How COVID-19 turned a spotlight on weak worker rights in the U.S.

From today’s Harvard Gazette:

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.”

Q&A: SHARON BLOCK AND BENJAMIN SACHS

GAZETTE: What do you think the COVID-19 crisis has revealed about working conditions in the United States?

BLOCK: What it has revealed is something that many of us have known for a long time, but it’s been revealed in a much more urgent way, and it is how tattered our social safety net is in this country. That plays out in in a number of ways: for example, how inadequate our supports for workers are in terms of unemployment insurance. Just look at the desperate circumstances now more than 40 million workers have found themselves in. That’s been the reality for many low-wage workers, not on a mass scale, but that’s been their lived experience, even throughout a time when we thought we were in an expanding economy. The other side that has been exposed is that for workers who have been deemed essential and have worked throughout this crisis, how little protection they have in the workplace to be able to stand up for themselves, to say that their conditions are unsafe and they’re not being paid adequately for the important work they’re doing. On all sides of the social safety net and the ability of low-wage workers to have a decent life, what we’re seeing in myriad ways is how the system has failed workers.

SACHS: I would just add how weak the protections are for workers who stand up and demand safe, healthy, and fair working conditions, and how easy it is to fire workers who do that. It has also shown how badly broken our system of labor law is, which is to say that our system doesn’t give workers a voice so that the only recourse workers have is to take to the streets, and how little opportunity they have for an institutional structure of communication and demand-making. The other thing that Sharon and I would like to stress is how the crisis is being borne disproportionately by workers of color and women, which is another failing of our labor market and our system of labor law.

GAZETTE: Why are workers of color and women bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis? What role do the labor market and the labor law system play in it?

BLOCK: This is the result of the broken safety net we have. These are workers who are deemed essential, but the law has not treated as essential. They don’t have basic rights or the law doesn’t adequately address their situation. For lots of low-wage workers who are in these essential industries, the current labor law is particularly broken. They really have almost no real access to being able to act collectively and have the law recognize that and thereby give them power to affect their situation at work. As Ben said, they are predominantly workers of color and women, and that’s a big piece of why this pandemic has hit them so hard. We’re really seeing this connection that a lot of people intuitively knew, but hopefully more people understand now, which is that it is hard to separate economic issues and public health issues and issues of physical well-being. It’s not an accident that most people who are getting sick are poor or paid low wages.

Read the complete article here.

Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

From The Guardian Online:

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.

Food delivery workers have become essential in New York after the city closed restaurants and bars to the public on 16 March.

Norma Kennedy, an employee at an American Apparel clothing plant is one of those people. Kennedy along with dozens of other workers walked off her job in Selma, Alabama, on 23 April after two workers tested positive for coronavirus. The plant has remained open during the pandemic to manufacture face masks for a US army contract.

“We left for our own protection,” said Kennedy. “Beforehand, management said if someone tested positive they would shut down and have the plant cleaned. When workers tested positive, they didn’t want to shut it down. They’re not really concerned about the workers.”

Working conditions, low pay and lack of safety protections have triggered protests throughout the pandemic as workers across various industries, including food service, meat processingretail, manufacturing, transportation and healthcare have come together to protest about issues, many of which were apparent before the coronavirus.

“There are no federal mandates or requirements to implement the social distancing guidance or anything else. It’s only guidance and employers can choose to implement them or not,” said Deborah Berkowitz, director of worker safety and health for the National Employment Law Project. “And that is why, in an unprecedented way, they are walking out to bring public attention to the fact that their companies are not protecting their safety and health.”

Read the complete article here.

5 questions answered about workers’ rights during the coronavirus pandemic

From today’s PBS NewsHour Online:

Roughly 26 million have filed for unemployment benefits in the United States the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of others are risking safety to work in essential roles, or are navigating new challenges working at home. So what rights should workers, or the newly unemployed, be aware of?

Nawaz and Conti addressed a broad swath of audience questions on everything from employee recourse, to support for working parents, to unemployment benefits. You can read highlights from their conversation below.

What should be top of mind for people who have to physically go back to work?

A number of states have started to allow businesses to reopen, despite the recommendations of many public health officials, who say this could worsen the spread of novel coronavirus.

If you do have to go back to work, Conti stressed that you should consult the CDC for guidance on the protective equipment you need in order to do your job safely. “Make sure when you go back, that your employer is giving you what you need, whether it’s gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, or frequent opportunities to go to the bathroom to wash your hands,” Conti said.

Could there be recourse for employees who don’t feel safe at work?

If you don’t feel that your employer has provided the proper protections for you to return to work in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Conti said you “do have the legal right to stand up for healthy and safe treatment on the job.” You can do so by filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I can’t sit here and tell you that an employer might not retaliate and might not either treat you worse on the job, or perhaps fire you, and I certainly hope not, but you do have the legal right to stand up for healthy and safe treatment on the job,” Conti said.

If you feel that you’ve been retaliated against by your employer for asking for more protections as part of an organized group such as a union, you can file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Read the complete article here.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wants a bill of rights for essential workers

From today’s Boston.com:

Elizabeth Warren says the next coronavirus relief package should “put all workers front and center.” But the Massachusetts senator is also proposing a slate of new protections for those who don’t have the luxury of staying at home during the pandemic.

Warren and California Rep. Ro Khanna unveiled an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” on Monday aimed at boosting protections and benefits for the employees most exposed to COVID-19.

Experts say between 49 million and 62 million Americans are employed by industries designated as “essential” by the federal government. And while health care employees are viewed to be at the greatest risk of contracting the disease, the list also includes other “frontline” workers whose jobs continue to require them to be in close contact with other people during the outbreak, from grocery store workers and janitors to truck drivers and transportation employees to government and child care workers.

“Essential workers are the backbone of our nation’s response to coronavirus,” said Warren, who has called on Congress to end its weeks-long recess to pass additional legislation in response to the economic and public health crises wrought by the pandemic.

The federal government has issued some guidance for workers in the food retail industry, but Warren and Khanna want Congress to strengthen and expand those policies in the next relief package,

Their “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” proposal would require employers to provide all frontline workers with personal protective equipment and robust hazard pay “retroactive to the start date of the pandemic.” It would create a program to require — and reimburse — employers to provide up to 14 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave during the public health crisis.

Read the complete article here.

Grocery workers are beginning to die of coronavirus

From today’s Washington Post:

Major supermarket chains are beginning to report their first coronavirus-related employee deaths, leading to store closures and increasing anxiety among grocery workers as the pandemic intensifies across the country.

A Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, N.Y., a greeter at a Giant store in Largo, Md., and two Walmart employees from the same Chicago-area store have died of covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, in recent days, the companies confirmed Monday.

Though more than 40 states have ordered nonessential businesses to close and told residents to stay home to stem the spread of the virus, supermarkets are among the retailers that remain open. Thousands of grocery employees have continued to report to work as U.S. infections and death rates continue to climb, with many reporting long shifts and extra workloads to keep up with spiking demand. Many workers say they don’t have enough protective gear to deal with hundreds of customers a day. Dozens of grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Industry experts say the rise of worker infections and deaths will likely have a ripple effect on grocers’ ability to retain and add new workers at a time when they’re looking to rapidly hire thousands of temporary employees. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, is hiring 150,000 workers, while Kroger is adding more than 10,000. Many are offering an extra $2 an hour and promising masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. But finding people willing to work on the front lines for little more than the minimum wage could be an increasingly tough sell, according to supermarket analyst Phil Lempert.

“One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to,” he said. “They’re starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers. We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’ “

Read the complete article here.

Op-Ed: Is the Coronavirus Shaping the Future of How We Work?

From today’s New York Times:

Both the irony and the symbolism were evident as members of the California Future of Work Commission gathered in a virtual meeting, hastily rescheduled in the midst of an unfolding crisis.

The pandemic, and the recession all but certain to follow, threaten to pre-empt and overwhelm efforts to shape the future of work, and thus the future of California — how to create good jobs, reduce poverty and redefine relationships and structures to narrow the enormous income inequality that overshadows the state’s wealth and success.

Thus the recent meeting became not only an experiment for doing business in a post-coronavirus world but also a conversation laden with doubts, fears and aspirations about how the future may evolve.

The coronavirus will have a silver lining if it serves as the impetus for constructive upheaval, in the way that the sudden forced reliance on telecommunication is already having an impact.

“We are conducting a natural experiment,” said Peter Schwartz, a futurist and member of the commission. “One we would prefer not to have conducted. But we’re going to learn the hard way, rather quickly and by necessity, everything that can be done remotely. … We’re not going back to zero afterward. What do we learn out of all this in terms of how our society can change?”

World War II, the last international crisis that upended life in California, transformed the state into a military center and ushered in decades of growth that reshaped the Golden State. There is already a sense that in a different way, the coronavirus may create an inflection point of comparable significance. For better or worse, whenever the epidemic subsides, there will be no going back.

Read the complete article here.

Dear COVID-19: Working from home is awesome. Here’s how to excel at it

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

I love working from home.

I learned this week that this is apparently a controversial stance. The unfolding coronavirus crisis is forcing many of us to work from home in an effort to help stop the spread. Not everyone greeted the news with a cheer. And that’s how I learned there are some people who claim to enjoy putting on work clothes and packing a sad desk lunch and battling morning traffic. Not me.

I’ve had jobs where I worked from home full-time, and jobs — like the one I have now — where I normally work from home every once in a while. I don’t want to brag, but I’m pretty good at it.

A lot of the “how to work from home” guides popping up this week seem to assume no one has ever pulled out their laptop to check their work email from home before. I trust you know the basics. So here are some tips to work from home more efficiently, stay connected with your colleagues, and maybe even enjoy yourself a little bit.

1. Sleep later.

How long is your commute? And how long is your pre-office morning routine — selecting an outfit, doing your hair, figuring out what you’ll eat that day and deciding whether to pack a gym bag? Add that time up, and then set your morning alarm back by that amount of time.

2. Set up your desk.

Whatever space you’re going to be working from at home, clean it. Normally, my desk at home has a bunch of bills I need to file, a few bottles of nail polish, a couple of books, some mail and a handful of old newspapers. If you are like me, mend your wicked ways. Make your home desk (or kitchen table) feel like your work desk. Have everything there that you’d have at work: a phone charger, a box of tissues, a water bottle, a mug, pens and paper.

3. Be ready for prime time.

Teleconferencing and video calls are not the future. They are the present. Save your office’s dial-in number to your phone’s favorites so you’re ready to jump on a call at a moment’s notice.

Read the complete article here.

Enjoy The Extra Day Off! More Bosses Give 4-Day Workweek A Try

From NPR News Online:

Companies around the world are embracing what might seem like a radical idea: a four-day workweek. The concept is gaining ground in places as varied as New Zealand and Russia, and it’s making inroads among some American companies. Employers are seeing surprising benefits, including higher sales and profits.

The idea of a four-day workweek might sound crazy, especially in America, where the number of hours worked has been climbing and where cellphones and email remind us of our jobs 24/7. But in some places, the four-day concept is taking off like a viral meme. Many employers aren’t just moving to 10-hour shifts, four days a week, as companies like Shake Shack are doing; they’re going to a 32-hour week — without cutting pay. In exchange, employers are asking their workers to get their jobs done in a compressed amount of time.

Last month, a Washington state senator introduced a bill to reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is backing a parliamentary proposal to shift to a four-day week. Politicians in Britain and Finland are considering something similar.

In the U.S., Shake Shack started testing the idea a year and a half ago. The burger chain shortened managers’ workweeks to four days at some stores and found that recruitment spiked, especially among women.

Shake Shack’s president, Tara Comonte, says the staff loved the perk: “Being able to take their kids to school a day a week, or one day less of having to pay for day care, for example.”

Read the complete article here.

The Great Google Revolt

From today’s New York Times:

Laurence Berland had just gotten out of the subway in New York, some 3,000 miles from his desk in San Francisco, when he learned that Google had fired him. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the news came to him, bad-breakup-style, via email. “Following a thorough investigation, the company has found that you committed several acts in violation of Google’s policies,” the note said. It did not elaborate on what he had done to violate these policies.

Berland, an engineer who had spent more than a decade at the company, had reason to expect he might be fired. He had been suspended a few weeks earlier after subscribing to the open calendars of several senior Google employees, whom he suspected of meeting with outside consultants to suppress organizing activity at the company. During a subsequent meeting at which he was questioned by Google investigators, he had the feeling that they were pressuring him to say something that could be grounds for termination. Then, the Friday before he was fired, he had spoken at a well-publicized rally of his co-workers outside Google’s San Francisco offices, accusing the company of silencing dissent.

Even so, the timing and manner of his dismissal surprised him. “I thought they’d do it when all the media attention died down,” he said. “When the suspensions and the rally were no longer on people’s minds.” Instead, at a moment when the spotlight was shining brightly, Google had escalated — as if to make a point.

Berland was one of at least four employees Google fired that day. All four were locked in an ongoing conflict with the company, as they and other activists had stepped forward to denounce both its treatment of workers and its relationship with certain customers, like U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Berland’s terminated colleagues were even more shocked by the turn of events than he was. Rebecca Rivers, a software engineer based in Boulder, Colo., was dismissed over the phone after accessing internal documents. Rivers had only recently come out as transgender and was pursuing a medical transition. “I came out at Google expecting to stay at Google through the entire transition,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think about going to a job interview, because I’m so scared of how other companies treat trans employees.”

Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke, the two other Googlers fired that day, had not received so much as a warning, much less a suspension. Though they had been questioned by corporate security two months earlier about whether they had circulated documents referring to Customs and Border Protection contracts, they had been allowed to continue their work without incident. Waldman, a software developer in Cambridge, Mass., said she was given a 15-minute notice before she was summoned to the meeting where she was fired; Duke, an engineer in New York, said an invitation appeared on his calendar precisely one minute beforehand. Security officials escorted him out of the building without letting him return to his desk. “I had to describe to them what my jacket, scarf and bag looked like,” he said.

Read the complete article here.

The American Economy Is Creating a National Identity Crisis for Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Europeans often describe the United States as a great place to buy stuff but a terrible place to work. They understand the appeal of our plentiful and affordable consumer goods, but otherwise they just don’t get it: the lack of real vacation, the sending of emails after business hours, the general insensitivity to work-life balance.

That may be just a casual observation, but it identifies something deep and problematic about the economy that the United States has built over the past 40 years.

Since the 1980s, American economic policy has insisted on the central importance of two things: cheaper prices for consumers and maximum returns for corporate shareholders. There is some logic to this: We all buy things, after all, and more than 50 percent of Americans own at least some stock.

But these priorities also generate an internal conflict, for they neglect, repress and even enslave our other selves: our identities as employees, producers, family members, citizens. And in recent years — as jobs become increasingly unpleasant and unstable, as smaller towns and regional economies are gutted, as essential industries like the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors engage in outlandish profiteering, and above all, as economic inequality becomes the trademark of our nation — the conflict seems to have reached a breaking point.

Read the complete article here.