April 27, 2021
Chip Hughes, MPH ‘82, was planning to retire when the Biden-Harris administration called on him to serve. He saw the opportunity to work with the United States Department of Labor as a chance to advance his decades-long mission to improve the health and well-being of workers. In honor of this appointment, his wife, Janis Kupersmidt, PhD, along with friends, colleagues and other family members, established the Joseph “Chip” Hughes Worker Education and Training Research Fund at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health to support the next generation in continuing this work.
A strike at Brookside Mines brought Hughes to Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1974 to work with the United Mine Workers and educate residents about conditions in the coal mines; but this wasn’t his first foray into activism. He had already put college on hold — with promises to his parents to return and finish his studies — to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in support of the civil rights movement in Atlanta and Southwest Georgia. There, he became involved in the Institute for Southern Studies and was the first editor of the Southern Exposure magazine.
However, it was in North Carolina that he connected with many of the people he would end up working with for years to come, and he developed an understanding of workers’ rights and civil rights as inextricably linked.
“That experience tapped me into a big network of people who had transitioned from anti-war activism in the ‘60s to thinking about changing our whole society for the better,” said Hughes. “One of the things that came out of it was the beginnings of the Carolina Brown Lung Association. There were 35,000 people with chronic lung disease living in small mill villages across the state, and we set up associations and medical clinics, started a worker’s compensation program and actually passed one of the first occupational safety and health standards — the cotton dust standard.”
This experience imprinted on him the importance of health as a fundamental human right, and he saw the outsized, but understudied, impact of the workplace. He also became aware of the role of work in driving the social determinants of health that cause health disparities, and that workplace health hazards disproportionately affected immigrants and people of color.
Early work in N.C. showed Hughes how to make a difference, but he needed more data. Contact with health professionals along the way convinced him that UNC’s School of Public Health was the place to develop the skills he needed to conduct evidence-based and multidisciplinary research and develop findings that he could act on. He earned a Master of Public Health degree from UNC’s Department of Health Behavior and Education in 1982, and he still maintains connections with many current and former faculty members at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, whom he calls “the pioneers of community-based practice.” In fact, he returns to the School’s career fair every year to connect students with the resources they need to further their careers.
He progressed from positions in several grassroots organizations to the federal government, which he says broadened his ability to improve the health and lives of numerous people in thousands of workplaces across the country.
Now Hughes notes that the COVID-19 crisis has made more people aware of the role of the workplace in exacerbating health issues, especially for people of color and immigrants. According to Hughes, this is a historic moment that presents the opportunity for significant change: “We’re trying to pass a national emergency standard around workplace health issues like social distancing and masks, and we’re working to make those more than suggestions, which would give us the ability to protect more workers.”
The 30-year civil servant is also empathetic to federal workers who have felt undervalued. As Deputy Assistant Secretary for Emergency and Pandemic Response in the U.S. Department of Labor, he hopes to help rebuild belief in the importance of government and its capability and capacity to deliver on big things.
Hughes sees the fund that his wife arranged to help early career researchers as a wonderful tribute that will advance the same objectives he will pursue in a top government position — though the gift came as a big surprise.
Kupersmidt originally intended to unveil the fund at Hughes’ retirement from the National Institutes of Health, where he had served as Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science’s Worker Training Program, but she had to change plans when he decided to keep working. She got help from their son, Sam, to finally break the news in the family’s living room.
“Sam and I planned our statement and printed it out,” said Kupersmidt. “We told him the whole story, and he was very choked up when he read it.”
The Joseph “Chip” Hughes Worker Education and Training Research Fund will help students and faculty kickstart new research to improve worker training and health. Hughes and Kupersmidt hope this small grants program will allow people with an interest in helping vulnerable worker communities conduct innovative research projects. Their hope is that these funds will incentivize the study of the health and well-being of workers, which too often goes unexplored.
“The aim is to allow them to make that step from where they are to where they want to go,” said Hughes. “It’s about being there to help people to take those steps in their professional careers.”
He is quick to point out that his commitment to healthy workplaces isn’t just professional; it’s personal. For Hughes, time with family and friends is necessary, as are spiritual development and his hobbies, which include cooking, music, biking and kayaking.
Kupersmidt notes how this balance, along with a steady focus on his core mission, has kept him motivated.
“Chip bounces out of bed every morning and can’t wait to tackle the next problem,” she said. “People spend most of their waking hours at work, so understanding how to create a healthier workplace can make a big difference in their lives. By supporting workers, you’re supporting families, and that’s a joy for him. He would’ve retired a long time ago if it weren’t.”
Give to the Joseph “Chip” Hughes Worker Education & Training Research Fund and support graduate students, faculty members and researchers in their innovative or pilot research on issues related to worker safety and health.
“We are so excited about this fund and hope that as you consider your charitable donations this year and in the future, you will join us in honoring Chip’s legacy and support the next generation of public health leaders.” — Janis Kupersmidt
Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.