Framing Job Quality as Common Sense

Scheduling, Paid Leave, and More

The Topos Partnership, based on a significant, multi-method research effort, has arrived at a powerful strategy to lift public understanding for a range of job quality policies (The Ford Foundation provided support for this research). The simple common sense idea that thriving communities and a strong economy depend on employers providing reasonable compensation for work has the power to lift a range of job quality solutions. This frame is quickly becoming established in efforts to increase the minimum wage, but it also has the potential to lift a range of job quality policies and ultimately shape public understanding of how economic policy should work.

The Need

In 2015, members of Congress, and officials in many communities and states, are considering policies beyond raising minimum wage to enhance job quality and compensation – requiring paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, improving scheduling and hours in service industries, and offering part-time workers more hours before new hiring. While each policy could have its own message strategy, framing these discussions within a unified organizing concept of economy-boosting jobs will build broad understanding for the need for all of the policies, rather than approaching them piecemeal. Over time, we can use each effort to build public support for the entire agenda.

“Economy-boosting or economy-busting jobs?”

There are a number of important reasons to push for greater job quality – basic fairness to workers who are helping create wealth for corporate employers, better child outcomes from lifting working families out of poverty, and so forth. But too often these rationales for job quality policies are trumped by concern that “now is the wrong time to be making additional demands on businesses,” or by the thought that “people have to work harder and get a better education if they want better pay,” et cetera. Even sympathetic audiences can easily conclude that these “costs to business” will kill jobs and hurt the economy.

Topos found that a powerful way to overcome or inoculate against the “job killer” perspective is to make the positive economic case for job quality requirements:

For our communities and economy to thrive, jobs need to pay at least enough to spend on the basics. When people can’t afford food, or to go the doctor, or to make basic repairs, it hurts all of us, as the economy slows down. Economy-boosting jobs that allow people to keep up basic spending strengthen families and communities. When we raise the wage and benefits floor so that companies can’t get away with offering economy-busting jobs – including ones that require workers to receive public assistance like food stamps just to get by – we are improving the economy for all of us.

A range of job quality issues that are gaining momentum now can take advantage of this frame, which redefines what a good economy means.

Note that while some particular audiences will respond to other frames, such as gender equity, corporate greed, et cetera, our research suggests that to expand engagement and support, and to give even some of our own potential supporters “permission” to demand more, this economic case builds broader support for policy proposals.

Paid family medical leave and paid sick days are designed to protect people from losing income when they are sick, or to care for a family member, or take care of a new baby, and so on. When people lose paychecks in order to care for themselves or family members, it not only hurts families, it also slows down spending, and ends up affecting all of us. We should look at all job standards to make sure that jobs boost rather than bust the economy.

Minimum wage increases are increasingly being framed as making sure that jobs pay enough for the basics, ensuring that workers can contribute to more successful and secure communities and families, and a stronger economy for all of us. Profitable, powerful companies have been able to use their influence to keep wages low in a number of labor market sectors – and extremely low in tipped jobs, of course. An increase will boost, not only individual households, but also the communities these workers live and spend in. Small businesses see the difference in increased business when people in their community can afford more.

Improving scheduling practices can be framed as ensuring that workers earn more and retain employment, making these jobs better for the local economy. When workers have more notice of scheduled hours, they are better able to plan for child care and transportation needs, making getting to work and staying on the job more likely. Likewise, policies that require employers to pay for a minimum of hours when a shift is cancelled, or practices that offer workers more hours before additional part-timers are hired, are easily framed as ways of ensuring that jobs compensate better. Pay equity, too, can be framed in terms of benefits for us all. If women are paid less than 80% of what men are for the same job, this is another way of letting profitable employers get away with putting less money back into the community. Women are frequently primary earners for their households, and when these households can’t afford the basics, we all pay the price – both in terms of an economic slowdown, and the public assistance workers need to get by. (Note that the economy-boosting jobs frame is about practical issues on the surface, but people infer that it is also about fundamental values like fairness and the dignity of work.)

More broadly, to the extent that any policy choice helps create communities of people who are more able to boost economic activity – i.e. spending on the basics – it may be easier to promote broad support for that policy. Even when a given policy choice is not specifically related to compensation, it can be about making places thrive, for instance. (The Topos recommendation is about better job compensation, but the following are reasonable if untested extensions of the successful framing approach that emerged from the testing.)

While making it easier for workers to telecommute (for example, through tax credits to pay for needed equipment) is partly about strengthening family life and reducing the time burden of commuting, it also allows more people to hold jobs who would otherwise not be able to, due to family demands. When more people are able to stay in the workforce (while also being good parents, for instance), communities are more likely to thrive.

Likewise, promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education for girls is partly about addressing a significant gender gap in this area, but it is also about creating a more thriving economy overall. Jobs that require STEM training are likely to be economy-boosting jobs.

When we emphasize that all of these policies ensure jobs provide enough compensation, we build broader understanding of the need to raise the floor on job standards for more secure families, stronger communities and a healthier economy – policy choices that are right for all of us.