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COVID-19 and Unions: How the Pandemic Revealed the Suffering State of Our Workforce

While most would argue that unionization solves this issue, it, in some ways, puts a band-aid on the larger issue at hand. Policies almost guaranteed to union workers should be the standard for all places of employment.


In 2020, the AFL-CIO did the unthinkable—they sued OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They offered a writ of mandamus to the US Supreme Court, giving comprehensive evidence that thousands of workers have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers were being exposed at work due to a lack of safety standards set by OSHA or the employers themselves. The OSHA lawsuit puts into perspective a much larger issue which has plagued the US since the beginning of the pandemic—the absolute lack of protections workers had during the pandemic, especially those who were not unionized.

According to a study by EPI, the United States entered the pandemic with a record-low union density, seeing a 444,000 decrease in unionized workers since 2019. The result? Working-class people, disproportionately low-income Black and Hispanic workers, bore the worst of the pandemic. Unemployment rates soared, and those who continued to work through the pandemic were often forced to work without adequate protective gear or paid time off. This resulted in a workforce on the front line of the pandemic unable to protect themselves and largely unable to afford time off to quarantine when exposed, either. Moreover, most workers, especially low-income and service industry workers, were least likely to be able to work from home, meaning their risk of exposure to the virus was significantly higher.

On the other hand, with a unionized job comes such negotiated protections as additional hazard pay, increased safety measures, PTO, and job security. Where non-unionized workers faced potential punishment or termination for speaking out against unsafe working conditions, unionized workers received more adequate protections, resulting in greater protection from the coronavirus. Where non-unionized low-income and minority workers faced higher discrimination in protection from COVID-19, unions ensured both groups adequate protection. Almost two-thirds of employees covered by unions are women, people of color, or both. Additionally, workers belonging to unions make about 11.2% more in wages when compared to non-unionized workers of a similar background and enjoy far more benefits. Increased union density sets a higher standard for work, including increased salary and better worker benefits. Members of unions are far more likely to have medical insurance and have much greater access to employer-sponsored health benefits and PTO. In the event of a global pandemic, which poses a significant health risk towards employees of all types, these benefits are crucial to the survival of our workforce.

If the pandemic revealed anything, it revealed that the American workforce is in shambles. While unionized workers were ensured more benefits than their non-unionized counterparts, one overarching theme remained clear throughout the pandemic: workers, especially frontline workers, did not receive the protections from their employers they should have received in the face of a global pandemic. However, these practices are nothing new—workers have been struggling at the hands of their employers for years. While most would argue that unionization solves this issue, it, in some ways, puts a band-aid on the larger issue at hand. Unionization may grant workers a voice and an ability to advocate for themselves to secure better benefits—however, it also reveals the significant protection gaps between unionized workers and non-unionized workers.

Policies almost guaranteed to union workers should be the standard for all places of employment. Studies show that higher union density raises the standards of employee treatment for both unionized and non-unionized workers—this begs the question of why. Periods of high union density, or periods of general worker tumult like the COVID-19 pandemic, reveal what the executives of corporate America largely refuse to admit—our workforce is deeply flawed, catering towards profit and against worker protections. America needs to prioritize its workforce—union benefits and the COVID-19 pandemic prove this time and time again. Americans should not have to band together and call for unionization in order to receive a living wage and decent medical benefits—this should be the standard for all types and places of employment.

Emily Ahern is a first-year Political Science major at School of Public Affairs and is pursuing a minor in Musical Theatre. She is a staff writer at American Agora.

Image Credits: America Needs Unions

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