Workers’ Rights

Pandemic Ethics

Workers' Rights

The current pandemic exposes both the essential value of workers and their vulnerability. Jewish teachings affirm workers’ rights to fair compensation and healthy working conditions. In this time of increased physical danger and economic hardship, what steps can we take to honor the labor and the risks that some workers undertake? With rising unemployment and shrinking economic opportunities, what can we do to uphold the dignity and livelihoods of people who are unemployed and underemployed? What are our ethical obligations to those whom we employ?

Traditional sources

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Current thinking

Covid-19 Is ‘Probably Going to End My Career’

By Theresa Brown — February 25, 2021

Nurses and the nursing profession are in crisis after a year of caring for critically ill and dying COVID-19 patients under dangerous conditions. The obstacles to offering the kind of care that nurses value and patients deserve has led to a sense of moral injury among some nurses and have led some to leave the field altogether.

“People go to the hospital because they need the care of nurses. Without them, there is no care. But nurses are not an infinitely elastic resource; they’re people, many of whom are exhausted, traumatized, barely holding themselves together. It’s time to really see and care for them.”


Jewish Organizations Must Address the Pandemic Parenting Gender Gap

By Rabbi Hara Person and Rabbi Mary Zamore — September 14, 2020

The negative impact of the pandemic is being shouldered disproportionately by women, who take on an outsize amount of parental and emotional labor at home. On top of that, women make up a majority of essential U.S. coronavirus workers. Jewish institutions should recognize and address the needs of women and mothers.

“In order to live out our Jewish value of the equality of all people, gender equity must be a priority and not just a luxury to strive for only when times are good. By implementing these policies, we can ensure that the momentum for gender equity in Jewish institutions is not lost and instead amplified at this time of great need.”


The morals and ethics of the COVID-19 frontline

By Andrea Phelps and Ellie Lawrence-Wood — September 8, 2020

Scholars of posttraumatic mental health Andrea Phelps and Ellie Lawrence-Wood describe moral injury and how it threatens to traumatize healthcare workers confronting COVID-19.

“Moral injury can arise where the person does, or fails to do, something that transgresses their deeply held moral beliefs. It can also arise when a person feels betrayed in a high threat situation, or witnesses others behaving in ways they feel are morally wrong. Healthcare workers are on the frontline of our war with COVID-19, and, like soldiers in war, many will be exposed to traumatic stressors that involve death and threat to life and that could give rise to PTSD.”


A pandemic ethical conundrum: Must health care workers risk their lives to treat Covid-19 patients?

By Alan Kadish and John Loike — July 24, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that health care workers accounted up to 16% of COVID-19 infections. But do health care workers have moral obligations to risk their health during a pandemic? Touro College president Kadish and biology professor Loike argue that health science educational curricula should help students learn how to balance their health risks with the immediate benefits to individual patients.

“While it is important for physicians and other health care workers to explore and come to terms with their moral and legal obligations to care for patients with Covid-19, this will not be our last pandemic. That is why it is essential to incorporate these issues into the medical and health science educational curricula and get students thinking about them early.”


Is It Safe to Keep Employing a Cleaner? Wrong Question, Lady

By Roxane Gay — May 29, 2020

Author Roxane Gay argues that the pandemic has revealed just how pronounced the class fractures in our society are. Many people’s professional and personal lives are possible only because of the house cleaners, assistants, nannies and other domestic workers who do the work we tell ourselves we don’t have time to do.

“During this time of Covid-19, part of treating people with respect and dignity is making sure the individuals who make your lifestyle possible are still being paid, whether they are physically working for you or not. If you could afford domestic support before the pandemic, you can afford it now, if you haven’t lost your income.”


Frontline workers are heroes: We can show our appreciation as we repair our world

By Randi Weingarten – May 4, 2020

Labor leader, attorney and educator Randi Weingarten envisions a post-pandemic future where Jewish values are deployed to protect workers’ rights. For Weingarten, expressions of appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices of frontline workers are important, but not enough—American society must make structural changes to achieve justice and safety for essential workers.  

“As a Jewish community and as a labor movement, we must be at the forefront of fighting for a better planet for all. Everything we do must reflect our values, particularly those that are inherently central to our Jewish tenets of justice and equality. We are the people of the book. Let’s not forfeit our children’s future, let’s fight for it. No more agreeing to the lowest common denominator — it’s time to shout our progressive values and fight to repair the world from which we are emerging.”


On the Ethics of Returning to Work—or Remaining There

By Irina Raicu — May 1, 2020

Irina Raicu is the director of Internet Ethics at Santa Clara University. Her piece addresses what people who have had the privilege of working from home during the pandemic owe to essential workers who have worked outside the safety of their homes throughout this time. Raicu proposes three ethical actions to secure fairness and safety for those who have been working on the frontlines.

“Is it time for most of us to return to our workplaces? Before we do, we need to address what we owe to those who never stopped working—and who didn’t get to work from home.”


Work: Democratize, Decommodify, Remediate

By Isabelle Ferreras, Dominique Méda and Julie Battilana – May 2020

Workers’ rights are not just a matter of interpersonal ethics; they have political implications as well. This petition, signed by thousands of scholars from all over the world, demands a change in the mainstream perception of work and the worker’s role in the society. Working humans are so much more than just “resources.” The people who have kept life going through the COVID-19 pandemic are living proof that work cannot be reduced to a mere commodity.

“Let us fool ourselves no longer: left to their own devices, most capital investors will not care for the dignity of labor investors; nor will they lead the fight against environmental catastrophe. Another option is available. Democratize firms; decommodify work; stop treating human beings as resources so that we can focus together on sustaining life on this planet.”

The Reconstructionist Network