Updating WIOA to Empower Workers and Create Shared Prosperity

By Sapna Mehta 

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is up for reauthorization for the first time since it was enacted in 2014. Reauthorization provides an opportunity for Congress to reform a major piece of our workforce system to advance equity and center workers. Notably, workforce development policymaking over the last four decades has prioritized the demands of business over the needs of workers, and reflected the broader shift to decentralize and deregulate government and move away from race-conscious policy making. Consequently, WIOA currently plays a troubling role in perpetuating existing systemic barriers to quality employment for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous workers. This, in turn, has meant that the federal workforce system has been largely unsuccessful in improving long-term economic outcomes for workers, families and communities.

Data indicate that the workforce system is reinforcing occupational segregation and steering Black and Latinx workers into jobs that offer lower earnings. Black workers have the lowest earnings among all other racial and ethnic groups after completing workforce training programs, despite having the highest employment rates, according to U.S. Department of Labor data on the outcomes of individuals exiting the workforce system.

The good news is that WIOA reauthorization provides an opportunity to update workforce interventions to better ensure individuals facing multiple intersecting structural barriers to quality employment opportunities—Black, Latinx, and Indigenous workers, immigrants, youth, and individuals impacted by the criminal legal system—can access economic opportunity and security. As Congress considers reauthorization, CLASP recommends focusing on five priorities to help working people secure better employment opportunities:

1. Counter systemic racism and structural sexism in the labor market. Racial and gender inequality and discrimination is still pervasive in the U.S. labor market. Black individuals are twice as likely to be unemployed relative to white individuals, and they earn nearly 25 percent less when they are employed. The intersection of race and gender imposes a dual penalty on Black women, who are concentrated in low-paying, hazardous jobs. WIOA policies can explicitly deter, rather than reinforce, systematic racism and structural sexism in the hiring process and in the workplace.

2. Empower workers and shift power from employers to employees. Even in a tight labor market, employers have outsized power to dictate wages and working conditions. The workforce system can promote worker power and narrow inequality in the labor market by centering worker voice. Steps like increasing worker representation on Workforce Development Boards and providing training on industry-specific—not employer-specific—hard skills can ensure workers have a say in how work gets done and who benefits from it.

3. Prioritize job quality and economic security for workers. Workforce policy and practice can help make low-quality jobs better by incentivizing and supporting employers to improve jobs by raising wages, providing work supports, creating safe workplaces, and connecting workers to the best possible jobs. The workforce system can—and should—be an enduring force for better job quality, raising the floor in the labor market.

4. Target investment toward workers who face barriers to quality employment opportunities. Black and Latinx workers, immigrants, out-of-school youth, unhoused individuals, and people impacted by the criminal legal system face structural barriers to quality employment opportunities. Earn-and-learn opportunities—including subsidized and transitional employment programs and Registered Apprenticeships—can improve economic security and stability, while also connecting workers to future opportunities.

5. Ensure the public workforce system does not leave workers behind. WIOA currently prohibits immigrants without documentation from accessing adult and dislocated worker employment and training activities. Workforce programs often discriminate against people impacted by the criminal legal system who face disturbingly high unemployment rates. Covering workers facing multiple obstacles to economic prosperity benefits not only those workers, but the wider economy as well.