UCD study cites plight of low-wage workers

05/09/2014 5:51 PM

10/22/2014 2:10 PM

A new UC Davis report says workers struggling to scratch out a living know there are ways to improve their lot, but their work conditions essentially negate all hope of progress.

Low-wage workers wanting to enhance their skills and move into higher-paying jobs are blocked by working long hours and multiple jobs that make skill-building and education nearly impossible, according to a policy brief released by the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis.

In the ongoing study, Victoria Smith, a UCD professor of sociology and a faculty affiliate for the research center, and co-author Brian Halpin, a UCD graduate student in sociology, conducted interviews with 25 low-wage workers in the Napa/Sonoma area in the fall of 2012. The workers were asked about their current job situations and their plans for the future.

All interviewees were first-generation immigrants, some who grew up in the United States and some who grew up in their home countries. They work in various sectors, including food service, landscaping, domestic work, office cleaning and construction. Some interviewees work in multiple sectors.

The study found that workers know they can improve jobs skills, but the nature of low-wage work limits opportunities, and they remain in low-wage jobs under pressure to simply support themselves or others. To sustain their livelihoods, the study says, workers keep the jobs they have while searching for additional opportunities through relatives, friends and work networks. They patch together multiple full- and part-time jobs to maximize paid hours.

“People find themselves very caught up, just treading water. The fact that they often are supporting other people heightens their need to take extra hours when they can get them,” Smith said.

The study noted that, typically, low-wage jobs are part time with no guaranteed hours, and many employers expect low-wage workers to be perpetually on-call – conditions that hinder time management and the ability to take advantage of educational and job skills training opportunities.

Smith and Halpin contend that introducing living wages and other worker protections could create more possibilities for workers to support themselves and their families, while potentially freeing up workers to enhance their skills. The co-authors also contend that this could increase efficiency and productivity in the overall economy.

The full brief can be seen at http://bit.ly/1kGhWIn.

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