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 today by researchers at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS). 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," says the lead policy brief author Celeste Monforton, a professorial lecturer in environmental and occupational health at SPHHS. "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 for policymakers research by health economist J. Paul Leigh of University of California, Davis. At the request of Monforton and her colleague Liz Borkowski, an SPHHS researcher, Leigh returned to data he analyzed for a 2011 study published in the Milbank Quarterly. (See a summary of that study at http://on.natgeo.com/XcfnBi.)
Leigh zeroed in on approximately 31 million people-22% 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.