The author is a labor organizer in the Twin Cities, writing under a pseudonym so as to ensure this message is not treated as the position of any labor organization.
On Wednesday, May 13th, Governor Tim Walz announced yet another relaxing of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order. Retail business will now be able to open at 50% capacity. The target date for restaurants and bars is June 1st.
Throughout the pandemic crisis, Governor Walz has done a good job letting science drive his decision-making. But with just hours remaining in the legislative session and Republicans calling ever more loudly for people’s lives to take a back seat to profits, he may be giving a little under the pressure.
In his remarks Wednesday, Walz indicated he was aware that opening up more businesses means workers will be exposed to greater dangers. “As even more Minnesotans head back to work,” his prepared remarks read, “we must protect their safety and dignity. That is why I signed an Executive Order today to ensure workers can raise concerns regarding the safety of their work environments without fear of discrimination or retaliation.”
That sounds good, but the Executive Order Walz issued, “Protecting Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions and Retaliation During the COVID-19 Peacetime Emergency,” is tilted heavily in the bosses’ favor, and will lead to workers being forced to work in potentially dangerous conditions without the protections he promised. Walz could do much to make workers safer, and hopefully organized labor will push him to do that.
Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy praised Walz’s actions – “it is vital that workers are empowered to report unsafe working conditions and to refuse to work without loss of income,” he said, as part of a statement.
Jennifer Christensen, President of UFCW Local 1189, which represents many of the retail workers affected by retail re-opening, struck a more somber tone in an interview with MPR News last week. Her members, Christensen said, “just want to get through their day, do the job they’re supposed to do and get home safe to their families.” UFCW has not yet responded to Wednesday’s announcements.
The Minnesota Nurses’ Association, meanwhile, expressed concern in a statement about the continued shortage of personal protective equipment available to healthcare providers, but stopped short of criticizing the Governor.
It’s not all bad. The Executive Order explicitly prohibits discrimination and retaliation against employees who speak up about COVID-19 safety concerns. Employees also cannot be discriminated against for choosing to wear protective gear in the workplace. Enforcement of those directives may, of course, prove to be a challenge, but at least on paper this is fine. Workers who quit work because they feel it is unsafe don’t lose eligibility for unemployment benefits.
The good parts of the Executive Order all have one thing in common – it’s the worker who gets to choose what to do. In workplace relations, there are few questions more important than who decides. The best-intentioned workplace laws mean next to nothing if the boss is the one who decides how to apply them in the workplace. No set of standards matters if the boss gets to be the person who evaluates the standards.
This is what makes Item #3 in the Executive Order so disappointing:
…workers have the right to refuse to work under conditions that they, in good faith, reasonably believe present an imminent danger of death or serious physical harm. This includes a reasonable belief that they have been assigned to work in an unsafe or unhealthful manner with an infectious agent such as COVID-19.
This looks promising at first glance. Right to refuse work! Reasonable belief! But then it drops the hammer: “assigned to work … with an infectious agent such as COVID-19”. That is, this only applies to people who are assigned to work when COVID-19 is known to be present in the workplace. And the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry has the right to inspect workplaces if a worker feels those protocols aren’t being observed.
There are people this will help. Health care workers who directly treat COVID patients; lab workers who handle the samples of the virus. In theory, at least, this part of the executive order will help them.
But the fear of retail workers, or bar, restaurant, hotel workers, of people who might end up working Minnesota’s State Fair if it opens at the end of summer, isn’t the known exposures to COVID. It’s the unknowns. It’s working in an environment where anyone who walks in might be transmitting the virus. It’s working in a place where the boss gets to decide if it seems safe, not you.
No paper plan can prevent a coughing customer coming into a shop and walking right up to an employee. No plan is going to help a worker – who, because their employer is now open for business, has to go to work or risk termination – with their reasonable concern that their workplace might not really be safe from COVID. And nothing will protect a worker from the silent but real pressures on them from managers to move faster, cut a corner, take a little more risk in pursuit of profit.
The only safe way to re-open businesses is to give all workers the unlimited right to choose to work or not work based on their judgement of the risks, without jeopardizing their jobs, their unemployment benefits, or their healthcare. In this crisis, government should guarantee all people a livable wage and healthcare, regardless of whether they feel it is safe to go to work. Bosses already have this– they get to choose exactly what they will or will not tolerate before they open up shop. Why are workers not given the same right?
Critics will argue that this is a license for laziness. It isn’t. It’s a recognition that the COVID-19 pandemic is a dangerous disease that even in a good scenario will likely kill hundreds of thousands more around the world, and that a year ago no one even knew it existed. In these circumstances – different in scope and scale than anything any living person can recall – workers should have the right to make the choices that make sense for them, and not risk eviction or job loss as a result.
It’s probably too much to expect Governor Walz to go this far, but he could modify his Executive Order to help workers quite a lot. Under the order, workers have a right to ask the MN Department of Labor and Industry to inspect their workplace to see if it’s safe. Governor Walz could modify the Executive Order to ensure that a worker can safely stay away from work (and collect unemployment benefits) until that inspection is complete.
Walz could strengthen the requirements of businesses to report worker concerns about safety, and fine or shutter businesses that violate this rule. Walz could order the Department of Labor and Industry to conduct roving, unannounced inspections of opened workplaces, with the authority to shut down those that fail to meet safety standards, with no loss of pay for the workers. These are just a few examples of things that would put more choice in the hands of workers.
An empowered workforce is a safe workforce, pure and simple. Governor Walz should give workers – not their bosses – the right to decide if they feel their workplace is safe. Nothing else will do more to keep Minnesotans alive in this crisis.