UCLA Labor Center

Workers as Health Monitors

Publish date: July 21, 2020

 

LOS ANGELES An innovative LA County proposal to recruit frontline workers in monitoring and protecting against COVID-19 in the workplace would reduce transmission and help speed LA’s economic recovery, according to a new report by researchers at the UC Berkeley and UCLA Labor Centers. The report found that the benefits of such a proposal would come at a minimal cost compared to the potential gain to public health and the economy.

“Workplaces are a major driver of the spread of COVID-19,” says Jennifer Ray, graduate student researcher at the UCLA Labor Center and co-author of the report. “Data confirms that work-related transmission plays a substantial role in the spread of the coronavirus. We see this in Los Angeles, where outbreaks among essential workers at major companies like meatpacking in Vernon, grocery distribution and sale in Compton and Hollywood, and garment manufacturing in South LA have resulted in community spread–particularly in communities of color.” Latinx and Black workers comprise the great majority of essential occupations, Ray noted, a driver of their disproportionate contraction rates. Latinx Angelenos comprise 46% of the County’s COVID-19 deaths are twice as likely to contract the virus as their white counterparts throughout LA.

The Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on a motion by Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas titled “Expanding the Monitoring of Compliance with County Health Officer Orders in the Workplace to Slow COVID-19 Transmission.” That motion proposes public health councils at each workplace in the County composed of frontline workers, who will partner with management to identify barriers to compliance with County Health Orders and report non-compliance to the Department of Public Health. To convene, train, and assist public health councils, the Department will designate organizations with expertise in worker outreach and education in each industry and geographic area.

“Research shows that when workers are empowered to speak up it leads to safer conditions on the job,” said Ken Jacobs, Director of the UC Berkeley Labor Center and co-author of the report. “Workers have deep knowledge of the workplace and are best positioned to identify threats to themselves and the public, as well as solutions. Frontline workers are less likely to speak up if they fear retaliation or don’t believe they will be listened to.”

The brief details the economic losses caused by COVID-19 in LA County, and the gains promised by better compliance and growing consumer confidence that participation in the economy is safe. “Workers are afraid to go to work if they don’t have control over their risk of contraction, and the public is afraid to shop, dine out, or travel if they believe noncompliance is widespread,” said Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the UCLA Labor Center and co-author of the report. “Nearly every industry reports dramatic reductions in year-over-year employment or sales–restaurants reported an 85% decline in bookings, key retail sectors are down more than 50% in sales, and hotels have laid off 240,000 and are at a fraction of last year’s occupancy.” Nearly one-third of Angelenos applied for unemployment since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Koonse noted that the County’s COVID-related healthcare tab has ballooned to an estimated $617 million, fully one-quarter of the state’s overall medical costs.

“Consumer confidence is key to jump starting the economy, and consumers will only trust that it’s safe if they know workplaces are complying with health orders,” Jacobs concluded.

Koonse estimates the costs to firms at 0.1% of operating costs–roughly one and a half hours a week–for those workers who comprise the council for public health related activities–as well as costs of a staffer at the Department of Public Health and funding for outreach and training. “Worker public health councils would provide an important tool to protect public health in essential services as we reopen the economy. The benefits to businesses, public health and the economy would far outweigh the small cost of implementation,” she said.