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The Top 5 Ways Work Changed In 2016

From minimum wage hikes to higher health care costs, 2016 was a year of big changes for the American worker.

The Top 5 Ways Work Changed In 2016
[Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue]

It’s probably an understatement to call 2016 a year of turning points.

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The U.S. presidential election, culminating in Donald Trump’s upset win in November, thrust labor and employment issues into a more prominent place in the news cycle. But it wasn’t just politics that fueled major shifts in the world of work. Here’s a look back at some of the most consequential ways the workplace has evolved over the past year, and where it might be heading next.

1. Workers Got A Pay Bump (Some Of Them, Anyway)

2016 was the year the “Fight for $15” movement scored its biggest victories yet. In April, New York and California both enacted legislation to progressively raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next few years. That proposal gained prominent support on the campaign trail, notably by Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary fight, and later by Hillary Clinton, who advocated for a $12 national minimum wage that would eventually climb to $15.

The issue’s prominence during the election likely helped boost support for the idea. A Huffington Post/YouGov survey earlier this year found just over half of Americans back a minimum-wage hike, and a Rasmussen poll found nearly three-quarters support raising it from the national rate of $7.25 an hour, even though some consider $15 too high a target. After years of little action on the issue, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington all passed ballot proposals in November to raise their state minimum wage.

Federal action on the issue may be unlikely in the near term (Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary, Andrew Pudzer, has been a vocal critic of efforts to raise the minimum wage). Still, the idea is gaining support among influential stakeholders in the business community, and the S&P published a report in September echoing the argument that a minimum wage hike would boost the economy.

Read More: Is A $15 National Minimum Wage Actually Feasible?

2. Workplace Gender Issues Burst Into The National Conversation (Again)

Not since Anita Hill’s testimony in Justice Clarence Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearings has sexual harassment gotten so much national airtime. Roger Ailes resigned as the head of Fox News in July after several women employees accused him of sexual misconduct. Then in October, a now-infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape surfaced, revealing now–President-elect Donald Trump boasting about getting away with sexual assault.

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While many found his remarks shocking, they largely corresponded with what journalists had already uncovered about Trump’s past behavior, particularly in the workplace–where a woman’s appearance and her career in one of Trump’s companies were often closely intertwined.

But this wasn’t the only story line on women in the workplace over the past year. Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination as the first woman chosen to represent a national party broke one glass ceiling shy of the presidency. Clinton’s failed candidacy succeeded in convening a national dialogue on women in leadership. It became something of a Rorschach test for Americans’ attitudes toward women bosses, their trustworthiness, competence, stamina, and more.

None of these issues were resolved on Election Day, and they won’t be settled on Inauguration Day, either; the morning after Trump is sworn into office, activists are planning a Women’s March on Washington to protest his presidency. And with millions of American workers still excluded from state or federal sexual harassment protections, get ready for this debate to continue.

3. More People Picked Up Side Gigs

Short on money, more U.S. workers are freelancing on the side. According to a new analysis by LinkedIn, younger professionals in particular are gravitating toward part-time freelancing.

“Men are doing more part-time freelancing than women, and millennials are doing so more than any other age group,” says LinkedIn’s Gyanda Sachdeva, in an exclusive review of the data for Fast Company in November. Some 20% of professionals who list freelance work on their LinkedIn accounts have full-time jobs as well. “That means full-time freelancing still dominates,” Sachdeva concluded, “but the side-gig model is quickly catching up.”

But while 2016 saw side-gigging accelerate, it wasn’t the year employees left their companies to go it alone in the workforce en masse. A survey by the Freelancers Union and Upwork found that while a whopping 81% of traditionally employed workers are interested in picking up freelance work, only 37% of those who already freelance on the side are thinking seriously about leaving their day jobs. What’s holding them back? In short, stability, a predictable income, and benefits.

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Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel has called for more federally funded research into the freelance workforce, which numbers up to 55 million people by his company’s last count. It remains to be seen whether government support will be forthcoming, but it’s clear in the meantime that cash-strapped workers are finding more ways to support themselves out of sheer necessity.

4. More Working Parents Earned Paid Leave

Paid leave benefits continued to expand in 2016. Leading tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and IBM now boast much more extensive family leave offerings than other employers, but even the most ambitious expansions of those policies this year have tended to be most generous to birth mothers.

Lately, there have been some signs of a shift toward greater equality. Just last week, Ikea rolled out a new paid parental leave program covering both men and women who work full- and part-time for the company, Other generous policy changes at companies like AmEx extend leave benefits to adoptive and surrogate parents for longer than the traditional 12-week window.

To be sure, these expansions are occurring mostly (though not exclusively) in the rarefied heights of the tech sector. Currently, only an estimated 10–12% of U.S. workers get paid leave of any kind from their employers. But this was another issue that got ample airing during the election, where expanding paid leave was a major piece of Clinton’s platform. More recently, Ivanka Trump has embraced the issue as a policy change she claims she’ll be advocating for during her father’s administration.

That would put her on the right side of the trend lines, since according to a recent poll the overwhelming majority of Americans (82% of both Republican and Democratic voters) support some form of paid family and medical leave. Paid leave is also good for business, as companies that expanded their leave policies in recent years have seen boosts in both recruiting and employee retention.

5. Employees Paid More For Health Care, But Gained New Benefits

According to recent data, U.S. workers’ contributions to their employer health insurance plans are actually growing more slowly than in years past, but incomes aren’t keeping up fast enough for many employees to benefit. The average family paid more than $18,000 in health care premiums in 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Over the past year, some employers have been experimenting with ways to entice top talent with health perks while also adding programs to hold down employees’ medical expenses. Instacart, Visa, and Slack, for instance, all rolled out programs to subsidize certain forms of genetic testing. By arming them with foreknowledge about their risks of developing cancer, the thinking goes, employees can seek potentially life-saving treatments earlier and more cheaply.

Corporations are beefing up their wellness initiatives for many of the same reasons, a turn of events that Fitbit found itself the unlikely beneficiary of this year. IBM, Kimberly-Clark, BP America, and others have handed the wearable-maker’s devices to employees as part of health programs meant in part to tamp down insurance costs.

So with the Affordable Care Act’s future uncertain in Washington, it’s likely that more businesses may take a greater lead in helping employees live healthier in 2017.

There’s no telling how the year ahead will transform the workplace further, but if the changes that impacted employees over the past 12 months are any guide, at least one thing is certain: A lot can happen in a year.

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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