2021

Terri Gerstein. 8/27/2020. Workers’ rights protection and enforcement by state attorneys general. Economic Policy Institute. Economic Policy Institute.Abstract

Key takeaways

  • State attorneys general (AGs) have been playing a key role in enforcing and protecting workers’ rights.
  • State AGs have dramatically increased their involvement in this area in recent years; this report documents these activities in detail. Here are just a few examples of the many ways state AGs are protecting workers’ rights:
    • Helping workers attain safer working conditions during the pandemic
    • Recovering stolen wages through civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions
    • Fighting misclassification of workers as independent contractors instead of employees
    • Cracking down on companies’ use of noncompete and no-poach agreements, which limit job mobility
    • Proposing and supporting legislation to safeguard workers’ rights
  • State AG offices engaged in workers’ rights issues should continue to build on the work they’re doing, and more state AGs should join the effort.
  • State legislatures should grant explicit authority to state attorneys general to enforce workplace rights laws and should ideally also fund positions for enforcement.
  • Worker organizations and advocates should seek to build relationships and work with their state AGs to safeguard workers’ rights in their states.
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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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Summer was always a heat and health risk for UPS workers. Then came COVID-19

August 15, 2020

Adiel Kaplan and Lisa Riordan Seville
NBC News

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.

“It’s unthinkable to me what has been happening with OSHA,” said Terri Gerstein, senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard Law School. “They are abdicating their duty to enforce the law.”... Read more about Summer was always a heat and health risk for UPS workers. Then came COVID-19

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Uber Says Gig Workers Are Their Own Bosses — But Courts Disagree

August 11, 2020

WHIZY KIM
Refinery29com

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?

“When workers are misclassified as independent contractors, it has a lot of serious implications,” says Gerstein. That includes all the protections, which have been especially crucial during the pandemic.... Read more about Uber Says Gig Workers Are Their Own Bosses — But Courts Disagree

Many workers don’t get new paid sick leave, because of ‘broad’ exemption for providers, report finds

Many workers don’t get new paid sick leave, because of ‘broad’ exemption for providers, report finds

August 11, 2020

By Eli Rosenberg
Washington Post

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.”

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With OSHA as an Employer Advice Columnist, States and Cities Should Protect Workers from COVID-19

August 11, 2020

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

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From elevator etiquette to break room buddies, your burning questions about a return to work

August 6, 2020
By Ben Popken
NBC News

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.

“But the employer can fight it, and then the employee is in a legal fight with their employer while trying to put food on the table,” she said.... Read more about From elevator etiquette to break room buddies, your burning questions about a return to work

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The 1 Percent’s Attack on Unemployment Benefits is a Sign of Our Broken Democracy

July 31, 2020

by Adam Shah
Inequality.org

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.

But working people need more than enforced protections for union organizing, we need their voices and expertise at the center of the  Coronavirus recession recovery efforts. Harvard Law School’s Clean Slate for Worker Power project and the Roosevelt Institute have put forward detailed proposals on how to include worker voices during the Covid-19 recovery.... Read more about The 1 Percent’s Attack on Unemployment Benefits is a Sign of Our Broken Democracy

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SAFEGUARDING EMPLOYEE HEALTH WHILE RETURNING TO WORK

July 28, 2020

by Duke Today Staff
in Duke Today

Employees planning a return to their workplaces face a series of obstacles thanks in part to failures by the federal government, three experts said recently during a panel discussion at Duke. The July 9 panel was part of the Duke University Initiative for Science and Society's ongoing “Coronavirus Conversations” series. 

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.”

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Creativity And Diversity: How Exposure To Different People Affects Our Thinking

July 27, 2020

Shankar Vedantam
Jennifer Schmidt
Parth Shah
Tara Boyle
Hidden Brain Podcast, NPR

Social scientist Adam Galinsky has found that people who have deep relationships with someone from another country become more creative and score higher on routine creativity tests.

"There's something about deeply understanding and learning about another culture that's transformative," Adam says.

Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman has an interesting study on diversity in science. He found that published scientific research receives greater attention if the authors are ethnically diverse.... Read more about Creativity And Diversity: How Exposure To Different People Affects Our Thinking

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No Mask, No Service Rules Leave Workers Open to Customer Abuse

July 21, 2020

Robert Iafolla
Fatima Hussein
Bloomberg Law

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

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These Furloughed Workers Must Sign Arbitration Agreements To Get Their Jobs Back

July 22, 2020

Dave Jamieson
HuffPost

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...

Read more about These Furloughed Workers Must Sign Arbitration Agreements To Get Their Jobs Back

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