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The Uncertain Hour
48 minutes | Mar 24, 2021
My boss is an app
The gig-app workforce has arrived at our doorstep. But Silicon Valley’s innovations in hiring are only the latest round of this long-running battle over what employment means in the American economy. This concludes our fifth season of “The Uncertain Hour.” To be the first to hear about our next season, subscribe to our mailing list.
47 minutes | Mar 17, 2021
In minor league baseball, professional athletes train, suit up and play for wages that would be illegal in most sectors. Players live in crowded apartments, sleep on air mattresses, work side jobs and scrape by. This week, a story about life in the minor leagues and how the baseball industry convinced Congress to rewrite federal law — and carve an entire workforce out of minimum wage and overtime requirements. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at the Save America’s Pastime Act.
34 minutes | Mar 10, 2021
Big Boss, Little Boss
After Jimmy Nicks’ job was subcontracted, he took both companies to court — the subcontractor he worked for and its client, Koch Foods. The “little boss” and the “big boss.” His case hinged in part on those familiar six words, “to suffer or permit to work,” and this week we’ll revisit their origins. The story begins at the scene of a deadly factory fire, where one witness would go on to devote her life’s work to prevent such tragedies from happening again. A century later, the law she helped craft served as the legal basis for Jimmy’s case — and others. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at “sweating system.”
39 minutes | Mar 3, 2021
To catch a chicken
When chicken catcher Jimmy Nicks’ job was subcontracted, virtually overnight, he started doing the same job for a new boss — only without the pay, protections and benefits he’d come to rely on. This episode looks at the subcontracting system that makes worker pay and safety someone else’s responsibility. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at “piece rate.”
40 minutes | Feb 24, 2021
The liquid workforce
Over a quarter of the world’s largest employers don’t just make or sell products — they also rent out workers. Let’s talk about how we got here. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at “core competence.”
49 minutes | Feb 17, 2021
“To suffer or permit to work”
This week we’re finally going to tell you what happened to Jerry Vazquez — and how his story relates to the 1930s case of a hotel chambermaid. Jerry and some of his fellow Jan-Pro franchisees decided to sue the company, saying they’d been misclassified as independent contractors when they should have been employees (and entitled to minimum wage, over time, and other protections). But the argument over what defines an employee has a long and strange legal history. So, we’ll dive in and explore the origins of the federal minimum wage, why lawmakers wrote the law as broadly as they did, whom it applied to and whom it excluded. And we’ll tell you about this odd but powerful phrase, “to suffer or permit to work,” that’s at the heart of lawsuits like Jerry’s. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week we’re looking at “misclassification.”
46 minutes | Feb 10, 2021
Who’s the boss?
Jerry Vazquez was in the cleaning business now, and his clients liked him. They’d leave him notes, some with smiley faces drawn in. But, he says, he was barely getting by on the rates negotiated by Jan-Pro. He started feeling like had little control over a business that he owned. As Jerry would soon find out, some of Jan-Pro’s other franchisees felt similarly — they were stuck. So Jerry decided it was time to fight back. For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week’s word is “franchise.”
43 minutes | Feb 3, 2021
Congratulations! You’re an entrepreneur now
Jerry Vasquez always dreamed of working for himself. So when he saw a notice in the PennySaver advertising janitorial franchises, he decided to go all in. Pretty soon after, he was in debt to the company and earning less than minimum wage doing a really dirty job. He’d wanted his own business — and on paper, he did — but it felt like something entirely different.
4 minutes | Jan 27, 2021
‘The Uncertain Hour’ is back next week!
Employment as we know it is changing. The kinds of jobs where one person works for one employer for years — with health insurance, sick days, paid vacation and a retirement fund — are getting harder to find. Throughout the economy, companies have pivoted to outsourced, subcontracted, freelance, temporary or gig workers. Many of those jobs don’t have benefits; some of them don’t even pay minimum wage. And while it’s accelerated during recent recessions, the trend has been decades in the making. This season, “The Uncertain Hour” is looking at this thing we used to call employment: what happened to it, why it happened and what a workforce made up of “nonemployees” means for our future. The new season starts Wednesday, Feb. 3. Here’s a preview.
29 minutes | Jun 17, 2020
Answering your “History of Now” questions
We’ve spent the past five weeks trying to make sense of this moment, where the inequalities of our society have been suddenly set in high relief. In that time, you all have written in with a bunch of questions big and small. Today, we’re going to cap off this pop-up season by answering a few of them. Questions like: What would chicken cost if plant workers got better wages and benefits? And how did health insurance get tied to our jobs anyway? We’ll also look back at two very clear moments, both after pandemics, when economic inequality started to fall dramatically. Thanks so much to everyone who listened and sent in questions. We’ll be back later this year with new episodes. Until, then, there’s always our first three seasons.
43 minutes | Jun 11, 2020
Without a home in a pandemic
On any given night last year, half a million people in the United States were experiencing homelessness, and more than 60% of them were staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs. Now, those same facilities are hot spots for COVID-19. It’s hard to social distance when you’re cramped, sharing bedrooms and sharing locker-room style communal showers. Today, we’ll look back at the history of how America has sheltered unhoused people, and how those approaches can make it hard for them to get back on their feet even when there’s not a pandemic going on.
33 minutes | Jun 3, 2020
There are cracks in the foundation of our housing system
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a moment when the gap between rich and poor in this country had hit a record high. One place that inequality is most visible is in the neighborhoods where we live. Generations of discriminatory housing policy, and lending practices that favored white borrowers, have entrenched segregation in American cities. This week, we’ll examine the housing policies that emerged from past economic crises, policies that excluded black people and other people of color, preventing them from building the wealth that middle class white families built.
36 minutes | May 27, 2020
Unemployment benefits are hard to get. That’s on purpose.
Millions of Americans who are out of work don’t receive unemployment benefits. That’s by design. Today, we’ll look at the history of the United States’ unemployment insurance system, how this country defines “unemployment,”and why the program was never intended to cover everyone who’s not working.
29 minutes | May 20, 2020
An unequal history of quarantines
As long as there’s been such a thing as quarantine, each person’s experience under it has depended largely on their economic status. On this week’s show, we take a tour of quarantines through history, from the bubonic plague outbreaks in 14th and 17th century Italy, to the a typhoid outbreak in New York in the early 1900s and a few other stops along the way. Those quarantines looked very different if you were, say, an immigrant, or a Jewish textile merchant, or a sex worker. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic shine a spotlight on all the inequalities already lurking in the system, and ideas of what the government owes to people in quarantine have changed over the centuries too. Long gone are the days of the government sending your family fennel sausage, cheese and wine to make it through.
30 minutes | May 13, 2020
You’re an essential worker. Do you get essential protections?
Chicken is America’s most popular meat. But chicken supply chains — in fact, many of our food supply chains — are in danger of breaking down. Part of the reason is the workers who process and package those goods are getting sick. In some cases, they’re dying. For the first episode of our new season, “A History of Now,” we focused on America’s chicken supply chain because it raises a huge, looming question: How is it that essential workers don’t have essential protections? How do we get through a crisis — any crisis — if we can’t be sure our food-producing workforce is safe?
4 minutes | May 6, 2020
A History of Now: The Trailer
There’s not much more uncertain than our current moment. Our day-to-day lives and our economy have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. On this season, “A History of Now,” we’re digging into the history and policies that help make sense of this current moment, a time where issues of wealth and poverty feel even more stark than usual. New episodes start May 13.
16 minutes | Dec 19, 2019
A new piece of the opioid crisis origin story, revealed
We just found the answer to a really big question that’s been bugging us for years, about why the opioid crisis has hit some places so hard while other places have been relatively protected. The answer comes in the form of new academic research, that builds upon our reporting. Specifically, a secret internal marketing document from Purdue Pharma that senior producer Caitlin Esch discovered in the bowels of a county court house. She’s on this bonus episode to talk about it.
46 minutes | Sep 5, 2019
George Bush’s infamous crack speech, 30 years later
On this day, 30 years ago, President George H.W. Bush gave his first address from the Oval Office. Bush held up a baggie of crack he said had been seized just outside the White House. Today, we’re revisiting our episode about that speech, the events that led up to it and the lives it affected. For more on America’s drug war, listen to season 3 of our show.
49 minutes | Apr 18, 2019
Kicking the habit
Many people in Wise County agree that they can’t jail their way out of a drug epidemic, but there’s a lot less agreement on what to do instead. And we find out what happened to Joey Ballard.
41 minutes | Apr 11, 2019
It’s not easy being an undercover cop in a county of just 40,000 people. But drugs were making it hard for Bucky Culbertson to run his business, so he made it his business to get rid of drugs.
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