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Covid-19 Gag Rules Endanger Everyone, But Study Shows Unions Make It Easier to Assert Workplace Safety Rights

"To stop this pandemic, workers need to be listened to rather than silenced," something that is far more likely when workers are unionized. 

Grocery store cashiers took at moment to talk before customers were allowed in at 7 a.m. at a Vons located in Torrance, CA, on April 27, 2020. (Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Grocery store cashiers took at moment to talk before customers were allowed in at 7 a.m. at a Vons located in Torrance, CA, on April 27, 2020. (Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

According to a just-published, peer-reviewed study conducted by labor economists, "unionized workers are more likely than their non-union peers to speak up about health and safety problems in the workplace"—a notable finding in light of a recent investigative report revealing the rise of dangerous "Covid gag rules" that prevent employees at several major U.S. companies from informing each other about coronavirus symptoms or diagnoses.  

In their study, labor economists Aaron Sojourner and Jooyoung Yang wanted to "zero in on the impact of unionization itself on worker behavior."

The researchers "examined over 70,000 unionization votes from 1985 to 2009," focusing on "elections where the tally in favor or against was very small." They then compared those workplaces by analyzing the "number of inspections conducted by state or federal occupational health and safety enforcement agencies that resulted from an employee complaint." 

According to Sojourner and Yang, the "unionized workplaces were 30% more likely to face an inspection for a health or safety violation." 

The reasons why, the authors argued, are that unions can help workers "learn about their rights, file complaints, and provide greater protections against illegal retaliation by employers."

These findings would be of interest to anyone concerned about the well-being of workers, in general, but given the circumstances surrounding the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the researchers argue the issue of health and safety on the job is "more important than ever, especially for essential workers in health care, retail, and child care centers and schools."

Throughout the pandemic, some employers have not invested as much as necessary to provide employees with the highest quality protection possible. Others have lobbied the government for corporate immunity from liability. 

Moreover, several of the U.S.'s biggest companies have even tried to prevent workers from talking to each other about Covid-19 cases in their workplaces, according to an in-depth story about the proliferation of "Covid gag rules" by labor reporter Josh Eidelson that was published last week in Bloomberg Businessweek

"In the past few months," Eidelson argued, "U.S. businesses have been on a silencing spree."

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Eidelson continued: 

Hundreds of U.S. employers across a wide range of industries have told workers not to share information about Covid-19 cases or even raise concerns about the virus, or have retaliated against workers for doing those things, according to workplace complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).Workers at Amazon.com, Cargill, McDonald's, and Target say they were told to keep Covid cases quiet. The same sort of gagging has been alleged in OSHA complaints against Smithfield Foods, Urban Outfitters, and General Electric. In an email viewed by Bloomberg Businessweek, Delta Air Lines told its 25,000 flight attendants to 'please refrain from notifying other crew members on your own' about any Covid symptoms or diagnoses. At Recreational Equipment Inc., an employee texted colleagues to say he'd tested positive and that 'I was told not to tell anybody' and 'to not post or say anything on social media.'

Bosses have justified the suppression of free speech by referring to the need for confidentiality and citing federal privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. But those laws are intended to protect employee privacy with regards to health, not prevent workers from talking with each other about safety issues. 

"On the contrary, federal laws, including those that created OSHA and the NLRB, guarantee employees the right to communicate about and protest their job conditions," wrote Eidelson. "The federal bodies have failed to make companies obey the law." 

Employers' stifling of communication between workers is particularly troubling under current circumstances because it could "mask another wave of Covid infections and make the end of the year far deadlier than it otherwise might be."

Epidemiologist David Michaels, who directed OSHA under the previous administration and now teaches at Georgetown University, told Eidelson that "in many places, workplace exposures are driving the pandemic," and that to stop it, "workers need to be listened to rather than silenced."

For labor economists Sojourner and Yang, the recent surge in silencing tactics exposed by Eidelson make it "even more vital that workers are able to raise their voices when they feel that their workplace is unsafe."

Without organized protection from illegal retaliation by employers, raising one's voice can feel risky. Their recommendation? Join a union. 

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