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Millions of People Can’t Pay Rent Tomorrow. Here’s How Some Are Organizing.

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As April 1 looms and the first rent payment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic becomes due, countless people wonder how they’ll be able to afford to pay. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, millions have had their hours cut, been furloughed, or laid off. A whopping 3.3 million have applied for unemployment benefits, and some say the unemployment rate could reach 30%. To put that in perspective, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 25%.

The cost of rent has skyrocketed the past few decades, while the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since the $7.25 wage took effect in 2009. And as worker productivity has soared to new heights, studies show that wages have stagnated across the board. This has been a problem for working people even in times of normalcy—in expensive urban cores like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, many bounce from friends’ couches to shelters and even sometimes to their own cars. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing crisis is understandably exploding: Those who were able to just barely pay their rent before are now scrambling to keep the landlord at bay.

Housing activists have been calling for a reprieve on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, and numerous cities states have reacted quickly, placing a temporary moratorium on evictions or a pause on housing court. But none yet have frozen rent payments, and tomorrow is April 1—and the rent is due.

While the fear and panic that people may feel when they’re unable to pay their rent or mortgage can seem individual and unique, it’s actually shared between the millions of others who are in the same boat. Right to the City Alliance, a national network of more than 80 racial, economic and environmental justice organizations, is hoping to turn that collective anxiety into collective action. The alliance is calling for an immediate cancellation of rent and mortgage payments through the duration of the public health and economic crisis for all renters, homeowners and small businesses and a three-month recovery period. These demands expand beyond a rent and mortgage freeze and include calling for the immediate release of those being held in pre-trial and immigrant detention, an indefinite suspension of utility shutoffs, and a guarantee of unemployment insurance, sick time, paid leave, health care, and a living wage for all workers.

For many, rent cancellation is urgently needed to ward off personal financial catastrophe. Coya Crespin of Community Alliance of Tenants of Portland, Oregon, said in a statement, “As a pregnant single parent without any savings, and now schools being shut down, it has been difficult keeping my kids fed. Many of the members of the housing organization I’m a member of have been contacting me afraid of not being able to pay rent in April. The stimulus package check that politicians are lifting up as a solution doesn’t even cover one month’s rent in most cases. People are beyond stressed. I’m beyond stressed.”

Many of these demands have been voiced for years, but have been popularized by the Bernie Sanders campaign and the #HomesGuarantee platform, which would implement a national rent control standard and a just-cause requirement for evictions.Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders agrees that “along with pausing mortgage payments, evictions, and utility shutoffs, we must place a moratorium on rent payments” during the coronavirus pandemic. And because President Trump’s recovery proposal is a paltry $1,200—not even enough to cover rent in many cities—tenants (and even some homeowners) are being forced to make a public declaration that, without more aid, they can’t (and won’t) pay. Housing activists are using this moment of true desperation to demand the support they deserve—but there are some disagreements on the way forward.

While Right to the City Alliance is pushing for an immediate suspension of rent and mortgage payments throughout the coronavirus crisis, and for a three-month period after it ends, others are calling for rent strikes if the government doesn’t act. David Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance, said his network is “supporting a diversity of tactics in the alliance.” Rent Strike 2020, a new organizing campaign working in partnership with Socialist Alternative and the Rose Caucus, a group of socialists running for both state and federal House and Senate seats, is demanding “every Governor, in every state: freeze rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection for two months, or face a rent strike.” Tenants in New York are waiting for Governor Cuomo to provide some relief, but are prepared to take matters into their own hands and go on a rent strike if he does not act.

Davin Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance said, “We see rent strikes as a collective action that comes from deep organizing on the local level and some of our member organizations are going to use that tactic. We need people to come together, organize, and join the movement for long-term and transformative struggle so we can fundamentally change the housing system and win homes for all.”

The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its COVID-19 Tenant Organizing Guide, urges people to be strategic and think long and hard about what their demands really are: “A rent strike is a tool, not a demand,” the guide states. It specifies, “In a situation where the demand is ‘stop collecting rent from me,’ it’s questionable how effective a rent strike would be. To put it another way, how does withholding rent pressure a landlord to suspend rent?”

There are a number of tactics being put forward in this moment, but one thing is for certain: In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing movement is empowering tenants to take big and bold action. No one can predict what will happen on or immediately after April 1, when millions potentially don’t pay their rent, but Cardenas said, “It’s not likely that we’ll see relief, and even the relief that comes in before May 1 won’t be sufficient for what our families need across the country. There is not going to be a return to normalcy or a return to business as usual.”

To sustain any long-term movement—and to win real power for tenants—it’s going to take more than one-off rent strikes or single issue demands. It’s going to take building powerful, working-class organizations. The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its guide, writes “Building strong, durable organization among tenants where there is an abundance of leaders and widespread trust yields the most successful and lasting results.” This must be the lesson for our movements going forward. April 1 may indeed be a pivotal moment in a growing housing movement that is being propelled forward by the crisis of this moment. How we help to steer the real hardships that so many workers are facing into a sustained and determined fight in the days that follow, however, will determine whether we can transform this moment of collective suffering into collective power.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

Coronavirus is endangering the postal service when we need vote by mail. Congress needs to act now

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Congress is failing the U.S. Postal Service, again, and with it, the nation. USPS warned recently that it could run out of money to operate by June because of the massive fall in the level of mail being sent during coronavirus business closures. Democrats tried to include money in the recent stimulus, but the only help that ended up in the final bill was $10 billion in loans that are subject to approval by the Treasury Department.

The decline in mail being sent doesn’t mean mail is less important—it means, in large part, that the people who rely most on mail are now the most vulnerable people. People who need their prescription medications. People who live in rural areas not well served by other delivery services. But democracy also needs the mail. Vote by mail will be more important than ever if COVID-19 remains a threat in the fall.

Millions of people vote by mail, with some states having universal vote-by-mail and many others allowing absentee voting by mail. That’s something we need to expand, not endanger by weakening the USPS.

We’re also talking about an organization that employs 630,000 people. One in five is African American and more than 100,000 are veterans. Every day, postal workers are risking their health by going to work to make sure we get our mail. More than 100 have tested positive for COVID-19 and one has died.

And while the USPS is in crisis, that crisis was manufactured by Republicans. Congress does not allow the postal service to compete with private business—and then it comes under attack for not being profitable. Your local post office should be a center for services like faxing, notary publics, hunting and fishing licenses, and more. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been a longtime champion of the USPS, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has pushed for postal banking, which would not only give the post office a boost but would connect low-income people with nonpredatory banking.

The coronavirus crisis should be making us see that we need more public goods, not allow the ones we have to die off—or be killed by Republicans for whom that’s long been a goal. The USPS needs funding now.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

Why COVID-19 Will Strain the Safety Net for Homeless Vets to the Breaking Point

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Under normal circumstances, Jerry Porter would be spending his time helping the veterans he finds in tent camps and run-down housing.

But the escalating threat of COVID-19 forces the community activist and retired Steelworker to remain at home for now, even though vulnerable vets need him more than ever.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the poor bear the brunt of a pandemic that’s exposed the deep class lines in U.S. society.

The rich have big savings accounts and quality health care. They’ll emerge from the crisis just fine.

But Americans at the margins, including homeless vets who rely on a frayed safety net stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, now face an even greater struggle to survive.

“I don’t know where they end up,” said Porter ruefully. Porter, 75, is a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105 who worked more than 40 years at the aluminum plant in Davenport, Iowa, now owned by Arconic.

Porter and a group of friends work together to help veterans in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.

But now, they’re heeding the request of public health officials. They stay home to help their community slow the spread of COVID-19.

That prevents them from helping veterans like the one Porter found sleeping on a squalid mattress in a “junky” house. He got the man into a clean apartment and—thanks to a friend who owned a bedding store—a new mattress and box spring for just $180.

Just as alarming, COVID-19 halted the fund-raising supporting that kind of intervention. Local veterans groups just canceled a taco dinner and a poppy sale that together raise about $6,000 each year.

For some veterans, that money is the difference between sleeping indoors or on the street.

Porter and his friends use some of the funds to provide life’s basics to the homeless vets they move into government-subsidized housing with little but the clothes on their backs.

“There’s nothing,” Porter explained. “There’s no bedding, silverware, dishes, glassware, towels, sheets.”

Twice a year, advocates in the Quad Cities hold “stand down” events that serve as a one-stop shop for veterans needing anything from counseling to jobs.

Porter already worries that the three-day event planned for September will be canceled because of COVID-19, leaving veterans to face a long winter without important services.

Porter’s union job ensured good wages, a pension and affordable health care. He devotes his retirement to the less fortunate, feeling a duty to fellow vets with no one else to help them.

The federal government fails veterans who struggle to find adequate employment or wrestle with health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

For example, the nation hasn’t adequately addressed the challenges that doom many vets to unemployment or low-wage jobs. Among other problems, veterans have difficulty converting their skills to the private sectorfinding purpose in civilian work and obtaining occupational licenses enabling them to apply skills learned in the military.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25, would benefit about 1.8 million vets, along with millions of other Americans, who barely scrape by. The House last year approved a bill to increase the minimum wage, but Senate Republicans refuse to act on it.

Although significant progress in combating veteran homelessness has been made in recent years, unemployment, low wages and health problems still force veterans onto the streets or into shelters. About 40,000 are homeless, and 1.4 million more are only a lost paycheck or other crisis away from losing the roof over their heads.

A collection of government agencies and nonprofits operates soup kitchens, shelters and other services to serve America’s homeless. But this underfunded system is strained to capacity even in ordinary times.

Volunteers like Porter provide crucial support, stepping in when government agencies don’t know who else to call for help.

A veterans hospital once contacted Porter and asked him to help a man who lived outdoors. His tent was broken, and rain kept getting inside.

Porter picked up the vet and drove him to see a friend who owned an awning company. The businessman fixed the tent for free.

In a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, this patchwork system is easily overwhelmed.

Some service providers already reduced services or limited new admissions to slow the spread of the disease.

Agencies closed drop-in centers where homeless veterans can get out of the elements. Some now want to counsel clients remotely, even though homeless people may not have cell phones.

And in the Quad Cities, Porter and his crew are sidelined, too.

Homeless vets face even greater odds during the COVID-19 crisis even though they have a higher risk of contracting the disease than other Americans.

Many live in cramped quarters without the social distancing and sanitary measures vital to controlling the virus. The closing of libraries, malls and coffee shops deprived them of places to wash their hands. They have nowhere to isolate themselves if they get sick.

Some cities are scrambling to place homeless people in places such as unused motel rooms, vacant houses and recreational vehicles on public streets. The goal is to disperse the population and keep the disease from spreading like wildfire if someone contracts it.

While the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, the slapdash response underscores how fragile the safety net for America’s homeless really is.

As cities struggle to adapt, the ranks of the homeless likely will grow because of the economic slowdown, putting more stress on the overtaxed system.

The government’s response to COVID-19 must include injecting funds into programs that support homeless veterans and keep other vets from losing their homes.

But federal officials also must think about what the economy and social-service network will look like after the pandemic.

That means better funding a system now overly reliant on fundraisers like taco dinners and poppy sales. It means comprehensively addressing the problems servicemen and servicewomen face when they leave the armed forces.

Thoughtful interventions will save lives, says Porter, who recently ran into the veteran he rescued from the “junky” house.

“I’m on my feet,” the man told him. “I’m doing OK.”

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. on March 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).

Garbage Collectors’ Lives Are Not Disposable

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The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging our country, manifesting both as a health crisis and a jobs crisis. While the unemployment rate could soar to 30%, many workers whose industries are generally ignored or disrespected have been deemed essential, and have been putting themselves in harm’s way to keep our society functioning.

No role is more critical than that of sanitation workers, who, in times of normalcy, keep cities and towns healthy, clean and safe. They have one of the most important—and most dangerous—jobs in our country, and yet are routinely belittled. But now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we need them more than ever: Their work is critical in containing COVID-19.

While many of us self-isolate at home, sanitation workers are on the front lines, picking up our garbage and potentially exposing themselves to the virus. Sanitation workers in North Carolina, many of whom are members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 150, have been organizing to protect themselves and their families from coronavirus. Unfortunately, the second reported coronavirus-related death in the state was of a Raleigh sanitation worker, Adrian Grubbs. Raleigh City Workers Union, a chapter of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150, has put forward a set of 10 demands, including immediate coronavirus tests for all Solid Waste Services workers, proper personal protective equipment, adequate hazard pay, and the ability to immediately meet and confer with the City Manager.

In These Times spoke with Charlen Parker, President of Raleigh City Workers Union. Parker hails from Clinton, North Carolina and has been a sanitation worker for nearly 16 years. He is the president of the Raleigh City Workers Union.

Mindy Isser: I am so sorry about what happened to Adrian. How are you all holding up and dealing with his passing?

Charlen Parker: To a lot of us, it’s still surreal because just about everyone knew him. We saw him just about every day when we came into work. We expected it to be like a regular work week. But then we came in and first they had a meeting where we found out he had it, and then the next day we started hearing little reports that he didn’t make it. It’s a hard pill to swallow when it’s someone that you’re used to seeing and being right there with. We hear about the coronavirus and see it on the news and everything, but a lot of people feel like it doesn’t affect them until it’s right there in your face. Hearts and prayers go out to his family, it’s been very difficult.

Mindy: It sounds like you didn’t hear that he was sick until right before he passed away.

Charlen: Yes, we had a meeting on Tuesday morning as we clocked in, and then they had us divided in groups. Our director told us that Adrian Grubbs had contracted it and that he had permission from the family to let us know about his condition. He made his statement, and we walked out and some of us talked amongst ourselves. We sent him our prayers and hoped that he was gonna be alright and that hopefully in a few weeks that we’d be able to see him. That was Tuesday. Wednesday we came into work and everybody was doing their route, and we can leave whenever we get done to keep us from being on top of each other. I was leaving and walking to the parking lot, and I got a phone call from another employee who told me that he heard that Grubbs didn’t make it, that he had passed. He had heard it from two other co-workers and I was like, okay, you know how people spread rumors and whatnot and sometimes their information is not factual. So I said, I hadn’t heard anything official, so maybe it’s just that they’re running off at the mouth and don’t have the right information. And then we came into work on Thursday morning and there’s another meeting where it’s confirmed that he had passed away.

Mindy: And when people found out, obviously they were really upset and sad. Was anyone afraid for their own health? Because I’m sure people had come into contact with him perhaps before he even knew he was sick.

Charlen: Immediately, we felt the sadness. But then right after the sadness, the question was then, how long had he been sick? Who has he been around? What has he touched? Where had he been at? That quickly became the immediate concern.

Mindy: Did anyone get time off of work to self-isolate or is everything kind of business as usual?

Charlen: When our Director made the initial statement that Grubbs had contracted coronavirus, he also said that there were two employees that had quarantined themselves because they had been in close proximity to Grubbs. They didn’t identify the two employees, and that was basically it.

We’re all always on top of each other, we’re always all running into each other, and we were all wondering who the two employees were and if they had interacted with us—because we don’t know who they are. On the administrative side, they get to work from home, so we don’t know if they were talking about them, and since we’re staggered, you can’t pinpoint if it was one of us, because we’re not all there at the same time. 

Mindy: What is Raleigh doing to protect sanitation workers?

Charlen: They’ve been giving out face masks and latex gloves. I think as of Friday, and I cannot confirm, that they’ve increased the amount of gloves you get. They’re supposed to be sanitizing the building daily, but a lot of my coworkers have expressed concerns about that. The normal person who cleans we saw on Tuesday, but since Tuesday no one that I’ve talked to can account for seeing her or anyone else in the building doing additional cleaning. I don’t want to say they haven’t had anybody, but we haven’t seen anybody. And I think they said they have a company that comes in and does a thorough cleaning of the building, but that’s only once a week.

Mindy: What do you think the city should be doing to protect you?

Charlen: The major concern right now amongst many of my co-workers is that, since Grubbs did have it, many of us want to be tested. We understand that they have limited tests, but from my perspective, we’re on the front lines, and we have to go out there and be in the middle of it. The least that they could do is to test us so that we can either confirm or deny who does or doesn’t have it. We have families. One thing that they mentioned to us was that maybe we can be tested if we start to show symptoms, but you can carry the coronavirus and not have any symptoms—a lot of people don’t feel like they’re taking that into account. Many of us have children, we have people in our families that have health issues, and no one wants to bring that home to our families.

Mindy: How does it feel to be playing such a critical role right now with how serious the coronavirus crisis is becoming?

Charlen: I’ve understood for a while the health risk of not picking up garbage, including the spread of disease and the increase of vermin. Personally, I feel good when I know I’m providing a service that helps people. Especially lately when people are staying home from work, you’ll see whole families outside waving and smiling. Even though we’re going through this crisis, you still see families out smiling and enjoying themselves. It makes it worth it.

Mindy: Many people are working from home right now, but many other workers like yourself can’t do that. What do you think all essential workers—like grocery store workers, utility workers—deserve right now in terms of protections, hazard pay, etc.?

Charlen: All of your frontline employees and essential personnel should be tested because we are the ones in direct contact, we have to be out there. I feel like it shouldn’t be an issue to get us supplies, getting us tested, and doing everything you can do to protect us. One of the options we were talking about was alternating shifts—one crew comes in for a whole week, and the following week they’re off and the other crew comes in for a week. I think this would be a great idea. My only concern is that I don’t know if we have enough personnel to do it and get stuff up off the ground in a timely manner to where guys won’t be out there all day. That’s one of my major concerns.

They have given us a 5% increase in pay, which I don’t feel like is enough. The state is considering time-and-a-half pay. That would be good. Whole Foods is paying an extra $2 an hour, which is more than what we get with our hazard pay.

Mindy: In 2006, Raleigh sanitation workers went on a wildcat strike. Many of their demands were around health and safety issues. How have things changed since you started in Raleigh six years ago?

Charlen: We’re supposed to have a safety coordinator. Since I have been at the City of Raleigh, I’ve had four different safety coordinators, and it’s been almost a year since the last one was there. We currently don’t have a safety coordinator at Solid Waste Services. With regards to safety, we still have some issues. They get into meetings and stress safety, but I don’t think they understand that there are certain things we can’t do because we don’t have enough personnel or equipment. A lot of times we have a lot of equipment issues. We do have a high turnover rate. They say right now that we’re fully staffed, but I don’t see how that could be possible when the city is constantly growing, they’re building subdivisions, and they’re increasing the amount of work we have to do, which means we have to stay out there longer. Sometimes we will go out there and our equipment is not always up to par like it should be. We need adequate equipment to work with.

Mindy: How is UE 150 organizing and fighting back to protect workers during the coronavirus crisis? Have you made any demands of the city?

Charlen: On March 17, we sent a letter with some of our concerns to Mayor Baldwin, City Manager Ruffin Hall, and City Council. They basically ignored us. After Adrian Grubbs, we also sent another letter with 10 demands. Some of the demands include meeting with the City Manager to express concerns about frontline workers. We have concerns and don’t feel like they’re listening to us. Another demand is since the passing of Adrian Grubbs, we haven’t heard the followup to how he got sick, where he got sick, where he’s been, and who he’s been in contact with.

Workers have been standing up and organizing all over the place—I saw Pittsburgh sanitation workers went out on a wildcat strike this past week. Have you all been inspired by other workers who have been speaking out and taking action since the coronavirus started?

Charlen: Yes, of course, but on the other hand, there is a lot of fear out there where I work at. You have some employees that want to stand up and do something. But other workers believe that they’re not gonna listen, they’re not gonna do anything, they’re gonna do what they want to do, they’re gonna treat us how they want, so what’s the point of standing up?

Mindy: How do you think we can fight back against that? Do you think if people saw other workers coming together and winning they would be inspired to take action?

Charlen: We have a new administration in Solid Waste Services. That’s because a couple of years ago we protested people in management, and every single name on all of the petitions we circulated are gone—they either left or were terminated. The new administration cleaned house because of our list of bad supervisors. That’s the power that we have, I’ve been explaining that to my coworkers. The only way we win is by doing something.

Mindy: What would you say to other workers right now—the ones who have to keep coming to work—about how they can keep themselves safe while they’re on the job?

Charlen: Working in sanitation is the fifth most dangerous job in the United States on fatalities. We should get hazard pay all the time. I don’t understand how the police and fire department have no problem getting hazard pay, but we can’t get hazard pay.

If I could borrow from Dominic Harris, the president of the Charlotte City Workers Chapter of UE Local 150, who said on a conference call that the coronavirus crisis is the perfect opportunity for workers. You can see how much power that you’ve got during this crisis and how much they rely and depend on us. This is the perfect opportunity to use that power and stand up and get the things that we need.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

Fatalistic Grocery Workers Demand Hazard Pay, Saying “Infection Is Inevitable”

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Grocery store employees find themselves the subject of widespread public acclaim for continuing to work during the coronavirus crisis. But front-line workers at grocery chains across the country say they want something more tangible than congratulations: hazard pay. And they are winning it with spontaneous organizing campaigns forged in the crucible of a national crisis.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, at least a dozen separate campaigns by grocery employees have popped up on Coworker.org, an online organizing platform that allows workers to create campaigns for workplace change themselves. Some have already won hazard pay at their stores; others are locked in struggles with intransigent employers. Workers involved in five separate campaigns told us of stress and dangerous conditions at work—but also of the power of collective action.

At Market of Choice, an Oregon-based grocery chain, the CEO has granted a $2 per hour pay increase (less than the $3 per hour workers asked for, but an increase nonetheless). Anna Carlin, a pizza cook at Market of Choice, says the increase is not enough, and that her colleagues remain “tense” and “stressed” about their own safety. “It irks me that corporate isn’t willing to call it ‘hazard pay,’” Carlin said. “We’re being exposed to hazards. Our work is increasingly hazardous. Not calling it hazard pay reads as an attempt to obfuscate that. Everyone at work seems generally grateful for the boost but also concerned about the lack of other protections or guarantees being offered.”

Employees at New Seasons Market, a grocery chain in the Northwestern United States, also secured bonus pay and other benefits during the crisis. Anne Johnson, a cashier at a store in Portland, Oregon, says that she appreciates the benefits, but doubts that the modest increases make up for the physical and emotional toll that the ongoing crisis is taking on workers there.

“The amount of emotional labor that’s expected of cashiers (especially someone like me, a friendly young woman) has always bothered me, but at this time it is so heightened and for me personally. It has become so intense I’ve asked to be assigned tasks other than ringing people up as much as possible. Staff in every department are stressed and overworked and worried for their families,” Johnson said. “I don’t really know if any amount of money would make working in this environment and being exposed to this level of risk feel worth it. Personally, I live with my grandmother and mother so it’s just really hard to know if continuing to come to work is the right choice.”

Those are the stresses on workers at chains that have granted some outright form of hazard pay. Elsewhere, gains can be more murky. One of the most prominent grocery organizing campaigns is at Trader Joe’s, where more than 20,000 employees have signed a petition asking for hazard pay, at the same time that an internal group has been calling publicly for a union drive. The company says it is setting up a “special bonus pool” for employees—money that workers say will come out to a raise of less than $2 per hour for the past month, which falls short of the petition’s call for time-and-a-half pay for everyone as long as the crisis drags on.

A group of Trader Joe’s employees involved in the organizing campaign, who answered questions anonymously, criticized “half-measures” by management in the face of an overwhelming public health threat. Workers described facing uncertainty, enormous crowds at stores, answering the same handful of questions over and over again from frantic customers, and a lack of management coordination on a national level that meant that different stores ended up with different enforcement policies on basic safety questions like the right of cashiers to wear gloves as they worked. “The company is leaving the health and safety of the base of their pyramid up to the mercy of each store’s captain and regional manager,” one employee said.

All of that takes place in an atmosphere of “palpable” stress and long hours, in which perfect safety is impossible. Asked about the fear of becoming infected with coronavirus on the job, one worker replied, “infection is inevitable.”

Adding to the dissatisfaction is the perception that the company is using the crisis as an opportunity to undermine the nascent union drive and spread misinformation. The workers who created the Coworker.org petition say that “The company used the existence of this petition to lie to workers, telling them it was a trick to get people to sign their name to the union effort.” Another Trader Joe’s employee sent a photograph of a printed sheet of “Huddle notes”—talking points that managers use in employee meetings—that included a section of common anti-union talking points, such as “Unions are businesses. They need revenue, and they get revenue through union dues.”

Many grocery workers are holding fast in their demands for compensation that they feel matches the scale for the risk they’re taking—demands that can themselves be heartbreakingly modest. Nearly 4,500 employees of the grocery chain Fred Meyer signed a petition for hazard pay, and the company has given them, instead, a one-time bonus of $300 for full-time employees, and $150 for part-time employees. Lauren Hendricks, a Fred Meyer cake decorator in Washington state, says a $2 per hour raise would be more appropriate. “That is what I have seen other companies doing, and I think it’s a great thing because it ensures part time employees notice a difference in their paycheck as well,” Hendricks said. “Risking our lives—our health and wellbeing—for regular pay isn’t worth it. I had a customer straight up cough in my face the other day, he instantly apologized after he realized what he had done, but this is the perfect example of what we deal with on a daily basis.”

Then there are the grocery chains where workers are still struggling to win anything meaningful at all. At Publix, a large chain down south, almost 7,000 workers have signed a petition calling for time-and-a-half hazard pay. “All of my coworkers are sleep-deprived (plenty of them working 70+ hour weeks—it’s a free for all with overtime right now), they’re stressed out, on the verge of a complete meltdown, and it has made us far more agitated than I’ve ever seen,” said Summer Fitzgerald, a clerk at a Publix in Charleston, South Carolina. “We’ve worked through holidays and hurricanes, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Their thanks so far, she said, has been a $50 Publix gift card, and “a little snack table in the breakroom with free food.”

While the eruption of workplace activism inside grocery stores that have never had a labor union is inspiring, the larger context is still grim. Even as grocery employees enjoy their highest level of public support in U.S. history, most of their campaigns are demanding temporary, rather than permanent, increases in compensation and benefits. The nature of hazard pay itself is that it expires when the “hazard” is over. While some unionized grocery workers will likely hang on to their pay increases when this is all over, many others are skeptical they will get any lasting benefits. (“I foresee a pizza party as reward for our service, at most,” one worker said.)

Still, most grocery workers say they are getting more compliments and sympathy from customers than they have ever seen before. And Anna Carlin, from Market of Choice, says there may be at least one silver lining: “My parents have stopped asking if I’m going to get a ‘real job.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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.

‘Now, I’m Unemployed’: How Coronavirus Killed Off the Capitol Hill Internship

Jordan Muller (@jordanmuller18) | Twitter

They thought they were getting their foot in the door for a career in politics. Now, their internships have abruptly ended — and their ambitions are on hold.

Congress’ frenzied effort to respond to the coronavirus crisis has been one of the most furious sessions of lawmaking in history. Just days after a congressional staffer tested positive for the virus, the House passed a bipartisan coronavirus response bill securing food aid, free access to testing and extended paid time off for vulnerable Americans. On the other side of the Capitol building, senators and their aides remained at work deep into the night this week, negotiating the specifics of the $2 trillion economic rescue package they passed unanimously late Wednesday night — and which the House is expected to vote on as early as Friday morning.

Noticeably absent from the hubbub? Congressional interns, whose semesters on the Hill have ended abruptly in response to the coronavirus.

For thousands of students, the coronavirus has disrupted the usual flow of college life, forcing students from their dorms, leading school administrators to cancel graduation ceremonies, and driving professors to their laptops to wrap up their classes via video conference. But for those students who had lined up internships in Washington this semester, efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus have disrupted or outright canceled what those interns had hoped would be a foot in the door for a post-collegiate job in politics.

“I’m pretty much in limbo,” said Wayne A. Rodriquez Jr., an American University student who interned in Rep. Jim Himes’ office this semesteruntil two weeks ago, when his internship abruptly ended due to coronavirus fears. “I don’t really know where to go from here, because I was supposed to carry on, and now, I’m unemployed.”

Unlike their colleagues in staff jobs, who are federal employees, interns are totally discretionary — each office hires its own — even as they are subject to many of the same centralized rules that apply to staffers. Similarly, it’s left to each individual congressional office how to handle coronavirus — whether that meant a premature end to internships, a work-from-home arrangement, or something else entirely. So, almost at random, as some of their offices swung into furious action and some went into hibernation, interns found themselves on the outside.

While some congressional interns have been forced to work from home, others have been furloughed or had their program cut completely. Those who are out of work join the swelling ranks of Americans who have lost their jobs in recent days, and whose career prospects remain uncertain as the economy tumbles and businesses shut down.

By March 12, the day after a Senate staffer tested positive for the coronavirus, some congressional offices had begun ordering their staff to work remotely. For some interns, whose programs are managed by individual offices, that marked an unceremonious end to their short semester on the Hill.

“[That] was my last day, and I was only in [the office] for like two hours,” said one congressional intern, who, like most interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press and feared that doing so could hurt their career prospects. “I didn’t even say goodbye to anyone.”

For young politicos, congressional internships are something of a rite of passage — the first rung of the ladder in a career in government and politics. Each semester, hundreds of college students flock to congressional offices to answer phone calls and emails, give tours to constituents, draft press releases, research legislation and schedule appointments. Many of those tasks are impossible to do remotely, and even among those interns who were able to retain their positions, it’s impossible to access the secure congressional computers and networks necessary to do many of their usual daily tasks.

“To go from working eight or nine hours a day to doing two or three hours of work, if that, is pretty difficult,” said one House intern, who’s working remotely and still getting paid. “I’m used to doing stuff all day, and now I’m doing nothing.”

Another House intern told POLITICO that he’s been out of work for a week and a half, since his member’s office began working from home. He’s still receiving a monthly $500 stipend, but can’t access his House email account remotely and hasn’t been assigned any work. In the meantime, he’s waiting out the crisis at his mom’s house in Maryland, and preparing to apply for other jobs in D.C.

Capitol Hill, long known for its close quarters where members and staff mingle collegially as a constant stream of visitors pass through, is seen as particularly vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Members must vote in person, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges Americans to gather in groups of no larger than 10. The average age of a House member is nearly 59; for Senators, it’s 63. Two House members and one senator have already tested positive for the virus, with dozens more in self-quarantine.

Congressional offices often hire interns from the pool of students in Washington-area colleges. But those schools, like most across the country, have shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some of the region’s largest colleges, including Georgetown, George Washington University, Howard University and American University, are shuttering their dorms and shifting classes online — leaving students scrambling to figure out their housing situations, move out of the dorms and wrap up their internships.

One student at GW whose House internship ended two weeks ago, said that even if their member’s office returns to in-person work, they won’t be able to live in D.C. to finish their internship: They’ve already moved all their belongings out of the dorm, flown home, and the college will not let students move back.

Another student, a Senate intern who is now working remotely, took the semester off from college to intern on Capitol Hill. He had been living in dorm-style housing with six other congressional interns who are now unable to work from their members’ offices. After a few days cooped up with his roommates, unable to get work done — or even to seek a reprieve by taking his laptop to the neighborhood Starbucks — he packed up his belongings and moved out of the dorm to stay with relatives in the area.

“I’m hoping that this isn’t the end of my internship,” he said.“I guess it really makes me value the ability to be able to do in-person work experience a lot more.”

This article was originally published at Politico on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Muller is an editorial intern at Politico Magazine.

N95 masks pour in from unions, corporations, schools, churches … while the federal government lags

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Donald Trump keeps coming up with excuses for why the federal government is not providing medical professionals with the protection they need as they fight coronavirus. And other groups keep coming up with the N95 masks that are so badly needed. On Thursday, SEIU-UHW, a union representing healthcare workers, announced it had located 39 million N95 masks, which were sitting in a medical supplier’s warehouse in Pennsylvania.

The union made call after call until they found a company that had one of the pieces of equipment that’s so desperately needed. While, it cannot be emphasized enough, Donald Trump makes excuses.

The supplier with the 39 million masks is now selling them to the state of California, several California healthcare providers, and the Greater New York Hospital Association. In California, SEIU-UHW workers will benefit directly by having more of the protective gear they need. But, as the union’s president said in a statement, “While we are pleased with these initial results, we recognize they are stopgap measures in light of the estimated 3.5 billion masks that could be needed during this pandemic. We urgently need the federal government to step in and drive a coordinated national response to the PPE shortage.”

SEIU-UHW wasn’t the only organization stepping up to find masks. Building trades unions previously donated masks their workers use to protect themselves on the job. In Washington, D.C., the head stonemason at the National Cathedral remembered a stash of thousands of masks, which the cathedral donated. Goldman Sachs is the latest company to donate hundreds of thousands of masks out of its own disaster preparedness supply. And more local organizations are scraping together every last mask and other protective gear they can and sending them to their local hospitals—like Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, Massachusetts, which donated 215 masks along with safety glasses and other protective equipment.

Across the country and from the most massive corporations to small organizations, people are working to equip our medical professionals to stay safe and treat us when we get sick. And with the resources of the federal government at his disposal, Donald Trump just keeps failing to deliver that kind of care for public health and safety.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

Working or Unemployed, Construction Workers Are Screwed

Image result for Hamilton Nolan

With no firm national standards about shutting down construction projects as the coronavirus stalks the nation, building trade unions and their members are facing a grim multidimensional crisis: high unemployment, faltering pensions, lost benefits, plummeting dues revenue—and, for those who do remain on the job, the constant question of whether they should quit in order to protect their health.

Leaders at two major building trade unions this week described an increasingly desperate economic climate for their members. Eric Dean, the president of the 130,000-member Ironworkers Union, said that 30% of his work force was “idle or sitting at home,” and that unemployment continues to rise by the day. Jim Williams, vice president and organizing director at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said that unemployment among his members has shot up to 50% in the course of a single week.

The price of this sudden economic dislocation is vast. In particular, health care benefits of the idled construction workers are now at risk, just when they need it most. Also at risk are the unions’ pension funds, which have cratered along with financial markets, endangering retirement benefits for thousands of members. The multi-employer pension fund of the Ironworkers, which was still recovering from the losses of the 2008 financial crisis, has now taken a 20% hit on its portfolio. “With our hours down and our investments down, a blind man can see that we’ve been severely impacted,” Dean said.

It is hard to know whether those construction workers who are still working should be considered lucky. In the coronavirus epicenter of New York, and in most other states, construction workers have been deemed “essential employees,” allowing their employers to keep them building on crowded job sites, where “social distancing” is next to impossible. Dean said that, for the first time in his career, he has seen construction projects building worker housing on job sites in order to keep workers isolated and close to their workplace. At the same time, ironworkers have told him that walking through empty streets in order to get to their still-active building sites “makes me feel that I’m expendable.”

“There’s a growing sentiment among our workforce that maybe [unemployment] should be higher, because of the health and safety risk of being on a construction site,” Jim Williams said. Among IUPAT members, there is a split down the middle between those who are more concerned about health risks, and those who say “I need to work so that I have my health care coverage, so that I can continue my way of life. It’s a Catch-22.” Though the union can see why work on critical infrastructure like the electrical and water systems must continue, commercial construction “can certainly slow down,” he said. “I don’t believe building a millionaire’s or billionaire’s condominium” is worth the risk.

The stimulus bill now working its way through Congress is only a half measure, as far as the unions are concerned. A coalition of building trade unions lobbied for four “planks” to be included in the bill: better unemployment compensation, healthcare coverage that won’t lapse, shoring up pension funds, and a large investment in national infrastructure—a policy that Democrats and Republicans have been talking about for years without ever making it a reality. Of those four goals, only the unemployment compensation aspect will be fulfilled in the current bill. Already, the building trades are pushing for another stimulus bill after this one is completed. “This was the relief bill,” Williams said. “There’s going to have to be a recovery bill, too.”

Besides the direct impacts to members, the unions themselves are now staring down the second-order consequence of widespread unemployment: a dropoff in union dues. IUPAT has already told its locals that it is waiving member dues for the month of April as a relief measure, and will assess again after that. Waiving dues, however, inevitably eats away at the revenue unions use to maintain their staffing—and to lobby Congress for whatever comes next. According to Dean, the Ironworkers lost around 15% of their members after the 2008 recession, a figure they are using as a baseline now. But everyone acknowledges that this time could be worse. And Dean suspects that if work dries up, more members closing in on retirement age may decide to go ahead and retire early, further weakening the active membership numbers.

If there is any silver lining, it is that whenever the industry picks back up again, non-union construction workers may feel more enticed to organize, after witnessing their higher-paid union colleagues make use of at least a marginal safety net during this crisis. “It presents the opportunity for the labor movement to get it right,” said Williams. “Any time we miss that, we miss a golden opportunity.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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.

Amazon Says It’s Giving Part-Time Workers PTO—But There May Be a Catch

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has rolled out a new policy that extends paid time off to thousands of part-time operations employees.

The change follows a months-long campaign by workers in Amazon’s last-mile delivery stations to demand PTO, touted in the company’s public communications as an “essential” benefit offered to all its workers. After being told that a special classification made them ineligible, workers at Sacramento’s DSM1 delivery station launched a petition demanding the same benefits as other part-time employees and staged a walkout in December. Workers at delivery stations in Chicago and Queens took up the call earlier this year, and more than 4,300 Amazon employees nationwide signed on.

On March 20, delivery workers celebrated after receiving a “manager’s update” that reads, “We are excited to announce that Amazon will offer paid-time off benefits to all our regular part-time and seasonal employees in the United States working in the [Operations] network.

But employees still have questions.

It’s still unclear how the policy will apply in localities that already require paid sick leave. Chicago-area Amazon workers who say they previously caught the company breaking local sick-leave law suspect the company is now trying to pull a bait-and-switch.

Workers at Chicago’s DCH1 delivery station say they currently accrue 15 minutes of paid sick time per 8 hours worked, a rate slightly above what’s required by local law. Over the weekend, members of the group DCH1 Amazonians United asked an area manager to confirm whether they would receive PTO on top of existing sick leave. They say they were told that they would accrue both, separately, until June 1. At that point, sick time would “disappear,” and they would continue racking up PTO: at the same rate they do now.

An internal announcement at the facility, provided to In These Times, reads: “PTO and sick time will continue to accrue. In June it will combine and sick time bucket on HUB will disappear.” (HUB refers to the online system where employees can track their available paid and unpaid time off.)

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about the new PTO policy.

According to Ted Miin, a Chicago Amazon employee and member of DCH1 Amazonians United, “Amazon is making a few concessions to motivate workers who are desperate and poor to keep coming into the warehouse and putting themselves at risk. But once we get this, we’re not going to let them take it away.”

To meet soaring demand from home-bound consumers, Amazon last week announced plans to hire 100,000 additional warehouse employees. The online-retail giant is also raising workers’ pay by $2 an hour through April, creating a $25 million hardship fund and granting two weeks of paid sick leave to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Those changes fall short of demands outlined in a petition for coronavirus protections from Amazon, including time-and-a-half pay, childcare pay and subsidies for workers impacted by school and daycare closures, paid sick leave without a requirement for positive diagnosis, and complete facility shutdowns in order to sanitize warehouses where workers test positive for COVID-19.

Last week, a Queens delivery hub reopened the day after an employee tested positive, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at a U.S. Amazon facility.

Workers say that the standard precautions—stand at least six-feet apart, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching surfaces that might be contaminated—are almost impossible to follow inside crowded facilities. The volume of packages they’re handling has peaked, and the goods they’re moving are heavier.

“At the same time that they’ve been telling us to work more safely and sanitize our stations, they’ve raised productivity quotas,” said a worker at the Queens facility station who asked to remain anonymous. “Some people still have trouble hitting them even if they’re not washing their hands, and they’re not giving us extra time to wash our hands.”

Chicago Amazon employees have set up a mutual aid fund to support workers who they say are struggling to make ends meet during the crisis.

“While Amazon has publicly announced a policy to give workers sick/quarantine pay, several of our coworkers under CDC-advised self-quarantine due to medical status or recent travel are still getting the run-around by Amazon and have thus far not been able to get that pay,” they write on the page. “We will fight until we get it, but in the meantime funds are running low for medicine, food, baby supplies, and rent.”

Last week, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos, urging him to grant workers sick leave and hazard pay. The letter also poses questions about precautions Amazon is taking, with a March 26 deadline to respond.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Americans who are taking every precaution … might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

Everyone can get coronavirus, but economic inequality means it will be worst for those at the bottom

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Coronavirus doesn’t spare the powerful. As of this writing, two members of the Housea senator, and the president of Harvard University have tested positive. But as with so many things in the unequal United States of America, it’s going to be worse for people who are already vulnerable: low-income people, people in rural areas, homeless people, single parents, inmates, and more.

There’s the constant strain of affording health care in a system that bankrupts so many people. There’s the need to go to work no matter what if you live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have paid sick leave. There’s the fact that so many of those low-wage jobs require face-to-face contact.

COVID-19 disproportionately hits older people, and rural populations skew old. The most common jobs in rural areas tend not to offer paid sick leave. Rural areas have also lost more than 100 hospitals in the past decade, so the remaining hospitals may struggle to keep up with increased need even more than hospitals in other areas of the country—where it’s already expected to be bad.

We’re told that staying away from other people and washing our hands a lot are two of the best ways to combat the spread of coronavirus. Homeless people lack access to sanitation and often live in crowded environments, be they shelters or encampments. Inmates are another group living in crowded environments and prisons often lack soap as well.

In the workplace, a Politico analysis found that nearly 24 million people are in particularly high-risk, low-wage jobs—cashiers, home health aides, paramedics. Their jobs require them to get close to lots of people day after day, and all too often lack paid sick leave.

Low-income people also can’t stockpile food and retreat to their homes to ride it out—because most don’t have the savings to buy two weeks of food all at once. Families whose kids rely on free or reduced-price school lunches may still have access to those meals, but they are likely to have to go out every day to pick up the food. And many say that their school districts haven’t told them where to go for meals.

Anyone can get sick from COVID-19. Anyone can get very sick from it. But that doesn’t mean the suffering will be evenly distributed. 

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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