Occupational Health News Roundup

Will Uber change how we work? It’s a question Farhad Manjoo explores in a New York Times article about the company, which runs an on-demand car service using private drivers and a mobile app. Manjoo writes:

Just as Uber is doing for taxis, new technologies have the potential to chop up a broad array of traditional jobs into discrete tasks that can be assigned to people just when they’re needed, with wages set by a dynamic measurement of supply and demand, and every worker’s performance constantly tracked, reviewed and subject to the sometimes harsh light of customer satisfaction. Uber and its ride-sharing competitors, including Lyft and Sidecar, are the boldest examples of this breed, which many in the tech industry see as a new kind of start-up — one whose primary mission is to efficiently allocate human beings and their possessions, rather than information.

Manjoo writes about the benefits of such work arrangements, such as flexibility and the opportunity to make money even when wages are stagnant. But he also writes about the downside of this employment philosophy moving into the broader workforce and particularly its effect on the idea of stable income and employment. In addition, Uber drivers aren’t technically employees — they’re independent contractors, which means they receive no benefits and Uber isn’t held to the same standards as traditional employers. Manjoo points out that many taxi drivers are independent contractors, so the idea isn’t new to the industry. Still, it’s an employment philosophy that probably has many labor advocates concerned. Manjoo quotes former U.S. labor secretary and economist Robert Reich:

“I’m glad if people like working for Uber, but those subjective feelings have got to be understood in the context of there being very few alternatives,” Dr. Reich said. “Can you imagine if this turns into a Mechanical Turk economy, where everyone is doing piecework at all odd hours, and no one knows when the next job will come, and how much it will pay? What kind of private lives can we possibly have, what kind of relationships, what kind of families?”

To read the full article, visit The New York Times.

In other news:

The Hill: Reporter Lydia Wheeler writes that House Democrats are launching a “pressure campaign” that could force Republicans to take a stance on paid leave. On Monday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would let federal workers take six weeks of paid time off for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child and which President Obama called for earlier this month. Wheeler reports: “The GOP has thus far panned the plan, and Democrats could not name any Republican who would support the legislation. Still, proponents of the measure, pointing to polling that shows most Americans back the idea, are resolved to make Republicans block its path through the Congress they have majority control over.”

Mother Jones: Perhaps not surprisingly, big retailers are trying to kill a new OSHA regulation that would create a workplace injury database for all industries, not just manufacturing. Reporter Erika Eichelberger writes that the National Retail Federation, a group that represents the likes of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, is lobbying hard to get the new rule thrown out, arguing that it would be too costly and force them to disclose confidential information. However, Eichelberger notes that the companies are already required to keep such injury records — the new rule would just require them to electronically submit such data to OSHA each quarter.

MSNBC: In arguing against raising the federal minimum wage, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, may have inadvertently made the case for a minimum wage hike. In a recent interview, Boehner talked about all the “rotten” jobs he had as a young adult and how he wouldn’t have had a chance at employment if the government had kept raising the minimum wage. But reporter Steve Benen writes that federal lawmakers actually did raise the minimum wages at the time — raising it in 1974, 1975 and 1976. In fact, Benen cites Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein, who wrote: “[W]hen Boehner was first taking on those 'rotten jobs,' the minimum wage was actually at its historic high. And when the wage later dipped relative to inflation, Congress passed a series of hikes that raised it some more.”

In These Times: Shuttle drivers for some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley are hoping to unionize, writes reporter Alex Lubben. Following last year’s victory among contracted shuttle drivers working for Facebook, who voted to join the Teamsters, drivers for Yahoo, eBay, Apple, Genentch, Zynga and Amtrak are hoping to do the same. Lubben writes that service workers in the tech sector, such as those preparing food and shuttling employees back and forth, are reaping little of the sector’s massive profits. For shuttle drivers, in particular, Lubben writes “drivers work split shifts, driving in the morning, waiting during the day and resuming work in the evening. The result: Drivers need to be present for 12 to 16 hour days, but are paid for only eight hours of work.”

Huffington Post: Reporter Eleanor Goldberg writes about a new documentary, “Food Chains,” which chronicles the lives of agricultural workers, particularly those working on tomato farms in south Florida. She writes that despite the fact that tomatoes are a $1.3 billion industry in the U.S., the typical farmworker makes between $10,000 and $12,000 a year. Learn more about the film at www.foodchainsfilm.com and check out the trailer below.


Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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