Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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Low-Wage Workers Hit Hardest by Workplace Injuries, Illnesses

Monday, December 17th, 2012

It’s a double whammy for low-wage workers when they get hurt or fall ill on the job.

First, they lose pay because the vast majority (more than 80%) of low-wage workers do not have any paid sick leave to take time off to recover. Second, not only does the pay check shrink, but because of inadequate workers’ compensation laws, they must shoulder a bigger portion of their health care costs with those smaller paychecks. That means workers and their communities must bear a larger share of the $39 billion (in 2010) that workplace injuries and illnesses cost the nation.  

A new policy brief, “Mom’s Off Work ’Cause She Got Hurt: The Economic Impact of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses in the U.S.’s Growing Low-Wage Workforce,” examines the growing problem.  

Using information from a study, by University of California, Davis, economist J. Paul Leigh, on the number and cost of injuries and illnesses among low-wage workers, Celeste Monforton, a professorial lecturer in environmental and occupational health at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), and SPHHS researcher Liz Borkowski explore how workplace injuries and illnesses impact the lives of low-wage workers. Says Monforton:

Workers earning the lowest wages are the least likely to have paid sick leave, so missing work to recuperate from a work-related injury or illness often means smaller paychecks. For the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, a few missed shifts can leave families struggling to pay rent and buy groceries.

Leigh’s study classifies about 31 million people—22% of the U.S. workforce—in 65 occupations for which the median wage is below $11.19 per hour as low-wage workers. The janitors, housecleaners, restaurant workers and others earning that wage full-time will bring home just $22,350 per year—an amount that means a family of four must subsist at the poverty line

In 2010, 596 low-wage workers suffered fatal on-the-job injuries and 12,415 died from occupational ailments, including certain kinds of cancer. Another 1.6 million suffered from non-fatal injuries, and 87,857 developed non-fatal occupational health problems such as asthma. The costs of the 1.73 million injuries and illness amounted to $15 billion for medical care and another $24 billion for lost productivity—the cost when injured or sick workers cannot perform their jobs or daily household duties.

But as Monforton and Borkowski point out, workers’ compensation insurance either does not apply or fails to cover many of these costs, which can bankrupt families living on the margin. In some cases, employers do not have to offer this kind of insurance to employees.

And even workers who do have the coverage often get an unexpected surprise after an on-the-job injury or illness: Insurers generally do not have to provide wage replacement until the worker has lost between three and seven consecutive shifts. And workers at the low end of the wage scale are often discouraged from reporting on-the-job injuries as work-related—which leaves them with no insurance benefits at all.

According to Leigh, insurers cover less than one-fourth of the costs of occupational injuries and illnesses. The rest falls on workers’ families, non-workers’ compensation health insurers and taxpayer-funded programs like Medicaid.

When low-wage workers miss even a few days of pay while recovering from an occupational injury or illness, the effects spread quickly,” says Borkowski.

They will usually have to cut back on their spending right away, which affects the local economy. And families with children might skip meals or cut back on the heat, money-saving tactics that can put vulnerable family members such as children at risk of developmental delays and poor performance in school.

The authors call on policymakers to address this public health problem more forcefully by improving workplace safety and strengthening the safety net to reduce the negative impacts caused by the injuries and illnesses that still occur. Says Monforton:

On average, more than 4,000 workers are injured on the job each day. If we make workplaces safer, we not only stop losing billions of dollars each year, but we also could reduce the pain and suffering and financial impact on thousands of low-wage, hard-working Americans and their families.

The reports are posted here: http://defendingscience.org/low-wage-workers.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on December 14, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is is a a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was “still blue,” he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse.

Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.

PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:

Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.

The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.

A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel standards for the general public. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes public health-based safety protections, for example, but environmental advocates point out that farmworker families’ health vulnerabilities are neglected and essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the social costs of industrial pesticide use.

Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”

Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”

The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.

Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.

Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.

Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com.

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