INDIANAPOLIS – A $494,286 National Science Foundation research grant to IUPUI researchers will help improve the accuracy of compensation for traditionally low-wage workers by developing worker-centered designs for workplace information systems and applications.
An estimated 40 million American workers are employed in low-wage occupations such as farm work, custodial work, child care and restaurant services. The research project, led by faculty members Lynn Dombrowski and Davide Bolchini at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI, will address how new design of workers’ time-reporting systems and other technologies can decrease long-standing problems surrounding wage discrepancies and compensation labor laws in these environments.
These problem areas affect more than 10 percent of the workforce. In a pilot study, Dombrowski found that the majority of low-wage workers record their time either through personal documentation methods or company systems that don’t accurately record employee work histories and performance. As a result, lost wages and benefits plague these low-wage employees, and employers often face costly wage-theft lawsuits.
Yet workplace information systems have not been explored from the perspectives of low-wage workers and their managers.
“Low-wage workers have quite a bit of experience and interaction with technology. But they are not part of the design processes for the technologies that impact them,” said Dombrowski, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction and principal investigator for the three-year research study.
“We understand that people may be unaware of what their legal rights are, and managers may be unaware of what their legal obligations are,” Dombrowski said. “We can build tools that help everyone understand the potential violations.”
“We are excited about this new research project,” said Bolchini, co-principal investigator on the grant and an associate professor and chair of the Department of Human-Centered Computing. “This research is an example of how cutting-edge design research methods in human-centered computing address difficult problems of important societal relevance. Where market forces are not yet ready or willing to go, it’s our role as researchers to dive deeper.”
Human-centered design of workplace systems can improve communication, understanding, accountability and equitability across the board, Dombrowski said. “Technology provides the opportunity to rethink what we understand about our working relationships, allowing us to design systems that are beneficial for all.”
Dombrowski, Bolchini and the research team will draw on workers’ real-life experiences, which include how well workers and their managers understand compensation and benefits laws. The team will design new technologies that address these issues – and that will ultimately serve as models for workplace-compensation technologies across many industries.