As we continue our 20th Anniversary look-back on NWJP’s unique contributions to the fight for workers’ rights, we want to highlight a critical area of focus: worker health and safety. Workplace fatalities and serious injuries are on the rise again, with Latine and Black workers suffering from the highest fatality rates. At the same time, employers are moving away from full-time employment, instead relying on so-called independent contractors, temporary workers and day laborers. These workers are often not covered by protections like workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and paid sick leave, yet they are regularly doing the most dangerous jobs.
Seeing these trends, we launched a new focus on workplace health and safety and workers’ compensation in 2016. The next year, we conducted a research project with Northeastern University School of Law to study barriers to immigrant, non-English speaking and Latine workers to workers’ comp and health and safety protections.
Based on the results of that study, along with our years of anecdotal evidence, we knew that we needed to take on this fight, so we formally launched Safe Jobs Oregon in 2018. Safe Jobs Oregon (SJO) is a statewide coalition made up of unions, worker groups, researchers and others. It is an affiliate member of the incredible National COSH Network
When Covid hit, Safe Jobs Oregon was the natural leader for the push to have a strong, statewide Covid rule. We started advocating early in the pandemic, and Oregon became one of the first states to have a rule laying out employer responsibilities and worker rights to address the serious, disproportionate Covid risks for frontline workers.
Another area of focus for SJO was worker health risks from heat stress. We met with and wrote to Oregon OSHA asking them to make a statewide heat rule, which they agreed to do in 2020. After a contentious and long rulemaking process in which 75+ groups worked together to demand worker-centered, clear protections, we secured the nation’s strongest heat (and wildfire smoke) protections in 2022, with temporary rules in effect in 2021.
In 2022, we helped pass a law that created a rebuttable presumption of retaliation for safety and health reporting. This means that retaliation is legally assumed when an employee makes a health and safety report and then faces an adverse employment action within 60 days of that report.
Also in 2022, we launched our Healthy Worker Committee, made up of current and past NWJP clients who had been injured at work. The committee trains and empowers workers to become leaders in their workplaces. We have also been leading “Train the Trainer” sessions for committee members and other worker leaders, so that they can help other workers know their rights and how to safely exercise them. Three of these trainees were just selected to take part in a 6-month leadership academy that kicks off in DC in December. NWJP’s new Worker Leadership Coordinator, Nicthé Verdugo, has been leading this important work to help NWJP’s clients step into their power as workers.
Earlier this year, we helped secure several big wins for workers:
A law to reform OSHA penalties for health and safety violations, taking what were the lowest penalties in the nation to the highest;
A bill that makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to require a no-rehire agreement as part of a workers’ compensation settlement agreement; and
Oregon became the first state to enshrine in statute the “right to refuse dangerous work” for all workers. The need for this law became clear through the heat and smoke rulemaking process. Low-road employers don’t follow the law, and workers should be able to say no to a job they reasonably think could seriously injure or kill them.
All of these important victories were possible because we helped build powerful local coalitions. And, Safe Jobs Oregon has made its mark on the national level, as these wins have become models for other states.
Just like with the H2A work we mentioned in our previous message, persistence pays off. Our movements for economic, immigrant and racial justice need the kind of legal support that steadfastly advances the cause of justice, and NWJP has been doing just that for the past twenty years. With your support, we will be part of this fight for another twenty years.
P.S. Kate Suisman, NWJP’s staff member leading our health and safety work, , was recently recognized by National COSH with its Worker Safety Champion Award! COSH is a grassroots network that “builds the power of workers and their organizations to demand jobs that are safe, healthy and free from exploitation and abuse.” They have provided NWJP and SJO with incredible support and resources over the years.