Protecting precarious workers

May 16, 2019 | Jolayne Houtz
Two people standing at a podium, one holding a gavel.

DEOHS student turns research into action by helping to shape worker safety policies in the Washington State Legislature

DEOHS student Trevor Peckham’s research “helped me to focus better on what kinds of policy choices we can make to protect temporary workers,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser. 

DEOHS at the Washington State Legislature

UW DEOHS faculty and research will help inform state policy as part of several bills passed by the Washington State Legislature this spring:

  • Our research on Washington environmental health risks provides the foundation for a new cumulative impact analysis that will identify communities highly impacted by fossil fuel pollution and climate change, part of a package of clean energy bills championed by Gov. Jay Inslee.
  • DEOHS will lead a new panel to create a healthy energy workers board addressing chemical exposures at Hanford.
  • DEOHS will serve on two work groups examining pesticide drift and aerial pesticide applications in forestlands.

A UW student’s internship with the Washington State Legislature this spring helped pave the way for new labor policies that could protect some of the state’s most vulnerable workers.

Trevor Peckham, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS), studies temporary workers and others in “precarious” employment arrangements.

During his recent internship with state Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent), he shared research and recommendations about health and safety issues that temp workers face. Keiser, who chairs the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee, said she now intends to propose legislation next year to address these concerns.

“You have to have facts...to make good choices,” Keiser said. Peckham’s work “helped me to focus better on what kinds of policy choices we can make to protect temporary workers.”

We recently asked Peckham to reflect on his opportunity to help shape state policyand how scientists can help bridge the gap between science and public policy.

Your research focuses on “precarious workers.” What does that mean?

Precarious work is basically insecure and unstable employment with limited benefits or protections. This concept is often used to describe the ongoing shift away from “standard” employment (full-time, ongoing employment for one employer).

Some call it the “gig economy,” in which workers are increasingly considered independent contractors rather than employees. There are many types of non-standard jobs, such as part-time, temporary or on-call work.

Overall, we are talking about millions of workers nationwide, such as construction workers, janitors, health care workers and many others.

Why are these workers especially vulnerable?

Workers in these non-standard jobs typically have fewer employee rights, lower wages and more instability than regular workers. The new realities of work require new ways of thinking about how we keep all types of workers safe on the job.

For example, we know that temporary agency workers in Washington face twice the risk of on-the-job injury compared to permanent workers. That may be because they have less training, are less familiar with worksite hazards, are assigned to high-hazard tasks or are reluctant to exercise their rights regarding working conditions.

Often, there is confusion over who is responsible for worker health and safety when two different employers are involved. The temporary staffing agency hires and manages the worker. The host employer controls the working conditions. There may be very limited communication between them, and the worker can be left unprotected.

Additionally, these types of employment arrangements can be used by host employers to avoid financial liability for worker injuries, creating a perverse incentive not to invest in safe working conditions.

It’s also worth noting that traditionally marginalized populations, including racial and ethnic minorities, women and lower-educated and lower-skilled workers, tend to be overrepresented in non-standard employment, including temp agency work.

Trevor Peckham shakes hands with Gov. Jay Inslee
Peckham shakes hands with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at a bill-signing ceremony in April. Photo: Courtesy of Washington State Legislature.
How did you get state lawmakers to focus on this issue during your recent internship?

The internship made me realize there is a massive policy vacuum around these workers. Worker health and safety issues are very compelling for lawmakers and other stakeholders, but this issue was not really on their radar.

With support from Sen. Keiser and her staff, I helped organize a work session with state lawmakers that included testimony by labor advocates, staffing agencies and state experts on health and safety issues for temp workers.

And I developed a report with recommendations on different policy solutions, including regulating the kinds of work temp workers can be hired to do or requiring more communication among the host employer, the staffing agency and the worker.

How can scientists do a better job of translating their research into policy impact?

I really believe we have a duty as scientists to help close the gap between the research we do and the positive impact it can have on people's lives and livelihoods.

My research isn’t just about labor market trends. It is connected to many related issues—social justice, wealth inequality, worker protections, public health, to name a few.

As scientists, I think we must do a better job of highlighting these issues for policymakers. When we frame our work in terms of how it affects real people, that resonates with them. No worker should die or get hurt on the job—that’s something everyone can agree on.

Now that you’ve seen policymaking from the inside, any plans to run for office?

[laughing] …. I think I’ll leave elected office to the professionals for now, though I look forward to future opportunities to serve as a bridge between policy and science.