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The Dignity of Fragile Essential Workers in a Pandemic

Over a 24-month term grant from the Russell Sage Foundation totaling $121,000, The Center for Social Solutions' has expanded our Future of Work explorations with “The Dignity of Fragile Essential Work in a Pandemic: Perspectives of African American Employees on Race, Respect, and Relations at Work”.

The investigation comprises an empirical study of lower-tier workers in the food service workers, gig drivers, grocery and retail workers, and health care assistants employment sectors, jobs that are classified as minimally skilled yet highly significant to the well-being of other people. The focus is on employees who were identified in the state of Michigan as essential workers, but who lack the credentials, certifications, and educational backgrounds of essential workers who maintain white-collar professional status. Included here is attention to what they consider to be the social utility of their work in what is becoming a vastly more technologically inclined world of work. This project involves a preliminary subjective exploration of the meaning attached to forms of work that increasingly fall below the bar of what is considered to be higher-tier employment in the modern age.

"This project aims to explore how two circumstances, one historic and one contemporary, have come together to condition the life experiences of socio-economically challenged African-Americans,” explains Dr. Alford A. Young, Jr., associate director of the Center for Social Solutions, chair of the UM sociology department, and the Edgar G. Epps Collegiate Professor of Sociology, Afroamerican and African Studies, and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy (by courtesy). “The historic condition is the lack of dignity attributed to many forms of lower-tier employment in American society, and especially to that which African Americans experience. The contemporary condition is the COVID-19 pandemic. This condition has exacerbated the importance of certain forms of lower-tier work, especially those concerning the provision of personal services. What is not well known is whether African American who work in these domains have been enabled to feel a sense of greater dignity, greater anxiety and frustration, or perhaps both for doing their work in the midst of a national health crisis. This project allows for the consideration of that possibility.” 

The team is exploring how employees express what resources, rewards, and/or validation they believe to be owed to them from their employers, the government, and the general public as a consequence of their effort. Ultimately, the project will document and interpret whether and how such workers express a sense of dignity for the kind of work that they do, and whether they report that their sentiments have changed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and the year(s) following this occurrence. 

“This project will better enable us to explore the myriad ways, workers, in this case primarily African American, interpret questions about dignity and labor in an ever-changing labor market,” added Dr. Earl Lewis, founding director of the Center for Social Solutions, as well as the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy.