Defining and Assessing Workforce Fragility in Boston

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According to recent reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment levels in the United States are nearing 5.0%, and US economy seems to have recovered from the Great Recession. The City of Boston, in particular, boasts an unemployment rate of 3.7% and can be considered a striking example of this recovery. However, academics are intrigued about the nature of this recovery and the kinds of jobs that are being created. Some literature points to a disproportionate growth in low-wage jobs compared to middle- and high-income ones (Lowrey, 2014). Additionally, the growth in start-up and technology sectors raises questions about the overall quality of jobs in the current economy. Most notably, employment opportunities like those offered by Uber have turned on its head the traditional notion of a 9-5 job.

In order to dig deeper into these questions about the nature and quality of work, the CIPA capstone team worked on a project for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). The goal of this project was to define what constitutes ‘fragile’ work and estimate the number of such ‘fragile’ workers in the Boston area. This project ties in neatly with the BRA’s overall mission to “plan the future of Boston by building a more resilient, prosperous, and vibrant city” and “to understand the current environment of the city.”

Our team started with studying the academic literature that exists on the subject. While we did not find current literature on “fragile work”, there is a good deal of of literature on precarious work, temporary work and research that explores the informal sector. In our literature review, we were able to identify common themes across the varying definitions of fragility and precarity.

The team then synthesized the key overarching themes from the various sources into a single definition of fragility with three key components: ● Unlivable income ●Lack of benefits, and ● Lack of full-time work.

Going further, we constructed a spectrum of fragility which would make it possible to estimate the numbers of those workers who were truly in perilous working conditions. Workers were divided into three levels of fragility based on whether they displayed one, two or all three of the above characteristics.

In order to build estimates of the number of fragile workers in the Boston area and examine the trends in the number of such workers over the past two decades, we used two data sets: the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey (CPS) and the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). In both these surveys, we looked at income, number of hours worked and employee sponsored health-care. While the variables income and part-time work are direct components of our definition of fragility, we used employee-sponsored health care as an indicator for employee sponsored benefits, given the paucity of data regarding other the other benefits.

In order to gain a long-term perspective, we looked at data starting from the year 2000 for the CPS dataset and beginning 2005 for the ACS dataset. The sample size for both the surveys is large enough to yield statistically significant conclusions. The smaller CPS survey is able to attain a 95% confidence level with an interval of 3% for all years. The large ACS, however, is able to provide even statistically stronger conclusions at a confidence level of 99% with an interval of 2% at the metropolitan level. Despite the constraints imposed by the availability of data we strove to include data for as many years as possible. Hence, the trends for the unlivable wage and part-time work variables were studied from 2005-2014 (ACS) and 2000-2015 (CPS). The number of workers with employer-sponsored health insurance and number of full time workers with employer sponsored health insurance variables were looked at for 2008-2014 (ACS) and 2000-2013 (CPS). While the CPS data for the 2000-2013 period does indicate an upward trend in terms of total fragility (32.0%-39.6%) the trends for the 2008-2014 (ACS) and 2008-2013 (CPS) time periods are inconclusive.

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BRA’s overall mission to “plan the future of Boston by building a more resilient, prosperous, and vibrant city” and “to understand the current environment of the city.”


Boston Redevelopment Authority

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