Essential Workers Are “Doing It or Themselves” As the Song Goes

Strikes Ratchet Up During COVID-19 – Essential Workers Are ‘Doing It For Themselves,’ As the Song Goes

Our nation is witnessing what may be the start of a tidal wave of workers going on strike, particularly in “essential” businesses such as the grocery and delivery industries. Since at least March 27, 2020, news headlines have exploded with reports of actual or threatened strikes (or “sick outs”) by workers at Amazon, Whole Foods (owned by Amazon), and Instacart. These workers are demanding a host of protections and benefits, including hazard pay, increased safety protections, and other work condition improvements.

Who can blame these workers for striking? While most Americans stay home to “shelter in place”, these workers are suffering through unbelievably long hours, often spent in confined areas, and with little employer-provided health protections or sanitization efforts to guard against the COVID-19 virus. These workers are seeing fellow employees becoming infected with COVID-19, yet they are expected to continue to place themselves in harm’s way, with no appreciation of the risk they are taking to their lives. They are truly in the “trenches” of the war to help keep Americans fed.

Fortunately, the workers are not without some governmental support. On March 25, 2020, fifteen states Attorneys General wrote to Amazon and Whole Foods to ask that these businesses pay heed to the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, and to adopt standards akin to those in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Similarly, during California Governor Newsom’s March 31, 2020 public update on the COVID-19 pandemic, he relayed a conversation with John Grant, the head of the United Food & Commercial Workers (“UFCW”) Local 770 in the Los Angeles area (the “UFCW Local 770”), about the plight of grocery workers. As summarized by Newsom, essential workers in the grocery stores are also on the “front line” just like workers in the medical field.

UFCW Local 770 has started a petition for Newsom to enforce protections for these essential workers. The petition asks the State of California to “designate essential retail workers as emergency frontline personnel” and to provide increased sanitary protections (including personal protection equipment (PPE), among other benefits.

Ultimately, it is in everyone’s best interests to protect all workers, and especially those in “essential” jobs at this critical time. As one news report wisely questioned: “What will happen if a combination of labor unrest and risk of infection shuts down the same delivery platforms and retail avenues that people are relying on to get through the crisis as they self-quarantine?” As the saying goes, we are all in this together. Protecting employee rights protects everyone.

Sadly, one striking Amazon worker was reportedly fired for participating in a New York strike effort. The President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is cited as called the firing “unacceptable”. New York’s Attorney General and the Mayor of the City of New York are reportedly calling for investigations into the alleged firing. We trust that employers will think twice before further harming employees for seeking improved work conditions.

We encourage both employers and employees to consider all current guidance offered by federal and state regulatory authorities concerning workplace safety at all times, but especially during COVID-19. Recent informative guidance may be readily located on the CDC’s website, Osha.gov, and California’s website. Finally, while employees will need to consider their particular employment situation (i.e., are they a union member; are they subject to a collective bargaining agreement; etc.), the National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB”) also has useful online guidance concerning strike rights in various situations. Right to strike laws can be complex and vary based on several factors. We encourage employees to consult with counsel before undertaking any strike or “sick out.”

At Haeggquiest & Eck, LLP, also welcome any employees – particularly those in jobs deemed “essential” – who have concerns about their working conditions to contact us online or by calling (619) 468-5222 for assistance.

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