Federal Jobs Guarantee Would Upend Labor Market

Democrats’ proposal would provide employment for all who want it

By Steve Bates April 30, 2018
Federal Jobs Guarantee Would Upend Labor Market

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona (Photo by Gage Skidmore).

​Guaranteeing a federal job to everyone in the U.S.—a proposal put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and at least two prominent Democrats linked to possible 2020 presidential bids—would cause massive changes to the labor market, according to experts.

The plans are short on crucial details, including cost. And the chances of any of them moving forward in the short term are slim, given that Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

However, some Democrats and Sanders, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, see opportunities for their proposal in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond. Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey have joined Sanders in calling for a bold federal government program to guarantee employment for all Americans.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

It would work like this: Anyone who wanted a federal job could get one with a salary of at least $15 an hour, plus a generous benefits package that some experts say would be worth at least another $5 an hour. Those who lack the skills for available jobs would be given training, though no applicants would be guaranteed the job of their choice. Local and state governments could also propose federally funded public-works projects in sectors such as infrastructure, caregiving, environment and education to put the applicants to work.

Potentially, tens of millions of candidates would seek these jobs. Some would come from the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed, and some people working in the private sector would seek the federal positions.

"It would be a very serious disruption to the labor market," said Dean Baker, Ph.D., senior economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Baker predicted that 10 million to 20 million people in the private sector would quit their jobs to work for the government under the program. "There are about 40 million people making under $15 an hour," said Baker. "You're making this a very attractive job."

One problem he anticipates with the idea is that it would force the private sector to boost salaries to compete for entry-level labor. That, said Baker, would raise the cost of goods and services. "It would be a really huge change to the economy."

The idea of guaranteed employment is not new, said Erik Loomis, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island who has studied the history of the labor movement. In the 1970s, Congress debated a failed measure that would have allowed citizens to sue the federal government if they could not find a job.

Loomis said the time is ripe for guaranteed federal employment. He said that such a program could help revive economically depressed communities and that it represents "the most politically realistic answer" to the challenges in the labor market—notably, the loss of jobs to automation. "A large percentage of people are not going to go to college. You have to have jobs for those people."

He said the program would prompt better wages and benefits among private employers, thereby reducing economic inequality. "The point of this is to fight directly against the type of employer profiteering and exploitation of labor" that has swelled the salaries of CEOs and the share prices of corporations.

Josh Bivens, Ph.D., director of research at the Employment Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said that "we should re-establish the government's ability to provide jobs to people as long as it's useful work." He added that he likes "the ambitious thinking" of proponents of the plan. "It would be incredibly transformational."

He said the federal government does not have the capacity to manage such a program now but "we should start building that capacity," beginning with a pilot project.

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Move your HR career forward.

Apply for the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP exam today! Applicants now have the option to test from home.

Apply for the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP exam today! Applicants now have the option to test from home.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.