UIC Center for Healthy Work gets $7 million funding for improving worker health

The UIC Center for Healthy Work has been awarded a five-year, $7 million grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to continue their research towards improving health of low-wage workers.

The Center, which was first launched in 2016, anticipate the newly awarded grant to support ongoing projects through 2026 to reduce the health disparities and barriers to health experienced by workers who earn a low wage or who are in other precarious employment circumstances.

Precarious employment is used for work that has a poor pay, wherein workers are forced to work in unprotected or insecure conditions. In such employment, individuals do not receive the same benefits as those in more secure or permanent positions — like employer-sponsored health insurance or medical leave. Examples include street vendors, crafters, domestic care providers, and people in temporary or unsafe working conditions, like those in manufacturing and warehouses.

“Rates of precarious employment are increasing, and our social structures and policies are lagging behind in providing basic protections for many workers,” said Lorraine Conroy, center director and UIC professor of environmental and occupational health sciences. “We hope that through collaborative, participatory action research we can create positive changes that better protect and promote worker health.”

Conroy said that these rates were increasing before the COVID-19 pandemic and workers in precarious employment, who don’t have work-from-home flexibility or who have been unable to retain work due to illness or fear of contracting the virus, have experienced significant barriers to health during the pandemic. Lower-income communities have also experienced a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

UIC Center for Healthy Work researchers have conducted extensive outreach and engaged hundreds of community members from Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood and throughout Illinois in research to understand the nature and prevalence of low-wage and precarious work.

With the renewed funding, center researchers will advance this work with community members and expand efforts to empower workers.

A new project includes collaborating with a large employer to develop and implement a process that uses data to identify the factors that prevent worker well-being — like social determinants of health or diversity, equity and inclusion factors. The goal is to improve worker health through a method for organizational decision-making that fosters healthy work initiatives as a sustainable business strategy.

The center will also expand collaborations across systems-level partners, like those in public health agencies and worker advocacy groups.

Through research and broad dissemination of data and findings, the UIC team hopes to draw attention to the impact of low-wage and precarious work on health in local communities and provide policymakers with the information needed to drive impactful change. In addition, to make sure that workers know their rights and can find resources.

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