November 3, 2021

A Q&A with Ben Glasner (PhD ’21)

 This past summer, Ben Glasner completed his Ph.D. at the Evans School with expertise in labor market policy and the gig economy. He took some time from his work as a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University recently to chat about his dissertation work. 

Your dissertation research focused on self-employment and the gig economy – explain why this is such a critical portion of the labor market for scholars and policymakers alike. 

Self-employment work arrangements, and specifically work within the gig economy, are becoming increasingly commonplace. Yet, these types of work arrangements often are excluded from labor policy or regulations intended to protect and support workers. As a result, policy tools like the minimum wage are not designed for the self-employed. Workers who are operating simultaneously under multiple firms at a single point in time (e.g., driving for Uber and Lyft simultaneously), or whose hours are prohibitively difficult to track don’t receive the same coverage as a traditional hourly payroll employee who punches a time clock. 

Such exclusions are nothing new. When the minimum wage was first introduced through the Fair Labor Standards Act, a number of jobs were not covered and those exclusions meant a significant share of black and female workers were not covered by the first minimum wage laws. Such exclusions remained in place well into the 1960s and were key parts of the civil rights movement. 

Today, the remnants of past exclusions persist. We have ended up with a patchwork system of supporting workers. From health care to minimum standards of living, where a person works and how that work is done has important consequences to what protections or benefits they receive. I think the gig economy is really the front line of the debate over social support and the division between efficient labor markets and fair labor markets. 

How does your dissertation research extend our understanding of the impact of minimum wage laws? 

My dissertation project fills key gaps in the minimum wage literature. One key gap I explored was whether higher minimum wages changed the demand for workers or jobs exempted from minimum wage laws. When minimum wages increase, I find evidence of an increase in participation in the uncovered labor market, but it is driven by urban areas with access to the online gig economy. Another part of my dissertation project examines the question of minimum wage effects on multiple jobholding. The puzzle here is that if minimum wages theoretically could both increase and lower multiple jobholding. My work, however, I found that minimum wages had no significant impact on multiple jobholding in aggregate. 

What are the key policy research questions we should be asking to better understand the experiences of workers holding multiple jobs? 

Today, I’d say there are two key features about multiple jobholding to explore. One, hours and schedules can be difficult to coordinate between employers, which leads to unstable scheduling. Two, because individuals are more commonly combining earnings from payroll positions with self-employment, some workers may use on-demand “employment” through the gig economy to help fill the gaps of an instable schedule. We don’t know a lot about how workers make decisions about holding multiple jobs or balancing hours across jobs. This is particularly important when we consider the different experience of multiple jobholders with high earnings and those with multiple jobs who still struggle to keep their heads above water. 

When you talk to state and local policymakers about raising the minimum wage, what advice or guidance would you give them? 

Primarily, I’d encourage policymakers to consider the differences between federal, state, and local minimum wage rates in a given setting. I believe minimum wage increases are a positive tool for improving work outcomes, but they are not the solution to all issues of job quality or underemployment. In fact, minimum wage laws can be rather limited tools because they miss workers who are working in the uncovered or the informal labor market. This often means the most vulnerable workers will not be reached by these policies. 

Tell us about what you’ve been up to since finishing your dissertation work. 

I have just started a new position as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist with the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. While there I’ll be conducting analyses of the effects of major social policies and reforms on the poverty rate and other indicators of well-being. These analyses will include long-term studies of the intergenerational transmission of poverty, but also studies of contemporary policies and their effects. All the work will be under the great team headed by Irwin Garfinkel, Jane Waldfogel, and Christopher Wimer.