Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
A new app could make it safer and easier for employees to file complaints—and ensure legal action.
Whether it’s physical dangers like standing on ladders or operating heavy machinery, legal violations like wage theft or lack of paid leave, or emotional perils such as harassment, it’s no secret that the workplace is a potentially hazardous environment. And yet even the legal protections put in place to safeguard an employee’s well-being occasionally fall short.
A forthcoming app plans to allow workers to file complaints to the appropriate local authorities. The yet-to-be-named app—which is still in the planning stages—is a collaboration between The Workers Lab, a union-backed accelerator program based in Oakland, and SeeClickFix, a nationwide civic tech company that helps urbanites report non-emergency issues in their neighborhoods.
Although the design is tentative, the two teams have already arrived at a basic concept: Once workers log on to the app, they can select their complaint from a list of request types (e.g. unpaid wages, lack of paid leave, etc.), which may vary based on their local jurisdiction. Workers can also select whether they’d like to report the incident anonymously or provide their personal information. The complaint is then sent off to the Department of Labor or the appropriate worker center (usually a local non-profit organization).
At first glance, the immediate need for an app like this might not be apparent. After all, various legal and structural entities already allow workers to file complaints against unfair or unsafe practices. In many cases, unions offer protection against violations of fair labor laws, particularly for blue-collar and working-class individuals. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Act—which defends the health and safety of U.S. employees—came about in large part due to union cooperation. Union membership, however, is down to just 11.1 percent in the U.S., and recent years have yielded a slew of anti-union legislation.
For other workers—often employees at large companies—human resources departments are the immediate arbiters of legal protection. Unfortunately, not all companies have an HR team, nor are they legally required to have one.
Getting employees to report violations in the first place is also a difficult task. A 2009 report from the National Employment Law Project reveals that 43 percent of low-wage workers surveyed in Chicago, New York, and L.A. experienced illegal retaliation from their employer or supervisor after filing a complaint. Another 20 percent had not made a complaint in the past year for fear of losing their job, having their hours or wages cut, or because they thought that complaining would not resolve the issue.
This latter concern is not without merit. Even if a company or employer does violate fair labor laws, government oversight of workplaces is limited. In many cases, Department of Labor inspections only occur if a complaint is filed. When it comes to the department’s federal wage and hour inspectors, an estimated 1,000 of them are expected to serve the nation’s 9.2 million business establishments, leaving only one inspector for every 9,200 employees.
The new app was developed with these obstacles in mind. The Workers Lab CEO Carmen Rojas finds that fear of retaliation is “one of the biggest barriers” to reporting an incident. As a result, she says, the app has generated the most interest among “low-wage workers with little on-site work protection,” such as domestic employees, day laborers, or those working in retail or construction. In the absence of unions, Rojas adds, the app’s mission is to "ensure that workers can exercise their voice and still feel like they have some level of power in the workplace.”
According to Ben Berkowitz, the CEO of SeeClickFix, a smartphone app would not only achieve this goal, but would also help to consolidate and streamline the process.
“There’s something very discreet about leveraging the mobile phone in your pocket to communicate,” Berkowitz says, “especially when it could be your job that you’re going to lose.” Reporting an incident via a mobile app not only ensures a worker’s anonymity, Berkowitz argues, but allows workers to file a complaint “at the point of friction,” immediately after an incident has occurred.
Another unique feature of the app is that it helps to aggregate complaints of a similar nature. If a center receives multiple reports of the same violation or about the same company, they can communicate this information to app users—in addition to pursuing legal action or conducting a formal investigation.
Indeed, the involvement of worker centers is critical to the app’s future success. While it is the duty of these organizations to legally address workers’ complaints, they can also be instrumental in sharing the app with an extensive network of employees. Come mid-March, the Worker’s Lab and SeeClickFix will be meeting with 20 different worker centers such as the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance and Worker’s Defense Project in Texas to brainstorm design ideas. Once the app is officially launched, these organizations can then apply to become a “demo site” for testing the product.
As the design process continues to gain momentum, Rojas hopes to release the app before the end of the year. In the meantime, workers are saddled with the same limited—and potentially adverse—pathways to reporting safety, health, and wage violations.