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.
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.”
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.
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.”
"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.
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."
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.”
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.