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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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."
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.
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.”
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.
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.”