Occupational Health News Roundup

Family-friendly policies in the workplace are a good thing, but as Claire Cain Miller writes in The New York Times, there’s also a risk that such policies end up hurting the very workers they’re intended to help.

Miller starts off her piece with international examples of family-friendly policies, such as a law in Chile that requires employers provide child care for working mothers and a policy in Spain that gives the parents of young children the option of working part time. The unintended results of each example? All women — whether they have children or not — get paid less and face fewer full-time job opportunities. And, unfortunately, the U.S. is home to similar impacts. Miller writes:

Unlike many countries, the United States has few federal policies for working parents. One is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides workers at companies of a certain size with 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Women are 5 percent more likely to remain employed but 8 percent less likely to get promotions than they were before it became law, according to an unpublished new study by Mallika Thomas, who will be an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. She attributed this partly to companies that don’t take a chance on investing in the careers of women who might leave. “The problem ends up being that all women, even those who do not anticipate having children or cutting back in hours, may be penalized,” she said.

In Chile, Miller writes, the child care law was intended to increase the number of women in the workforce. But a recent study found it’s led to a significant decline in women’s starting salaries. In Spain, Miller reports, nearly all the workers who took advantage of the reduced-hours policy were women. In studying the policy’s effects, researchers found that companies were less likely to hire and promote women of childbearing age and more likely to fire them.

Miller touches on ways to prevent such consequences, such as subsidizing family-friendly policies with public dollars and making the policies gender neutral. She writes:

Perhaps the most successful way to devise policies that help working families but avoid unintended consequences, people who study the issue say, is to make them gender neutral. In places like Sweden and Quebec, for instance, parental leave policies encourage both men and women to take time off for a new baby.

“It has to become something that humans do,” Ms. (Sarah Jane) Glynn, from the Center for American Progress, said, “as opposed to something that women do.”

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

In other news:

Time: More than two years after the collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 people — the country’s worst industrial disaster — government officials have brought charges against 41 people, reports Rohit Inani. Among those facing murder charges is the building’s owner, Sohel Rana. Inani reports: “More than 2,400 workers were rescued or escaped alive after the factory collapsed on April 24, 2013. Even after several complaints about cracks appearing in the walls, thousands of people were reportedly forced to continue working in the complex before it collapsed. ‘They [Sohel Rana and the factory owners] discussed and decided to keep the factory open,’ (Lead investigator Bijoy Krishna) Kar said. ‘They sent the workers to their deaths with cool heads.’” Over at The Nation, Amy Yee reports on improvements in Bangladeshi labor standards since the disaster, writing that while there is some progress in upgrading working conditions inside the garment industry, workers still face significant barriers to organizing.

The Washington Post: Brigid Schulte reports that experts now recommend office workers stand up while working for at least two hours a day, with an ultimate goal of standing for four hours each workday. With research finding that prolonged sitting is associated with higher risks of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and depression, recommendations recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine advises workers to move and take breaks for at least a quarter of the eight-hour workday. Schulte writes: “Authors of the new guidelines said they were a starting point only, and designed to give people some kind of research-based target, rather than rely on the claims made by the manufacturers of treadmill and sit-stand desks that are becoming all the rage.”

The New York Times: Food writer Mark Bittman pens a fantastic editorial on the plight of workers who pick and prepare our food — workers who often earn poverty wages, while those atop the corporate ladder continue to accumulate wealth. Bittman cites the new movement of fast food workers as well as local efforts to raise the minimum wage, such as Los Angeles officials who voted just last month to up the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. Pointing out the disconnect between the demand for humanely treated food, while turning a blind eye toward working conditions, he writes: “And what does it say that you can buy a can of tuna guaranteed to be dolphin-safe but can’t guarantee that its human producers — fishers, processors, transporters, packers, sales representatives — haven’t been abused?”

St. Louis Business Journal: Jacob Kirn writes that St. Louis could be the next American city to raise its minimum wage. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is expected to formalize his proposal to raise the local minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 in the coming weeks. Missouri’s current minimum wage is just $7.65. Kirn writes: “Fight For $15, an advocacy group for fast-food workers, praised Slay’s proposal. It published a message it said was from Bettie Douglas, a McDonald’s employee in St. Louis, who said, ‘I work too hard and my store earns too much profit for me to use public assistance to survive and take care of my son.’”

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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