News from EPI Unequal workplace power deprives workers of the ability to protect themselves and receive fair compensation

Two new reports released as a part of EPI’s Unequal Power project show how unequal bargaining power sabotages workers’ ability to protect themselves and obtain adequate compensation for the risks they face on the job.

The first report, “Death by inequality: How workers’ lack of power harms their health and safety,” demonstrates how employers retain considerable powers over their workers’ abilities to protect themselves from injury, illness, and death, despite constraints created by the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970. Workers are at the mercy of potentially dictatorial employers when it comes to deciding when—or whether—to use the bathroom, to refusing to perform particularly hazardous tasks, or to obtaining appropriate medical care for occupational injuries.

The deficiencies in the OSH Act and its implementation have become starkly obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report. Under the OSH Act, one way for workers to protect themselves from occupational hazards like COVID-19 is to notify their employers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the hazards they face. The act requires OSHA to perform an inspection if a worker or a worker’s representative files a signed written complaint, but despite having received 9,160 COVID-related complaints by the end of September 2020, OSHA had closed more than 80% of those cases and had opened only 199 complaint inspections and only 996 COVID-related inspections in all.

Further, many workers who have complained about the lack of protections from the virus have faced discipline or termination for expressing concern. And OSHA’s whistleblower provisions, which involve lengthy federal court proceedings and do not give workers a right to sue their employers on their own, have proved woefully inadequate to help these workers.

“Many workers still do not have a meaningful right to refuse to accept dangerous assignments or protect themselves when they accept those assignments. And workers who opt to quit as a way to protect themselves from a threat like COVID-19 lose not only their paychecks but also their eligibility for unemployment insurance, frequently at a time when there are few other employment opportunities,” said report author Ann Rosenthal, former associate solicitor for occupational safety and health at the Department of Labor. “These structural imbalances are amplified by the fact that many of the most dangerous jobs in this economy are disproportionately held by some of the most vulnerable and lowest-paid workers.”

The second report, “Risk without reward: The myth of wage compensation for hazardous work,” illustrates how lopsided employer power prevents most workers from obtaining adequate compensation for the inherent health risks they face at work. The authors find that the free-market view that workers are fully compensated by higher wages for the risks they face on the job and that markets alone are sufficient to ensure this outcome do not stand up to scrutiny.

“The profound shortcomings of occupational safety and health (OSH) performance in the United States, brought to vivid light by the current pandemic, are attributable to too little public intervention in labor markets, not too much,” said report coauthor Peter Dorman, professor emeritus of political economy at Evergreen State College.

“Unregulated markets have failed to ensure safe working conditions and health equity. Millions have suffered health as well as economic consequences, including those now visible as a result of the ongoing pandemic. Workers of color have been especially hard-hit,” said report coauthor Les Boden, professor of public health at Boston University School of Public Health.

The authors recommend a range of policy measures, including raising the bottom end of the labor market to acceptable levels of wages and productivity, revamping labor laws to encourage unionization, rebuilding the occupational and public health infrastructure, and taking assertive action to combat discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and immigrant status.

The authors will discuss these papers and more at a webinar on April 20 at 4 p.m. Eastern. Register here.