Tip Sheets

As essential workers walk out, labor agency must step up

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli

Essential workers at online and brick-and-mortar stores have been increasingly vocal with dissatisfaction about how their employers have treated them during the pandemic. Employees at Target and Amazon, among others, are planning mass “sick-outs” to protest what they perceive as management’s disregard for their health and safety. 

Angela Cornell

Clinical Professor of Law, Director of the Labor Law Clinic

Angela Cornell, professor of law and director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell University’s Law School, says that with essential workers asked to put their health at risk, it is time for labor agencies –like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OCSHA) – to pursue strict enforcement and new standards to keep workers safe.


Cornell says:

“Thousands of workers have walked off the job to protest inadequate workplace health and safety, including workers from Amazon, Target, chicken processing plants, Instacart, among many others. 

“Essential workers across sectors and industries are placing their health and that of their families at risk by going to work. There are still pleas for facemasks, sanitized environments, adequate on-the-job distancing, and even hand soap. There are egregious violations of workplace safety. Some employers have prohibited employees from wearing their own facemask.

“Thousands of complaints have been filed with OSHA denouncing inadequate health and safety, and every day we hear about more workers being diagnosed with COVID-19, falling ill and dying.

“But, OSHA has not done enough either to investigate egregious violations, step-up enforcement, or to more effectively guide employers on compliance. Enhanced enforcement must be pursued and new standards must be issued for infectious disease that give employers incentive to comply. Now more than ever we need OSHA to fulfill its mandate and to do more to protect the workers we deem essential.”

Patricia Campos-Medina

Executive director of the Worker Institute

Patricia Campos-Medina, is co-director of the New York State/AFL-CIO Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University. She says that not only the government needs to step in for these workers, but consumers have a responsibility as well. 


Campos-Medina says:  

"Workers in retail and distribution are standing up to demand more because the cost-benefit analysis of taking action against multi-nationals like Amazon and Target has changed; now it’s not just a calculation of losing your job for protesting your working conditions. It is about life and death, and about keeping your family healthy. These workers have clear demands to make their jobs safer so America can re-open for business soon; and these corporations should listen to their demands.

"The sick-outs and worker actions are meant to force action to address the vulnerability of these workers from two actors, government and consumers. Governments have the responsibility to take action to demand corporations do more to protect workers. But consumers also have a role to play in forcing corporations to change their business practices. It should no longer just be about their profit margins, but about their social responsibility. The longer these workplaces continue to be unsafe, the longer our society will suffer from the impact on this pandemic.

"Public relations efforts by Amazon or Target announcing increases in wages (sometimes by $2 or $3) are no longer enough to entice workers to suffer in silence. Workers actions across the country will change consumers perceptions of how unbalanced the power dynamics are in the U.S. retail industry. We need these workers, yet multi-national corporations do not value their safety and health. Worker actions will hopefully lead to worker organizing and building power through collective bargaining, but in the meantime, these actions will at least put a face on the reality that before this pandemic, this workforce was exploited and invisible.”

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.