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Precarious employment trends indicate increases in income inequality and health disparities

UW EPI NEWS | January 28, 2021
3 minutes to read

Quality of work is increasingly recognized as a social determinant of health. In the United States, the number of high-quality, full-time jobs with sufficient salaries and benefits has declined over the last 40 years, whereas the number of low-quality, insecure jobs, also known as precarious employment (PE) has increased. Researchers from the University of Washington (UW) Departments of Epidemiology and Health Services recently published findings in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Healthfrom the first longitudinal study in the United States that describes significant trends in precarious employment. 

The study analyzed occupational information from 7,568 workers and established a longitudinal precarious employment score (PES) based on 13 survey indicators and 7 dimensions of employment quality. These dimensions evaluated the job attributes for these workers, including material rewards, hours worked, job stability, decision-making freedom, ability to collectively organize, training opportunities, and the differential of employees relative to management. Overall, this analysis indicated a 9 percent increase in precarious employment in the United States, over the last 28 years, and was more prevalent among those with lower-incomes and people of color.   

“The type of employment we have affects all facets of our lives, and precariously-employed workers may be at a higher risk of stress and poor health,” explained the study’s lead author, Dr. Vanessa Oddo, Affiliate Assistant Professor, UW Department of Health Services. “These trends can help us understand the role work may play in widening health inequities.” 

This study builds on previous employment research, which has typically focused on one particular type of employment characteristic, or on specific aspects of the workplace. Job quality is complex as it involves many factors including wages, hours, and interpersonal dynamics. The goal of this research was to study working conditions over time and how that information can be used to guide future policies to improve productivity and population health.  

“This study affirms that people of color, women, and those with less education remain disproportionately trapped in low-quality jobs,” described co-author, Dr. Anjum Hajat, Assistant Professor, UW Department of Epidemiology. This analysis also indicated a rise in precarious employment for men and those with higher incomes and education. “We can only infer why we saw varying increases among certain groups. The important point here is that the decline in employment quality is widespread.”  

“These findings are very policy-relevant,” explained Dr. Hajat. “Many states are considering ways to improve the lives of workers, everything from the way gig economy workers are classified to expanding access to paid family leave; We are also seeing the desire to unionize certain industries, such as tech. All of this is signaling the importance of ensuring protections on the job.”  

The data for this study was from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the Occupational Information Network database from 1988 through 2016, and analyzed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has altered the way many people work globally.  

“When we began this research in 2018, we could not have foreseen the unprecedented rise in unemployment and stark changes to working conditions caused by COVID-19,” Oddo explained. “Based on our findings, and the hazards present for those who are not able to work remotely, we believe this study can help inform policies that improve working conditions, particularly as workplace safety is top of mind as more people return to work in coming months.”