Tilly on the Deterioration of Worker Protections

A KQED podcast series on how American workers have lost benefits, power and protections over the last few decades spoke with Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly, an authority on labor economics. Tilly explained the phenomenon of the “fissured workplace,” where full-time employees work side by side with part-timers, temps, gig workers and contractors. Some classes of workers receive no health coverage, overtime pay, worker’s compensation or other protections, increasing company profits while breaking up worker solidarity. Tilly described a job he held in the late 1970s at a hospital that directly employed not just health-care professionals, but cafeteria staff, custodians and maintenance workers. Now, such positions would be outsourced at many companies, a trend that emerged not from new laws or regulations but from “an experimentation process,” he said. By testing existing legal boundaries, Tilly said, managers and executives discovered that “we could get away with this, there’s nothing stopping us from doing this.” Tilly’s segment begins at minute 23:35.

Tilly on Challenges Facing Minority Business Owners

Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly was featured in a Wave Newspapers article on providing support to minority businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after the federal government launched programs to provide low-interest loans to small businesses during the pandemic, confusing documentation and inflexible standards have made obtaining loans a burden for many entrepreneurs, especially those who don’t speak English as a first language. “A major difficulty non-native speakers encounter in filing for a federal loan is in deciphering the technical financial language required to fill out the necessary paperwork,” Tilly explained. “If English is a second language for you, there’s all kinds of unfamiliar words, idiomatic usages and financial terms that might be understandable to the average English speaker but baffling to a person who is still learning English or using Google to make sense of the form.” The article noted that nonprofit organizations are stepping in to guide entrepreneurs through the complexities of accessing loans.


Tilly on Labor Inequities in Big Tech

Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly spoke with KQED about the disparities in benefits that contract workers experience compared to full-time workers — a gap that has been put into sharp focus by the coronavirus outbreak. At big tech firms, in particular, a significant number of workers are contractors who receive vastly different benefits and pay packages. In the current pandemic, offers to allow employees to work from home may not apply to contractors, for example. Tilly said that white-collar contracting, which is also on the rise in a number of industries beyond tech, creates a “fissuring” of the workplace. “These fissures undermine the U.S. safety net, which depends crucially on employment status, since contractors are considered self-employed and generally receive no benefits at all,” he said. “An emergency situation like the current one worsens the impact of the inequities, and intensifies confusion and the complexities of mounting an effective response.”


 

Sanders Speaks to Economic Frustrations in California, Tilly Says

Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly was featured in a Bloomberg article discussing how economic issues in California are swaying voters in favor of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. In the run-up to the California Democratic primary, surveys indicated that Sanders’ promises of housing and health care affordability resonate with many Californians who are frustrated by rising rent and a lack of affordable housing across the state. According to Tilly, “There are two sides to the story of the health of the L.A. economy.” Even as incomes rise and the unemployment rate is at an all-time low, the costs of daily life for Californians are rising faster than wages. Tilly explained that low unemployment and steady job growth “reflect the wider U.S. economy, but there are people being left out and who are being caught in the gap between what a lot of jobs pay and what housing and other expenses are.”


 

Tilly Outlines Pathways for Retail Sector Improvement

Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly co-authored a chapter in the newly published book Creating Good Jobs: An Industry-Based Strategy” from MIT Press. The book discusses industry experts’ research and recommendations for improving job quality across seven industries that employ many Americans in low-wage jobs: retail, residential construction, restaurants, manufacturing, long-haul trucking, hospitals and long-term healthcare. After working together to write “Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies” in 2017, Tilly and Françoise Carré, research director at the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts, co-wrote a chapter in “Creating Good Jobs” about prospects for improving frontline retail jobs in the United States. In this chapter, Tilly strives to disprove the common misconception that “e-commerce is killing off store-based retail in a ‘retail apocalypse’ and that creating better retail jobs is a profitable win-win for retailers.” He explains that both ideas are wrong, despite their prevalence in the media. Tilly argues that “policy action is needed to change the terms of decision-making away from low-wage, labor-intensive organization of work in retail.” He writes that “the primary purpose of policy action and its intended industry-wide impact is to level the playing field for companies that provide better jobs.” For Tilly, this book demonstrates across a wide range of low-wage industries that “while improving job quality can be better for some businesses sometimes, the current policy environment keeps the win-win space small, and there is no way to convince most low-wage employers that they can ‘do well by doing good.’” — Zoe Day


Tilly’s ‘Where Bad Jobs Are Better’ Earns Book Prize

Professor Chris Tilly with his prize-winning book at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.

“Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies,” written by Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly and Françoise Carré, received the 2019 Distinguished Scholarly Monograph Award from the American Sociological Association’s labor and labor movements section. The book, which identifies room for improvement in the U.S. retail sector, was cited for its rigorous research, concise writing and deep relevance to students, scholars and activists. By comparing working conditions in seven countries, the authors conclude that low wages, unpredictable work schedules and limited opportunities for advancement are not an inevitable characteristic of the retail sector. “Where Bad Jobs Are Better” previously won the 2018 William G. Bowen Award from Princeton University for its contribution toward understanding public policy related to industrial relations and the operation of labor markets. It was named a finalist for the 2018 George R. Terry Book Award from the Academy of Management.

Tilly on Apps That Disrupt the Payday Cycle

Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly spoke to Bloomberg Law about new apps that allow workers to tap into their paychecks ahead of the traditional two-week cycle. At least five tech startups have entered the market, which is primarily aimed at workers who live paycheck to paycheck. By accessing their earnings earlier, people will gain more flexibility in paying bills and avoiding high-interest credit card charges, the services say. However, some observers say that speeding up pay cycles could mask a larger problem: stagnant wages. “The smoothing of pay availability over a pay period is advantageous to people who have very little savings,” said Tilly, a labor economist. “What it doesn’t address is why those people have very little savings in the first place. Low pay is low pay, and this is being intensified by increasing housing, health care and other costs in many places.”


 

Tilly on Selective Use of Wage Statistics

Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly spoke to FactCheck.org about presidential candidates’ selective use of statistics to describe U.S. wages as rising, sinking or flat. Different variables — including how to adjust for inflation and which base year to choose for comparison — can lead to different conclusions. President Trump has said that “wages are rising at the fastest rate in a decade,” while Sen. Bernie Sanders has said that “the average American today has not seen a nickel more in real wages than he or she got 45 years ago.” Tilly weighed in on Sen. Cory Booker’s claim that wages are at a 60-year low, a possible reference to wages as a percentage of gross domestic income — a measure of workers’ share of the economic pie. This is a different but legitimate way of looking at wages and salaries, Tilly said, noting that it reveals what workers are getting “relative to other kinds of income recipients in the economy.”


 

Tilly on California Bill’s Impact on the Gig Economy

Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly spoke with The Information about legislation in California that would classify gig workers as employees rather than contractors. The article focuses on Jyve, a San Francisco-based staffing agency that pays by the job instead of the hour for temporary work such as restocking shelves and setting up displays inside grocery stores. While the bill in California is directed at ride-hailing companies, gig-based businesses such as Jyve could be affected. “If California does move forward with this, there is a decent chance at least some other states will follow suit,” said Tilly, who studies labor markets, inequality and urban development. That could be a threat to Jyve’s business model, which is “coming of age in a different regulatory environment at least in California and potentially in other states in years to come.”

Tilly Highlights World of Contracting in Silicon Valley

Chris Tilly, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, was featured in a KQED report about the role of contractors in Silicon Valley, described by one tech worker as a “two-tiered caste system.” Contract workers have grown in prominence due to the ease of hiring and firing, as well as being cheaper than full-time employees. According to Tilly, “the advantages of the contractor model are even more valuable in the investor-dependent, quick-pivot world of Silicon Valley because it allows firms to quickly scale up and scale down projects with labor.” Despite doing the same work, contractors earn less and don’t share the same perks of benefits and stability as traditional full-time employees. Due to their precarious positions, many contract workers fear losing their jobs by speaking out. While workers in older industries are protected by unions, Tilly explained that “[Silicon Valley] companies start out with a blank slate,” making it difficult for contract workers to organize.