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Labor Day is a time to recognize all unions do — to help health care, education, even marriage

September 7, 2020

By Terri Gerstein
NBC News

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. 

 

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State Attorneys General Are Helping Workers in Hard Times

September 7, 2020

BY  Terri Gerstein
American Prospect

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-...

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Covid Gag Rules at U.S. Companies Are Putting Everyone at Risk

August 27, 2020

Josh Eidelson
Bloomberg Business

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

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

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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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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...

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The second wave of essential workers

July 21, 2020

Erica Pandey
Axios

"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.

... Read more about The second wave of essential workers

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'We Need Help': People At Higher Coronavirus Risk Fear Losing Federal Unemployment

July 7, 2020

Chris Arnold
All Things Considered

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."

Block's program at Harvard just released a report on what state officials can do to require mandatory rules to make workplaces safer. She says the focus is on what states can do because so far there are basically no federal mandatory safety workplace requirements for the pandemic.... Read more about 'We Need Help': People At Higher Coronavirus Risk Fear Losing Federal Unemployment

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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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