Compulsory Labor in a National Emergency: Public Service or Involuntary Servitude? The Case of Crippled Ports

Source: Michael H. LeRoy, Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, Volume 28, no. 2, 2007

The Thirteenth Amendment ban on involuntary servitude has new relevance as the United States grapples with national emergencies such as catastrophic hurricanes, flu pandemics, and terrorism. This article considers work refusal and coerced work performance in the context of life-threatening employment. Overwhelmed by fear, hundreds of police officers and health care workers abandoned their jobs during Hurricane Katrina. Postal clerks worked against their will without masks in facilities with anthrax. A report by Congress demonstrates concern that avian flu will cause sick and frightened medical personnel to stay away from work, thus jeopardizing a coherent response to a crisis. How far can the U.S. go in forcing reluctant civilians to perform essential jobs during a national emergency? The author explores solutions to his question by hypothesizing a large release of radiation–whether by terror attack, catastrophic accident, or major earthquake–in a vital Pacific port.

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