Summary List Placement
A year ago, the pandemic thrust a public health crisis and widespread layoffs onto an American working class already burdened by decades of rising economic inequality and eroding protections on the job.
Months later, George Floyd’s murder forced the country to once again reckon with its extensive racial disparities, which pervade American workplaces as well.
News reports, social media, and protests exposed the precarity of frontline workers’ situations, as some companies skimped on sick pay, failed to secure PPE, fired whistleblowers, laid off workers to avoid hazard pay laws, and pushed workers harder to prop up declining sales or meet surging demand.
Executives laid off “essential” workers even as their companies profited. Forty-five of the 50 largest public firms turned profits in 2020, which they steered mostly to executives and shareholders, The Washington Post reported, while many took taxpayer money meant to keep Americans employed.
Americans have grown increasingly critical of the power executives and shareholders wield over rank-and-file workers, a shift accelerated by the pandemic. At 65%, Americans’ approval of labor unions hasn’t been higher since 2003, according to Gallup; 62% support a $15 federal minimum wage, according to Pew.
But whether workers ultimately secure better pay, working conditions, and a voice at work depends on thousands of government officials not named Joe Biden, spread across dozens of federal, state, and local government agencies, legislative bodies, and courts.
Insider identified 80 officials poised to redefine American workplaces, with the goal of shedding light on this sprawling bureaucracy.
We’ve sorted them into four categories:
- Lawmakers writing laws and holding employers accountable through congressional hearings.
- Advisors influencing Biden’s policies and priorities.
- Regulators implementing and enforcing those laws and policies.
- Judges resolving disputes about them.
Did we miss anyone? Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With Democrats narrowly controlling Congress, progressives have been able to advance more pro-labor legislation, like proposals to tax “excessive” CEO pay, empower “gig” workers to unionize, and bolster the social safety net.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are familiar names. Others prioritizing labor issues include Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) — who introduced the PRO Act — and labor caucus co-chair Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), who blasted Amazon over its workers peeing in bottles.
But Republicans’ solidly pro-business voting record means many bills will need support from moderate Senate Democrats, specifically: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), and Mark Warner (D-VA).
State and local lawmakers tackling labor issues in their own backyards include AB-5 author and California Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, and New York state senator and labor committee chair Jessica Ramos, who secured $2.1 billion for 500,000 workers excluded from other pandemic relief.
While regulators and lawmakers both play key roles in shaping policy, Insider distinguished officials specifically appointed to advise Biden and his cabinet — those who will help guide the administration’s overall philosophy on labor issues.
Notably, Biden appointed three left-leaning labor economists to his Council of Economic Advisors: Cecilia Rouse, a former Princeton University dean and the first Black official to lead the group, and progressive think tank veterans Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein. Their appointments signal a major departure from Obama-era policy wonks like Larry Summers.
Biden also appointed former Obama official Seth Harris as a top labor and economics policy advisor. Harris has received criticism from some labor groups for his work at a corporate law firm and past arguments opposing employee status for gig workers, but also has support from several major unions.
Regulators charged with enforcing labor laws are particularly important, as their decisions often have immediate and direct consequences for workers.
David Weil, Biden’s reported nominee to lead the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces minimum wage and overtime pay laws and would play a key role in regulating “gig” companies. That could be good news for rideshare drivers, as Weil has long accused Uber and Lyft of relying on cheap contract labor and argued for expanding employment protections to gig workers.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has also said he believes most gig workers should be classified as employees.
Biden’s nominee to the Federal Trade Commission, Columbia University law professor Lina Khan, has pushed for more aggressive antitrust enforcement and breaking up tech companies. Curbing anticompetitive practices by employers could benefit workers as companies are forced to compete harder for their labor.
State and local attorneys general, district attorneys, and labor departments have also become active in enforcing labor laws, particularly during the Trump era. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is cracking down on employers’ violations of wage theft laws, which could be costing the state’s workers $12 million per year, while Steven Marchese, the director of Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards, has already secured $470,000 from companies to settle claims they violated the city’s pandemic sick pay law.
According to Harvard University’s Terri Gerstein, since 2015, seven state attorneys general offices have spun up teams dedicated to protecting worker rights: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Similar efforts already exist in California, Massachusetts, and New York. These efforts could also lead to more multistate collaboration, which gives regulators more leverage against corporations who can spend big to fight litigation.
When workers or regulators believe an employer has violated labor law, they turn to the courts to resolve disputes (though some employers try to force workers into arbitration systems that skew pro-business).
Contentious cases are sometimes escalated to a federal appellate court, which can issue rulings that set precedents for other courts within its jurisdiction. This ripple effect makes the District of Columbia Circuit and 9th Circuit appellate courts particularly relevant.
The DC Circuit — which consists of six judges appointed by Democrats, four appointed by Republicans, and one nominated by Biden who’s awaiting Senate confirmation — gets the final word on cases involving many federal agency decisions and aspects of labor law, giving its judges outsize influence. The 9th Circuit — also with a majority of judges appointed by Democrats — includes California, so it sees many cases involving tech companies, which have increasingly become targets of labor and antitrust lawsuits.
A tiny fraction of cases make it to the Supreme Court, where the Trump-appointed Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett are worth watching — if only because they haven’t been there long enough to solidify their track record on labor cases (though both Kavanaugh and Barrett previously leaned pro-business).