Broad scope defined at first meeting of the Committee on the Future of Work
BOSTON (SHNS) – A new commission tasked with helping prepare Massachusetts for an economic future that includes more automation and other disruptive technologies got to work on Tuesday as the state begins to emerge from a pandemic world that has changed the way people work.
The Commission on the Future of Work held its inaugural meeting on Zoom, listening to national experts on the challenges workers face in the modern economy and possible solutions for decision-makers in Massachusetts.
Ideas put forward by eminent researchers and a national union leader ranged from universal and transferable benefits for workers to incentives for employers to train existing employees to create upward mobility in the workplace.
“It is truly a pivotal point in the history of our Commonwealth, and an inflection point,” said Representative Josh Cutler, co-chair of the committee.
The commission was created by the Jobs Bill 2020 signed by Governor Charlie Baker in January, and it was tasked with studying the impact of automation, artificial intelligence, global trade, access to new forms of data and the Internet of Things on workers, employers and the economy.
Cutler, who also co-chairs the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said the goal of the first meeting was to get a “10,000-foot view” of the issues at stake and the issues at stake. national trends in the workplace.
The commission plans to hold five additional hearings, culminating with a wrap-up session on January 18. The next meeting is scheduled for July 20, followed by an in-person hearing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on September 21, in Plymouth on October 12, and in a location in central or western Massachusetts on November 2.
Cutler co-chairs the commission with Senator Eric Lesser, Senate Chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies.
While many of the issues facing the workforce predate the COVID-19 pandemic, Lesser noted that the past year has been particularly difficult for service workers and workers paid by the hour. .
“Frankly, I can’t think of a time in recent history when there has been so much peril to our workers and our workforce and to our economy in all fields, but also a time that has potentially a huge opportunity to extend protection, to increase wealth for all of our families and communities, ”Lesser said.
Shelly Steward, head of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute, said the current post-war benefits and job protection system linked to a person’s employment in a particular business no longer fits the modern economy.
Steward said research has shown that about one in three workers, or 1.2 million people in Massachusetts, increase their main source of income with non-traditional work, such as driving an Uber or undertaking some type of work under independent contract.
For one in ten workers, this non-traditional work, including application-based jobs in the “gig economy”, is their main source of income, she said.
Steward said the trial of Attorney General Maura Healey to force transportation companies like Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees and not independent contractors is a start, but not a permanent solution.
“There is no quick fix. We need a holistic approach that promotes job quality at all levels, ”said Steward.
Potential solutions, according to Steward’s research, include a system of universal and transferable benefits, similar to Social Security or paid family leave, that would follow workers regardless of their employer and allow employers to mutualise financial risk.
Policymakers should also ensure that wage theft and anti-discrimination laws extend to independent contractors, Steward said, and the legislature could consider inciting or enforcing practices on employers such as advanced working hours that would give workers more flexibility and job stability.
Professor Thomas Juravich, of the UMass Amherst Labor Center, told the commission that automation is probably not moving as fast as some believe, giving lawmakers time to intervene.
The move towards independent contractors in industries such as residential construction may be a greater threat to workers than robots and technology, Juravich said. The professor detailed a case study in which work on a project at Amherst was repeatedly outsourced and ultimately carried out by undocumented workers who were paid in cash.
“It’s a greenhouse for wage theft,” Juravich said of the Massachusetts home construction industry.
Juravich also said the legislature should consider ways to encourage internal promotion within companies and professional development that will stop worker churn as technology in certain industries evolves.
Former Labor Secretary Joanne Goldstein said during her years in the Patrick administration she found the Workforce Training Fund program “hard to sell” to employers , but current Labor Secretary Rosalin Acosta said interest had grown among businesses as they rebuilt after the pandemic.
Workers, Juravich said, also deserve to know whether technology is being used to monitor their productivity, how that data is factored into salary and promotion decisions, and to have a dispute resolution process.
Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU International, contributed to a similar effort when she co-chaired the California Future of Work Commission, and said that panel determined that California must “reinvent the basic social pact among employees, government and workers ”.
The group’s “lunar goals” included creating enough jobs for all who want to work, developing a modern benefit system and safety net for working people, and eradicating poverty in the world. work, particularly in the hospitality, retail, home care and childcare industries.
Rep. Lenny Mirra, a Republican from Georgetown, asked all panelists if any research had been done on a federal or state-level job guarantee, similar to what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said proposed to Congress.
“We spend a lot of money on public aid. Why not find a way to use that money to secure a job? Said Mirra.
Henry said the California commission supported the ongoing conversation nationally, but found “tension” within the state given the number of jobs tied to multinational companies.
Massachusetts’ 17-member Future of Work Commission includes a mix of public and private sector representatives, including five lawmakers, past and present labor secretaries, union leaders, and higher education officials.
Member Senator Adam Hinds also heads the Senate Committee on Reinventing Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resilience. The Pittsfield Democrat said the Senate group had decided to have a “light touch” on the future of work because of the commission, which he called the work “a bit of iron.”
“These are some of the most important issues facing our communities, which our society is facing right now and we will be right in the middle of their work,” Lesser said.