COVID-19 Blog Series

People Are Not Machines: An Interview with Terri Gerstein

By: Nadia Abed & Melissa Berouty 

3Ls at Syracuse University College of Law

Terri Gerstein is the Director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program and a Senior Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. She recently completed an Open Society Foundations Leadership in Government Fellowship. Previously, she was the Labor Bureau Chief in the New York State Attorney General’s Office and a Deputy Commissioner in the New York State Department of Labor.

Prior to her government service, Terri worked at nonprofit organizations in Miami, representing immigrant workers and domestic violence survivors, and co-hosting a Spanish-language radio show on workers’ rights. She was a law clerk to the Honorable Mary Johnson Lowe in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and she is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Her writing on workers’ rights issues has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC News Think, Slate, the Guardian, Morning Consult, the American Prospect, the Hill, the Nation, and the Daily News, among others.  

Email address:; Twitter handle: @TerriGerstein  

Did you always have an interest in worker’s rights?

GERSTEIN: In law school, I knew I wanted to go the public interest route. I spent a year between undergrad and law school in Mexico. This experience led me to want to work with the immigrant community. I also spent a summer interning at a worker’s center on Long Island that worked with immigrants, mainly from El Salvador. This is really what drove me to pursue a career in worker’s rights. After I graduated law school, I got a fellowship and worked for a few years in Miami at nonprofits. I always knew I wanted to use my legal training to achieve social justice in some way. It wasn’t until halfway through law school that I landed on the particular area of workers’ rights.

Later in my career, I began working in government for the New York State Attorney General’s Office in the Labor Bureau. Honestly, when I went to law school, I did not see myself doing government work. I thought I would be a legal services or nonprofit lawyer. However, I ended up working at the Attorney General’s office during an administration that was aggressive in ensuring worker’s rights.

Can you elaborate more on your time working at the Attorney General’s Office?

GERSTEIN: I loved the teamwork aspect of government work. Government work differs from academia and nonprofit work in that when you’re working for the government, you don’t get any credit. The elected person above you gets the credit for everyone’s work. Additionally, you do not have to fundraise, as it’s public work and paid for out of the public budget. This structure—no fundraising and nobody gets credit—encourages collegiality, teamwork, and a focus on the greater mission.

In my opinion, people who are self-promotional in nature would not do well in government work. (This may not be universally true, but it’s been my experience. I have been lucky to work in really great administrations.)

One benefit to government work, if you’re advocating for disempowered people, is that at the end of the day, people call you back when you are calling from the Attorney General’s office. Thus, you have the ability to really bring the power of the government’s office to bear on the problems that working people and those who often do not have power are facing. And you have the ability to address structural problems instead of being limited to individual cases.

What has the pandemic revealed to you about worker’s rights in the United States?

GERSTEIN: Honestly, it has not revealed much to me. I was already aware of the lack of power that workers have, the impunity that too many employers operate with, the disparity of power between employers and workers, the precarity of so many jobs, and the lack of protection from retaliation. I was already very aware of all of these pressing issues. 

But it’s a situation where I would get absolutely no pleasure from saying “I told you so.” We knew these were problems. We knew that workers were disempowered. We knew that there were not enough enforcement resources for workers.

One thing that has been new for me is the focus on workplace safety and health. I always worked at a state level in New York, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) has primary authority for enforcement of health and safety in the private sector. At the state level, we didn’t really have as much expertise in this area. Five years ago, we talked about wage theft, worker misclassification, or a whole host of other issues, but not as much about workplace health and safety. I think that this issue has really skyrocketed to the forefront of everyone’s attention because of the current health crisis.

With this, something that has horrified me is the extent to which companies are so cavalier about people’s health and safety. Frankly, I do not know how some of these corporate decisionmakers sleep at night. People are not machines. People are not things. People are unique and irreplaceable. Even if you do not know them, their families love them and they are human beings. The idea that some of these companies have been so utterly cavalier and callous about this – still leaves me speechless. I knew it was bad, but I did think there was a little bit more respect for basic human life.

Do employers have a general duty to ensure workplace safety? With this, do employers have a duty to protect their employers from contracting COVID-19?

GERSTEIN: OSHA has a general duty clause. This entails a duty to provide a workplace that is free from known hazards that could cause fatality or serious injury. In addition to that, there are standards. A standard is a rule that is passed by OSHA that relates to a particular workplace hazard. For example, this could include fall protection or the handling of a particular chemical.

Under the general duty clause, employers have an obligation to provide a workplace where people are not going to be exposed to a foreseeable risk of COVID-19.

In terms of a specific standard, there has been real pressure on OSHA to pass an emergency COVID-19 specific standard. The AFL-CIO filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against OSHA trying to force them to do it. The state of VA passed a standard filling in that gap from the federal government. Additionally, Oregon published a draft emergency standard. [NOTE: in the time since our interview, California also announced its intention to enact a COVID-specific workplace safety standard.]

OSHA has issued substantial amounts of guidance to employers. However, the guidance uses language like “employers should strive to” and “if feasible.” The language used is not really anything that is enforceable, but rather just advice.

There was a recent report by US Department of Labor Inspector General about OSHA’s insufficient handling of whistleblower complaints. In response, OSHA said that it had processed 50% of the COVID-19 related complaints. This means that half of the complaints of individuals who have been fired after complaining of work safety and health have not even been addressed yet. 

A number of states and localities have really stepped up to the plate and have been taking action: issuing Executive Orders, passing laws, and taking enforcement actions to protect workers. Some have been very serious and aggressive about trying to fill the void left by OSHA’s inaction.

Do workers have any rights or protections if they need to stay home because of COVID-19 related circumstances?

GERSTEIN: The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act does offer some paid sick leave and paid family leave. In addition to this, unemployment insurance is administered through the state and each state passes its own set of rules. There are some states that have been flexible in their unemployment rules, in terms of permitting people to get unemployment for a variety of reasons, including COVID-related. However, some states have not been as liberal in this way.

Additionally, there are some states and localities that have paid sick leave laws in place. The new federal law offers some protection, but it exempts far too many people. For example, it exempts employers with over 500 employees. Again, some states and cities have filled in this gap while others have not. So the answer to this question goes back to the typical law school answer, “it depends.” Here, it really depends on what city and state you live in and the size of your employer.

Following up on our previous question, do you believe that these protections are adequate?

GERSTEIN: No, not at all. People need to have comprehensive paid sick days and paid family leave. Even before the pandemic, we were so far behind every industrialized country in this area. There was already a large gap before COVID-19 and now the consequences are very clear to ordinary people in a way that they previously had not been.

In terms of enforcement, the resources are very inadequate and have been for some time. The resources have also atrophied. The Trump administration has not filled many OSHA positions because of attrition. The agency has existed for over 50 years. I believe that the staffing level is at its lowest since its inception.

Additionally, there have been several issues with the unemployment system. Aside from the policy question of what it covers, there are serious administrative issues with the unemployment system. These systems are not set up to assist the millions of individuals that are now applying as a result of the pandemic. They were set up to handle a fraction of that. Again, states have a real opportunity to improve access to unemployment, in addition to paid leave.

Recently, we have seen stories of workers in the gig economy being impacted by the pandemic. You spoke of the OSHA general duty to offer a safe work environment. Does this same standard apply to independent contractors?

GERSTEIN: This is one of the major problems with the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. All of our workplace laws cover employees and not independent contractors. This applies to everything from minimum wage laws to workers’ compensation laws. Paid leave and safe workplace guarantees are issues that have been very salient during the pandemic.

A company that has employees has a duty to provide a safe workplace. But this doesn’t apply for independent contractors. Some of these gig economy companies have made a big show saying “we gave masks to our drivers/shoppers.” Setting aside the fact these companies have given workers one or two flimsy masks…if they were employees, it would be a legal obligation to provide protective equipment and a safe workplace. This would not be considered an act of generosity or benevolence. Similarly, with paid sick days, it would be a right under the law. The fact that misclassified workers do not have these protections was a problem before the pandemic, but again the problem is more stark now. It’s very important for government at both the state and federal level to crack down on the illegal treatment of workers as independent contractors when they should be employees with all of the related protections.

 Is there any particular group of workers that you feel are most at risk for poor working conditions during the pandemic?

GERSTEIN: There is a lot of vulnerability in the health care sector, like workers in hospitals and workers in nursing homes. Additionally, workers in various parts of the food chains like farmworkers, meatpacking, and warehouse workers have all been at a very high risk. Immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable for a variety of reasons. Additionally, undocumented workers are even more at risk given a fear of deportation.

The health risks are also borne by workers who deal with the public a lot. In the early stages of the pandemic, there were a lot of transit workers who were impacted. Obviously, the spread of COVID-19 in the prison system is a huge criminal justice issue, but also the working conditions of correction officers creates a workplace issue as well.

Also, the concern arises as schools at every level have begun to reopen. This has created a big area of concern for teachers, teachers’ unions, and students. I have a sister who is a seventh-grade public school teacher. Honestly, I worry about her.

What do you think the most pressing issue in worker’s rights is right now?

GERSTEIN: There are both short-term and long-term ways to answer this question. Short term, OSHA should issue a temporary emergency standard. If OSHA does not do this, states should do so. OSHA should start aggressively enforcing the law and publicizing it. If OSHA does not do this, states should do everything they can. OSHA should also staff up.

At the end of the day, keeping people safe is important because they are human beings. It is also important if you want to reopen the economy. Unless this gets dealt with in a serious way, COVID-19 spreading through workplaces does not help with reopening in a lasting manner.

Longer-term, there needs to be a recalibration of the balance of power between workers and employers. It needs to be easier for workers to organize into unions. We also need to address corporate concentration and monopsony. The extreme power of corporations is to the detriment of worker power and leaves workers in a difficult position.

Short term, we need to focus on workplace safety in a very intense and concentrated way. Long term, changing the power dynamic is what needs to happen.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Two Major Outbreaks Facing Latin America: Dengue and COVID-19

By: Ann Ciancia

3L at Syracuse University College of Law

During this summer I was a writer for the Borgen Project, a non-profit organization that helps fight global poverty. I was able to research different countries that were and are currently affected by poverty. It has been interesting to learn about how COVID-19 has had such a drastic impact on impoverished communities and fascinating to learn about the unique ways different countries handle healthcare, education, working, and much more throughout the pandemic.

The people of Latin America currently face two major epidemics at once. Dengue and COVID-19 in Latin America have killed thousands and continue to impact citizens. Although dengue is not extremely fatal, the combination of a coronavirus diagnosis can lead to serious complications. The clash of these two epidemics have created hardships for each country and brought governmental attention to healthcare and climate change.

Dengue in Latin America

Dengue, or breakbone fever, only affected nine countries in 1970, but currently, more than 100 countries are affected by this tropical disease. Dengue is a vector-borne disease, similar to malaria or yellow fever; where the saliva from a female mosquito transmits this disease to a human. An individual diagnosed with dengue experiences high fever, joint pain, severe headaches, and vomiting.

In 2019, more than 1,300 Latin Americans died from dengue disease, with more than 3.1 million confirmed cases, which was a record high. Major outbreaks of dengue in Latin America have increased and expanded into new mountainous regions. Scientists believe climate change is a major factor since non-tropical areas are being affected. Climate change has major consequences from increased rainfall and flooding that lead to changes in mosquitoes’ reproduction habits. The ecosystem has gradually declined in high altitude regions due to climate change, which led to an increase in dengue outbreaks.

While COVID-19 currently impacts Latin America, severe dengue outbreaks are currently impacting Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Bolivia has witnessed a severe dengue outbreak, where there were 7,000 new cases in March 2020 alone. The Andes Mountain Range is located within Bolivia, where three years ago, mosquitos were unheard of, due to a very high altitude. This epidemic increased due to changing weather conditions, where there has been a major increase in heavy rainfall. The local government in Bolivia declared the dengue epidemic to be a national emergency. 

COVID-19 in Latin America

During the beginning of the global pandemic, Latin America took a back seat and watched as the rest of the world suffered from the coronavirus. Currently, Latin America is becoming the new epicenter of the outbreak. There are more than 920,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and about 50,000 deaths across the 33 countries of Latin America. Currently, Latin America is positioned in the world’s only region where the outbreak continues to spread drastically.

Latin America’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was in February 2020. The first death was recorded in March 2020 but the region maintained control for months. The numbers began to surge in May and many countries were without proper testing kits, protective wear, and basic health supplies to help stop the spread.

Response to Two Epidemics: Dengue and COVID-19

In 2019, the World Health Organization identified dengue as one of the top ten global health threats, where more than 40 percent of the global population is at risk. The Red Cross is working with countries affected by the dengue outbreak to help local communities manage with the current and potential future outbreaks. The Red Cross, along with local health organizations, work to identify the source of the outbreak and what hygiene measures should be implemented in order to reduce a further spread.

SC Johnson donated 125,000 insect repellant and insecticide products to families in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The company wants to help individuals protect their self from mosquitos. SC Johnson also helped to educate at-risk families on how to use mosquito repellant. Since the beginning of the program initiative in 2016, SC Johnson helped more than 900,000 families in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Currently, the World Bank disperses around $2 billion to Latin American and Caribbean countries in response to COVID-19. These funds will help increase health systems and disease observation, reduce losing patients from this disease, and lower the pandemic’s economic impact. In Bolivia, the Emergency Safety Nets for the Covid-19 Crisis aims to decrease economical consequences from the overpopulated health care system from coronavirus.

Dengue and COVID-19 in Latin America have impacted many lives. The clash of these two epidemics created hardships for countries in Latin America. Countries have utilized insect repellants to protect against the spread of dengue fever and took precautionary measures through stay-at-home orders and wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

For further information, please see:

Reliefweb – Community action against Dengue – 7 Jan. 2020

Aljazeera – ‘Dengue kills too’: Latin America faces two epidemics at once – 12 May 2020

The New Humanitarian – Is Global Warming Driving the Spread of Dengue Across Latin America? – 27 Apr. 2020

CSRwire – SC Johnson Donates Mosquito Repellents to Help At-Risk Families in Latin America – 7 May 2020

CNN – The World’s new Covid-19 epicenter could be the worst yet – 30 May 2020

The World Bank – World Bank’s Response to Covid-19 (Coronavirus) In Latin America & Caribbean – 2 Apr. 2020 

Finding Normalcy

By: Katherine Davis

2L at Syracuse University College of Law

Coming into my 1L year, I was advised to keep a routine schedule. This was to ensure that I stayed on top of my readings, didn’t become overwhelmed, and to generally stay organized. Quickly, I found my routine.

Wake up. Shower, brush hair and teeth, throw on clothes. Breakfast, followed by a quick drive to Dineen Hall. Class after class, studying and a lunch break stuffed in between. A few meetings, and then back home to dinner, more studying, and sleep. Wake up, repeat. 

I learned quickly to adjust my schedule to accommodate social events and some unexpected changes, like a shift in exam dates. I never thought I would have to adapt my entire schedule, my entire lifestyle. Then, COVID-19 arrived in New York. 

“Thursday, March 12 and Friday, March 13: All College of Law Classes Online; Dineen Hall Open” the beginning of the email read. I could handle online classes for the last two days before Spring Break. The rest of the email indicated that online classes would continue through March 30. An extended Spring Break, or so I thought. 

March 30 came and went, and the College of Law remained online. The entire world seemed to shut down overnight, and in New York, it did. A mandatory quarantine, no stores or restaurants open, no social gatherings, no return to campus. Nothing was normal. 

Wake up. Snooze. Wake up, roll over, open my laptop. Login, mute camera and microphone. Slowly zone out as the voice of the Professor drones on and on. Join the next lecture, struggle with my internet connection, give up as I realize I can go back and watch a recording of class later that day. Lunch, minimal studying since learning my exams would be open book. Video games, too much Netflix, asleep by 2 AM. Wake up, repeat. 

After months, I finally see my friends again, albeit six feet apart and hidden behind masks. It was nice getting out, away from the couch. I quickly learned that I was not the only one struggling with finding a routine and general motivation. That, many of my friends, were concerned with the beginning of the Fall semester and the online classes we would all struggle with without motivation. They all just wanted things to go back to normal. I don’t think it ever will. This has become our new normal.

Normal is wearing a mask everywhere you go. Normal is virtual classrooms, review sessions, and happy hours. Normal is constant emails from the university, reminding you that you can go nowhere, see no one, and do nothing that could risk exposing yourself or others. Normal is hand sanitizer. A lot of it.

With classes now returning, mostly online, I must find a new routine, new motivation, a new normal. Normal will become the routine I choose to follow. 

The Pursuit of Happiness

By: Bianca Rector 

2L at Southwestern Law School

When COVID-19 caused my law school campus to shut its doors, I did not grasp, or perhaps, fully absorb, the effects the burgeoning pandemic would have on myself, my classmates, and the others around me. As a 1L months away from completing my first year of law school, I had long ago bid farewell to my once active social life, along with any opportunity to exercise some spontaneity. The challenges of law school in addition to the trepidation of exams had already compelled me to adopt a somewhat “reclusive” lifestyle, one that mirrored much of the characteristics of mandatory quarantine procedures. This is not to say that implications and uneasiness surrounding such an unprecedented spread of illness had no impact on my psyche and personal circumstances. I missed my friends and the camaraderie we shared in working through our first year of law school and the preferred learning experience of in-person education. I also worried about my mother and brother, both of whom have been sent to the hospital over a more routine virus due to being diabetics. However, with every classmate, school, and person in general being thrust into the same exceptional crisis, I found it more constructive to “ride out the theoretical storm” and use my time at home to focus on my coursework rather than dwell on what I could not change.

That being said, by the time 1L exams were coming to an end, it was becoming increasingly clear that the spread of COVID-19, was not. Summer courses were predictably held over Zoom and the externship I had secured at a firm in Downtown Los Angeles was made remote. I was incredibly grateful to still have an externship opportunity, considering many institutions had since rescinded their offers to other students. I assumed any remote work I received from the firm, on top of the Legal Professions class I had registered for, would continue to keep me engaged until some sense of normalcy had returned to the world. Maybe I was being naïve or was simply hoping for the best in a situation that had made reliable predictions an impossibility. However, even my well-laid-out plans could not combat the mental hardships that accompanied prolonged isolation and a future rife with uncertainty. Perhaps my, and many others’ position, is best voiced by the Atlanta hip-hop duo, Outkast, who prophetically crooned that “you can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.”

Summer, a single class, and restricted courtroom activity offered more free time, but quarantine guidelines limited any activities or outlets to devote this time to. However, motivation had made itself scarce, despite my best efforts to stay focused on course work, externship assignments, and be productive in my downtime. While I spent much of my 1L year longing for more “me-time,” when this wish ultimately came to be, it instead resulted in increased alcohol consumption and mindless scrolling of social media. It became obvious to me “something had to give” to combat my worsening mental health and to ensure this decline in my productivity would not carry over into my 2L year.

Change started slowly, and somewhat painstakingly, with devoting a period of time out of my day to explore hobbies that made me feel personally fulfilled. Friends both inside and outside of law school assisted in inspiring me to tackle pursuits I no longer felt I had the bandwidth to accomplish. To name a few, Jacob, my partner in school-run negotiation competitions, spoke with me about his experimentation with sourdough bread, while one of my cousins dedicated her extra time to cultivating and selling succulent plants. For me, hobbies consisted of rekindling my passion for a small side-business I conducted prior to law school, which consisted of baking and intricately decorated sugar cookies. Additionally, I also developed an interest in jewelry making. It may sound comical, but something as simple as organizing the beads by color and type has done more to quell my anxiety than any prescription pill or breathing technique. I further discovered over time, that committing more of myself to personal pursuits not only improved my mental health but served to revive my enthusiasm for advancing my legal education. In the end, establishing a healthy balance between both individual and scholarly pursuits during the whirlwind of the COVID-19 pandemic was the most effective therapy for the uncertainty that has blanketed almost every level of our society.

I am not a mental health professional, and the sharing of my individual experience is not to claim that a hobby or personal pursuit will remedy every student’s academic and psychological woes that have resulted from quarantine. Nevertheless, I strongly encourage fellow law students to put their textbooks, commercial outlines, and law review writing aside, even if just for a moment, to find an outlet that they find personally satisfying. No one knows when the world we were familiar with prior to quarantine will return, but it would serve all of us well to attempt to find ways to be our best selves amongst the chaos.

A New Normal: An Interview With Judge Stewart Aaron

By: Chandler Jacobs

3L at Syracuse University College of Law

Westchester, NY, it’s 7’o clock in the morning and Southern District of New York Magistrate Judge Aaron has begun his daily 2-hour commute to the Courthouse. Just a few months ago, this was Judge Aaron’s normal daily routine. Now, in the current state of the pandemic, the Judge is adjusting to his new normal. Sitting in his home office, I had the chance to interview Syracuse Law alum Judge Stewart Aaron who explains how he has been personally impacted by COVID-19, his thoughts on how this will affect the future of court proceedings, and the legal field as a whole.

Judge Aaron is a Magistrate Judge, so the majority of his work is pretrial conferences and settlement conferences, which is generally done in-person. The new normal is now conducting these conferences either via Zoom or by phone as the Judge has not done face to face court proceedings since Mid-March. The Judge explained that although he prefers face-to-face, he soon came to realize that a lot of what he was doing could be done over the phone. Further, the Judge added that the future of civil court proceedings might not be necessary and would help avoid complex issues and scheduling. Getting rid of in-person civil proceedings that do not require juries would save clients’ money and alleviate lawyers of traveling costs. This would be a step towards the new normal for courthouse proceedings. The Judge did explain that there could be issues with this. However, this issue could be eliminated if both the parties in a bench trial consented to remote proceedings. With the exception of jury trials, remote proceedings are possible and would be a better way to save people time and money.  

The Judge believes that this will affect the entire legal field and it will be unnecessary for lawyers to be in court as much as they were pre-pandemic. Therefore, geographically speaking, there will be an incentive to appear from home, ultimately saving rent for law firms and money for lawyers. Although in-person settlement conferences are ideal and preferable, as it is easier to pick up on non-verbal cues and to read the parties’ strengths/weaknesses, Judge Aaron says he is adjusting well this new normal. He believes that the future of settlement conferences will be remote because it saves time and money, but the downfall of remote courthouse proceedings is the loss of human interaction, which Judge Aaron explained he misses the most.

When asked about how the pandemic has affected his life, Judge Aaron said that the “largest effect on [his] life is that the pandemic has given [him] more time, [to catch up on work].” “In addition to having more time for work, [he] also ha[s] more time [to] exercise and relax.” When the Judge is not — well being a Judge, he enjoys cooking, mastering different variations of rice and beans, which he calls a “nutritious and healthy dietary option.” He also loves to read and has been “binge-watching some TV series, such as Dead to Me and House.”

In the final moments of our interview, I asked him whether he had any advice for law students who are still seeking employment. His advice should resonate with all law students who are currently concerned about future employment.

My advice is to be patient, but also to network as much as possible. You never know where your first job will come from. You should put yourself out in the legal and greater community so that you can learn of opportunities that you may no[t] even have thought about.