“Ask and You Might Disappoint: Reference-Dependent Preferences and Worker Voice”
Why don't firms seek more information about worker preferences? Even though firms can improve job quality and labor productivity by soliciting feedback, not all firms encourage workers to share their opinions. For example, only 61% of frontline workers during COVID-19 reported that their employers consulted them about safety protocols and only 71% of workers have ever spoken with their supervisor about workplace issues before the pandemic. To explain the lack of employer interest in worker voice, I develop a model where asking workers about their preferences changes their reference point for working conditions and creates the risk of disappointment-related "loss" and lowered productivity. In contrast to a model without reference-dependent preferences, my model predicts that firms decline to seek worker voice, even when the direct costs of consultation, such as personnel time, are negligible. I show patterns of worker effort and firm voice-seeking in the US and UK that are consistent with expectations-based reference points. For example, in support of the "disappointment effect" prediction of the model, I find that employers that rarely take worker suggestions seriously see a negative relationship between voice-seeking and worker effort. Interventions to increase voice-seeking without addressing reference-dependent preferences may have lower-than-expected benefits to the firm and worker.
“Nudges and Personalized Assistance in Legal Compliance: A Field Experiment” with Natalia Emanuel
Behavioral nudges, such as providing reminders and information, can help individuals act in their best interests, but are not designed to address resource constraints or significant transaction costs. We test whether augmenting nudges with a relatively low-cost personalized assistance component can overcome compliance barriers in the high-stakes environment of court appearances. For misdemeanor, municipal, and traffic violations, failing to appear for court is common even after receiving nudges, despite carrying significant consequences. Personalized assistance may help individuals navigate complex court bureaucracies to access accommodations that make compliance less costly. In our randomized controlled trial, behavioral nudges significantly reduce failure to appear by 8.3 percentage points, or 39 percent. Adding personalized assistance increases take-up of accommodations, but neither reduces failure to appear nor changes the composition of compliers. In support of the theoretical motivation for nudging, we find evidence suggesting that failure to appear is unintentional for those moved to comply under the nudge. However, our findings point to the need for more intensive interventions to increase compliance rather than add-ons to nudges.
“Criminalizing Poverty: The Consequences of Court Fees in a Randomized Experiment” with Devah Pager, Rebecca Goldstein, and Bruce Western
Court-related fines and fees are widely levied on criminal defendants who are frequently poor and have little capacity to pay. Such financial obligations may produce a criminalization of poverty where later court involvement results not from crime, but an inability to meet the financial burdens of the legal process. We test this hypothesis using a randomized controlled trial of court-related fee relief for misdemeanor defendants in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma. We find that relief from fees does not affect new criminal charges, convictions, or jail bookings after twelve months. However, the court subjected control respondents to debt collection efforts at significantly higher rates that involved new warrants, additional court debt, tax refund garnishment, and referral to a private debt collector. Despite significant efforts at debt collection, payments to the court totaled less than 5 percent of outstanding debt. Court debt charged to indigent defendants thus neither caused nor deterred new crime, and the government obtained little financial benefit. However, fines and fees contribute to a criminalization of low-income defendants, placing them at risk of ongoing court involvement through new warrants and debt collection.
“Willingness-to-Pay for Workplace Safety Precautions: Evidence from COVID-19”
The COVID-19 pandemic increased workplace hazards, especially for frontline workers and those with health conditions. Adopting workplace safety measures can alleviate the trade-off between health protections and economic activity. However, heterogeneity in worker preferences may lead to some workplaces adopting fewer safety precautions. I use a discrete choice experiment to measure worker demand for and access to COVID-19 safety amenities. I find that workers have heterogeneous preferences, with some even willing to pay to avoid safety precautions. This heterogeneity is present in two survey waves, nine months apart. Worker demand is correlated with beliefs about COVID-19 risk and political affiliation. Persistent divides in beliefs and demand for safety precautions may lead to further political segregation in workplaces as employers adopt more mandates and workers are more able to change jobs.