Q&A with Brian Halpin: The Life and Times of Low-wage Workers

Brian Halpin, a lecturer and 2016 graduate of the doctoral program in the UC Davis Sociology Department, studies the sociology of work and employment, focusing on low-wage workers and the labor markets they navigate.

His research has been featured in the Sacramento Bee and on Capital Public Radio, and his paper "Subject to Change Without Notice" won the Labor and Labor Movements Section of the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Student Paper Award in 2016.

College of Letters and Sciences writer Noah Pflueger-Peters sat down with Halpin to talk about his research and his experiences as a graduate student and lecturer.

Noah Pflueger-Peters: Can you tell me a little about your work and why you think it’s important?

Brian Halpin: “I do qualitative research—ethnography and interviews like this one. A lot of my research has focused on how low-wage workers make sense of a changing economy and how they make ends meet by piecing together whatever kind of employment they can and dealing with their home life. I think that’s something we actually don’t know that much about.

“I always tell students on the first day of class that one of the reasons I think it’s super important to study work is because we’re all going to spend more time working than we will doing almost anything else. It’s still the predominant institution or organization that shapes our identity and it’s how we experience big, macro changes in the political economy.

“Studying low-wage workers is extra important, especially given that we have the biggest increases in inequality that we’ve seen in almost the last 100 years. The working poor is a new phenomenon. Trying to understand how these workers are positioned at the bottom of the labor market and are subjected to pretty horrible employment practices is really important if we want to think about how to make the world a better place, how to make jobs better, and how to provide for people.”

“From my point of view, any policy solution that doesn’t take workers’ experiences very, very seriously is never going to work. I think that’s why qualitative [research] is so important. I’ve worked with the Poverty Research Center here on campus and they’ve been great in terms of trying to get these ideas out to policymakers and show their relevance.”

NP: You recently published a paper called “Employment Management Work.” Can you tell me a little about it?

BH: “The paper is co-written with my [Ph.D.] advisor Vicki Smith. It looks at low-wage, mostly undocumented migrant workers in the North Bay Area. These workers engage in what we call ‘employment management work,’ which is all the unpaid labor workers do to get jobs. We found that they employ a lot of the same strategies Silicon Valley tech workers and creative professionals do.

It’s not necessarily that these [low-wage] workers are different in kind as much as they’re in [a] very different structural position. The problem is the structure of their jobs themselves, working erratic schedules and having kids at home with no access to decent, subsidized childcare, so this idea of moving up and out by enhancing human capital is a myth—a total illusion.

At the same time, they’re working their butts off to try and improve their position. It was surprising just how resourceful and strategic these workers are, how much planning they do, and how much they think about the future. They are trying to go back to community college, they are trying to gain all the skills that they can in the jobs that they hold, they build networks, keep detailed lists of people who might have potential job opportunities and contact them to look for opportunities. Even in the low-wage labor market, they’re continually looking for better jobs.

I’m always amazed how resilient people are. I interviewed a number of workers in the Sacramento area who had been unemployed for at least six months and a lot of these people were really pissed off and really sad, but so many of them still had this real positive outlook and believed that opportunity was just around the corner; the next [job] application away. As a sociologist, we know that people’s life chances in those situations are pretty grim and it’s difficult to make ends meet, but people do it.”

NP: What can we do to help these low-wage workers?

BH: “Raising the minimum wage alone will improve the position of a lot of these workers. Stabilizing schedules is another. There’s legislation out there that makes it so that employers cannot change workers’ schedules last minute and if they do, those workers get a premium hourly wage. There are some issues with it, but I think it’s moving in the right way.

“I think we should be broadening the social safety net in general and giving workers access to decent healthcare and subsidized childcare, so they can go to school and can figure out their opportunities. Also, [we should be] figuring out ways to deal with long-term unemployed workers, since long-term unemployment is a very powerful stigma. This includes thinking about ways that the state can help—not just [through] job training or job readiness, but [through] actually employing people and thinking about public projects that can take unemployed workers where the work might be. That was a solution in the ’30s and it can be one again today.

“Unfortunately, given the politics in the United States right now, I don’t think many of these solutions are going to happen. We’re fortunate that we live in California. If you’re going to be a low-wage worker anywhere, California’s probably the best place, but there’s still a lot that we can do.

NP: What is the ultimate goal of your research and teaching?

BH: “Part of the job is communicating these ideas to students who can then go out there and impact the world in all sorts of ways that I’ll never be able to. The other part of the job is reaching out to policymakers and showing how this research can inform social and economic policy. For me, it’s thinking about how I can translate the nitty-gritty sociological research and the conversations over method and theory to policymakers or to students and have really good discussions that then can go and make the world a better place.”

NP: Do you know what’s next for you in terms of research?

BH: “I think I’m always going to be generally interested in low-wage workers. I’m interested in thinking how jobs have transformed and how people increasingly pick up jobs and manage their careers with all these short-term, one-off positions [in the gig economy].

“I’m also really interested in the connection between tech firms, the ways commodities very instantaneously show up in front of you, and all of the invisible low-wage labor involved in that process. Amazon, to me, is amazing because it’s based on highly exploitative low-wage work that becomes totally invisible. You do one click and someone shows up at your house the next day or you pull it out of the box on campus. You have one worker out in front, but to bring the product to you required how many employees? They’re all totally mystified. I think there’s a good project there and good questions to ask, I’m just not sure how to formulate it yet.”

NP: What got you interested in sociology and low-wage workers?

BH: “My interest stems from the fact that I was a low-wage worker myself for a long time. I worked in restaurants all through high school and I really loved that type of work, but then the dot-com bubble burst. The company I worked for called me in one night and were like, ‘hey, business just disappeared. You have to lay off the entire kitchen staff.’ So I did that. It was horribly depressing and it was such a shock to me.

To that point, I really hadn’t paid attention to the boom and bust cycle of contemporary economies and the impact it has on people’s lives. So a couple weeks after I fired those people, I quit myself and went back to community college. I found that sociology did the best job of explaining the world in a way that made sense to me. Then I transferred to UC Berkeley and took a couple of sociology classes that really spoke to me and gave me a language and tools to understand how contemporary work is organized and problems low-wage workers face.”

NP” What’s been your experience at Davis, both as a graduate student and a lecturer?

BH: “Graduate school’s a weird place. It’s hard, it’s stressful, though I think that this is a pretty good department to be a graduate student [in]. Graduate students are low-wage workers in many ways, so they suffer from economic uncertainty and often feel precarious, but I feel like this department has tried to do a pretty good job making this a good place for graduate students, offering them a lot of [teaching assistantship] opportunities and good teaching resources.”

“I came here specifically because I wanted to work with [Professors] Fred Block and Vicki Smith. They were really great mentors and they have shaped how I think about the world, how I think about sociology, how I think about my career in so many ways I couldn’t even imagine.

“And as much as being a graduate student has its insecurities, it has also allowed me to have a family. It gave me a lot of flexibility that working a 9-to-5, 40 hour/week-type job wouldn’t have, and Davis is a really wonderful place to have a family. All in all, Davis has been a great experience for me. It’s been instrumental in shaping who I am.”

“As a lecturer, my job is to teach undergraduates, but I still am involved in doing my own research and I have to be. So just like a faculty member upstairs, I have to divide my time between teaching and research.”

NP: In your free time, what do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies?

BH: “I’ve got two kids. My family will do a lot of camping and outdoor activities and try to have adventures as much as we can. I’m really into climbing, whether it’s rock climbing or mountaineering—that’s probably my favorite hobby. Then when I was writing the dissertation, I picked up woodcarving because it was a thing I could do by myself and totally let my mind zone out. I think it’s super important, especially as an academic, to have things that don’t require me to think that hard sometimes.”

NP: Is there anything else you want people to know about yourself and your research?

BH: “I just want people to think about the plight of low-wage workers. Take people’s experiences seriously and try to have some empathy, try to put yourself in the place of the other, and think about what it’s like out there as a low-wage worker.”

Brian Halpin has taught “Work and Employment” (SOC 159), “Classic Sociological Theory” (SOC 100), “Sociology of Labor and Employment” (SOC 11), and “Social Problems” (SOC 3).

Writer Noah Pflueger-Peters graduated from UC Davis in June 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in English and minor in communication and professional writing.