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Get to Work or Go to Jail

Federal, state, and local governments increasingly make, and carry out, a disturbing threat– get to work, or go to jail.

This happens most commonly when a person serves a sentence of probation or parole. Probationers and parolees must seek and maintain employment as a standard condition of supervision–and failure to comply can result in jail time. A court also can punish joblessness with jail when someone is unemployed or underemployed and therefore cannot pay child support or court fines & fees.

While a great deal of research focuses on how incarceration can exclude people from the workforce, what about how it can also lock people in to work? To date, there is none.

So, how often do people wind up in jail for failing to find or keep a job? Does the threat of jail time cause workers to accept substandard work, or stand in the way of organizing to improve substandard work? Do employers leverage the threat of jail time, and how?

To explore this “get to work or go to jail” threat, the UCLA Labor Center has begun a new research collaboration with Professor Noah Zatz of the UCLA School of Law and A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project.




On July 1st, 2015, this team presented its initial findings to labor organizers, attorneys, academics, and advocates and organizers for the formerly incarcerated. Participants included the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), the ACLU of Southern California, All of Us or None, CLEAN CarWash Campaign, the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, and the Warehouse Workers Resource Center. They raised compelling questions and pointed the way for new research and resources for organizers, workers, and community-based organizations.

By the end of 2015, the research team will release a brief report of our initial findings and analysis. This first phase of the project has been supported in part by grants from the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor & Employment and from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation. Research will continue throughout 2016 and 2017 to take a deeper dive.

Stay in touch with us for updates on the research. If you haven’t yet, sign up for the UCLA Labor Center email list. To get involved in this project, contact Tia Koonse at