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Impact Stories

Quality Jobs, From the Worker Perspective

November 13, 2020

In July JFF and Turning Basin Labs announced plans to pursue a participatory research initiative examining workers’ experiences on the job, with four worker-researchers leading the effort. JFF and TBL are now excited to share their findings, which reveal new criteria for employment models worth investing in—from the worker’s perspective.


  • Danny Spitzberg, Lead Researcher, Turning Basin Labs
  • Elsa Guerra Garcia, Worker-Researcher, Turning Basin Labs
  • Lamar Bursey, Worker-Researcher, Turning Basin Labs
  • Leneka Pendergrass, Worker-Researcher, Turning Basin Labs
  • Marti Shaw, Worker-Researcher, Turning Basin Labs

Policy and values are important for fair treatment in a workplace, but working conditions can change after a change in management, or even a shift change

Worker-Researcher Lamar Bursey

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of work has looked a lot like the past. Workers already know that the economy splits workers and owners apart, with pandemic-driven shutdowns leading to massive job cuts and a huge loss of income. This moment is accelerating us toward a future of work that cannot ignore the issues around working conditions and worker power – especially as declining union membership points to the need for an expanded set of strategies.

What do workers have to say about better employment models?

Turning Basin Labs (TBL) and JFF teamed up to answer that question. Over the summer, we conducted field research to identify employers that have found creative ways to advance worker power, improve job quality, and support career development for low-wage earners, with a particular attention to the needs of independent contractors. Our aim was to determine what’s actionable for employers nationwide and then use the research to develop an investment fund that can support the growth of these worker-centric employment models.

To carry out this effort, we asked workers themselves to play key roles in a participatory, community-driven research process. We hired and trained four worker-researchers and asked them to include their own work experience in their findings and share insights that help us decide how to move forward.

For me, this work became personal. One participant called me back to tell me how our interview about ‘empowerment’ and ‘ownership’ totally changed her outlook

Worker-Researcher Marti Shaw

We wanted to hear from workers because we had mainly heard from employers, state officials, and consultants imagining the future of work. Few studies had asked the workers for their perspective. And none that we know of had followed the lead of workers in developing policy recommendations, let alone moving them forward. Now, after three months of research, we’re excited to share our findings, which reveal new criteria for employment models that are worth investing in—from the worker’s perspective. Join us for a conversation on Monday, November 16th and read on for a preview of these findings.

Lamar Bursey, one of the worker-researchers who took part in this project, is a transfer student at UC Berkeley who has several stressful, low-wage jobs under his belt. In a team meeting about our process so far, he pointed out the connections between policy, management, and work, saying, “Policy and values are important for fair treatment in a workplace, but working conditions can change after a change in management, or even a shift change.”

This is the first phase of research, and its participatory approach already has taken on a life of its own. As we wrote previously, this project set out to find opportunities for investing in models that promote worker power, job quality, and career advancement. The goal was to identify investment opportunities for a new investment fund. And with TBL and our 12-person advisory council of peers in workforce and economic development, large enterprises, re-entry work, and beyond, we realized that the people leading this research will benefit the most from it.

The word career was limiting for interviewees. They said, ‘Career? What career?!’ So we asked people to define it, which opened up all kinds of work that doesn’t get seen. That was a huge insight.

Worker-Researcher Elsa Guerra Garcia

Marti Shaw, another worker-researcher, is a personal trainer and mother. After being laid off because of COVID, she worked in an Amazon warehouse. She said she previously had never seen work as empowering but added that she sees things differently now. “For me, this work became personal,” she said. “One participant called me back to tell me how our interview about ‘empowerment’ and ‘ownership’ totally changed her outlook.”

By September, we had interviewed more than 50 people across California. Our participatory research involved two efforts in parallel. First, we as a team planned and conducted in-depth interviews and follow-up sessions with a diverse, representative set of people who had low-wage work experience. More than two-thirds of the participants were Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, and most were struggling to find the kind of employment they needed. Second, our team worked internally to improve our focus, questions, and even the terms we used and the concepts we addressed, so we could be sure the research represented our best work and reflected our own experiences.

Elsa Guerra Garcia, another worker-researcher who is a restorative justice facilitator and a student at UC Berkeley, focused specifically on the terms and concepts we used. Midway through the project, Elsa proposed a pivotal change to the interview guide: “The word career was limiting for interviewees,” she said. “They said, ‘Career? What career?!’ So we asked people to define it, which opened up all kinds of work that doesn’t get seen. That was a huge insight in itself.”

In addition to more meaningful interviews about work and careers, we also incorporated the ability to define a career into our framework and final analysis.

It’s like a slap in the face to take someone’s labor but reject their voice.

Worker-Researcher Leneka Pendergrass

Leneka Pendergrass, a worker-researcher who is a mother and a student at UC Berkeley, noted that the most important dynamic among interviewees was “being policed” at work—experiencing excessive control, from dress codes and micromanagement to racial and gender discrimination. She described one interviewee having no ability in their role to share ideas or request help. In her analysis of interview data, she noted, “If someone has an idea that can make a workflow more effective, they should have opportunities to contribute or at least feel that their voice matters in a place where they are spending most of their time and contributing their labor.” Leneka added, “It’s like a slap in the face to take someone’s labor but reject their voice.”

As we look beyond this first phase of research to the second phase of building an investment fund, we have both insights and a team with a clear view of employment models worth investing in from the worker’s perspective.

And to guide this fund, we have embraced three main principles that build on our insights:

● First, we will reimagine “career” and “career progression” in a dynamic way. We talked with several workers who were “bouncing around” in jobs where they see themselves lacking options and being policed, and with others who were in occupations that were very different from the focus of their educations.

● Second, we will develop a framework for better employment with criteria along two axes. The first axis is “being policed” and its opposite, “having ownership”—with real, material ownership of our labor valued over psychological ownership. The second axis is “lacking options” and its opposite, “having autonomy”—and not just limited autonomy (as an Uber driver might have), but “real” autonomy to define one’s career. Importantly, we heard that workers often feel more trapped when they have limited ownership and autonomy than they do when they have none at all.

● And third, we will define what it means to invest in employment models, and for employers to invest in workers. One former receptionist said her last company saw her as “interchangeable” and didn’t take any interest in her as a person. In contrast, a graphic designer told us that her company literally invests in her as a co-op owner and she sees a happy future with a living wage and benefits.

As we plan Phase 2, in which we hope to build a fund to invest in better employment models, we’re continuing to seek input from you, our community. We invite you to share your ideas with us and our worker-researchers in a conversation on November 16, from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. PT. RSVP to join us!