To Fight COVID–19, We Need to Build Worker Power and Worker Safety

We can’t take COVID–19 prevention seriously if we fail to address the millions of workers who are forced to work without proper protection from exposure. To do that, we need both worker organizing and pro-worker legislative reforms right now.

A worker is stacking food boxes at the distribution center of Coastal Sunbelt Produce on May 15, 2020 in Laurel, Maryland. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The number of COVID-19 cases seems to be flattening, for now, and states are moving to open nonessential businesses.

But we aren’t taking prevention seriously if we fail to address the millions of workers forced to work without proper protection from exposure.

To begin with, there should be fewer workers working than are already, given the high risks to health and safety. And we need relief funds that cover everyone who’s not working. But for those at work, we need to ensure far more is done to protect them, their families, and, consequently, us all.

In most of our workplaces, it’s business as usual. Factory workers are still working shoulder to shoulder, construction workers are still packed into vans that take them to work sites, and service workers continue to report inadequate conditions to safeguard their health on the job. Similar conditions led to recent outbreaks in meat and poultry plants that infected hundreds of workers and spread the virus into local communities.

While the federal government has abandoned its responsibility to protect workers and the public during this pandemic, cities and states can and should fill the gap to require companies to take measures necessary to protect their workforces (and the public). We need legally binding safety standards, not empty and unenforceable promises.

Simply employing existing workplace enforcement rules would be a devastating mistake. We need this to work for all workers, and the old way — the way public agencies have been enforcing workplace safety rules and wage payment laws — hasn’t worked for millions of workers for years.

What we know works is when workers have real power to act collectively. Ideally, all workers would be part of a union. But there’s no quick fix locally for overcoming the barriers behind the gap between how many workers would like to join a union and how many are in one. What we can do is demand state and local governments create spaces for workers to exercise and build power within workplace enforcement regimes, which would make enforcement efforts more effective and improve conditions for organizing.

No one is more motivated to figure this out than unprotected workers. Worker centers and their allies, who have been working on basic enforcement challenges like wage theft for years, are already advancing new models that build on established progressive ideas — like wage boards, independent monitoring programs, and co-enforcement — to give workers influence over policymaking and implementation. A city or state committed to protecting workers and the public could fast-track bringing these models to bear on our immediate crisis.

To begin with, a city or state could create a standard-setting board (or multiple boards focused on different industries). Legislation would formalize the power of workers’ representatives on the board to create standards in dialogue with representatives of the business community and the general public. Board seats would be designated for both unions and community organizations whose members make up a significant share of the nonunion workforce.

In addition to setting standards, the board could function as an independent monitor for governing the city or state’s implementation, influencing enforcement strategies and additional policymaking necessary to affect those strategies. These relationships could form the basis of a worker-led monitoring program, through which the city or state would contract workers’ organizations to educate workers as frontline monitors and support workers in reporting violations to a city- or state-empowered enforcement entity.

Critically, such a governing body could also serve as a working space for figuring out the right set of policies and practices needed so that workers’ valid concerns lead to measurable improvements in corporate practices. It’s clear we need enforcement entities imbued with the power to deliver serious consequences to any company that refuses to promptly fix workplace violations, whether or not they receive a formal complaint from a worker. But the reality is, we still need to put in time to ensure we get that formula right.

If we don’t shift the balance of power that has given rise to the enforcement crisis that workers have been blowing the whistle on for years now, we will see more workplaces emerge as hot spots that bring new waves of infections into our communities.