Workersâ€”but especially Black workersâ€”say they are afraid that going to work during the coronavirus pandemicÂ risks their own health or that of a family member, but many fear retaliation if they speak up. A new survey by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) finds that, overall, 56% of people going to work fear the risks, but among Black workers, that number is 73%. And many of people going to work afraid are doing so because they fear retaliation from their boss.
The disparities donâ€™t stop there. â€śBlack workers were both more likely to have concerns (80 percent) and were twice as likely as white workers to have unresolved concerns,â€ť NELP reports, â€świth more than one in three Black workers (39 percent) reporting either that they had raised concerns to their employer about COVID-19 but were unsatisfied with their employerâ€™s response, or that they did not raise concerns for fear of retaliation. By contrast, 18 percent of white workers were in the same situation.â€ť
The fear of retaliation is very real, and again, especially so for Black workers. In response to the question â€śHave you or has anyone at your company been punished or fired for raising concerns about the risk of coronavirus spreading at the workplace?â€ť 9% of white workers said â€śyesâ€ť or â€śmaybe.â€ť Just over twice as many Black workersâ€”19%â€”said the same.
Black workers are faced with these fears at a time when a pandemic is hitting Black people especially hard, and, as NELP points out: â€śOur results suggest that virus transmission in the workplace may be exacerbated by employer repression and that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities may be related to greater exposure of Black workers to repressive workplace environments.â€ť Racism killsâ€”in more than one way.
NELP identifies concrete policy changes that could help with this situation in the workplace. Workers need not only whistleblower protections but â€śjust causeâ€ť job protections so that they don’t get promptly fired for supposedly unrelated reasons that anyone halfway honest can tell are pure pretext. But workers do need strong anti-retaliation policies, such as: â€śAny adverse employer action taken against an employee within 90 days of that employee raising such concerns should be presumed to be retaliatory.â€ť
Workers should have the right to refuse dangerous work. They should be able to take their employers to court, and employers should face meaningful penalties, not just a slap on the wrist. And, painfully relevant in this moment in which Republicans are trying to force people back to unsafe jobs by threatening their unemployment benefits: â€śUnemployment insurance rules should make clear that workers who quit or are fired from dangerous jobs, or refuse to work under dangerous conditions, should be eligible for unemployment benefits.â€ť
Such policies wonâ€™t fix the racism in peopleâ€™s hearts, but by giving Black workers protections and rights, they might create somewhat more equal outcomes on the job. Which is worth a lot, especially when the question is:Â â€śCan I insist my employer protect my health without losing my job?â€ť
This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.