News & Commentary

October 25, 2020

Zachary Boullt

Zachary Boullt is a student at Harvard Law School.

The New York Times acquired an internal Department of Labor memo issued on September 24 instructing heads of DOL enforcement agencies not to use issued labor violation citations as the basis for press releases. The memo, issued by Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella, instructs that press releases should be issued instead after a court judgment or a settlement agreement. The memo greatly curtails one of the more cost-effective measures that labor enforcement agencies has to publicize potentially wrongful employer practices and promote compliance with regulations. The timing of the memo’s release coincides with a change in OSHA’s news releases. Since mid-September, OSHA has not issued news releases about particular countries committing COVID-19 related violations, but has instead published a summary table of recently cited companies with little information about what violations the companies may have committed. Defenders of the memo’s recommended practice argue that the former process of issuing news releases for citations can permanently negatively stain an employer even if the cited violation is later proven to be unfounded. Critics of the memo say that ceasing citation news releases will greatly weaken agencies like OSHA’s enforcement powers, pointing to a study that found that OSHA news releases are as effective at ensuring broader employer compliance as 200 additional inspections.

CNBC this weekend examined the recent myriad ways that Amazon has been implementing surveillance technology to stifle onsite unionization efforts. The article covers Amazon’s Intelligence Analyst job postings from September that included the need to monitor “labor organizing threats” as part of the job description. It also focuses on Amazon’s reported monitoring of employee listservs and closed Facebook groups, its implementation of union tracking systems as Whole Foods, and its stated intent to purchase “SPOC” software that can be used to analyze and visualize union activity. Some employees involved in labor organizing at the company have taken to using encryption software such as Keybase to avoid organizing discussions being monitored and to protect employees’ identities.

As another snapshot into how COVID-19 has continually impacted employment rates, Georgia’s Department of Labor announced that Georgia residents have received over $15 billion in unemployment benefits since March. This amount is more than the past 27 years combined. Job sectors in Georgia with the most reported unemployment insurance claims are Accommodation and Food Services, Health Care and Social Services, Retail Trade, Administrative and Social Services, and Manufacturing. Without further federal relief legislation, the amount of claims is expanded to change soon as claimants who have been utilizing the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program since its beginning February date will soon reach the 39 week limit and exhaust their benefits.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge rejected a proposed class of Instacart shopper’s argument that it was exempt from having to arbitrate their claims under the Federal Arbitration Act. Instacart’s independent contractor agreement includes a provision that shopper services are covered by the FAA. The initial lawsuit filed in June argued that Instacart misclassified shoppers as independent contractors, failed to provide sufficient PPE, and committed minimum wage and rest break violations. The named plaintiff, Brendan McDonnell, argued that he was exempt from the FAA due to the FAA’s interstate commerce exemption provision and that the independent contractor misclassification qualified for public relief and a public injunction. However, Judge Ethan P. Schulman rejected the arguments and compelled arbitration, ruling that Instacart shoppers are not engaged in interstate commerce because they picked up and delivered goods locally and that all of the claims sought private relief.

With election day almost here, The Nation has focused on how an Arizona union-affiliated group has innovated to safely canvass in pandemic conditions. CASE Action, a political advocacy group affiliated with UNITE HERE Local 11, hired the union’s unemployed members to engage in election work after more than 85% of the union members lost their jobs to the pandemic. To ensure safety, the group ensured that conversations were outdoors and socially distanced, that canvassers were screened for symptoms and received temperature checks daily, and that canvassers regularly disinfected their hands and always wore masks or face shields when in the office or in a windows-down car. CASE Action had zero confirmed cases in their 300-person canvasser team. CASE Action canvassers hope that their safety success emboldens other groups to resume canvassing in a way that is COVID-safe.

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