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.”
In the coronavirus era, the heroes drive delivery trucks, bag groceries, and clean hospital floors. As those employees have stayed on the job, risking their lives to ensure others can stay comfortable in seclusion, a new movement is underway to help those workers.
Foundations that have long supported labor groups are stepping up their funding and recruiting others to join a movement that some experts think could lead to sweeping policy changes.
The Clean Slate for Worker Power at Harvard University Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, for instance, used grants from the Ford, Hewlett, Kellogg, and Public Welfare foundations to produce a 130-page set of policy recommendations that would help worker groups generate revenue, provide better or portable health coverage for workers, and require that 40 percent of corporate board seats are chosen by workers, among other things.
Sharon Block, the program’s executive director, says the project will continue to flesh out a labor agenda.
Mid mounting frustration with the extent to which the president has been able to frame the discourse about Covid-19 and its consequences, some of the savviest thinkers about politics and governing have been asking, as Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout did recently, “Where is Congress during a deadly pandemic?” Her answer: “They should be in session every day. Remotely.”
So the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) is stepping up to show how it can—and should—be done. Next Thursday, April 23, the CPC will convene the first in a series of remote congressional hearings to highlight bold and necessary proposals for responding to the pandemic and to the economic crisis that has developed as a result.
Organized along the lines of a traditional House hearing, the “Preventing Layoffs” hearing will be chaired by Pocan and Jayapal and feature expert testimony from Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and Amanda Ballantyne, the director of the Main Street Alliance, a group that advocates for small businesses.
SHARON BLOCK and MIKE FIRESTONE Commonwealth Magazine
IN ITS SWEEPING RESPONSE to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress threw a financial lifeline to millions of Americans and made so-called “gig economy” workers, like Uber drivers, eligible for unemployment assistance for the first time. But the economic crisis begs the question why Uber drivers weren’t eligible already.
The answer is simple. It’s because, unlike other Massachusetts businesses, Uber doesn’t pay unemployment insurance to cover its workers or extend them other crucial protections, and the major gig-economy companies (we’ll call them Big Gig) fight every effort to require it. This opposition left millions of workers without a safety net when the bottom fell out of our economy.
It’s time to update state law to require Big Gig platforms for driving, delivery, and other app-based services to pay unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, sick time, minimum wage, and paid leave, just like any other business in Massachusetts – regardless of how they classify their workers.... Read more about Don’t let Big Gig game the system
The problem of independent contracting as a business model is more important than ever. While the CARES Act fortunately included independent contractors as recipients of unemployment benefits, food delivery and other gig workers still face unprecedented challenges in the absence of protections from unions or employment laws. There will be life after the pandemic and employers across all industries that suffered financial losses will be looking to cut costs. One of the obvious tactics may well be an uptick in the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. Hopefully an alternate vision will emerge, one in which unprotected but indispensable workers will seek a voice through a fight against misclassification, and the growth of unions and other forms of organization.
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With pressure on mega-retailers like Amazon to deliver essential goods to people stuck at home — coupled with increased scrutiny over labor practices and a long-simmering labor movement that has been nipping at the heels of these huge suppliers — could this coronavirus pandemic bring about the labor reckoning that activists have been seeking?
“It should,” said Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “I certainly hope that one of the lessons we’ll learn from this horrible experience is how important so many low-wage workers are, and how precarious their positions are.”... Read more about Coronavirus may bring a labor reckoning for Amazon
From the perspective of the liberal policy establishment, Donald Trump has launched an aggressive and unprecedented assault on workers’ rights and the labor movement. From the perspective of the right, Trump has governed on labor almost exactly as any other Republican president might have.
If Trump’s first term was focused on making it tougher for workers to unionize, both conservatives and liberal policy wonks agree that a second term would likely mean more attention directed toward regulating gig workers. Generally, gig workers—like Uber drivers—aren’t afforded the protections of traditional employees, like minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance, and the right to join a union. Increasingly, though, labor advocates are building a case that many of these workers have been shortchanged; they’re functionally employees and should be protected as such.... Read more about How Trump Could Dismantle Workers’ Rights with Another Four Years
An unprecedented 10 million people applied for unemployment insurance across the country over the last two weeks with more likely to come. Many employers are responding to shutdown orders, lack of cash flow, and the crisis by laying people off. Leaders have enacted measures to encourage employers to avoid more layoffs, such as conditioning business loans on maintaining payroll and providing tax credits for payroll expenses.
Instead of laying off, for instance, half of the workforce, a company would decrease the hours of its employees by half. These workers would then be paid for 50 percent of their time and would receive unemployment compensation for the other 50 percent. More than two dozen states already have working sharing programs up and running, along the broad political spectrum, from California to Nebraska.
In recent weeks, tensions are on the rise between grocery workers and their employers, spurring many to take public action. Employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods planned a “sick out” Tuesday, while some drivers who deliver Whole Foods groceries are calling for more protections. Thousands of people have signed an online petition circulated by Trader Joe’s employees. On Monday, some Instacart workers held a nationwide strike. And a major grocery union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, is advocating for workers to have access to coronavirus testing and protective gear.
Grocers don’t have the depths of experience dealing with dangerous work, said Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and a former Obama advisor.
Benjamin Sachs and Sharon Block Ask a Professor Podcast Harvard Magazine
WHY WOULD IT TAKE AN AMAZON WORKER, employed full time, more than a million years to earn what its CEO, Jeff Bezos now possesses? Why do the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than all African-American households combined? And how are these examples of extreme income inequality linked to the political disenfranchisement of the lower- and middle-income classes? The established “solutions” for restoring balance to economic and political power in the United States have...