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Labor Law Must Include All Workers

September 22, 2020

Sharon Block & Benjamin Sachs
American Compass

Inclusion is a necessary first step toward fixing America’s broken labor law system.

In January of this year, we published a comprehensive set of recommendations for reforming U.S. labor law. Although the recommendations were extensive, the theory that lay behind them was straightforward: our country is facing dual crises of political and economic inequality, and we can help address those crises by giving working people greater collective power in the economy and in politics. Although progressives and conservatives disagree on many things, we all ought to agree that the stark inequalities that now pervade American life constitute grave threats. Politically, the viability of our democracy is threatened by a government that responds to the views of the wealthy but not to those of the poor and middle class. Economically, the viability of our community life is threatened by the fact that that we live in a country where it would take an Amazon worker 3.8 million years, working full time, to earn what Jeff Bezos alone now possesses.

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Like many US workers, Trump staff has little recourse if asked to work alongside sick colleagues

October 7, 2020

Matthew Rozsa
Salon

What do workers do when the person responsible for enforcing worker safety laws turns a blind eye to his own staff?

The case of meatpacking employees may end up being comparable to the situation in the White House. Sharon Block, the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, explained that workers at meatpacking plants "were told to continue to show up for work even as their coworkers were testing positive in high numbers and even dying." "As different as these workplaces may seem, the dynamic is similar — especially for the non-partisan staff in the White House, many of whom are people of color who are not highly paid. Because of the failures of the Trump Administration and their political objectives, workers' health and lives are needlessly being put at risk."... Read more about Like many US workers, Trump staff has little recourse if asked to work alongside sick colleagues

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What’s at Stake for the Labor Movement on Election Day? Everything.

September 22, 2020

By Hamilton Nolan
In These Times
Unions hope a Biden presidency will reverse decades of anti-worker policies.

Amer­i­ca is in cri­sis. There can be no doubt about that. All of our imme­di­ate crises — the pan­dem­ic and the unem­ploy­ment and the eco­nom­ic col­lapse and the death spi­ral of var­i­ous pub­lic insti­tu­tions — have lent the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion an air of emer­gency. For work­ing peo­ple in Amer­i­ca, though, the emer­gency is noth­ing new at all. What is at stake for labor in this elec­tion is every­thing. 

“It’s critical that in the new administration, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions happy?’ It’s got to be an approach to looking across everything, especially in light of the economic situation.” —Sharon Block, former Labor Department official in the Obama administration.
... Read more about What’s at Stake for the Labor Movement on Election Day? Everything.

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Trump’s National Labor Relations Board Is Sabotaging Its Own Mission

September 7, 2020

By Michelle Chen
The Nation

The shortcomings of the NLRB are to some degree baked into its structure. The act, a compromise between labor and management, forced companies to bargain with unions, but it also excluded whole categories of workers, such as farm laborers, and effectively limited collective bargaining to individual companies, not whole industries or sectors.

Sharon Block, the director of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and an NLRB member under Obama, said that during the pandemic, it was “incumbent on worker protection agencies like the [NLRB]…to be exceptionally vigilant on behalf of workers and attuned to violations of their rights, because it is so hard to feel secure enough to speak out. [But] this is a board that we watched operate for three years in a way that would not give that kind of security to workers.”

Nonetheless, she added, the systemic problems with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act go beyond the Trump administration. “Even with board members…and a general counsel with the best of intentions who really believe in the spirit and the purpose of the act, it’s just a tool that doesn’t work anymore.”... Read more about Trump’s National Labor Relations Board Is Sabotaging Its Own Mission

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What Rights Do Workers Have As The Economy Reopens?

September 30, 2020

Interviewer: Robin Young
Here &Now, National Public Radio

More than seven months after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, large segments of the economy are reopening. That includes businesses, offices and restaurants, as well as entertainment and cultural institutions like museums and cinemas.

But what are the rights of the people who will be working there? Can they decide not to work if they feel unsafe? And what protections are employers required to provide?

Sharon Block is executive director of the Labor and...

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How COVID-19 has changed the workplace in 2020

September 8, 2020

Kim Wright
Harvard Law Today

Labor Day looked different this year. COVID-19 has changed how we work and, for some of us, where we work from. It has also highlighted the importance of workplace rights and the longstanding problem of childcare for working families.

Harvard Law Today recently corresponded with Sharon Block, executive director of HLS’s Labor and Worklife Program, and Benjamin Sachs, Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry and faculty co-director of the Labor and Worklife Program, about COVID-19’s continued impact on the workplace, worker’s rights to a safe and healthy work environment, and the importance of unions in the time of social distancing and telework. The Labor and Worklife Program has addressed many of these issues and offered recommendations for empowering workers in two recent reports—Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy and Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response.

From tackling payroll fraud to suing Trump: Nessel recognized as leading AG on workers’ rights

September 7, 2020

By Laina G. Stebbins
Michigan Advance

Attorney General Dana Nessel is one of the leading state AGs in protecting workers’ rights, according to a new report published by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI) prior to Labor Day.

The economic justice think tank details the more prominent role state attorneys general have taken in labor rights issues since mid-2018 and lists specific ways each has advanced workers’ protections, both on the state and federal level.

“While there are variations in state attorney general office resources and jurisdiction, these offices often have a range of powers that can enable them to advance and defend workplace protections and ensure that employers comply with the law,” EPI Senior Fellow Terri Gerstein writes in the report.... Read more about From tackling payroll fraud to suing Trump: Nessel recognized as leading AG on workers’ rights

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Labor Day is a time to recognize all unions do — to help health care, education, even marriage

September 7, 2020

By Terri Gerstein
NBC News

On this Labor Day of 2020, remember the full picture of what unions do. They serve their members, yes, but they bring many other benefits, and they’re essential for a healthy, thriving democracy for all of us. In addition to helping the workers who are their members, unions bring many other benefits to the general public, like increasing voter turnout, decreased racial resentment among white union members, better patient outcomes in hospitals with unionized nurses, and reduced income inequality. 

 

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State Attorneys General Are Helping Workers in Hard Times

September 7, 2020

BY  Terri Gerstein
American Prospect

Trump’s administration is AWOL in the fight for worker safety, but a growing number of state attorneys general are focusing on worker rights and protections.

Within the past five years, six of these AG offices—in D.C., Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—have created dedicated units devoted to labor issues (they joined California, Massachusetts, and New York, which have long had such units). Dedicated sections within the agency allow the assigned lawyers to develop specialized expertise and long-...

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American Job Losses and Recovery by State

August 28, 2020

Deb Gordon
Money Geek

COVID-19 has led to stunning economic disruption. As infection hotspots pop up around the country, states have grappled with excruciating choices between protecting public health and bolstering the economy. Optimizing for both has proven difficult, if not impossible.

Is there anything else you see in the state employment/unemployment data that offers insight into what may lie ahead?

Gerstein: I am concerned that continuing high unemployment rates will lead to higher rates of labor violations, including safety and health, because it will make it harder for workers to speak up. Although it's illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for reporting violations, studies show high rates of such retaliation, even before the pandemic. In a high unemployment situation, the consequences of employer retaliation are even worse because it's more difficult for workers to find a new job. Pre-COVID, there was already a great disparity of bargaining power between employers and workers; that disparity is exacerbated by high unemployment, which may lead to further degraded working conditions. At the same time, the seriousness of COVID-related health risks has also led to an increase in worker organizing and activism. I anticipate and hope that this trend will continue.

Freeman: I always look at the insured unemployment rate, which is the number of people getting unemployment insurance. It has been dropping a bit in the past few months, but largely because some folks are being rehired. The only way to get unemployment down to healthy levels is by creating new jobs, and we see very little there.

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Covid Gag Rules at U.S. Companies Are Putting Everyone at Risk

August 27, 2020

Josh Eidelson
Bloomberg Business

In the past few months, U.S. businesses have been on a silencing spree. Hundreds of U.S. employers across a wide range of industries have told workers not to share information about Covid-19 cases or even raise concerns about the virus, or have retaliated against workers for doing those things, according to workplace complaints filed with the NLRB and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In July, Colorado’s governor signed a similar law, making it illegal for companies to require workers to keep health concerns private or retaliate against workers who raise them. A few days after the Colorado bill signing, Virginia’s state safety board passed its own binding Covid regulations, including a ban on retaliation against workers who raise reasonable concerns at work or on social media and a requirement that companies notify co-workers and the state about coronavirus cases.... Read more about Covid Gag Rules at U.S. Companies Are Putting Everyone at Risk

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Workers’ Rights Protection and Enforcement by State Attorneys General

August 27, 2020

by Terri Gerstein
with Economic Policy Institute

Download Report (PDF)

State attorneys general can play a critical role in protecting and enforcing workers’ rights. There has been a significant uptick in the involvement of state attorneys general in this area in the past several years. Most recently, several state attorneys general have been highly active in taking action to protect workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

While there are variations in state attorney general office resources and jurisdiction, these offices often have a range of powers that can enable them to advance and defend workplace protections and ensure that employers comply with the law. This current report details the proliferation of state attorney general activities in support of workers’ rights from mid-2018 to the present.

Related news articles: 
Pa. is part of growing movement of state AGs defending workers’ rights, report finds, Philadelphia Inquirer, by Juliana Feliciano Reyes, Posted: August 27, 2020
State AGs Taking On Bigger Workplace Enforcement Role, Law360 , By Braden Campbell Posted: August 28, 2020

... Read more about Workers’ Rights Protection and Enforcement by State Attorneys General

Professional Athletes Went On Strike Over Police Brutality. So Let’s Call It A Strike.

August 27, 2020

By Dave Jamieson
HuffPost

When the Milwaukee Bucks announced Wednesday that they would not be playing their NBA playoff game due to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the media couldn’t agree on what to call this extraordinary thing that was unfolding. Were the players mounting a protest? Were they initiating a boycott? Or were they carrying out a strike or work stoppage?

Sharon Block, director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said the situation brought to mind the walkout led by employees of Wayfair, the online home furnishings retailer, because the company was supplying beds to U.S. detention centers for migrant children. The dispute was about social injustice ― not working conditions ― and the workers were asking the broader community to stand by them in condemning it.

“Whatever the label is, this is about solidarity,” Block said of the athletes’ move. “It’s not just to advance their own interest, but to lead on a bigger public policy issue. ... They’re asking the public to join them in saying there’s something more important going on than sports.” 

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Why empowering frontline workers is a key element to a safe reopening

August 18, 2020

By Sharon Block and Rachel Korberg
Fortune 

Workers have a key role to play in designing and implementing new, on-the-job health practices—and even more so in the absence of enforceable federal standards. If they aren’t able to speak up when they spot a problem, we risk prolonging this crisis, deepening the economic pain, and ultimately losing more lives. 

MIT research has shown that companies with empowered frontline staff who have trusting, collaborative relationships with management are better at quickly identifying challenges and developing and implementing new solutions. This makes intuitive sense—workers know better than anyone how to do their jobs best, what risks they face, and how to solve problems in the workplace. 

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Uber and Lyft could shut down in California this week. It may not help their cause

August 16, 2020

By Sara Ashley O'Brien
CNN Business

The threats from Uber and Lyft to halt their businesses came after a California court ordered them last Monday to reclassify their drivers in the state as employees in 10 days. This reclassification would represent a radical shift for the two businesses. They built up massive fleets of drivers by treating them as independent contractors. That way they were not entitled to benefits like minimum wage, overtime pay, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance and paid sick leave.

California is hardly the only legal challenge Uber and Lyft are facing. Massachusetts has a similar law to AB-5 and the attorney general there recently sued the companies over worker misclassification. Decisions in Pennsylvania and New York around unemployment insurance also go against the companies' stance on employment. Last year, the New Jersey Labor Commissioner determined Uber owed $649 million in unpaid unemployment insurance contributions as a result of driver misclassification.

Terri Gerstein of the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and Economic Policy Institute questioned if the companies may also eventually withdraw from other markets where their business model is similarly in limbo: "What's the long term plan?"... Read more about Uber and Lyft could shut down in California this week. It may not help their cause

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