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.
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.
During the summer of coronavirus UPS drivers are working 12 hour shifts delivering a record number of packages in record heat, all while wearing masks.Business has soared for UPS as Americans have turned to home delivery during the pandemic, but employees say heavy workloads, COVID-19 safety measures and sweltering summer heat are pushing them to the limit.
But despite a growing attention to the role of essential workers, advocates said OSHA, which polices workplaces, has failed to protect them.
According to some estimates, over 50 million people today may be engaged in some type of gig work. In the side hustle economy, gig work has become a necessity to make ends meet while also providing some flexibility that a typical 9 to 5 wouldn’t. But gig workers are facing an identity crisis now, especially those working for popular app-based companies like Uber, Lyft, Postmates, or Doordash. Are they their own self-employed bosses, or are they employees?
A government watchdog said in a report out Tuesday that the Labor Department “significantly broadened” an exemption allowing millions of health-care workers to be denied paid sick leave as part of the law Congress passed in March to help workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
But an Office of the Inspector General report noted that a move by the Labor Department to more broadly expand how they categorize health-care providers ended up leaving far more workers without a guarantee of paid sick leave than the agency’s estimate of 9 million.
Actions taken to enforce the sick-leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act have skewed even further away from investigations: 85 percent have been resolved through conciliations.
“These numbers just look so different than the numbers that I’m used to seeing in terms of conciliations versus investigations,” said Sharon Block, a senior Obama administration labor department official. “It really does jump out. That 85 percent is just a really big number.”
BY DEBBIE BERKOWITZ & TERRI GERSTEIN Morning Consult
Given the scope of the current crisis, states and cities can’t completely fill the void left by a nonfunctioning OSHA. But we’ve all seen the charts showing state variations in COVID rates. State and local leadership unquestionably can make a meaningful difference in the health of our communities. Keeping workers safe is one of the most important actions that government leaders can take to stop the spread of the virus — and enable long-term economic recovery. It won’t be easy; politics is complex, and corporate interests will fight tooth and nail against new workplace protections. But people’s lives are in the balance. It would be government malpractice not even to try. ... Read more about With OSHA as an Employer Advice Columnist, States and Cities Should Protect Workers from COVID-19
Only 47 percent of employees said improved safety measures would make them feel comfortable returning to the office, according to a recent survey.
“OSHA is supposed to protect workers. All they’ve done is issue suggestions and voluntary guidance,” to employers,” said Sharon Block, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA and current executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.
OSHA has “turned everything over to employers to inspect themselves,” Block said. “If workers can’t rely on the federal government to stand up for them, they have to stand up for themselves.” Some workers have been fired for speaking up about conditions, she said.
OSHA didn’t respond to an NBC News request for comment.
Block recommended that concerned employees should document conditions at work and, if they feel unsafe, workers can consider leaving and filing for unemployment, using the unsafe conditions as justification.
Members of the One Percent, such as former restaurateur Andrew Puzder, have urged Congress to not renew the $600 a week unemployment supplement Congress enacted as part of the CARES Act. They argue, in Puzder’s words, that “this $600 per week bonus is discouraging work” for low-wage earners.
No one receiving unemployment benefits will make themselves rich on unemployment. The $600 is not a huge incentive to stay home. Even in the states with higher base benefits, the minimum unemployment benefits plus the supplement, leave unemployed people earning less than a living wage far below the U.S. median income.
Panel participant Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, added that “every workplace [should] have a safety monitor who can provide information and confidential advice to workers about their right to a safe workplace.”
“There are no OSHA regulations specific to coronavirus transmission,” Ms. Block says. “In the past,” she said, OSHA has “looked at CDC guidance and said to employers, this is the best thing that we know … in short order about how to protect workers. So we're going to enforce CDC guidance.”
Retail and food service workers who face verbal abuse and even physical violence from customers objecting to pandemic mask requirements have little legal guarantee that their employers will protect them.
“Mask requirements protect workers and create legal and social norms,” said Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program. “Not having mask requirements makes it exponentially harder for businesses to require them, and it sets up workers at retail establishments and in the service industry to have exactly these kinds of confrontations.”... Read more about No Mask, No Service Rules Leave Workers Open to Customer Abuse
Jana Alexander was furloughed from her job at The Container Store when the pandemic began in early spring. With the economy reopening, the company recently invited her back to her old position at her store in Southlake, Texas. But there was a catch.
Alexander would have to sign an arbitration agreement, giving up her right to sue The Container Store in court if she was mistreated. Her welcome-back letter made clear she had little choice in the matter if she wanted to draw a paycheck: “This job offer is contingent upon agreeing to our Mutual...
"With most of the country reopening — whether it's safe or not — workers in so many occupations are put in the untenable position of having to choose between being able to sustain their families or putting their health at risk," says Sharon Block, executive director of the labor and work-life program at Harvard Law School.
Teachers are under tremendous pressure as some cities and states push forward on reopening schools.
The Alaska House State Affairs and Health and Social Services standing committees will hold a joint meeting. The meeting will focus on worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those testifying will include Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka, Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Kate Sheehan, Labor Standards and Safety Director Joseph Knowles, Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Senior Enforcement Officer Brandon Field, Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Chief of Consultation Elaine Banda, Statewide Director of the National...
Many people with underlying medical conditions are worried about what's going to happen at the end of the month. It's not currently safe for many of them to go back to work. The COVID-19 death rate is 12 times higher for people with underlying conditions.
Block says the added federal benefits are needed for unemployed workers in general — but especially for those with serious underlying health conditions.
"They're very, very vulnerable to retaliation for speaking out when it's this kind of labor market," she says. "Most workers have to be afraid that an employer could very easily replace them if they make trouble."