Editor's Note

April 1, 2013
Job benefits are woeful in dental hygiene. For example, an informal survey conducted by RDH eVillage this spring indicates 65% of hygienists have no disability insurance ...

by Mark Hartley

Job benefits are woeful in dental hygiene. For example, an informal survey conducted by RDH eVillage this spring indicates 65% of hygienists have no disability insurance, even though they work in a profession that only professional athletes could covet. Your shoulder, neck, wrist, and back pains do seem minor when compared to a violent consequence of playing a sport.

But everyone else looking for a career path is paying attention when the sportscaster solemnly announces, "They are escorting her from the dental office. You always hate to watch these injuries unfold on the field. Mary Joe got her dental hygiene degree locally and is a fan favorite. She is waving her arm at us as if she thinks she'll be back in tomorrow. But I think we can safely project that her career is over."

Health insurance, paid sick leave, vacations, paid holidays, and even "uniforms." None of the benefits are particularly outstanding, according to the results of the survey. It's almost as if employers have convinced the dental hygiene profession that the benefit of bringing patients back to good oral health is enough.

Say it ain't so, Mary Joe!

While in the middle of preparing the statistics on job benefits survey for RDH eVillage, I was following a thread of comments about unionization. Some think dental hygienists should form a union.

The trouble with that is that you already are a union member, or should be. It's called the American Dental Hygienists' Association. It's not my intent to insult the stalwart supporters of the ADHA by comparing them to a union. The ADHA is not a union and cannot represent you in front of employers in terms of salaries and benefits. The ADHA, however, does represent the collective voice of dental hygiene and is only as strong as its membership.

Anne Guignon, the Comfort Zone columnist in this magazine, followed the same chitchat about unionization that I did, and jumped into the conversation. Here's a short version of what she said, "[Low membership] means that the ADHA has little clout with legislative bodies both locally and nationally. My husband is a member of Teamsters Local 988 in Houston. Those who worked hard to create unions sacrificed money, jobs, time, and even their lives to make things better for their fellow workers. With few exceptions, I have never seen that type of commitment in our profession. [My response is] based on hygienists who bring up the talk of a union in lieu of ADHA. Collective bargaining via a union can work, but the members must be willing to pay dues, create a common focus, and stand by their decision to work together for the common good of the union members as a singular body.

"It took me 10 years to realize the importance of being a member of ADHA, and I've been a member for the last 33 years. ADHA is the logical collective voice to be spearheading our initial forays into change."

RDH is completely independent of the ADHA. So I have no incentive to encourage you to join the ADHA.

It's simply the right thing to do.

While the ADHA membership would not likely have an immediate impact on salaries and benefits, a strong association would help avert all perceptions that dental hygiene is a part-time occupation of semi-skilled tooth cleaners who deserve no special consideration from employers, politicians, the health-care community in general, etc. (In fact, the ADHA does this routinely; remember the clarification about a career in dental hygiene that was issued by The View last year?)

Returning back to the job benefits survey, a logical conclusion is that someone who practices one day a week has less incentive to join the ADHA than a full-time hygienist. If you earn less than $20,000 a year from the profession, the dues might seem a little cumbersome: 31% of the respondents who work one day a week belong to the ADHA; only 28% of the hygienists who work four or more days a week, though, belong to the association.

OK, maybe it's a city slicker thing. It's eaiser to network with a hygienist in the high rise next door than it is with a hygienist 40 miles away: 27% of rural hygienists and 28% of metropolitan hygienists belong to the ADHA.

One demographic answer may be in the education acquired; 29% of hygienists who have an associate's degree as their highest level of education belong to the ADHA, compared to 36% of hygienists who have attained a bachelor's degree or higher.

Unless I'm mistaken, though, a union is going to want participation from more than one third of the workers. If the idea of a union has an appeal to you, join the ADHA.

Mark Hartley
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