News & Commentary

February 19, 2021

Alexandra Butler

Alexandra Butler is a student at Harvard Law School.

Last week, 861,000 workers nationwide applied for unemployment assistance, 13,000 more than the previous week. This increase in applications is partly a result of a stagnating job market, one that now has 10 million fewer jobs due to the pandemic. In addition, some argue that administrative shortfalls are partly to blame for last week’s rise in numbers, with many states highlighting significant backlogs.  

As jobs disappear, the answer to a damaged labor market may lie with the reestablishment of a federal jobs program. Such an initiative, similar to the one established during the Great Depression, would guarantee federally-funded employment to job seekers. As the New York Times reports, this policy has been popular among progressives, but in the past, has met considerable opposition from the right. For supporters, a federal jobs program could achieve two goals. First, it could limit the effects of any future recession. Second, it could “set[] minimum standards for work,” as private employers would subsequently match any benefits provided by federally-funded jobs. Opponents and skeptics of the program have highlighted cost and potential limits on the type of work provided as drawbacks.  

On Thursday, Walmart introduced a new salary scheme in which 425,000 of its workers will receive a starting salary of at least $13/hour. Despite this increase, entry level positions will continue to have an $11/hour minimum wage. While private companies similar to Walmart have adopted a $15/hour model, Walmart has been hesitant about embracing what the CEO refers to as an “important target.” Such hesitance has not gone unnoticed among workers’ advocates. One organization criticized Walmart’s change as “primarily . . . a public relations move, . . . [rather than] a meaningful engagement with the growing momentum around $15/hour nationwide.”

Introduced in the House of Representatives on Thursday, the US Citizenship Act of 2021 seeks to eliminate immigrant worker mistreatment and root out unfair labor practices. The Act has a special focus on those who are undocumented. Specifically, under the Act, employers would face increased penalties for any labor law violations against undocumented workers. For many workers’ advocates, the key aspect of this legislation is the pathway to citizenship, which would encourage workers to come forward with workplace violations without fear of deportation. 

On Thursday, the Indiana state legislature joined several other states in eliminating the possibility of coronavirus-related, negligence claims against state and local governments, companies and drug and PPE manufacturers. For employers or manufacturers who have engaged in reckless or intentional actions that have undermined the health and safety of workers during the pandemic, liability still remains possible. Yet, many have raised questions about how “liability shields” will interact with workers’ compensation schemes. These schemes normally provide the sole remedy for those who have suffered job-related injuries or illnesses. Currently, however, it is unclear whether some workers’ compensation programs will provide relief for coronavirus-related harms. Thus, “liability shields” could leave many workers, especially gig workers, without any sort of redress.  

On Friday, the Supreme Court in Britain sided with Uber drivers who argued that they should be classified as employees, not independent contractors. The Court cited specific aspects of Uber’s model that limits drivers so as to establish a typical employer-employee relationship. Currently, whether the ruling will result in widespread reclassification of all Uber drivers in Britain remains an open question. While Uber has quickly emphasized its desire to limit the Court’s decision, employment lawyers and scholars have praised the decision “as a watershed moment in employment rights for workers in the gig economy.” 

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