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.
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.
Members of the One Percent, such as former restaurateur Andrew Puzder, have urged Congress to not renew the $600 a week unemployment supplement Congress enacted as part of the CARES Act. They argue, in Puzder’s words, that “this $600 per week bonus is discouraging work” for low-wage earners.
No one receiving unemployment benefits will make themselves rich on unemployment. The $600 is not a huge incentive to stay home. Even in the states with higher base benefits, the minimum unemployment benefits plus the supplement, leave unemployed people earning less than a living wage far below the U.S. median income.
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."
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.
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.”
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.”