The pandemic prompted many to think about how work shapes our own lives. It also highlighted how reliant we all are on the labor of others. While higher paid workers transitioned to remote work, others had little choice but to continue going to their jobs in person. These workers exposed themselves and their families to infection with little to no government support. And while society categorized their work as essential, the United States government failed to meet their needs–not just for pandemic workplace protection but their more fundamental needs for jobs that, pandemic or not, respect their labor.
Policymakers have failed to harness the pandemic to fundamentally re-shape the working conditions of those who need it most–leaving workers to take on this task by themselves. Through the examples of hazard pay and paid sick leave, this article critiques local and state approaches, which do not provide enough coverage and consistency, as well as the U.S.’ federal response, which still falls vastly short of meeting workers’ needs.
In the face of these shortcomings, workers are continuing to seek out labor organizing as the pathway to achieving workplace protections and rights. I argue that, as the pandemic continues, the labor movement has more potential to actually address the needs of workers and create pressure for policymakers.
The rise and fall of ‘essential workers’
During the pandemic’s early waves in the spring and summer of 2020, essential workers–who stock our grocery shelves, drive our buses and care for our sick loved ones–were held up as the backbone of our society. At least rhetorically, our society recognized and praised their labor. But even in those early days of support, we did not truly acknowledge that many essential workers did not have a choice in continuing to go to their jobs.
Essential workers are often low-paid, especially outside of the healthcare system. Facing the insecurity of the pandemic, most do not have a safety net to fall back on. Even in the early pandemic, as we were uplifting the work of some, other essential labor was barely recognized, including the labor of farm workers and domestic workers. These workers are predominantly people of color and often immigrants. They are not just invisible to the average consumer, they are also systematically excluded from workplace protections and rights. When we did acknowledge essential workers, it was to hold up their continued work as noble and selfless. At the same time, our political system failed to provide them a meaningful safety net.
Entering year three of the pandemic, workers in the service industry, in agriculture, in healthcare, and in education are continuing to work in unsafe conditions with few protections. But our public discourse has moved on–the term ‘essential workers’ has largely disappeared from our vocabulary again. With this waning public attention, we are at risk of completely losing any momentum the pandemic built to materially improve working conditions and workplace protections in the United States. In hastily trying to ‘return to normal’ we are not just erasing the continued hardships workers are facing, but also exposing them to continued health risk and economic precarity in largely unchanged working conditions.
How do we reform U.S. workplace protections?
For progressive policymakers, the immediate response to poor workplace protection is to fundamentally change the U.S.’ approach to labor rights and workplace protections. However, there is not enough political will, and too much active opposition, for a federal legislative solution to workers’ needs–and local and state approaches do not have enough reach to substantially uplift workers. These shortcomings have been illustrated by attempts at pandemic policy-making.
Localized Approach: Hazard Pay
There have been local efforts to provide relief and, at least temporarily, give essential workers more security. One policy which gained momentum at the local level is hazard pay, which helps to compensate workers not just for the additional risk they are facing at their jobs, but also for the higher costs of going to work, such as finding increasingly expensive child care. Hazard pay has been implemented in several places in the U.S., including for grocery store workers in LA in 2021, and in Seattle, where hazard pay is still in effect as of February 2022. But calls to expand these local solutions have not gained momentum. Both workers, including those at Walmart and Amazon, and institutions like Brookings and the Economic Policy Institute have called for wider implementation of hazard pay. Local efforts failed to translate into federal action; one House bill seeking to introduce hazard pay for federal employees never made it out of committee and the proposed HEROES act, which included $200 billion in hazard pay, was rejected as “unrealistic” by Republican lawmakers. With hazard pay mandates remaining only at the local level, a patchwork of protection for workers emerges–leaving many out.
While local and state protections can provide meaningful security and relief to covered workers, localizing workplace protection enables large employers to continue evading regulation. For example, in response to local hazard pay mandates, Kroger shut down several of its grocery stores to avoid increasing pay at those locations. A local approach enables this response from businesses, who prioritize profit maximization over worker safety and well-being, as well as over the provision of goods and services to local communities. As long as our policies are implemented in patchworks, companies will continue to find ways around them. Hazard pay is just one example of this dynamic. We need federal mandates to elevate the baseline of protections and rights that U.S. workers can expect and employers must provide.
Federal Approach: Paid Sick Leave
While some policies, like hazard pay, failed to break through at the federal level, the pandemic did generate federal action on workplace protection–though these opportunities were not capitalized on to create a lasting safety net for workers. The most prominent example is paid sick leave. Few things have highlighted the inadequacy of the U.S.’ workplace protections like a pandemic in a country where many workers–just over half of workers at the 123 largest U.S. service-sector employers–do not have access to paid sick leave.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and American Rescue Plan Act expanded access to paid sick and family leave, enabling workers to take paid time off when they or their family members are ill. However, the coverage, despite its federal implementation, left out many workers. Some provisions applied only to federal employees while others provided exemptions for both employers with less than 50 and over 500 employees, cutting out a significant share of employers. As of March 2021, with the help of these temporary pandemic provisions, 77% of private sector employees had access to paid sick leave. But leave access was skewed by occupation and by income: only 59% in service occupations and only 33% in the bottom 10% of earners had access to paid sick leave. With this patchwork of coverage, and expiration dates staggered throughout 2020 and 2021, employees were more comprehensively covered than pre-pandemic but access to paid sick leave was inequitable and, for many, temporary.
The federal approach to increasing paid sick leave during the pandemic was not entirely ineffective–it did expand the safety net for many workers. However, those most in need of this safety net were not adequately protected. And, most importantly, these federal protections were short-lived, failing to systemically change U.S. workplace protection. The additional leave requirements mandated by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired on December 31, 2020. The American Rescue Plan Act extended federal tax credits for employers providing leave until September 30, 2021, but did not extend the mandate, meaning that leave provision was once again at the employer’s discretion. And as federal mandates expired, the companies who were exempt from the mandates but implemented new policies–either out of concern for their employees or to prevent negative press–have also scaled back the protections they added during the pandemic’s early peaks. In aggregate, as we think about a post-pandemic United States, little has changed in terms of workers’ guaranteed access to paid sick leave and other essential workplace protections.
The short-term nature of pandemic policies constitutes a failure at both the federal and local level. It is vital that policymakers provide immediate support for those currently working in unsafe conditions. But implementing this support temporarily in the face of a global pandemic is not enough. People face precarious and unexpected situations throughout their working lives–they need safety nets during these individual crises just as much as during a global one. Systemic solutions to workers’ needs to take time off work, be paid livable wages, and have rights and dignity in the workplace are needed. This is not only because we need to be prepared for future shocks like COVID; without more ambitious policies to protect workers, employers’ financial interests will continue to win out over workers’ wellbeing.
A comprehensive federal solution would provide workers with the long-term security they need while forcing employers to adjust to a higher baseline of workplace protection and labor costs. However, in the current political environment, more pressure is needed until federal lawmakers will prioritize workers’ needs. The pandemic was not enough to create this pressure, but labor organizing and the discontent the pandemic has created for workers across industries, may be able to create that pressure.
The Way Forward: Labor Organizing
With federal, state and local policies failing to provide comprehensive and sustainable workplace protections, workers themselves are mobilizing to fight for better conditions. The U.S. labor movement had been gaining momentum before the pandemic, with monumental strikes in recent years including the West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018 and 31,000 Stop & Shop workers on strike in 2019. However, COVID has given labor organizing a new boost.
There has been discussion within the labor movement of if the current momentum is actual or perceived–meaning if more organizing is happening now, or if the public is simply more aware of ongoing labor activity, perhaps through social media and news coverage. In terms of union elections and strike actions, the labor movement is definitely not at a peak–both are happening at lower rates than pre-pandemic. However, it is difficult to compare organizing during a global pandemic to the organizing that happened before; we do not yet have the perspective to understand how COVID changed people’s ability and willingness to engage in either formal union activity or more informal labor protests and organizing.
Coverage of labor organizing, and with it its accessibility to the public, is changing. In January 2022, Steven Greenhouse wrote about the resurgence of the labor beat for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. He comments on increased national media attention to unions and strikes but also to workers’ rights and working conditions more broadly. Greenhouse emphasizes that this resurgence is interconnected with COVID, as labor has been one of the dominant media frames for the pandemic. Large mainstream publications from NBC News and Time to The Guardian are publishing pieces on momentum in the U.S. labor movement and how the pandemic has shown workers the value of labor organizing. Beyond traditional media, social media has helped amplify the message of the labor movement and brought wider public attention to union elections and strikes. Additional coverage for the labor movement is not just about publicity–reporting on organizing activity doesn’t just inform workers about the contractual wins of others but also shows them what they too could win if they organized.
While overall numbers of strikes and new elections may not be higher than in previous years, the impact of labor organizing has definitely been on display during the well-publicized wave of organizing and strikes that marked the fall of 2021. Notably, workers that were categorized as essential in the early pandemic were well-represented in these labor actions–from food processing at Kellogg’s, Frito-Lay and Nabisco to hospital workers and nurses in Chicago, California, Massachusetts and beyond. Workers who have been told their labor is essential to the functioning of our society but are not seeing working conditions or compensation that reflect this value are coming together to demand change. They are pushing for contracts that provide better pay, protect from coercive practices like forced overtime, and guarantee protections like healthcare and regular schedules.
Like local and state mandates, workplace organizing can create a patchwork of protections–a vast majority of workers continue to not have union representation and cannot negotiate for their rights. But unlike with local and state mandates, workers are in control of the labor movement and can create pressure even when there is little legislative momentum. Even if political will is lacking to meaningfully improve workplace protections locally or federally, workers can continue to organize. In doing so, they not only create better working conditions for themselves, they also work to raise our baseline by shifting the expectations of workers and the perceived consequences for employers. In the wider context of the labor market, this shift may happen more slowly but within industries and local contexts the demands of workers at one company or location can quickly affect the expectations of workers at others, as seen currently through organizing at Starbucks. Until federal legislators are willing to act to formally increase this baseline of workplace protections and rights, the labor movement is working to raise expectations.
Building organizing momentum in the face of stagnant policymaking
Continued growth and increasing strength in the U.S. labor movement will be required to move the needle on any of the policies that are essential to protecting workers, not just during a sudden crisis like COVID, but under regular conditions. While some local and state politicians are pushing for policies to better protect workers, these mandates can only go so far–too many workers are left uncovered and unprotected with a localized approach, especially in conservative states. At the federal level, neither party is prioritizing the kind of baseline protections all workers should have, never mind pushing through imaginative and bold mandates to help workers gain control of their lives and re-imagine work as dignified and fulfilling. Only with increased pressure from organized workers, including both essential workers who critically need better protection and white-collar workers who hold power in our economy, will policies that really center the needs of workers be implemented.
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