Ask Workers How to Reopen the Economy

Bama Athreya
4 min readApr 21, 2020
Source: Washington Post/

Why is Trump calling for protests to ‘liberate’ states and ‘reopen’ the economy? It is always illustrative to ask who really benefits from rapid resumption of business. Some excellent labor reporting in recent days clearly points to an answer to this question. OSHA complaints filed by workers in meat processing plants in several states, coupled with coverage of the push by executives to declare meat packing an essential industry, suggests that CEOs not only in food processing but other sectors as well might be troubled by the possibility that governors are contemplating measures that would increase their business costs in order to reopen safely. There is ample evidence these executives have the ear of the White House. State houses would do far better to listen to workers.

The meatpacking industry is only one of many that successfully lobbied, in recent months, for deregulation that speeds up lines and increases safety risks to workers, while eliminating labor inspection. It requires no stretch of the imagination to believe that executives are quietly lobbying not only the Administration, but friendly state houses, to insist that criteria to reopen businesses shift health risks onto individual workers, not employers.

Governors should respond by creating advisory bodies of worker representatives to discuss how to reopen the economy in ways that ensure safety at work, and therefore safety for communities at large. There are growing regional task forces of allied states that are preparing joint criteria for resumption of economic activity. To start, they should create advisory bodies representing the interests of all essential workers, including not only medical and public safety personnel, but grocery, delivery, food service and food handling, and care workers. These should consist of representative unions, where they exist, but recognizing that many of these workers may not have unions, they must also reach out to include non-unionized workers. Many of these workers, facing the risk to themselves and their families, have been taking direct action in recent weeks to highlight their plight. Some have faced termination or retaliation by employers. State governments represent these workers and should do better. Don’t make them take to the streets. Invite them in (safely) and ask them how they can be safe at work.

Their demands are hardly outrageous. These practical, commonsense measures can help all of us reduce our risk. First, all enterprises should be required to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and to create adequate measures for social distancing within the workplace. Second, all enterprises that require personnel to work on site must also ensure they have access to testing, and to adequate sick leave for themselves and their families. Third, we must strengthen business liability for the safety and health of workers. Fourth, as a critical public safety measure, we must increase resources for statewide labor inspection in order to ensure not only that workplace guidelines are inspected, but also to protect workers’ families and communities from the spread of disease that can be exacerbated by crowded or unsafe workplaces.

To be sure, many small businesses in my own community have made heroic efforts to reopen to provide food and essential services while keeping their own staff safe. We must be sensitive to the costs they face, and ensure they receive the necessary support to keep operating. But I’ve also observed that these small restaurants and groceries are more likely to be concerned about protective measures at this time, as they rely on the goodwill of communities for their continued business. It’s giant companies like Amazon/Whole Foods and Instacart who are making record profits while still cutting corners when it comes to sick leave and worker safety.

This week there has been much concern that ‘liberate’ protests would lead to violence. There has been less attempt to ‘follow the money.’ The protests are immediately disruptive, but in addition, they have generated media attention and pressure on governors that may leave them more susceptible to the views of corporate executives who, safely distanced themselves, are unwilling to pay for the long term measures that are vital to a healthy economy and a healthy society. Governors can take the high road and show their commitment to resuming economic activity but they should not trust the views of these executives. We’d do much better to trust worker representatives with the health of our families and communities.

A version of this story appeared in the Local Opinions section of the Washington Post on Sunday, May 3, 2020.



Bama Athreya

Expert on labor, gender equity and workplace social inclusion, labor migration and trafficking. Interested in the intersection of tech and social movements.