BOSTON (SHNS) – A new commission tasked with helping prepare Massachusetts for an economic future that includes more automation and other disruptive technology got to work on Tuesday as the state begins to emerge from a global pandemic that upended how people work.
The Future of Work Commission held its inaugural meeting over Zoom, hearing from national experts on the challenges facing workers in the modern economy, and possible solutions for policymakers in Massachusetts to consider.
The ideas presented by leading researchers and one national labor leader ranged from universal and portable benefits for workers to incentives for employers to train existing employees in order to create upward mobility in the workplace.
“This is really a pivot point in our commonwealth’s history, and an inflection point,” said Rep. Josh Cutler, a co-chair of the commission.
The commission was created by the 2020 jobs bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in January, and it has been tasked with studying the impact of automation, artificial intelligence, global trade, access to new forms of data and the internet of things on workers, employers and the economy.
Cutler, who also co-chairs the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said the goal of the first meeting was to get a “10,000-foot view” of the issues in play and national workplace trends.
The commission plans to hold five additional hearings, culminating with a wrap-up session on Jan. 18. The next meeting has been scheduled for July 20, followed by an in-person hearing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Sept. 21, in Plymouth on Oct. 12, and at either a central or western Massachusetts location on Nov. 2.
Cutler co-chairs the commission with Sen. Eric Lesser, the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies.
While many of the issues confronting the workforce pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, Lesser noted that the past year has been particularly challenging for service and hourly-wage workers.
“Frankly, I can’t think of a time in recent history where there’s been as much peril for our workers and our workforce and for our economy across the board, but also a time that potentially has immense opportunity to expand protection, to expand wealth for all of our families and all of our communities,” Lesser said.
Shelly Steward, head of the “Future of Work Initiative” at the Aspen Institute, said the current system of benefits and job protections established in the post-war era and tied to someone’s employment with a particular company no longer fits the modern economy.
Steward said research has shown that roughly one in three workers, or 1.2 million people in Massachusetts, augment their main source of income with non-traditional work, such as driving an Uber or taking on some type of independently contracted work.
For one in 10 workers, that non-traditional work, including app-based jobs in the “gig economy,” is their main source of income, she said.
Steward said that Attorney General Maura Healey’s lawsuit to force transportation companies like Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees and not independent contractors is a start, but not a permanent solution.
“There’s not one silver-bullet solution. We need a comprehensive approach that promotes job quality across the board,” Steward said.
Potential solutions, according to Steward’s research, include a system of universal and portable benefits, similar to Social Security or paid family leave, that would follow workers regardless of who employs them and allow employers to pool the financial risk.
Policymakers should also make sure wage theft and anti-discrimination laws extend to independent contractors, Steward said, and the Legislature could consider incentivizing or mandating employer practices like advanced scheduling that would give workers more flexibility and job stability.
Professor Thomas Juravich, of the UMass Amherst Labor Center, told the commission that automation is probably not advancing as fast as some people think, giving lawmakers time to intervene.
Perhaps a greater threat to workers than robots and technology is the shift toward independent contractors in industries like residential construction, Juravich said. The professor detailed a case study in which work on a project in Amherst was subcontracted multiple times and ultimately performed by undocumented laborers who were paid in cash.
“This is a hot house for wage theft,” Juravich said about the residential construction industry in Massachusetts.
Juravich also said the Legislature should consider ways to incentivize internal promotion within companies and professional development that will stop the churn of workers as technology in certain industries changes.
Former Labor Secretary Joanne Goldstein said that during her years working in the Patrick administration she found the Workforce Training Fund program to be “hard sell” with employers, but current Labor Secretary Rosalin Acosta said interest has picked among companies as they rebuild after the pandemic.
Workers, Juravich said, also deserve to know whether technology is being used to monitor their productivity, how that data is factored into salary and promotion decisions and to have a process for dispute resolution.
Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU International, contributed to a similar effort when she co-chaired the California Future of Work Commission, and said that panel determined that California needed to “reimagine the basic social compact between employees, government and working people.”
The group’s “moonshot goals” included creating enough jobs for everyone who wants to work, developing a modern benefit system and safety net for workers, and eliminating working poverty, particularly in the hospitality, retail, home care and child care sectors.
Rep. Lenny Mirra, a Georgetown Republican, asked all of the panelists if any research had been done on a federal or state-level job guarantee, similar to what Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed in Congress.
“We spend a lot of money on public assistance. Why not find a way to use that money to guarantee a job?” Mirra said.
Henry said the California commission supported conversation going on at the national level, but found a “tension” within the state given the number of jobs tied to multi-national corporations.
The 17-member Future of Work Commission in Massachusetts includes a mix of representation from the public and private sectors, including five legislators, past and present secretaries of labor, union leaders and higher education officials.
Sen. Adam Hinds, a member, is also leading the Senate’s Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency. The Pittsfield Democrat said that the Senate group has decided to have “light touch” on the future of work because of this commission, whose work he described as being “tip of the spear.”
“These are some of the highest stakes issues facing our communities, facing our society right now and we’ll be right in the middle of working our way through them,” Lesser said.