July 20, 2017
Student Op-Ed #2
Roundtable Session: “Effects of Minimum Wage Policies on the Health of Workers” featuring Dr. Paul Leigh, an economist from the University of California, Davis, on November 9, 2016.
A few years ago, I had a discussion with an old high school friend who worked as a barista during the day, a restaurant chef in the evening, and a full-time babysitter on the weekends. He did not attend college and was working jobs that paid him a low hourly wage without any health benefits or paid time off. He told me about the economic burdens he faced after his parent’s mutual agreement to separate near the end of high school, the lingering physical disabilities after his mother’s car accident a year after, as well as the responsibility to provide for his three younger siblings. Although his dream after high school was to further his education in college, he felt responsible to place the needs of his family first by providing them with food and shelter. When I asked him how he was doing, he quietly said, “I am doing okay. I wish I didn’t have to work multiple part-time jobs, that I could find one that would hire me full time, provide me with health benefits, and have reasonable hours. I needed to make the money, so I took jobs that would be flexible with my other jobs.”
I wasn’t convinced he was doing okay. His facial expressions were more pensive and reserved compared to the classmate I knew who was outgoing and bright in high school. After our talk many years ago, I often think back about whether work stress and low-wage contributed to any health or health behaviors he experienced.
An interdisciplinary group of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers gathered on November 9th in Seattle, WA for informal discussions on how employment characteristics and working conditions influence health. The group speaker, Dr. Paul Leigh, presented his research on mechanisms explaining how low wages result in poor health or health behaviors. These mechanisms include decreased self-esteem, job satisfaction, insufficient funds, time loss from work, reduced life expectancy, and poor health, all resulting from low wages. Dr. Leigh went on to bring attention to the overwhelming amount of scientific studies providing support to both sides of an argument. Which should we believe? How do studies get traction? What is the power of data? These questions highlight the fact that data isn’t enough to make positive changes anymore. We must appeal to people’s emotions through personal stories and specific examples to make change. We need to appeal to what is morally right, not just what is logistically correct.
Low wages resulting in poor health or health behaviors can affect all occupations.
Researchers in occupational health services research (OHSR) focus on bridging concepts of income inequality and worker health and health behaviors by implementing, evaluating, and disseminating policies that address both individual and population level health needs for all workers. An important part of OHSR is the ability to study the relationships between various social determinants of health and the effect on overall health and health behaviors. The ability to address differences in risk factors such as health insurance coverage, the distance to the nearest medical facility or provider, and the availability of certain medical services act as major economic and social barriers that disproportionately affect individuals who already lack much financial control in their workplace. Conducting research in workers’ compensation systems and reimbursements for work-related injuries and illnesses is an example of work in this field.
The One Health at the Human Animal Interface (OHHAI)discipline at the University of Washington is interested in the interaction of animal and human health. Animal workers are employed in various settings such as farms, aquariums, and clinics (veterinarians), among others, and face biological, chemical, physical and mental hazards (including high physical and emotional stress levels) that can be exacerbated by low wages. Low wage positions in this line of work tend to be filled by workers with less education and experience, thus increasing injury potential while working with animals. Animal workers may experience depression and compassion fatigue when animals die, and when coupled with low wages may lead to poor health behaviors as coping mechanisms.
Occupational health nurses (OHN) play a role in ensuring the safety and health of workers in their jobs. These measures extend from monitoring worker health by conducting blood tests to assess exposure to toxic chemicals, to conducting research on the effects of workplace exposure through the collection of health and hazard data. The focus on low wages as determinants of health helps enrich the field of OHN by extending research beyond the immediate workplace and into the economic conditions that shape it. This enriches the OHN field by furthering the perspective that workplace conditions are social determinants of health.
Conversations about health and low wages have not been sufficiently addressed in Seattle. Dr. Leigh’s presentation and the discussion it sparked with members of the broader community, including union organizers, city officials, business representatives, and academia, marks the emergence of a new approach towards discussing and addressing occupational health issues.