News & Commentary

September 22, 2020

Jon Levitan

Jon Levitan is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

In a potentially significant win for workers rights amid the pandemic, a social worker in Massachusetts got a court order barring their employer from forcing them to work in person. Gabriel Peeples, who uses they/them pronouns, sought to work from home as a reasonable accommodation for their asthma. A Federal Court granted their request for a preliminary injunction. The court said that Peeples’s asthma likely qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it places Peeples at greater risk of harm if they contract COVID-19, and that Peeples’s employer, a social work agency, can reasonably accommodate Peeples by allowing them to work from home. 

While it’s rare for an employee to seek a preliminary injunction in an ADA reasonable accommodation case, the tide may be turning because of months of evidence that working from home can be reasonably successful, Harvard Law Professor Michael Stein told Bloomberg Law. Peeples’s lawyer, Douglas B. Mishkin, applauded the decision but said it should be the norm. “If there’s an employee with a disability who’s put at heightened risk during the pandemic, then they’re entitled to an accommodation if they can do essential functions of [their] job and avoid the direct threat to their health that would result from being physically present in the office.”

The fight over reopening schools continues this week, as it appears that teachers in Kenosha, Wisconsin may have engaged in a sick-out yesterday. The apparent protest forced the school district to transition to remote learning after it had planned for in-person instruction. The district announced the decision to operate remote schools at 10:30pm on Sunday night, after 276 teachers, and more staff, began to report that they would be out-sick on Monday. Kenosha teachers do not have to give a reason when they call out sick. The school district did not confirm that it was an organized protest, only saying it was investigating the absences. The union, meanwhile, played coy: “[g]iven the number of positive cases confirmed in several buildings after the first week back, it is clear that in-person instruction will further contribute to community spread and will have harmful, and potentially fatal, consequences for educators, students, and families. The current situation is dangerous and untenable,” a union spokesperson told local news in Kenosha.

Two economists, Trevon Logan and William Darity Jr., seeking to quantify the wealth stolen from Black Americans, tell the story of a 1919 massacre of Black farmers who sought to unionize. The farmers of Elaine, Arkansas, wanted to sell their crops to the highest bidder, rather than to white people in Elaine, who at the time held the power to buy the farmers’ crops for well-below-market prices. The Black farmers organized against this, and were massacred by U.S. Soldiers and white vigilantes; 200 Black people were killed. The property stolen from the Black farmers, in that one town, amounted to more than $10 million, which Logan and Darity Jr. stress cannot possibly encompass the human suffering brought by the massacre. In closing, Logan and Darity Jr. write, “[t]he effects of the crimes of 1919 have compounded over time, aggravated by further atrocities and racist policies. Only after accounting for the full toll of this violence and theft can we find a way to repair the damage done.”

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