State Financial Aid for Incarcerated Students. Vera Institute of Justice, July 2019.

Holzer, Harry J. 1996. What employers want: Job prospects for less-educated workers. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Holzer, Harry J., Steven Raphael, and Michael A. Stoll. 2004. "The effect of an applicant's criminal history on employer hiring decisions and screening practices: Evidence from Los Angeles." National Poverty Center Working Paper Series 4, no. 15: 1–47.

Kunsal, Tushar. 2005. Racial disparities in sentencing: A review of the literature. The Sentencing Project, January 2005.

Larson, Ryan, Sarah Shannon, Aaron Sojourner, and Chris Uggen. 2020. "Felon History and Change in U.S. Employment Rates." Unpublished manuscript.

Massoglia, Michael and William Pridemore. 2015. "Incarceration and health." Annual Review of Sociology 41: 291–310.

Mincer, Jacob. 1974. Schooling, Experience and Earnings. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nellis, Ashley. 2016. The color of justice: Racial and ethnic disparity in state prisons. The Sentencing Project, June 2016.

Pager, Devah. 2003. "The mark of a criminal record." American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 5: 937–75.

Pager, Devah. 2007. Marked: Race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Pager, Devah, Bruce Western, and Bart Bonikowski. 2009. "Discrimination in a low-wage labor market: A field experiment." American Sociological Review 74: 777–799.

Pager, Devah, Bruce Western, and Naomi Sugie. 2009. "Sequencing disadvantage: Barriers to employment facing young Black and white men with criminal records." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 623, no. 1: 195–213.

Petach, Luke, and Anita Alves Pena. 2020. "Local labor market inequality in the age of mass incarceration" The Review of Black Political Economy 48, no. 1: 7-41.

Pinard, Michael. 2010. "Collateral consequences of criminal convictions: Confronting issues of race and dignity." New York University Law Review 85, no. 2: 457–534.

Prison Policy Initiative. 2010. "U.S. incarceration rates by race and ethnicity, 2010," [Excel file]. Accessed February 16, 2021.

Prison Policy Institute. 2021. How much do incarcerated people earn in each state? February 2021.

Sabol, William J., Thaddeus L. Johnson, and Alexander Caccavale. 2019. Trends in correctional control by race and sex. Council on Criminal Justice, December 2019.

Sawyer, Wendy. 2019. How Did the 1994 Crime Bill Affect Prison College Programs? (blog post). Prison Policy Institute, August 22, 2019.

Schmitt, John, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta. 2010. The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration. Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2010.

Schnittker, Jason, Michael Massoglia, and Christopher Uggen. 2011. "Incarceration and the health of the African American community." Du Bois Review Social Science Research on Race 8, no.1: 133–141.

Shannon, Sarah K. S., Christopher Uggen, Jason Schnittker, Melissa Thompson, Sara Wakefield, and Michael Massoglia. 2017. "The growth, scope, and spatial distribution of people with felony records in the United States, 1948–2010." Demography, 54: 1795-1818.

Smith, Sandra Susan, and Nora C.R. Broege. 2019. "Searching for work with a criminal record." Social Problems 67, no. 2: 208–232.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). 2020a. Probation and parole in the United States, 2017–2018. August 2020.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). 2020bCorrectional populations in the United States, 2017–2018. August 2020.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). 2020cPrisoners in 2019. October 2020.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. 2019. Collateral consequences: The crossroads of punishment, redemption, and the effects on communities. June 2019.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). n.d. "Law enforcement and juvenile crime" [CSV file], U.S. Department of Justice, last updated November 16, 2020.

World Prison Brief. 2021. "Highest to lowest – Prison population total." Accessed January 11, 2021.

Western, Bruce, and Katherine Beckett. 1999. "How unregulated is the U.S. labor market? The penal system as a labor market institution." American Journal of Sociology 104, no. 4: 1030–1060.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Fwd: Last Night Was Joe Biden’s Moment. May There Be Many More.

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: Portside <>
Date: Thu, Apr 29, 2021 at 8:34 PM
Subject: Last Night Was Joe Biden's Moment. May There Be Many More.
To: <>

 Scranton Joe, once the neoliberal Senator from Delaware, translated left ideas into unthreatening but inspiring language Wednesday night. Which is a huge accomplishment.


Joan Walsh
April 29, 2021
The Nation
Scranton Joe, once the neoliberal Senator from Delaware, translated left ideas into unthreatening but inspiring language Wednesday night. Which is a huge accomplishment.

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in the House chamber., Melina Mara / The Washington Post AP Pool photo // The Nation


I thought President Joe Biden had been upstaged on Wednesday by the FBI raids on grifter fascist Rudy Giuliani's home and office. And it seemed fitting: Giuliani tried three times—with Ukraine in 2019, with state election officials in 2020, and with the violent January 6 insurrectionists in 2021—to block Biden's presidency. Maybe it was OK if Biden was overshadowed on his first address to a joint session of Congress by Giuliani's overwhelming legal troubles.

But Biden wasn't. On Wednesday night he wrapped up FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society, plus Obama's good ideas and some of Senator Bernie Sanders's better ones, into a Scranton-inflected agenda for racial and economic justice. It went beyond anything he promised running for president. He called it a "blue-collar blueprint" for change, yet unlike a lot of other folks who chant "blue collar," Biden made clear he wasn't just seeing white guys but the entire multiracial working class.

The president clearly saw female domestic violence victims and Black men killed by police, hailed Dreamers (and he must do more than hail them), and told "transgender Americans watching at home—especially the young people who are so brave—I want you to know that your president has your back." He's already made some big noise in support of unions, but this was extra: "Wall Street didn't build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions build the middle class." He called on Congress to pass the PRO Act and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Oh, and speaking of Rudy Giuliani, which he didn't: Biden called the January 6 insurrection, correctly, "the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War," charting a through-line from the racist seditionists of the 19th century to their 21st-century descendants. Afterward, the GOP sent out its only Black senator, Tim Scott, to deliver the rebuttal. "America is not a racist country," Scott insisted. He was not convincing—except, perhaps, to racists.

In a week when former Democratic guru James Carville chided Democrats for preaching "wokeness" and not his old bromide "It's the economy, stupid," Biden did both. It was extraordinary. "We have come together to heal the soul of America," he told us. It's not healed, but it's a start.

Biden wove arguments for compassion with a pitch for economic competitiveness. He put action on climate change in terms of jobs, and investing in long-term care jobs in terms of families. He denounced "trickle-down economics" and "white supremacy" without it seeming like lefty jargon. Biden told us that "650 billionaires increased their wealth by more than $1 trillion during the pandemic" (though he didn't, and doesn't, endorse Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Pramila Jayapal's worthy wealth tax).

The longtime establishment Democrat translated progressive ideas Wednesday night—paid family leave, serious police reform, free preschool through community college education, extending generous child tax credits at least through 2025, sizable tax hikes on the wealthy, providing clean water and replacing lead pipes (did I call that progressive? What century is this, anyway?)—into American pragmatism: "These are the investments we make together, as one country, and that only government can make." Forty years after Ronald Reagan declared, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem," Democrats mustered their best rejoinder yet.

Appropriately, Biden took a few minutes to extoll what he's accomplished in a historic 100 days. His extraordinary (so far) handling of the pandemic and his pushing through the American Rescue Plan give him a longer runway for his even more ambitious proposals—the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan (get it? It's all American!) that will increasingly draw more opposition, including from Democrats. Did he defuse it with this speech? Probably not. I loved it when Republicans refused to applaud his proud declaration that his short-term child tax credit cuts child poverty in half (yay, child poverty!) and also when they begrudgingly did stand up for his war on cancer (but the self-declared Grim Reaper Mitch McConnell did not).

Biden did everything he could in one address to Congress. I've gotten this far without describing what I expected to be the highlight of the night, for me: seeing two women, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, flanking Biden on the dais. When he greeted them, Biden kvelled, "Madame Speaker, Madame Vice President… No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it's about time." Indeed, someday there will be three women up there.

Biden never mentioned Giuliani or Trump, nor should he have. But you could hear echoes of the evil they did nonetheless. "We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works and can deliver for the people," he said. "In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people's faith in our democracy to deliver."

I found it unexpectedly moving to see Biden address that miniaturized joint session of Congress—a few hundred people, instead of the 1,500 or so that usually crowd the chamber. The smaller number was about Covid, but also security concerns in the wake of the last time we saw our government convene there, on January 6.

"Democracy still works," as Biden promised, despite what Giuliani tried to do. I'm glad the disgraced former New York mayor's legal travails didn't overshadow Biden's unexpectedly extraordinary speech. Giuliani's subversion of democracy will shadow him for the rest of his life. Biden will keep subverting what right-wing Trump and Giuliani tried to achieve—and, I hope, surprising those on the left, myself included, who doubted him.

[Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is the author of What's the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America.]

Copyright c 2021The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp

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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Biden’s Vision of Millions of Well-Paying Jobs in Clean Energy Is Far From Reality - Bloomberg

Biden's Vision of Millions of Well-Paying Jobs in Clean Energy Is Far From Reality

by Saijel Kishan

<p>Labor groups say wind and solar developers have deterred unionization, which is holding down wages.</p>

Working as a construction supervisor one winter, Steven Morones would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive two hours to a Wisconsin cornfield. There, he and the rest of the nonunion crew spent their day assembling a sprawling network of steel I-beams for solar panels to be mounted on. Threading bolts while wearing thick gloves often proved impossible, so when the temperature dropped as low as -13F, his bare hands would stiffen painfully.

While his body battled the elements, Morones's mind was beset by a constant worry: that his $25 hourly wage just wasn't enough to pay his bills. "I was always stressed with the day-to-day," says the 30-year-old father of four. "I just couldn't focus on the future."

Median Hourly Wage by Industry

Data: National Association of State Energy Officials, Energy Futures Initiative

Campaigning for the U.S. presidency and now, as his administration steers a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress, Joe Biden has touted the potential for the solar and wind industries to create the types of jobs the U.S. economy has been losing for decades. "A key plank of our Build Back Better recovery plan is building a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good-paying union jobs," Biden said in a Jan. 27 speech laying out his energy policy, which targets zero emissions from electricity generation by 2035.


That future is at odds with present-day reality, as Morones and others employed in renewable energy can attest. It's true, the sector has been minting jobs at a healthy clip: Wind turbine service technicians are No. 1 on a list of the fastest-growing occupations compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and solar installers are in third place. Yet labor groups say companies have either deterred or actively opposed unionization among workers employed in installation and construction, which in the U.S. represent the lion's share of jobs in renewables. That's held down wages while depriving workers of coveted health and retirement benefits.

"The new green economy has been heralded as a win-win for workers and the environment, but that's a big lie to working men and women when wind and solar developers discourage unionization efforts, which we are seeing on most of the large-scale utility projects," says Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America (Liuna).

Workers install solar panels on a home in California.

Wind and solar employ 222,000 construction and installation workers in the U.S., according to a 2020 report compiled by the National Association of State Energy Officials and research firm Energy Futures Initiative. Overall, 4% of solar photovoltaic workers and 6% of wind workers belong to unions, the report says, lower than in nuclear and coal. It's also less than half the 13.4% rate in the private construction industry, according to U.S. government data. Trade groups dispute those numbers; the Solar Energy Industries Association says 10.3% of the workforce is unionized.

One major deterrent to labor organizing is that developers often rely on recruitment agencies to provide a pipeline of laborers. According to the North America's Building Trades Unions (Nabtu), less than a quarter of wind and solar projects that got under way since the start of last year are using unionized workers.

Solar workers who aren't in a union average $16 to $19 an hour, while their counterparts on wind projects get about $17 to $25 an hour, according to Liuna, which represents half a million construction workers. The union says its members working on solar projects get paid an hourly wage of $28.41, while their counterparts in wind get paid about $27.65 an hour, and all have benefits.

"Green capital is antilabor," says Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, a climate and worker advocacy group in Maryland. Solar companies often require installers to sign contracts stating they're independent contractors, making them ineligible to join unions, he says. "They aren't good actors when it comes to treating their workers."

American Clean Power (ACP), a lobbying group that includes some of the industry's biggest players, including Berkshire Hathaway Energy, GE Renewable Energy, and NextEra Energy, pushes back against that characterization. "The clean energy industry is committed to working with unions to ensure that all workers continue to be rewarded for their labor and provided the wage, health, and retirement benefits they deserve," says John Hensley, ACP's vice president for research and analytics.


Sabrina Morris's mind was often on the weather when she started installing rooftop solar panels in California several years ago, a nonunion job that initially paid $15 an hour. A mere drizzle of rain or a gust of wind could make working conditions perilous, but her employers took little note, she says. "There are contractors out there who just want to get the job done quickly and at low cost, putting people at risk," says Morris, 37, who now coordinates safety inspections at another solar energy company in the state.

In California, where a mandate that most newly built single-family homes be outfitted with solar panels took effect last year, the state division of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency has inspected 70 solar installation sites in the last five years, prompted by tips from workers about unsafe conditions and accidents.

Morones says he feels more secure since joining a union last November. He now earns about $34 an hour as a third-year apprentice on a solar project in Illinois, more than he did working as a supervisor in Wisconsin. He also has a 401(k) plan and full medical coverage for him and his family. "It's set me up for the future. I don't have to struggle financially like I did before," he says.

Hours after being sworn in, Biden signed an executive order to have the U.S. reenter the Paris Climate Agreement. Framers of the landmark 2015 accord urged governments to ensure a "just transition" by adopting policies that promote the creation of "quality jobs."

American unions share that goal. "When you look at the transition to green jobs, our concern is: What kind of jobs are they going to be?" says Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest union umbrella group in the country. "If working people start to feel that the transition is really an assault on our way of living or on our standard of living, there's going to be economic and political pushback."

A top priority for Trumka and the rest of organized labor in the U.S. is securing passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—PRO Act for short. The legislation guarantees private-sector employees the right to unionize and would bar employers from retaliating against unionization efforts. It also lowers the bar for contractors to prove they're employees under federal labor law—a provision that may make it harder for renewable energy companies to rely on contingent workers. The PRO Act narrowly passed in the House in December, but faces a tougher test in the Senate.

Robert Scott, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says the changes contemplated in the PRO Act, coupled with the surge in demand for labor that Biden's infrastructure plan would unleash, would benefit workers: "It will give them more leverage and reduce the market power of the employer." ACP declined to comment when asked about the industry's position on the legislation.

Turbines at Orsted's Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island.

Organized labor is already making inroads in some parts of the clean energy industry. In November, Orsted, a Danish company that's the world's biggest operator of offshore wind parks, became the first developer to team up with a national union, Nabtu, to train workers transitioning into the industry. The agreement covers Orsted's pipeline of mid-Atlantic offshore wind projects, which will be staffed under collectively bargained prehire labor agreements. "We believe that developers and unions must work together to ensure that the offshore wind industry becomes and remains an important source of high-quality and well-paying jobs in our communities," Orsted said in a statement.

ACP, the trade group, is forecasting there may be as many as 280,000 clean energy jobs unionized by 2030, equal to about a quarter of the industry's projected workforce.

Todd Sorter spent a good part of the lockdown helping erect wind towers in the southwest corner of Minnesota. The bulk of his job involved pouring grout on a large steel ring that helps secure a wind tower's base to its pedestal. For that, the 55-year-old father of three was paid about $30 an hour and received vacation pay, a pension, and a full medical plan. The latter came in handy when Sorter contracted the coronavirus in October and spent four days in the hospital. Although he was unable to work for a month, he counts himself lucky: "If it wasn't for being part of a union, I wouldn't have had the health coverage." —With Saleha Mohsin, Jennifer Jacobs, and Josh Saul

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

What Pandemics Mean for Robots and Inequality [feedly]

I view this problem as the essential structural challenge that capitalism CANNOT solve.

What Pandemics Mean for Robots and Inequality

From car manufacture to self-service checkouts, we all see how automation can transform the world of work—with lower costs and higher productivity on one hand, and more precarious employment for people on the other. But the COVID-19 pandemic added fuel to the fire. The rise in telework, for example, is hurting low-wage workers and increasing inequality. More broadly, if the pandemic accelerates the pace of automation, then we may face a jobless recovery for low-skilled workers. Our recent IMF staff research suggests that such concerns are justified.

Low-skilled workers are more at risk of displacement by robots than high-skilled workers, which reinforces existing inequality dynamics.

We focus on one form of automation, industrial robots, and analyze the effect of past major pandemics on their adoption: SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, MERS in 2012, and Ebola in 2014. We use econometric techniques and robot data at the sectoral level from the International Federation of Robotics covering 18 industries in 40 countries between 2000 and 2018.

We find that robot adoption (measured by new robot installations per 1000 employees) increases after a pandemic event, especially when the health impact is severe and when the pandemic is associated with a significant economic downturn.

Why do pandemics lead to the rise of robots? We see two key reasons.

First, after large shocks like recessions, firms restructure their businesses and adjust production toward technologies that lower labor costs. Second, firms may prefer robots because they are immune from health risks. Pandemic-induced uncertainty also adds to incentives for automation, as firms try to make sure they can withstand the next pandemic.

The rise of robots and inequality

Robots do not affect all workers in the same way. Low-skilled workers are more at risk of displacement by robots than high-skilled workers, which reinforces existing inequality dynamics.

Looking at country-level data and a larger sample, we find that following a pandemic the increase in inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, over the medium term is larger where new robot adoption has increased more. Our results suggest that the acceleration of robotization is an important channel through which pandemics lead to higher inequality.

Looking forward, a corollary of our results is that while automation and robotization are accelerating from still-low levels, they will likely become even more important drivers of inequality in the future. Left unchecked, growing disparities may lead to long-lasting grievances and ultimately to social unrest, forming a vicious cycle.

Policymakers need to pay attention to preventing scarring effects on the livelihoods of the most vulnerable, including through appropriate labor market policies.

As automation intensifies following COVID-19 and transforms workplaces, more workers will need to find new jobs, especially those who are less skilled. Policies to mitigate rising inequality include revamping education to meet the demand for more flexible skill sets, and lifelong learning and new training—especially for the most affected workers. A good example is Singapore's SkillsFuture initiative, which promotes learning in all stages of life to address the challenges brought by technological changes.

These measures may still fall short if the training involves acquiring a substantively different and challenging set of skills, raising the possibility of dropouts. It is therefore important for policymakers to consider ways to address medium-term social challenges, including through strengthened social safety nets.

While robotization is inevitable, its distributional outcome will depend on policies. A society that is more willing to provide support to those who are left behind can accommodate a faster pace of innovation, while ensuring that all members of society are better off.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed