Work in Progress: An Interview with Anna Gassman-Pines and Elizabeth Ananat

August 13, 2020

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current and former visiting scholars.

In June 2019, the foundation awarded a grant to support a research project led by Anna Gassman-Pines (Duke University) and Elizabeth Ananat (Barnard College) that studies how legislation designed to reduce work schedule unpredictability affects the economic outcomes and wellbeing of low wage workers. The project was originally designed to evaluate the effects of a new labor law, Philadelphia’s Fair Workweek Standard, on employers, workers with young children, and their families. A key, innovative element of this research project is daily data collection from low-wage workers on their lives and their children. The project’s first wave of data collection last fall focused on worker demographics, health and wellbeing, work history, and their wages, as well as reports on children. The second wave, from February to April 2020, gathered updates on income changes, new jobs, and job losses.

Findings from this project illustrate the COVID-19 pandemic’s profound negative financial and psychological consequences on low-wage workers and their families. Gassman-Pines and Ananat penned a New York Times op-ed on the importance of the Paycheck Guarantee Act for low-wage workers in May 2020. EconoFact and FiveThirtyEight.com also recently published findings from Gassman-Pines and Ananat’s research.

Anna Gassman Pines is the WLF Bass Connections Associate Professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Elizabeth Ananat is an Associate Professor of Economics at Barnard College. The co-PIs previously collaborated on an RSF-funded research project to study the effects of job losses in specific areas on youth’s economic mobility. Ananat and Gassman-Pines co-authored a chapter with Christina Gibson-Davis in the RSF book,  Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances. Gassman-Pines also contributed to the RSF book, Making It Work Low-Wage Employment, Family Life, and Child Development.

This interview with foundation staff is part of  our Work in Progress series, which highlights the work of scholars affiliated with the foundation.

In June 2019, RSF awarded you a grant to study the effects of a new labor law in Philadelphia on the experiences of low-wage workers. Can you discuss the distinctive elements of your research project  (i.e., the daily diary)?

What makes our project unique is that we use text messaging to gather daily survey results from our participants over time. In the first round of data collection, participants answered daily surveys every day for 30 days. This gives us the ability to see what’s happening with people’s work and work hours in detail and in real time. This format, which is naturally “socially distanced,” has also allowed us to follow up with families during the COVID-19 crisis to understand what is happening with them in real time.

The second wave of your data collection, conducted from February to April 2020, raised the alarm that many of the families you surveyed would have trouble paying for housing, food, and other necessities by May. Has this actually happened?

Yes. Food insecurity has risen dramatically in our sample, and many folks are behind on rent, relying on the eviction moratorium that is now expiring; these problems are particularly concentrated among the one-third of our participants who have lost their jobs. Moreover, the collapse of the $600 additional Pandemic Unemployment Insurance, at the same time that stimulus payments and Pandemic EBT had been run through, is creating serious challenges for displaced workers and their families.

Our findings, some of which were published this month in the journal, Pediatrics, show that crisis-induced hardships, including job and income loss, illness, and increased caregiving burden, are endemic among our respondents. In addition, we find that these hardships are strongly linked to worsened well-being, including increased depression and anxiety symptoms, among both parents and their children.

What do you make of the way that your research has been used in the media to narrate the experiences of low-wage workers during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there any salient trends in your research that you think should be further highlighted?

We have been heartened to see our research being used by the media during the pandemic. All too often, the perspectives of low-wage workers are not included in public dialogue about the economy. Hourly service workers have been hard hit during the pandemic and it is crucial to understand their perspectives. The most crucial thing we’ve learned that should continue to be highlighted is that service workers are really struggling both financially and in terms of their psychological well-being, and that policy supports for these workers have not reached everyone.

How has your research been affected by the pandemic? Do you think that you will implement any of these changes over the long term?

We are fortunate that we were already using “socially distanced” technology to gather survey data from our participants. We will continue to use this technology going forward because in addition to being socially distant, it also allows participants to answer questions at the time that works best for them, facilitating work-family balance and high participation rates.

What are some historical and contemporary trends affecting low-wage workers that we should be aware of?

The context of work in the United States has changed dramatically in the last half century. Sincethe 1970s, earnings volatility has increased across socio-economic levels, with volatility most pronounced among low-income people. Pressures of globalization and trade, as well as automation, led to the destruction of jobs in many industries, particularly those such as manufacturing that were a path to stability for less-educated workers. In their place has come service work, which is characterized by both lower wages and more unstable employment and hours. The nature of service work has also changed in ways that increase uncertainty, with important potential consequences for both workers and their families. While it has long been the case that service employment was less stable than manufacturing employment, today’s service workers face additional forms of uncertainty even while stably employed. Managerial innovations have changed the day-to-day operations of retail and food service establishments such that service workers experience great daily uncertainty in both pay and hours. That type of schedule unpredictability is common among low-wage workers

In a journal article we published last month in the Journal of Marriage and Family we show that unstable schedules are very common among hourly service workers with young children. Moreover, compared to a typical day for the same family, days with schedule unpredictability lead to worse well-being for working parents. That article also has a lot more detail about our daily text-message survey strategy.

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