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Land of Hope and Exploitation...

The Worst Jobs in America

A lot of congratulations were passed around by lawmakers a few weeks
ago when the federal hourly minimum wage was increased to $5.85, a 70
cent uptick. But wages are just part of the problem for workers in
bottom-rung jobs. Health hazards, lack of insurance and labor law
violations are among the on-the-job inequities faced by these workers,
according to industry experts interviewed by TIME, as well as a new
report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University
School of Law. "This is incredibly important because we're talking
about people who, for whatever reason, have been pushed to the fringes
of society," says policy analyst Liana Fox of the Economic Policy
Institute, a Washington-based research group.

What are the worst jobs in America? Things are especially tough for
service workers in three low-wage U.S. industries: laundry services,
supermarkets and nail salons. Industry representatives argue that
conditions in these jobs are no worse than those in other competitive
service sectors. But these are trades that often go unnoticed. Unlike
many manufacturing jobs, these positions aren't vulnerable to
outsourcing, but they�re losing protection as domestic unions lose
sway. "There's no reason these jobs have to be unsafe or very low-wage
jobs," says Fox. "These could be good jobs. And these are all jobs that
are more or less here to stay."


Garbage collectors have historically set the bar for messy jobs.
But laundry workers, particularly in hospitals, deal with a more
perilous kind of waste. When bio-hazardous materials aren�t disposed of
properly, they sometimes find their way into laundry rooms. "They have
blood, needles, body parts, bits of fingers, everything in those bags,"
says a worker quoted in the Brennan Center report, "Unregulated Work in
the Global City," referrring to the bags of hospital linens that he is
required to wash.

Exposure to toxins is another danger for the 235,000 laundry and
dry-cleaning workers nationwide, Forms of nonyl phenol ethoxylate
(NPEs), chemicals commonly found in U.S. detergents, have been shown to
cause fish to change gender and are banned in the European Union and
Canada. On June 5, laundry workers petitioned the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) to provide health and safety protections from
NPEs. Currently, the EPA's guidelines on chemicals date back to 1985,
and do not reflect recent research on NPEs.

Dry-cleaning workers, too, are at risk from prolonged exposure to
chemicals. The National Institute of Environmental Health Services
reports that in high concentrations, perchloroethylene (PCE) — the
dry-cleaning chemical used as the primary solvent in more than 90% of
the estimated 50,000 dry cleaning stores in the U.S. — can harm the
central nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control,
studies show that PCE may be a factor in the increased risk for
cervical cancer among female dry-cleaning workers. Tom Kelly, director
of the indoor environments division of EPA, confirmed that PCE may be
dangerous, particularly in residential buildings, and can be a factor
in both cancer and non-cancer illness. Nora Nealis, executive director
of the National Cleaners Association, responds that, while conditions
vary from plant to plant, the industry has made great strides in
protecting workers. "With proper training," says Nealis, "especially
with all the technology available, I wouldn't say that dry cleaners are
exposed to any untoward risks."

In the non-union laundry plants that make up 70%-80% of the
industry, workers earn the minimum wage or just above it. Coin-operated
laundries often pay less, sometimes as little as $3 an hour. Dry
cleaners' wages average between $250 and $400 a week for about 60
hours. Workers are often pressured into reporting that they�ve worked
fewer hours than they have, and non-union workers are forced to skip
meal breaks.


Baggers have it bad. They�re on their feet all day, repeatedly
lifting loads as heavy as 80 lbs., which puts them at risk for
musculoskeletal disorders. As for safety, they're largely on their own.
In 2001, Congress axed regulations proposed by the Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (OSHA) that would have required employers to
provide safety training and to compensate injured workers. Instead,
OSHA issued voluntary safety guidelines that employers can legally
neglect. Yet the official tally of injuries and illnesses among
supermarket workers has declined, according to the Food Marketing
Institute, which attributes that change in part to improved safety
measures and employee training.

Grocery store workers earn an average of $332 a week, according to
the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with average weekly earnings
of $529 for all workers in the private sector. But some baggers don't
even make $300, because they are paid only in tips. But according to
Jill Cashen, spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers
Union, grocery store jobs, when unionized, can be stable enough to
support a family. "From baggers up to meat department managers," Cashen
says, "workers can look at their union grocery jobs as career positions
that provide financial security."

While chains like Whole Foods are making inroads across the U.S.,
independent, non-union grocery stores are proliferating too, and many
lag on labor standards. On June 19, for example, the New York State
Labor Department learned of potential labor violations at one of the
grocery stores in the Manhattan-based Amish Market chain. The
Department sent investigators to all 11 of the chain's outposts, and
the preliminary findings suggested minimum wage, overtime and
tip-credit violations, according to Commissioner Patricia Smith —
charges that Amish Market downplayed, calling the investigation routine.

Smith�s department has also started performing random searches in an
effort to combat other labor problems, not just wage violations. "In
the past, if there were violations we didn't have jurisdiction over, we
would just ignore them," she says. Now, Smith instructs inspectors to
alert relevant agencies. Worker advocates argue that broader
enforcement of existing regulations nationwide could help improve
conditions for more than 2.5 million supermarket workers.


Manicurists and pedicurists in the U.S. number 155,000, and the
industry has tripled over the last two decades. Forty-two percent of
nail technicians are Asian immigrant women, according to industry
estimates, and many have little recourse when exposed to dangerous
health conditions. Cosmetics ingredients don't fall under the
jurisdiction of either the EPA or the Food and Drug Administration, and
many such products sold in the U.S. today contain known toxins.
Formaldehyde and toluene, both identified by the EPA as carcinogens,
are part of the mix in many common cosmetics, as are phthalates,
chemicals that have been linked to birth defects. For the average
consumer, opening a bottle of nail polish once every so often is a
negligible risk. But for professionals exposed to them consistently, it
can be a bigger problem.

According to a 2006 report by the National Asian Pacific American
Women's Forum, 89% of the 10,000 chemicals used in nail-care products
have not been safety tested by an independent agency. Since 2001, the
Environmental Working Group, a public health watchdog, has been
studying many of those same ingredients, with disturbing results. The
group has noted that one common brand of nail glue contains ingredients
linked to cancer and reproductive defects, a significant finding given
that more than half of Asian immigrant women working in nail salons are
of child-bearing age. Hannah Lee, executive editor of Nails Magazine,
an industry publication, says that safety fears are often overblown.
"If you follow all the rules that are out there, it's a perfectly safe
job," Lee says. "There's no research that suggests that the amount of
chemicals that nail technicians or maniurists are exposed to on a
day-to-day basis is a problem."

In 2005, California, which is home to 21% of all nail technicians
nationwide, passed a Safe Cosmetics Bill, requiring cosmetics
manufacturers to disclose dangerous ingredients to the State Department
of Health and Human Services. Disclosure, though, doesn't mean mandated
elimination of those chemicals, leaving the onus on workers to reduce
their exposure. "It's as safe a job as you can make it," says Lee.

Time mag.


  1. Blogger Aravis says @ 3:43 pm
    But our minimum wage went up to $7 last year, so I'm confused as to when that was written.

    As for the rest, I don't doubt it. My husband is in the grocery industry. His full-time job is in a privately-owned store, but they treat their employees really well. His part-time job is unionized. After reading this, I'm grateful for his situation.

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