Aftershocks: The Dignity of Work


Work is about a lot more than a paycheck—it’s about who we are, it’s about social connection, it’s about fulfillment, engagement, having a sense of contributing and giving back and having the opportunity to learn and grow.

work dignity
Photo courtesy of Unsplash/Jeriden Villegas

Our job and the careers we choose form a major part of our identity. One of the first questions people ask when they meet someone is what they do for a living. Whether we’ve devoted years to training for a particular career, have learned our skills on the job or are lucky enough to work in a field that’s also a passion, a job does become a part of who we are.

Undoubtedly, the global pandemic changed many facets of daily life, including the future of work. While unemployment hit an all-time high of about 15 percent in April 2020, employers now face a new threat: labor shortages.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce notes that there are about half as many available workers as there are job openings across the country. This ratio continues to fall relative to the 20-year average of 2.8 available workers per job opening.

Labor shortages have serious implications. More than 90 percent of state and local chambers of commerce say that worker shortages are holding their economies back. Additionally, economists report that 90 percent of employers in their respective industries are struggling to find qualified workers for open jobs. So why are some Americans reluctant to return to work?

Reasons for the Labor Shortage

Some business leaders and politicians are concerned that the temporary boost to unemployment benefits due to the pandemic have incentivized Americans to stay home. Gov. Mark Gordon of Wyoming, for example, ended federal unemployment benefits on June 19, saying that they made it tempting for workers to not seek work.

Wyoming needs workers, our businesses are raring to go,” Gordon said. “People want to work, and work is available. Incentivizing people not to work is just plain un-American.”

Others argue that workers may not be participating in the labor force because they are afraid of contracting COVID-19. Some would-be employees were also homeschooling their children this year and now must secure reliable childcare. Ongoing demographic changes, such as an aging labor force, in part account for worker shortages. Nonetheless, workers are responding positively to companies that treat their employees fairly and compensate hard work.

While many states are eliminating enhanced pandemic unemployment payments in an attempt to nudge people back into the workforce, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. lawmakers are considering federal funding for businesses to offer hiring bonuses for workers, as well as expanded tax credits. 

Work Is More Than a Paycheck

There is undeniably dignity and value in work. In my early days at the St. John’s Home for Boys, I recall having to put my skills of persuasion to use and find each of the boys a summer job.

Not only would working keep the boys occupied and out of trouble at night, they would also earn and save money, wake up with a sense of purpose and explore potential career paths.

One of the boys in particular, Norman, was hired at the Empire Hardware Store in the local community. Norman was amazed when he met a man, who shared a similar background to himself, selling drill bits and tools to the hardware store. He was inspired that someone like himself could own and successfully operate their own business.

Suddenly, the future had opened itself to Norman, and he began to contemplate possibilities for his own life that he could not have imagined prior to his entry in the labor force. Before the end of the summer, Norman had earned a raise and a promotion.

Having witnessed firsthand how valuable Norman and the other working boys’ experiences were, I have encouraged my own children to take on service jobs, understanding that work is about value creation and offers unforgettable lessons for life. Many of us still remember our first jobs fondly years later.

In addition to obtaining a new skill at work, we learn to collaborate with others, find mentors and resolve conflict tactfully. Working teaches accountability and enables self-sufficiency.

In this regard, work itself, as well as the relationships we build in our jobs, provides a sense of worth, accomplishment and pride, and let’s not forget, it’s social too. I continue to recognize the value of work and, for this reason, seek to create opportunities for all employable individuals to work.

The Dignity of Work and Smile Farms

People who have disabilities have traditionally had very limited employment options. Indeed, pre-pandemic, the employment-to-population ratio for people with disabilities living in community settings was 38.9 percent in 2019, according to the Annual Report on People with Disabilities in America: 2020, compiled by the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. To put that in context, the ratio for people without disabilities is more than double, at 78.6 percent.

“Job numbers for people with disabilities were low before the pandemic, and certainly numbers have dropped dramatically,” said Donna Meltzer, CEO of the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities. She noted that the employment rate for people with intellectual disabilities is even lower.

We were determined to bridge that opportunity gap, and we founded Smile Farms, a nonprofit that teaches skills and hires people with developmental disabilities to grow flowers and produce, in turn giving them the opportunity to flourish. Being a valued member of a team and receiving a weekly paycheck are so important for personal satisfaction and self-esteem.

Job creation is still a focal point for Smile Farms, but now we’re tapping into the educational and vocational programs offered by our partners, too. This helps the farmers develop more skills, which in turn will lead to a wider range of fulfilling work opportunities.

Work is about a lot more than a paycheck—it’s about who we are, it’s about social connection, it’s about fulfillment, engagement, having a sense of contributing and giving back and having the opportunity to learn and grow.

Let’s remember to give everyone the opportunity to enjoy fulfilling work and to be treated fairly and with respect.