Beyond the factory floor: Social Work faculty member awarded fellowship to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-paid working families

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a dramatic shift in the way we work, play and learn. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2020) nearly 93% of American households with school-age children reported their children used some form of “distance learning” from home during the pandemic. For many families, this resulted in a scramble to accommodate to the new normal. But how did this affect low-paid essential workers? How did the pandemic change the interactions between their jobs and their children’s school? How did this impact their children’s achievements? With the support of her new Early Career Fellowship, Social Work Assistant Professor Kess Ballentine, PhD, will work to answer these questions and gain a greater understanding of the effect of working conditions on parent and child engagement for low-paid healthcare workers.

Kess Ballentine
Assistant Professor Kess Ballentine, PhD

With assistance from the Work and Family Researchers Network (WFRN), an international membership organization of interdisciplinary work and family researchers and Labor@Wayne’s Fraser Center, a forum to promote education and research on topics of interest to workers, employers, and unions, Ballentine will leverage her connections within social work and labor studies to serve as a Fraser Fellows: Re-envisioning the Future of Work award recipient throughout 2022. Additionally, she will be part of an international cohort of Early Career Work and Family Fellows, a program that seeks help promising young scholars establish career successes, integrate them within the Work-Family Research Network research community, and guide translation of their research to inform the work of decision-makers. These opportunities will help Ballentine build the foundation for an important line of inquiry focused on the effects of labor on parenting and school engagement.

Ballentine has conducted extensive community-based research on the complicated realities of implementing progressive labor policies in the community, including how labor affects the way a parent interacts with child-serving systems, such as school or child welfare agencies. Prior to joining the School of Social Work in fall 2021, she worked as a member of the Pittsburgh Wage Study team that worked through community-university partnerships to examine the effects of unionization and changing labor conditions on low-to-middle income families. Before that, she worked as an elementary special educator, and as a research interviewer and data technician on a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funded study of group home care for children with mental health and behavioral disorders. Ballentine has also worked as a domestic violence advocate and a community program developer. She earned her Ph.D. and a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Doctoral Certificate from the University of Pittsburgh, a Master of Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Arts in Teaching – Special Education from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. While at Pennsylvania State University, Ballentine also earned a Bachelor of Science in Health Policy and Administration and was a Schreyer Honors Scholar with a Minor in Economics.

Through the use of Ballentine’s previously gathered qualitative interviews with workers earning less than a living wage, literature, and COVID data analysis, Ballentine will seek to uncover nuances in the relationships between workplace policies and practices and examine how they interacted with each other, parents’ individual needs, and the broader social environment to affect school engagement. In the event of future public health and environmental crises (USGCRP, 2018), data from this study will assist employers and labor organizers in supporting workers and creating more family-friendly employment.

As an early career researcher committed to labor research and equity, receiving a Fraser Fellowship will help me begin a new chapter in my program of research focusing on improving pay and working conditions for underpaid workers. My initial goal is to expand our knowledge of the complex ways work affects life far beyond the “factory floor.” Ultimately, I hope to build a body of evidence to support the development of effective interventions to support low-paid working families in optimizing family and child well-being.

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