Gig Workers’ Health Studied by New California Labor Laboratory

Initiative Is One of Ten NIOSH Centers of Excellence for  Total Worker Health

By Rebecca Wolfson

A rideshare worker using a hands free phone clip whilst driving a car.

By some estimates, California’s alternate or gig work economy makes up to 40 percent of the state’s workforce. Most of these project- and task-based work situations do not provide workers with job security, health and retirement benefits, or legal protections, yet little is known about how these working conditions affect workers’ health.

The California Labor Laboratory is a new initiative of UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, and the California Department of Public Health to design and inform policies, programs, and practices that advance worker well-being. Funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the center will address the health of California workers in both traditional jobs and other employment arrangements, including gig workers, subcontractors, independent contractors, consultants, seasonal and temporary workers.

“The California Labor Lab is focused on understanding the implications for the health and welfare of workers even when workers are not afforded systematic protections that have come from traditional employment,” said Ed Yelin, PhD, the director of the new center and a professor with UCSF’s Institute of Health Policy Studies. “Alternative work arrangements have led to the diffusion of responsibility for the welfare of workers, with potentially harmful consequences for their health.”

The lab’s research includes a longitudinal study of 5,000 working-age Californians; an examination of gender and race/ethnicity disparities in working conditions in the service sector; and an education and prevention campaign to prevent silicosis, a lethal lung disease that afflicts an increasing number of stone industry workers who are exposed to silica dust.

In addition to researching the health impacts of alternative employment situations, the lab will develop interventions to help improve working conditions.

“Work has changed so much and it’s time to take an accounting of it, especially for these new forms of work,” said Cristina Banks, PhD, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at UC Berkeley, who will serve as associate director of outreach for the lab.

Policy and regulatory changes will be necessary, but Banks said she will also explore forms of protection and empowerment such as worker cooperatives and associations, and tangible tools and solutions for employers.

The California Labor Lab is focused on understanding the implications for the health and welfare of workers even when workers are not afforded systematic protections that have come from traditional employment.

Ed Yelin, PhD, Professor, Institute for Health Policy Studies

The pandemic, which undermined the social support system, has spurred many workers to assert their needs. In some states gig workers are organizing themselves into cooperatives so they can get some of the same legal protections and benefits as permanent employees.

“Workers want more, they want better, they want respect,” Banks said. “Before the pandemic, we had people accepting the terms and conditions by which they worked.”

Banks said she’s optimistic about the situation these employees face.

“Healthy workplaces benefit employers and employees alike – by increasing productivity and supporting well-being,” she said, “The way we do business, the way we hire people, the way we treat people, our economic model of getting the most out of an individual per unit of time, is a well-worn path I’d like to erase.”

Participating organizations include UCSF’s Institute for Health Policy Studies, Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and School of Dentistry; UC Berkeley’s Center for Occupational & Environmental Health, Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, Labor Center, and Labor Occupational Health Program; the state of California Department of Public Health; and consultants from UCLA, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy, and PolicyLink.