It's been called the Great Resignation. Record numbers of U.S. workers have left jobs for other employment since COVID-19 lockdowns eased.
Some pundits have cast the trend as a revolution, of sorts, by workers escaping unsatisfying situations.
But workers' rights advocates say it's not that easy. In too many cases, they say, workers are leaving one bad workplace only to land in another.
“There are other ways to get the job you want, and that is to fix the job you have,” said Gregor Koso, an adjunct instructor for Indiana University's labor studies department.
Koso is among those planning to attend a workers' rights meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The event, titled “Make Your Job Work for You,” will be at the Allen County Public Library downtown.
Tom Lewandowski, director of The Workers' Project, a local nonprofit that focuses on empowering employees, said all workers are welcome. He wants to hear what issues they're struggling with and share guidance from officials with the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, who are scheduled to attend.
Lewandowski filled his pandemic lockdown days with Zoom conversations with national and global labor law experts. Those conversations led to this week's event, which is intended to be the first of a series of meetings on issues affecting workers.
“They have more rights than they know, and those rights are all around them if they just start talking to the people they work with,” Lewandowski said of local workers. “And the federal government is there to protect those rights in ways I've never seen in my lifetime.”
“It says something,” he said about the NLRB's participation in the event. “There's been a sea change inside these agencies.”
Calling in the feds
Patricia Nachand, regional director of the NLRB's Region 25, will be among the presenters Wednesday. She is based in Indianapolis for the region that serves all of Indiana and parts of Illinois, Iowa and Kentucky.
“I'm quite excited to be involved, and it will be an excellent opportunity for workers to learn what rights they have in the workplace,” she said of the Fort Wayne gathering.
Many people don't realize they are legally protected if they discuss wages, working conditions and other issues with co-workers, she said.
Typical complaints her office hears include changes in shifts, benefits, hours and working conditions without employee input, Nachand said.
Lewandowski said a restaurant worker who is scheduled to close one night and open the next morning, for example, would rightly have reason to complain about scheduling.
Workers who need the NLRB the most are often those from other countries, Nachand said. Some employers take advantage of those who don't have official papers, she said, adding that the NLRB advocates for workers regardless of their immigration status.
Nachand said it's “unfortunately” true that people are leery of any encounter with a federal government official because they fear the worst.
“We really are here to help,” she said.
Jane Porter Gresham, who has advocated for local workers' rights for about 40 years, said she's excited to meet Nachand. Porter Gresham has never before heard an NLRB director speak in person.
“You're getting it right from the horse's mouth,” she said of getting expert advice on handling workplace issues.
Among the local workers' groups planning to participate in the event are those representing Burmese, Hispanic and high school-aged workers. Another participating group is made up of long-haul COVID-19 sufferers.
Koso's teenage daughter has surveyed more than 200 classmates on their working conditions in South Bend, where the family lives. She is deeply involved in the High School Workers' Initiative. Lewandowski's daughter is among the members of the long-COVID group.
Tim Clark is a retired journalist and market researcher based in Silicon Valley and former executive director of the Myanmar Foundation for Analytic Education. He has worked extensively with Burmese refugees trying to navigate American workplace rules.
“Today many workers feel powerless, yet they actually have more power than they know,” he said through email.
This week's event, Clark said, will be “focused on the concept of concerted activity, which means that workers who act together – even if it's only two of them – gain a status that makes them harder to fire when workers speak up on workplace issues. They don't have to be in a union, they just have to act together.”
Nachand's participation is “a strong signal that it will back workers who exercise their concerted activity rights, even if they're not in a union,” Clark said.
Organizers of the hearing will present four Fort Wayne case studies of how concerted activity has empowered local workers, Clark said.
Porter Gresham, a retired union officer who worked for the state of Indiana in Allen County, said workers aren't the only ones who gain from improved working conditions. The most important people in their lives also benefit.
“How am I serving my family if I come home stressed?” she asked. “Or if I'm not home when they need me?”
If you go
What: “Make Your Job Work for You,” a workers' rights event
Who: The Workers' Project, the National Labor Relations Board, the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, and numerous initiatives representing specific workers, including Hispanic, Burmese, high school and long-haul COVID-19
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Allen County Public Library downtown, 900 Library Plaza, theater, lower level 2
Admission: Free and open to the public; with free food and soft drinks
For more information: Email the Workers' Project at firstname.lastname@example.org