About 34 million Americansnearly 24 percent of the labor forceearn less than $8.70 an hour, not enough to keep a family of four out of poverty, even working full-time. Most of these workers lack a college degree, limiting their ability to get ahead in todays labor market. Low-Wage America is the most extensive study to date of how the choices employers make in response to economic globalization, industry deregulation, and advances in information technology affect the lives of tens of millions of workers at the bottom of the wage distribution.
Based on data from hundreds of establishments in 25 industriesincluding manufacturing, retail sales, telecommunications, hospitality, and health carethe case studies presented in this volume document how firms responses to economic restructuring often results in harsh working conditions, reduced benefits, and fewer opportunities for advancement. For instance, increased pressure for profits in newly consolidated hotel chains has led to cost-cutting strategies such as requiring maids to increase the number of rooms they clean by 50 percent. Technological changes in the organization of call centersthe ultimate "disposable workplace"have led to onerous monitoring of operators work performance and eroded job ladders. Other chapters show how the temporary staffing industry has provided paths to better work for some, but to dead end jobs for many others; how new technology has reorganized work in the back offices of banks, raising skill requirements for workers; and how increased competition from abroad has forced U.S. manufacturers to cut costs by reducing wages and speeding production.
Although employers responses to economic pressures have had a generally negative effect on frontline workers, some employers manage to resist this trend and still compete successfully. The benefits to workers of multi-employer training consortia and the continuing relevance of unions offer important clues about what public policy can do to support the job prospects of this vast, but largely overlooked segment of the American workforce. Low-Wage America challenges us to a national self-examination about the nature of low-wage work in this country and asks whether we are willing to tolerate the profound social and economic consequences entailed by these jobs.