Many New Yorkers are going back to work — but on their own terms

Many New Yorkers are going back to work — but on their own terms
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Observers point out that the campaign against enhanced unemployment insurance (UI) benefits is just the latest manifestation of an ongoing assault on worker power. Namely, whereas higher UI benefits have not meaningfully decreased most people’s desire to work, they have affected people’s willingness to work for low wages in situations that deny them dignity. The extra UI income has given many workers — possibly for the first time in their working lives — financial security that’s allowing them to search for better, more satisfying and dignified work. 

In this view, greater UI benefits are not just means of survival but of empowerment. Guaranteed weekly income in sums that meet one’s needs makes it possible for more people to pursue their goals and develop their talents. It also plays a critical role in supporting those who perform at-home care work, a responsibility that became day-to-day reality for more people than ever during COVID-19. 

The takeaway is that whether workers receiving enhanced UI have been spending the pandemic caring for family members, pursuing creative passions, looking for better work, or some combination of these, many have leveraged their sudden financial security into a clearer analysis of the wage labor system, and are now in a stronger position to reject exploitative and dehumanizing work. 

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If UI is contributing to worker empowerment, then one place where evidence might show up is in self-employment data. Researchers tend to link the concepts of personal self-determination, or the ability to chart one’s life course, and self-employment. Self-employment has been tied to higher job satisfaction, greater job commitment and a stronger sense of autonomy than wage-based work. 

Data from the U.S. Current Population Survey (CPS) Basic Monthly Survey (via IPUMS), which ran through June, can offer some insights into self-employment. Because it’s where I’m based, I’ll focus on New York State. CPS data for New York show the self-employed workforce reached a low point in January, clocking in at just 82 percent of where it was a year earlier. Since then, self-employment has taken off, increasing every month of 2021 and reaching 117 percent of pre-pandemic levels in June. Meanwhile, employment for the rest of the workforce is still about 10 percent below pre-pandemic levels. 

While there are no data that would allow analysts to conclusively connect this self-employment upswing to enhanced UI benefits, data on the composition of self-employed New Yorkers hint at some compelling possibilities. First, the self-employed workforce in New York has become more income diverse in 2021. The share of self-employed workers with annual family income below $25,000 more than doubled, from 5 percent in January to 11 percent in June. During the same interval, workers with family income between $25,000 and $50,000 grew from 11 percent to 15 percent of the self-employed workforce, while those with annual family income over $100,000 had their share fall from 51 percent to 38 percent. Hence, rapid growth in self-employment in the first half of 2021 was driven by New Yorkers from lower-income families. In what’s probably not a coincidence, low-wage workers in New York were disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-related job losses, and therefore were likely to be among the state’s most common UI claimants. 

Next, greater income diversity among New York’s self-employed intersects with greater racial-ethnic diversity. Non-white workers made up just 25 percent of the state’s self-employed workers in January, but their share since April has averaged 39 percent. Because workers of color in New York are more likely than white workers to hold low-wage jobs — specifically, low-wage jobs that were vulnerable to COVID-related job losses — it stands to reason that rising self-employment among such workers might be related to financial security from enhanced UI benefits. 

Absent finer resolution data on their experiences and choices directly from self-employed workers, it’s not possible to say for sure that more generous UI benefits empowered anyone to pursue their interests and talents and ultimately go to work for themselves. Nevertheless, such an outcome is consistent with what some predict would happen under universal basic income, which guarantees everyone a minimum standard of living. Under such a system, it’s expected that people would be able to dedicate their labor to their passions and to collective projects, unleashing their creative potentials while enriching their lives and the world around them.

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Most working people have never had that sort of opportunity. They’ve lacked the power to chart their own life courses and to say “no” to the wage labor arrangements they depend on for survival. Enhanced UI benefits ostensibly gave that power to scores of low-wage workers. And the powers-that-be aren’t happy about it.

Now, as the battle over UI wages on and becomes increasingly situated in daily headlines about desperate bids to “save” American democracy, we should all pause to ask: Is there anything more democratic than protecting and expanding ordinary people’s power of self-determination?

Russell Weaver, Ph.D., is a geographer and research director at the Cornell University ILR Buffalo Co-Lab.