News & Commentary

May 21, 2020

Minnie Che

Minnie Che is a student at Harvard Law School.

According to an analysis by New York City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO), it will take the city at least four years to fully recover from the economic impact of covid-19. It is predicted that employment will not return to pre-coronavirus levels until 2024. The analysis suggests that jobs will continue to be lost through 2021, and it will be until 2022 before an employment rebound takes off. The report projects, “Although the job losses are concentrated in retail trade, leisure and hospitality, and eating and drinking establishments, virtually every industry in the city will lose jobs, with employment not expected to recover its pre-COVID-19 levels before 2024.” This is a grim prediction for the city, as the IBO’s report would result in a budget deficit of $2 billion worse than Mayor de Blasio’s forecasted budget. De Blasio has stated that he is depending on federal aid to avoid taking additional steps regarding the city’s decreasing funds, but action may be inevitable if unemployment rates continue to rise.

While millions of Americans are forced to apply for unemployment benefits, prisoners are still working. In at least 20 states, including California and Texas, prison laborers are making hand sanitizer, face masks, and protective gowns in their manufacturing facilities. They are making plastic face shields in Indiana. They are doing hospitals’ laundry in Oregon. All while making between $0.14 and $1.50 per hour, with no guidelines for those rates to increase during times of emergency. Continuing to work while in prison during covid-19 presents the same health risks to inmates as they do to other Americans on the outside. Social distancing is more difficult in prison workspaces. And inmates are unable to self-quarantine due to their housing conditions. They are also more likely to suffer preexisting conditions that make them vulnerable to infection or face solitary confinement if they do get sick. Mandatory work may not only hurt incarcerated workers, it can also impact wages and demand for those doing the same job on the outside. Stopping prison labor, however, will also have negative effects on inmates who need to work to save up money for when they leave prison. With neither option being a perfect solution, prison officials will need to weigh the benefits and risks of continuing prison labor during this pandemic.

With states reopening or in the works to reopen in the near future, an employment law expert, Elizabeth Tippett, answers questions and explains the rights of those returning to work amidst the crisis. Unless an individual has a medical condition that makes them vulnerable to contracting the virus, which would allow for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, their options for not returning to work are limited. Unionized workers can be look to their union for assistance in negotiating remote work arrangements or filling claims for unsafe work conditions to their local branch of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But in the meantime, they must go to work unless the condition poses a real danger of death or serious injury. If they have children at home with no childcare alternative or are living with a family member who is a part of the vulnerable population, they may be eligible for leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act if they work for a company with fewer than 500 employees. She explains these rights and more in her article.

In Germany, farm owners are struggling to fill labor shortages after the country closed its borders to mitigate the spread of covid-19. About 300,000 seasonal workers from Romania and Poland come to Germany each year to harvest crops. After closing its borders, Germany’s federal government allowed 80,000 seasonal workers special permission to enter the country for work, but farmers do not believe this will be adequate. The deputy general secretary of the German Farmers’ Association says that there will be an impact in the market later in the year. In an effort to fill labor shortages on farms, developers in Germany have created a mobile app called Clever Ackern, which is German for “clever plowing.” People who have just lost their jobs will register and input their availability in the upcoming weeks and months to work in the fields and help farmers harvest their crops. The platform is free of charge, and within days of launching, 40,000 people registered to become farmworkers. The creator of the app, Fabian Höhne, says that the app is bringing people outside and allowing them to do something to help. Some farmers, however, are uncertain about the fitness level and skill of these individuals to work in the field and concerned about their health risks. There is no regulating where they are coming from and who they are interacting with at the end of the day. Each farmer will need to decide for themselves whether the labor is worth the risk.

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