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Study says low-income employment harms employee health

Ellen Abbott
WRVO Public Media
Jeanette Zoeckler of the SUNY Occupational Health Center presents the finding of the survey.

They’re the people you probably come in contact with every day: the custodians, the restaurant workers, the landscape employees who make an average of fewer than ten dollars an hour. But what is it like to be  a low-income worker in Syracuse and how does it impact their health? One agency asked these questions to 275 local workers. While the answers weren’t surprising, they provide a basis for future initiatives.

The Low-Wage Workers’ Health project surveyed many of these workers last summer to find out how their jobs affected their health. One of the biggest issues that cropped up, according to Jeanette Zoeckler of the SUNY Upstate Occupational Health Center, is what she calls a precarious work environment, which leaves these workers unsure of many things.

“When will you be paid, how much you will be paid, how long will the job last, is another one,” Zoeckler said. “People aren’t sure about the actual temporariness of the job. ‘Is it a temporary assignment?’ ‘Might I expect to be here longer?’ We did ask people how steady their work was, and at least a third of them said they weren’t sure it would last six months.”

Zoeckler said these issues are across the board, but she noted one area where something should be done sooner rather than later; health care workers at nursing homes.

“A lot of young folks going into that work with expectations that they may be able to rise through the health care career path,” Zoeckler said. “But at the same time they are facing some pretty high risk when it comes to injuries and occupational illnesses.”

Other issues cited in the survey include disrespect and discrimination.

"Many of them talked of disrespect and discrimination, lack of civility in the workplace, problems with management,” Zoeckler said.

Workers also discussed the instability of hours for low income workers, which can lead to stress related health problems.

Zoeckler said she hopes the study spurs more discussion of the issue in central New York, along with specific ways to keep these workers healthy.

“We could make recommendations today regarding wage rates, or increased regulation, or we could cite a number of bills on the table right now regarding health and safety,” Zoeckler said. “But I think we should start from the ground and really hear, so we can tell better, more accurately, what’s needed locally.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.