Cass Ben-Levi, MA — Associate Producer & Grant Writer

“Working on Empty” (WOE) is a transmedia project on declining American worker health, poor work-life culture, and the laws, policies, and workplace practices that perpetuate these conditions.

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“Winter is coming.” (Game of Thrones)

Actually, Winter is here. Workers are under attack from the politicians they elected.

In Wisconsin, formerly a bastion of enlightened labor policy, Republican Governor Scott Walker, included a provision in the 2015 budget permitting workers to “voluntarily” give up their one day off each week…? (Business Insider, July 2015) What could possibly go wrong?

Ten states have been cited as banning cities from establishing the right to sick leave — even when it is overwhelmingly supported by voters of the city. (Economic Policy Institute, November 2013)

And the newly-released Trump budget proposes to cut the Department of Labor budget (for example, OSHA) by 21%, (Huffington Post, March 2017). The effects could decimate such programs as worker training programs, workplace inspections and investigations of wage theft. Also proposed is an 18% cut to the National Institute for Health (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health).

Huh. All of this sounded absurd to me, but I wanted to look at the facts. Let’s look at working hours.

According to OECD Statistics 2016,* Americans (both part-time and full-time) work an average of 38.6 hours per week — more than workers in most European countries. And 40% of full-time workers regularly work more than 50 hours per week. (Gallup Poll, August 2014)

*See: Average usual weekly hours worked on the main job, 2015 column.

In addition, Americans take many fewer vacation days than their European counterparts. “Compared to people living in France, Germany, and Scandinavia, who routinely take as much as six weeks off annually, (Fortune, July 2015; CEPR), U.S. employees typically leave about 658 million paid vacation days on the table every year. (Project: Time-Off 2016)

No wonder Americans are stressed out. They are working their butts off and politicians tell them they are not working hard enough and keep taking away their hard-earned rights. No wonder they are angry.

This kind of Ebenezer Scrooge mentality by the “job creators” has always made me angry too. As do the other strategies in their divide-and-conquer playbook — racism/white supremacy, ultra-religiosity, union-busting, anti-intellectualism, and the war on women.

My first step into politics was when I, at 13, became the youngest member of the Ohio Committee to Abolish Capital Punishment. From there I went on to activism — advocating equal opportunities for minorities, protesting the Vietnam War, and working for rent control and access to healthcare.

In 1975 I wrote the equivalent of a Master’s Thesis on American social movements. The earliest example I included was the Haymarket Seven who, in 1886, were convicted (and eventually pardoned) of setting off a bomb at a rally in Chicago. That rally was in support of the 8-hour day. At that time the work week was 6 days and 60 hours per week. It seems like politicians like Scott Walker want to bring back those “good old days.”

Throughout my career, I have worked in organizations that try to right these wrongs, or at least try to help the people who are victims of these strategies.

Since 2004 I have been the Director of Continuing Education and Outreach for the Southern California Education and Research Center at UCLA. Simply put, we offer courses on workplace safety and health. Most of the courses are for occupational safety and health professionals, and many others are for business owners, managers and supervisors, members of labor/management safety committees and workers. These courses train participants to identify workplace hazards and what can be done about them, from personal protective equipment, to changing work procedures, to making the work itself safer.

But our reach is not enough. Instead of government or private enterprise making it possible for this important safety training to reach as many as possible, we have to charge fees to workers or their employers for people to attend. And the belt-tightening of the last decade and more means only a few receive the benefits of training.

And even if our reach was huge, training is not enough. When you are working in a high-pressure job with low pay and less ability to effect change, no matter how much training you have, it is how the work is organized that has to change…

Consider the hotel housekeeper. She (almost all of them are women and, at least in California, the great majority are Hispanic) is responsible for 15 or more number of rooms per day. (Unite Here Survey Report, 2009). This number has increased over the last few years despite the fact that the work itself has become harder because hotels are using more bedding, sheets and pillows, and more luxurious, heavier mattresses. “Many times a day, hotel housekeepers must lift mattresses that each weigh 100 pounds, leading to a high rate of debilitating injuries.” (Los Angeles Times, 2011)

These ladies are in pain — physical pain. And they also experience job strain. “Our sample of Latina hotel housekeepers often faced situations that were out of their control, such as late check-out guests or being assigned to extremely dirty rooms, which contributed to time pressures that in turn caused great stress.” (Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, May 2015)

Or consider the big box store cashier. I know a lot about this because my daughter-in-law was one. She described the kind of abuse she had to put up with from customers, while not being backed up by supervisors. She worked the cash register when she was very pregnant, yet no one helped her to move heavy purchases from the conveyor belt to the cart. Her pay was low. Her hours were kept part-time to prevent her from being eligible for benefits. So she had to go on food stamps and Medicaid just to get by.

And bus drivers? They must complete each route, each stop, on time in spite of unpredictable traffic and weather. They have few opportunities for bathroom breaks. And violence is a constant possibility.

In my role as Continuing Education Director, I learned about “work organization,” and that how we work is as important to our mental and physical health as exposure to chemicals, bloodborne pathogens and falls. I learned about the connection of work stress to cardiovascular disease through my friend Peter Schnall. I read his book, “Unhealthy Work” and two years ago, I joined him and other colleagues on WOE.

Look — I am not a scientist, but I do know something about workplace health and safety — about how the most vulnerable among us are at the highest risk, because they have fewer protections. They are part-time workers because, like my daughter-in-law, they are prevented from working enough hours to qualify for benefits. They are contingent workers (trying to get by on so-called “precarious labor”), at the mercy of last-minute changes to schedules and cancellations. They are constantly, daily under pressure to meet production goals set at the highest bar. They are considered expendable.

I have always believed in democracy — political democracy and economic democracy.

Right now we don’t have enough of either.

I see in WOE the possibility of extending and enriching the lives of working people. I offer courses that 25 people take at a time that never come close to the potential reach of this film. But for this project to be successful, we need working people like you to join us — not only to hear what we have to say, but to share your story — to speak the truth.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” -Barack Obama

To support the WOE movement:

With your help, we will have created more than hope — we’ll have cemented lasting, positive change in the name of healthy working conditions.

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Cass Ben-Levi, MA, WOE Grant Writer and Associate Producer, has been the Director of Continuing Education and Outreach for the Southern California NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) Education and Research Center located at UCLA for 13 years, providing courses on workplace safety and health to occupational health and safety professionals and workers. In these capacities and others, she works to improve the lives of working people and the underserved, as she has tried to do throughout her career. (LinkedIn, Twitter, UCLA SCERC Facebook and UCLA SCERC Twitter)