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She’s a 64-Year-Old Taxi Driver Drowning in Medallion Debt—And She’s Fighting Back

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Dorothy LeConte is part of a movement of taxi drivers demanding that the city of New York relieve their financial anguish.

NEW YORK CITY—Outside the gated entrance to City Hall, a dozen yellow taxi drivers huddle under the canopy of a tent to take shelter from the pelting rain. They sit alongside a line of their sunflower-yellow parked cars, next to a sidewalk makeshift memorial and protest shrine with a backdrop of signs that read: Respect the Drivers, No More Suicides; No More Bankruptcies, Debt Forgiveness Now! The rain has washed away the chalk spelling out the names of the deceased drivers etched against the cold pavement. The wicks on nine tall red candles are wet. On the previous rainless nights they burned bright, illuminating like a soundless incantation the names of nine taxi drivers who have committed suicide: Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Douglas Schifter, Nicanor Ochisor, Yu Mein Kenny Chow, Abdul Saleh, Fausto Luna, Roy Kim, and Driver Brother (unnamed to honor the wishes of the family that survived him). They were lost to the anguish of crushing debts and dissipated earnings.

Dorothy LeConte, 64, wasn’t there that October 4 night, but she feels the anguish of owing a medallion debt of $558,000 with monthly payments of $2,000. “Sometimes, I think about suicide,” she tells me one sunny Saturday afternoon as we sat in foldable chairs beside the protest shrine. “And then, when I come back, I think about my children, and I turn around and say, ‘Dorothy, don’t.’” She reaches for extreme examples of horrible incidents a person can endure to convey the deflated morale of drivers. “This is worse than if a man left me pregnant in the street… What the city did to us, and they don’t care.”

LeConte’s predicament is far from unique among thousands of driver-owners of yellow taxis who the city has left in a lurch as they scramble to piece together enough earnings to payoff insurmountable debts.

Yellow taxi driver-owners and their union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), representing approximately 21,000 for-hire and yellow cab drivers, have set up a 24/7 protest encampment. They are eyeing October 31, the deadline for when Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council must sign off on a budget modification, providing an opening for drivers to attain debt relief on their terms, not those of the banks. (Disclosure: This author worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Democracy NYC Initiative as a communications director from December 2020 to January 2021.) Survey estimates put the median yellow taxi driver-owner debts at $500,000, according to a January 2020 report published by the Taxi Medallion Task Force.

Individual driver-owners account for about 40 percent of the city’s 13,587 yellow cabs. These workers, mainly from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Haiti and Ghana, purchased medallions from the city in order to operate a taxicab and pick up street hails in parts of Manhattan. The medallion originated in 1937 as a means to control the number of cabs on city streets. For nearly a century, their values were modest, but then a speculative bubble spiked their values to stratospheric heights, reaching above a vertiginous $1 million per medallion in 2014, plummeting to $100,000 in 2019 after the bubble burst, and hovering at approximately $100,000 today. Banks and the city pushed exploitative loan terms with inflated prices to immigrant drivers even as they knew the value of medallions was on a downward spiral.

After years of protest against predatory lenders who, abetted by city agencies, saddled immigrant driver-owners with insurmountable debts, Mayor de Blasio pledged in March to allocate $65 million. Under the mayor’s plan, lenders receive a $20,000 grant to go towards a down payment to restructure the debts of driver-owners. It also includes $9,000 for yellow taxi drivers to use for monthly debt payments. With the pressure mounting on Mayor Bill de Blasio, the union held a press conference on October 13 to announce the support of over 50 elected officials backing its debt relief proposal. Then, on Friday of that week, dozens of yellow taxi drivers snarled traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in protest, demanding debt forgiveness. On Monday, the union announced plans to begin a hunger strike.

“First of all, the $65 million, just the $20,000 grant won’t even cover that many people,” according to Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the NYTWA. Desai estimates there are between four to six thousand driver-owners who drive for a living and those who may be retired. 

“If you go back to the record six months ago, they basically said everyone’s going to get $20,000 as a cash down payment to restructure the debt and then $9,000 to help you pay for your mortgage for up to six months,” she adds. “But now that the rules are out, the rules make it impossible for anybody to access that $9,000 because there’s a hardship requirement. If you’re out driving, you’re not going to be considered in hardship, no matter how much you’re struggling.”

The NYTWA has vetted a different proposal with the city’s comptroller’s office that is backed by New York City’s entire Congressional delegation in addition to state and local elected officials, as well as academic experts on banking and finance. That counter proposal calls for a debt restructuring plan of $90 million over 30 years, with the city providing a guarantee in the case of default and setting a limit of medallion debt loads to $145,000 with monthly payments capped at $800. Chief benefits of the NYTWA proposal would include more driver-owners and lower monthly payments to a manageable amount. The program, unlike the city’s proposal, would include driver-owners who are in foreclosure or undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, allowing drivers to negotiate favorable terms with lenders because the city would guarantee the restructured loans.

The city says that more than 1,000 people have signed up for its proposal. “It literally just means that people are calling them up to make an appointment,” says Desai. Asked to clarify what signing up for city’s proposal means, a spokesperson for the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) responded that “1,000 medallion owners have applied to the program.” The spokesperson also said the city is working with a “dozen lenders.” According to the city, 102 drivers have received concrete debt relief.

New York Legal Assistance Group attorney Randal Wilhite characterized as “patently false” the city’s claims of how many people have signed up for the debt relief program. (For speaking out, Wilhite was suspended from NYLAG and prevented from testifying at a TLC hearing.)

One person who won’t be taking the city’s offer as it stands is Dorothy LeConte. When she started driving a yellow taxi in 1987, she wasn’t venturing entirely into the unknown. Word on the street was upbeat about the financial possibilities owning a medallion conferred on women specifically, and immigrants more generally. The evidence of financial independence was self-evident. In those days, LeConte could walk up to a driver who’d happily report on favorable remuneration and confirm a medallion was truly all that it was cracked up to be, a lifelong investment with good returns. So, she did just that, striking up a conversation with a woman sitting in her cab in the shade on Lexington Avenue. 

Her years working housing keeping at the Waldorf Astoria ended with the promise of one day being the driver-owner of a medallion. At first, she leased a car. Then, LeConte, originally from the island nation of Haiti, drew on the time-honored tradition of mutual aid among the Black diaspora, called sou-sou, or an informal savings club, to pool together a pot of cash to purchase a medallion. People in a sou-sou contribute money to a collective fund that pays out a lump sum each month to a participant based on their number in a monthlong cycle, which can average from 18 months or less based on the payout amount for each member. In 1989, she took the $17,000 payout to put down as a deposit on a medallion costing $140,000.

A single mom raising two Black boys, LeConte saw the taxi industry and her possession of a medallion as a reliable way to earn enough money to keep her children off the streets and in school.

“I’m raising two Black kids,” she says. “I’m out from four o’clock in the morning, and I’m coming home the next morning at three o’clock. I don’t want my sons to be in the street. I decided to put them in a boarding school. This is the American dream.”

But it was more than a mere pursuit of an elusive American dream. She paid $43,000 a year to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for the assurance that it would provide safety.

“My 14 year old didn’t have to hang out in the street and get killed by the police, or by the gang, or involved in drugs, saving the Rikers Island money,” she adds. “That’s what I use my money for.”

To provide for her children, she put in grueling hours, pushing her body to the limit. The pain of sitting in a cab with no end in sight hobbles the body and curves the bones, but the spirit is more dogged.

The early signs of the taxi crisis began during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tenure at City Hall. Giuliani bragged about breaking the 1998 strike among drivers organized by the NYTWA and violated their constitutional rights. When LeConte got her first taxicab, she paid $9,000. Under Giuliani, yellow cabs had to change every five years as part of his efforts to give a Hollywood facelift to New York City and increase regulations on immigrant drivers.

To drive a cab today, “you need $45,000 to $50,000. [If] you don’t have the money, you got to [borrow] against the medallion,” says LeConte. That’s excluding medallion loan debt payments. To become a driver-owner was increasingly cost prohibitive. Last year, 4,500 taxis needed to be replaced after seven years on the road at a cost of $135 million, according to Crain’s New York.

Despite these financial hardships, yellow cab drivers continued to motor down New York City streets, taking pride in serving the public. LeConte runs through the times she’s come to the aid of the city’s residents and visitors, from September 11 to the 2003 blackout. “When I say we build the city, we do.”

She says yellow taxis are peripatetic ambassadors to countless tourists on their first visits to New York.

“People come for the first time to New York. They’re so happy to grab a camera,” she says, and take a photo of a yellow taxi. “I am in the movies.”

“I’m always there. In everything, I help the city.”

According to LeConte, this includes intervention in harrowing domestic violence incidents.

“Another time, another woman, a man was beating her up. I was right in the middle of the street. I just rolled down the window. I said, ‘Jump in.’ She jumped in the cab, locked the door, and I flew with her.”

LeConte weathered ups and downs in the industry, but she said nothing prepared her for the arrival of Uber and Lyft, inundating New York City streets. Her brother, with a job in the technology sector, saw the writing on the wall and warned her in 2015. But she refused to heed his warnings.

“This is a New York City franchise. New York City will never allow this medallion to go all the way down,” she reasoned with her brother.

City data showed a 10 percent drop in revenue per yellow cab after Uber’s debut in 2011, with yellow taxi ridership in shambles. Medallion values held steady for a few more years, but the industry was soon ravaged by the combined forces of the city allowing banks and hedge funds to aggressively push predatory loans. Banks targeted people who they knew couldn’t service the loans, according to a New York Times investigation. They took advantage of immigrants whose first language wasn’t English to sign turgid contract terms they could, at best, only puzzle through. And even as the city knew there was trouble in the medallion market, it continued to inflate the value. Experts deemed the speculative bubble the largest since the housing crash of 2007.

“I don’t think I could concoct a more predatory scheme if I tried,” Roger Bertling, the senior instructor at Harvard Law School’s clinic on predatory lending and consumer protection, told The New York Times. “This was modern-day indentured servitude.”

Drive-owners of yellow taxis are now trapped in Sisyphean ordeal, pushing a proverbial boulder up a mountaintop only to see it come crashing down, seemingly until the end of time, as many drivers like LeConte are in their 60s.

“We estimate between 4,000 to 6,000 thousand have underwater loans,” says Desai from the NYTWA.

LeConte describes going to her mailbox during the pre-Uber years of the early 2000s and finding five flyers promoting loans or refinance offers. “You open the taxi news, and you find people advertising” to borrow against the equity in the medallion, she explains. “Some people borrowed against it.”

“I did not expect what happened here to me today, and to us. The city will be responsible, because I know a government is there to protect the people,” she says. “I don’t think the government is there to sell us out.”

Without the city’s protection, the banks and tech companies have had free rein to extract the last cent from workers. Because the medallion after 2015 can no longer serve as collateral, she says, “you will be the collateral. If they can’t find anything on you, they’ll probably take you to a barber shop, they’ll shave your hair. If you have long hair, they’ll sell your hair for fake hair in the street. Whatever you have, they’ll take it away from you.”

She draws parallels to the financial ruin facing yellow taxi drivers today to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In May 1921, a white mob went on a rampage in the economically thriving, predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mob was incited by a false story of a Black man assaulting a white girl, fueling the already potent adrenaline of white supremacy through the veins of an armed white mob of looters and arsonists. All told, hundreds of African Americans residents were savagely killed, their 1,250 homes and assortment of businesses annihilated by racial terrorism. According to a 2001 state commission report, property loss claims reached about $27 million in today’s dollars.

“You remember that story?” she asks me. ”The government burned its Black people down, taking their wealth, killing them. They lost everything.”

“The whole world is looking, but they [are] using the technology,” she adds, referencing the city allowing Uber to break the law and flood New York’s streets with app-based drivers.

The feminist intellectual Jacqueline Rose has attributed the unseen violence of capitalism, or what Rosa Luxemburg once called the “quiet conditions,” to the “skill with which capital cloaks its crimes.”

The fire of righteous indignation that blazes from within LeConte refuses to be tamped down, but she has also reconciled herself to the realities of age and the unseen casualties of the spirit.

“I need the day off. I need to stay home. I’m 64-years-old. When I go to my doctor, I have pains in my fingers, sprain in my knee. I can’t get up, pain in my back.”

The toll of driving a cab all these years has finally begun to manifest in her body. But it’s also overtaken her mind.

The anguish of the banks coming for her to collect $558,000 has deprived her of the balm of a good night’s sleep. “I never get a good six hours, eight hours of sleep. Never. Because I’m dreaming. What is going to happen to me? What happens with my dignity?”

About her plight, she says, “it’s not because I’m sick. It’s not because of an accident that I’m paralyzed. [It’s] because of the government that I trust. We ask Mayor de Blasio only to guarantee the loan.”

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a freelance journalist from New York City and an educator at Labor Notes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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The big takeaways from Biden’s jobs report bust

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Women, teachers and health care employees all suffered from the slow rebound last month.

The labor market recovery that President Joe Biden has promised slowed again in September, with a weaker-than-expected 194,000 new jobs created.

That suggests school reopenings and the end of generous federal jobless benefits haven’t brought enough Americans back into the labor force amid the resurgence of the coronavirus.

Yet the recovery has been uneven throughout the economy, with women, teachers and health care employees suffering from the slow rebound last month, according to a Labor Department report released Friday. Among the gainers in September were white and Asian workers, retail and hospitality employees, the long-term unemployed and wage earners generally.

While the overall unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent, the drop was likely fueled by 183,000 people leaving the labor force.

Biden touted the report as another sign that his administration has delivered steady month-over-month job growth and blamed the disappointing overall number partly on the fact the survey was taken before a recent decline in Covid cases.

“Remember, today’s report is based on a survey that was taken during the week of September the 13th, not today — September 13, when COVID cases were averaging more than 150,000 per day,” the president said in remarks after the report. “Since then, we’ve seen the daily cases fall by more than one-third and they’re continuing to trend down. We’re continuing to make progress.”

Here’s a closer look at how key groups fared in September:

Women

The report showed that 309,000 women 20 years and older dropped out of the labor market in September, marking the second straight month of losses. Men in the same age group regained 182,000 jobs.

Working women have been acutely affected by the school and child care closures prompted by the pandemic, holding many back from returning to the workforce. But they were initially expected to go back to work in September, with school reopenings relieving some of the responsibilities that had been keeping them at home. But since the Delta variant of the coronavirus took hold in late summer and disrupted school plans, economists have been bracing for a devastating September for women who may have had to continue taking care of their kids amid the uncertainty. The numbers show that concern was well-founded.

Race

While other major ethnic groups have seen their unemployment rates near or below the national level throughout most of 2021, the rate among Black workers had remained near 9 percent. In September, Black unemployment fell by almost a full percentage point to 7.9 percent, narrowing the gap on the national rate of 4.8 percent. The bad news: 83,000 Black workers also left the labor force last month, probably contributing to the drop in the jobless rate.

Black workers — and women in particular — make up large shares of the workforce in health services and child care, industries that have been slower than most to recover. AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs has also argued that the stubbornly high unemployment rate among Black workers could be due to discrimination in hiring.

Hispanic workers have also been experiencing jobless rates above the national level, seeing 6.3 percent unemployment in September, little changed from August. White and Asian workers have been recovering more quickly, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.2 percent in September for both groups.

Retail and leisure

Consumer-facing industries including retail, leisure and hospitality were walloped in early 2020 by pandemic safety restrictions and business closures, facing the largest post-pandemic jobs deficit of any sector of the economy. They remain the first to take the hit when fears of the virus increase. But both sectors saw some improvement in September, which is a good sign for the economy as coronavirus cases start to recede. Leisure and hospitality added 74,000 jobs, while retail added 56,000.

Labor force participation

Beyond the topline number, the jobs reports suggests that fewer people were optimistic enough about the market to look for work last month.

While the national unemployment rate has been falling for months, the labor force participation rate — which captures how many people are either employed or actively looking for work — has remained pretty stagnant. That rate was 61.6 percent in September, not much different from the 61.7 percent in August. It’s also still down 1.7 percentage points from February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. That matters because the size of the workforce is tied to productivity, which is the basis for wage gains.

Many Republicans had predicted that the Sept. 6 expiration of federal unemployment benefits would increase employment as Americans could no longer afford to stay away from work. But since the jobless aid has ended for millions, many people have fallen out of the labor force instead and are no longer considered “unemployed.” While this can push the unemployment rate down — if you’re not actually looking for a job, you’re not counted as unemployed — it’s also a sign that there are fewer people actively available for work.

Wages

Average hourly earnings increased in September by 19 cents, bringing them to $30.85. That follows five months of significant hikes in wages and suggests that the widespread demand for workers as businesses have reopened has put upward pressure on pay, as employers compete for labor.

Long term unemployed

The longer people remain unemployed, the longer it typically takes them to find a job, which is why economists like to keep an eye on the number of those who have been out of a job for at least six months. That figure fell by nearly 500,000 last month, which is a good indicator of labor market health, as people with large gaps on their resumés can face more obstacles to reemployment and can find themselves in deeper financial trouble. However, there were still 1.6 million more long-term unemployed in the workforce last month than before the pandemic began.

Education

One of the puzzles in the jobs report was the loss of jobs in state and local public education in September — the month when schools were supposed to reopen. Instead, the market saw a notable decrease in jobs in this area — a drop of 161,000 workers, which dragged down the headline numbers.

Much of this, however, is likely due to seasonal adjustment. That’s because schools usually ramp up hiring in September for the start of the academic year, so the models that adjust for seasonal factors expect it. But this year, some of those hires may have taken place in July and August as students started earlier, making September hiring in public education slower than normal. But while the decline of 161,000 looks bad, it’s probably due in part to hires that did not happen last month rather than actual job losses, a key distinction.

About the author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. 

About the author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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A New Group to Organize College Football Players Just Launched. Incredible Timing.

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After last week’s NLRB memo made the unionization of college athletes a possibility, the CFBPA could become very important.

Last week, a memo from the top lawyer of the Biden administration’s National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo, asserted that certain college athletes should be legally considered employees. This decision took a wrecking ball to the myth of the “student athlete,” and opened the door for the unionization of players in big time college sports. For one recently launched group, the timing could not have been more fortuitous. 

The College Football Players Association (CFBPA) formally launched in July, with the goal of promoting labor organizing among college football players. Now, the nascent group finds itself presented with an unprecedented gift from the NLRB, few competitors in its newly energized space, and a clear path to becoming a leader in the drive to transform college sports forever. 

All they need now are the college football players. 

The CFBPA is the brainchild of Jason Stahl, a former professor at the University of Minnesota who became concerned about the exploitation of the school’s football players while he was teaching many of them in his classes. He left the school last year amid disputes over its treatment of players, and began working on a book about the topic. He put together the CFBPA with the belief that some kind of players association is necessary to enable players to begin organizing effectively. Stahl is the group’s executive director. Its advisory board includes current and former college players, ethics and labor law experts, and former University of Minnesota regent Michael Hsu, a longtime advocate of paying college athletes. 

In addition to fundraising (the group is seeking 1,000 recurring donors by the end of this month, a number that Stahl believes they will reach), the CFBPA’s biggest ongoing task is recruiting active college football players as members. That’s not an easy task, particularly because the fear of retaliation is high. For now, the group is allowing its current player members to remain anonymous, and is not releasing specific membership numbers. Players from at least three schools are already organizing with the group, according to Stahl. 

“Any workplace trying to unionize [can face retaliation], and this is the same thing. But within college football, it’s particularly pronounced,” Stahl says. If coaches or schools do retaliate with measures like withholding playing time from certain players, it can be virtually impossible to prove. “We’re trying to create an initial campaign that guys feel safe with.” 

The group’s goal is to unveil an organizing committee in December, made up of current players from a number of different schools, both big and small. By the end of the year, Stahl hopes to establish the first Players Association chapter at an individual school. 

The structure of college football poses some unique challenges for organizers. Though college football players as a group hold a great deal of leverage within a wealthy, powerful institution, individual players serve only brief careers—many may be on teams for only a year or two before leaving football and their schools entirely. And a good deal of uncertainty surrounds what the laws will ultimately be that govern the players’ labor rights, and whether collective bargaining would take place with individual schools, with athletic conferences, or with the NCAA itself. 

For its part, the NCAA issued a statement last week arguing forcefully against the NLRB’s memo, but politics and regulatory decisions could eventually make negotiating one big collective bargaining agreement covering all NCAA athletes a rational decision. Perhaps the only certainty is that if college athletes are to take advantage of their new labor rights, they will need to organize, and likely unionize, in order to create an entity capable of bargaining in the first place. 

Against this backdrop, the CFBPA aims to become a permanent institution, capable of serving the needs of players even after they have left college football altogether. That will require not just organizing the players of today, but building Players Association chapters durable enough to carry on for years. Structurally, such associations could be obvious launching pads for union campaigns, if the CFBPA is indeed able to attract large numbers of players at certain schools. 

Stahl says that most players, parents and associates of players that he speaks to have concrete concerns—chief among them, seeing to it that existing NCAA rules governing things like how many hours players can be asked to devote to “football activities” are actually enforced. He is not unaware of the obstacles. “There’s so much work to be done, with such a transient work force,” he says. 

But with the landmark NLRB memo coming just months after the June Supreme Court ruling that allows college athletes more avenues for compensation, 2021 is shaping up to be the year that the NCAA’s fantasy world of unpaid “student athletes” finally starts to crumble for good. The CFBPA is, quite literally, in the right place at the right time. Whether they are the seed that grows into a new branch of the labor movement remains to be seen.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Working at Home Accidents – Who is Liable?

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In many countries, the number of people working from home has doubled since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. While many businesses take reasonable care and responsibility for their employees’ safety in the workplace, many are asking what the regulations are for remote workers. 

In this article, we will be discussing accidents when working at home and who is liable.

Your Employer’s Duty of Care

Whether you’re working in the office or from home, your employer is required to protect your health, safety and welfare while you are working for them. 

Just like in-house employees, remote workers expect and are owed the same duty of care from their employers. This duty of care covers everything from the physical working environment of the individual and extends to their mental health needs.

How to Create Safe Work Environments at Home

Unlike offices, where the environment can be controlled and safety measures can be put in place to protect employees, everyone’s home environment differs. From the layout to the furnishing, creating a safe work environment at home means something different for everyone.

Despite this, governments are asking employers to be vigilant about protecting the health and safety of their remote workers, according to Health and Safety Law

Whether employees are working part-time, full-time or on an ad hoc basis, if they are ‘at work’ employers must ensure that all reasonable precautions are taken to prevent any accidents they may otherwise be liable for. McCarthy + Co. Solicitors state the scope of an employer’s duty of care falls under four principal headings, with an employer being obliged to provide his workforce with:

  • Competent co-workers
  • A safe place of work
  • Proper equipment which is fit for purpose
  • A safe system of work

Below are some of the most effective ways employers can support the health and safety of remote workers.

Provide Risk Assessments and Guideline Advice

Often, workplace risk assessments will highlight areas of concern within a workspace, whether that’s in-house or remote. These issues are then raised with the employer and appropriate action is taken to reduce any risk to the employee.

Despite so many people working from home, very few have a suitable working space that isn’t the dining room or kitchen table. As such, accidents can happen – the most common being back pain and injury caused by insufficient working set-ups. 

All employers have a responsibility to ensure the working environments for their employees are suitable for remote working on a long-term basis. Advice should also be provided that helps employees carry out their own basic risk assessment at home and share their findings with employers so that suitable adjustments can be made.

Display Screen Equipment

This includes the use of smartphones, tablets and desktops in the home that allow employees to do their job. All equipment used for work must be provided and properly maintained by the employer. A few steps employees can take to reduce the likelihood of injury whilst working from home include:

  • Regularly changing their working position.
  • Taking short breaks every 10-20 minutes away from the screen.
  • Breaking up long periods of screen time with 5-minute rest breaks every hour.
  • Stretching regularly to avoid stiff joints.

Identifying and Reducing Hazards

Most slips and trips in the office are caused by uneven floors, obstructions in walkways, or inappropriate flooring. Unsurprisingly, these factors also come into play around the home. So, a risk assessment will consider the hazards around your home to ensure any necessary changes are made before remote working commences.

Manual Handling Training and Precautions

If part of your job involves the manual handling of products or the packing of boxes, precautions must be taken to avoid injury. A risk assessment will take these factors into consideration and highlight any areas of concern. It is the responsibility of the employer to provide the necessary training to ensure all manual handling is carried out safely and for the avoidance of any injury.

Mental Health Support

Employers have a duty to protect the mental health and wellbeing of their remote employees. Mental health conditions are classed as disabilities when they have a long-term effect on the everyday functioning of an individual and, as such it is against the law for employers to discriminate against employees with mental health struggles. As such, employers are expected and legally required to provide mental health support for their workers.

The type of support that is provided will depend on each person and their individual needs. However, providing support such as paid-for therapy sessions, online consultations, space to talk, and even the provision of specialist equipment or adjustments to the duties of the job itself are all necessary steps to protect employee mental health.

Equipment Provision

One of the most common injuries suffered by remote workers is because of a chair that is not fit for purpose. Employers are required to provide guidance and advice about the ideal chair and screen positioning to reduce potential injuries.  

Employers must check that remote workers have the equipment they need to do their jobs effectively and that said equipment is in good working order. Employers must also provide remote workers with any personal protective equipment, as necessary.

Who is Liable if You Have an Accident?

Many remote workers are concerned about whether their employer would be liable if they had an accident while working at home. Your employer would only be responsible if you suffered an injury whilst working from home due to some negligence on their part.

As we have already stated in this article, employers are predominantly responsible for carrying out a risk assessment of your working environment and ensuring you have suitable and working equipment available to do your job well. Therefore, unless they neglected to provide suitable training or equipment to you and you had a work-related accident as a result of this, it is unlikely your employer would be liable.

However, it is always important to provide all the facts of your injury and your working environment to a solicitor so they can advise you on your case. The sooner you report your injury and make a claim, the better. Whether you win your case or not, raising the issue will provide useful for your employer and hopefully encourage them to act and improve on any areas of negligence within their company so that future work-related accidents are prevented.

Final Words

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, whether they work in-house or from home. This duty of care requires that employers do everything within their power to ensure their employees are supported, both physically and mentally, to carry out their jobs safely. 

As the number of remote workers around the world continues to increase, employers must continue taking positive action to ensure the health and safety of their employees. 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Gemma Hart is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards growing her brand and building relationships with leading experts.


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Social Media Policies: Know Your Rights

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The idea of using social media in the workplace is a very 21st-century problem — one that many previous generations would have never had to deal with. In many aspects, social media defines parts of our lives. It is a way to document how we feel about certain things and a way to connect with people from across the globe on issues. 

Yet here we are. Often being asked by our employers to maintain a social media presence for work, whether we want to or not.

For others, it isn’t even that our employers require a social media account. Rather the issues stem from the need to be abundantly cautious about how they act on social media. One post that is regarded in bad taste or one drunken picture from college that unexpectedly crops up could ruin a career.

Employee social media rights have become a central workplace issue. Knowing your rights when it comes to your employer and social media is essential.

Review Company Policy

Arguably the most important thing you can do to better understand your rights as an employee is to review company policy. Today, many companies that require employees to work online will have some social media rules as a condition of employment. Some examples of company policies that are commonly used include things like:

  • Laying out guidelines for company responses to negative social media posts by customers on the company feeds
  • Provide clear policy on who owns certain company accounts. For instance, does your work Twitter account belong to you since it is in your name or does it belong to the company since you set it up as an employee?
  • Provide clear rules for transparency and honesty in marketing strategies
  • Clarify if comments about the company in personal accounts are off-limits
  • Set expectations for social media use in personal accounts of employees related to political and social issues.

If a company states that your personal account is protected, then it should be. Up until that point, it can be pretty murky. Many professionals would recommend not posting something blatantly controversial, especially if you aren’t sure of the company policy.

If your company doesn’t have them, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook. Instead, it means you should contact HR about getting something reasonable on the books before someone gets in trouble.

Work-Related vs Non-Work-Related

It is important to remember that although everyone has the First Amendment right to free speech, it gets a little more convoluted when it comes to social media. First Amendment rights are not always protected in private settings. For instance, you would never go to work and say racist things and expect not to get in trouble. Likewise, you wouldn’t have drinks with a coworker and slam your boss if you thought that information might get back to him and get you in trouble. Treat social media the same way as any other interaction that would occur in person.

Going off of that general guideline is likely to more or less keep you out of trouble. But there are the occasional posts that seem like they aren’t a big deal, but turn out to be very controversial. Here it can be important to remember where you are posting from. Using social media on a work account, from a work computer, or on a work-provided cell phone can spell trouble without question. Avoid using personal accounts in those situations at all costs.

***

Social media policies for individuals in workplaces are still relatively new. Many of the protections and rights are still being worked out by the courts. For that reason, it is always worthwhile to review company policy and get clarification on your rights. If you are unsure, it is always better to play it safe, even on your personal accounts.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Dan Matthews is a writer, content consultant, and conservationist. While Dan writes on a variety of topics, he loves to focus on the topics that look inward on mankind that help to make the surrounding world a better place to reside. When Dan isn’t working on new content, you can find him with a coffee cup in one hand and searching for new music in the other.


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“It’s Time to Turn This Tortilla Around”: El Milagro Workers Walk Out, Demanding Fair Treatment

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Alleging abusive conditions and staff shortages amid the pandemic, workers at the iconic Chicago tortillería walked off the job—only to to be locked out by management.

On Thursday, food production workers at El Milagro—Chicago’s most popular tortilla company—staged a temporary walkout, alleging years of workplace violations and abusive conditions made worse by the pandemic.

After leaving their shift early, nearly 100 workers picketed outside El Milagro’s flagship taqueria and neighboring tortillería in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, promising to escalate their protests unless management meets with them to discuss their grievances by September 29. They were joined by local faith leaders, community supporters and democratic socialist 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the nearby Pilsen neighborhood.

Laura Garza, director of Arise Chicago worker center—which has been helping the non-unionized El Milagro workers organize over the past several months—said that 85 workers contracted Covid-19 on the job last year, and five died. With employees getting sick or resigning, the company has been understaffed, leading to a widely reported scarcity of El Milagro products at grocery stores across the Chicago area earlier this month, with eager customers lining up outside the company’s facilities to get their hands on however many tortillas they could. 

Along with picket signs, the workers carried a giant burrito and tortilla chips made of carboard. They led chants changing the company’s name from El Milagro to “El Maltrato,” which translates to “mistreatment.”

“You’ve heard there’s a shortage of workers over and over on the news, but the fact is there isn’t a so-called shortage of workers, it’s a shortage of good wages, good benefits, good working conditions, and being treated with respect and dignity on the job,” said Garza. The worker center also recently helped organize non-union food production employees at the popular Portillo’s restaurant chain, who staged a seven-day strike this summer.

The workers allege that in order to keep production going amid the staffing shortage, management has been illegally forcing them to work up to seven days per week, as well as violating the city’s paid sick leave ordinance and speeding up the production machines to dangerous levels.

“With the extreme speed of the machines, people are having health issues, especially back pain from having to go so fast,” El Milagro worker Alfredo Martinez told In These Times. Martinez added that he and his coworkers have also suffered health problems from having to work quickly in temperatures over 90 degrees, without being allowed breaks to drink water.

“They’re cranking up these machines to produce more tortillas, but we’re not machines,” said Martin Salas, an El Milagro employee who has worked at the company for ten years. “I’m packing 80 packages in one minute. If it doesn’t happen, then it’s my fault.”

The workers also claim that management is advertising new job openings at $16 an hour—higher than what workers who have been at the company for years make. Martinez, who has worked at El Milagro for 13 years, said veteran employees like himself are also expected to train the new hires without any extra compensation.

“The new people don’t stay for long because it’s too hard and too hot,” Martinez said. “We know the work; we do the work well. It’s insulting when you’ve been working here for years, doing a good job and new people who have barely been trained are making more than you.”

The workers reported numerous other abuses at El Milagro, including sexual harassment and intimidation. With the help of Arise Chicago, they have organized a committee and are demanding that management implement a fair wage scale based on seniority and experience, increase wages to at least $20 per hour, stop all harassment and hire more staff. The workers claim that despite issuing multiple letters to management, the company has so far refused to meet with them to discuss their concerns.

When the employees who walked out of the El Milagro plant in Little Village attempted to return to complete their shifts after the protest rally—as they had earlier informed management they would do—they were locked out. Arise Chicago says this is illegal retaliation by the company. Upon learning that their colleagues had been locked out, five cleaning workers arriving for the late-night shift decided to join the walkout.

Salas said that when he and other first-shift workers went into work on Friday morning, prepared to walk out in solidarity with their locked-out colleagues, they were greeted by an armed security guard. “That is simply a tactic the company is using to intimidate us, and it’s creating a lot of fear,” he said.

As the locked-out workers reported to human resources on Friday morning seeking to return to work, they were joined by 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez, whose district includes the El Milagro plant, Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Chicago Teachers Union recording secretary Christel Williams-Hayes.

“We stand with you,” Williams-Hayes told the workers. “What you’re doing is not wrong. Stand in solidarity, stand up for your rights, do not be afraid.

Management promised to allow the locked-out employees to return to work at the start of their 2 p.m. shift on Friday, with no loss of pay, according to an Arise Chicago spokesperson.

El Milagro did not respond to a request for comment. The company has also faced complaints at its facility near Austin, Texas, where it was recently fined $218,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe machinery exposing workers to amputation dangers.

The struggle at El Milagro is reminiscent of attempts to unionize immigrant workers at Tortillería Del Rey in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood 40 years ago. That campaign was led by legendary organizer Rudy Lozano, who, before his murder in 1983, famously helped build Black and Latino unity in support of Harold Washington’s successful run for mayor.

Jorge Mújica, Arise Chicago’s strategic campaigns organizer, said the workers are exposing El Milagro’s “greedy” side. “In English, we say ‘the other side of the coin.’ In Spanish we say ‘el otro lado de la tortilla’ [the other side of the tortilla],” he explained. “It’s time to turn this tortilla around.”

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB’s General Counsel, Is Labor’s Best Legal Friend

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In an interview, Abruzzo discusses independent contractors, penalizing bad employers and what she might do to make good faith bargaining a reality in America.

Joe Biden has pledged to be the most pro-union president in recent memory. Whether that turns out to be true will depend in large part on the work of Jennifer Abruzzo. Since being confirmed as the National Labor Relations Board’s top lawyer two months ago, Abruzzo has wasted no time laying out a strong pro-worker agenda. A memo released in August outlining her priorities indicated her intent to revisit a number of policies in ways that could make them much friendlier to unions and to worker organizing. 

Among the most significant are the “Joy Silk” doctrine, which could require employers to demonstrate actual reasons for not voluntarily recognizing unions; Ex-Cello Corp, which could impose far more significant penalties on employers for bad faith bargaining; and other items touching on everything from independent contractor classification to the rules for employer handbooks.

Abruzzo, an NLRB veteran who last worked as a lawyer for the Communications Workers of America, is essentially the opposite of her predecessor, Peter Robb–a Trump appointee hostile to organized labor who was fired shortly after Biden took office. We interviewed Abruzzo via email about her priorities, keeping bad employers in line and the flaws inherent in American labor law. 

Your intent to revisit the Joy Silk doctrine has gotten a lot of attention. Can you explain your thinking behind that, and what you think the practical effects of a change in that policy might be for unions? You’ve said you also want to revisit Ex-Cello Corp, dealing with potential penalties for employers who refuse to bargain in good faith. Can you explain what you think might result from revisiting it? 

Jennifer Abruzzo: When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), it said in Section One of the Act that it was the policy of the United States to “encourag[e] the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” and to do so “by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” To effectuate this policy, there must be meaningful remedies when employers interfere with workers exercising their rights to organize and to bargain. 

Both the Joy Silk and Ex-Cell-O doctrines deal with remedies to employer interference in that initial, and often vulnerable moment, when workers first organize a union and request to bargain. Under the Joy Silk doctrine, from 1949 until about 1969, the Board would issue a bargaining order if an employer refused to bargain upon a request for recognition from a union that represents a majority of employees, if that refusal was in bad faith. 

The Ex-Cell-O case dealt with monetary remedies when an employer refused to bargain in good faith. In that case, the D.C. Circuit actually told the Board it had the power to order such a remedy and that such a remedy was necessary to effectively remedy the harm. So, I think that both doctrines have support in the Act’s purpose, history, and federal court precedent and are worth reexamining in order to more effectively fulfill the Act’s mission. 

There has been a long term trend of companies replacing full-time workers with “independent contractors.” What if anything do you anticipate doing during your tenure that might help give labor protections to independent contractors?

Abruzzo: Whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor is a question of law based on the actual employment relationship—it is not determined by an employer’s label or classification. In the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA, Congress excluded independent contractors from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. For this reason, whether a worker is an employee versus an independent contractor is crucial. If you are an employee, you have the full protections of the National Labor Relations Act in your workplace, such as the right to organize with your co-workers to improve health and safety, which is a critical right as the country is dealing with a pandemic. If you are an independent contractor, you have none of those legal protections. 

In 2019, in a case called Velox Express, the Board majority at that time rejected an argument that employer misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor was itself a violation of the Act. Chairman McFerran (then Member McFerran) wrote a dissent agreeing with the argument. She explained that when a worker is in fact an employee with NLRA rights but is being told by their employer that they are an independent contractor, it sends a clear message to the worker that, in the employer’s view, they have no rights under the Act. She further explained that this communication could unlawfully interfere with the exercise of an employee’s rights. 

In my first General Counsel Memorandum, I asked our Regional Offices to submit cases for my consideration as to whether and under what circumstances misclassification itself can violate the National Labor Relations Act, and as to the scope of the independent contractor exemption. With regard to the latter, I believe the statute should be broadly construed and the common law, which delineates a number of factors, provides a very good framework for determining employee status. In the SuperShuttle DFW case, the Board majority at the time put substantial emphasis on the significance of one factor—entrepreneurial opportunity—and that warrants further scrutiny. 

Under your existing power, what do you think the NLRB can do to create penalties for employers who violate labor law that are meaningful enough to reverse the current situation in which it makes good economic sense for employers to engage in illegal union busting tactics? 

Abruzzo: I will pursue the full breadth of possible remedies under the NLRA to deter violations and to protect and enforce the statutory rights of workers in this country. Full and effective remedies are so important to effectuating the NLRA. It is for that reason that one of my first priorities as General Counsel was to issue GC 21–06 on “Seeking Full Remedies” and GC 21–07 on “Full Remedies in Settlement Agreements,” memos in which I ask our Regional Offices to seek the full panoply of remedies available to ensure that victims of unlawful conduct are made whole for losses suffered as a result of unfair labor practices. 

Under the NLRA, the Agency cannot mete out fines or penalties to violators of our statute, but it does have the broad discretionary power to provide make-whole remedies to victims of those violators. A make-whole remedy is one that aims to restore the worker’s situation prior to being subject to the unlawful conduct. For example, if a worker was unlawfully fired, we ask what wages and benefits the worker lost as a result of the firing. But we also need to determine what other economic losses a worker suffered as a result of the unlawful firing. Did they lose their work visa, or their car because they were unable to keep up with their payments? Did they have to move to find another job? Did they need to obtain health insurance coverage or incur medical expenses due to the loss of coverage? Additionally, we must try to discern how the firing affected those in the worker’s workplace, in other words, the chilling effect it had on other workers’ ability to exercise their statutory rights, and how we can most fully remedy those detrimental effects. 

So, there is no question in my mind that we can and should do more pursuant to our Congressional mandate under the NLRA as it currently stands. 

What is your view on minority or “members only” unions, meaning unions representing less than 50 percent of a workplace? Some believe that employers should be obligated to at least bargain with the members of such a group, even if the entire workplace is not unionized. Is this an issue you anticipate addressing?

Abruzzo: What are sometimes called “members only” or “minority” unions have been present throughout U.S. history. These kinds of formations have often acted as precursors to exclusive majority representatives. The NLRA currently protects the rights of workers to act collectively and engage, through representatives if they so choose, with their employer to improve their working conditions. I encourage engagement between management and labor to ensure that workers’ voices are heard and workers’ concerns are elevated in order to reduce workplace conflict. 

As to requiring an employer to bargain or confer with a members only union on behalf of its members, this argument has previously been made by academics and practitioners through various submissions, cases, and a petition for rulemaking. If this issue is brought before me as General Counsel, I would carefully consider it as I do all matters brought to my attention. 

Is there any way for workers, unions, and America as a whole to break out of the sort of frantic pendulum of labor rules, as the NLRB swings back and forth between Democratic and Republican administrations? It feels like any gains workers make now will inevitably be rolled back by a future, more conservative board. How does the NLRB make progress that lasts? 

Abruzzo: My job as General Counsel of the NLRB is to fully effectuate the Act to the best of my ability, for as long as I have the honor to serve in this role. I am fortunate to have an excellent cadre of dedicated and talented board agents in the field offices and in headquarters to support my efforts to ensure that we are achieving our Congressional mandate to promote industrial stability and collective bargaining and to protect the rights of workers to act together to improve their wages and working conditions. 

It is worth noting that the vast majority of meritorious case resolutions occur without any Board intervention (through settlements), thus, the extent of “flip flopping” is minimized. Notably, it makes it that much more important to ensure that the Agency receives adequate budgets so that the Agency has the staffing and resources to educate employees, employers, labor organizations, and community advocates and members, about statutory rights and obligations, to deter violations, and to obtain full remedies during early enforcement to diminish workplace conflict and broader industrial strife. 

You’ve worked on the regulatory side of labor, and inside a union. When you think about the barriers to a true revival of union power—how much of that is regulatory, how much is legislative, and how much do you think are missteps of the labor movement itself?

Abruzzo: As an independent federal agency, the NLRB’s role is to vigorously effectuate the NLRA’s mission, which includes protecting workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. I have spent the vast majority of my career as a public servant at the NLRB enforcing the Act and so that is what I will speak to. As General Counsel, I can think of no better calling than to ensure that the rights of workers in this country are protected and that violations of these rights are swiftly and fully remedied. 

I enjoy good relationships with labor and management practitioners and worker and business advocates, and fully expect to continue to collaborate with them, as well as with Agency personnel, to ensure that we are doing our jobs as effectively and efficiently as possible. This includes having a robust outreach program, particularly reaching those in vulnerable and underserved populations. I certainly think that there needs to be a broader focus on these populations and on workers in general to ensure that more equitable workplace conditions and opportunities are afforded so that they and their families and their communities can not only survive but thrive, particularly during these challenging times. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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For Many, the Pandemic Was a Wakeup Call About Exploitative Work

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By the time Covid-19 hit, Lily, 28, had been with her employer for four years and in her part-time role for the past two. Not once in those four years had her hourly wage moved above the state-required minimum in her upstate New York town— currently, $12.50. Lily was living with her parents to save money, and, because her job was in ticketing sales for professional sports, it was competitive. She hadn’t given much thought as to why she was paid so little; she was just grateful to work in the industry she loved.

But when Lily was furloughed during the pandemic, she had a creeping suspicion her labor had been undervalued. With professional sporting events shut down, she took on remote work, first as a customer service agent, then as a New York contact tracer — jobs that paid nearly double what she had been making. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m worth more than minimum wage,’” Lily says. (Lily is a pseudonym requested in fear of retribution from future employers.) “I didn’t even realize how bummed I was. A plane ticket was 25% of my net worth. I was worrying about putting gas in my car to get to work.” 

These remote jobs were temporary, however, and when Lily started interviewing for new positions, she was disappointed to find many companies still only offering just about minimum wage. One job offered an extra $2.50 after negotiation, but Lily turned it down—the venue was also an extra hour away, and she still needed to cover gas. 

Lily has mostly been relying on savings to get by after spending over a month hunting for full-time work, hoping to find a job that allows employees to work remotely on a permanent basis. Her goal is a $20 wage, but she worries whether that goal is realistic. She had a “big, revelatory moment” when she was earning more money, she says: “I started eating healthier. I bought myself workout clothes for the first time in years. You can have all the therapy sessions in the world, but an influx of cash will really change the way you feel about yourself.” 

A pernicious corporate narrative suggests that workers like Lily—who ask for a decent wage and marginal flexibility from an employer—are simply lazy. Many understaffed employers have chalked up their problems to workers coasting on unemployment benefits or stimulus checks. They complain about the federal unemployment supplement and the states that have loosened the strings on unemployment payments (such as requirements to continually search for a job or to accept any offer).

But the 26 mostly red states that recently terminated the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the American Rescue Plan, purportedly to incentivize workers, did not all see an immediate increase in job searches. Many workers have valid reasons not to return to work regardless of any “incentives”—one of the top reasons being the exorbitant cost of child care. As the pandemic closed daycares and schools and left parents in the lurch, many two-parent households realized it would be cheaper for one parent to stay home rather than work. Others are wary of exposure to Covid-19.

To be fair, there’s evidence that for some people, pandemic relief measures (or pandemic savings) have enabled joblessness by choice. A June survey by the jobs website Indeed.com found a fifth of job seekers were not urgently searching for work because of their “financial cushion.” A Morning Consult poll that same month found 13% of people receiving unemployment checks had turned down job offers because of that short-term stability.

To deem this unemployed behavior “lazy,” however, one must be predisposed to thinking work is some sort of moral imperative. Rarely have workers had the freedom to be selective about where, when and how much they work—to decide their own fates. In light of this profound shift, perhaps it’s understandable that workers are unwilling to settle.

There are more existential questions, too. Workers are re-evaluating what role work should have in their lives, whether it’s important to their sense of self, what they would do with their time otherwise. Some may decide the jobs they left are what the late anthropologist David Graeber termed “bullshit jobs,” work “that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” After such a revelation, how could employers expect workers to return to business as usual?

In her seminal 2011 book The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks argues that wage labor (one of the least-questioned arrangements in U.S. culture) is actually a social convention, not an economic necessity. As workers have become more productive and automation has picked up more slack, not much serious consideration has been given in the United States to the idea of reducing work hours. Instead, people work more and more. According to Weeks, having a job confers moral goodness and other virtues upon those who perform it, which is why people rarely question whether work is, in itself, good. If they did, they might see how work limits their pleasure, creativity and self-determination.

The post-work future Weeks imagines, citing the scholarship of Paul Lafargue, would allow us to expand “our needs and desires beyond their usual objects”—to understand how we want to spend our finite time in the world, then go do it. The refusal to work is an important step toward getting there, according to Weeks. When workers reduce the hours they spend working (or stop working altogether), they are rejecting the idea of work as our “highest calling and moral duty … as the necessary center of social life.” It also allows workers to organize toward their revolutionary visions while improving their present circumstances.

The current historical moment isn’t without its precedents. A kind of mass work refusal took place in the 1970s, when one in six union members went on strike, demanding more control over their workplaces and more dignity. But the anti-work flashpoint was quickly “co-opted by managerial initiatives as an excuse for work intensification,” Weeks tells In These Times. Employers attempted to make work “more participatory, more multi-skilled, more team-based so that you could work even longer and harder.”

The pandemic-era shift seems more promising, Weeks says: Today’s workers are fed up with intensification. They are not merely thinking about what other kind of job they might have, but about whether they want to work at all (and how little work they can get away with).

“So many of the criticisms we are hearing about are focused on both the quality of work, the low pay and brutally intensive pace of so many jobs, and the question of quantity—for example, the long hours needed to make enough in tips in restaurant and service work and the added time of commuting to most jobs,” Weeks says. “The overwhelming response to the prospect of returning to work as usual is that people want more control over the working day and more time off work to do with as they will.”

Without work taking up 40 or more hours each week, those who lost their jobs to the pandemic have discovered other ways to fill their time. Baking bread became such a popular quarantine hobby that it verged on cliché, but many who tried it found it comforting and deeply satisfying. One might say the bakers were not alienated from their labor for once—they got to eat the bread at the end. Others found themselves with more energy to dedicate to activities like yoga, gardening and roller skating.

“I … got really into cooking at home, because I really do love to cook,” Caleb Orth, a 35-year-old in Chicago, told the New York Times’ podcast The Daily in August. “It was a hobby of mine before I lost my job,” he said. But at the restaurant where he’d worked 80 hours a week, he’d tired of making “somebody else’s food, the same thing over and over and over. So during Covid, I’d be making meals at home, and I got really into it.”

Many like Orth expressed amazement at how good it felt to be doing things that were good for their well-being. Work suddenly seemed like it might just be one element of life, not the center of it.

When the bar where Jessica McClanahan worked shut down in March 2020, she set about creating a small art studio in her home in Kansas City, Mo. She filled a corner of her living room with drawing and book-binding supplies, acquired an antique desk from a friend and assembled a small altar for cherished objects. McClanahan’s boyfriend, who had worked with her at the bar, got laid off around the same time; he fixed himself an art studio upstairs. While the two collected unemployment—about $325 weekly, each, plus a $600 weekly federal supplement—they fell into a routine. They would wake up each morning, have breakfast, then make art in their respective spaces.

“Sometimes I would just mess around and not really do anything,” says McClanahan, 37. “But I got to be like, ‘Oh, do I want to draw a picture? Yes. I’m gonna do that. Do I want to paint? Make a book? Take photographs? I also taught myself how to embroider. It was just a free-for-all for creativity, which I haven’t had in a long time.” She made a leather-bound sketchbook for her boyfriend for Christmas, a guestbook for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and dozens of postcards to send to friends across the country.

McClanahan, who has a master’s in library science and went to art school, had long intended to spend more time on creative pursuits. When she started her bartending career in 2005, she saw the service industry as a reliable way to make rent and pay off student loans. While her friends were making minimum wage at art galleries, she made hundreds in tips in a single night. But it got harder to make time for art, especially when she became a bar manager. McClanahan says she felt glued to her phone even when she wasn’t on the clock, troubleshooting crises at work, fielding texts from people who called in sick and answering emails from vendors.

After trying out a few other jobs during the pandemic, McClanahan decided to go back to bartending when restaurants reopened—but quickly realized she couldn’t return to the lifestyle she had as a manager. “I was really stressed all the time, and I kept saying to myself over and over, ‘I don’t know why I am spending so much time worrying about something that isn’t even mine,’” McClanahan says. The downtime while she was unemployed gave her “freedom and peace of mind.”

“That really got the ball rolling for me in terms of thinking about what I’m willing to tolerate at my job going forward,” McClanahan adds.

Some employers are starting to see obvious solutions to their so-called labor shortage: better conditions, signing bonuses, higher wages, stronger benefits. The federal minimum wage is still not $15, but a growing number of companies have begun offering it (including giant corporations like Target, Best Buy, CVS Health and Under Armour). In a press release, Under Armour executive Stephanie Pugliese called the move a “strategic decision … to be a competitive employer.”

With the federal unemployment extension set to expire September 6, as this issue went to press, the 13% of workers who have refused jobs because of that stable income may no longer be able to simply opt out. Regardless, the new skepticism of work as a de facto good will likely stay. Our time, after all, is our lives.

Neither Lily nor McClanahan is presently receiving unemployment, and they both now work in the service industry. Lily believes this job is a temporary arrangement, while McClanahan plans to continue as a bartender.

“After having five different jobs during the pandemic, I’ve come back around to the idea that this is the kind of work I want to be doing if I have to work at all,” McClanahan says. “But my attitude toward devoting all of my lifeblood to work has definitely changed.”

About the Author: Marie Solis has written for the New York Times, The New Republic and The Nation.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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PROP 22 WAS A FAILURE FOR CALIFORNIA’S APP-BASED WORKERS. NOW, IT’S ALSO UNCONSTITUTIONAL.

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In a landmark decision, the Alameda Superior Court of California recently ruled that Proposition 22, the ballot initiative that excluded many app-based workers from foundational labor laws, violates the California constitution and must be struck down in its entirety.

The decision, which will undoubtedly be appealed by the app-based companies, represents a huge setback in the companies’ power grab to rewrite U.S. labor laws and exempt themselves from labor standards that apply to all other employers. It also represents an important advancement in the gig-worker-led movement for living wages, rights at work, employment benefits, and the right to exercise collective democratic power. 

What Was California’s Prop 22?

California’s Prop 22 was a ballot initiative led by app-based companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash to exclude ride-hail and food-delivery app-based workers from nearly all employee rights under state law, including the right to a minimum wage, time-and-a-half for overtime, expenses reimbursement, and benefits such as unemployment compensation and state workers’ compensation.

The companies developed the ballot initiative in response to the California legislature’s passage in 2019 of AB5, a simple and straightforward test for determining who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. Although Uber and Lyft ride-hail drivers and DoorDash, Instacart, and Postmates food-delivery workers are clearly employees under the AB5 test, these companies steadfastly refused to comply with the law and continued to deny their workers the rights and benefits to which they are entitled as employees.

As state and local officials sued Lyft, Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart to get them to stop violating the law, the companies spent a whopping $224 million on Prop 22. Among the provisions included in Prop 22 were an inferior set of benefits that the companies agreed to provide their app-based workers. And, worst of all, Prop 22 could only be amended by a seven-eighths vote of the state legislature, making its provisions virtually impossible to repeal or change.

To get Prop 22 passed, Uber and Lyft bombarded television, social media, and their own workers with pressure tactics and deceptive advertising, including the flat-out false claim that Prop 22 would increase, not decrease, workers’ rights. As a result, one survey of California voters founds that 40 percent of “yes” voters thought they were supporting gig workers’ ability to earn a living wage. [1] Other voters said they did not realize they were making a choice between guaranteed rights and protections through employment and “an arbitrary set of supplemental benefits . . . designed by the gig companies.” [2]

Uber also adopted a new cynical marketing slogan—“If you tolerate racism, delete Uber”—to claim solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement while, at the same time, seeking to enshrine a second-class employment status for California’s ride-hail and food-delivery app-based workers, who are overwhelmingly people of color and immigrants, in what legal scholar Veena Dubal has called a “new racial wage code.”[3] Dubal writes: “By highlighting particular forms of racial subjugation, while ignoring and profiting from others, the corporate sponsors of Prop 22 successfully concealed the very structures of racial oppression that [Prop 22] entrenched and from which companies benefit.”[4]

What Happened After Prop 22 Passed?

After Prop 22 passed, and app-based workers were stripped of their employee rights, the benefits package that the companies offered in exchange proved to be a mirage. In order to qualify for a promised healthcare stipend, for example, app-based workers need to a purchase a covered policy in advance and get enough work hours to qualify for the stipend; if they don’t, they must pay the full cost of the premium.[5] One survey of app-based workers found that only 15 percent have applied for the healthcare stipend.[6]

And, despite the companies’ claims of guaranteed earnings, pay decreased for many ride-hail and food-delivery drivers after Prop 22 passed. According to Peter Young, an app-based ride-hail and food-delivery driver for years, incentives offered to drivers disappeared after Prop 22 passed, and he experienced cuts to his base pay and unpredictable fluctuations in income.[7] Ben Valdez, an Uber driver, similarly said that pay continues to vary widely, and that he averages about $150 per day before expenses for 12 to 15 hours of work—well below California’s $14 minimum wage.[8] In fact, a study by labor economists found that Prop 22 guarantees a minimum wage of only $5.64 per hour after expenses and waiting time are taken into account.[9]

Even the companies’ central claim—that excluding their workers from employee rights and benefits is necessary to keep their prices affordable—proved to be false. A month after Prop 22 passed, both DoorDash and Uber Eats announced price hikes, a move the workers’ advocacy group Gig Workers Rising decried as a “corporate bait and switch.”[10]

The aftermath of Prop 22 made clear that its sole objective was to insulate app-based companies’ business model from any legal or worker challenge, so the companies could once and for all pass costs onto workers and consumers in a last-ditch attempt at profitability.

Why Did the Court Ruling Find Prop 22 Unconstitutional?

In his ruling that Prop 22 is unconstitutional and unenforceable, California Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch found that the ballot initiative infringes on the power explicitly granted to the California Legislature to regulate workers’ compensation.[11] Prop 22 also included language that prevents the state legislature from passing laws that allow app-based workers to unionize, which the court ruled violated a constitutional provision requiring that ballot initiatives be limited to a single subject.[12] The court also took issue with the substance of this provision, noting that preventing app-based workers from organizing “does not not protect work flexibility, nor does it provide minimum workplace safety and pay standards for those workers. It appears only to protect the economic interests of the network companies in having a divided, ununionized workforce.” [13]

What’s Next Now That Prop 22 Is Unconstitutional?

The app-based companies will appeal the court’s decision, and they will ask for a stay of the ruling while the appeal is pending. If granted, it means that Prop 22 would remain in effect—and app-based drivers and food-delivery workers would continue to be excluded from most state labor rights and benefits—through the appeals process, which could take a year or longer.[14]

What Other States Face Legislation Like California’s Prop 22?

Regardless of the final outcome in the Prop 22 case, app-based companies will continue to spend millions to fund legislation and ballot initiatives that would make it easier for them to avoid accountability as an employer and to depress wages and working conditions for their app-based workers. Their CEOs have made clear that Prop 22 is their model legislation across the country.[15]

In Massachusetts, for example, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash are funding another ballot initiative to rewrite labor laws to benefit themselves and enshrine independent contractor status for their app-based workers.[16] The push for a ballot initiative comes after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey sued Uber and Lyft for misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors. It appears that the companies, having determined that their likelihood of winning in court is low, have decided it will be easier to simply rewrite the law.

Prop 22–like legislation does not just hurt workers who currently obtain work through apps and other online platforms. At risk is virtually any worker whose job functions can be “gigged out” piecemeal on an app.

Luckily, the aftermath of Prop 22 mobilized app-based workers more than ever, and they are fighting back. In Massachusetts, workers’ rights groups and community organizations launched the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, which aims to “combat Big Tech companies’ campaign to undermine the rights and benefits of their workers.”[17] In New York, a coalition of workers’ rights organizations defeated a state bill pushed by app-based companies that would have created a top-down collective bargaining structure for ride-hail and food-delivery app-based workers while excluding them from nearly all state and local labor rights and protections.[18]

This progressive change is due to the persistence and commitment of workers and their advocates. App-based workers are emboldened in the fight for equal rights, and they are just getting started.

ENDNOTES

[1] Faiz Siddiqui & Nitasha Tiku, Uber and Lyft Uses Sneaky Tactics to Avoid Making Drivers Employees in California, Voters Say. Now They’re Going National, Washington Post, Nov. 17, 2020.

[2] Id.

[3] Veena Dubal, The New Racial Wage Code, Hastings Law & Policy Review, at 3-4, Aug. 17, 2021, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3855094. According to one study of the San Francisco Bay Area in 2019immigrants and people of color comprised 78 percent of Uber and Lyft drivers, most of whom relied on these jobs as their primary source of income. Chris Benner, Erin Johansson, Kung Feng & Hays Witt, On-Demand and On-the-Edge: Ride-hailing and Delivery Workers in San Francisco, University of Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation, May 5, 2020, at 2 https://transform.ucsc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/OnDemandOntheEdge_ExecSum.pdf.

[4] Id. at 20.

[5] Megan Rose Dickey, California Gig Workers Say Prop. 22 Isn’t Delivering Promised Benefits, Protocol, May 25, 2021, https://www.protocol.com/policy/gig-workers-prop-22-benefits.

[6] Tulchin Research, April 20, 2020

[7] Michael Sainato, ‘I Can’t Keep Doing This’: Gig Workers Say Pay Has Fallen After California’s Prop 22, Guardian, Feb. 18, 2021,

[8] Id.

[9] Ken Jacobs & Michael Reich, The Uber/Lyft Ballot Initiative Guarantees Only $5.64 an Hour, UC Berkeley Labor Center, Oct. 31, 2019, https://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/the-uber-lyft-ballot-initiative-guarantees-only-5-64-an-hour-2/.

[10] Eve Batey, That Price Hike That Delivery Apps Threatened If Prop 22 Failed? It’s Happening Anyway, Dec. 15, 2020, https://sf.eater.com/2020/12/15/22176413/uber-eats-doordash-price-hike-fee-december-prop-22

[11] Castellanos v. California, Case No. RG21088725, at 2-4 (Alameda Co. Sup. Ct. Aug. 20, 2021).

[12] Id. at 10-11.

[13] Id. at

[14] Suhauna Hussain, Prop 22. Was Struck Down; Will the Ruling Stick? Uber and Other Gig Companies Plan to Appeal; It Could Drag on for More Than a Year, L.A. Times, Aug. 26, 2021.

[15] Faiz Siddiqui, Uber Says It Wants to Bring Laws Like Prop 22 to Other States, Washington Post, Nov. 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/11/05/uber-prop22/.

[16] Nate Raymond & Tina Bellon, Groups Backed by Uber, Lyft Pushes Massachusetts Gig Worker Ballot Initiative, Reuters, Aug. 4, 2021.

[17] Grace Pham, The Launch of a New Coalition: Protecting the Rights of Gig Workers in Massachusetts, Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, June 29, 2021, https://www.massjwj.net/blog/2021/6/29/the-launch-of-a-new-coalition-protecting-the-rights-of-gig-workers-in-massachusetts

[18] Edward Ongweso Jr., A Plan to Tame Labor Unions for Uber and Lyft Has Been Scrapped in New York, Vice, June 9, 2021.

About the Author: Brian Chen is a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. Brian focuses on combating exploitative work structures that subordinate workers in low-wage industries. Brian is admitted to practice law in New York and is a proud member of the NELP Staff Association, NOLSW, UAW, Local 2320.

About the Author: Laura Padin joined NELP in 2018 as a senior staff attorney for the Work Structures Portfolio. Laura’s work focuses on policies that improve workplace standards and economic security for the contingent workforce, including temporary workers and workers in the “gig economy.” Laura is a proud member of the NELP Staff Association, National Organization of Legal Services Workers, UAW Local 2320.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on September 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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5 Tips to Make Video Meetings Fairer to Anxious Employees

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Video calls may have taken over as the meeting method of choice during the pandemic, and the surge in remote work means that they won’t be going away any time soon. Many people appreciate the convenience and flexibility of being able to show up on time no matter where they are physically. Still, it would be wrong to assume that everyone is entirely comfortable with this new working method.

It’s not always easy to tell who might be struggling with the new meeting schedule. For example, some employees that are more than comfortable meeting in person may be anxious about appearing on camera. On the other hand, people more than happy to chat for hours on the phone may still be coming to terms with the concept of online meetings.

Managers who are already comfortable with online meetings may be surprised to learn that one study suggests that 73% of people suffered from Zoom anxiety in 2020. A further study indicated that worries over backgrounds, appearance, and speaking over someone all play a part and virtually equally between males and females.

Essentially, the majority of people still have concerns about meeting online. Nevertheless, it’s a crucial component of adjusting to remote work, so what can you do about it? Here are five ways that you, as a manager, can promote a comfortable video calling experience for everyone involved.

1. Make Being on Screen Optional

Many employee concerns around video calls stem from the thought of being on screen. While comfortable in the office, their webcam acts as a window into their home. One of the quickest ways to make everyone more comfortable is to consider appearing on camera optional.

Some people like to be able to see who they’re talking to. Others want to ensure they have the full attention of the room. However, it’s time to accept that employees are often responsible and eager to do as their employer requires, and appearing on a screen shouldn’t make or break their efforts.

It may require additional trust from some managers, but the benefits are clear. Body language can be overrated on video calls, too – in some cases, it’s easily misinterpreted. Some employees might be concerned about this happening to them, but accepting that cameras aren’t essential to productivity can eliminate much of the anxiety associated with these calls.

2. Encourage Flexibility

Try not to get into the habit of scheduling video calls at short notice. This can cultivate an opinion among employees that they are expected to be at their desks at all times. That in itself can be a significant cause of anxiety, especially for those that have struggled to adapt to remote work and have altered their routines as a result.

It might make sense to implement an official policy on video meetings, such as providing at least 24 hours’ notice or potentially even banning them on specific days. There’s also evidence to suggest that it may be time to make all meetings optional, although this won’t work for every organization, especially those with just a handful of key people.

Giving people time to prepare for an upcoming meeting can ensure their schedule is free and that they’ve taken whatever steps work for them to make them feel more comfortable on screen.

3. Make it Your Job to Promote Social Interaction

There’s always a risk that anyone that misses out on video calls through anxiety may exacerbate their issues by reducing overall social contact. Like any competence, it is possible to lose social skills over time when left unused.

Video calls can replace face-to-face meetings, but they’re also a great way to keep up at least some of the more sociable interactions from the workplace. It may sound counterintuitive to arrange additional calls for those suffering from anxiety, but many people perform better under social circumstances than professional ones.

These meetings really should be optional, but someone needs to take the lead in ensuring they’re available for people that wish to attend. As a leader, there is no better candidate than you.

4. Make a Point of Mentioning Mental Health

Mental health is not a workplace taboo. On the contrary, many managers consider it part of their job to ensure that people feel good as issues can lead to a reduction in performance.

Most employees would rather not discuss their personal mental health, especially in front of groups. However, some are even anxious about broaching the subject at all. Make it clear on video calls that you’re aware of how remote work can affect people and that you’re more than happy to arrange for assistance.

If you’re comfortable providing that assistance yourself on a one-to-one basis, then do so. If not, ensure that you have someone you can send employees to for help. Such a seismic change in working habits affects everyone differently. Even if they merely need reassurance that their camera and microphone setup works, it can significantly improve their confidence levels.

5. Support Employees at their Own Pace

Some employees will never forget the first day they didn’t even have to get out of their pajamas for work. Others may still struggle to find a routine that works for them months after commencing remote work.

It’s simply impossible to support a team based on a timetable. There’s every chance that no two employees will be at an identical stage of adaptation. This does require flexibility on a manager’s part, but it should be viewed as an opportunity.

Every instance of providing customized support to an employee is a learning experience, and the more involved you become, the easier it will be going forward.

For example, if an employee who has never appeared on video decides to switch their camera on, don’t immediately view it as cause to make a big deal out of it – that may be the last thing they want. Instead, follow-up with them to ask how they felt and understand if there’s anything else you can do to make them comfortable in the future.

Wrapping Up

While people are becoming more comfortable with Zoom, Teams, and other video meeting apps every day, their usage represents a colossal shakeup in work patterns. The key takeaways involve acceptance, support, and enabling people to progress at their own pace. Some people may never be truly comfortable with the concept, but it is only fair to do all you can to encourage them to reach their potential, just as you would do with any other aspect of their working life.

About the Author: Amy Deacon is a business coach and speaker who creates solutions for businesses seeking to change attitudes and routines to boost productivity throughout the workplace.

This blog is printed with permission.


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