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.”
INDUSTRIAL LAUNDRY AND DRY CLEANING WORKERS
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 , 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 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 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 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 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.
NAIL SALON 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.