JUST Report

ANNUAL SURVEY: In an Unstable Economic Environment, Workers and Wages Are More Important Than Ever to the American Public

JUST Capital’s 2022 Issues Report – The People’s Priorities is by Jennifer Tonti, Managing Director, Survey Research & Insights.

The current economic environment is a marked difference from the one rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing recession in 2020, and the “restart” we began to see in 2021. This year, ongoing pandemic-related supply shocks and repercussions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have helped to spark the highest inflation in decades. Soaring costs and economic uncertainty about a recession are impacting the national mood. And Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell recently warned Americans that the Fed’s plans to continue rate hikes to slow inflation will “also bring some pain to households and businesses.” Economic inequality that was exacerbated by the pandemic could widen further in a sharper slowdown, understanding low-wage workers are often the first to lose hours and jobs.

It’s to be expected that the social, economic, and political disruptions at any moment will have some bearing on Americans’ attitudes and values during that time. In every year that we’ve been measuring which issues matter most to the public when it comes to just business behavior (what we call The People’s Priorities), the events of that year can determine which issues Americans deem more important than others, as well as the degree to which the public prioritizes each issue.

This year, the resounding refrain from the public is that America’s largest companies should put workers squarely at the heart of just business practices, foremost by paying their workers a fair and living wage.

Over the last six years, Worker Issues have consistently commanded the highest share of priority among the 20 stakeholder-related issues we measure, and this year is no different. Four of the five Worker Issues we track – including paying a fair, living wage; protecting worker health and safety; providing benefits and work-life balance; and investing in workforce training – are among the top six priorities of the public, and the collective prioritization of all five worker issues will comprise 44% of a company’s score in our Rankings of America’s Most JUST Companies.

What is more, despite increasing media attention and political rhetoric that the country is incredibly polarized, we are not divided as a country when it comes to just business behavior. There is broad consensus across all demographic and political cohorts that Workers should be corporate America’s top priority – something we also found in our recent survey on Workers & Wages. Specifically, among every demographic group – liberal, conservative, high-income, low-income, men, women, young generations, older generations, and white, Black, and Hispanic Americans – the Workers stakeholder is the top priority. And for every one of these demographic groups, the most important Issue is “Pays workers fairly and offers a living wage that covers the cost of basic needs at the local level.”

2022 Issues – Determining the People’s Priorities

Every year we begin our annual Rankings process by facilitating a series of group conversations with a diverse mix of Americans across the U.S., to help us broadly understand the business behaviors and actions that they consider to be most “just.” These focus groups enable our research team to hear the unvarnished voice of the public speak to what issues matter most, and whether their opinions have changed over time. The polling team then distills the focus groups’ major themes into statements that capture these concepts, which we call “Issues.” In 2022, this work yielded 20 Issues, which is consistent with the number of Issues last year.

Since the public initially tells us that all of these Issues are of high importance, we then conduct a choice modeling exercise as part of our Annual Survey work, allowing us to derive the relative importance of these 20 Issues. From here, we extract a “weight” per Issue that we use as the foundation for our Rankings of America’s Most JUST Companies. The weights below reflect the probability that an individual would choose that Issue as most important to defining a just company, based on a representative sample of 3,002 Americans. These weights power our analysis of corporate stakeholder performance at the country’s largest companies, including JUST’s annual Rankings.

Each issue is color-coded by the stakeholder it most impacts. While we reference the prioritization of several Issues in this report, please note that the relative importance between many of these Issues often varies by a fraction of a percentage point.

Below we take a deeper look at these Issues, and focus on a few that have made substantial movement up or down in relative importance this year.

Worker issues are paramount

The above chart shows that four of the five worker Issues are among the top six overall. Most notably, “Pays workers fairly and offers a living wage that covers the cost of basic needs at the local level” is the top-most prioritized Issue for the third consecutive year, and will comprise a significant 21% of companies’ scores in our 2023 Rankings. This is a nearly six percentage point increase from last year, with three-quarters of Americans saying that this Issue is “more important” (including 50% saying it is “much more” important) than last year. And as we mentioned above, among each of our key demographic groups, this is consistently the top-prioritized Issue.

The current economic climate has undoubtedly impacted the public’s priorities. Findings from our partners at The Harris Poll show that 83% of Americans say their top concerns include the economy, inflation, and jobs. And despite the July U.S. job rate reaching pre-pandemic highs, eight in 10 Americans remain concerned about America entering a recession. Maintaining a stable job with a wage that enables a family to make ends meet each month is crucial staying afloat in today’s uncertain economy.

It is doubly important that wages rise in step with inflation. A recent JUST Capital poll shows that 87% of Americans say large U.S. companies have a responsibility to regularly increase wages to keep up with the rapidly rising cost of living. Large majorities of Americans also think that companies that pay a living wage are better for their workers, more competitive in their industry, and better for the U.S. economy overall. Unfortunately, this is more of an aspiration than a reality for workers in our economy today. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month, average weekly earnings may have risen 4.2% from June 2021 to June 2022, but real weekly earnings decreased 4.4% in that same time period.

This Issue also captures the concept of fair pay, which both ensures fairness of pay between peers as well as equal pay for equal work across gender, race, ethnicity, etc. Even in 2022, women continue to struggle to be paid at parity with their male colleagues – in 2022, women are paid 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, with even wider pay gaps for women of color, including Black, Hispanic, and American Indian women who earn 79, 78, and 71 cents to the dollar, respectively. Equitable pay – across gender and race/ethnicity – is a critical element in better, fairer treatment for companies’ most valuable assets: their workers.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth prioritized Issues are also Worker Issues

In 2022, “Protects the health, safety, and well-being of workers beyond what is required by law” comprises 7.3% of a company’s score in our Rankings, showing that even two years from the height of the pandemic, protecting worker health and safety continues to be critical to the public. What’s more, two-thirds of Americans say that this Issue is more important this year than last.

Upward mobility for workers is an additional area of focus for Americans in an unsettled labor market. McKinsey finds that career advancement is the main reason people continue to leave jobs during the Great Reassessment. As such, “Focuses on workforce retention and employee advancement by providing training, education, and career development opportunities” has moved up five places, and comprises 7.1% of a company’s score in our Rankings.

Finally, “Offers a quality benefits package and supports good work-life balance for all employees” comprises 6.2% of a company’s score, a level unchanged from the previous year. As we saw in our August 2022 survey on workers and wages, majorities of Americans believe companies have a responsibility to provide quality, affordable health insurance to all adult workers, including part-time workers (84%) and match employee contributions to retirement savings plans (74%). And in our April 2022 survey focused on how companies support women in the workplace, 64% of respondents said it was important for companies to provide all workers at least 12 weeks of paid parental leave to promote equity at work.

There is a very clear business case for corporate leaders to focus on worker issues. Investments in good jobs can reduce the high costs incurred from absenteeism and turnover, increase a company’s labor productivity, and ultimately grow its revenue. Companies can also gain a competitive advantage as their corporate reputation attracts values-aligned job seekers, customers, and ESG investors. To help companies assess, measure, and improve performance on the worker issues that matter most to the public, we’re proud to announce the creation of a new JUST Jobs Program.

Other top Issues: jobs and ethical leadership

One Issue that falls under the Communities stakeholder, “Creates jobs in the U.S. and provides employment opportunities for communities that need them,” is once again #2 in relative importance, comprising 11.1% of a company’s score in our Rankings. 60% of respondents say that creating jobs in the U.S. is more important than last year.

Ethical leadership, an issue that falls under Shareholders & Governance, continues to be of high importance to Americans as well. “Compels leadership to act ethically and with integrity and to avoid wrongdoings” comprises 7.6% of a company’s score, and is the third most important Issue in 2022. Earlier in the year, our focus group participants told us that they are paying attention to how leadership acts – or doesn’t act – on important societal issues. Our polling confirms that Americans want corporate leaders to take ownership when companies make mistakes or become embroiled in a crisis or controversy. Action is perceived as good faith. Failure to own up to mistakes results in reputational damage.

Significant shifts: the environment, transparency, and cultivating DEI

The Environment stakeholder has grown to encompass 12% of the model. Americans told us that Minimizing pollution (up five places to become the eighth most important Issue) and Combating climate change (up two places to the 13th most important issue) are higher priorities for Americans in 2022, helping to propel the Environment stakeholder’s importance in our Rankings this year.

A need for increased transparency and disclosure from companies has been a key, recurring theme we heard in focus groups. This year, the refrain was louder than ever. As such, we modified the language in this Issue to broaden the focus to be more inclusive, and in turn, the Issue “Is transparent in communications with customers about its products, services, and operations” has moved up four places to become the 12th most important to Americans.

Another notable change is the “Cultivates a diverse and inclusive workplace with equal opportunity” Issue, which fell in priority from seventh most important in 2021 to 15th in 2022. Make no mistake: our polling shows that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion continues to be an important element of just business behavior, with 92% saying that it is important for companies to promote racial equity in the workplace, and 77% saying that racial equity cannot be achieved until all workers are paid a living wage. What is more, half of respondents say this Issue is more important than last year.

One possible explanation for this decline is that we are two years removed from the racial justice movement our nation rose to in response to George Floyd’s death. And with economic matters such as inflation and recession closer to home for many Americans, when it comes time to prioritizing this issue over others, its relative importance falls.

On matters of just business behavior, Americans are not as divided as you might think

The Priorities of the Public are based on responses from more than 3,000 U.S. adults and are representative of a cross-section of Americans. This means we hear from a variety of voices, both by demographic such as race/ethnicity, gender, income levels, and age, as well as behavior such as political ideologies or active investors. Remarkably, we found that there is substantial consistency in the Issues most important to these groups, with nearly all cohorts prioritizing the same top three: Pays a fair, living wage; Creates jobs in the U.S.; and Acts ethically at the leadership level.

With a few exceptions, each demographic is fairly unified in how they want corporate America to prioritize the top five Issues, demonstrating remarkable unity and consistency in a year when companies are increasingly under scrutiny from politicians and pundits for “being out of touch with the values of everyday Americans” or that stakeholder-focused capitalism is not “a reflection of consumer demand.”

Stakeholder prioritization: Workers in front

To provide further clarity around how to better balance stakeholder interests, we classify each Issue by the stakeholder it affects most, organizing the 20 Issues into five stakeholder groups: Workers, Customers, Communities, the Environment, and Shareholders & Governance.

Specifically, we assign each of the 20 Issues to the one (and only one) stakeholder it most impacts. For example: “Compels leadership to act ethically and with integrity and avoid wrongdoings” is assigned to Shareholders & Governance, whereas “Makes products or offers services that benefit society” is assigned to the Customers stakeholder. The weight of each stakeholder group is calculated by summing all of its associated Issue weights.

Workers (44%)

For the sixth consecutive year, the American public prioritizes Workers as the most important stakeholder by a significant margin. The Workers stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it invests in its employees, including (1) paying a fair, living wage, (2) protecting worker health and safety, (3) providing benefits and work-life balance, (4) cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace, and (5) supporting workforce retention, advancement, and training.

Communities (18%)

The Communities stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it supports its communities, including (1) creating jobs in the U.S., (2) addressing human rights issues in the supply chain, (3) contributing to community development, and (4) giving back to local communities.

Customers (14%)

The Customers stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it treats its customers, including (1) protecting customer privacy, (2) treating customers fairly, (3) communicating transparently, and (4) making beneficial products.

Shareholders & Governance (12%)

In 2021 we added “Governance” to the Shareholders stakeholder be more representative of the Issues included in this grouping that explore how a company maintains good governance and delivers value to its shareholders by (1) acting ethically at the leadership level, (2) generating returns for investors, and (3) prioritizing accountability to all stakeholders.

Environment (12%)

The Environment stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it reduces its environmental impact, including (1) minimizing pollution, (2) using sustainable materials, (3) combating climate change, and (4) using resources efficiently.

Significant alignment in stakeholder prioritization

When looking at stakeholder prioritization across demographic groupings, we see significant alignment, with some specific areas of variance. For instance, Issues relating to the Environment are prioritized more highly among respondents under age 30 and Democrats, whereas Shareholders & Governance Issues are prioritized more highly by those age 65 and older.

Using the public’s priorities as a roadmap for stakeholder capitalism

There has never been a more urgent moment for corporate America to embark on the journey to becoming more just, and we hope this latest survey report provides clear guidance on how companies can reevaluate their priorities and better align their practices with the values of the American people. The data shines a clear, bright light on the specific actions businesses can take today to rebuild trust in business and markets as a force for good.

Methodology

A Representative Look at the Public’s Views

Since its inception, JUST Capital’s mission has been to build an economy that works for all Americans by helping companies improve how they serve all their stakeholders: workers, customers, communities, the environment, and shareholders. The goal is to encourage and incentivize real change in corporate America’s leadership.

At the core of our work is a robust research program that starts with focus groups in which we ask the American public to identify the policies, practices, and behaviors companies should prioritize to be considered just, (which we call “Issues”). These Issues include fair pay and living wage; a more diverse and inclusive workplace; stronger, healthier communities; good jobs; a cleaner environment; and more. Then, based on sophisticated polling of a representative sample of Americans, we estimate the relative importance of these behaviors – in other words, how important to defining a just company each behavior is relative to others.

Since 2015, JUST Capital has surveyed more than 160,000 Americans – representative of the U.S. adult population – asking them to define just business behavior. For the past two years, we have partnered with SSRS, an objective, non-partisan research institution that provides scientifically rigorous statistical surveys of the U.S. population, to survey more than 3,000 Americans on their perspectives.

Defining a Just Company

Before answering questions about the just behavior of large companies, it is important for respondents to have a clear definition of the concept. Below is the definition we provided to our focus group and survey respondents in 2022: A just company operates in a way that serves its workers, customers, shareholders, the environment, and the communities it affects, even if it comes at a cost.

Summary of Methods

We conducted the 20 question survey online with a probability-based sample attained through the exhaustive statistical sampling methods employed by SSRS. The SSRS Opinion Panel is a nationally representative probability-based web panel, and findings are generalizable to the general adult population.

The full survey was conducted from June 22 to July 11, 2022 among a general population sample of 3,002 English- and Spanish-speaking U.S. adults 18+ years of age, with an oversample of 540 Hispanic and 460 non-Hispanic Black respondents. Panelists were sent an email invitation to take the survey online as well as up to eight reminder emails throughout the field period. The survey program was optimized so that respondents could complete it using a desktop or laptop computer as well as a mobile device. In total, 1,063 completed the survey on a computer and 1,939 completed on a mobile device.

The margin of error is +/- 2.2% at the 95% confidence level. Results were weighted to U.S. Census parameters for age, gender, education, race/Hispanic ethnicity, and Census Division to ensure representativeness of the U.S. population. All margins of error include “design effects” to adjust for the effects of weighting.

To identify the priorities of the public, we calculate for each Issue the probability that an individual would choose that as most important to defining a just company. As such, there are 20 probabilities calculated from the 20 Issues. These probabilities can be referred to as weights as each represents the relative importance of one Issue versus another. To illustrate more explicitly, the Issue “Creates jobs in the U.S.” was assigned a weight of 11.1% as there is a 1.11 in 10 chance that a respondent chosen at random will identify this Issue as most important in defining a just company. By comparison, the weight assigned to “Generates returns for investors over the long term” has a 2.2% weight.

Our full body of survey work for 2022 also includes six focus groups conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll and eight additional surveys fielded throughout the year. To learn more about how this survey data drives JUST Capital’s analysis and Rankings of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies, visit the Methodology section of our website.

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