News & Commentary

April 2, 2021

Alexandra Butler

Alexandra Butler is a student at Harvard Law School.

Last week, more than 714,000 people turned to state unemployment systems for relief, 63,000 more than the week prior. Despite the increase, many economists are hopeful, as current trends have been marked by an increase in hiring and a decrease in layoffs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ March jobs report seems to confirm these trends. Nonfarm payroll employment increased by 916,000 jobs last month. This marks a 500,000 increase from the number of jobs added in February. Yet, while these figures are reassuring, one economist warns of the more long-term effects of the pandemic. Specifically, in reference to major shifts in some companies’ structures, she notes that “[t]here are still a lot of business closures and a lot of layoffs that have yet to happen . . . [and that] [t]he repercussions of this pandemic are still rippling through this economy.”

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) recently released a report critiquing the at-will employment system established in many states in the US. Under this system, employers have discretion, limited by legal and contractual obligations, to fire their employees for any or no reason. The authors argue, that even with these limitations on employer discretion, workers nevertheless suffer under at-will employment schemes. The report focuses on Illinois. According to the authors’ survey of IL workers, at-will employment means unfair, short notice firings and financial instability. For minority workers, it exacerbates current inequities and systemic racism experienced on the job. In addition, the report highlights that at-will employment facilitates a culture of fear and silence in the workplace. In such an environment, unsafe or discriminatory treatment goes unaddressed, even though systems exist to enforce laws that protect employees. To bring about reform, the authors advocate for a shift to a just cause system.  

As the national discussion surrounding student loan forgiveness continues, several labor unions have made their position clear: forgive public service worker student loans through executive action. These 14 unions argue that the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program has been largely ineffective, leaving many teachers, healthcare workers and others in the sector who have applied for the program without any assistance. Executive action can immediately address the financial pressures that these workers face as a result of the Program’s failings.

Marking a shift from the Trump Administration, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), an office within the Department of Labor (DOL), is taking a more assertive approach to protecting employees from workplace discrimination and bias. In recent months, the OFCCP has relied heavily on conducting detailed audits of federal government contractors, highlighting that upon “identify[ing] violations during . . . compliance evaluations, . . . [it is] committed to strong enforcement.” The new level of detail can be seen most readily in the OFCCP’s investigation of companies’ pay distribution and whether there are any indications of discrimination.

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