Worker Voice in the Time of COVID-19

April 24, 2020

New report explores how and why front-line workers must be guaranteed a voice in the next stimulus bill


New York, NY—Frontline workers’ strikes and protests have made clear that workers have been excluded from decision-making in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Antiquated labor law allows employers to put the bottom line ahead of the health and safety of essential employees (such as those in the health care and food service industries).

A new report released today, How and Why to Empower Workers in the COVID-19 Response, by the Roosevelt Institute and Clean Slate for Worker Power—proposes several concrete reforms to give workers an active role in designing and implementing the protocols that will govern their work lives during the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting recession. The paper focuses on sectors that have been centrally affected by this crisis, including health care, carework, food service, warehousing, and logistics. But the approach laid out is widely adaptable and can be used to position other sectors for safe reopening.

Written by Roosevelt’s Suzanne Kahn and Brishen Rogers and Clean Slate’s Sharon Block and Benjamin I. Sachs, the report recommends that the next stimulus bill guarantee worker representation at two levels:

  • Congress should also enact strong anti-retaliation protections for workers who participate in these new bodies, or who report workplace safety and health issues.
  • At the sectoral level, Congress should create institutionalized bodies that bring workers and employers together to either meet and confer on recommendations or to negotiate binding minimum standards. During the pandemic response, those bodies would focus on workplace health and safety, but their mandate could later expand to address strategies to recover from the recession that will likely outlast the pandemic.
  • At the workplace level, Congress should require that employers receiving federal aid guarantee workers the right to consult or bargain with employers around health and safety practices.
Insight from the Authors:

“COVID-19 has exposed glaring problems in our social infrastructure, from a lack of paid sick leave to a shortage of hospital beds. But while the virus has upended life for the entire nation, its effects are profoundly skewed towards lower-income and already marginalized workers. It’s time for our government to address this reality and create mechanisms that support and give power to those who need it most,” said Kahn.

“Essential workers need a meaningful voice in workplace safety and health policies. That is not just a matter of fairness to them—it is also an urgent matter of public health,” shared Rogers.

“Workers in the US have no rights to a collective voice in their workplace unless and until they unionize. Yet, only about 6 percent of workers in the private sector are represented by a union because the laws that should enable unionization are broken. That means the vast majority of workers have no rights to participate in their employers’ decisions about how to confront this pandemic,” according to Block.

“COVID-19 has laid bare various long-standing inequities in our economy. It is incumbent on us to respond with ambitious new policy approaches, like the sectoral commissions we propose here, that will empower working people to build more democratic workplaces, and a more equitable economy,” said Sachs.

Guaranteeing worker safety—and by extension, public health—will require a multipronged approach, including vigorous action by federal and state agencies that will enforce workplace safety and health standards. You can learn more about how the Roosevelt Institute and Clean Stare are empowering workers here and here.

About the Roosevelt Institute

The Roosevelt Institute is a New York-based think tank that, in partnership with its campus network and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, is working to redefine the American economy. Focusing on corporate and public power, labor and wages, and the economics of race and gender inequality, the Roosevelt Institute unifies experts, invests in young leaders, and advances progressive policies that bring the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor into the 21st century.

To keep up to date with the Roosevelt Institute, please visit us on Twitter or follow our work at #RewriteTheRules.

About the Clean Slate for Worker Power

Clean Slate for Worker Power is a project of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. It is led by Professor Benjamin Sachs (Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry, Harvard Law School) and Sharon Block (Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program). The Clean Slate for Worker Power participants sought innovation, boldness, and comity to answer the project’s animating question: What would labor law look like if, starting from a clean slate, it was designed to empower working people to build a truly equitable American democracy and a genuinely equitable American economy.

To keep up to date with the Clean Slate for Worker Power project, please visit our website CleanSlateWorkerPower.org or follow us on Twitter @WorkerPowerLaw.

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