Unstable jobs the new norm: LA + NY Times

Tiffany Hsu, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has this year done a terrific job of documenting changes in the nature of work today, especially here in California. Her conclusion to a recent piece on how "non-employees" (aka free-lancers) are becoming a powerful force deserved the lede I thought: 

The number of so-called non-employers — businesses with no employees, largely made up of people working for themselves — slipped at the beginning of the recession. But it has soared since, rising more than 10% between 2006 and 2012 to 2.9 million in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Freelancers Union, a national nonprofit that provides health insurance to its members, said its ranks have increased from 46,700 in 2007 to more than 240,000 this year.

Half of the U.S. workforce could be freelance by the end of the decade, the organization predicts.

That story came a couple of weeks ago. This past week came an even bigger story, on Sunday's front page, about how the lack of decent mid-level jobs is holding back the entire California economy:

Last year, average wages in Los Angeles County declined 1.9% — tying Jefferson, Ala., for 302nd place out of 334 large counties nationwide. San Francisco ranked 19th with a 3% increase.

Statewide, the middle class still makes up the largest chunk of households, but its share has shrunk since 2007, as it has for higher-earning households. Now, nearly a third of California households are in the bottom tier of the income range, up from fewer than a quarter.

Yesterday, in the New York Times, another crack reporter Jodi Kantor, known for reporting on the Obamas, did an astonishing job telling the story of a hard-working Starbucks barista and single mom struggling to support her son while at the beck and call of a corporate algorithm that determined when she would work. Giving her little notice, among its other cruelties. Sometimes she would have to close at 11 pm and open at 4 am to keep her job. 

Ms. Navarro’s fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had also turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock. She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch the boy. Months after starting the job she moved out of her aunt’s home, in part because of mounting friction over the erratic schedule, which the aunt felt was also holding her family captive. Ms. Navarro’s degree was on indefinite pause because her shifting hours left her unable to commit to classes. She needed to work all she could, sometimes counting on dimes from the tip jar to make the bus fare home. If she dared ask for more stable hours, she feared, she would get fewer work hours over all.

Today, not twenty-fours after the story was published, Starbucks says they have altered their policy to ensure that workers get at least a week's notice of their schedule, among other changes. 

Out here in Ventura County, Hannah Guznik reported this week for California Health that the state agency that handles Medi-Cal had no idea how many (or few) doctors would accept its patients, leaving at least as many as 20,000 people seeking health care, and possibly 100,000s more. This week the legislature ordered an audit of the problem. 

Let me offer much respect to Guznik and Hzu and Kantor for jobs well done. Perhaps one of these days we as a culture will begin to thank "the media," instead of blaming them for anything and everything.  

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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