There’s never been a more urgent time to talk about the workers of America. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the structural inequities of our society, where workers in essential services — like grocers, delivery people and laundry attendants — risk their lives to work the frontlines of this crisis, despite the fact that they’ve been largely excluded from the economic growth of the late 20th and early 21st century.
As interim CEO of the Workers Lab, NationSwell Council member Adrian Haro fights the good fight for the workers of America. This is what he had to say about the novel ways he and his organization are innovating to not only consolidate and bolster worker power, but to provide immediate relief to those who need it most.
NationSwell’s Anthony Smith: Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about the work you’re doing, and a little about how that work has pivoted amid this pandemic?
The Workers Lab’s Adrian Haro: Our purpose as an organization is to give new ideas about increasing worker power a chance to succeed and flourish by taking highly flexible, bold dollars and shooting those out to innovators all over the country — and on the ground — who are really enabling experimentation around new ideas about workers and worker power, and learning from those experiments.
Last year, we partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation and with to stand up an experiment about something that is now very much on the minds of the American people, certainly public sector and public sector leaders alike, which was to try to get $1000 in emergency cash to gig workers. Through that experiment, we were able to get $1000 in emergency cash to over 400 workers — and we learned that $1000 isn’t enough.
Emergency cash, I suspect now, is being thought of as like a necessity. But it was a necessity before this. Emergency cash, like emergency savings, like easy emergency loans should all be a part of a renewed or re-imagined social safety net. And we are now seeing why.

“What does it mean that workers are being deemed essential, but are not given essential safety gear or equipment?” — Adrian Haro, Interim CEO, Workers Lab

What we’ve been thinking a lot about since this pandemic began is what work looks like now, and how the supports workers need are perhaps important now more than ever before.
Particularly I hear things like how in some states, the process and infrastructure for claiming unemployment insurance is breaking down; when we’re having to rethink what childcare looks like; or trying to rethink what it looks like to go to the grocery store. I know there are innovators all over the country who right now are being forced to be super creative about how to solve problems that are rapidly revealing themselves, and the need to be able to respond quickly with new ideas that reflect responses to new challenges that have been exposed because of this crisis.
So the innovation and experimentation we do as a lab is more important than ever.
NS: What are some of the new ideas out there that you’re supporting?
AH: We are actually currently in the middle of the Innovation Fund, a grant competition we host two times a year. It’s our signature program. It is the main way that we put out a big open call and source innovative ideas from all over the country.
Once the pandemic really took hold, we were smack dab in the middle of that open call. What we’re doing now is doubling down on that program and asking for folks to think about the solutions that they’re submitting to us not necessarily as tools to respond directly to what’s going on, but certainly to be grounded in this moment, but also tied to a broader vision that extends beyond this moment, and where they sit in relation to the kinds of tools that need to be included in our social safety net once all of this blows over.
NS: How do you define a worker?
Workers for us are arguably one of the most powerful constituencies in this country, and I don’t know that they’re talked about in that way enough. Think about what workers need in our communities as citizens. When you think about the potential they have in our democracy as a powerful voting block in policy and advocacy, when you think about given the right conditions and access the role that workers can play in exerting corporate control — and we forget that workers are also moms and dads in our communities that need time, and space, and motivation to do things like the PTA, to run for office.
Workers are all of these things, and indeed because of all of that, because we think about workers as a massive constituency in this country within which myriad issues intersect in their lives, and what we’re working toward in our vision is that workers play an outsized role in determining how our society works more broadly.
NS: What does worker power mean at a time like this, when there are so many different types of jobs that have been classified as essential services, but the workers that work those jobs don’t get the essential support that they might need from their companies or from our governments to work those jobs and live their lives?
AH: We think about power for workers as what are we building in service of all of the outcomes that workers envision for themselves in their lives?
And so you can talk about safety as one of those outcomes. You can talk about recourse in the form of rights. You can talk about pay and benefits as outcomes that folks envision for themselves, mobility and control in the workplace; how much power do they have to participate in their democracy?
Workers need all of those things to be active and able members of our society. We are seeing now not just how unprepared our society writ large is, but how unprepared workers are in this moment to respond at work, or to respond personally on the family side — and how does that inform how we’re thinking about solutions? Where do workers sit in the conversation about the solutions like paid sick leave, the expansion of paid sick leave and the accessibility of unemployment insurance?
These are not new ideas. These are things that advocates have been asking for, demanding for decades. And what we’re looking for are, what is the solution to the problem of an overloaded unemployment insurance claim infrastructure? Who on the ground is thinking about how to fix that problem to achieve impact now and beyond? What does it mean that workers are being deemed essential, but are not given essential safety gear or equipment? When you look at an industry like care — my heart breaks for care workers for whom the notion of social distancing is really, in many cases, not an option. It’s just not an option to maintain distance when it’s your job to help somebody get out of bed or to give somebody a bath. And so in many cases the problems that are being surfaced now, the crux of them is as old as time.
There’s like this misconception that innovation and experimentation is only about solving or addressing challenges for a worker is unique to the 21st century, in gig, in tech, in digital.
Innovation is very, very much also a tool to make sure that all the workers that didn’t benefit from the policy gains of the 20th century can do so now, that they are included in those laws and in that progress. I mean I could go down the list of queer people, people with disabilities, immigrants, farm workers, domestic workers — all groups of workers that in some way, shape or form have been excluded from the progress of the 20th century. And we should be using innovation and experimentation to solve those problems as well.
NS: You mentioned that we’re at the crux of a moment right now with respect to workers and their future in this country. Is there anything that you’re seeing right now that heartens you, that says this is sort of the reckoning that needed to happen to make sure that workers get the support, the recourse that they deserve — that they’re the beneficiaries of past and present policies? Or are you more disheartened? 
AH: In many ways, this is both a heartening and a heartbreaking moment. We are seeing workers be the heroes of this crisis, on the front lines of this crisis in many ways, right? As nurses, as domestic workers, as caregivers, as the folks who check us out at the grocery store, as the folks who feed us via whatever platform. That heartens me because I feel like there is a national resonance and recognition — that in normal times largely often doesn’t exist — that workers are in fact critical and integral to the lives that we live and benefit from every single day.
At the same time, you are seeing in a matter of weeks the rapid construction and revision of the social safety net that we would argue should have been in place decades ago. And so, for me, when I see how workers are finally being given their due, so to speak, are being seen for the value and the critical nature that they play in society in normal times, and you talk about what I imagine is going to be a tremendous opportunity through legislation, through organizing, creating a new social safety net that recognizes that value of workers — that heartens me, and we are doing everything we can in the way of funding experimentation and innovation to prioritize workers in the conversation about what happens now, but also what happens in the future after this.
Adrian Haro and his team encourage NationSwell readers to subscribe to receive updates on their experiments, learnings, as well as opportunities to get resourced for their ideas on their website. If you’re able, they also encourage you to make a donation to help support workers amid the COVID-19 epidemic.
Haro is a member of the NationSwell Council. For more information on the Council, visit our hub.