Californian worker-owned staffing agency carries out research into quality jobs

Turning Basin Labs, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, wants to create a framework for better employment based on ownership and autonomy

A co-operative training and staffing agency, which is expanding its operations in San Francisco, California, has been carrying out research to find ways to improve job quality in an increasingly casualised economy.

Underpinning the research by Turning Basin Labs is its employment agency role, operating out of the city’s Bay Area. It says it aims to create value for progressive businesses – including Workforce Development Boards, restaurants and community colleges – “by sourcing, placing, and supporting the best, most diverse talent”.

It also wants to help “temporary workers seeking stability”. It currently has 20 members, with approximately 36 people on the payroll across half a dozen organisations, including Moxie Bookkeeping, JVS.org, Irvine Foundation and Martinez Adult Education. Once employees have done 120 hours of work, they become a member of the co-op with voting rights.

Alongside its work in the Bay Area, it has extended its reach as far as Minnesota, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington, DC.

Last month, Turning Basin made a presentation at the Horizons conference, organised by JFF.org, a national nonprofit that drives change in the American workforce and education systems. It has been working with JFF to help drive better outcomes based on worker power, job quality and career development.

Managing director Stephen Bediako told the event: “We see ourselves as very different from a traditional staffing agency … We help our workers with their tax filing, we provide a network of community and support, we provide an employment record service, we have an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and learning and development.”

Mr Bediako said the co-op wants to bring its principles to life in other areas – which is why it is carrying out its research to gain insights into workers’ experience and develop their skills.

Lead researcher Danny Spitzberg said JFF and TBL have spoken to workers across a number of sectors about their experience of work and found three categories of job quality: trapped and struggling; flexible but stuck; and happily invested.

He said the research suggested that job quality is defined by “approaching some kind of economic ownership of the business, not just a feeling, and having some kind of career autonomy beyond the job”. Things to avoid include policing staff in the workplace and denying them options for professional growth, he added.

Mr Spitzberg said employers already have a lot of obligations that can make the additional task of offering job quality a struggle – but businesses also want committed, entrepreneurial workers. “We are aiming above all to make it easier for employers to take advantage of these structures and of these benefits of quality jobs – with more quality and more ownership.”

In a paper it produced last year for JFF, Quality Jobs, From the Worker Perspective, Turning Basin said its research has also seen it identify “employers that have found creative ways to advance worker power, improve job quality, and support career development for low-wage earners, with a particular attention to the needs of independent contractors”.

It added: “Our aim was to determine what’s actionable for employers nationwide and then use the research to develop an investment fund that can support the growth of these worker-centric employment models.”

Marti Shaw, one of the four worker-researchers who carried out the study, said the project had changed her own attitude to work. A personal trainer who had been laid off because of the pandemic, she had found work in an Amazon warehouse.

She said the study meant she now viewed work in terms of empowerment. “For me, this work became personal,” she said. “One participant called me back to tell me how our interview about ‘empowerment’ and ‘ownership’ totally changed her outlook.”

Going forward, Turning Basin Labs wants to “reimagine career and career progression in a dynamic way”.

It plans to “develop a framework for better employment”, which offers autonomy and ownership instead of being police by employers and lacking options.

“We will define what it means to invest in employment models, and for employers to invest in workers. One former receptionist said her last company saw her as ‘interchangeable’ and didn’t take any interest in her as a person. In contrast, a graphic designer told us that her company literally invests in her as a co-op owner and she sees a happy future with a living wage and benefits.”

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