News & Commentary

September 13, 2020

Deanna Krokos

Deanna Krokos is a student at Harvard Law School

This week, The New York Times reported on the rampant sexual harassment faced by domestic workers classified as independent contractors. Handy, one of many “platform” companies accused of improper misclassification, faces criticism by workers and civil rights groups for failing to protect its workers from sexual harassment and abuse on the job. Cleaners report arriving at job sites and experiencing unwanted touching & sexual advances and leaving job sites only to see their pay cut and their concerns unaddressed. Workers told NYT that Handy did not return their calls regarding these incidents, but did withhold their wages when they fled unfinished job sites due to harassment and abuse. This policy pressures workers to remain in uncomfortable or dangerous situations, and stands in stark contrast to the protective measures many employees receive when performing similar work. NYT points to hotel cleaners, typically classified as employees, who often receive “panic buttons” or other protections as a matter of employer policy or municipal regulation. Public Rights Project, a civil rights nonprofit, is asking California to reclassify Handy workers as employees to force the company to take responsibility for protecting these workers or remedying these situations as they arise.

Six months into the covid-19 pandemic, essential workers in key sectors remain exposed and unprotected. This week, Politico analyzed the virus’ devastating effect on migrant farmworkers, who provide crucial labor under vulnerable conditions made worse by the administration’s vitriol around immigration issues. Politico found that in Oregon and California, counties with the highest per-capita covid infections were counties with large agricultural operations. Politico notes that the federal government has not provided farms any assistance in procuring adequate safety gear for workers, despite doing so for other sectors including healthcare and law enforcement. Though the CDC issued guidelines in June to advise farms on worker protection, the Department of Labor & OSHA has declined to make them mandatory or enforceable. Most states have followed suit. Ohio’s #1 industry is agriculture, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was lauded as a leader during the early months of the pandemic, issuing extremely specific regulations for near every “reopened” enterprise. Yet the state has failed to offer any enforceable guidance to farms employing thousands of Ohio workers.

The Politico report highlights the difficulties assessing covid-19’s impact on these workers, because most state and municipal authorities do not collect testing data from farm employers. The report points to estimates by Food and Environment Reporting Network that nearly 7,000 farmworkers have tested positive, noting that limited testing and workers’ fear of lost wages during quarantine depress that figure. California Assemblymember Elouise Gómez Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino, introduced the “Right to Know” bill in the California Legislature, that would require the state’s employers to notify both their employees and their local health department of positive covid cases in the workplace. The bill seeks to prevent large-scale outbreaks, like those that occurred in meat and poultry plants in the state, by mandating transparency arming workers and regulators with information employers have otherwise kept quiet.

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