Task force considers benefit reforms, training and more to help workers

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

State tax credits to encourage companies to offer worker training, 401(k)-style accounts to help people pay to learn new skills and a statewide platform that helps independent contractors get and use benefits are among the options a New Jersey task force studying the future of work is considering to meet some of workers’ major concerns.

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The New Jersey Future of Work Task Force, created by Gov. Phil Murphy in October 2018, is charged with preparing for both the opportunities and challenges that technology will bring to the state’s workforce. The group surveyed workers earlier this year about issues relating to technology’s impact on their jobs and has completed a report on its findings.

Robots taking workers’ jobs may be what grabs headlines, but the survey found workers are concerned about more immediate problems when they think about how technological advances are affecting them: a lack of access to training, a dearth of full-time jobs with benefits and increased employer surveillance.

“These issues about the impact of technology on people’s jobs and the future of work really spoke to them,” said Beth Simone Noveck, New Jersey’s chief innovation officer, who chairs the task force. “We know that people are concerned about the future of their jobs and their industries.”

The survey sought to prioritize workers’ concerns about more than 150 issues in the areas of skills and training, rights and benefits, and health and safety. It was conducted over a three-week period ending March 15, when New Jersey had reported fewer than 100 cases and just two deaths from COVID-19.

Robots taking jobs are not a large concern

One surprising result in the survey was that workers themselves did not rate automation or robots taking their jobs, often cited in the media as a looming problem, among their top concerns.

“What came out at the bottom are things like new technology is going to eliminate my job, but the common perception or the common headlines of … all the jobs will go away because of automation, it’s not what people are worried about,” Noveck said. “There are jobs that will be eliminated over time because of automation, but the reality is that there are many more jobs that can be transformed because of automation.”

She said that while the task force is charged with looking at research into occupational shifts due to technology, the goal of the survey was to gauge workers’ concerns “so that we can develop recommendations that are responsive.”

Based on the responses, the task force has come up with a number of possible recommendations for policy and legislative changes to address the biggest issues identified. The panel, whose members include union officials, business executives and academics, plans to discuss these next month.

Among the most pressing problems identified, workers indicated a lack of access to affordable training and concerns that available courses and college degrees don’t meet employers’ needs.

Staying competitive in the workforce

“Respondents felt that employers and educational institutions are failing to provide workers — particularly low-income workers — with the skills needed to remain competitive in the workforce,” states a draft report of the survey results. “Fewer employers are bearing the cost of training their employees, which has left state government and educational institutions to pick up the slack, which is especially difficult given the economic challenges of the pandemic.”

As a result, the task force is considering several options designed to make training more affordable and more available. For instance, the state could offer a tax credit to corporate tax obligations equal to a portion of training costs or provide a temporary training wage subsidy for a portion of hourly wages. These options would make it more cost-effective for employers to pay for outside training or to hire and train workers. Another suggestion is allowing workers to create tax-deferred lifelong learning accounts that would work in a manner similar to a 401(k) retirement fund, letting people deposit in an account that would earn interest and be portable as they change jobs and from which they could withdraw funds to pay for approved education or training.

Noveck said the state can use the same kinds of web-based programs that are used for job searching “to help make skills more accessible, to help make training cheaper for people. What we’re exploring are let me call them practical or technical solutions, technology-based solutions, as well as legislative and policy solutions, so that we have a panoply of initiatives, just because it’s sometimes easier to build software than it is to write legislation.”

Workers also complained about the constant rise in the cost of living, while businesses are less likely to offer workers benefits, and a lack of full-time jobs in many positions forces people to work as independent contractors without benefits.

“Though employees in New Jersey are entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay, unemployment benefits, temporary disability and family leave insurance, along with numerous other benefits, existing laws exclude many workers in so-called informal, alternative, or non-standard working arrangements, most notably independent contractors,” according to the report. “There are disparities in legal protection between those workers classified as employees and the growing number of workers who are not.”

Rutgers report reflects similar issues

These problems were highlighted earlier this week in a report from the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations that stated domestic workers are being exploited: They are among the lowest-paid workers in the state but are exempt from basic legal protections under federal labor laws, and about half have no health insurance and no paid sick or vacation time; two in 10 do not even get a lunch break.

The Rutgers report recommended some of the same reforms that the task force is exploring. These reforms include a further expansion of the definition of an employee in New Jersey to include those working in the gig economy but for a single employer — for instance, Uber or Lyft drivers — so these individuals would be entitled to at least some benefits. A statewide platform of portable benefits would give workers some benefits protected by labor laws and allow them to change jobs while still being able to access benefits.

“This issue of portability of benefits especially has been and becomes even more important” now considering the pandemic, Noveck said. “Obviously with the increase in informal work and gig economy work and people having one or more jobs that don’t provide them with benefits, these questions obviously become extremely worrisome for people in a public health crisis.”

Finally, workers reported concerns that increasing work hours and telecommuting would reduce their amount of free time or blur the lines between work and private life — even before the pandemic forced many to abandon offices and work from home. They also fear a loss of privacy due to workplace surveillance and data collection about them, particularly on health-related issues.

“Respondents felt that the use of remote monitoring in the workplace should be regulated, as it was unclear how the data employers collect could be used or how [they are] used,” states the report. “Workers are right to be concerned about the potential for misuse of their personal data. Employers have reportedly used such workplace surveillance technologies to censor workers’ attempts to unionize, to retaliate against workers who report unsafe working conditions, and to enforce impossible-to-meet productivity requirements that put workers at risk.”

The task force is considering the creation of tools that would give workers greater control over their data and allow them to use apps to report violations of labor laws, such as working “unclocked” hours. And it could recommend both education and policies to prohibit the use of discriminatory tools in hiring decisions.

About 4,000 workers answered the survey. In addition to the general public, the task force enlisted 40 organizations that included AARP, New Jersey Education Association and the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to publicize the survey among their staff and members. Noveck said the task force had plans to conduct in-person engagements with workers during the spring, but they had to be cancelled because of COVID-19.

Workplace problems existed before COVID-19

Workers registered their concerns prior to the virus’ onset, for the most part, so the results are not colored by it. But the pandemic has only magnified the issues workers have identified, according to Noveck.

“I think these issues about the future of work are very much on people’s minds, as people have had to face the challenge about compromising their health or compromising their economic well-being, questions about working from home, working in person, so I think a lot of these topics have come to the fore,” she said. “These questions of job security, having a good and a safe job, future wages, I think these are all very much on people’s minds, just in different terms … so it’s probably now more urgent than ever before.”

Noveck said the survey results were recently shared with members of the task force. She said the task force expects to release a final report with recommendations by the end of the year.

“There’s a lot of political will and commitment there to do the work needed to create opportunities for people around earning, developing their skills, earning the credentials that they need to be competitive in the future, creating more jobs,” she said. “We have all the challenges of doing this now in the wake of the recession and the pandemic. Nothing is easy right now, but there’s a great deal of commitment to do this.”

To read this article in the original format, click: Workers fear losing full-time jobs, no training, corporate surveillance

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