December 19, 2023

Author of “Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #122

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Jamie McCallum, author of Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice. Jamie highlights issues such as wage theft, homelessness in the service sector, the lack of protection for workers, and the treatment of our healthcare workers. Jamie’s perspective on corporate extraction, where profits increase while worker earnings decrease, serves as a call to action for various stakeholders, including organizations, leaders, government officials, educators, and parents.

The emphasis is on bringing more dignity, respect, and better working conditions to support those who contribute to community well-being. Jamie also advocates for fair compensation for healthcare workers, emphasizing the importance of recognizing their invaluable role in healing and future caregiving, particularly as we age.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Jamie shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “33% of the American workforce in the service sector have been homeless or are facing homelessness if they miss a paycheck.”
  • “Wage theft is the largest form of theft in America by a landslide.”
  • “Being very careful and receptive to what your workers say they need is important.”
  • “When workers have good jobs, it’s good for all of us. When workers have bad jobs, it’s bad for all of us.”
  • “There’s plenty of things that healthcare employers and CEOs can do, not just raising wages, but creating better schedules for workers and more flexibility in when you can and cannot work.”

Sam Caucci: So Jamie, I got the new book, Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice.  I got the other one here. I’m sure you probably have a few others. I got them all. This one is equally marked up like the last one. So a lot of dog ears, a lot of notes. I guess, to kickstart, you know,  what made you write Essential? 

Jamie McCallum: Well, I wrote the other book in 2020, which was not about the pandemic, but which came out right in the middle of it for the first year. So I thought, you know, it’s a chance that  everything I said in that book was going to be wrong because the pandemic would change everything.  It turns out that was not true.

Everything that was bad before the pandemic was just worse during the pandemic. So the other book made sense in a way, but I just wanted to have a way to, you know, understand  what impact the pandemic was having on labor issues. I was teaching a course on labor at that time and some student raised his hand  and he said, you know, “Do you think what’s going on in China  is going to affect  the world economy?”

And I was like,  “Maybe?” And you know, so I started thinking about it. I did some interviews early there and some interviews in Lombardi, Italy, when I went there. And as the pandemic migrated, I just sort of, took it up in the U. S. And so, you know, I love doing that kind of work. And for me, it was a good way to understand the day-to-day reality of what was going on in different kinds of workplaces.

So that’s the way it started. I mean, I didn’t really, I barely even had a book plan. I just wanted to start interviewing people. And then eventually I was like, okay, this is, there’s something here. This is not going to be over in two weeks. Let’s, you know, make a thing out of it.  

Sam: So for those that are listening who are, you know, maybe a talent leader, a manager, a C level executive, working in an environment where, you know, businesses have people.

What did, what did you learn, that you can share with those that maybe haven’t read the book yet? What were the high level learnings you had as you had those conversations and you went through the process of writing Essential?

Jamie: You mean  what did I learn with workers? 

Sam: Yeah. What, I guess what was the big learning for you?

Jamie: Yeah. I mean,  some of it was like, you know, confirming or yeah, reconfirming what we know, and that is like that the lowest and even mid-level stratum of the American workforce is pretty unprotected.  They work in jobs that are fairly precarious, with wages that are comparably low to previous decades. And with low levels of support from the legal and political situation, and certainly from the trade union movement.

So, all those things we sort of knew, and we’re probably worse during the first couple months of the pandemic. I’d say the first thing that struck me, though, was just how the, the sort of shocking contradiction between how necessary some essential workers were and how vulnerable they were at the same time.

Like, you know, we often think there’s a link between how important someone is to the economy and how much power they have.  Like, you know, like longshoremen on the docks unload cargo. If they don’t work, nothing gets into the country, right? So they have a lot of power as a result of that, because they’re so necessary and essential.

Essential workers were essentially doing life saving work then, but that didn’t really translate into long term stability, long term power, long term progress for their jobs. So, I think overall, that was a major takeaway for me that that truism that we think about the economy didn’t really work for essential workers.

Another one was, however, which is sort of the flip side,  you know, it really pushed home this idea that, like when workers have good jobs, it’s good for all of us. When workers have bad jobs, it’s bad for all of us. So that kind of level of interdependence that we have on essential workers was true before the pandemic, but it was much more highlighted during, I think, you know, like the book is written about essential workers, but it’s really for everybody else. 

And that sort of, you know, their working conditions or our living conditions was something that I tried to really bring out in the book.  

Sam Caucci  

I’m sure you’ve obviously been doing a lot of interviews and talking to a lot of people since the release of the book, any feedback that has surprised you from folks that have read it? 

What’s the kind of common point that people may be raising to you after reading it?  

Jamie: There’s a few. I mean, I think it was not widely appreciated. The kinds of pandemic era, labor unrest that was happening. 

If you look at official statistics collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 8 large strikes in 2020, which is basically a record low. But there was so much else going on, like little protests, little sit-ins, many strikes, large bouts of organizing that sort of,  you know, rocked that first year and a half of the pandemic, and I think that isn’t, you know, was a thing that people sort of have always been surprised at when they read it. I think the other thing, which is sort of less positive, but what has changed element and, you know, there’s a lot of things that have changed, but much more stayed the same.

And so I think that we just live through, like, a cataclysmic crisis that actually didn’t really have that big of an impact in the long run on how we work. Yes, some people work from home now. But, you know, like, by and large labor conditions and the expectations of what we assume workers owe us didn’t really change that much.

And I think, you know, a lot of people are surprised that they expect me to say some, you know, throw back the curtain and say, my God, everything’s different now. And in fact, everything’s mostly the same. And that’s sort of, I think, a sadder commentary on what lessons we didn’t learn probably from the pandemic. 

Sam: Yeah, one of the things that you said in the book was that those with a college, I believe, college degree are six times more likely to be able to work from home. And, you know, I attend a lot of hospitality, restaurant, and retail trade conferences. And, you know, it is discouraging in the last year and a half to hear a lot of people stand on stage and talk about innovation and then get off the stage and say, you know, nothing is budgeted for people, wages, and labor till 2024 or 2025.

You know,  I don’t know how innovative that is. 

Jamie: I mean, you know, that segment was obviously the hardest hit, you know. So your regional economy was impacted to the extent to which there is a large service sector, or there is a large tourism sector.

And so obviously the bounce back  from the pandemic economy was hard on some of those people you just talked about. And I know a little bit about, you know, hotel work. I mean, hotel work, the labor in hotels is the largest factor in how a hotel makes money. Like, the largest portion of that income. And hotels make more money off rooms than they do off other services.

So there was a large incentive to keep those things the same. And, you know, some hotel workers make decent money, but most do not. And so, in that sense, you know, that’s one example of an industry, which probably had the potential to grow a lot in terms of how it operated, but ultimately is slowly coming back to its old business model. 

Sam: I got to ask, I mean, it’s just not an easy question, but I’m sure you get it. What can companies do? What do you hope that, you know, the person, you know, I picked up– I actually saw this at Politics and Prose. I was in DC with my daughter. And she was downstairs reading, you know,  bankrupting me off every book she could put in the basket.

And I was upset. 

I saw this and I sent you an email from the bookstore.  I was like, “What is this?” Like, it missed me. And, you know, I just imagine like, If the CEO of a hospitality or hotel brand, like you mentioned, they pick up the book and they read it, what action steps, if any, do you think are step in the right direction that you hope a C level executive or an enterprise can take to start, you know, creating a world where, you know, things are more fair, more just for workers at all corners of the workforce.

Jamie: Well, I mean, the largest crisis facing the hotel and hospitality industry and a couple of industries that are adjacent to that is staffing.  You can’t find  people to work in a hotel. I mean, they’re now, you know, I’m sure that you’ve experienced it like, you know, when you go to a hotel, they ask you, “Do you want your room cleaned every day? Or do you want to just tidy it up on Wednesday?” or whatever. Right? 

You know, they don’t really have enough people to do that job. So it’s like, well, why not?  And like, what are you going to do to attract people? I think, you know, one thing that came out of this for me is when I talk about this, people are like, what’s up with labor shortage?

And I’m like, we have an economic system  that does not incentivize people to work in the most important, sometimes life saving industries like healthcare or food that we need. Right, like, for whatever reason, we’re short a lot of people. So for hotel workers, there are things people can do that,I mean,  in a capitalist system, we have a ready made solution to this problem.

And that is money.  Like if hotel workers began making a million dollars a year, you and I would just become hotel workers. Like, we would, we would flood into the, you’d have a flood of occupations. A million is too much. Well, how much is the right amount? So we might not, even though wages have gone up a little bit, we might not have hit the right amount. 

The other thing is, like, the scheduling. The way scheduling is done, which is increasingly automated  in that industry, is routinely reported by workers to be a much harder schedule to meet, much harder sort of daily, like room cleaning schedule, just to say that. The  voice on the job of most American workers is  nothing,  you know. So can companies solve that?

No, not easily right off the bat, but they could, they can remain neutral in the face of a union organizing drive when it was decided to go for representation. That would be important. In healthcare, I mean, you know, we don’t actually have a shortage of nurses. We have, I think, one seventh of the registered nurses on planet earth.

So they just are not working as registered nurses because the job is pretty bad. And so, there’s plenty of things that healthcare, you know, employers and CEOs and whatever can do, not just raising wages, but creating better schedules for people,  more flexibility in when you can and cannot work.

All of those things are things that nurses routinely say would be attractive to keep them on the job.  

Sam: The one of the other things you talked about that surprised me was, I don’t think I’d ever  realized this was specifically around the earned income tax credit that you talk about in the book. Where, you know, companies have a lot to benefit from programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that create, and tell me if I’m on the right path here, but it creates an environment where, you know, essentially workers can be more stable and they don’t have to pay anything else.

So that was a really surprising point.  

Jamie: Yeah, I think, yeah, that’s right. You want your workforce I mean, I’m not an employer, but the perception is that, like, you want your workforce to be stable to, like, have its basic needs met, like child care. And, you know, I mean,  like, personally, I think there’s employers, there’s a history in the book, which we maybe don’t go into here, but large employers helped construct the health care system we have in America.

Which is that most Americans get it through their job.  Like employers for decades after the second World War helped build up a system of private employer sponsored health insurance over the last three decades they’ve been dismantling that system. 

The very system that they helped build. And so, you know, sort of like sloughing off health care responsibilities that they formerly took on onto the backs of workers. And that makes it, it just creates a more burdened workforce.  You have to get your healthcare somewhere else.

You have to pay for it more of your paycheck, whatever. And so, you know, I think pushing for frankly, a more universal, broader system where people are taken care of by the state, is something that employers have a stake in pushing for. And I know a lot of employers that, you know, are starting to do that. 

Sam: There was a recent article in the New York Times talking about the National Restaurant Association. I don’t know if you saw this. Came across talking about the Serve Safe program and the lobby, the essential reality that the economics of a training program like Serve Safe takes dollars and funnels them into a advocacy group that works really hard to make sure wages don’t change, you know, it’s a pretty sick system when it was laid out like that.

It was something I think a lot of people like yourself saw, you know, from afar. What other reforms like in your mind should be taken up you know, that are that are most important in this moment. You know, you mentioned in the book that we haven’t had any real positive labor law reform in 90 years.

And, you know, I think I heard you say this on a recent podcast as well. Like, what other things would be thinking about?  

Jamie: Yeah, I mean, so the National Restaurant Association is, you know, sometimes called the other NRA. And it’s a pretty significant lobbying force at keeping that  tipped minimum at I think it’s  $2.65 maybe I mean it’s just, you know, so, you know, obviously in that industry, you know I don’t know.

I think there’s a part of me that, after writing the book and talking to so many people especially restaurants , is that the restaurant economy is not going to come back like it was three or four years ago. We just have too many restaurants. You know, like, we’re not going to have as many as we used to because the labor force that is just simply unwilling to work in them or has been taken up by different industries. Like the way that the American economy laid off hundreds of thousands of people in the span of 2 months, you can’t simply rehire them all in the same job they once had.

It’s a significant reallocation problem. Like, whereas in Europe, they furloughed everyone. You kept your job, right? And also you just start back up. It’s a very different model. Ask your question about, like, prospects. I mean, labor law reform would be good, you know, the pro act, which passed the house and will probably not pass the Senate any time soon.

But it would be a great idea, which would allow, you know, workers to come together, organize for collective bargaining rights without management interference. But I also think that, you know, that probably even that doesn’t really solve a more existential problem. It’s that the American workforce is just so vulnerable and precarious.

You know,  a third percentage of the American workforce, you know, routine in the service sector routinely reports, you know, having been homeless or is facing homeless, if a paycheck or whatever is missed. You know, wage theft is the largest form of theft in America by a landslide. You know, like, in other words, bosses steal more money from workers’ paychecks than every other kind of theft there is.

And  so it’s just a  situation where I think we have to think a little bit,  you know, deeper and longer term about how we can continually rely on a workforce, which is year to year worse off. Eventually, like there’s a built in crisis tendency to that thing where we can’t just keep– the health care, it’s the most clear.

I mean, all of us wind up in a nursing home or long term care. Those jobs are really bad. And they’re sort of getting worse. And you want your nursing home attended to make like 50 dollars an hour and to work 6 hour days, 4 days a week that like, you know, that when they’re with you, they’re on. And right now, we’re going the opposite.

And I just think at some point we have to grapple with that reality that at some point that system will undermine our health and our well being and that’s a real problem.  

Sam: What can workers do, you know, at this moment, the people that are listening to this may be a frontline worker, maybe an up and coming manager who, you know, in my travels, sometimes  the frontline worker on the rise that has survived the  challenge.

Sometimes quickly adopts the model that is not in the best interest of, you know, of the community.  I want to hear what can that frontline person speaking beyond the enterprise, but to the workers in the community, what do you have to say to them? 

Jamie: Well, I’m like my persuasion is that there are very few  individual solutions to complicated problems, obviously. But, you know, all I can say is that  there’s a few ways  workers get  raises and better jobs and better schedules and remain safer on the job. There’s very few of those things that don’t involve some degree of collective organizing i.e. unionization.

There’s not that many laws that just popped up and say, oh, do you know what we will– like, how do fast food workers get it? How did they go from 7. 25  an hour to, in a lot of cities, 15 or 16 an hour? They organized. How did nurses end up getting, like, high paying jobs?

Like, some of it’s the tight labor market, but when there was not a tight labor market, they still made a lot of money, and that’s because they organized. How do teachers have relatively stable careers in the public sector? That is absent some of the other attacks on public sector workers. They’re the most highly densely unionized organization in the country.

And so I think, like, you know, finding a way to have a collective voice on the job benefits you and benefits those around you. So, I think that’s one  way. As far as, like, you know,  management or mid-level management is concerned,  I think, being very careful and receptive to what your workers say they need is important.

Like, for example, during the pandemic, you know, OSHA investigated almost no workplace incidents of COVID outbreaks. Like, I think it was 6 or 8%. For whatever reason, they didn’t do their job.  And we know epidemiologists know now that when workers made a complaint about a covert outbreak,  2 weeks later, there was very often a covert outbreak.

They were a good barometer of the health in the workforce. So, I think managers can, I’m not saying they don’t do this already, but trust their workers. Like, when they put up a red flag, follow up. You know if you look at healthcare data or workplace safety data, let’s say. Like, very few non union companies report incidences of hazards or illness or death or accidents to OSHA. 

I don’t know why there’s a federal requirement that they do, but they don’t right. They break the law with total impunity, but by and large, you guys workplaces to report that stuff because in, like, meetings, they say, “Well, we know that you had a couple accidents last week, like we have to report this stuff, or else we will tell the Boston Globe that you didn’t.” right? But there’s no mechanism for that to happen at a non union workplace.

It never gets out. So, I think, you know, management can follow the law.  That would be good. You know, like, right now, a lot of them when it comes to workplace safety in service sector industries, which were essential to the pandemic simply didn’t follow the law and I think the law is a, you know, reusable standard, a baseline standard. 

Sam: Well, Jamie, I appreciate you taking time to talk to me about this in your new book. I have one final question and I’m gonna lead into it. It might make you laugh, it might make you sad. I’m gonna lead into it my favorite quote from your book. Okay. So highlighted and dogeared, I’d rip it out and frame it. But, you ready?

Jamie: Yeah.

Sam: “Work is a scam. We spend far too much time doing it and most people aren’t paid anything close to the amount of value their labor creates in the last few decades. Those who added the most hours to their work week have seen their income stagnate or decline.” I asked you this last time we talked and I want to ask you again. 

What’s your hope for the future of work? 

Jamie: Well, I mean  my hope, I guess, okay. So I think the thing that your question leads to is like, there was a lot of experimenting over the last few years with the idea that we are simply doing a lot of unnecessary work. In other words, I wrote a whole book about essential work, which begs the sort of question, like, well, what is not essential work?

Like what is the increasingly hours filled economy that we have doing? We learned a lesson during the pandemic that is people can be productive from home,  like we don’t need anyone looking over your shoulder, telling you to do your job. And I think some of those lessons are really important.

We need to really lean into them and say that there may be some segments of the work of managing a workforce that simply might be unnecessary, actually. Especially in the sort of well paid echelons of white collar work, people seem to be happy to work from anywhere without the same level of oversight, everyone I interviewed in the sort of white collar world told me this.

“They’re like, we’re fine. We’re good.” You know, so that’s one. You know, did you say the hope? I guess I have that, like we think hard about what is really necessary work and begin to organize our economy to make sure we are doing only that– leave off other kinds of things. The other thing, I guess, would be the hope of the future of work would be to really look hard about what the future of work is.

And unfortunately what jobs will grow over the next couple of decades? And the jobs that are slated to grow are low income jobs in healthcare. Like, we’re talking people of color in scrubs making $13.50 an hour. Like, that is the material future of work. We are going to be adding far more to those people than anybody else.

And even as we add more, we don’t have nearly enough. So, I guess I hope that because that is right now, the kinds of people we’re adding to our economy that we really recognize the valuable services that they provide and we reward them accordingly. You know, this is for their benefit as much as it is for our benefit, and I think, you know, low wage, low skill, whatever you want to call it, healthcare is that is the bulk of those new jobs that we will be creating as the boomers age, even as Gen X get sicker

 And so I think focusing on that segment and things that we can do to improve those jobs would be a hope of mine. 

Sam: Jamie. Thanks for taking time. 

Jamie: Hey, thanks for having me again. Appreciate it.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Workforce, Education, Work, Wage, Labor, Jobs

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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