On Wednesday, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) unveiled a draft proposal for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s unemployment insurance (UI) program. Among other things, the proposed bill would require states to offer a minimum 26 weeks of unemployment benefits equal to at least 75% of an employee’s former weekly wages, plus an additional $25 per week for each dependent. To put this in perspective, prior to the pandemic, ten states offered less than 26 weeks in benefits, while thirteen still provide less than the amount needed to remain above the federal poverty level. Also under the Wyden-Bennet plan, during periods of economic downturn, benefits would automatically increase and extend for as long as 52 weeks. The bill would also expand UI coverage to part-time employees and those who quit work for “good cause.” In addition, the plan would make permanent certain parts of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, creating a $250 weekly “Jobseeker Allowance” for independent contractors and other traditionally excluded from UI. According to their summary of the proposal, both senators are considering paying for the these reforms by “significantly broadening” the types of wages taxed for UI purposes.
Also in the Capitol yesterday, members of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee announced plans to vote on California Labor Commissioner Julie Su’s nomination for Assistant Secretary of Labor next Wednesday. Su, whom Republicans have criticized for allegedly mismanaging California’s UI program during the pandemic, is likely to face a close vote in committee as Democrats seek to advance her nomination to the full Senate.
Elsewhere is Washington, staff at both the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute on Tuesday announced their intention to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) and requested voluntary recognition. NPEU, a local affiliate of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), has already organized employees across a number of left-leaning D.C. think tanks, including the Center for American Progress, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Immigration Law Center, and the National Women’s Law Center. This recent growth is part a broader wave of unionization sweeping across many white-collar and non-profit workplaces. Brookings management said that it would “carefully review” employees’ petition, while Urban Institute President Sara Rosen Wartell said that she would follow up promptly on the workers’ request. Both petitions note employees’ desire to secure more equitable and inclusive policies through collective bargaining.
On Monday, a coalition of 19 state attorneys general filed a joint brief to the Eighth Circuit urging the court to reject an effort by Tyson Foods to squelch two COVID-related health and safety lawsuits. The two consolidated cases, Buljic v. Tyson Foods and Fernandez v. Tyson Foods, were filed in state court on behalf of former Tyson employees who died from COVID-19 as a result of exposure at the company’s meatpacking plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Over 1,000 Tyson workers contracted the virus at the company’s Waterloo facility after Tyson grossly failed to implement social distancing and other public health measures. While both cases are limited to state-claims, Tyson seeks to remove the suit to federal court under the federal officer removal statute, arguing that the company was acting at the direction of the executive branch when then-President Donald Trump ordered all meatpackers to continue operating during the pandemic. As I noted for the blog last month, state-law claims involving occupational health and safety are more likely to be quashed in federal court, as the federal doctrine of primary jurisdiction leads many judges to withhold judicial action in deference to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Thankfully for the plaintiffs, a federal district judge already rejected Tyson’s argument and remanded the case, but the matter still remains on appeal.
Primary jurisdiction issues aside, states and localities have continued to legislate protections for workers in the pandemic-era workplace. On Tuesday this week, the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development voted unanimously to advance a proposal by Mayor Lori Lightfoot that would protect—and, in some cases, mandate compensation for—employees who take time off to get vaccinated. Also on Tuesday, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation creating new health and safety protections for temp workers, imposing a series of affirmative obligations upon both temp agencies and contracting employers to ensure safe working conditions and respond proactively to emerging hazards.
Finally, in the wake of Amazon workers’ failed unionization campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, former OnLabor Digital Editor Sejal Singh has co-authored a piece in Slate on how the union election reflected several of the most profound deficiencies in American labor law. Singh notes that Amazon’s ability to, among other things, exclude union organizers from its premises, hold regular captive-audience meetings, aggressively dilute the proposed bargaining unit, and even outright lie and threaten workers together made the union’s chances of success slim from the outset. Ultimately, she calls on Congress to pass the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would effectively ban many, if not all, of these abuses.