Equal Measure: The Biden Administration Could Mean New Protections for Retail Workers

During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, big-box retailers have put sales associates on the front lines, and have their warehouse workers meeting the increased demand of online shoppers. 

As much of corporate America continues to work remotely, retail workers making hourly wages have said their working conditions put them at higher risk of exposure from coworkers, despite social distancing measures implemented by their employers. Working at stores during the pandemic has presented new hazards of interactions with unmasked customers, and, in most cases, has come without pay raises.

Such accounts highlight the kind of wage and safety issues that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration could address through appointments to regulatory agencies, as well as through changes in policy and enforcement, labor experts said.   

Biden’s campaign platform had indicated a number of worker-oriented policies as priorities for his administration, and offered signs of how it might address them. 

“Joe Biden has a bold agenda to give these workers the long-term support they deserve — raising wages, guaranteeing quality, affordable health care, providing free tuition for public higher education, and encouraging unionization and collective bargaining,” his four-point plan for essential workers notes. 

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For one, Biden has signaled plans to push the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that is part of the U.S. Department of Labor and inspects workplace safety, into action. Biden has said the agency should issue an emergency temporary standard that all companies can adopt in order to curtail the spread of COVID-19, which is surging in the U.S. ahead of the winter. On Monday alone, the U.S. reported some additional 169,190 COVID-19 cases, and 889 deaths, according to the daily Johns Hopkins University tally. 

The president-elect has also indicated plans to at least double the number of OSHA investigators. The agency has said along with its state counterparts, it has just 2,100 inspectors overseeing the working conditions of 130 million employees. Such plans of action show the untapped potential of the labor department the next administration could use, experts said. 

“The pandemic indicates that there’s a lot that the Labor Department could be doing, and has not, in terms of protecting workers from contagion,” said Matthew Finkin, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, and director of its program in comparative labor and employment law and policy. 

Presidents can also guide labor changes and policy through appointments to regulatory agencies including the Department of Labor, which oversees wage-and-hour issues, and the National Labor Relations Board, which protects workers’ collective bargaining rights. The president’s NLRB appointees serve five-year terms. In addition, the president can appoint a wage-and-hour administrator at the Labor Department, a position that also requires Senate confirmation, although a Republican-controlled Senate is expected to push back on Biden nominations. 

Decisions and rules adopted by those agencies generally help interpret laws and bolster protections for workers.  

“It’s not clear to me that Biden will get a green light for all of the people that he’d like to put in, but, certainly, he’ll want to put in people who will be favorable to, and will press for regulations that are more protective of workers,” Finkin said.  

The extent to which a Biden administration could push for changes to federal labor laws will depend on whether Democrats take control of the Senate, which will be determined by run-off elections in Georgia in January. Meanwhile, states and local jurisdictions generally have the ability to ensure higher workplace safety, discrimination protections and wages than federal standards establish. 

Retail workers who have mobilized for better wages and protections during the pandemic have generally sought better sick-leave policies, additional pay for essential work during the pandemic, as well as better health care protections, and more say in the business decisions that affect them. So far, some worker groups and unions have indicated plans to work with the administration on their goals. 

On Monday, the worker advocacy group United for Respect unveiled the “Five to Survive” platform for retail workers, a list of agenda items including a minimum $5-an-hour essential pay raise. The raise would compensate them for the risks they face showing up to work during the pandemic, which the CDC has said can spread through airborne transmission and from asymptomatic people who are infected, as well as for additional child-care costs when schools shut down, workers said at a United for Respect press conference. 

The group has also indicated plans to work with the Biden administration and other government officials to enact those agenda items. 

“We, of course, hope that the Biden administration adopts the ‘Five to Survive’ pandemic platform and makes it policy to protect all essential workers,” said Bianca Agustin, United for Respect’s director of research. “We will continue to work with allies in the federal government and at the state level to win these protections for workers. So yes, it’s something that we want to continue to work on as he takes over the presidency.”

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union has been in touch with the Biden transition team about its policy recommendations, according to Chelsea Connor, a spokeswoman for the union. The RWDSU represents some 6,300 employees at Macy’s Inc. and Bloomingdale’s, as well as thousands of workers at other retailers including H&M and Zara.

“Paid sick leave is one of the crucial issues that we negotiate in our contract and that we negotiated in reopening agreements as well. It’s a huge mistake not to provide adequate paid sick leave to workers,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU. “Otherwise, they feel compelled, in order to support themselves and their families to go to work even if they may feel sick, and that’s something that nobody should want.” 

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