Unionized workers are far more likely to speak out about dangerous working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. There’s no mystery as to why.
Workers who have weak job protections are fearful to speak up, lest they get punished or even fired. The vast majority of Americans work “at will” ― meaning their employers can get rid of them for almost any reason, as long as it isn’t discriminatory.
And while workers have a nominal right to refuse dangerous work, the law is weak and puts the burden of proof on employees.
Working conditions, low pay and lack of safety protections have triggered protests across various industries
Food delivery workers have become essential in New York after the city closed restaurants and bars to the public on 16 March. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images Wildcat strikes, walkouts and protests over working conditions have erupted across the US throughout the coronavirus pandemic as “essential” workers have demanded better pay and safer working conditions. Labor leaders are hoping the protests can lead to permanent change.
Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said it was too early to tell if these worker actions around the US will have a lasting impact.
“These walkouts show that essential workers don’t want to be treated any more as if they were disposable. They are demanding a voice in how their companies respond to the pandemic. Having a voice is a life-and-death matter now more than ever,” said Block. “Success will be a matter of whether consumers and policymakers will be inspired by these workers’ courage.”
Millions of Americans are risking their lives to feed us and bring meals, toiletries and new clothes to our doorsteps — but their pay, benefits and working conditions do not reflect the dangers they face at work.
he coronavirus crisis is exposing the ugly ways in which low-wage workers are treated — by employers and customers alike. "But for the first time, the workplace conditions of low-wage workers are directly relevant to the whole country," says Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.
Jane Flanagan, Terri Gerstein, Patricia Smith Labor and Work LIfe Program and National Employment Law Project
As states consider how to protect public health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, various questions have arisen about their ability to do so: Specifically, to what degree is state action in the health and safety arena preempted by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) and federal enforcement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor (OSHA)? How can states and cities take action to protect workers and members of the public without running into federal preemption issues? This paper provides a basic explanation of OSHA preemption and describes some potential sources of authority and avenues for action by states and localities wishing to protect working people in their jurisdictions.
Brooke Fox in New York and Steven Bernard in London Financial Times
Economists look back to the Great Depression for clues on the scale of the economic crisis.
Behind Friday’s grim unemployment rate of 14.7 per cent is an even crueler number: there were 42.9m people who were unemployed or underemployed in the US in April, versus 14.8m at the same time last year.
The lowest official observation for the statistic was 54.9 per cent in 1949, when women comprised less than a third of the labour force. The fact that they now make up half makes the drop even more shocking, said Richard Freeman, Herbert Ascherman Chair in Economics at Harvard University.... Read more about Few precedents for grim US jobless numbers
By Cat Zakrzewski with Tonya Riley Washington Post
The coronavirus pandemic is lending the battle over Uber and Lyft's classification of its drivers fresh urgency.
“What it's done is laid bare more the consequences of allowing companies to opt out of the social safety net,” Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told me. “For a lot of workers, those consequences have been very apparent for a while. What's happening right now is the public is being forced to see this in a different way when there is such a groundswell of workers who are dealing with those consequences all at the same time.”
Scalia’s Labor Department oversees many of the paid leave, workplace safety, and training programs the administration is likely to turn to as President Donald Trump shifts focus from combating the health-care crisis to restarting the nation’s economy. The former corporate litigator, who joined Trump at an event in Phoenix, has been working behind the scenes with governors, lawmakers, and private-sector representatives to coordinate pandemic relief.
That letter, which the DOL public affairs office promoted to the press, demonstrated the secretary’s commitment to defending the administration’s efforts from accusations of betraying workers, even as it reinforced dismay among critics about Scalia’s performance in the crisis. Scalia argued OSHA’s approach of periodically updating guidance for employers is a better way of responding to the contagion because scientific knowledge of Covid-19 continues to evolve.
“At almost every decision point he has opted against the position that would be the most protective and compassionate,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and a senior DOL official under President Barack Obama.
Noncompete agreements — which typically prohibit an employee from working for a competitor within a certain field and geographic locale, often for 1 to 2 years — were once reserved for high-ranking executives and people who knew highly guarded trade secrets. But in recent years, they began to be imposed willy-nilly on all kinds of workers: medical technicians and dog walkers, journalists and janitors. With little fanfare, modern-day employers have been reinstating an expectation of servitude that should have disappeared long ago.
All of us should be concerned about the rampant growth of noncompetes and how they are hampering the freedom of workers and the economy. Why? For one thing, basic fairness: Just because you work for a company now doesn’t mean it should be able to lock you into that job; people should be able to advance in their lives and careers.
Coronavirus has laid bare the extent to which the failure of our nation to require paid sick leave has now endangered all of us. Congress needs to urgently pass paid sick leave laws, but states and cities must not wait for that and take action now. In some jurisdictions, this may require making compromises, such as a sunset provision or some aid to small employers.... Read more about America needs paid sick leave laws to stop coronavirus from spreading
COMMENTARY | State and local officials have initiated many measures to mitigate the consequences of the coronavirus. However, there is still much more for them to do.
The Trump administration has failed the American people to an astonishing extent during the current pandemic crisis. Failed to prepare, failed to take the threat seriously, failed to direct resources where they’re needed, and failed to tell the truth. While Congress has provided some aid to state and local governments in relief packages, given the enormous fiscal challenges already underway, it will not go nearly far enough to help offset the health and economic fallout of Covid-19.
By Terri Gerstein and Jane Flanagan Economic Policy Institute
The need to safeguard workers’ physical health and financial stability is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. State and local labor enforcement agencies are critical to such efforts, particularly given the federal administration’s abdication of leadership on worker-protection issues. Yet responding to the current crisis will require state and local labor agencies to quickly reorient to a new reality and repurpose their staff and routine functions in new and creative ways. As former state enforcers, we share the following ideas about how such agencies might utilize tested and effective strategic enforcement strategies and tools to respond to this moment.
By Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Rachel Abrams The New York Times
As American companies lay off millions of workers, some appear to be taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to target workers who are in or hope to join unions, according to interviews with more than two dozen workers, labor activists and employment lawyers.
“This is a continuation of behavior that has become all too common, of employers being willing to use increasingly aggressive tactics to stop unionizing,” said Sharon Block, a former National Labor Relations Board member appointed by former President Barack Obama. “The pandemic has given them another tool in their toolbox.”
In their paper, Todd Tucker and Rajesh Nayak make an important contribution to mapping out a role for OIRA that will enhance our ability to respond to the pandemic and resulting recession. Some in this series have referred to OIRA as a gatekeeper that erects obstacles to progressive regulation. Tucker and Nayak show that with critical reforms OIRA can be a force for making sure that the most progressive regulations get through the gate. In my opinion, the pandemic makes the reimagined role for OIRA described by Tucker and Nayak more important than ever.... Read more about Why Bolster the Regulatory Gatekeeper?
BY RAJESH D. NAYAK & TODD N. TUCKER American Prospect
For decades, OIRA has been blamed for slowing or even stopping important rules that would better protect workers, consumers, borrowers, and anyone else in the crosshairs of big business. That’s why some progressives have proposed abolishing OIRA so that Cabinet agencies can be free to pursue regulations at will.
Today, scholars from Harvard Law School’s Clean Slate for Worker Power project and the Roosevelt Institute unveil a plan that channels the indignation—and expertise—of those who are underpaid while taking on the risks during this perilous time.
“The medical folks need to take care of stopping the virus, but policymakers need to get the structural problems with the economy under control,” says Sharon Block, the executive director of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program, which runs the Clean Slate project. “Maybe what we’re going through now will open up some imaginations.”