News & Commentary

January 21, 2024

Will Ebeler

Will Ebeler is a student at Harvard Law School.

In this weekend’s news and commentary, news media companies continue to cut jobs; OSHA finds that poultry-processing company is “directly to blame” for a 16-year-old’s death; and a new study finds that workplace wellness programs have no measurable benefit for the employees who participate.

On Friday, Greg discussed the walkout planned by the L.A. Times Newsroom Guild to protest the newspaper’s upcoming layoffs that will affect roughly 20% of the paper’s newsroom. Also last week, two more news media companies announced significant layoffs. First, on Wednesday the publishing company Condé Nast announced that it would be combining two subsidiary companies together, with accompanying layoffs. It will be folding the music criticism site Pitchfork into the men’s magazine GQ. Condé Nast declined to say publicly how many employees were laid off at either company; in November it laid off 270 workers, or 5% of its total workforce. In addition, on Friday workers at Sports Illustrated learned that a significant portion of staff would be laid off. For the last four years the magazine has been published by the company Arena Group under a licensing agreement reached with the magazine’s owner, Authentic Brands Group, but Authentic Brands Group terminated that license last week. The union representing Sports Illustrated employees said the layoffs would affect “a significant number, possibly all” of the magazine’s staff and called on Authentic Brands Group to “ensure the continued publication of SI and allow it to serve our audience in the way it has for nearly 70 years.”

Last Monday, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited a poultry company for its role in the death of a 16-year-old boy last July. OSHA found that Mar-Jac Poultry was directly responsible for the boy’s death after he was pulled into a machine at its slaughterhouse in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The boy was cleaning a machine in the plant when he was caught and pulled into it. The Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity identified the boy as Duvan Tomas Pérez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala six to seven years ago. According to the Department of Labor, companies are prohibited from employing minors to clean meat-processing machines because the work is too dangerous.  OSHA said that Pérez was contracted to work at the plant by a third-party staffing company. Pérez’s death is a tragic reminder that despite the high-profile crackdown on child labor by the DOL last winter, companies continued to hire immigrant children to do dangerous work. OSHA cited the company with 17 violations and proposed to fine the company more than $200,000. The company has 15 business days to respond to the proposed fine.

Finally, a new study has found that workplace wellness programs have little measurable benefit. William Fleming, a British researcher, analyzed survey responses from over 46,000 workers at 233 companies that offer a variety of mental health services. These offerings include wellness apps, coaching, relaxation classes, courses in time management or financial health, and trainings on resilience and stress management. Fleming matched coworkers at the same workplace and compared the wellbeing of a worker who participated in these wellness programs with the wellbeing of a coworker who did not. He found that there was no measurable average difference in the wellbeing of these matched coworkers. However, there were some granular differences: workers who participated in volunteer or charity work did seem to have improved well-being, while trainings on resilience and stress management appeared to have a negative effect.  Some experts criticized his findings. A professor of psychiatry at Yale (and the co-founder of a platform that connects employees with mental health programs) criticized Fleming for looking at mental health treatments that were “not highly credible” and measuring a worker’s well-being months after the treatments. Another researcher pointed out that some of the treatments are generally considered less effective than others but that Fleming’s study failed to capture that detail; she also criticized the study for failing to capture potential changes in workers’ wellbeing over time. However, a third expert described Fleming’s data as “certainly more robust” than much of the prior research on employee wellness programs. What does help improve employee wellbeing, according to Fleming? Working conditions: hours, pay, and opportunity for advancement.

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