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Sharon Block photo

Sharon Block

Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program

Sharon Block was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor and Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor.

For twenty years, Block has held key labor policy positions across the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. Early in her career she worked as an attorney at the National Labor Relations Board, and returned to the NLRB in 2012 when she was appointed to serve as a member of the Board by President Obama. She was senior counsel to the Senate HELP committee under Senator Edward Kennedy, playing a central role in the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act. She has held senior positions in the U.S. Department of Labor throughout her career. Recently, as head of the policy office at the Department of Labor, Block hosted - with Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil and Open Societies Foundation's Ken Zimmerman - the Department's three-day symposium on the Future of Work. The symposium brought together a wide array of thought leaders to address how changes in labor markets and business models have impacts on key issues such as enforcement, labor standards, workforce development, employee benefits, and data in the U.S. and around the world.... Read more about Sharon Block

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How COVID turned a spotlight on weak worker rights

June 23, 2020

 Liz Mineo
Harvard Gazette

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.”

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Workers Need at Least the Power to Protect Themselves

June 24, 2020

Annie Lowrey
The Atlantic

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. 

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Labor Unions: How they have helped us and how to unionize your workplace

May 27, 2020

Dean Obeidallah
SiriusXM channel 127

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. 

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Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

May 19, 2020
Michael Sainato
The Guardian

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.”

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"Disposable workers" doing essential jobs

May 12, 2020

Erica Pandey
Axios

Millions of Americans are risking their lives to feed us and bring meals, toiletries and new clothes to our doorsteps — but their pay, benefits and working conditions do not reflect the dangers they face at work.

he coronavirus crisis is exposing the ugly ways in which low-wage workers are treated — by employers and customers alike. "But for the first time, the workplace conditions of low-wage workers are directly relevant to the whole country," says Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

The Technology 202: Coronavirus raises the stakes in new court fight for gig worker benefits

The Technology 202: Coronavirus raises the stakes in new court fight for gig worker benefits

May 6, 2020

By Cat Zakrzewski 
with Tonya Riley
Washington Post

The coronavirus pandemic is lending the battle over Uber and Lyft's classification of its drivers fresh urgency. 

“What it's done is laid bare more the consequences of allowing companies to opt out of the social safety net,” Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told me. “For a lot of workers, those consequences have been very apparent for a while. What's happening right now is the public is being forced to see this in a different way when there is such a groundswell of workers who are dealing with those consequences all at the same time.” 

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Trump’s Plan to Reopen U.S. Puts Labor’s Scalia in Limelight

May 6, 2020

Ben Penn
Bloomberg Law

Scalia’s Labor Department oversees many of the paid leave, workplace safety, and training programs the administration is likely to turn to as President Donald Trump shifts focus from combating the health-care crisis to restarting the nation’s economy. The former corporate litigator, who joined Trump at an event in Phoenix, has been working behind the scenes with governors, lawmakers, and private-sector representatives to coordinate pandemic relief.

That letter, which the DOL public affairs office promoted to the press, demonstrated the secretary’s commitment to defending the administration’s efforts from accusations of betraying workers, even as it reinforced dismay among critics about Scalia’s performance in the crisis. Scalia argued OSHA’s approach of periodically updating guidance for employers is a better way of responding to the contagion because scientific knowledge of Covid-19 continues to evolve.

“At almost every decision point he has opted against the position that would be the most protective and compassionate,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and a senior DOL official under President Barack Obama.

Fired in a Pandemic ‘Because We Tried to Start a Union,’ Workers Say

Fired in a Pandemic ‘Because We Tried to Start a Union,’ Workers Say

April 28, 2020

By Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Rachel Abrams 
The New York Times

As American companies lay off millions of workers, some appear to be taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to target workers who are in or hope to join unions, according to interviews with more than two dozen workers, labor activists and employment lawyers.

“This is a continuation of behavior that has become all too common, of employers being willing to use increasingly aggressive tactics to stop unionizing,” said Sharon Block, a former National Labor Relations Board member appointed by former President Barack Obama. “The pandemic has given them another tool in their toolbox.”

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Why Bolster the Regulatory Gatekeeper?

April 24, 2020

By Sharon Block
American Prospect
Response to OIRA 2.0: Using OIRA for Progressive Regulation by BY RAJESH D. NAYAK & TODD N. TUCKER in American Prospect 

In their paper, Todd Tucker and Rajesh Nayak make an important contribution to mapping out a role for OIRA that will enhance our ability to respond to the pandemic and resulting recession. Some in this series have referred to OIRA as a gatekeeper that erects obstacles to progressive regulation. Tucker and Nayak show that with critical reforms OIRA can be a force for making sure that the most progressive regulations get through the gate. In my opinion, the pandemic makes the reimagined role for OIRA described by Tucker and Nayak more important than ever.... Read more about Why Bolster the Regulatory Gatekeeper?

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New proposal to steer nation through COVID-19 crisis would give a voice to frontline workers

April 24, 2020

BY Rick Wartzman
Fast Company

Today, scholars from Harvard Law School’s Clean Slate for Worker Power project and the Roosevelt Institute unveil a plan that channels the indignation—and expertise—of those who are underpaid while taking on the risks during this perilous time.

“The medical folks need to take care of stopping the virus, but policymakers need to get the structural problems with the economy under control,” says Sharon Block, the executive director of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program, which runs the Clean Slate project. “Maybe what we’re going through now will open up some imaginations.”

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Foundations and Donors Step Up Grants to Help Workers Hurt by the Pandemic

April 14, 2020

By Alex Daniels
Chronicle of Philanthropy

In the coronavirus era, the heroes drive delivery trucks, bag groceries, and clean hospital floors. As those employees have stayed on the job, risking their lives to ensure others can stay comfortable in seclusion, a new movement is underway to help those workers.

Foundations that have long supported labor groups are stepping up their funding and recruiting others to join a movement that some experts think could lead to sweeping policy changes.

The Clean Slate for Worker Power at Harvard University Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, for instance, used grants from the Ford, Hewlett, Kellogg, and Public Welfare foundations to produce a 130-page set of policy recommendations that would help worker groups generate revenue, provide better or portable health coverage for workers, and require that 40 percent of corporate board seats are chosen by workers, among other things.

Sharon Block, the program’s executive director, says the project will continue to flesh out a labor agenda.

"We are not going to alleviate the pain that so many workers are in tomorrow," she says. "What we want to do is provide source material for groups that are trying to make systemic change. We want to provide some of the answers."... Read more about Foundations and Donors Step Up Grants to Help Workers Hurt by the Pandemic

Congress Must Seize the Spotlight Back From Trump

Congress Must Seize the Spotlight Back From Trump

April 17, 2020

By John Nichols
The Nation

Mid mounting frustration with the extent to which the president has been able to frame the discourse about Covid-19 and its consequences, some of the savviest thinkers about politics and governing have been asking, as Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout did recently, “Where is Congress during a deadly pandemic?” Her answer: “They should be in session every day. Remotely.”

So the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) is stepping up to show how it can—and should—be done. Next Thursday, April 23, the CPC will convene the first in a series of remote congressional hearings to highlight bold and necessary proposals for responding to the pandemic and to the economic crisis that has developed as a result. 

Organized along the lines of a traditional House hearing, the “Preventing Layoffs” hearing will be chaired by Pocan and Jayapal and feature expert testimony from Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and Amanda Ballantyne, the director of the Main Street Alliance, a group that advocates for small businesses.

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Don’t let Big Gig game the system

April 18, 2020

SHARON BLOCK and  MIKE FIRESTONE
Commonwealth Magazine

IN ITS SWEEPING RESPONSE to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress threw a financial lifeline to millions of Americans and made so-called “gig economy” workers, like Uber drivers, eligible for unemployment assistance for the first time. But the economic crisis begs the question why Uber drivers weren’t eligible already.

The answer is simple. It’s because, unlike other Massachusetts businesses, Uber doesn’t pay unemployment insurance to cover its workers or extend them other crucial protections, and the major gig-economy companies (we’ll call them Big Gig) fight every effort to require it. This opposition left millions of workers without a safety net when the bottom fell out of our economy.

It’s time to update state law to require Big Gig platforms for driving, delivery, and other app-based services to pay unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, sick time, minimum wage, and paid leave, just like any other business in Massachusetts – regardless of how they classify their workers.... Read more about Don’t let Big Gig game the system

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