Over the holidays, one of the movies I sat down to watch was Emily the Criminal. Starring Aubrey Plaza of Parks & Recreation fame, this crime thriller follows the exploits of a young woman who is struggling financially in Los Angeles. Initially, she is introduced by a coworker to a “dummy shopper” service where she could make a quick buck.
As the story unfolds, it is revealed that this service is actually a credit card fraud ring. As Emily experiences further rejection in traditional employment opportunities, she descends further and further into this ring. The personal risks and violence escalate as the stakes get higher and higher. Eventually, she and her lover join forces to attempt a robbery against the ring itself. I’ll let you watch the movie to see how things end, but I wanted to talk about some of the policy issues that are highlighted throughout the film.
First—student loan debt. Emily has a considerable amount of debt from pursuing traditional higher education. The American dream promised by society if you “go to college” came crashing down when she had to leave school early to take care of her family. Why she is unable to use the few skills she attained at a university leads us to the second policy issue—a criminal record.
Emily is rejected from several job opportunities because of the background checks that employers would use against her. A background check does not tell the story of an individual. Why she has a felony record, why she had a domestic violence incident, and why she has a DUI are not on the forefront of an employer’s mind. The bias we all naturally have would say that she would likely be a poor employee, despite what the data says.
The final policy issue is Emily’s status as an independent contractor at her job. The film leaves you with the impression that being an independent contractor is a negative thing that leaves you exposed with no rights. While it is true that employees have more protections than independent contractors, they also have much less flexibility. What the movie doesn’t point out is that it is likely or probable that her employer was violating the law. The type of control that was being exercised on Emily shows that she may well have been misclassified.
Nevertheless, clarity needs to be brought to the independent contractor space, so that companies could offer things like portable benefits and other perks to these gig workers. Automatic expungement along with other reforms are very important for people like Emily to move on with their life. A cultural shift is also needed to help people post-conviction and post-incarceration obtain good-paying jobs. Lastly, the dinosaur which is higher education needs to be entirely rethought in order to truly benefit lower to middle class individuals pursuing licensing and degrees behind the ivory tower paywall.
Emily the Criminal is meant to show how an average individual can feel backed into a corner by the policies and culture of the economy around them. While Emily’s actions of violence and fraud are not justified, we can at least understand her hardships and what she was up against. This morality tale shines a light on several policy areas that lawmakers should be studying and taking action on to help the modern-day American worker achieve gainful employment.