Occupational Health News Roundup

Both houses of California’s legislature have now passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (AB 889), which extends the rights to overtime pay and rest and meal breaks to domestic employees such as nannies and housekeepers. If Governor Jerry Brown signs the bill into law, California will become the second state in the nation to extend these basic workplace protections to domestic employees, who have long been exempted from legislation that protects most of the rest of us. (New York passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010, and provided a model for the California bill.) Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, gives some background on California’s legislation in a Forbes commentary:

But as important as their labor is, domestic workers are extremely vulnerable in the workplace: isolated in private homes, working long hours often for poverty wages and more often than not without access to basic benefits such as paid sick days or health insurance. Take Thelma Reta, for example, who works as a caregiver in Los Angeles, and who for years earned as little as $35 per day for around the clock care of an elderly couple.

Reta is not the exception. Challenging conditions like hers are common, an expression of the age-old societal devaluation of women’s work in the home; and they’re bolstered by the explicit exclusion of domestic workers from many of the basic rights and protections provided to workers in this country by laws such as the National Labor Relations Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Domestic worker organizations have emerged in cities around the country to address these conditions and to bring value to the labor of care. In June 2007 they founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance to give voice to the experiences of the workforce and to promote the establishment of rights. The alliance was central to the ratification of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010 – groundbreaking legislation that established overtime pay, a day of rest, paid leave, and protection from discrimination and harassment for domestic workers. It also raised awareness of the plight of domestic workers and created a legislative precedent that is now spreading around the country, beginning with California last week.

Lauren Barbato at the Ms. Magazine Blog notes that Emmy-nominated actor-writer-producer Amy Poehler filmed a PSA in support of the California bill; Barbato also reports:

For domestic workers—one of the most vulnerable labor groups in the U.S., according to the NDWA— low wages seem to be endemic to the industry. In Los Angeles County, 75 percent of child-care workers are paid less than minimum wage, while nearly 96 percent of all child care workers, housekeepers and caregivers have experienced overtime violations. Up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a 2007 survey found that 67 percent of domestic workers earn low wages or wages below the poverty line, with only 19 percent earning a wage sufficient enough to support a family of four. Many more than that 19 percent, however, are breadwinners: The same survey found that more than half provide the primary income for their households.

Last month, the New York Times editorial board opined, “We hope California and other states will be willing to do what the federal government has not — which is to set basic standards to guarantee domestic workers decent working conditions and pay.”

In other news:

The Guardian: A massive explosion at Venezuela’s largest oil refinery killed 41 people and injured more than 80. An official from the union of oil and gas workers told reporters that workers had repeatedly told company officials about problems that could lead to a disaster.

Bloomberg BNA: Party platforms from Republicans and Democrats are very different when it comes to occupational health and safety approaches.

Safety + Health: Researchers warn that construction workers are at an increased risk of occupational injuries that can force them to retire early or not work for long stretches of time. Creating workplace cultures that prioritize health and safety can keep workers healthy longer — which benefits employers who rely on experienced workers as well as the workers themselves.

NIOSH Science Blog: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health researchers analyzed data on a cohort of 3,439 NFL players and found the football players to have a risk of death from neurodegenerative disorders three times higher than that of the general population.

ProPublica: For Labor Day, here’s a compilation of 12 pieces of top-notch reporting on workplace safety, from the 2003 New York Times series on McWane, Inc to the Center for Public Integrity’s 2012 series on insufficient occupational health and safety oversight.