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Syracuse’s poorest workers: Health problems, low wages

Industries hiring low-wage workers







An ongoing study of the Syracuse area‘s lowest-paid workers finds they often face aching backs, constant stress and a lack of respect as well as a skimpy paycheck.

Person washing dishes


These workers, often in service jobs, deal with sore muscles, ever-changing work schedules and the fear that if they even mention a health problem, they‘ll lose their job -- a job that may not be secure to begin with.

These concerns are documented in “Healthy Work in Syracuse? Conversations With Low-Wage Workers,” the second phase of the Low-Wage Workers‘ Health Project. It‘s a study from the Occupational Health Clinical Centers, a state operation based in Syracuse that serves 26 counties and is affiliated with Upstate Medical University.

Defining who is a low-wage worker is difficult, explains project manager Jeanette Zoeckler, but in this study it means workers struggling to survive at a basic level, earning less than $15 an hour, depending on family size and other factors.

Woman cashier with flowers


About 39 percent of workers in the five-county region around Syracuse made $15 or less an hour in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including cashiers, food preparers and servers, cleaners, office and stock clerks, health aides and unskilled laborers, such as the workers shown in the first four photos).

“Occupations that are giving people less than a living wage tend to have certain characteristics that impact health, and that can range from poor air quality to poor ergonomics, physical factors on the job that influence health and also mental factors on the job that influence health, and so in the new economy we‘re curious about how the low-wage worker‘s work impacts their health,” Zoeckler says.

Indoor construction work


The project saw national trends mirrored in Central New York, such as the move from manufacturing to low-skilled work – “basically a proliferation of lousy jobs or less meaningful or less satisfying jobs that also have poor conditions associated with them,” she says.
These jobs are described as “precarious” because they can end suddenly and “dead-end” because they tend to offer little long-term chance for a raise, promotion or desirable career.

More than 450 people were interviewed over the first two years of the study, and “I think we‘re starting to get a good picture of the kinds of struggles that the workers are facing on the job with regard to their health, and with regard to the entire context of what it means in their lives,“ Zoeckler says.

Nurse checking blood pressure on older gentleman

Health aide.

Among the physical problems, muscle and joint pain were common, with roughly a third of respondents saying they experienced pain daily at work and many facing barriers to getting medical care.

Workers also reported stress from being bullied and disrespected, having poorly defined duties and not being paid what they are owed by employers.

The report‘s contributors have met in the past year with Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s task force on exploited workers, distributed the report to lawmakers and hope it will help point the way to both short- and long-term solutions to low-wage workers‘ problems.

The third phase of the report is to be published soon.

Jeanette Zoeckler, project manager for an ongoing study of low-wage workers‘ health conditions, and Michael Lax, MD, medical director of the Occupational Health Clinical Centers.

Jeanette Zoeckler, project manager for an ongoing study of low-wage workers' health conditions, and Michael Lax, MD, medical director of the Occupational Health Clinical Centers.



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This article appears in the fall 2016 issue of Upstate Health magaz. Click here for a radio interview/podcast about the low-wage workers'  health study with Zoeckler and Lax