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Increasing the minimum wage would help, not hurt, the economy

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The minimum wage in the United States hasn’t budged in 11 years. Whether it should was a hotly contested question during Thursday’s final presidential debate.

President Donald Trump asserted that increasing the minimum wage would crush small businesses, many of which are already struggling as a result of the pandemic, arguing that the decision should be left to the states. Democratic nominee Joe Biden repeated his campaign pledge to raise the minimum wage from its current $7.25 to $15.

Establishing a $15 wage floor has been a long-term goal of union-backed advocacy groups, which began putting pressure on big companies like McDonald’s and Walmart to pay workers $15 an hour in 2012. The Democratic Party made a $15 minimum wage part of its platform ahead of the 2016 election season. A handful of states with high costs of living — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — as well as some cities have adopted laws that will raise the minimum wage to $15 over time, and 29 states as well as the District of Columbia have minimum wages higher than the federal one.

The issue clearly resonates with voters: “Wages” was the most-searched topic in 44 states during the debate (the top search in the remaining six states was “unemployment”). Surveys indicate, though, that Trump’s view is out of step with that of most Americans: Two-thirds want to see a $15 minimum wage, according to the Pew Research Center.

Business groups have argued that raising the minimum wage forces business owners to fire workers, a claim echoed by Trump in the debate. The reality is more complex: The evidence of job loss is inconsistent, and the benefits are accrued by some of the country’s most vulnerable populations.

In terms of reducing income and wealth disparities, a rising minimum wage is a good thing. “The benefits in terms of reducing inequality — getting money into people’s pockets, stimulating the market — are very well proven,” said Till von Wachter, professor of economics and director of the California Policy Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The best evidence is that judiciously set minimum wages make a lot of sense. They raise earnings, reduce individual and family poverty, and have no measurable negative effects on employment,” said David Autor, an economics professor at MIT and co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future.

report last year by the Congressional Budget Office found that a $15 minimum wage would increase the income of 27 million workers, 17 million of whom currently earn below that amount with the remaining 10 million earning just over $15 an hour, but all of whom would see their wages rise due to what economists call the “spillover effect.”

When adjusted for inflation, today’s minimum wage gives workers far less buying power than it once did. Since peaking 52 years ago, purchasing power of the minimum wage has fallen by 31 percent — the equivalent of $6,800 for someone working full-time at minimum wage for a year.

“The real value of the federal U.S. minimum wage is at a historic low,” Autor said. “I’d be happy to see something like $12 or $13, indexed to inflation so it doesn’t again sink to irrelevance within 10 years.”

A $15 wage would lift 1.3 million households above the poverty line — but the flip side could be fewer jobs. The CBO estimated a median loss of 1.3 million jobs, although it also acknowledged considerable ambiguity with that figure. “Findings in the research literature about how changes in the federal minimum wage affect employment vary widely,” the agency said.

A 10 percent increase in base pay is associated with a 1.5-percentage-point increase in the likelihood that workers will remain with their current employer, which can translate to significant cost savings for companies.

Given the sweeping societal impact a higher minimum wage would have on the lives of the poorest Americans, von Wachter said policymakers should deem this potential an acceptable risk. “We accept these small efficiency costs because we think it’s valuable to provide that redistribution. We accept a trade-off between costs and benefits,” he said, adding that most of the studies have yielded no evidence of higher minimum wages triggering job losses.

Some research has even found the opposite — that is, a higher minimum wage can increase employment in some situations. When studying employment practices of big chain stores, von Wachter found that raising the minimum wage had the most positive effect in labor markets dominated by just a few large employers.

Other data suggests that higher pay improves worker satisfaction and leads to lower turnover, which can help mitigate employers’ higher payroll costs. According to Glassdoor, a 10 percent increase in base pay is associated with a 1.5-percentage-point increase in the likelihood that workers will remain with their current employer, which can translate to significant cost savings for companies. Replacing a low-wage worker costs about 16 percent of that worker’s annual salary.

A minimum wage that hasn’t risen since 2009 will only become increasingly unsustainable for the people relying on it, experts say. “There’s a lot of headroom to raise it [and] workers would benefit,” Autor said. “We can afford to do better.”

This blog originally appeared at NBC News on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Martha C. White is an NBC News contributor who writes about business, finance and the economy.


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Why companies based on gig work are hurting more than their employees

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Imagine that one of two people will be responsible for your safety. The first receives health and dental benefits, earns more than minimum wage, has clear advancement options within their company, and may even belong to a union. The second has no insurance benefits, works wildly erratic hours, feels no allegiance to their company, and makes less money. Which person would you pick?

The ride-share and micromobility industry is under the microscope for worker violations and safety concerns. Major shared e-scooter companies are facing lawsuits from injured riders. Revel, a moped company operating in New York City, recently reopened operations after a shutdown earlier this year, as complaints about reckless driving and fatalities involving its vehicles mounted. Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft face a number of lawsuits related to allegations by passengers of injury, assault, and harassment. A California ballot measure asking voters whether gig workers should count as employees has shown that many Americans are understandably focused on legal and legislative methods to introduce more order and security to the gig economy.

Like most startup industries, the companies providing these new mobility options are scrappy, doing things on the fly, and, at times, operating shortsightedly. This needs to change. As these forms of transportation edge their way to being a supplementary public transportation in a pandemic and beyond, we need to take this responsibility seriously.  After all, when the public gets on a bus, they don’t imagine the bus’s tires were changed not at a company-designated station but in someone’s garage.

Companies themselves would be wise to consider moving away from the gig economy and choosing to play a greater role in ensuring the well-being of their workers because doing so is fundamentally linked to the safety of their consumers and the success of their business.

Outdoor apparel giant Patagonia is famous for taking this approach: With generous time off, on-site child care, and the doors locked on weekends, the company has doubled in size since 2008 and is currently expanding into new markets. Employee turnover is minimal. CEOs and business school professors are increasingly aware that giving workers better wages and benefits also tends to be a recipe for greater profitability and employee retention in the long run.

Of course, any business has to keep an eye on the bottom line, but the damage done from rider injuries and safety lawsuits gives pause—financial pause, especially with potential liabilities tied up. But also pause because if you are hurting your customers, it’s not great for your brand. Investing in worker safety and well-being is more expensive in the short term, certainly. But in the long term, it leads to a more profitable company.

In 2019, my company, Spin, chose to make more than 90% of its workers employees with benefits, as opposed to contractors. In all markets our lowest starting wage is $15 per hour, with incremental increases based on tenure. We did this in part because research has shown that companies with healthy employees have better business performance. Companies with excellent safety, environment, and health programs outperform the S&P 500 by 3%-5%. But also because gig workers are less likely to have been thoroughly trained, more likely to leave for another job, and are often incentivized to cut corners in order to keep a high number of scooters on the streets and boost their own apparent productivity. This is unacceptable. Carefully training and fairly compensating the employees who work to keep our scooters safe for riders ensures that employees face no perverse incentives to rush through their work.

Safety out there also begins with safety in the home base. Designating our workers as employees with benefits—as opposed to contractors—allowed us to put protocols in place in both operations and maintenance and high standards endorsed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This operation would have been much less achievable with an ad hoc staff.

In order for companies in the ride-share and shared mobility space to truly unleash their potential, we must first gain public trust by improving the job we do on safety. Part of this will require that city planners and urban voters reimagine the nature of transportation infrastructure away from cars and toward biking, walking, and scooter transportation. It’s also vital that companies themselves give their workers every reason to do careful, excellent work in maintaining their fleets. As private-public partnerships create another way for people to move around, we need to make sure our workers are as supported as the workers behind transit agencies.

As the pandemic continues to demonstrate, the choice between safety and economic growth is a false reality, and companies should not pose these options against one another. At the end of the day, treating workers well is ultimately the safest choice for both businesses and their customers.

This blog originally appeared at Fast Company on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kyle Rowe is the global head of government partnerships at Spin, the micromobility unit of Ford Mobility.


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Stiffing Corporate Lobbyists; Short-Time Work Salvation; Nurses on the Line

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It’s the permanent government—the corporate lobbyists who have friends in both parties. It is at the heart of why we don’t have Medicare for All, why the Pentagon is rolling in dough and why banks and Wall Street rip us off. Jeff Hauser, the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, talks about what the strategy looks like to limit the influence of the corporate elites in a possible Biden Administration.

The pandemic has ripped through the world, killing and sickening millions. But, if you look at the economic hits people have taken, the pandemic has exposed the complete and utter failure of the system in the U.S. to make sure people can hang on. Both Europe and the U.S. had to shut down their economies and both took hits in output—but why has the unemployment rate been so much lower in Europe in the first half of the year than the U.S.? Maria Figueroa, the Director of Labor and Policy Research at the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University, explains how “short time work” made the difference.

It’s fairly obvious that Trump has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands for his absolute narcissistic bungling and incompetent handling of the pandemic. Tens of thousands of people, especially front-line workers like nurses, got sick at work because this administration let corporate shills, who don’t care about workers, run the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Which brings me to the Oregon Health and Science University, a massive sprawling operation which in 2019 had $3.2 billion in revenues. OHSU is taking a page from Jeff Bezos when it comes to stiffing nurses who are seeking a fair wage and leaving nurses at great risk by refusing to commit to fully providing for a safe workplace during the pandemic. We get the lowdown from Terri Niles, an ICU Nurse at OHSU and a vice president at the 2,900-member Local 52 of the Oregon Nurses Association.

(If you want my final election analysis and predictions for next week, check out my Working Life website and read it all there).

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on October 28, 2020. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist and the author/editor of Working Life.


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The Movement for Black Lives and Labor’s Revival

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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited the most widespread series of protests in U.S. history. Working people—not only Black, but people of all races—were the driving force. Even labor leaders who are usually reluctant to weigh in on hot social issues spoke out.

The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace—amid the coronavirus-driven economic crisis.

A deep look at U.S. labor history shows that labor can make big steps forward when Black workers are in motion in their communities. In our past, a mobilized Black community has brought the energy and self-confidence of powerful collective action in the streets into workplace organizing. It’s also brought a grassroots orientation that challenges top-down conservatism.

Will the same be true for unions today?

PANDEMIC POTENTIAL

The potential could be glimpsed in the early weeks of the pandemic, when union and non-union workers alike took action over unsafe working conditions, in worksites ranging from hospitals to Amazon warehouses to grocery stores. Because so many “essential workers” are Black and Latino, they were often at the center of the action, from Detroit bus drivers to Pittsburgh sanitation workers to Georgia poultry workers.

What makes the Black Lives Matter protests so important isn’t just their size. It’s the fact that demonstrators are linking the struggle against racist police violence to the whole racist system. The basketball players’ walkout in August highlighted the connection between racism in society and at the workplace.

Black workers have never drawn a line between civil rights in the community and worker rights on the job. That has everything to do with the central role Black labor has always played in the U.S. economy, from the unpaid labor of slavery to the low wages paid to Black workers by modern industrialists to boost profits.

STREETS TO WORKPLACE

Labor history shows that Black workers don’t protest in the streets while keeping quiet at work.

Black workers were key to labor’s 1930s upsurge in many industries, particularly in the South, even if many Southern struggles were ultimately unsuccessful. In the Midwest, the steel, auto, and meatpacking industries could not have been unionized had not rank-and-file organizers, including socialists of all currents, taken on the racism of the companies—and often of their white co-workers.

Many workplaces and unions at the time were Jim Crow—barred to Black workers. In New York City, a Black community boycott of two privately owned bus lines in 1941 forced the companies to hire Black workers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black workers were the driving force of the Southern civil rights movement. A key strategist of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56—the breakthrough struggle of the civil rights movement—was E.D. Nixon, the Alabama president of an all-Black railroad union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Nixon was among those who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a dynamic but largely unknown 27-year-old preacher. The Brotherhood was a key connection between Black union members in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland and mostly non-union Southern workers.

The Southern civil rights movement prodded the highly conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy into supporting it, even as nearly all-white building trades unions kept fighting to maintain a color bar into the 1960s. More generally, the level of mobilization in the Black community and the confidence that came with winning the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reinforced the desire to fight at work as well.

PUBLIC SECTOR STRIKE WAVE

The Southern Black struggle then came North in the form of the Black Power movement. By then Black workers represented big numbers in major industrial unions, such as auto and steel. Black workers were an essential part of—and often a leading force in—the strike wave that began in the mid-1960s.

That period saw a massive expansion of public sector unionism, with Black workers a key component. The welfare rights movement in New York City, with Black women at the center, is one example. That movement was linked to social workers’ unionization efforts in the Social Services Employees Union, an independent organization that struck in defiance of the law and got the support of King and other civil rights leaders as well as community groups. SSEU helped open the way for AFSCME’s recognition and formal public sector bargaining rights in New York.

The assassination of Dr. King led to street rebellions across the U.S. in 1968. Three months later, in auto, Black workers’ Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) led a 1968 wildcat over speedup and discrimination, which spurred similar organizations and strikes elsewhere in auto and in other industries. The workers also took on internal struggles in the United Auto Workers. The UAW had been willing to support the Southern civil rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, but it sought to suppress Black members’ demands internally.

The 1970 national postal wildcat was strongest in the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, strongholds for Black workers. Black workers were the absolute majority of postal workers in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Detroit. That job action was likely the largest-ever Black participation in a strike.

Labor struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s were widespread and certainly not limited to Black workers. But the militancy of Black workers was an essential ingredient. Could that same dynamic emerge today?

AN OUTSIZED ROLE

Potentially. But this time Black workers—and their Latino, Asian, and white co-workers—will have to undertake the basic task of union organization on a much greater scale. In 1970, more than 24 percent of workers belonged to unions. The Black Power movement could therefore find a connection in heavily Black unionized workplaces in auto and the post office. Today the path from protest to the workplace is more difficult.

But the same dynamic still exists. The Fight for 15 movement, even though it did not result in union contracts, won a $15 minimum wage through legislation in some states and cities in large part because of the participation of low-wage Black workers. And Black workers are more likely to be in unions than any other group.

Certainly, Black workers have lost important footholds in the unions over the last few decades, with plant closures and shifts of production to the largely non-union South. And now the pandemic economic shutdown has hammered the hospitality and service economy, leading to layoffs in union hotels that hit Black and Latino workers particularly hard.

But Black workers are still a strong component of labor’s remaining base in the private sector, such as auto and UPS, and in the public sector, where they are 20 percent of the total. That means Black workers have an outsized role to play in any resistance to pandemic-driven government budget cuts.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s strikes of 2012 and 2019 showed how a bold union can win public support for demands that address racist realities. The CTU fought for “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” for Black teachers facing job loss, for rent control and sustainable housing and services for homeless students, and against evictions. The potential for such connections is much wider after the anti-racism protests of 2020.

It’s a huge fight. But it always has been. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 give labor activists the opportunity to revive that tradition.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schermerhorn is a retired transit worker in New York City and a former vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Lee Sustar is a journalist in Chicago and member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981.


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Overcoming Inequality in Unemployment Benefit Access and Utilization

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History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. Today’s unemployed Black workers face a system of unequal state policies and practices that were created after the Civil War to maintain white supremacy and prevent Black Americans from obtaining wealth. These discriminatory policies drive enormous and persistent wage and wealth gaps, as well as the ongoing exclusion of Black workers from the benefits, rights, and protections we all deserve.

A reckoning is due.

Early in the pandemic, Working America — an organization that mobilizes working-class people to take action on pocketbook issues — partnered with policy experts at the National Employment Law Project, with the support of Open Society Foundations, to address a portion of this legacy: the unequal distribution of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic but much less likely to receive UI. Law, policy, and practice may be the problems, but the solution begins with mobilization. 

Money Changes Everything

It’s no secret that the United States has a history of exploiting Black workers. But the extent to which one can draw a direct line between the current unemployment crisis and the history of enslavement is staggering. Throughout America’s history, Black Americans, especially in rural communities, have been subjected to discriminatory laws and policies aimed at keeping them from achieving economic parity with white workers.

Unemployment insurance is a good example. The program was designed so that not all workers would be eligible for benefits — including lower-paid workers, workers with short periods of employment, seasonal workers, and workers in industries that tend to be more highly populated by people of color, such as domestic and agricultural work. As a result, many Black workers don’t expect to be eligible for benefits and, therefore, never apply. Why apply just to be denied? 

The lowest UI benefit levels are in southern states with large Black populations. In states such as North Carolina and Florida, for example, fewer than 12 percent of jobless individuals received unemployment benefits last year. When workers in many southern states do get UI, the benefits are so low that they would barely cover the essentials. The maximum weekly benefit in Florida and Tennessee is $275; in Alabama, it’s $265; in Arizona, it’s $240; and in Mississippi, it’s $235. 

Black workers are far less likely to receive UI even when they apply for benefits. In a survey our organizations conducted in July, a majority of Black workers responded that they had exhausted their savings; nearly two-thirds admitted that they were now going without necessities. In comparison, only one in four white workers said they had exhausted their savings and only one in five admitted to skipping necessities.

A major reason for this disparity was workers’ ability to access UI. An analysis by Nyanya Browne and William Spriggs of Howard University and the AFL-CIO found that, “Just 13 percent of Black people out of work from April to June received unemployment benefits, compared with 24 percent of white workers, 22 percent of Latinx workers and 18 percent of workers of other races.” What’s more, 30 percent of Black adults who filed for unemployment benefits did not receive their payments. 

The difficulties people of color — and Black people in particular — have in accessing UI are systemic and ongoing. It isn’t only that most UI systems create barriers to access, including insufficient staffing, outdated web systems, and lack of adequate explainers for claimants. Individuals with uncommon or ethnic names were more likely to be denied benefits they were entitled to. This is not a function of law or policy but of individual people practicing discriminatory conduct. This practice robs individuals and their families of the meager economic safety net our society provides, putting them at a disadvantage that is hard to recover from. That is a lot of historical rhyming.

Changing the UI Experience

Working America and NELP partnered on this project to understand the problems with UI access and utilization for Black workers, use our available toolset to mitigate harm, and assist eligible workers in enrolling in UI. For this project, Working America is leveraging its digital organizing capacity and clinical testing know-how to boost UI utilization rates among Black workers using targeted text messages, email, and phone calls that can reach three million people a week.

Listening is the key to all good organizing, so we began our project by reaching out to 14,531 workers. Our goal was to document their experiences with the unemployment system, their attitudes toward the system, and their knowledge of the application process.

A full 53 percent of people told us that they or someone in their households had lost a job as a result of the pandemic. That number rose to 68 percent when we asked them about their friends.

Ayana, a 46-year-old Westland, Michigan, resident working in health care, said, “My friends, neighbors, and family members all have had to apply to UI … They all had technical difficulties [when applying]. It seemed like no one could ever talk to a live person.”

Keshia, a 44-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina, resident who works in human resources, said, “My sister lost her job in the medical field. She had to wake up very, very early, like 3:00 a.m., in order to apply through the online portal. Otherwise, it would be so slow it wouldn’t work. She was denied because there was some discrepancy with her name and had to keep going back and forth, but she eventually got it.”

Through conversations like these, we diagnosed several problems.

First, there was a clear geographic disparity. In southern states, problems were borne of deliberate policy choices that continue the long legacy of structural racism, including restrictive eligibility and low benefit levels. In addition, those living in rural counties faced greater difficulty accessing benefits than those living in urban areas. Even with Working America’s help, unemployed Black Americans in rural communities waited seven-to-eight days longer than unemployed white and Latinx Americans to receive benefits. 

Second, most people we spoke to were not aware of program eligibility rules and benefits. This was one of the primary reasons that they did not apply for benefits. Further, many saw their hours reduced rather than being laid off; these workers were often unaware that they were eligible for unemployment benefits.

In addition to these informal conversations, our large-scale survey of 14,135 workers found alarming but unsurprising conditions. Black and brown workers were the least likely to have savings, the most likely to have lost wages during the pandemic, and the most likely to be unable to pay for essentials such as groceries, medications, and rent. Across the board, there was little knowledge about the unemployment program’s eligibility criteria or benefit amounts, confirming what we heard in our informal conversations. 

There is reason to hope, however. A majority of people we talked with were willing to take action to help their friends and family access benefits. 

Our organizers provided Ayana, Keshia, and other similarly situated “peer organizers” with information about unemployment eligibility and how to access benefits in their state. We also followed up to make sure members of their communities were accessing benefits. 

We’ve been in back-and-forth communication with almost 7,540 Black workers who are sharing information about UI in their networks. By constantly testing our outreach through randomized control trials and making adjustments based on the evidence of what works, we are finding agents of change in the community. 

One UI recipient in Pennsylvania told us, “We’re never going to get out of this mess here in Philadelphia unless we start treating Blacks like everyone else … I can tell you care, and it sounds like you’ve been helping people here, so I’m going to share your stuff because I know a lot of people that sure can use it, and you’re right, I already know a few that might get evicted.” 

Another Pennsylvania resident told us he works as a manager for a construction company that had to lay off a lot of workers. He wanted information so he could help his employees file for unemployment benefits. Yet another man told us he was a landlord, and while he didn’t need help applying for benefits, he was interested in helping his unemployed tenants get the benefits they needed to stay afloat. 

Turning Enthusiasm into Action

We know we need to scale up this program to reach more affected workers. Our goal is to build an organizing formula that measurably increases the application and filing rates — and ultimately the level of income — in these communities.

Working with the Labor Lab at Columbia University, we are implementing randomized control trials to assess the effectiveness of campaign strategies in increasing awareness of unemployment benefits and action on UI claims in Black communities. We are focusing our efforts on the 42 counties across the country with the highest concentration of Black workers. In half the counties, we’ll saturate residents with calls, digital contacts, and grasstops organizing techniques. We will then track the change in claims at the county level to get hard data on the impact of our work.

We found that there is a lot of misinformation about unemployment benefits, so we developed quiz-style engagement actions. For example: “True or false? If you were out of work but found a new job, you can still get unemployment benefits for the time you were out of work.” These types of actions tend to have greater engagement.

In phone conversations, we have found that people are much less likely to agree to help with unemployment outreach if they have not been personally impacted by the unemployment crisis. However, upon learning that only one in four eligible Black workers applies for benefits, many wonder if people they know might be missing out. Overall, 70 percent of these people agreed to help others apply for unemployment benefits.

Our next step is to follow up with these peer organizers who have been sharing UI information in their communities to connect them with fellow activists, skilled organizers, and resources to help them become more effective at reaching those who need it most. By talking directly to workers and members of the community, we are able to help them navigate the complexities of accessing regular and expanded unemployment insurance benefits. By recruiting them as community organizers, we’re creating a movement that will help many more families who have lost wages gain financial ground.

Fixing Broken Policies

At the grasstops level, Working America and NELP are collaborating with other organizations to advocate for short- and long-term policy solutions to the unemployment crisis.

In the short term, we must meet the immediate needs of unemployed and underemployed workers. Congress must not only reinstate the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit and other CARES Act provisions but also provide funding to state and local governments, ensure paid sick leave and child care for all working people, and deliver relief for workers ineligible for unemployment payments. USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) must also make it clear that suitable work does not include unsafe work; if employers have not taken the minimum precautions set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines, workers who quit their jobs should be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In the long term, Congress should consider federalizing UI — to operate similarly to Social Security — in order to address the wide disparity across states and populations. We should have permanent levers to automatically extend benefits during a recession, make worksharing available in every state, and provide dependent allowances for people who have children. Workers who are fleeing domestic violence, following a spouse whose job has moved, or leaving a job that jeopardizes their health and safety should be able to receive UI. And we should make sure that all workers, including those with erratic or part-time schedules and those whose job categories are currently excluded, are eligible to receive meaningful UI benefits. Finally, UI information technology (IT) systems must be easier for claimants to access. Individual states can take steps now to immediately address problems.

Ground-Up Systemic Change 

Many smart organizations and people have tried to increase UI access over the years, and a lot of work has gone into improving actualization of similar programs, such as Medicaid, EITC, and SNAP. What all these programs have in common is that they can change the dynamics of personal wealth and give working people what they need to gain some stability. We aren’t the first to tackle this issue, and we won’t be the last. 

The real power of this organizing project is the movement we’re creating to fix this rigged political economy and fight for the policy changes we desperately need. By arming people with the information they need to navigate the systems that have failed them for centuries, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that have kept wealth out of the hands of Black people. The key, we believe, is organizing communities not only to demand change of their elected officials but to make change themselves.

This blog originally appeared at The Forge on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Morrison is the executive director of Working America, a three-million-member labor organization mobilizing working people who don’t have the benefit of a union at their jobs. He is a leading political practitioner with experience working in over 500 elections throughout his career.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP is a respected leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and the go-to resource for state and local worker movements, providing unmatched policy, legal, and technical assistance.


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Prop 22 is Bad for Black Workers

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When the pandemic forced Cherri Murphy to stop driving for Lyft, she applied for unemployment benefits like millions of other workers. But because Lyft has refused to pay into California’s unemployment insurance fund, insisting that its workers are independent contractors rather than employees, Cherri received zero dollars in unemployment benefits.

By day, Ms. Murphy is a member of Gig Workers Rising and a volunteer social justice minister who helps people connect their faith to the fight for racial justice. By night, she is a Black working woman in America, completing more than 12,000 Lyft rides, forced to play by rules designed for her — and millions of Black workers — to lose.

“Uber and Lyft drivers are mostly folks who look like me,” said Ms. Murphy. “We’re African American and people of color. We’re on the frontlines and among the hardest hit financially. But our bosses have offered us no meaningful protections, treating us as expendable as ever.”

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting Black Americans, Uber, Lyft and other gig companies like DoorDash and Instacart are trying to roll back labor rights for app-based workers through a ballot measure called Proposition 22. That’s bad news for Black workers.

Supporters of Proposition 22 talk about innovation and jobs of the future, but there is nothing new about bosses attacking labor rights. Don’t be fooled by the misinformation campaign these companies are running — saying drivers must choose between flexibility and employee rights. Flexibility has always been at the discretion of the employer.

As a report co-authored by the Partnership for Working Families and NELP shows, Proposition 22 would lock app-based workers out of minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, the right to form a union, and critical health and safety protections.

Proposition 22 would effectively cancel local COVID-19 emergency sick leave laws, passed in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles, that apply to app-based workers.

Bosses have always taken too much from Black workers. And U.S. labor laws have continuously failed Black workers, leaving them out of lifesaving labor protections. Economic inequality continues to this day, with Black women earning 62 cents on the dollar, and Black families having on average one-tenth of the wealth of white families. Union membership dramatically reduces that wealth gap.

The failed response to COVID-19 has only made life worse for Black people in the U.S. Racism in the labor market has forced Black workers onto the most dangerous frontlines of essential work. Yes, Trump is a threat to our safety. But Silicon Valley has done extensive damage as well, using sly legal moves and buying off politicians to steal the benefits workers have earned.

Proposition 22 is only the latest attempt by Silicon Valley bosses to rewrite state laws. It would roll back years of court rulings, agency policy, and statutory law in California, including Assembly Bill 5, which clarified that app-based workers are employees covered by the state’s wage-and-hour laws and eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Proposition 22 is a step in the wrong direction that harkens back to a long and shameful history of denying Black workers their fundamental rights. The measure sets a dangerous precedent; one that the Trump administration and gig companies could use as fodder for their continued nationwide attack on workers’ rights.

Ms. Murphy was among hundreds of Black Uber and Lyft drivers who penned an open letter calling out gig employers for empty lip-service to the Black Lives Matter movement. The same companies running ad campaigns in support of Black Lives are bankrolling the most expensive ($184 million+) ballot measure in history to take protections away from Black workers.

California voters must vote no on Proposition 22, and say yes to a future with universal rights and good jobs for Black workers and for every worker in the state.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rashad Robinson is an American civil rights leader. He is the president of Color of Change, having joined the organization in May 2011. He has served as a board member of RaceForwardDemosState Voices, and currently sits on the board of the Hazen Foundation.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).


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How Coronavirus Exposed the Flaws of the Childcare Economy

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The U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that childcare workers in the nation have a median salary of just over $24,000 a year—below the poverty line for a family of four. The segment of our nation’s workforce that attends to the basic needs of our children is shockingly underpaid, and now during the coronavirus pandemic, left even farther behind as childcare centers are forced to downsize or close. At the same time, billionaires have minted money during our time of national crisis. The fortunes of the wealthiest have increased by a quarter over the past several months, proving once more that the economy is rigged to benefit the already-rich.

It is no coincidence that an industry dominated by women, particularly women of color (40 percent of childcare workers are women of color—twice their population representation) is in dire straits. The vast majority of childcare workers do not have health insurance. Many are self-employed and, even before the pandemic, operated on razor-thin margins to stay financially afloat. While the cost of operating a childcare center is fixed, children age out quickly, making revenues extremely unstable. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The businesses have little in the way of collateral. Banks are rarely interested in lending to them, beyond costly credit cards, making it difficult to ride out rough patches.”

In other words, childcare is not a lucrative business in spite of its crucial nature, and while the cost of childcare for parents is often far too high, the cost of operating even a bare-bones childcare business is also too high.

Once the pandemic hit, many childcare providers simply lost clients as lockdowns required families to remain at home. According to one survey conducted in April 2020, “60% of programs [were] fully closed and not providing care to any children” at that time. While some workplaces were able to transition to remote environments, by its nature, childcare work was not able to adapt to this “new normal.” While many workers like grocery store employees, nurses, and delivery drivers were deemed “essential” to society and continued working, they needed care for their out-of-school children. Suddenly American women providing childcare found themselves out of work, while women in other industries had no access to the care their children required.

Millions of parents, mostly mothers, have already left the workforce to care for their children during the pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau in August 2020 found that nearly 20 percent of “working-age adults said the reason they were not working was because COVID-19 disrupted their childcare arrangements.” Additionally, “women ages 25-44 [were] almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands.”

Melissa Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center told Politico, “the parents who are not going to be able to go back to work or who are going to have to give up their careers or jobs for less pay—because they can’t find the child care to cover the hours that they need—are disproportionately going to be women and women of color.” In other words, women of color are disproportionately impacted on both ends of the childcare equation—both as providers and as customers who rely on these services.

As I prepared for an interview with Wendoly Marte, director of economic justice at Community Change Action, about the crisis of childcare, I fielded texts from my seven-year-old son who could not find an extension cord for the tablet that he uses for school. My child was in the room next to the home-studio that I work out of and knows never to disturb me during interviews. But he was desperate to turn his device on so he wouldn’t miss his next lesson. I found myself for the umpteenth time wishing I didn’t have to work so I could be more present for my children during a time of deep uncertainty. But I also remembered how much I loved my job and continued to speak with Marte, who explained that I was not alone. “I think a lot of parents have had to make really hard choices over the last few months as they tried to balance working from home and caring for their children,” said Marte, who helps to organize childcare workers and amplify their voices in government.

Like millions of American women, I find myself constantly worrying about the state of my children’s mental health during the pandemic. Isolated from their peers and forced to learn through screens and Zoom chats, they are coping as best as they can. I am terrified of the long-term impacts on them and yet unable to leave a job on which my family depends to help pay the mortgage and purchase necessities, and at the same time resenting the fact that I have to even consider leaving a job that I love and that I have invested years of my life in.

The pandemic has highlighted, in Marte’s words, the need for “a system that is truly universal and equitable and that takes into account the perspective of parents, the children, and the childcare providers.” She articulated that “we’re going to need a serious public investment in a bold solution that actually matches the scale of the crisis.”

There was a crisis in childcare even before the pandemic. More than a year ago, the Center for American Progress explained that “Whether due to high cost, limited availability, or inconvenient program hours, child care challenges are driving parents out of the workforce at an alarming rate,” and that, “in 2016 alone, an estimated 2 million parents made career sacrifices due to problems with child care.” Add to that a public health crisis that has no end in sight, and the U.S.’s childcare industry could collapse entirely under the weight of multiple pressures.

While the federal government made available small business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program earlier this year, the Bipartisan Policy Center concluded that the program did not work for childcare businesses and only about half of applicants ever received the government-backed loans. While the federal government’s “Childcare and Development Fund” provides some measure of support through block grants, according to Marte it is not nearly enough and “the money ran out very quickly.”

In late July, House Democrats passed the Childcare Is Essential Act, which Marte’s group has supported. The bill creates a $50 billion fund to buttress the reeling industry. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made clear that he is far more interested in remaking the judicial system to benefit conservatives than ushering in financial aid bills for ordinary Americans.

President Donald Trump and his allies have expressed an eagerness to return to normal that is not couched in reality as a third wave of coronavirus infections threatens to derail the economy once more. Without direct federal government intervention to save the childcare industry, the future is frighteningly precarious for women, and especially women of color.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has shrewdly outlined a plan for what his campaign calls a “caregiving economy,” promising to “[e]nsure access to high-quality, affordable child care and offer universal preschool to three-and four-year olds through greater investment, expanded tax credits, and sliding-scale subsidies.” The ambitious $775 billion plan is a start, and Biden will need to be held to his promises if he wins the White House.

When the coronavirus upended the economy, the crisis of childcare that had been brewing for years exploded and revealed the truly barbaric nature of a society that leaves human needs to the whims of “market forces.” There is no better symbol of a society’s future potential than the well-being of its children, and judging by that, we are in deep trouble.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.


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How much would it cost consumers to give farmworkers a significant raise?

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The increased media coverage of the plight of the more than 2 million farmworkers who pick and help produce our food—and whom the Trump administration has deemed to be “essential” workers for the U.S. economy and infrastructure during the coronavirus pandemic—has highlighted the difficult and often dangerous conditions farmworkers face on the job, as well as their central importance to U.S. food supply chains. For example, photographs and videos of farmworkers picking crops under the smoke- and fire-filled skies of California have been widely shared across the internet, and some data suggest that the number of farmworkers who have tested positive for COVID-19 is rivaled only by meat-processing workers. In addition, around half of farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants and 10% are temporary migrant workers with “nonimmigrant” H-2A visas; those farmworkers have limited labor rights in practice and are vulnerable to wage theft and other abuses due to their immigration status.

Despite the key role they play and the challenges they face, farmworkers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the entire U.S. labor market. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that it would not collect the data on farmworker earnings that are used to determine minimum wages for H-2A workers, which could further reduce farmworker earnings.

This raises the question: How much would it cost to give farmworkers a significant raise in pay, even if it was paid for entirely by consumers? The answer is, not that much. About the price of a couple of 12-packs of beer, a large pizza, or a nice bottle of wine.

The latest data on consumer expenditures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides useful information about consumer spending on fresh fruits and vegetables, which, in conjunction with other data, allow us to calculate roughly how much it would cost to raise wages for farmworkers. (For a detailed analysis of these data, see this blog post at Rural Migration News.) But to calculate this, first we have to see how much a typical household spends on fruits and vegetables every year and the share that goes to farm owners and their farmworker employees.

The BLS data show that expenditures by households (referred to in the data as “consumer units”) in 2019 was $320 on fresh fruits and $295 on fresh vegetables, amounting to $615 a year or $11.80 per week. In addition, households spent an additional $110 on processed fruits and $145 on processed vegetables. Interestingly enough, on average, households spent almost as much on alcoholic beverages ($580) as they did on fresh fruits and vegetables ($615).


Data
 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service show that, on average, farmers receive less than 20% of every retail dollar spent on food, but a slightly higher share of what consumers spend for fresh fruits and vegetables. Figure A shows this share over time for fresh fruits and vegetables: Between 2000 and 2015, farmers received an average 30% of the average retail price of fresh fruits and 26% of the average retail price of fresh vegetables (2015 is the most recent year for which data are available). This means that average consumer expenditures on these items include $173 a year for farmers (0.30 x 320 = $96 + 0.26 x 295 = $77).

Farmers received an average 30% of the retail price of fresh fruit and 26% for fresh vegetables between 2000 and 2015

Farm share of fruit and vegetable retail sales, 2000–2015
DateFruitsVegetables
200026%26%
200128%28%
200229%26%
200328%26%
200425%23%
200528%25%
200630%26%
200730%24%
200827%26%
200928%25%
201029%27%
201133%25%
201236%23%
201335%27%
201435%25%
201538%27%

ChartData

Note: Data for 2015 are the most recent data available from United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Price Spreads from Farm to Consumer [Excel]. Share Tweet Embed Download image

According to studies published by the University of California, Davis, farm labor costs are about a third of farm revenue for fresh fruits and vegetables, meaning that farmworker wages and benefits for fresh fruits and vegetables cost the average household $57 per year (0.33 x $173 = $57). (However, in reality, farm labor costs are less than $57 per year per household because over half of the fresh fruits and one-third of fresh vegetables purchased in the United States are imported.)

To illustrate, that means that farm owners and farmworkers together receive only about one-third of retail spending on fruits and vegetables even though most, and in some cases all, of the work it takes to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables for retail sale takes place on farms (the exact share of the price farmers receive varies slightly by crop). For example, strawberries are picked directly into the containers in which they are sold, and iceberg lettuce is wrapped in the field. Consumers who pay $3 for a pound of strawberries are paying about $1 to the farmer, who pays one-third of that amount to farmworkers, 33 cents. For one pound of iceberg lettuce, which costs about $1.20 on average, farmers receive 40 cents and farmworkers get 13 of those 40 cents.

So, what would it cost to raise the wages of farmworkers? One of the few big wage increases for farmworkers occurred after the Bracero guestworker program ended in 1964. Under the rules of the program, Mexican Braceros were guaranteed a minimum wage of $1.40 an hour at a time when U.S. farmworkers were not covered by the minimum wage. Some farmworkers who picked table grapes were paid $1.40 an hour while working alongside Braceros in 1964, and then were offered $1.25 in 1965, prompting a strike. César Chávez became the leader of the strike and won a 40% wage increase in the first United Farm Workers table grape contract in 1966, raising grape workers’ wages to $1.75 an hour.

What would happen if there were a similar 40% wage increase today and the entire wage increase were passed on to consumers? The average hourly earnings of U.S. field and livestock workers were $14 an hour in 2019; a 40% increase would raise their wages to $19.60 an hour.

For a typical household or consumer unit, a 40% increase in farm labor costs translates into a 4% increase in the retail price of fresh fruits and vegetables (0.30 farm share of retail prices x 0.33 farm labor share of farm revenue = 10%; if farm labor costs rise 40%, retail spending rises 4%). If average farmworker earnings rose by 40%, and the increase were passed on entirely to consumers, average spending on fresh fruits and vegetables for a typical household would rise by $25 per year (4% of $615 = $24.60).

Many farm labor analysts consider a typical year of work for seasonal farmworkers to be about 1,000 hours. A 40% wage increase for seasonal farmworkers would raise their average earnings from $14,000 for 1,000 hours of work to $19,600. Many farmworkers have children at home, so for them, going from earning $14,000 to $19,600 per year would mean going from earning about half of the federal poverty line for a family of four ($25,750 in 2019) to earning about three-fourths of the poverty line. For a farmworker employed year-round for 2,000 hours, earnings would increase from $28,000 per year to $39,200, allowing them to earn far above the poverty line.

Raising wages for farmworkers by 40% could improve the quality of life for farmworkers without significantly increasing household spending on fruits and vegetables. If there were productivity improvements as farmers responded to higher labor costs, households could pay even less than the additional $25 per year for fresh fruits and vegetables.

If average farmworker earnings were doubled (rose by 100%) through increased spending on fresh fruits and vegetables, a typical household would see costs rise by $61.50 per year (10% of $615). That extra $61.50 per year would increase the wages of seasonal farmworkers to $28,000 for 1,000 hours of work, taking them above the poverty line for a family of four.

This blog originally appeared at Economic Policy Institute on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Daniel Costa is an attorney who first joined the Economic Policy Institute in 2010 and was EPI’s director of immigration law and policy research from 2013 to early 2018; he returned to this role in 2019 after serving as the California Attorney General’s senior advisor on immigration and labor.

Philip Martin is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis. He edits Rural Migration News, has served on several federal commissions, and testifies frequently before Congress. He is an award-winning author who works for UN agencies around the world on labor and migration issues. His latest book is Merchants of Labor: Recruiters and International Labor Migration, a pioneering analysis of recruiters in low-skilled labor markets explaining the prominent role of labor intermediaries, from Oxford University Press.


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Unemployment Payments Are Running Out for Millions, Even As Long-Term Unemployment Surges

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Large numbers of jobless workers are seeing their unemployment payments come to an end as they reach their maximum weeks of eligibility despite short-term federal extensions. If Congress fails to act, millions more will suffer a total loss of income as their benefits expire at the end of the year.

The loss of unemployment payments hits workers of color, especially Black workers, the hardest. Because of structural racism, occupational segregation, and discriminatory exclusions from the labor market, Black workers have higher rates of unemployment, longer durations of joblessness, fewer funds to fall back on, and are more likely to live in states with the fewest weeks of available benefits.

An acute crisis looms in the very near term as the number of long-term unemployed workers—those out of work for 26 weeks or longer—is now surging. The seasonally adjusted number of long-term unemployed workers grew from 1.624 million in August to 2.405 million in September, the largest month-over-month increase since these data were first measured.

Historically, the duration of unemployment has been significantly longer for Black and Asian workers than for white workers, due to racist exclusions and other labor market inequities. In the 3rd quarter of 2019, an unemployment spell for Black and Asian workers lasted an average of nearly 26 weeks, compared with 19 weeks for white workers. As of 2019, 25.66 percent of Black unemployed workers were out of work for more than 26 weeks, versus 19.62 percent of white unemployed workers. Keep in mind that the unemployment rate for Black workers is usually about double that for white workers, so Black workers are facing a higher long-term unemployment rate on top of an already higher rate of joblessness.

If Congress fails to extend not only higher benefit levels but also the number of weeks of benefits, millions of unemployed workers will soon have zero income support, and these losses will hit Black and lower-income communities most affected by early layoffs the worst.

HOW MANY WEEKS OF UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS ARE AVAILABLE UNDER CURRENT PROGRAMS?

Workers in many states may qualify for up to 26 weeks of regular state unemployment insurance. However, after the Great Recession of 2007-2009, 10 states cut benefit duration. Alabama was the last state to do so; in June 2019 it cut benefits to 14 weeks. Three states cut maximums from 26 to 20 weeks (Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina), one state cut maximum benefit duration to 16 weeks (Arkansas), and five states adopted sliding scales tied to state unemployment rates (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, and Idaho).

Since the start of the pandemic, however, four of those states restored benefits to 26 weeks: Michigan, Kansas, Idaho, and Georgia. Unfortunately, Michigan’s executive order restoring benefits was recently struck down by the state’s Supreme Court, which caused the state to temporarily drop back to 20 weeks until emergency temporary legislation was signed this week once again restoring 26 weeks of benefits through the end of the year. Idaho’s duration is based on its unemployment rate and has decreased to a maximum of 20 weeks.

As part of the CARES Act, Congress added 13 weeks of additional benefits called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). But that program is set to expire at the end of the year, as is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which pays unemployment aid to millions of workers who don’t qualify for regular unemployment insurance (UI). Another program called Extended Benefits (EB) may add 50 percent more weeks than are available in regular state UI if the state’s unemployment rate is over 5 percent and more than 120 percent higher than it was for the same 13-week period over the past year; or states may adopt optional triggers that allow EB to kick in more readily. Moreover, states can adopt an additional trigger to add seven more weeks during periods of very high unemployment of more than 8 percent. You can find out if a state has triggered onto EB and the number of weeks here.

After that time, if workers have a qualifying COVID-related reason for being unemployed, they can then move into Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to get up to 39 total weeks of benefits, or 46 weeks in states with the extra high-unemployment-rate trigger allowing for seven more weeks. Generally, PUA will not apply to someone who originally was eligible for UI plus the available extensions, except in states with fewer than 26 weeks of regular benefits. PUA is generally available for 39 or 46 weeks—that is, until the end of December, when the program is currently set to expire.

HOW DO WORKERS APPLY FOR EXTENDED UNEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE?

Does that all sound confusing? Hopefully, for a claimant, shifting between programs should be a smooth process. Federal guidelines do require that workers affirmatively apply for the extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits available under PEUC, and states are supposed to inform workers when they are eligible and tell them how to apply. It appears some agencies may not be doing that. But overall, the most current data showing regular UI exhaustion versus PEUC recipiency seem to indicate that the transition is by and large smooth for most workers. Anecdotally, workers in states like Michigan report the process to be seamless.

IS CONGRESS GOING TO EXTEND UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS INTO 2021?

Without Congressional action to extend the CARES Act’s PEUC and PUA programs into 2021, millions of workers will drop to zero benefits by the end of this year. Workers who became unemployed the third week in March will run out of benefits before the last week of the year—about a week earlier than the CARES Act programs run out. Any worker who was unemployed prior to the start of the pandemic, however, will not only run out sooner but also may be unlikely to qualify for PUA without a COVID-related cause for their initial unemployment. Considering PUA eligibility extends to pandemic-related unemployment going back to the end of January, some workers are already exhausting PUA. Layoffs related to the pandemic stretch back much farther than the initial spike in new claims—the State of Washington reported a 30 percent increase in claims the first week in March, for example. Finally, workers in states with fewer than 26 weeks of regular eligibility may have difficulty establishing a COVID-related cause to qualify for PUA after their regular UI, PEUC, and EB run out. Given the first-fired, last-hired systemic racial discrimination in employment for Black workers, and the fact that this recession has hit Black workers harder than white workers, extensions in the duration of unemployment payments is a particularly important racial justice issue.

In the short term, Congress and the Trump administration must reach a deal to extend the number of weeks available during this recession. To ensure we do not repeat past mistakes of leaving workers behind in the recovery, we should peg the number of weeks of benefits available to the duration of unemployment that Black workers experience. And we must address the long-term structural changes that are needed to ensure we have a UI system that centers the experiences of Black workers so that it is built to meet the needs of all workers.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michele Evermore is a Senior Policy Analyst for NELP. Her areas of expertise are Retirement Security, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and Worker Training.


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Workers Fired, Penalized for Reporting COVID Safety Violations

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When COVID-19 began making headlines in March, Charles Collins pulled out a protective face mask from the supply at the manufacturing company in Rockaway, New Jersey, where he was the shop foreman and put it on. The dozen or so other workers at the facility followed suit. There was no way to maintain a safe distance from one another on the shop floor, where they made safety mats for machines, and a few of the men had been out sick with flu-like symptoms. Better safe than sorry.

Management was not pleased. Collins got a text message from one of his supervisors saying masks were to be used to protect workers from wood chips, metal particles and other occupational safety hazards. “We don’t provide or for that matter have enough masks to protect anybody from CORVID-19 [sic]!” If workers didn’t stop using the masks for that purpose, the supervisor texted, “we’ll have to store them away just like the candy!”

“I was shocked,” said Collins, 38. “They weren’t taking it seriously.”

Shortly after that, Collins left for a planned vacation. When he returned a week later, the company told him to quarantine at home for two weeks because he’d been traveling.

But when the quarantine ended, Collins didn’t want to go back to work. Co-workers, he said, told him that recommended safety measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distancing hadn’t been implemented. When he told human resources that he feared becoming infected and endangering his mother and his 8-year-old nephew who live with him, he said, he got an ultimatum: Return to work or resign.

Collins stayed home and says he was fired. He hired a lawyer and filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey under the state’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. The law prohibits employers from firing, demoting or otherwise retaliating against workers who refuse to take part in activities they believe are incompatible with public health and safety mandates.

As many employers, with the strong encouragement of the Trump administration, move to bring employees back, a growing number of workers are resisting what they feel are unsafe, unhealthy conditions. In recent months, a few states have passed laws specifically aimed at protecting workers who face COVID-related safety risks and retaliation for speaking up about them. Some states, like New Jersey, have whistleblower protection laws already. But advocates say stronger federal protections are needed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is responsible for enforcing 23 federal whistleblower statutes that protect workers from retaliation if they report workplace safety violations, among other problems.

But according to a new analysis, the agency isn’t up to the task. The National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy and research group, found that of 1,744 COVID-related retaliation complaints filed with OSHA between April and mid-August, 20% were docketed for investigation and 2% were resolved. More than half were dismissed or closed without investigation.

“Even before COVID, workers had a really bad track record of getting any justice for their concerns if they were retaliated against,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project and a former senior OSHA official.

The numbers are growing. Whistleblower complaints filed with OSHA increased by 30% between February and May, to 4,101, according to an August report by the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General that criticized the agency’s handling of the complaints.

Nearly 40% of the complaints — 1,618 — were related to COVID-19, the report found, filed primarily by workers who claimed they were punished for reporting workplace safety violations. Those could include, for example, not having appropriate personal protective equipment or sanitation materials, or a lack of social distancing on the job.

While complaints rose, the number of whistleblower investigators decreased from the previous year, according to the report. The average time it took to close an investigation at the end of March was roughly nine months.

Worker whistleblower protections under the Occupational Safety and Health law are “incredibly weak” compared with whistleblower statutes that protect employees who report other types of wrongdoing, Berkowitz said. If OSHA dismisses a complaint, workers have no right to appeal the decision, and once they file a complaint with OSHA they aren’t permitted to take their case to court on their own, she said.

Consumer advocates would like to see those provisions changed.

Advocates have urged OSHA to adopt mandatory COVID safety standards for workplaces, but the agency has declined to do so, maintaining that its “general duty clause,” which requires employers to maintain a workplace free from hazards likely to cause death or physical harm, is sufficient.

“The Administration has remained committed to providing the Whistleblower Protection program with the resources it needs to fulfill its mission,” a spokesperson for the Department of Labor wrote in an email to KHN. “In fiscal year 2020, OSHA asked for and received five new full-time employees and requested an additional ten in the President’s budget for fiscal year 2021.”

If workers don’t pursue a whistleblower complaint through OSHA, they can file a state lawsuit claiming “wrongful discharge” or use a state’s whistleblower law, as Collins did.

According to a COVID employment litigation tracker by Fisher Phillips, an employment law firm, since the beginning of the year 169 retaliation/whistleblower lawsuits have been filed across the country — the second-biggest category, behind suits related to remote work/leave, with 206 cases. An additional 27 lawsuits have been filed for wrongful discharge.

Juan Carlos Fernandez, the Morristown, New Jersey, attorney representing Charles Collins, said he’s seen a significant uptick in inquiries from workers about safety concerns in recent months. Before the pandemic began, he typically received one or two such calls per month. Now, he gets three or four a day.

Many callers say they were terminated after they asked for protective equipment on the job, Fernandez said. Others had asked for time off to care for a family member or a child whose school had closed because of COVID-19 and then were told not to come back to work.

In addition to reporting safety violations, Collins’ lawsuit claims, he was fired for asking to take time off. Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees are generally entitled to two weeks’ paid leave if they’re quarantined, and another two weeks’ paid sick leave at two-thirds pay to care for a child whose school has closed, as well as expanded family and medical leave. Collins has cared for his nephew since his sister died two years ago in a car accident. His nephew’s school closed in March because of COVID-19.

Collins said his employer, ASO Safety Solutions, paid him for only the first week of his company-ordered quarantine. Any additional time off would come out of his accrued sick and vacation time, he was told.

ASO Safety Solutions didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did the law firm representing the company.

In his response to the complaint submitted to the court, the lawyer representing the company denied that ASO had retaliated against Collins for whistleblowing, asserting he had resigned. The response, by John Olsen, with Ferdinand IP Law Group, also said that the provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act do not apply to the company. The lawyers have exchanged requests for discovery, Fernandez said, which should be answered in the next several weeks.

A few states and cities have stepped in to help whistleblowers. Virginia was the first to put in place statewide workplace safety standards related to COVID-19, spurred by concerns from workers in poultry plants, said Rachel McFarland, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. The standards include specific provisions protecting workers from retaliation for raising safety concerns or refusing to work in a location they believe is unsafe.

Colorado and the cities of Philadelphia and Chicago likewise passed laws prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who raise COVID-related safety concerns, refuse to work in unsafe conditions or take time off to minimize the transmission of the virus.

But these laws are the exceptions, said Brent Newell, a senior attorney at Public Justice in Oakland, California, who has represented the interests of workers in meatpacking plants. “Many states haven’t done that and won’t do that,” he said. “For the federal government to put it on the states to protect workers is wholly and fundamentally inadequate.”

This blog originally appeared at KHN on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Andrews is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience conceiving, reporting, writing and editing features, analyses, commentary and news for leading print and digital publications, including Kaiser Health News, the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR. 


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