Worker voice, representation, and power

How Can COVID-19 Recovery Policies Narrow the Power Gap between Workers and Employers?

Wesley JenkinsOctober 29, 2020

Before the COVID-19 pandemic reached American shores, the US labor market was already facing a crisis. The share of independent contractors was rising, and worker protections were diminishing. New digital tools have automated some jobs and changed the nature of others. And the subcontracting of entire industries has broken rungs on the career mobility ladder or taken the ladder away altogether.

“It’s not the future of work we should be talking about,” said David Weil, dean and professor in Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, at a recent WorkRise panel discussing employer practices and worker power in the labor market. “It’s the present of work.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has now created a crisis within a crisis, according to Palak Shah, social innovations director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), leaving millions of workers, especially domestic workers and independent contractors, without stability. Surveys conducted by the NDWA in late March found these workers are three times as likely to be living in poverty, and 55 percent were unable to pay April rent after shutdowns first went into effect.

With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, many workers will remain in precarious situations without targeted policy solutions and enforcement. The panel, the fourth in a week-long series of conversations launching WorkRise, brought together experts to discuss the conditions that have left many workers in peril and how policymakers, worker organizations, and employers can collaboratively solve these issues.

Workers have less power than employers, and the pandemic has worsened that imbalance

Over the past decade, workers have been increasingly unlikely to have just one primary employer, according to Weil. This fissuring of work has led to decreased wages, benefits, and stability for workers while amplifying employers’ power. “Labor market conditions are inherently unequal, and workers always have less power in those relationships,” Weil said.

For recourse, workers have two options: bringing up their concerns or leaving the job. But neither strategy is without peril. Although workers can report violations or demand better wages and benefits, many fear retaliation when they do, and, as Shah said, “no one has to listen.” And in a pandemic that has cost millions of jobs, leaving a job puts workers and their families in financially precarious positions without a safety net.

In theory, labor market laws are intended to level the imbalance of bargaining power, but without stringent enforcement, employers can exploit workers to gain a competitive advantage, Weil said. And for workers employed outside of traditional nine-to-five, single-workplace industries, those risks are magnified. For domestic workers, 94 percent of job cancellations in early April were made by their clients, with 70 percent of domestic workers unsure if their clients would give them their jobs back.

How to correct the imbalance between employers and employees

The pandemic has exacerbated the perils faced by domestic and gig workers, but these workers’ struggles are akin to “the canary in the coal mine,” Shah said. Without concerted efforts to support these workers and correct the imbalance of bargaining power all workers experience, working people will continue to see wage and benefit suppression and increasingly unstable jobs. The panel discussion suggested three solutions that workers, employers, and policymakers could pursue to help workers stay in stable jobs.

  1. Go beyond worker voice and invest in worker power. Because of the inherent imbalance of power, employers are not obligated to listen to their workers when they report low job quality or labor market violations. As such, many workers hope to “win the good boss lottery,” Shah said. Worker power, which comes from strong worker organizations and collective action, seeks to fundamentally reset the terrain of working life. For Shah, this reconfiguration partially entails expanding the safety net to provide benefits for every hour worked, even if those hours are worked outside of a traditional workplace. With an expanded safety net, domestic workers would share in the benefits enjoyed by traditional nine-to-five workers.
  2. Move employers from intent to action. During the pandemic, many employers have made statements of intent to make their workplaces more diverse and equitable but are often slow to implement those changes. Beth Cobert, chief operating officer of the Markle Foundation and chief executive officer of Skillful, explained that by simplifying the tangible implementation of these big ideas, employers can make more equitable practices the natural way of operating. For instance, changing job postings to focus on skills and capabilities instead of credentials can invite applicants who would previously be dissuaded.
  3. Ensure that labor market laws have strong enforcement mechanisms. For Lorelei Salas, department of consumer affairs commissioner for the City of New York, the biggest step policymakers can take is enforcing existing laws. “If you don’t resource enforcement appropriately, those rights do not become real for people,” she said. States and localities can help build the ability of worker organizations to file labor law violations and, in doing so, relieve the burden from workers to come forward.

Building a sustainable labor market will require collaboration from government, workers, worker organizations, and employers. This type of labor market transformation is a tall task, Weil said, but collaboration can help set sustainable boundaries that ensure all workers are protected.

Click here to watch the full panel.