As low-wage jobs continue to show strong gains since the recession, findings from the Low-Wage Workers' Health Project led by Upstate Medical University is offering insight into how these jobs affect public health and the economy in Syracuse, N.Y., and reflect national trends in issues related to low-wage workers.
The project itself is serving as the springboard for more initiatives that will lead to a better understanding of the needs and risks of low-wage workers. Outcomes of these initiatives should stimulate social, legal and political changes needed to reduce risks to occupational health and improve the quality of work-life in Syracuse.
The Low-Wage Workers' Health Project was led by Upstate's CNY Occupational Health Clinical Centers (OHCC). It was funded by the Workforce Development Institute and OHCC.
Through the project, 275 low-wage workers in Syracuse responded to more than 100 questions about their work. Low-wage workers were defined in this project as working adults who could not make ends meet without the help of a government program to subsidize their basic household expenses.
Survey questions dealt with working conditions, including health and safety in the workplace, access to health care and workers' compensation, wages and hours, work precarity and wage theft. The participants could also comment on what they would change in their workplace. Leading their comments were the need for respect and less discrimination in the workplace.
According to the project's manager Jeanette M. Zoeckler, M.P.H., their answers pretty much reflected the national trend, showing that low-wage workers experience unstable and unpredictable work lives on many levels.
"Imagine working two or three jobs just to put food on the table, having no transportation other than buses to get to those jobs and no security that their job or the wages agreed upon will be available tomorrow," says Jeanette Zoeckler, a public health project manager at OHCC. "Low-wage workers face these hardships and this uncertainty on a daily basis. They are so busy and so exhausted in trying to survive that they can't fully engage in their community. It takes a toll on their mental and physical health, affects the health and safety of their families and, ultimately affects the quality of life in their communities."
A large data set on low-wage workers in Syracuse was generated through this project. The data includes information on industries that employ low-wage workers, low-wage worker demographics, immigration patterns, and levels of education of low-wage workers.
"We will use this data to move toward longer term goals," says Zoeckler.
These goals include:
• the prevention of occupational illness and injury for at-risk workers
• an increase in health care access for excluded workers, including occupational health services
• an improvement in personal financial conditions for low wage workers in our region
• and the promotion of better work statuses, arrangements and conditions in our region
Zoeckler also says that initiatives will be taken to better inform low-wage workers of local resources that are available to them to help them access health care and to also help them meet their basic living needs.
"We intend to build on the foundation and clarity of these 275 workers' voices and to learn more directly about challenges workers posed in the survey," said Zoeckler. "Specific industries will be targeted in-depth and the project will continue to work with community partners to improve the quality of work-life for low-wage workers in Syracuse."
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