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Healthy Work Collaborative: Addressing Precarious Work Through Social Change

A man stands between rows of strawberries, holding a box with strawberries he has picked.  In the background, other workers are leaning over rows of plants, picking strawberries.

The UIC School of Public Health’s Center for Healthy Work was established in 2016 as a research and education center that will advance the health and well-being of workers in Chicago, the state of Illinois, and the nation. Dr. Lorraine Conroy, the center’s Director, shared “Our center is one of six Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health® whose mission is to remove barriers that impact the health of low wage workers in the increasingly contingent workforce.”

One of the current priorities of the center is an action research approach that looks at precarious employment, a complex problem that impacts an increasing number of workers in all economic sectors. Characterized by low wages, hazardous conditions, discriminatory practices, limited opportunities for advancement, and lacking employee benefits, precarious jobs often adversely impact the health of workers, their families, and ultimately, their communities. “Our goal is to look at policy, systems and environmental initiatives to improve health for workers in precarious jobs by addressing community and structural-level barriers to health,” explained Dr. Christina Welter, Director of the MidAmerica Center for Public Health Practice who is leading the center’s Healthy Communities through Healthy Work (HCHW) project.

In spring 2017, the HCHW project launched its initiative first by conducting fifty-five interviews with national, state, and local organizations across sectors. Additionally, over 230 partner initiatives that advance worker health were catalogued. Analysis of interviews and initiatives indicated that while labor organizations often pursue public policy action to address issues of concern, public health and healthcare organizations are more likely to conduct trainings or develop internal business policies.

Findings from the interviews also highlighted public health and healthcare organizations’ limited knowledge about precarious employment. Evidence highlighted a lack of collaboration between health and labor organizations despite the fact that public health and healthcare organizations recognize work as a key social determinant of health. Findings were used to develop the next phase of the project, which included an intersectoral capacity building initiative called the Healthy Work Collaborative.

Hosted at the UIC School of Public Health, the Healthy Work Collaborative invited public health and health care organizations to engage with labor, government, and non-profit organizations. “Our goal was to bring together a diverse group of organizations to address work-related issues to jointly catalyze policy, systems, and environmental change,” Welter said. Eight teams of multi-sectoral partners were selected to participate in the six-session exploratory process. Representatives from the labor sector provided technical assistance and facilitated training on Power Mapping, Theory of Change, and Action Planning to help these organizations define precarious work and build organizational capacity to create change.

The Healthy Work Collaborative teams are looking forward to moving into the implementation phase in the fall of 2018. “Examples of team projects include the development of trainings for hospital workers to identify and address workplace exploitation in their patient population, as well as the exploration of co-production of enforcement between local public health departments and labor organizations,” shared Welter. An example is public health department restaurant inspectors helping to educate restaurant managers about wage theft and other policies that go beyond food safety and quality.

Welter and the Healthy Communities through Healthy Work team were awarded the Public Health Program of Excellence Award at the Illinois Public Health Association’s Annual Event on September 6, 2018 in Bloomington, Illinois, for their work with public health partners through the Healthy Work Collaborative.