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Transcript: Future of Work: The Technology of Tomorrow and

MR. PALETTA: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Damian Paletta, deputy business editor, and I’m so honored to be joined today by Labor Deputy Secretary Julie Su.

Hi, Deputy Secretary. How are you?

MS. SU: Hi, Damian. It’s good to be with you.

MR. PALETTA: Thanks. I’m really excited to talk to you about the economy, the American workforce, and the big technological changes affecting all of that, and I’m really also excited to hear from viewers. Please join the conversation. You can tweet at us using the hashtag @PostLive, and we’ll continue your comments and questions over the course of program.

Deputy Secretary, I was wondering if we could start. I mean, I really want to talk about where this is all going, but let’s start with where we are first. There’s some really interesting data that came out on Wednesday about inflation. You know, a lot of Americans are concerned at 9.1 percent price growth year‑over‑year. Obviously, this affects a lot of workers. Can you give me your insight into how this is manifesting itself in workers and what the government can do to try to blunt the impact of that on workers?

MS. SU: Yeah. Thank you so much, Damian.

So we are seeing continued improvement in the jobs numbers, first of all, right? So our June jobs report shows continued broad‑based economic recovery. The economy added 372,000 jobs. The unemployment rate has dropped from the time the president took office from 6.4 percent down to 3.6 percent. Labor force participation is back up. So, in terms of the impact on workers, we are seeing that the addition of 9 million jobs to the economy since President Biden took office is having an impact. It’s also obviously a demonstration of the profound resilience of America’s businesses and its workers, and of course, these aren’t just numbers on a page. These are millions of Americans who are back at work and able to support themselves and their families with good‑paying jobs and enjoy the dignity that a job provides.

You mention inflation, which is really important. Obviously, this is of great concern to all of us, but one point that I think sometimes gets lost is that the numbers yesterday also show what economists call “core inflation,” which includes‑‑which does not include energy and food cost, but that core inflation has come down for the third month in a row, and so that’s a sign of progress.

There are some things that are not reflected yet in those numbers, and we are hopeful that, you know‑‑that inflation is peaking, and of course, we need to continue to tackle that. We need to tackle it more quickly, and we definitely need to get prices under control.

MR. PALETTA: You mentioned the jobs report. I mean, I don’t think any of us have seen anything like, you know, so many consecutive months of close to 400,000 jobs. So, I mean, I think the strongest part of this economy right now is the labor force, and one of the things that I think caught a lot of us by surprise in terms of journalists was the labor shortage that we experienced kind of coming out of the pandemic. You know, there continue to be really millions of open jobs. Do you see that being something that’s going to work itself out, this labor shortage, as we kind of get further and further through this, or is that something that’s going to continue into the future?

MS. SU: Right. So this is one of those areas where I think it’s so important to look at‑‑look at data and really understand what’s actually happening.

What is often short‑handed as a labor shortage, we see really as a job quality shortage, and how do we know that? We do see that workers are resigning from jobs, but many more have actually been hired. In fact, hiring is outpacing quits in every major sector, with higher levels of both in lower wage sectors, which basically means that workers are feeling empowered to look for new work. And that’s why for the Department of Labor, our biggest priority now is figuring out how we create and focus on connecting people to good quality jobs.

That’s why the Labor Secretary launched a Good Jobs Initiative that is really aimed at working across federal government to make sure that the trillion dollars in infrastructure investments but also all across the economy, jobs that we have are actually good jobs that are incentivizing people to come back, that are going to provide them a path to the middle class, that are going to provide them the economic security that they want and need.

And we are seeing across the board that our focus on equity matters too, right? We need to make sure that there are good jobs in the economy and that every individual, every community from, you know, rural to, you know, communities of color to those who have been left out of the economy, even in good times, have access to those good jobs.

MR. PALETTA: That’s so interesting. I mean, that’s a case, I would think, where technology would really help workers, you know, know‑‑this way, they would be‑‑they would know that there’s jobs that are available to them that might pay more, have better conditions, work with their lifestyle more. Is that‑‑how can we get more workers to have access to that technology and data; whereas, in the past, maybe the Great Recession of 2008, they wouldn’t have access to the same information?

MS. SU: That’s right. So we are laser‑focused on really, you know, transforming the workforce system to both connect workers to the good jobs they want and need and to connect employers to the people that they want and need.

And there is, as you state, Damian, a very important technology aspect to this, right? So, when people talk about technology and the future of work, it’s often about how we’re going to train workers for technology‑related work‑‑and that’s really important‑‑or it’s about how robots are coming to take our jobs, and we have to prepare for the impending apocalypse. And there are versions of these assertions that we do grapple with, but I think they’re too narrow, and I think what we’ve seen is that adoption and deployment of technology has only accelerated during COVID, right? Whole workplaces that went remote were only possible because of technology, including government. Right before COVID, many people, including those in government, just did not think that that would be possible, but we’ve learned that you can work from home. You can work collaboratively with others from home. You can improve access to services remotely in many ways, and this does require different kinds of investments. But it also requires a real attention to one of the downsides, which is how technology can exacerbate inequities. So your question really gets to how do we make sure that everybody knows what good jobs are available, what good jobs connect to the skills that they have, and what kind of training they can get to do those good jobs. And those are really important priorities for our Good Jobs Initiative at the Department of Labor but also for the government as a whole.

MR. PALETTA: Yeah. I’m actually really interested in that because you could see both sides of it, as you said. I mean, obviously, for example, people with disabilities might be able to do a job using technology that they couldn’t five years ago, but on the other hand, you know, we have, for example, fewer women. The participation rate among women right now is not as high as it was before the recession. I think a lot of us understand why that is, and I wonder whether there could be‑‑technology could be used to sort of separate people out in a way that doesn’t help groups like women or even like farmworkers and things like that in a way that they could. Is there efforts in place to try to bring more and more people into this recovery so that everyone benefits the same way?

MS. SU: 100 percent, yes. So we are focused on that.

I think, you know, really the question about technology is related to this because it has to do with how do we think about developing technology in a worker‑centered way, right? Imagine if we thought about all of our technological development, deployment, research, investments in ways that could actually benefit workers.

And you talk about care, right? If we could‑‑you know, that’s a matter of technology and a matter of job quality. If we could ensure that care jobs were actually good jobs‑‑we certainly saw through the pandemic, right, that this was a deeply impacted industry, but we also see that that’s work that is work‑enabling. It’s work that if there are‑‑is good, quality, accessible care that more people, especially women, are able to go to work. So I think all of those things are definitely connected.

I will also say, right, there’s also the digital divide issue. So we saw this across COVID, again, not issues that were created by COVID but certainly exacerbated by them, where people with means found it much easier to both deploy the technology that was needed. For example, in schools, right, where some teachers and students‑‑

MS. SU: ‑‑simply didn’t have the resources they needed to access to care, and so that’s one of the reasons why ending the digital divide is such a priority of the president, of the Department of Labor, and building a reliable broadband from coast to coast in every community is very fundamental to the president’s infrastructure vision. We also saw that there are jobs that are not going to go remote. They’re caretaking jobs. They’re, you know, nurses and farmworkers and grocery clerks and supply chain workers from porch to truckers to warehouses. So, when we think about the future of work, one of the most important challenges before us is what is the future of work for workers who are not working behind computers, many of whom are‑‑you know, they’ve struggled in jobs that don’t pay a living wage, don’t have job security, don’t have paid leave, don’t have a voice on the job. And it’s critical that we be honest about these aspects too, and here technology has sometimes not been used for the benefit of workers, right? It’s not being used to help them do their jobs better. It’s used for surveillance or to track whether they’re working faster, to track‑‑you know, the things that deter them from taking needed breaks or like going to the bathroom or organizing for power with their coworkers, and that’s a side of the future of work and technology that we also are concerned about and really need to examine.

And they’re not inevitable, right? All of these are policy choices that‑‑

MS. SU: ‑‑we can make, and if we want to create a pathway to economic security, a path to the middle class, decent jobs for everybody, we’ve got to grapple with that issue too.

MR. PALETTA: I mean, I have so many new questions, but I thought that answer was so intriguing. If we could just start with it’s hard‑‑I think we all come out of this pandemic feeling like we’re chained to technology. You know, it’s hard to separate out your family day from your workday because you’re always kind of working and always, you know, in my case, being a parent too. But how has‑‑what is the side of technology that has made it harder for people to separate those boundaries out, and is there anything that the government can do, talking to employers or talking to workers about having‑‑you know, reasserting those boundaries? Because really the day feels like it never ends.

MR. PALETTA: The weekend feels like it never begins, and technology, I think, is a big part of that.

MS. SU: Right, right. I mean, that becomes another‑‑not entirely new, but‑‑right? Like, you know, definitely one of those issues that have become exacerbated through more and more work at home about job quality, right?

MS. SU: Like, how do we make sure that, you know, it’s not just about wages. It’s not just about safety on the job and making sure that every worker who goes to work gets to come home safely, but for those who are working at home all the time, how do we think about issues like workplace safety? How do we think about things like, you know, breaks, right, and hours worked? I think that those are, you know, tough challenges. I know that employers are grappling with them.

I know that, you know, for us, the Department of Labor, all of these things do play into how we think about worker well‑being.

You also mention, though, you know, one of the things that I think is important, which is some of the opportunities. We have also seen that there are more opportunities for workers with disabilities, for example, when you can use technology to create more accessible workplaces, when you provide more flexibility. And I think, you know, people have said‑‑and I think this is true‑‑that we’re unlikely to go back to a world in which those who have found ways to work effectively remotely are going to go back to offices, and, you know, it forces us to think about what that means. It also forces us to, you know‑‑or it’s an opportunity too to think about how we train staff, right? This is about not just working with technology, but how do you continue to get it to be advantage of working with other people when you’re working remotely as well as how do you look at management and supervision, like making sure that people understand how to manage and supervise effectively and still really engage employees in a remote or hybrid environment?

MR. PALETTA: I’m really interested in how technology could be used for surveillance of workers in a way that maybe it wasn’t years ago, and, you know, quite frankly, with the new Supreme Court decision of overturning partially Roe v. Wade, you would think that companies and even insurance companies would have access to really personal information of their workers that could be subpoenaed or, you know, tried to access by people. Like, what are‑‑is that a conversation that the government should be having about what‑‑how to protect certain information or data from workers, and is it something that we could see being discussed more openly in the months ahead?

MS. SU: Yeah. So, certainly, again, this is something that predates COVID, but the idea of, you know, collection of data about workers and then how transparent employers are about that collection, right, how transparent or who sort of owns that data and whether that’s an asset for workers, I think that’s an important piece of this whole puzzle.

You know, I think one of the things that is another kind of side of the technology conversation is as technology is utilized in the workplace, our focus is on how do we think about human complementary technology, right, worker complementary technology. There are ways that historically technology has been utilized to improve working conditions.

A good example is, you know, turn of the 20th century when you had manufacturing jobs that were‑‑that were, you know, dangerous and difficult. You had children working in factories. You had long hours. The combination of technology that helped to routinize and mechanize some dangerous work, but also workers having a seat at the table, you know, union power, workers organizing, having the ability to push for policies like the eight‑hour day and weekends, things like that, I think, show that the potential of when you combine, you know, worker voice and, you know, worker well‑being with technology being deployed.

And I think we have that opportunity now again because we are seeing another moment in which workers are asserting their power in the workplace. They’re saying, you know, that, as I mentioned earlier, “We want to do better jobs, jobs that provide us economic security, that, you know, care about, you know, our well‑being,” and making choices around organizing and demanding better, it could be another opportunity to really look at how technology and worker voice together can lead to really positive changes.

On the flip side, you know, some deployment technology has not had that effect. I mentioned surveillance earlier, right?

MS. SU: Using technology just to speed up work, especially for vulnerable workers, workers who are overwhelmingly people of color, immigrant workers, right, women workers in workplaces where they’re particularly vulnerable, but also the biases that can get reinforced through technology, we really have to make sure that we’re not using technology to hire, right, to manage or discipline in ways that just reinforce biases that are also longstanding that we need to fight.

MR. PALETTA: Madam Deputy Secretary, we have a question from Twitter kind of along those lines. It’s from Anthony Atto. He asks, you know, what kind of mechanisms are you proposing that would be‑‑that would have worker‑centric technology implementations? Could labor bargaining be expanded to include technology, and what about non‑unionized workplaces?

MR. PALETTA: What are your thoughts on how technology could factor into that?

MS. SU: All very, very important questions. Right.

So one of the things, you know, that we are seeing is, again, recognition of the transformative impact of technology but also of the value, the benefit of when you merge. You know, how do we think about technology that’s going to make work better and therefore make lives better? That’s related to all the questions that you’ve asked now.

And there is, you know, private‑sector research going into, you know, what does human‑centered AI look like? Right? There’s a lot of sort of interest in are there ways that technology, rather than being utilized to deter workers from organizing, could actually be used to support worker organizing, especially workplaces that are more diffused, right?

So I think that this is why this is such a moment of also opportunity. The important thing is that we are‑‑these are all choices that can be made. These are all policy decisions about how‑‑where we put research and development to technology, how we deploy it, and then what rules we’re going to put in place to make sure that we don’t think about just a collision course between technology and workers, but we think about ways to really enhance well‑being, to improve jobs, and to improve access to those jobs so that all communities benefit from the good things that will come.

MR. PALETTA: You mentioned AI. I think the rapid development of AI has a lot of people excited but also nervous. How do you see AI fitting into different kinds of workplaces, you know, maybe not just at technology companies but also, you know, warehouses and factories? You know, can AI be implemented in a way that really benefits workers, or is it something that they should be concerned about? Could it, like, replace their job, potentially?

MS. SU: Right. So I think one of the‑‑you know, every, like, decade or so, sort of few decades, there is the hand‑wringing over whether technology is going to, you know, take over all jobs.

I think what we have found throughout history is that more often than not, what happens is it changes jobs, right? There are some jobs that change more than others, but that for the most part, technology has the‑‑you know, provides different ways of thinking about work. Here one of the opportunities, I think, is clearly because of the rapid advancement in different types of technology, to really think about how we could again make workplaces safer by eliminate some of the tasks that are leading to worker injuries and sometimes worker death but also really thinking about how it could also free up humans to do work that requires uniquely human traits, right? Things like, you know, empathy and good judgment. You know, in a concrete way in the workplace, it could mean that we eliminate some more rote manual work but allow for better use of humans to provide customer service. Like, there’s all kinds of things that I think we could imagine if we are thinking about the complement between creating more good jobs and using technology in a meaningful way.

MR. PALETTA: Have you seen‑‑I mean, obviously, one of the things that I think was really great about this recovery is that a lot of people and maybe the lower‑skilled jobs had opportunities to move from a lower wage to a much more competitive wage. Now, obviously, inflation eats into that, but do you see those people having kind of advanced in position, that they can kind of hold the ground they’ve made up? I mean, I think we’re all concerned if there’s a recession, you know, who knows what the impact will be? But do you feel like a lot of the people who were able to kind of move up the economic mobility ladder will be able to kind of retain the ground they’ve gotten because of technology, or could they find themselves kind of back in the same situation they were in maybe 2019? In other words, is this technology going to maybe disappear if we face a real severe economic downturn?

MS. SU: Right. So part of the‑‑you know, the president’s vision, right, of the economy that leaves no one behind, when he says we’re going to‑‑

MS. SU: ‑‑build an economy from the‑‑you know, from the bottom up and the middle out, I think it is about making sure that we not only see temporary gains, but that we’re looking at longer‑term, you know, again, job, you know, mobility for workers, right, genuine economic security.

I mean, the kinds of investments that have been made just in the last‑‑you know, in the last couple of years since the president has been in office are really historic in nature, right? Some of them were very immediate, American Rescue Plan, let’s get people back on their feet kinds of things.

But the trillion dollars in infrastructure investments are about not only fixing roads and bridges, about making sure clean water, you know, flows out of the pipes in homes and schools. It’s not just about electrical vehicle charging stations from coast to coast, but it is about making sure that people get the job that’s going to be required to make those things happen and that will give them economic security to enjoy those things, right? People can only enjoy good broadband and clean water, you know, flowing from pipes in homes where they can afford the rent or the mortgage, and these are not just jobs for now. These are going to have long‑term impacts on jobs for decades, right, clean energy, jobs around clean energy, jobs around, you know, new forms of energy, the batteries, the things that are going to be required to sustain this new and improved, better‑for‑our‑climate economy, our long‑term jobs.

And so we’re‑‑part of our focus on good jobs is about making sure that these are long‑term, sustainable improvements, but again, part of the equity piece of this is that we’ve also seen historically that even when good jobs do get created, there is an equitable access to those jobs. And we are laser‑focused on making sure that the same communities‑‑African Americans, communities of color‑‑you know, marginalized folks‑‑we talked about women already and women of color who have been so devastated in the last two years that we’ve seen, you know, rollbacks in their progress in the workplace, how do we ensure that the prosperity that we’re building in the economy going forward, that the recovery that we’ve talked about here already is broadly shared by everybody? Those are technology questions, but they’re also much broader than technology.

MR. PALETTA: And just to build on that point, I mean, last year, we saw a tremendous amount‑‑and even this year‑‑of union‑organizing activity. A lot of workers were joining together to try to make their case for better working conditions, better pay, better benefits. Do you see that as being kind of a healthy evolution of the kind of labor movement in the United States, or are you worried that it might have set up a really adversarial situation, whereas, if we do have a recession, it might lead to kind of a mess? In other words, do you think this was‑‑made progress, or do you think this could put us in kind of a weird situation if there’s a downturn?

MS. SU: Right. Well, so let me say two things about that at the outset. One is that one thing that we’ve seen throughout the economy during this recovery is that employers are raising wages and investing in their workers in various ways, right, looking for new and better ways to make their jobs better. Partly, it’s a recruitment strategy, but, you know, obviously, good employers understand that their well‑being is intimately tied to the well‑being of their workers, and that’s sort of‑‑you know, that has helped to fuel the recovery.

The other is that for a long time, you know, data has demonstrated that workers want a union at far higher rates than work‑‑than, you know‑‑that they actually have a union. That’s why the president has been very strong about saying, “The right to join a union is fundamental. It is not just an exercise of workers’ rights. It’s an exercise in democracy,” and why here at the Department of Labor‑‑and our Labor Secretary is very clear about this‑‑we really believe in the right to organize. And what we are seeing is, in a time where workers have more choices, they are organizing, sometimes against really, really great odds. I think that that is an inspiring sign of how a robust economy in which workers have a choice and are able to exercise that choice is going to lead to better outcomes.

When I mentioned earlier about, you know, how technology has actually benefited working people, it hasn’t happened just by accident, right? It’s happened because workers are at the table helping to decide on their future.

One thing that’s interesting, I think, is to think about some international comparisons. A couple year ago, I had a chance to speak with the consulate general of Denmark, and we were talking about technology and, you know, this idea of robots taking over jobs, and what she shared is that in Denmark, there’s actually very little fear over technology and its impact at work, that some‑‑87 percent, I think she said, of people believe that technology is actually going to help improve work. Part of that is because workers are at the table and helping to design the use of technology, right? This relates to the question we got from the doctor on Twitter, right, like how can‑‑

MS. SU: ‑‑technology be actually used to help support workers and worker organizing, but that when employers and employees work together, when there is, you know, a positive labor‑management and employer‑employee relations, that that is better for everybody. It’s better for the workplace. It’s better for the economy. It’s better for job quality, and that is ultimately, like, our vision of what a Build Back Better economy should look like, right?

I don’t think that we should assume that worker organizing is contrary, right, to‑‑or, you know, is about creating conflict. I think it’s a really powerful way, as we’ve seen, for not just resolving conflict but building good workplaces together.

MR. PALETTA: And if I could just ask one more question, and it’s more big picture. I mean, I think a lot of Americans feel like they’re working more than they’ve ever worked before because, like I said, the boundaries have kind of been erased. Is that what you’re seeing in the data? Are Americans working more hours than they have, or are they just working differently than they have? What is actually happening to our work life that maybe did not happen before the pandemic?

MS. SU: Right. So I think, as with many things, right, you know, it’s complex. It’s nuanced. It differs.

MS. SU: But I think you are pointing out something that’s really important, which is that it has been an incredibly hard couple of years for a whole bunch of reasons, and, you know, some of it is the obvious global public health crisis, the ensuing economic crises. But it’s also, right, like a lot of the other inequities that have been exposed, right? The racial reckoning our country is undergoing, crises in our democracy. And I think people feel legitimately stressed about all of these things that have‑‑sort of a convergence of things that are‑‑that are making it hard for us to realize all the benefits of things we started this conversation with, right, which is that the economy is recovering. It’s recovering faster than at any time in history, that, you know, jobs are coming back, and jobs are getting better, and wages are going up. And, you know, there’s historic public investments.

So I do think that there is‑‑you know, it’s a moment of reckoning.

MS. SU: It’s a moment of thinking about, you know, right, like where we’re going, but the important part about this is that these are choices that we have to make, right? Policy matters too. We’ve seen that in the investments, the public investments‑‑

MS. SU: ‑‑that we’ve made, right, and that‑‑

MS. SU: ‑‑you know, these kind of crises are opportunities too.

MR. PALETTA: That’s all the time we have, but, Madam Deputy Secretary, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a fascinating conversation.

For The Washington Post Live, I’m Damian Paletta, and please join us next time. You can find a calendar of our events at WashingtonPostLive.com. Thank you very much.

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