Return to work graphic.

A Conversation on Safeguarding Employee Health During COVID-19

By Sarah Rispin Sedlak

On July 9th, as part of an ongoing “Coronavirus Conversations” series hosted by the Duke University Initiative for Science and Society, three experts will gather to discuss how the novel coronavirus spreads in the workplace, the steps employers can and should be taking to provide for employee safety in light of that, and how to do so while respecting employee concerns about personal safety, privacy and autonomy.

Each “conversation” marries a discussion of the science and facts underlying a COVID-19-related policy issue, with a discussion of law, policy, and ethical responses in light of those facts.

As new COVID-19 cases soar around the country, the questions surrounding the return to work are becoming more vexing and pressing for both employers and employees.

This week’s panel will aim to answer questions such as: What can and should employers require of their employees in the name of safety? What are the guardrails on these measures (or the lack of such measures) at a moment when the federal government has stepped back, and states, national industry associations, and large employers are taking the lead? What are the options available to employees who fear returning to work? How do employers fairly and legally deal with employees who they fear have increased health risks from coronavirus exposure? How can employers ethically and legally deploy technology and policies designed to enforce physical distancing and decrease density in the workplace, without treading on workers’ rights and privacy?

Dr. Nicole Bouvier, an Associate Professor and virologist at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, will speak to the mechanisms at play in transmission of COVID-19, and what can be done in the workplace to protect workers in light of this. Dr. Bouvier has examined and called for more research on the role of aerosolized droplets in spreading COVID-19 between individuals during normal speech.

Two labor policy experts will speak to the correct response on the part of the government and employers in light of this, as well as how individual employees can advocate for their own rights amidst the pandemic.

Jessica Martinez, Co-Executive Director of the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, was involved with drafting that organization’s May 2020 white paper, “A Safe and Just Return to Work,” in which the organization argues for effective and stringent health and safety precautions, a planned, detailed and meaningful system of screening, testing, contact tracing, and isolation, job protection for those unable to work, and an opportunity for meaningful worker involvement in planning for safety in the workplace.

Sharon Block, the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, has recently co-authored a report on Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response. In the report, she offers a similar set of recommendations to empower workers so that they are better positioned to cope with COVID-19, and advocates for state and local lawmakers to step in to protect workers in the absence of federal action.

The Return to Work Coronavirus Conversation will take place on Thursday, July 9 at 2:30 pm. Members of the public are encouraged to register and submit questions for the panelist at the Conversation’s event page. A recording of the event will be made available afterwards for those unable to attend at that time.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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