Workers—but especially Black workers—say they are afraid that going to work during the coronavirus pandemic risks their own health or that of a family member, but many fear retaliation if they speak up. A new survey by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) finds that, overall, 56% of people going to work fear the risks, but among Black workers, that number is 73%. And many of people going to work afraid are doing so because they fear retaliation from their boss.
The disparities don’t stop there. “Black workers were both more likely to have concerns (80 percent) and were twice as likely as white workers to have unresolved concerns,” NELP reports, “with more than one in three Black workers (39 percent) reporting either that they had raised concerns to their employer about COVID-19 but were unsatisfied with their employer’s response, or that they did not raise concerns for fear of retaliation. By contrast, 18 percent of white workers were in the same situation.”
The fear of retaliation is very real, and again, especially so for Black workers. In response to the question “Have you or has anyone at your company been punished or fired for raising concerns about the risk of coronavirus spreading at the workplace?” 9% of white workers said “yes” or “maybe.” Just over twice as many Black workers—19%—said the same.
Black workers are faced with these fears at a time when a pandemic is hitting Black people especially hard, and, as NELP points out: “Our results suggest that virus transmission in the workplace may be exacerbated by employer repression and that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities may be related to greater exposure of Black workers to repressive workplace environments.” Racism kills—in more than one way.
NELP identifies concrete policy changes that could help with this situation in the workplace. Workers need not only whistleblower protections but “just cause” job protections so that they don't get promptly fired for supposedly unrelated reasons that anyone halfway honest can tell are pure pretext. But workers do need strong anti-retaliation policies, such as: “Any adverse employer action taken against an employee within 90 days of that employee raising such concerns should be presumed to be retaliatory.”
Workers should have the right to refuse dangerous work. They should be able to take their employers to court, and employers should face meaningful penalties, not just a slap on the wrist. And, painfully relevant in this moment in which Republicans are trying to force people back to unsafe jobs by threatening their unemployment benefits: “Unemployment insurance rules should make clear that workers who quit or are fired from dangerous jobs, or refuse to work under dangerous conditions, should be eligible for unemployment benefits.”
Such policies won’t fix the racism in people’s hearts, but by giving Black workers protections and rights, they might create somewhat more equal outcomes on the job. Which is worth a lot, especially when the question is: “Can I insist my employer protect my health without losing my job?”