July 20, 2017
During the 2016-2017 academic year, NWCOHS trainees participated in “Work & Health” policy roundtables organized through a collaboration between the West Coast Poverty Center, the Harry Bridges Centerfor Labor Studies, Center for the Study of Health in Public Policy, and the Northwest Center for Occupational Health & Safety. These policy roundtables convened researchers, practitioners, and policymakers for informal discussions on how work, working conditions, and employment characteristics influence health, as well as the connections between health, productivity, and economic sustainability. The goals of these roundtables were to stimulate broad thinking and to create networks between academic and community leaders with interests in these arenas. Three policy roundtables were conducted.
NWCOHS trainees were assigned to interdisciplinary teams (comprised of trainees representing programs in Construction Management Occupational Safety & Health, Industrial Hygiene (Exposure Sciences), Occupational Health at the Human Animal Interface, Occupational Health Nursing, Occupational Health Services Research, and Occupational Medicine) and wrote op-eds about the policy roundtable they attended. We will be sharing the op-eds in a series of posts! (author names have been removed for confidentiality).
Student Op-Ed 1
Roundtable Session: “Effects of Minimum Wage Policies on the Health of Workers”
Dr. Paul Leigh, an economist from the University of California, Davis, on November 9, 2016.
The impact of low wages may extend beyond an individual’s wallet. As an immediate impact, low-wage earners may have insufficient funds for healthy food, shelter, and healthcare. Long-term, low wages may result in low self-esteem, which in turn can have negative health effects. Low wages mitigate the price of lost work, thus reducing incentives to make healthy decisions and such avoid missed work. Despite this, low wages plague workers across several sectors.
For example, animal workers in the US may include agricultural workers (farm workers and workers in slaughterhouses or meat processing plants), animal control officers, veterinarians and their support staff, keepers and caretakers in zoos and aquariums, and even animal trainers in Hollywood. Nearly without exception, these workers suffer from low wages and inadequate benefits. The poverty rate for farm workers, including those in crop agriculture, is nearly double the national rate, and benefits are rarely provided.
Animal control workers, who are required to maintain licensure for their work, average under $17 per hour. Veterinary technicians earn less than half the wages of registered nurses ($31,070 versus $66,640). Zookeepers on average make $11.71 per hour, and animal trainers in the entertainment industry are often only paid while on set, “volunteering” their time to provide basic animal husbandry.
The pattern of wage reduction is not exclusive to agriculture and animal industries. US workers in manufacturing environments are prone to the negative health effects associated with low wages. The median hourly rate for a production worker ranges from $9-18 per hour, depending on the type industry and level of experience.
Low wages have a negative effect on the psychological and physical. Workers who have low wages have lower job security and may move from job to job more often. This is a problem as unfamiliarity with a work process increases the risk of being injured on the job. The results of workers being in poorer physical health can lead to them getting behind on work, missing more days of work, and even losing their job, which can further increase disparities.
Poor psychological and physical health of workers in manufacturing workplaces leads to decreased job performance as well as an increase in the number of on-the-job injuries. This results from employees engaging in unsafe work practices, such as taking shortcuts in processes to save time, not following safety rules or guidelines, having decreased judgement, as well as being distracted and disconnected from their work.
As a nation, we should broach this topic with empathy. Moreover, we need to consider our own personal professional experiences regarding what we value in a working environment. Would we feel comfortable sending our children to a low-wage job knowing the financial, safety, and health stresses imposed upon them?
As occupational safety and health graduate students, we call upon US employers and policymakers to take a stronger stance on employment practices, which impact the financial stability and well-being of our workforce. Although our country’s businesses have become a highly charged political topic regarding their economic competitiveness on the world stage, lowering wages in order to remain relevant and profitable is not a sustainable or ethical solution. Moreover, it devalues our workforce’s contribution. All economic sectors, including the aforementioned manufacturing and agriculture industries, must consider the moral, financial, and sustainability benefits of wage increases.