Making Worker Protections Real During the Coronavirus Pandemic

A worker stocks groceries at a local supermarket in Brooklyn, New York, on March 20, 2020.

Federal lawmakers are working around the clock to ensure that the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis does not cause widespread and lasting consequences—debating policies ranging from direct relief to workers and corporate bailouts, to large-scale economic stimulus packages. In order to benefit Americans from all walks of life and ensure that some corporations do not choose to reward shareholders instead of investing in workers, Congress must attach worker protections to these investments and enact policies to ensure the protections are enforced. This column details the importance of such protections and outlines strategies to ensure that any response to the pandemic centers workers.

Coronavirus response bills must protect workers

Already, Congress has passed emergency paid sick days and emergency paid leave protections so that many workers can take time to care for themselves or a family member suffering from the virus. Congress has also included guardrails to ensure that some bailed-out companies respect employees’ right to organize into unions, honor collective bargaining agreements, and don’t engage in massive layoffs—as some have done in the past.

In the coming weeks, policymakers must continue to focus on worker protections as they debate measures to help put Americans back to work. For example, front-line workers involved in health care and emergency child care, as well as those ensuring Americans can obtain essential groceries, must be provided with safe working conditions, decent base wages and hazard pay, and a voice on the job. Moreover, Congress should expand emergency paid sick days and emergency paid leave protections to cover all workers, including those at large and small businesses. Emergency paid leave, which currently allows 12 weeks for parents to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed, should also include paid medical leave and paid caregiving leave to recover from COVID-19 as well as paid leave to care for a disabled adult child or family member whose regular caregiver may have been affected by the coronavirus.

Moreover, future measures to support economic rebound with large-scale investments, such as infrastructure investments, should ensure that private sector employers who benefit from government funds adhere to a robust set of job quality standards. In addition to laws that set basic pay, safety, and accessibility standards for all employers, the federal government has enacted policies to ensure that companies receiving lucrative government contracts provide good jobs with market wages; quality benefits; and opportunity for all workers, no matter their race, gender, disability status, or sexual orientation, as well as grant workers who want to form a union the opportunity to do so. Congress must strengthen these protections and extend them to any job supported as part of coronavirus relief efforts. Similarly, any funding increase for workforce response activities should prioritize support for employment and training programs with a record of connecting workers to higher-paying jobs.

In considering relief packages, policymakers must keep in mind that workplace violations will likely climb as Americans, desperate for work and fearful of employer retaliation, will be willing to accept work with lawbreaking companies and reticent to report violations. But even before the current crisis, workplace violations were widespread. Under normal conditions, the government has little capacity to investigate likely violators: For every million workers, the federal government has less than 10 occupational safety staff and slightly more than 11 wage and hour staff. Wage theft through minimum wage violations cost U.S. workers $15 billion annually. And a 2017 Senate report found that two-thirds of the government’s 100 largest contractors violated federal wage and hour laws and that more than one-third of the 100 largest penalties imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between 2015 and 2017 were issued to companies that have held federal contracts. Moreover, U.S. companies illegally fire workers in approximately one-third of campaigns by workers to unionize.

Steps to ensure workers benefit from coronavirus relief measures

Policymakers must ensure that worker protections in the recently enacted bills and any future actions to respond to the pandemic are enforced for all working people. Encouragingly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that she will form a new bipartisan committee to monitor the distribution of relief funds and “root out waste, fraud, and abuse.” Policymakers must also provide additional funding for enforcement and augment government capacity though the following strategies.

Empower workers to stand up for their rights

Workers should be permitted to take action on their own, or even on behalf of the government, against companies that violate their rights. When courts rule in their favor, workers should receive back pay, damages, attorneys fees, and injunctive relief. While some existing federal workplace laws provide workers a private right of action, such as the newly enacted emergency paid leave protections in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, other essential protections, including federal prevailing wage laws to ensure government contractors pay market wages, do not. All coronavirus funds should come with these protections attached. Moreover, corporations receiving funds should be banned from using forced arbitration agreements that prevent workers from having their day in court.

Establish enhanced government monitoring and enforcement of coronavirus funds

The federal government must proactively monitor recipient industries and corporations that are likely to commit workplace violations—as it has previously done to monitor fraud, waste, and abuse among federal contractors. When Congress and President Barack Obama enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to provide economic stimulus during the Great Recession, it established the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to develop risk assessments on companies seeking or receiving Recovery Act funds. A similar board set up to monitor workplace violations among coronavirus fund recipients would issue alerts on likely workplace violators; partner with enforcement agencies at the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board to support strategic enforcement efforts, particularly in high-violation, low-wage industries; and provide a portal for workers and worker representatives to make complaints and receive updates on investigations.

In order to oversee the execution of financial bailouts for specific firms, the government should require a tripartite board—made up of worker, government, and firm representatives—that will help ensure that corporate recipients of financial bailouts honor the conditions under which the aid is given and report to the public on the way the firm treats its workers.

Partner with worker organizations to enforce the law

Policymakers can improve workplaces’ legal compliance by providing grants and access to community and worker organizations to engage in outreach to workers and employers. By allowing designated organizations access to workers and employers in industries with high violation rates, these groups can educate all actors about their rights, attempt to informally solve disputes directly with employers, refer workers whose rights have been violated to the appropriate enforcement agency, and guide them through the legal process.

Cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, for example, provide grants to organizations to inform workers of their rights and help them take action against lawbreaking companies. In fiscal year 2014, 85 percent of wage theft complaints in San Francisco were submitted through community partner groups. And, in large part due to this partnership, the city was able to return more than $4.5 million in back wages and interest to workers.

Do not weaken existing enforcement authorities

Some policymakers and corporations are paying lip service to helping everyday Americans but in reality are prioritizing company profits over working people. Already, the Trump administration is taking steps to undermine the power of the inspector general to oversee the Treasury Department’s awards of corporate bailout funds. Moreover, it quietly announced that it will not enforce anti-discrimination protections for workers at corporations that receive coronavirus funding to ensure that government-funded jobs are available to Americans from all walks of life.

Meanwhile, Uber is using the coronavirus to lobby Congress and the administration to create a new legal employment category that would allow the company to avoid a host of workplace laws that apply to employees. Some employers are also still obtaining 14(c) certificates under the Fair Labor Standards Act, allowing them to continue paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage. Given the increasing need for piecemeal work, Congress should ban this practice, ensuring workers can earn a fair wage during the pandemic. Weakening and failing to enforce workplace standards now—when the economy is at its most fragile—could have dire consequences for working people.

Conclusion

Worker protections make a meaningful difference in working people’s lives when enforced. Studies of wage standards, for example, find that these protections raise wages, lower poverty rates, and reduce inequality in affected industries. And after President Lyndon B. Johnson adopted affirmative action requirements for federal contractors, research shows that demand for African American and female workers increased significantly in contractor establishments compared with noncontractor establishments. Policymakers have an opportunity now not just to pay lip service to the importance of pandemic relief to support working people, but also to put in place the monitoring and enforcement to ensure that all workers reap the benefits.

Karla Walter is the senior director of Employment Policy at the Center for American Progress.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.