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COVID-19 and Workers' Rights Series

Unemployed Because Of The Pandemic

June 4, 2020

How Will The Surge In Unemployment Shape Workers’ Rights?

By Joy Alia

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.

I went into work at The Cheesecake Factory on March 17, 2020, not knowing that would be my last day of work. 

I am one of the 26.5 plus million people who have lost their jobs within the past few weeks of March and April due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Millions of citizens went into work, living their normal lives, not knowing that they would experience changes in their work lives that would impact their work rights in the future.

Many workplaces, big and small, are currently facing the uncertainty of wondering how their businesses will function in the following months and years to come. Several workplaces are experiencing the burnout that is accompanying the current pandemic along with several workplaces filing for bankruptcy.

Currently, I believe that the biggest challenge facing workers’ rights in the future is the uncertainty of how businesses will function following the COVID-19 outbreak. Because many businesses have suddenly experienced a decline in sales, many employers are unable to sustain the number of employees they had before the pandemic. If employers can’t sustain their previous number of employees then more people will be laid off and not asked to return to work. 

Those people who were laid off will then search for supplemental work just to possibly run into the same issues of not being hired because companies are unable to fund a large sum of workers due to being hit hard financially by the pandemic. 

In addition, there will be a negative stigma that will follow this pandemic for years to come that will make people feel disinclined to support certain businesses due to fear of coming in contact with the virus. This stigma will cause business sales to decrease which will also decrease the need for workers in the future. 

Some people who lost jobs will be faced with the burden of returning to work earlier than one may feel is safe to do so. Immunocompromised individuals may be asked to return to unstable working conditions earlier than they may feel comfortable doing so.

Based on the basic worker employee rights, workers have the right to know, right to participate, and the right to refuse unsafe work according to the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1979. 

Given these rights, I fear the future of workers who rely on work and cannot afford a substantial amount of time off from work to sustain themselves, their families, and their overall well-being. I fear the future of our healthcare workers, people on the frontline, grocery store employees, restaurant employees, cleaning workers, and anyone who is constantly putting their

lives at risk while living through this pandemic. I fear the mental health of those having to witness the devastations following the pandemic every day. These people are the most at risk.

While COVID-19 does not discriminate, following the pandemic there will be groups of people who will be more susceptible to experiencing more challenges in terms of workers’ rights. 

I also fear how paid time off will affect people in the future given that unemployment benefits have been enacted for millions of people at the same time and stimulus checks have been enacted for millions of citizens. While these are amounts that technically do not have to be paid back, I can’t help but wonder how these payments might discreetly be paid back in the future in ways that severely impact worker’s rights and benefits.

With every detrimental event that severely impacts the nation, comes an increase in needs for lawyers. Following the COVID-19 pandemic will bring an increase in the need for lawyers in many fields, but specifically in the employment field because every person who lost employment will not be offered a returning job. Now more than ever, citizens need to be defended to secure their future working rights.

Following this unprecedented pandemic, I hope to see a reform in the way we support our people in the workplace. May we begin to better prepare for our future by implementing additional solutions to protect the lives of workers, so in the event of an unprecedented crisis as such, we may not feel like we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. May worker safety become a top priority in the lives of workers and may communities come together to lend a helping hand to those in need. 

I believe with coming together as a community that these changes can be enacted to secure the safety of workers’ rights in the future.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

COVID-19 quickly became more than a public health catastrophe. The pandemic is also an economic crisis, driving up unemployment to rates our country hasn’t seen since the Great Depression. Millions of recently laid off workers may never return to their former jobs, as Alia argues. Yet today’s employment laws still protect workers from wrongful termination and retaliatory layoffs. New York’s whistleblower laws also protect employees who report dangerous or hazardous conditions at work. 

To face this crisis, we’ll need more than the current legal protections, as Alia points out. We will also need greater protections for workers, especially non-traditionally employed workers.

Joy Alia holds a bachelor’s degree from Xavier University of Louisiana. Alia will join the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law in fall 2020.

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.