Monday, October 29, 2012

Low wages, high anxiety at work: Which communities suffer?

The demographics were varied, but working conditions are similarly brutal in under-represented communities across the United States.

The question is: How to fix this problem?

Presenters at a session on “Low-Wage Workers: Occupational Health Hazards” detailed their research on Monday and suggested solutions in the communities they studied.

For example, home health care aides in Massachusetts face challenges including verbal abuse, back injuries and exposure to infectious disease, while often receiving below minimum wage salaries, according to presenters. Focus group participants were largely female immigrants.

“It’s not uncommon that it’s lower than minimum wage — and you ask, ‘How can that be?’” said Pia Markkanen, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Home care workers suffer from an exemption called the Companionship Clause in the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you provide comprehensive services, you are exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay in many states.”

Despite the challenges, aides were found to enjoy their profession because of “appreciation from clients and client family members,” Markkanen said. The study suggested that occupational safety and health standards can be improved through basic public policy interventions, including the U.S. Department of Labor’s minimum wage and overtime protection rule.

In Georgia as well as Baltimore, Md., Hispanic residents are at higher risk of experiencing job instability, dangerous working conditions, high injury rates and high stress rates, researchers found.

A sample of 100 migrant farmers — 87 percent male and 93 percent from Mexico — found a high correlation between farming work hazards and depression, researchers from Georgia Southern University said. Another study indicated that high temporary work rates among Hispanics living in Baltimore led to high anxiety rates and threats of physical, economic and sexual abuse.

"We need to include safety training into occupational and professional licensing programs for intermediaries and ensure Spanish-language materials reflect an elementary level of Spanish,” said Airin Martinez from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

— D.G.

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