Ten people gathered for a conversation about what it was like to work during the pandemic. Most held low-wage jobs. All were from the seven states in the Tenth Federal Reserve District. Towards the end of the conversation, the facilitator asked group members for the newspaper headline that described their experience of working during the pandemic. “Chaos in the Workforce,” one said to approval from the group. “Finding My Purpose in the Pandemic” resonated with others. All agreed that surviving the pandemic was itself an accomplishment.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, employers, employees, families, and communities have fashioned new arrangements and opportunities to overcome the many disruptions. The struggle for normalcy continues today. The Federal Reserve System launched the Worker Voice Project to hear directly from workers and jobseekers. The goal: To understand their experiences in the labor market through the pandemic and the current recovery.

Reserve Banks are working with local partners to identify lower-wage workers and jobseekers without four-year college degrees to participate in a series of 20 listening sessions. The sessions explore how individuals navigated work through the pandemic, how the experience affected their work strategies and aspirations, and how they engage in work and training now.

Workers want to feel valued and respected by employers

The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City gathered a diverse group – in terms of ethnicity, age, household demographics and employment status – of ten workers and jobseekers for a discussion in mid-August.

One widespread concern was a need to feel valued and respected by their employer. As one participant put it, “you (the employer) need to take care of us the way you expect us to take care of the company.” Many workers reported reassessing their expectations of both employers and their jobs based on how they were affected by the pandemic.

While participants mentioned the demand for workers, they struggled to find jobs that matched these new expectations in terms of pay, working conditions, or support. Participants discussed how understaffed workplaces increased burdens on existing workers, resulting in feeling overworked and more likely to quit.

Caregiving and transportation are barriers

Several mentioned how their roles as care providers, both for children and other family members, shaped their job search. Childcare continues to External Linkbe a significant barrier to finding suitable employment. It is often unavailable or too expensive to make a lower-wage job worthwhile.

Transportation was another common barrier. Many said it was too expensive to commute. As one said, “… a lot of jobs I don't really want to take on no more because I know the commute and the numbers with the pay, and it don't really add up with just the bills that I have.” One participant commented that on her current salary she would not be able to provide for their basic needs if she had a car payment.

These comments directly from workers help to paint a more detailed picture of their choices, constraints, and strategies as they rebuild their work and financial lives following the pandemic. The participants’ willingness to candidly share and discuss their experiences provided detail and context that is often missing from more traditional survey data.

More information is available on Fed Communities and in forthcoming report

Later, the Worker Voice Project will release a fuller accounting of the discussions and themes from across all the sessions. It will provide more detail to inform programs and policies that can respond to the needs of lower-wage workers.

Additional information about the Worker Voice Project can be found in External Linkthis overview on FedCommunities.org.