Precarious Work and the Employment-based Safety Net

Welfare reform to encourage work doesn’t take into account how unstable jobs have become, especially for the poorest.

the phone call with a job offer from Chicago City Custodial Services came just days before the La Casa family homeless shelter was going to evict Jennifer Hernandez for failure to find work. For 10 months, she and her two kids had been living on cash income below $2 per person, per day, moving from one shelter to the next across the city. Luckily, Chicago City didn’t care that her address marked her as homeless or that her broken glasses sat askew on her face. All this position required was a desire to work hard for little pay.

“I’m proud, I like to do my work,” Hernandez says. Her views are right in line with the work-based transformation of the US government safety net that started in the 1990s. Today, the government offers more aid to low-income, working families than ever before. Poor parents who can maintain full-time work get a big boost at tax time, often lifting them out of poverty and providing aid in a way that makes them feel incorporated into society, rather than isolated from it. This is a triumph of social policy.

Yet this new safety net is built on a decidedly shaky foundation. Beyond low wages, few jobs available to someone like Hernandez offer benefits such as paid time off. Labor law violations such as failure to pay overtime or forcing people to work off the clock are all too common. Getting enough hours is a core dilemma. Many service sector employers use “just-in-time” scheduling practices to peg labor costs to fluctuations in demand, causing changes in a worker’s schedule from week to week. A recent nationally representative survey of early career workers found that nearly half of part-time hourly workers got one week or less advance warning of their work schedules. Nearly half of all black, non-Hispanic hourly workers of any age got advance notice of their schedule of a week or less, and fluctuating work hours are quite common.