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How Employers Can Address the Social Determinants of Work

May 24, 2023

At a Glance

Emerging solutions in wraparound supports.

Nano Moussa Senior Manager
Practices & Centers

The Black-white wealth gap in America is astounding and persistent. Today, the net worth of a typical Black family in the U.S. is $24,100—only 13% of the $188,200 net worth of a typical white family. And this gap has widened since 2000.

This wealth gap is the result of centuries of discriminatory policies—starting with the enslavement of Black workers, continuing through the legal segregation of the Jim Crow era, and maintained through the government-endorsed housing segregation of the redlining era and the disproportionate targeting of Black people through policing and incarceration. Eradicating the Black-white wealth gap requires bold and innovative approaches that go beyond increased educational attainment, quality jobs, and high earnings. Jobs for the Future (JFF) asserts that to truly achieve economic advancement for Black learners and workers, leaders across education and work must understand and proactively address the essential conditions—or social determinants—that impact Black workers’ career success.

Employers have a critical role to play in addressing the social determinants of work—and some are already designing solutions with demonstrated results for their employees. This brief examines how disparities in access to the social determinants of work particularly impact Black workers, provides an overview of employer-led wraparound supports, and highlights a few examples of solutions with promise for supporting Black workers’ career success. It also offers concrete steps for employers interested in better supporting and engaging this important and underutilized talent pool, and outlines questions for further research.

Social Determinants of Work

Social determinants of work are the factors and conditions that affect a person’s ability to prepare for and succeed in the workforce. The phrase is borrowed from similar research on the social determinants of health, which are the conditions that impact individual and group health status.

For Black workers in particular, disparities in access to the social determinants of work can act as a structural barrier to entering high-wage careers, thus exacerbating the Black-white wealth gap and perpetuating patterns of occupational segregation where Black workers are overrepresented in low-wage service jobs in home health care, retail, and food service, and underrepresented in high-wage jobs in fields such as engineering, technology, finance, medicine, and law.

Below is an overview of the social determinants of work and data points on how these factors impact career success for Black learners and workers at various stages of a worker journey, including accessing, maintaining, and advancing in a job.

  • Broadband access is necessary for the critical functions of work, including searching for jobs, connecting with employers, learning new skills and competencies, and performing remote work. However, infrastructure gaps and the high internet access costs have fueled a digital divide, making it difficult for some households to access broadband, especially Black families in southern rural towns.
    • 34% of Black adults do not have access to broadband at home, compared to 21% of white adults.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) asserts that to truly achieve economic advancement for Black learners and workers, leaders across education and work must understand and proactively address the essential conditions—or social determinants—that impact Black workers’ career success.

  • Transportation is essential for work, especially in racially segregated, car-dependent neighborhoods that lack reliable public transportation. High-wage jobs are less likely to exist in these neighborhoods, meaning that without access to a car, residents face increased difficulty in securing these opportunities.
  • Job flexibility grants workers remote work environments and the ability to adjust working hours to accommodate external circumstances, such as transit schedules. Those with little workplace flexibility are at greater risk of losing their jobs and face increased challenges in career advancement.
    • Despite 86% of Black workers preferring to work in a hybrid or fully remote arrangement, only 31% worked remotely in 2021. In comparison, 75% of white workers expressed similar preferences, with 41% working remotely.
  • Health care, including health insurance and paid sick leave, is critical to an effective workforce. The U.S. is alone among wealthy countries in its lack of a national health care program. Instead, a myriad of federal, state, and local policies are put in place, creating uneven health care coverage that often leaves Black workers and workers with low-wage jobs unprotected.
    • At companies with 500 or more employees, Black workers are 10% less likely to hold employer-sponsored health coverage compared to white workers.

For Black women, the cost of child care for two young children in center-based care accounts for 56% of the median household income, compared to 26% for white women.

  • Child care challenges are a barrier to work, especially for parents who disproportionately take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities when they cannot find or afford alternative care.

Only 36% of Black adults in the United States report having an emergency or rainy day fund to cover three months of expenses, compared to 54% of white adults.

  • Financial security allows workers to meet their basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and health care during sickness, economic downturn, job loss, or other emergencies. Wealth is essential for financial security, but the Black-white wealth gap means that just one emergency can greatly harm Black workers, jeopardize their jobs, and perpetuate the poverty cycle.
    • Only 36% of Black adults in the United States report having an emergency or rainy day fund to cover three months of expenses, compared to 54% of white adults.
  • Sustained education, or lifelong learning, is imperative for the future of work, especially amidst economic transitions and frequent technological advancements. The traditional model of learning—learn first, then get a job—is rapidly becoming obsolete. More workers will need retraining to advance.
    • One-third of Black workers are in occupational groups, such as production work, food service, and office support, that are at heightened risk of displacement due to automation.

Emerging Solutions

In JFF’s framework for Achieving Black Economic Equity, we highlight that numerous programs to improve access to the social determinants of work have helped narrow equity gaps by race, but not eliminate them. While solving these issues at scale will require policy interventions and significant investment, there is also a need and opportunity to pursue innovative solutions.

Wraparound supports led by employers or built on employer-nonprofit partnerships can offer a new perspective in a field that has traditionally been the purview of under-resourced nonprofits. Research on existing wraparound approaches is minimal, particularly with a racial equity focus. Below we highlight a few emerging solutions we found that, although not designed explicitly for Black workers, hold promise for supporting Black workers’ ability to identify and retain high-wage career opportunities. Rather than provide examples addressing each of the social determinants of work outlined above, we spotlight a few approaches that have demonstrated impact. The solutions presented here are not to suggest that employers are directly responsible for addressing employee needs, but that employers have a unique capacity to collaborate and innovate in pursuit of Black economic advancement.


SHARE Mobility, a partner in JFF Ventures, is a technology-enabled transportation service that eliminates commuting barriers to employment for hourly employees. Its platform allows employers to optimize a schedule for picking up and dropping off employees using a van that is driven by professional drivers and monitored with cameras and telematics to measure safety.

The platform emerged to help employ workers without access to cars or public transit; users include workers with disabilities, workers without driver’s licenses or vehicles, workers in remote areas, and workers who struggle with the high costs of gas and automobile maintenance. SHARE Mobility allows employers to invest in these populations, allowing them to work safely, stress-free, and on time, and increase their company’s equitable practices.

SHARE Mobility also has significant impacts on company hiring and productivity. On average, SHARE Mobility has helped employers fill jobs four times faster, improve employee retention by 50% or more, and gain $18 of workforce productivity for every $1 spent on transportation.

Child Care

Patagonia, a clothing retailer, is determined to develop and enact what its HR calls “family-affirming policies.” The company established subsidized onsite child care at its headquarters in Ventura, California, and distribution warehouse in Reno, Nevada, relieving working parents of caregiving responsibilities while enabling their advancement to senior management levels.

The initiative has yielded notable results, with 25% less turnover among employees who use the child care program, and close to 50-50 gender parity in representation among managers, senior leaders, and board members. The program also saw 100% of the women who had children at Patagonia return to work after maternity leave, compared to the 69% average across the U.S.

Patagonia reports the program’s return on investment has been high. The CEO calculated that Patagonia recoups about 91% of the program’s cost, making it a rather inexpensive solution for enhanced employee engagement and increased productivity and work quality. Similarly, JP Morgan Chase Bank estimated returns of 115% for its child care program, and the consultant firm KPMG found that its clients’ daycare programs saw an average ROI of 125%.

Financial Security

WorkLife Partnership is a nonprofit organization identified in JFF’s Thrive@Work market scan that resembles traditional employee assistance programs, but goes much further to provide comprehensive wraparound supports. Its mission is to provide workers earning low wages with safe lending, or a low-interest cash assistance program, to help mitigate unexpected financial hardships, as well as solutions and resources to address extenuating life circumstances.

In 2021, the nonprofit organization aimed to address the $4.72 wage difference between Black and white workers, and assist the 57% of workers earning low wages who are unable to afford an emergency expense of $300. Its impact reached 114,000 workers in 28 states and provided $355,716 in small-dollar loans to workers in need. Of borrowers surveyed, 98% did not default on their payments, 95% said the loan put them in a better place financially, and 90% said they were more likely to stay at their current employer because of the support they have received.

Employers who work with WorkLife Partnership report that on average, 84% of their employees are less stressed and 70% are and less distracted at work, contributing to retention rates of 78%. Starbucks and FirstBank are some of the more recent employers to partner with WorkLife Partnership.

Call to Action: Opportunities for Future Work

Design Principles for Employers

Below are some design principles employers can leverage as they work to address disparities in Black workers’ access to the social determinants of work and improve their pathways to high-wage jobs in high-growth industries:

1) Understand the needs, experiences, and outcomes of Black workers at your company.
Gathering quantitative and qualitative data—through surveys, interviews, and focus groups with Black workers—can help employers understand the varied opportunities and barriers for Black workers in accessing and advancing in high-wage jobs, which wraparound supports have been or could be most critical for success, and how best to design and deploy supports that can deliver the most impact.

2) Find your partners.
Employers are not alone in taking on this work. Many nonprofits and community-based organizations have experience supporting workers representing various communities and can provide expertise and partnership to employers. Collaboration among stakeholders can not only help fund and scale existing solutions, but also lead to new and more efficient innovations.

3) Elevate your successes externally to reach more Black workers.
Raise public awareness of your efforts so that other stakeholders—whether employers, nonprofits, or policymakers—can learn about effective ways to improve Black workers’ access to the social determinants of work. Doing so can not only lead to more innovative solutions, but also help incite policymakers to invest in and scale wraparound supports on a national level.

Questions for Further Research

The learn and work ecosystem needs additional research on employer wraparound support strategies that are most effective for Black learners and workers. JFF looks forward to partnering with leaders across sectors as we pursue the following research questions:

  • Which supports are most impactful for the recruitment, retention, and advancement of Black workers in high-wage, high-growth jobs and careers?
  • What conditions must be in place for successful cross-sector partnerships supporting wraparound supports?
  • What is the ROI for employers that develop and enact wraparound supports?