Precarious employment is a complex issue that impacts an increasing number of workers in all economic sectors, resulting in adverse worker, family, and community health outcomes. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC ) Center for Healthy Work characterizes precarious work by “low wages, high hazards, and a lack of benefits, permanency, or opportunities for advancement.” Work is one of the most important social determinants of health and interacts with health on multiple levels. Boone County Health Department (BCHD) has been leading an interdisciplinary team to embark on a mission to gain a comprehensive understanding of their surrounding workforce and to facilitate a path towards creating healthier work environments.
Over the last few decades, Boone County, a rural county in northern Illinois, experienced several profound changes in both their local economy and demographics, especially in the manufacturing and agriculture sectors. Boone County’s high proportion of blue-collar workers and population of undocumented residents are particularly affected by precarious work. These workers, along with several local employers, community organizations, and health advocates, share a common interest in increasing access and availability of stable, healthy jobs in Boone County.
The need to develop strategies to connect with community members, especially precariously employed workers, to learn about the effects of changes to Boone County’s local economy, demographics, and level of access to healthy jobs was vital. In addition, Boone County’s Comprehensive Plan and their Community Health Improvement Plan identified objectives related to economic growth and development, workforce development, and the social determinants of health, which made addressing precarious work a priority area for the county.
The University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) Center for Healthy Work invited the Boone County Health Department to participate in a summer 2018 initiative which included a six session series to develop networking and utilize technical assistance to explore the concept of healthy work and the short and long-term health impacts to a community. A representative from The Boone County Board, Boone County Health department, Growth Dimensions, and The Workforce Connection participated in the Center for Healthy Work’s “Healthy Work Collaborative to Map Action for Social Change.” These efforts lead to the formation of the Boone County Healthy Work Initiative (BCHWI).
During Phase I (May – August 2018), BCHWI developed a strategic plan utilizing the information learned from UIC’s Center for Healthy Work Collaborative, their prior knowledge of Boone County and, most importantly, with the community’s needs and strengths in mind. This plan was presented to local leadership and set the stage for future phases. Continuing into Phase II, BCHWI decided to conduct focus groups with community members in order to discuss workplace dynamics and capture input from the community. Alongside organizing focus groups throughout the community, BCHWI met with Boone County’s Health and Human Services Committee to give progress updates and seek support from local leadership.
A total of 50 community members participated in the five focus groups. Qualitative data analysis revealed six overarching themes: barriers to employment, mental and physical health, education, youth population, unemployment and wages, and employer recognition.
Following the conclusion of the focus group and data analysis, the BCHWI began the draft of a resolution that encompasses the issues community members reported and sought the support of the Boone County Board. After presenting the results of the focus group and proposed draft of a City Council and County Board resolution, Boone County’s Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously (5-0) for it to be passed onto the full County Board. On Wednesday, August 21st, 2019 the Boone County Board passed the resolution with an 11-1 vote.
The Boone County Healthy Work Initiative has secured further funding offered by UIC’s Center for Healthy Work in order to help implement and sustain the initiative into Phase III. With the passing of the resolution, the Boone County Healthy Work Initiative plans to use county support to help drive the creation of a resource center for workers and community members.
Challenges attaining support brought opportunities for self-reflection on public health’s role and ability to engage with stakeholders in other sectors. More specifically, the importance of the reflection on use of language to relate with the community and finding ways everyone can connect and use common language. The BCHWI used this an opportunity to support existing plans with community efforts. During the writing process, steps were taken to align the initiative with the BCHD’S Illinois Plan for Local Area Needs (IPLAN) and the County Comprehensive plan’s goals, strategies, and objectives. This project can be replicated in other counties and tailored to the needs of community members.
Working within a rural county with a limited budget and a tight timeline to complete proposed project goals required creative problem solving but was not without its limitations. The BCHWI had the goal in mind to seek a diverse set of focus groups but were not able to hear from all community members or industry sectors through the small sample of feedback given and gaining support from local leadership was at times challenging. However, using the feedback from community members, elected officials and stakeholders to continually improve the initiative was an effective tool for success. With these lessons learned, BCHWI plans to continue empowering the labor community, increasing civic engagement, and improving working conditions.
Follow the links for more details:
Link to UIC’s Center for Healthy Work: https://healthywork.uic.edu/initiatives/healthy-communities-through-healthy-work/
Boone County Health Department: https://www.boonecountyil.org/...