Editor's note: This story first appeared at Boulder Weekly.
Rich Lopez and I come from different worlds.
I’m white, he’s Hispanic. I live in downtown Littleton, and he lives off of Federal. I have a goldendoodle and four young daughters; he has a pitbull named Chulo (Spanish for handsome) and adult kids living in Pueblo. I have an office job, and he paints cars for an auto body repair shop in Sheridan.
Yet Rich and I struck up an unlikely friendship out of mutual appreciation for each other’s work.
We met one day after a church service and started to discuss our jobs. He scrolled through images on his Android phone of tattoos he had penned—his true passion—and I asked if Rich would consider teaching my daughter, then 10 years-old, how to draw. He arrived the next week with two gifts in hand: a drawing book that taught principles of light and shading, and a new set of charcoal pencils. My daughter smiled and looked at me as if to ask, Are those for me?
Rich is both talented and generous, but today, millions of laborers like Rich felt under-appreciated. And how to improve the lot of our society’s laborers is fiercely debated.
We live in an incredibly tight labor market. Not only are people quitting at rapid rates, but the debate rages whether it’s due to low wages or federal unemployment benefits, which expired this past Labor Day 2021.
And many of these debates overlook the macrotrends that are making it nearly impossible to hire people back after the pandemic. An aging workforce, the lack of comprehensive immigration reform (and the supply of lower-wage workers that such reform would help address), declining birth rates, men in the last 50 years simply dropping out of the labor force, and increased stress laborers feel in affording the basics of life like housing, education, and health care all contribute to the labor squeeze.
In light of such widespread, systemic issues, however, it’s easy to forget that we’re not powerless.
Debates notwithstanding, there’s something that each of us can do to appreciate our city’s laborers and live out the ideal to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
When I interviewed Rich, I asked him what he wanted the city to know about his work. He said, “I want people to see what we’re contributing here. If you get in a car accident, you’re going to need somebody to repair your car. That has value.”
For the vast majority of Denver’s laborers, they don’t first want more pay, better hours, or a promotion from their professional counterparts—they want our respect. Millions of men and women in jobs ranging from retail to janitorial services to construction to home healthcare, first want to be seen and valued by those with more wealth and more prestigious jobs.
The great divide in our society is the dignity deficit—one that we can close.
Recognizing the dignity of a laborer at a hotel lobby or an airport restaurant can be as simple as looking them in the eye and genuinely saying, “Thank you for your work.”
We need to be curious about how people work, why they work, the pain they experience, the meaning they find in their labors, and the small triumphs of their daily lives. The habit of listening well is central to the act of love.
Yet we also need to learn. A part of my own journey has been trying to understand the field of workforce development, the civic sector dedicated to providing opportunity and skill development to the country’s workers.
Business owners need to get educated on the menu of ways they can provide support and opportunity to their frontline employees. Local leaders like Liddy Romero at WorkLife Partnership, or business leaders like Karla Nugent at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting, are well worth listening to as we consider even small interventions that allow workers to thrive.
When I started to learn about the myriad of ways businesses are working to improve life for workers, from onsite childcare to employee stock ownership programs, I called up Steven Dawson, a workforce development expert, and said, “This is all overwhelming. Where do we start?”
He said something I won’t soon forget. “You shouldn’t decide. They should.”
What do they dream of? What are their needs? What is important to the frontline laborers in your company, in your church, or in your organization? Ask them.
Dawson said the process of involving them is more important than the intervention itself.
Why? Lower-income workers are used to being told where to go, what to do, when to arrive and when to go home. When managers give away some of their power to their teams, they not only provide, say better benefits: they give their co-workers a sense of what’s possible. They offer space for them to dream of a better life . . . and a pathway to get there.
To give away power is to invite our vulnerable fellow citizens to the decision table. It’s also a simple way we can love our city’s laborers.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.