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How the American Worker Got Fleeced

July 3, 2020

Story by Josh Eidelson
Data analysis and graphics by Christopher Cannon
Bloomberg Businessweek

For Americans with a less fancy résumé than the typical physician or Google engineer, the coronavirus has exacerbated an already dire lack of employment security. A great many essential workers have been growing, picking, tending, slaughtering, packing, preparing, and delivering food throughout the country without paid sick days. While other countries moved quickly to backstop payrolls and freeze their economies more or less in place, the U.S. let 40 million people go unemployed and has kept many of them waiting months for temporary assistance.

In January, Harvard Law School’s Labor & Worklife Program, following a year of discussions among ­working groups of activists and scholars, released a sweeping proposal to reboot labor law from a “clean slate,” including by ending at-will employment, installing elected “workplace monitors” in every U.S. workplace, and establishing a “sectoral bargaining” process à la Europe. Advocates say such a system, in which labor and management hash out industry­wide standards, would help fix one of the flaws baked into the NLRA: As long as collective bargaining rights are limited to the individual companies where workers have won a unionization election, executives have an overwhelming incentive to fight like hell to stop that from happening, and they have cause to fear they’ll be outcompeted by lower-cost rivals if they don’t.

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Protecting Workers through Publicity: Promoting Workplace Law Compliance through Strategic Communication

June 30, 2020


By: Terri Gerstein and Tanya Goldman

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program have released a new toolkit on strategic communication, a critical component of driving compliance with workplace laws. Communicating about agency enforcement, which is critical to informing the public about their rights and responsibilities, is one of the most effective ways to deter violations. These goals are more important than ever as labor enforcement agencies strive to protect workers during the coronavirus pandemic.This resource addresses why agencies should use media and other means of strategic communications and offers suggestions on how to do so. In a moment of reduced state budgets and limited resources, media coverage and strategic communications are a cost-effective way for agencies to multiply their impact and inform workers of their rights.

Download Toolkit
... Read more about Protecting Workers through Publicity: Promoting Workplace Law Compliance through Strategic Communication

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Workers Need at Least the Power to Protect Themselves

June 24, 2020

Annie Lowrey
The Atlantic

Decades of economic trends and legal shifts have tilted the balance of power in the employer-employee relationship toward corporations and away from workers. This means that, months into the pandemic, millions of low-wage workers are still facing an impossible choice: their lives or their livelihood. 

“Economic issues are life-and-death issues,” says Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “What COVID has done is illustrate the life-or-death nature of those economic issues in a very accelerated time frame.”

Clean Slate for Worker Power, an advocacy group led by Block and Benjamin Sachs of Harvard Law School, is pushing for new rules  to require open businesses to have a worker-elected “safety steward,” who would make sure a given workplace is complying with local and federal laws. They also propose that the government set up commissions to negotiate workplace-safety standards, business sector by business sector rather than one burger joint or nursing home at a time, and to help workers organize online. 

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How COVID turned a spotlight on weak worker rights

June 23, 2020

 Liz Mineo
Harvard Gazette

Block and Sachs point to flaws in the social safety net, an indifferent OSHA, and a system that favors employers over employees.

As the economy reopens after the COVID-19 shutdowns, businesses are taking a varied, often patchwork approach to ensuring health and safety for their workers, and much uncertainty persists regarding employers’ obligations and employees’ rights. The Gazette spoke with labor law experts Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, and Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School (HLS), about how the pandemic has turned a spotlight on the lack of clear workplace protections in general, and in particular for women and people of color, who were disproportionately represented among those deemed essential. Block and Sachs recently co-authored a report urging that U.S. labor law be rebuilt from the ground up. On June 24, they will release the report “Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response.”

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Forget COVID! Trump Says Regulations Are the Problem

June 1, 2020

BY FRANCES COLÓN , TERRI GERSTEIN & DIANE THOMPSON
Morning Consult

The executive order directs agencies to eliminate regulations, to treat corporations with kid gloves and to refrain from enforcement action so long as companies say they’ve tried their best. It’s a staggering diversion of public resources to private corporate interests. Government resources at this moment should be focused on ramping up testing capabilities, ensuring that workplaces are safe and making sure that people can keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. This is precisely what many state and local governments have done, while Trump wants agencies to spend the public’s time and money on weakening law enforcement and gutting protections.

Inadequate workplace regulations and limited enforcement have already caused thousands to sicken and die, while the Labor Department stands by and Trump himself urges workers to return to unsafe working conditions.... Read more about Forget COVID! Trump Says Regulations Are the Problem

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An ER Doctor Lost His Job After Criticizing His Hospital On COVID-19. Now He's Suing.

May 29, 2020

Will Stone
NPR

An emergency medicine physician from Washington state has filed a lawsuit to get his job back at a hospital. He was fired in late March after criticizing his hospital's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

OSHA has faced criticism during the pandemic for not being more responsive to worker concerns. That may drive health care workers to take other legal routes when facing retaliation, says Terri Gerstein, a labor attorney who directs the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program. Gerstein is also a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute."It's so important that employers understand that when people raise these kinds of safety concerns, it's not an adversarial thing," she says. "They are trying to make their workplace safer and stem the spread of this horrible disease."

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Labor Unions: How they have helped us and how to unionize your workplace

May 27, 2020

Dean Obeidallah
SiriusXM channel 127

Former Obama admin official and current Harvard Law Professor Sharon Block is on to talk labor unions: How they have helped us and how to unionize your workplace. Gene Sperling who served as Director of the National Economic Council for both Presidents Obama and Clinton is on to talk his new book, “Economic Dignity.” Finally, Princeton Professor and CNN contributor Julian Zelizer talks the 2020 race and more. 

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Employers Can Expect Leniency, Not Freedom From U.S. Regulators

May 22, 2020

John Lauinger and Karl Hardy 
Bloomberg Law

Employers can expect leniency from federal regulators as they ramp up operations after virus-induced shutdowns, as long as they are able to demonstrate substantial good-faith efforts to adhere to recent updates to agency rules and guidance.

A new executive order President Donald Trump signed this week was intended to boost economic recovery in part by instructing agencies to overlook certain regulatory violations if a business tries to follow federal best practices for preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

This section could give employers a significant upper hand in investigations. Certain aspects of it raise concerns for workers, said Terri Gerstein, director of the state and local enforcement project at Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program. She cited a principle calling for enforcement to be “free of unfair surprise.”

“In the workplace enforcement field, you have to do unannounced inspections and investigations,” said Gerstein, former labor bureau chief in the New York attorney general’s office. “If they’re announced, people get coached, evidence gets destroyed, places get cleaned up.”... Read more about Employers Can Expect Leniency, Not Freedom From U.S. Regulators

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One Way To Protect Workers In A Pandemic: Make It Harder To Fire Them

May 22, 2020

By Dave Jamieson
HuffPost

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.

“Protection against unlawful firings is absolutely critical right now,” Gerstein said. “Workers need to be able to speak up without threat of losing their jobs. That’s important for worker safety and for public health.”... Read more about One Way To Protect Workers In A Pandemic: Make It Harder To Fire Them

Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

May 19, 2020
Michael Sainato
The Guardian

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.”