The darkness of the Covid-19 crisis has inspired a profound outpouring of appreciation for workers. Each evening, hundreds of thousands of people bang on pots and pans to thank health care workers; they buy them meals, send them masks. The appreciation goes beyond just health care workers: across the country, people are cheering on striking Amazon and Instacart workers fighting for better labor protections and asking how they can help support grocery workers and others who are keeping the trains running and the streets clean.
At the same time, the crisis has cast in sharp relief America’s disastrously anemic systems for supporting and protecting those workers. So workers are rising up to demand change—change that could go far beyond responding to the ongoing emergency and dramatically reshape workplace relations.
One powerful example is the struggle of doctors, nurses, and health care workers who have been fired or disciplined for telling the truth about health and safety conditions. It might seem like an important but narrow fight, affecting a relatively small group of essential workers. But if we learn the right lessons, and if we organize, it could point the way to fundamental change in employer/employee relations for all American workers.
From the beginning of this crisis, health care workers have been sounding the alarm about inadequate preparation for the pandemic, a shameful lack of personal protective equipment, and heartbreaking conditions inside hospitals, nursing homes, and health centers. While the public has responded with an outpouring of support and gratitude, far too many employers have reacted with anger and censure.
A doctor in Washington state was fired for posting on social media about the shortage of N95 masks in his hospital. A nurse on the Jersey Shore was fired after taking the day off to do his duty as a union official; he was representing a coworker in a disciplinary hearing over social media posts about the crisis. And a nurse in New York City was fired after telling her boss she felt anxious treating patients with coronavirus without the proper equipment.
These and many other stories are just beginning to reach the public as brave workers continue to search out ways to spread the word about dangerous conditions with the press, on social media, or among their co-colleagues. As the majority of us hunker down at home, desperately consuming the news, reading through the lines of President Trump’s dangerously out-of-touch press conferences, these health care workers have become a primary source of real, truthful information about what is happening on the front lines of this pandemic. They continue to provide this information even as they work round-the-clock to save as many lives as they can while somehow staying healthy themselves.
So it is all the more unconscionable that they would be fired for ringing the alarm bell about health and safety issues.
Unconscionable—but not uncommon. The vast majority of workers in America are “at will” employees who can be fired at any time, without notice, and without a reason. As a result, workers often feel forced to choose between submitting to intolerable working conditions—late-night shifts and early hours, harassment from customers and superiors—and not having a job at all. The lack of “just cause” protections allows employers to skirt other labor protections, firing workers who take sick days, who refuse unwanted sexual advances, or who speak out about unsafe conditions.
Unions have long been the source of job protections for workers who speak out about unsafe conditions, fighting for and winning just-cause protections in their contracts. But many health care workers, and the vast majority of workers across the country, do not have such protections.
Over the past two years, workers and elected officials have begun working together to win legislation that would require bosses to have a “just cause” to fire someone, regardless of whether or not they are in a union.
Here in New York City, we have been working with fast-food workers who have been organizing with 32BJ SEIU to pass legislation to protect people in the sector from unfair firings. Legislators in Philadelphia granted similar protections to parking-lot attendants last year. And at the national level, Senator Bernie Sanders made just-cause protections a centerpiece of his workers’ rights platform.
At a hearing held by the New York City Council on just cause legislation for fast-food workers in February (which feels like years ago now), we heard from Yeral Martinez, who was fired from his job at Chipotle in October 2019, the day after he called out sick due to back pain. He tried to contest his dismissal, explaining to managers that he was entitled to paid sick time (a right that fast-food workers helped us win in New York City in 2013). The manager shrugged and said she didn’t need any reason to fire him. Before he lost his job, Martinez was living in a shelter with his wife and son. They had been about to move to an apartment but were unable to meet the income requirements after Martinez was fired.
After hearing the stories of the doctors and nurses who are facing discipline or the loss of their jobs for sharing their stories, I announced “just cause” legislation to protect health care and hospital workers, modeled on our bill for fast-food workers. Our legislation would make clear that speaking honestly about health and safety conditions is not a just cause to fire someone.
But why stop with health care and fast-food workers?
Just recently, when Amazon workers on Staten Island walked out to protest inadequate safety equipment and policies to keep warehouse workers safe, the company turned around and fired Chris Smalls, one of the lead organizers. It didn’t matter that organizing a labor union is protected in the workplace; they fired him anyway. (Community organizations and unions are mobilizing to try to get Smalls his job back, but it shouldn’t have been this easy for Amazon to punish him for speaking out.)
No matter whether you are a doctor, a fast-food worker, or an Amazon worker, if you are an “at will” employee, you can quickly become expendable. If we act boldly in the wake of this crisis, we could change that by ending “at will” employment throughout the American economy. In most European countries, all employees are protected from unfair firing with “just cause” policy.
After the pots and pans and cheers have subsided, let’s pay an enduring tribute to the essential workers bravely facing this crisis by making sure that they can’t be fired based purely on the whim—or bruised egos—of their bosses.
And let’s make sure that no one else can be, either.