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...
ttorney 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.
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.
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-...
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.