Incorporating the Curb-Cut Effect into our Equity Work

A group of pedestrians crossing the street.

What do a sidewalk and the U.S. Department of Labor have in common? They both embody the principle that we all benefit when we address the barriers faced by the most underserved members of our society. 

Curb-cuts show how helping disadvantaged communities can benefit everyone 

Think about the inconspicuous, gently sloping ramps — curb cuts — that lead from a sidewalk onto a street or crosswalk. While these are common today, in the early 1970s they were virtually nonexistent. That made traversing streets dangerous and difficult for people with limited mobility. All that changed when a group of student activists with disabilities in Berkeley, California, poured their own concrete ramp from a sidewalk onto a city street. Under pressure from activists, Berkeley installed its own “official” curb cuts and hundreds of other cities soon followed suit. Years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required all cities to install curb cuts. 

Curb cuts removed a literal barrier that prevented residents with disabilities from freely and safely moving about their neighborhoods. What is more, when that barrier came down, everyone — including parents pushing strollers, seniors using walkers and workers using handcarts and other community members — was made better off. Now, when a solution to a problem faced by one disadvantaged group creates benefits for all, we call it a “curb-cut” effect.  

How we’re taking a curb-cut approach to unemployment benefits, retaliation and more 

On the first day of his administration, President Biden issued a historic Executive Order requiring the federal government to pursue a “comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” During  the past year and three months, the Department of Labor has been hard at work to make this order, which complements and reinforces the core mission of the department, a reality. In all our efforts, the department is striving to prioritize the deepest barriers that affect the most disadvantaged workers. Doing so is not only fair and just — it also benefits all workers.  

For example, the Office of Unemployment Insurance’s Equity Grant program is providing up to $260 million in funding for states to promote equitable access to Unemployment Insurance programs. Both before and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, workers of color, workers with lower levels of formal education and low-income workers were less likely to receive UI benefits. This funding will address the challenges of marginalized workers by eliminating administrative barriers, reducing state workload backlogs and improving the timeliness of payments to eligible individuals, making it easier for these and millions of other workers to access the benefits they need. By bolstering the UI system’s capacity to  make payments quickly to eligible workers during economic downturns, these improvements will also strengthen the system’s ability to act as an economic stabilizer in times of recession, which makes everyone better off. 

Another example comes from the Wage and Hour Division’s agency-wide training initiative focused on retaliation. Low-wage workers are at higher risk of retaliation for reporting employment violations than other workers and often face greater consequences, which may jeopardize their economic stability or even their ability to remain in the country when immigration status is an issue. Unscrupulous employers can use the fear of retaliation to drive down labor standards, undercutting law-abiding competitors and leading to a race to the bottom. While training investigators to identify and address workplace retaliation clearly helps the workers who are directly threatened by it, all workers benefit when employers follow the law and adopt high-road employment practices. 

Figure 1: Survey Respondents Reporting Fear of Bringing Attention to Problems at Work 

 Survey Respondents Reporting Fear of Bringing Attention to Problems at Work.  Source: Raise the Floor Alliance and National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), “Challenging the Business of Fear” 
Most noncitizens surveyed are afraid to bring attention to problems at work all or most of the time.  Source: Raise the Floor Alliance and National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), “Challenging the Business of Fear” 

Just as you see curb-cuts on every sidewalk today, the department is working to create curb-cut effects in every program and policy we administer by improving access to those who have historically faced the greatest barriers. 

Emlyn Bottomley is a detailee supporting the equity executive order implementation in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor.