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Injuries, illness are costly to low-wage workers and the economy, study finds

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From page A3 | December 27, 2012 |

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.

That’s according to a policy brief released by researchers at The George Washington University and based on a study conducted at UC Davis. The policy brief 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 brief’s lead author, Celeste Monforton, a professorial lecturer in environmental and occupational health at George Washington. “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 UCD.

At the request of Monforton and colleague Liz Borkowski, Leigh returned to data he analyzed for a UCD study published in the December 2011 issue of the “Milbank Quarterly,” which estimated the overall costs of occupational illnesses and injuries in the United States at $250 billion annually. 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,” Leigh said. “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 whom the median wage is below $11.19 per hour. Janitors, house cleaners, 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.”

Borkowski 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.

— UC Davis Health News

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