Low-wage workers, who make up a large and growing share of the U.S. workforce, are especially vulnerable to financial hits that can result from on-the-job injuries and illnesses, according to a policy brief released by researchers at The George Washington University and based on a study conducted at the University of California, Davis.
The 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,” was released along with a white paper showing that such workplace injuries and illnesses cost the nation more than $39 billion in 2010.
“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,” said the lead policy brief author, Celeste Monforton, a professorial lecturer in environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. “For the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, a few missed shifts can leave families struggling to pay rent and buy groceries.”
The policy brief analyzes and contextualizes research by health economist J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at UC Davis. At the request of Monforton and colleague Liz Borkowski, a researcher with The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, Leigh returned to data he analyzed for a UC Davis study published in the December 2011 issue of the Milbank Quarterly, which estimated the overall costs of occupational illnesses and injuries in the U.S. at $250 billion annually (see press release online). The new study specifically evaluated costs of occupational injury and disease within low-wage occupations.
“Research on work-related injuries and how they affect the lives of lower-wage employees is extremely rare,” said Leigh. “The 2011 and current studies prove that the safety of workers and how their job-related injuries are paid for need more attention from policymakers, and that this is especially true for those working at lowest end of the pay scales.”
For the new study, Leigh zeroed in on approximately 31 million people — 22 percent of the U.S. workforce — in 65 occupations for which the median wage is below $11.19 per hour. 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.
Leigh calculated that in 2010, 596 low-wage workers suffered fatal on-the-job injuries and 12,415 died from occupational ailments such as black lung disease or 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.
The policy brief explains that 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. 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, the brief says.
Leigh calculated that 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,” Borkowski said, noting that fewer than one in five low-wage workers has access to paid sick leave. “They will usually have to cut back on their spending right away, which affects the local economy.”
Borowski added that 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 brief suggests that policymakers should 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.
“On average, more than 4,000 workers are injured on the job each day,” Monforton said. “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 policy brief and white paper, which were funded by the Public Welfare Foundation, are available online at http://defendingscience.org/low-wage-workers.
About The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services:
Established in July 1997, the School of Public Health and Health Services brought together three longstanding university programs in the schools of medicine, business and education and is now the only school of public health in the nation’s capital. Today, more than 1,100 students from nearly every U.S. state and more than 40 nations pursue undergraduate, graduate and doctoral-level degrees in public health. http://sphhs.gwu.edu/
About UC Davis Health System:
UC Davis Health System is improving lives and transforming health care by providing excellent patient care, conducting groundbreaking research, fostering innovative, interprofessional education and creating dynamic, productive community partnerships. The academic health system includes one of the country's best medical schools, a 619-bed acute-care teaching hospital, an 1,000-member physician's practice group and the new Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing. It is home to a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, an international neurodevelopmental institute, a stem cell institute and a comprehensive children's hospital. Other nationally prominent centers focus on advancing telemedicine, improving vascular care, facilitating health policy changes, eliminating health disparities and translating research findings into new treatments for patients. Together, they make UC Davis a hub of innovation that is transforming health for all. For more information, visit http://healthsystem.ucdavis.edu.