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Precarious Work



Interview with David Williams, Harvard School of Public Health

Williams talks about the health effects of job loss and about what policies might help protect workers' physical and mental well-being.

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In the last quarter century or more, government deregulation, the globalization of business, a growing emphasis on short-term profits, declining union membership, digital technology and other sweeping social changes have led to an unprecedented transfer of wealth and power to stockholders and corporate executives, often at the expense of the lives and health of the average American worker. Although the new economy offers alternative options for some people, for the most part, today’s workers face increased demands and lower control over their employment situation. Consequently, workers are experiencing greater health risks.

Lifetime employment and the standard 40-hour workweek are largely relics of the past. The 21st century global economy runs 24 hours a day, and work is accessible anywhere, anytime. More employees are working odd hours and almost all are expected to work longer ones. In fact, Americans now work longer hours than even the Japanese. At the same time, many workers face a reduction in benefits, lack of job security, and a loss of bargaining power.

This increased chaos has also introduced greater work-family conflicts, particularly as families have more trouble making ends meet and more women have entered the workforce. The shift from manufacturing to service and information jobs has also produced a skills gap and increased psychological and social demands on workers.

One of the most profound shift in terms of work and its consequences for health is the dramatic rise in the number of “nonstandard” work arrangements. These include temporary, contractual, on-call/shift and part-time jobs as well as self-employment and underemployment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, between 1982 and 1998, the number of jobs in the temporary help industry grew 577% compared to a 41% increase in jobs generally. Between 2001 and 2004, the economy shed about 100,000 full-time jobs, but added 2.5 million part-timers.

Although in a few cases the ”flexibility“of these new arrangements is in response to employee preferences, the increase is overwhelmingly driven by companies looking to cut labor costs and benefits and even skirt legal obligations.

Experts agree that the number of non-standard arrangements will only continue to grow. How can we protect workers’ health in light of new and emerging labor markets?