This week, Eater published the account of Miriam Wojtas, a bartender working in Seattle during the covid-19 pandemic. Grounded in the bartender’s experience, the piece contextualizes and reifies some of the most pressing concerns about the pandemic. Miriam took the job after being laid off from another food-service position at the height of Seattle’s outbreak, in response to the unpredictable, unresponsive, and unbelievably slow unemployment insurance process. The bar’s owner, after facing months of lock-down and a major disruption in cash-flow, sought less-experienced workers less likely to ask for fair wages or point out health and safety risks. Wojtas describes working in a packed bar without the necessary gloves, soap, and sanitizer necessary to even pretend the infection risk was abated. Though she issued an anonymous report to the county health department, after being discouraged by OSHA’s less-than-clear website, Wojtas ultimately quit the job to protect herself.
The piece highlights the issue of worker voice during a pandemic, and how front-line workers most likely to notice safety risks are the least empowered to remedy them. For more on this, see the Clean Slate Project’s recent report, “Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response.”
This week, Google’s parent company Alphabet entered into a settlement committing $310 million to diversity and equity initiatives, ending forced arbitration of discrimination and harassment claims, limiting the company’s use of non-disclosure agreements, and promising other changes demanded by workers and labor unions. In 2018, 20,000 workers walked out to protest a toxic workplace culture and management’s mishandling of employee complaints laid bare by executive Andy Rubin’s $90 million exit package, awarded although he faced serious sexual harassment claims. Importantly, these worker concerns were taken up and represented by Alphabet shareholders, Northern California Pipe Trades Pension Plan and Teamsters Local 272 Labor Management Pension Fund, who brought Alphabet to court for breaching a fiduciary duty by tolerating this “culture of concealment.” Alphabet announced that some key reforms, including the authority granted to an independent audit board, will extend beyond Google to 11 subsidiary companies like Verily and Waymo.