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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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SAFEGUARDING EMPLOYEE HEALTH WHILE RETURNING TO WORK

July 28, 2020

by Duke Today Staff
in Duke Today

Employees planning a return to their workplaces face a series of obstacles thanks in part to failures by the federal government, three experts said recently during a panel discussion at Duke. The July 9 panel was part of the Duke University Initiative for Science and Society's ongoing “Coronavirus Conversations” series. 

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.”

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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 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. 

Download interview (mp4)

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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