News & Commentary

July 24, 2020

Alexandra Butler

Alexandra Butler is a student at Harvard Law School.

Employees at a meatpacking facility in Pennsylvania have filed a lawsuit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Unsatisfied with the outcome of their May OSHA complaint filed against their employer, Maid-Rite Specialty Foods, for coronavirus-related health and safety violations, the employees allege that OSHA “failed to adequately respond” to these problems. Those problems included a lack of protective gear available for employees; a working environment that did not adhere to social distancing recommendations; and insufficient procedure to handle instances where an employee tested positive for the virus. Attorneys representing the employees see the suit as one way to hold OSHA accountable for its hands-off approach to combatting COVID-19. This approach has been largely characterized by OSHA’s reluctance to create mandatory, national health and safety workplace standards to respond to the pandemic. 

As Maxwell reported yesterday, there is an ongoing partisan debate in Congress over extending the availability of additional unemployment funds provided by the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC). As Republicans weigh options to reduce the additional $600 in federal assistance, the Department of Labor (DOL) recently circulated a survey to states, asking how efficiently each state could alter their unemployment systems in preparation for any new Congressional plans. One of these plans would provide benefits to workers that are “individualized based on past wages.” While the DOL survey has not been released, state representatives have commented that implementing such a system would be complicated and time-consuming. Moreover, this change to individualized state unemployment systems could cause system “crash[es] at a time when more than 20 million Americans are still relying on jobless aid per week.” 

As people begin to return to work, some employers are requiring that their employees sign COVID-19 liability waivers or risk being fired. Such waivers would bar lawsuits brought by employees who test positive for the virus after returning to work. Some employees have reported job loss as a result of their refusal to sign, yet many employment lawyers believe that courts will ultimately refuse to enforce these waivers “because of the unequal bargaining power between employers and employees.” The conversation surrounding waivers and their legality is just one part of a much larger conversation on employer responsibility in maintaining a safe working place during the pandemic. 

Aiming to increase diversity within the performing arts, the newly-formed Black Theatre Coalition is working to ensure that by 2030, the industry has seen a 500% increase in the number of black theatre professionals. The organization’s founders recently conducted a study that revealed the extent to which black directors, choreographers, producers and stage managers are underrepresented in Broadway production positions, specifically highlighting that, in Broadway’s 154-year history, only 22 directors have been black. To achieve its goal, the Coalition will partner with productions to provide internships, apprenticeships and entry-level jobs to aspiring black artists. 

On Thursday, members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) officially ratified a collective bargaining agreement that provides an increase in pay for work related to streaming services, as well as mechanisms to prevent sexual harassment and to ensure better “protections for performers . . . [during] nudity and intimate scenes in productions.” While SAG-AFTRA views the agreement as an overall success, the organization, Time’s Up, criticized the agreement as “deeply disappointing and dangerous.” In a press release circulated before the vote took place, Time’s Up encouraged SAG-AFTRA members not to ratify the agreement, highlighting that the protections provided for intimate scenes were insufficient and failed to “offer[ ] terms that truly reflect the values of safety, equity and dignity that all actors deserve.”

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