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We Need an Essential Workers Bill of Rights—Now

Congress must include worker protections in the next coronavirus relief bill.

Unfortunately, Republicans have made clear that they plan to put corporations first, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s prioritizing liability waivers for employers that require non-essential workers to report to work.  (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, Republicans have made clear that they plan to put corporations first, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s prioritizing liability waivers for employers that require non-essential workers to report to work. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress has now passed four separate relief and recovery measures allocating trillions of dollars in aid, but none have provided meaningful protections to working people. Workers continue to be required to work without protective gear. Sick workers continue to lack access to paid sick leave. And, when workers try and speak up for themselves and each other, they are fired. Workers are dying as a result.

Even a global pandemic has not been enough for policymakers to place the needs of working people ahead of corporate interests. As Congress turns its attention to another relief and recovery package, it must prioritize policies and investments that help working families mitigate the economic and public health disaster they are experiencing.

In the last six weeks, nearly 28 million workers have applied for unemployment insurance (UI). That is more than one in six workers, and over five times the worst period of the Great Recession. All else equal, this level of job loss would translate into an unemployment rate of 20.5%. Further, 12.7 million workers have likely lost their employer-provided health insurance since the beginning of the pandemic.

Congress must act and pass legislation that is responsive to the magnitude of this crisis and direct assistance to the tens of millions of working families most impacted by the public health and economic emergencies.

The Essential Workers Bill of Rights, introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), would provide front-line workers—including nurses, grocery and drug store workers, janitors, public transit workers, child care workers, and postal workers—the protections they need while providing essential services during the coronavirus pandemic. The following are key worker protections that should be included in the next coronavirus relief bill.

Health and safety

The Essential Workers Bill of Rights would ensure front-line workers receive adequate health and safety protections, such as employer-provided personal protective equipment (PPE), paid sick and family and medical leave, and government-provided health care. This is necessary because the Trump Department of Labor has rolled back and weakened these protections for essential workers, including millions of health care workers and first responders.

In addition, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) must coordinate with states where public-sector workers—such as public transit workers, postal workers, and sanitation workers—lack health and safety standards to ensure they are protected from COVID-19. And at a time when the number of OSHA inspectors has fallen to a 45-year low, it’s imperative that the agency provide front-line inspectors with the training and supplies they need to ensure workplaces are safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Compensation

The Essential Workers Bill of Rights would provide workers with robust premium pay. All workers deserve a safe workplace and should be fairly compensated with a living wage. However, at times when work has become high-risk or even hazardous, workers should be given robust premium pay. This premium pay should be retroactive to the start of the pandemic, higher for lowest-wage workers, and not used to lower a worker’s regular rate.

Worker protections

The Essential Workers Bill of Rights would ensure front-line workers receive whistleblower protections, allowing workers to report unsafe working conditions. In addition, OSHA should enforce existing protections. This is especially necessary at a time when workers are being fired for asking for basic health and safety workplace protections.

Building worker power

The Essential Workers Bill of Rights would safeguard union elections and protect existing collective bargaining agreements. Further, the proposal calls for worker representation on boards and for corporations to remain neutral during union organizing drives. These protections help to ensure essential workers are able to utilize their right to join a union.

Workers’ rights to collective action and to join a union have never been more important. As workers navigate the workplace during the coronavirus pandemic and demand protections for themselves and their coworkers, they must be able to organize and speak with a collective voice. Without a collective voice, workers’ concerns are routinely ignored by employers and policymakers. Worse, workers who speak up are routinely fired.

For weeks, there have been reports of workers demanding protections on the job and calling on OSHA to respond to the crisis. In spite of these stories, the Trump administration has done nothing to answer workers’ calls. Last week, the AFL-CIO sent a letter to Trump Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on behalf of its 12.5 million members demanding the Department of Labor (DOL) enact and enforce polices that would protect essential workers from COVID-19. Given Secretary Scalia’s refusal to act on workers’ demands, it is clear that Congress must include these protections in additional relief and recovery measures.

Specifically, Congress must demand OSHA initiate emergency standards that require all employers of essential workers to develop and implement protocols that protect workers from exposure and infection by COVID-19. Protocols must include an exposure risk assessment, employer-provided PPEs, enforcement of physical distancing, and enhanced sanitation and cleaning, among others. OSHA must record and track all worker infections and deaths related to COVID-19. This is necessary since OSHA has made essential workers unsafe by issuing interim guidance that exempts certain businesses from investigating or recording workplace-related coronavirus cases.

Working people should not have had to wait for a fifth relief and recovery measure to provide meaningful workplace protections. They have been showing up each day, providing essential services Americans need during this public health crisis. Congress must prioritize these workers in the next coronavirus response package.

Unfortunately, Republicans have made clear that they plan to put corporations first, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s prioritizing liability waivers for employers that require non-essential workers to report to work. Democrats must insist that additional legislation does not place corporate interests ahead of the interests of working people. It must instead include meaningful protections for working people.

Celine McNicholas

Celine McNicholas

Celine McNicholas is labor counsel for the Economic Policy Institute and a core member of EPI’s Perkins Project on Worker Rights and Wages, a policy response team that tracks the Trump administration’s wage and employment policies.

Margaret Poydock

Margaret Poydock joined EPI in 2016. As the policy associate, she assists the policy team in managing EPI’s legislative and policy initiatives to build a more just economy. Previously, Poydock was EPI’s communications assistant. In that position, she provided support for the media relations, publications, and web departments.

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