Changes in the American economy in the 21st century are affecting the U.S. workforce in significant ways, and in some cases reshaping the nature of work. For instance, advancements in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other new technologies are leading to increased automation and changes in work tasks. There has also been a growth in online platforms for obtaining gig work, and employers are increasingly using temporary, part-time, or contracted workers. These nonstandard work arrangements may have implications for workers’ safety, wages, and access to benefits.
In addition, the economic shocks resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, including widespread business closures, unprecedented levels of unemployment, and general health and safety concerns have accelerated certain structural changes, such as increased telework and automation. The share of workers who teleworked most of the time tripled during the pandemic, from about 6% in 2019 to about 18% in 2021. In the coming years, the pandemic may have lasting effects on how and where work is done across the economy, as well as employer demand for workers or certain skills in some sectors—which may lead to some workers continuing to face long-term unemployment.
Sustained attention by federal agencies, including the Departments of Labor and Education, and coordination between federal, state, and local agencies is important for understanding and responding to this changing employment landscape and workforce needs. Additionally, where workers face disruptions or displacement, unemployment insurance, employment adjustment assistance, and other federal programs can provide critical support and protection, including getting workers proper training to meet the new needs of the changing economy.
However, federal agencies could improve how they provide such employment supports.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sharp increase in reports of illness among meat and poultry workers. These jobs require working in crowded plants, putting workers at greater risk of disease. In response to these concerns, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) increased plant inspections. But OSHA's safety standards didn't include COVID-19 related hazards—like requiring workers to be in close proximity. As a result, OSHA had few enforcement options. OSHA is developing an infectious disease standard for health care workers, but not for meat and poultry workers. OSHA should assess actions needed to protect these workers.
Also, during the pandemic, unemployment benefits were temporarily expanded to cover more workers, such as self-employed and gig workers who are not typically eligible. Millions of workers relied on this unemployment support to meet their urgent financial needs. However, the temporary benefit expansion expired in 2021 and many workers now lack access to this support. To ensure the unemployment insurance system—which has been on the High Risk List since 2022—reflects the modern economy, the Department of Labor should examine options to systematically support such unemployed workers moving forward. It should also identify and address inequities in who receives unemployment benefits, assess lessons learned from the pandemic related to emergency planning, and implement an antifraud strategy, as it works on transformational changes to the system.
The Departments of Labor and Education oversee 6 core workforce development programs that help job seekers find work and employers find qualified employees. The departments require the programs to submit data on their participants and have taken steps to help them do so. But the departments still don't have complete data on participants who are enrolled in multiple programs. For example, program data submitted to Labor didn't include co-enrollment information on up to 67% of participants.