Protecting workers through publicity during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for many low-wage workers and their families. Workers are risking their health and lives, including in meatpacking plants, grocery stores, restaurants, mass transit, and health care. Black workers, in particular, are experiencing retaliation for raising COVID-19 workplace safety concerns. Millions of workers are struggling to make ends meet after being laid off and need unemployment insurance. Other workers have been deemed essential, but their employers have not provided them living wages or critical benefits like paid sick days. While federal and state laws are in place to protect and support workers during the pandemic in various ways, many workers don’t know about these laws or programs. Similarly, employers may not realize their legal obligations. Using media and strategic communication was a critical tool for labor enforcement agencies before the pandemic—and it is of even greater urgency now.

To help agencies with this aspect of their work, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program released a toolkit earlier this month, Protecting Workers Through Publicity: Promoting Workplace Law Compliance Through Strategic Communication. The toolkit shares research showing that media coverage and public disclosure improves policy outcomes, in labor and other contexts. The toolkit can be used by labor enforcement agencies, as well as policymakers who care about worker issues, to help them use media effectively. It will also benefit worker advocates, who can share it with enforcers and policymakers as part of an effort to press for greater use of this underutilized vehicle for driving compliance.

In response to the pandemic, Congress passed three stimulus bills and created new benefits, rights, and programs for the workplace. The federal measures included new unemployment insurance provisions and access to paid sick days and paid leave. States and localities have also responded to the moment, passing new laws to help fill gaps left by the Trump administration. The effectiveness of these new measures will be jeopardized, though, if working people don’t know that enforcement agencies will hold employers accountable for retaliation or violating the law. Agencies can use proven communications strategies to fill knowledge gaps and advance the goals of workplace safety laws.

For a recent example of the importance of communications, consider the newly created paid sick days and paid leave benefits in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Data show limited awareness of these key provisions among both workers and employers:

  • In one survey, nearly half of people had heard very little or nothing about these benefits.
  • Only 28% of businesses covered by the law reported that they were taking advantage of available tax credits to reimburse employee paid leave.
  • In another poll, only one in five voters had taken or planned to take advantage of these paid leave provisions.
  • Many workers report fear of retaliation from their employers (even though the federal government will reimburse employers for this paid sick leave).

A lack of outreach has undermined the law’s critical goals. With better public communication, more workers would be aware of their rights and the government’s role in upholding them. Paid sick days are crucial for working people. They are also essential to protecting public health because paid sick days ensure that workers can comply with orders necessary to stop the spread of the virus. The new toolkit offers agencies concrete approaches and tools to elevate these new protections through a media and public communications strategy.

The toolkit also highlights research demonstrating the deterrent impact of media coverage. For example, a study released in June examined the impact of press releases issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration. Duke University professor Matthew Johnson found that after a press release was issued about penalties and enforcement against an employer, there were 88% fewer violations at later inspections of facilities within a five-kilometer (roughly 3.1-mile) radius. This effect persisted even with facilities 50 kilometers (roughly 31 miles) away. Overall, the research found that publicizing OSHA violations leads to significant improvements in workers’ safety and health. Studies in other areas (such as air pollution and food safety) have also found a beneficial impact based on media coverage or public disclosure.

In a moment of extreme hardship for workers and reduced state budgets, engaging with strategic communications, including by securing media coverage, is a cost-effective way for agencies to multiply their impact. It can be a critical method to inform workers of their rights, deter violations, and drive compliance with critical workplace protections.