Three Ways Congress Could Empower Workers Now

July 31, 2020

From the start, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a worker power crisis. Unsafe conditions have endangered those on the frontlines, half-baked reopening plans have spurred outcry from workers afraid for their lives, and record unemployment has exacerbated long-standing financial insecurity and racial inequality.

Thus far, congressional action has largely targeted short-term fixes to help workers through unemployment during the pandemic (e.g., expanded unemployment insurance (UI) and pandemic paid leave). 

Congress has done little, however, to prevent long-term losses and has failed to ensure that the post-pandemic economy will be fair for workers. When they find new work, people who have experienced unemployment can expect to earn up to 15 percent less than their continuously employed peers; such declines in earnings can linger throughout a lifetime and translate into years of lost earnings.  

At a moment when workers’ already-limited power in the labor market has cratered, Congress shouldn’t be pitching measures that increase employers’ already outsized power (through, for example, liability shields). It should be shielding workers from unsafe and unfair practices and giving them the voice and leverage necessary to not only act as a check on their employers but to also protect and support themselves and their loved ones. 

For an economic recovery that reaches all workers and puts our country on a path to more broadly shared prosperity, workers need more power now and in the future than they had pre-COVID. Congress can make it happen with these three policies:  

1. Extend Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and change the definition of suitable employment. 

Since the CARES Act’s passage, the soon-expiring $600 Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) has increased income for millions; with a small tweak, it could also boost their leverage in the labor market and give them the power to reject unlivable wages. Congress must extend PUC, but it can also expand on its demonstrated benefits by changing the definition of “suitable employment.”

Currently, to maintain UI (and therefore PUC) eligibility, recipients cannot turn down offers of suitable employment—generally defined as an offer paying as much as their last position. 

Congress could change the definition of suitable employment to job offers that match either what a worker earned prior to unemployment or what they’re currently earning on UI—whichever is higher. 

Such a guarantee would both empower workers to be more selective in their job search and counter employers’ increasingly monopsonistic ability to depress wages. It would also provide a long-term income boost for workers, accelerate the nation’s economic recovery, and help address racial inequities in the labor market. Roosevelt Managing Director of Corporate Power Bharat Ramamurti and Great Democracy Initiative (GDI) Fellow Lindsay Owens include this proposal in their “fair wage guarantee.”

2. Create sector-based, labor-management commissions.

Extending PUC should be Congress’s first priority, but it should also strive to increase worker power in the long term. Congress should establish sectoral commissions composed of worker and management representatives who are empowered to set industry standards and tackle the shared challenges of this moment: transmission prevention, testing protocols, and hazard pay, to name a few. 

Covered sectors—health care, transportation, etc.—would get their own commissions, and Congress could either task them with generating recommendations or authorize them to bargain on certain issues for binding agreements. As Sharon Block, Suzanne Kahn, Brishen Rogers, and Benjamin I. Sachs proposed in a Roosevelt issue brief (“How and Why to Empower Workers in the COVID-19 Response”), legislation could direct the Secretary of Labor to appoint commission members within 30 days. 

3. Make workplaces more transparent and democratic.

A small and long-declining percentage of workers are represented by unions, leaving many people with little say in their companies’ COVID-19 response. Block, Kahn, Rogers, and Sachs have a near-term solution: “Congress should require businesses that receive federal assistance or that are in essential industries to establish mechanisms for worker participation in workplace health and safety measures.” 

In practice, that could mean worker committees that confer with management about health and safety (among other topics) and have the right to information that’s relevant in those discussions. Though well-short of a union, institutionalized processes that enable workers to shape their work environments and protect themselves from employer retaliation are key in rebalancing workplace power.

Ultimately, though COVID-19 has destabilized life and work in unpredictable ways, the imbalance of power in the workplace is within Congress’s control. Workers can’t wait any longer.