Still in the throes of a pandemic, workers’ rights in the United States have been in a questionable position. Resolutions to safeguard workers is dependent on President Biden’s cabinet, continued COVID-19 stimulus efforts, and legal protections for the unionization of all kinds of workers.
Labor rights during the pandemic can mean the difference between protecting workers or putting them at risk for corporate interests. Currently, worker protections vary, and the stakes for workers’ rights entail greater safety concerns than ever before. In this uncertain landscape, we explore what this new administration may mean for workers.
Labor Rights During the Pandemic
The advent of the coronavirus pandemic meant massive shifts in labor policies and working hours. Millions were laid off. Millions lost paychecks, work, and hours, while millions more faced life-threatening health hazards in dealing with daily exposure to a deadly virus.
The federal response was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act, which increased unemployment benefits for a time and offered one-time payouts to American families under an income threshold.
Now, workers both employed and otherwise face an uphill battle. Limited worker protections in right-to-work states have incentivized the gig economy, in which workers operate for an unspecified amount of time to complete a task, often for unfair wages. These workers have little to no protections, no employer-offered health insurance, and increasingly risky work environments.
Right-to-work laws empower the gig economy further while limiting the power of the workers themselves. States in which right-to-work laws are active find negatives for workers, including:
- Lower wages
- Fewer worker benefits
- Weaker, harder-to-form unions
This creates a larger pool of desperate and laid-off workers looking for gig positions with companies like Uber, DoorDash, or even Amazon, where working as a contractor means a paycheck but with few guarantees. Without benefits like insurance during a global health crisis, labor rights are in an uncomfortable place for millions of Americans.
What’s at Stake
The tempestuous nature of 2020 and its election season emphasized the precarious position of labor rights. Surrounded by messaging of how part-time, poorly paid positions are risky to one’s health, laborers are frequently reminded of their limited ability to demand more.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration and the NLRB were aligned in their attempts to delegitimize democratic processes. Republican leadership invested $20 million in to fight lawsuits aimed at reforming voting and union election processes. In one instance, the Trump-appointed board pushed through regulation without the proper public notice and comment process, resulting in the invalidation of streamlined union elections.
President Biden has taken the opportunity to breathe new life into the NLRB. In January, he appointed veteran NLRB attorney Peter Sung Ohr to serve as Acting General Counsel of the NLRB. As he appoints more pro-labor board members, the expectation is that the NLRB will undo much of what was done under the Trump administration, such as allowing a number of high-profile organizations to bar the unionization of their workers.
At the same time, existing unions face their own internal problems. As the nation collectively takes stock of institutional racism, exclusionary patterns have emerged in unions themselves. Of Illinois’ 62 trade unions, 15 have less than 20% people of color representing while another 13 only have 20-30%.
These numbers indicate a locking-out of people of color in the process of fighting for labor rights. This leaves unions in an even weaker position, despite the change coming in the federal administration.
Biden has expressed a desire to assist workers in their struggles to obtain decent compensation and treatment, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden selected a strong workers’ rights figure, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be Secretary of Labor, demonstrating a commitment to reinstate some protections that were relaxed under the Trump administration, such as a 2020 decision that lessened the burden on businesses reporting outbreaks.
Protecting Yourself in the Workplace
With health and safety at stake in the modern workforce, it is up to the individual nearly as much as it is the organization to follow safety procedures. Protecting yourself from occupational hazards like working around illness comes down to following smart practices. These include:
- Get a quality night’s sleep
- Wear PPE like a facemask when interacting with others
- Maintain a good work-life balance
During the fight to ensure better environments for workers now and in the future, one must keep themselves healthy and safe. The new administration will undoubtedly prove to reshape the protections workers have in the workplace and when working from home. In the meantime, individuals can vote, support their unions, and at the very least, help stop the spread of COVID-19 by following CDC guidelines.