Legislative fixes for essential worker problems

Workforce has been suffering from lack of support

ESSENTIAL WORKERS have always played a significant role in our society, but their roles were especially amplified since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Elected officials, the public, and many business owners continue to praise the critical work these essential workers do. They had the difficult task of keeping our society afloat by being on the frontline of many services including healthcare, groceries, and mail delivery. But still, the workforce has been suffering from a lack of government support. The unemployment rate in Massachusetts has faced a 4.4 percentage point increase, with 165,423 more workers unemployed compared to March 2020.

Just as COVID-19 laid bare the racial and economic disparities present in sectors from education to healthcare, the deep inequities that create an uneven playing field for workers and working conditions have become more visible and severe.

For instance, despite the national unemployment rate sitting at 6.2 percent, black unemployment remains significantly higher at 9.9 percent. We need our government to support and protect workers in our more vulnerable industries, to ensure they get the dignity they deserve.

While many of these essential employees have been rightly praised, they still do not receive fair benefits or compensation for the work they do. From not having proper living wages, to unsafe workplaces, to massive power differences between employers and employees, to the lack of retirement and healthcare security, our state laws must dramatically do better for our workers – from all walks of life.

One critical step towards fixing this is by passing SD.1811/ HD.2462: An Act requiring one fair wage. Filed by my colleagues Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville and Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittzfield and Brandy Fluker Oakley of Boston,  this bill would substantially improve pay equity for tipped workers. The gender and racial pay gap for tipped workers in Massachusetts is the second worst in the nation, with black women making $7.79 per hour less than white men. Amidst the pandemic, nearly 70 percent of Massachusetts restaurant workers reported making less than half the amount of tips they had seen at pre-pandemic levels. Our essential workers deserve to be paid a fair, living wage.

Adding to this plight, injured and sick workers face unfair burdens when filing worker compensation retaliation complaints. Many workers that experience a work-related injury, exposure, or sickness caused by COVID-19, and then take the appropriate precautionary measures, face discrimination and adverse action by retaliatory employers.

Currently, no state agency has the power or ability to investigate workers’ retaliation complaints or to enforce the current workers’ compensation retaliation law. To bridge this concerning gap, I, along with Rep. Tram Nguyen of Andover, filed SD.1717/HD.2576, An Act to protect injured workers during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill would designate the attorney general’s office as the state agency with jurisdiction to investigate these claims. At a time when so many workers are struggling, it is imperative that we take these claims seriously and investigate thoroughly.

In another effort to hold employers accountable, Sen. Sal DiDimienco of Everett and Rep. Daniel Donahue of Worcester filed An Act to prevent wage theft, promote employer accountability, and enhance public enforcement, which will also give the attorney general’s office authority to prosecute wage theft cases. Wage theft includes practices such as not paying the minimum wage, not paying overtime, forcing workers to work off the clock, misclassifying employees or not paying workers at all. Sadly, these practices are far too prevalent in the workforce.

It is an astounding and alarming fact that when our Commonwealth contracts with the private sector, we do not require companies to provide their safety record. This leads to taxpayer dollars potentially paying for companies with a history of worker injuries, fatalities, or other poor conditions. The solution for this comes with SD.229/HD.1943, An Act relative to workplace safety and disclosure of violations. This bill, filed by Sen. Paul Feeney of Foxborough and Rep. Michelle DuBois of Brockton, would require any company applying for a contract with the state of Massachusetts to list any infractions from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This is a long overdue change that will save lives and promote responsible, safe business management.

Meet the Author

Jamie Eldridge

Senator from Acton, Massachusetts Senate
In confronting this pandemic, we have firsthand witnessed the inequities and injustices present in our Commonwealth. The Massachusetts Legislature now has an opportunity – and an obligation – to do right by the workers who have tirelessly and diligently kept our Commonwealth functioning.

Jamie Eldridge is a state senator from Acton.