Gathering worker voices
During times of economic crisis, we look to the labor market to understand the strength of the nation’s economic recovery. As the COVID-19 pandemic entered its third year, the initial shocks of closures and layoffs had subsided, and indicators suggested the US economy was on the rebound. Unemployment was at historical lows, wages were rising, and employers were expanding hiring practices, attempting to open doors to more job seekers. Yet, in that same period, there were approximately two job openings for every one job seeker, indicating there were not enough workers in the job market. This disconnect raised a question: What are workers looking for in employment? With a robust debate among policymakers, researchers, and practitioners as to what was happening in a rapidly changing market, we turned our attention to understand how workers were navigating those changes.
The individuals who often feel the greatest impact of economic shocks are those who are already in financially unstable positions. In the job market, this includes low-wage workers, workers of color, and workers without a four-year degree. These workers bore the brunt of the initial pandemic layoffs, with increased job loss and rising instability of work. Previous downturns have demonstrated that these individuals are the first to lose their jobs and are slower to rebuild assets during subsequent recoveries.
These past two years, I’ve been laid off from work many times due to the COVID pandemic. I was interested in the title, ‘The worker’s voice,’ because it makes me think we have a voice, the voice of those who are not heard. And I felt the urge to share my experience with other people.
– Worker Voices participant
One of the tasks of the Federal Reserve is to take the pulse of economic conditions. Doing so helps achieve the Fed’s dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment. While employment data can provide a picture of unemployment, labor force participation, and unfilled jobs, they do not tell us the full story around disparities in recovery, nor do they tell us about worker experiences and preferences. This research paper sets out to capture those worker perspectives.
The Worker Voices Project is a Federal Reserve System research effort, started in May 2022, that engaged low-wage workers and nondegree job seekers through focus groups across the country to understand their experiences of the economy in the recovery. To capture the full picture of the nation’s economic health, this research looks beyond the numbers to understand the perceptions and motivations behind the decisions workers make. Listening to the voices of workers, especially those most vulnerable in the economy, helps us better understand the labor market and supports an inclusive and resilient economy.
In 2022, Federal Reserve researchers conducted focus groups across the US with workers and job seekers without a four-year degree to seek answers to the following questions.
- What were workers’ experiences with employment at the onset of the pandemic and during the economic recovery?
- Do these workers and job seekers believe that they are benefiting from strong labor market conditions and experiencing greater economic stability?
- What barriers persist and prevent them from returning to and then remaining in the labor market?
- How are they changing what they expect from a job, and how do changing expectations inform the choices they make around work going forward?
This qualitative research aims to add context to labor market research that leads to better understanding of worker preferences and behavior. The insights gleaned offer a nuanced perspective on how workers and job seekers, especially those without a four-year degree and in lower-wage roles, navigate employment and strive for economic stability in the labor market. Moreover, worker experiences and perspectives can provide insight into labor force participation complexities, aid in understanding successes or barriers related to long-term employment, inform the direction of future research, and underpin policy implications for workers marginally attached to the labor market.
The study used focus groups as a qualitative methods technique to understand experiences, attitudes, and perceptions influencing worker behavior and attachment to the labor market, both during and after the pandemic. Participants were recruited through more than 60 community-based workforce development partners of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks. A total of 1,243 workers and job seekers responded to a screening questionnaire. Of those, researchers selected 175 participants between the ages of 20 and 55 years old and with less than a bachelor’s degree from 33 states to participate in 20 virtual, 90-minute focus groups, including one pilot session to refine questions and the facilitation process, conducted between May 2022 and September 2022. This study represents analysis of feedback from 167 participants through 19 focus groups conducted following the pilot session.
Participants engaged in this research, as they were identified through community-based workforce providers or training organizations, bias the study’s sample toward workers and job seekers who were more likely to have received employment placement services and supports or who were previously or are currently enrolled in training programs.