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COVID-19 and Workers' Rights Series

Employee Rights in the Wake of Pandemic

May 27, 2020


Corporate Exploitation of Essential Workers Will Outlast The Pandemic

By Tanner Hancock

COVID-19 and Workers’ Rights Series

The COVID-19 and Workers’ Rights series will publish essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, look at the pandemic from the perspective of workers’ rights.

On the front it reads “hero.” On the back, “hardcore.”

The new t-shirts, distributed by Whole Foods to its employees in the midst of the pandemic, weren’t subtle in the point they were trying to convey. As the deadly nature of the coronavirus became reality, widespread social distancing measures across the country led to massive business closures and furloughs, yet for grocery store employees and other essential workers on the front lines, work continued unabated.

As millions of Americans self-isolate in their homes in an attempt to avoid contracting the virus, grocery store workers like those at Whole Foods were told to go back to work in spite of the risk. In doing so, they daily expose themselves to sickness and, in the case of at least 30 food workers across the country, death.

This level of sacrifice and exposure to danger, Amazon decided, should not rewarded with commensurate benefits or protection measures, such as hazard pay or paid leave, but rather with a pandering shirt illustrating to employees just how “hardcore” management thought they really were.

I risked my life for Jeff Bezos, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

For decades, dismissive societal assumptions relating to “unskilled” labor have led to corporate exploitation of the workforce. As workers are forced to literally risk their lives for low paying jobs in the midst of a pandemic, however, those same assumptions surrounding “unskilled” positions, be they in grocery stores, warehouses or elsewhere, have proven to be both grossly outdated and out of step with the kinds of jobs necessary to feed and operate a country on lockdown.

This pandemic induced realization is playing out already. In a show of solidarity between blue- and white-collar workers, hundreds of amazon employees, both in the warehouse and tech departments, organized a massive call-in-sick protest in late April. When Amazon failed to properly clean a New York facility with confirmed cases of COVID-19, workers staged another massive walk-out demonstration to shed light on the dangerous working conditions they were being subjected to.

The future of labor law can be glimpsed in Amazon’s heavy-handed response to their workers’ demands for protection and benefits. To date, Amazon corporate leadership has fired dozens of employee protest organizers, a controversial decision already under investigation by the State of New York. When employees sent out invitations to a virtual event criticizing the company’s pandemic response, Amazon allegedly deleted the event from their internal calendar after hundreds had already accepted and the two responsible for the invitations were let go. 

Most troubling of all, Amazon and Whole Foods allegedly utilized a heat map of its employees in order to track which locations across the country were most likely to unionize. For Amazon, as for other large companies across America, the response to workers attempting to realize their freedom to organize has been met with little regard for the law.

In the wake of this awful pandemic, workers will increasingly demand for their benefits and compensation to be at least partially commensurate to the enormous value they provide to their respective places of work. As employees continue to realize their value and rights, they will look to the law and to law professionals to aid them in protecting those rights. 

The biggest challenge to the realization of these rights can be seen in the power disparities evident in companies like Amazon, where workers’ attempts to organize and draw attention to corporate failings are met with swift retribution and loss of employment.

Eventually, hopefully, this pandemic will end and some sense of normalcy will return to this country. Though some things will return to the way they were, our collective concept of employee value will never be the same. As outdated concepts relating unskilled labor are altered by this pandemic, legal professionals specializing in labor law must be ready and willing to defend employee rights in the face of immense employer pressure in to ensure that everyone, regardless of how big their paycheck is, will be afforded the same protection under the law.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

Low-wage workers are more likely to experience wage theft, sexual harassment, and other employment violations. Add in a pandemic, and it’s a recipe for exploitation. In late May 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many essential workers will lose the “hero pay” offered by grocery chains and other employers. Hancock highlights the new depths of corporate exploitation in the age of COVID-19 – while also pointing out the importance of employment lawyers in protecting worker’s rights. It’s more important than ever for workers to understand their rights. For example, in New York, whistleblower laws protect employees who speak out about dangerous or hazardous conditions at work.  

Tanner Hancock holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. An award-winning journalist, Hancock will join American University’s Washington College of Law in fall 2020. Contact Hancock on LinkedIn.

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience as an NYC employment lawyer. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $140 million for clients.