Opinion | Why Everyone Should Care About Workers’ Rights

By Terri Gerstein

Ms. Gerstein is a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and the Economic Policy Institute. She spent more than 17 years enforcing labor laws in New York State, working in the state attorney general’s office and as a deputy labor commissioner.

A few years ago, a part-time minimum wage worker at an upstate New York McDonald’s suspected a gas leak. When he alerted his supervisors, they told him to ignore it or he’d be fired. Instead, he called the fire department, and two things happened. Firefighters found the leak and shut the restaurant for the rest of the day. And the worker was fired.

I enforced workplace laws in New York State for the better part of two decades, and this case stands out to me, because it so clearly exemplifies why all of us should care about workers’ rights. When people have bad working conditions and no voice on the job, it’s obviously bad for them. But the impact of rotten jobs — those with low pay, long hours, bad treatment, or no worker voice — radiates far beyond the workers themselves. Other people’s rotten jobs affect our collective health, safety and well-being.

This powerful connection between work life and broader public welfare has been undeniable in the pandemic, as workplace clusters of employees with the coronavirus have often led to community spread. Many meatpacking employees, for instance, were required to work close together without adequate protection. The result? They brought the highly contagious virus home to their family, neighborhood and community.

A study published in May in the journal Food Policy found that the presence of a large beef-packing facility in a county, relative to comparable counties without such plants, increased per capita Covid-19 infection rates by 110 percent. The study estimated that 334,000 Covid infections in the United States were attributable to beef, pork and chicken processing plants.

In health care, countless examples demonstrate how conditions for workers, both bad and good, affect patient outcomes. Inadequate staffing ratios in hospitals and nursing homes cause stress and difficulties for workers; they also hurt patient care, as shown by numerous studies. For example, researchers who examined data from 161 Pennsylvania hospitals found a significant association between high nurse-patient ratios and infections of the urinary tract and surgical sites.

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