Occupational Health News Roundup

At the Intercept, Avi Asher-Schapiro reports on a new insurance plan that Uber is offering its drivers that could help them recoup wages and cover medical expenses if they’re injured on the job. Asher-Schapiro notes that while some have described the Uber insurance plan — which workers buy by setting aside 3.75 cents per mile — as a form of workers’ compensation, it hardly fits the bill. In fact, in documents obtained by the Intercept, Uber explicitly states that the insurance plan isn’t workers’ comp. He writes:

Compared to traditional workers’ compensation insurance, Uber’s policy represents a major step down in terms of quality, said Michael Gruber, president of the Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group, a non-profit group of attorneys and others focused on occupational claims. For example, in Massachusetts, New York and California, workers’ compensation can pay out two-thirds of salary when a worker is too injured to return to work—while the Uber policy maxes out at half of a driver’s average weekly earnings. Uber’s policy also appears to allow the insurer to deny coverage at their own doctors discretion. Another key feature of traditional workers’ compensation is that an appointed State Board adjudicates disputes that may arise. Those boards are often comprised of both labor and business representatives. Uber’s policy appears to require drivers to submit to a binding arbitration proceeding, explicitly renounce their right to appear before a workers’ comp board, and give up their right to sue or join a class-action lawsuit.

Some advocates believe the insurance offering is just another attempt by Uber to sidestep the question of whether their drivers deserve the benefits that come with being classified as employees, rather than as independent contractors. Asher-Schapiro writes:

In 2015, shortly after Uber launched operations in Alaska, Rhonda Gerharz, the chief investigator for Alaska’s Workers’ Compensation Board, initiated an investigation into the company. She thought that the company was possibly misclassifying its drivers as independent contractors, allowing it to avoid buying expensive workers’ compensation insurance in violation of Alaska law.

“Misclassification is a big deal,” she explained. “If these workers get hurt and the company doesn’t have insurance, the public ends up picking up the bill in the form of benefits like food stamps and low-income housing assistance.”

She began to dig into the exact relationship between drivers and the company. “I look at things like: does the business have the right to hire or fire someone, who’s exercising control of the manner of means to accomplish the task, and who provides the tools for the job,” she told The Intercept.

At first blush, Uber appeared to Gerharz to be operating like a traditional employer, and therefore skirting workers’ compensation laws. But before she could finish her investigation, Uber pulled out of the state entirely.

Read the whole story at the Intercept.

In other news:

NPR: Howard Berkes reports that NPR’s ongoing investigation into black lung disease among coal miners has identified an additional 1,000 cases in Appalachia. That new number means that NPR has identified nearly 2,000 cases of progressive massive fibrosis, which is the most serious stage of black lung, in the Appalachia region since 2010. In comparison, federal health officials have reported just 99 cases nationwide within the same time period, Berkes reports, though officials are working to gain a more accurate picture of the disease’s impact and prevalence. Scott Laney, an epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said in the article that evidence suggests “we are in the midst of an epidemic of black lung disease in central Appalachia.” Berkes writes: “Laney said the mining industry’s compliance record has been high for at least a decade. There wouldn’t be as much advanced black lung disease now, he suggested, if the compliance rates accurately reflected actual exposure to the coal and silica dust that cause advanced disease.”

News & Observer: Madison Iszler reports on the children who work North Carolina’s agricultural fields, starting her story with Jacqueline Castillo, who was just 7 years old when she started picking tobacco. Castillo said she felt sick nearly every day, often suffering the headaches, nausea and dizziness that happens when nicotine is absorbed through a person’s skin. Federal law allows kids 12 and older to work in the agricultural sector with a parent’s permission, while kids younger than 12 can do nonhazardous work on a farm if their parent is also employed there or gives permission. Iszler reports that even though some companies have changed their policies on child workers, “advocacy groups and farmworkers say few changes have trickled down and underage children are still working.” She notes: “Many children work in agriculture to help their parents financially and some parents can’t afford child care. Only 55 percent of youth farmworkers in the U.S. graduate from high school, according to Human Rights Watch.”

Seattle Times: Rachel La Corte reports that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill earlier this month guaranteeing residents paid family leave. Beginning in 2020, the new law gives eligible workers 12 weeks of paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or for a serious medical problem, or 16 weeks for a combination of both. Both employees and employers contribute to the new paid leave system, and employees must work at least 820 hours before they can take advantage of the benefit. La Corte writes: “Sara Reilly, who co-owns Three Magnets Brewing Company and Darby’s Cafe in Olympia, spoke at a rally on the Capitol steps before the signing, and said that she and her husband have wanted to offer paid and family medical leave for their employees, but previously were unable to cover the costs alone. ‘This is an extremely inexpensive way to give our employees a benefit when they so desperately need it,’ she said.”

Huffington Post: Dave Jamieson reports on the efforts of state legislators to overturn local measures that improve wages and working conditions. The story begins in Missouri, where state Republicans passed a measure invalidating a local ordinance passed in St. Louis that raised the minimum wage. The new Missouri law states that no locality can enact a minimum wage that’s higher than the state minimum of $7.70 per hour. Jamieson cites a report from the National League of Cities that found that 24 states now block local minimum wage hikes and 17 states block local paid leave measures. Jamieson writes: “Dennis Shaw, who works at the St. Louis grocery chain Schnucks, received a $1.70 raise due to the St. Louis ordinance. The pay bump translated into an extra $30 or so each week after taxes ― a welcome addition that has helped him pay rent on his one-bedroom apartment downtown and avoid bank overdraft fees. He said that legislators in the state Capitol don’t understand what it’s like for someone trying to survive on the minimum wage in the city.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.