Since its founding in 2012, the Worker Institute has engaged in research and education on contemporary labor issues, work that has been particularly important as the world deals with COVID-19.
At the forefront of the educational mission has been Nellie Brown, director of workplace health and safety programs for the Worker Institute.
A certified industrial hygienist, biologist and chemist, Brown has taught about 60 webinars focused on COVID-19 measures. Many participants come to the webinars through word-of-mouth advertising.
“Often, somebody will come to a training or a seminar, and then they will want me to give a similar training or seminar to a conference that they’re attending, or to a group they work with,” Brown said.
A recent example of this occurred when Maria Figueroa, director of labor and policy research at the Worker Institute suggested to the leadership of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United that they should have Brown deliver a webinar to their group.
ROC, as it is known, has had a partnership with the Worker Institute for about 10 years. It’s a national nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of millions of workers in the restaurant industry.
“Back in 2014, we were involved in a study for ROC on the sexual harassment of restaurant workers,” said Professor Ileen DeVault, academic director of the Worker Institute. “And Maria Figueroa has done ‘know-your-rights’ trainings with them since 2018. But, even before that, she collaborated with them on policy analysis and initiatives related to unstable scheduling in the restaurant industry.”
Figueroa sent a link to Brown’s three-part COVID-19 webinar to her colleagues at the local ROC chapter, and it quickly made its way to the national office. But, instead of sending individual members to the webinar, the board asked Brown to put together one comprehensive four-hour training for its entire leadership – 47 individuals in offices across the United States.
“It took a little bit of prep to convert a 3-part series into a single workshop, but it worked out well,” Brown said. “I had 52 participants and I did a lot of fundamentals. I start my groups always with, ‘This is what a virus is.’ … This group also responded very well to the polling questions, which is just a way for them to reflect.”
Polling on everything from how knowledgeable they feel they are about Covid-19, to whether they would get vaccinated, to if they had been threatened or assaulted for reminding customers to wear their masks, Brown was able to provide information. As a result, ROC has asked her to help it create COVID-related policies for their organization which includes opening their offices, bringing in trainees for culinary arts and bartending classes, and for their staff to make onsite visits to workplaces and for advocacy.
Brown said she was particularly heartened to receive feedback indicating that some of the younger participants decided to get the vaccine after listening to her speak.
“I think as a society that we just don’t educate well enough on science issues,” Brown said. “I’m a scientist, but my job is translational. I’m supposed to be making technical information accessible.”
In addition to the webinars, since the start of COVID Brown has done nearly 70 technical assistances – which can range from on-site hazard evaluation, to guidance for medical surveillance, to assistance in product or process substitution to reduce workplace hazards – and over 50 interviews with the media, including a spot on CNN’s “Don Lemon Tonight.”
“There is value, not just in the webinars, but in the technical assistances and media interviews, as well. Andi it’s similar to what I’m doing in the field because — let’s say I’ve evaluated someone’s workstation and said, ‘Here’s how you fix this problem,’ the person’s symptoms go away, they tell others, and then I end up fixing workstations for 100 other people. Things like that, they do mushroom and that’s the value of it.”