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Trump administration wants states to zip their lips about soaring unemployment numbers

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Unemployment is skyrocketing as entire industries shut down or scale back dramatically in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment claims rose 30% last week, with 281,000 newly jobless people filing for unemployment insurance. But the numbers that are still to come are going to be much worse. How much worse? Well, the Labor Department is asking states not to give any numbers until the official report comes out, because the financial markets will see and it will be bad.

On Wednesday, the Labor Department’s administrator of the Office of Employment Insurance (a career official, not a political appointee) sent state officials an email telling them to “provide information using generalities to describe claims levels (very high, large increase).” Perhaps state officials should pay a visit to Thesaurus.com for some help, and tell the public, “We can’t give you exact numbers here, but there has been an enormous/giant/gigantic/hefty/huge increase in unemployment claims this week. For exact numbers, wait until the federal government releases them next week.” That will surely ease anxieties!

Washington state’s new unemployment claims rose by 150% last week—and while officials there aren’t giving numbers, they did say there’s an “even more dramatic increase this week.” In Pennsylvania, a state labor official told lawmakers and union leaders that there had been 180,000 new unemployment claims in recent days. That’s more than the state typically sees in a month.

It sounds like we might need to go back to the thesaurus to convey the magnitude of the job losses going on. How about gargantuan? Immense? Massive?

Or maybe—here’s a thought—numbers. Waiting until Thursday to know the scope of the economic crisis is not going to calm anyone down. We saw that when Donald Trump attempted to downplay the coronavirus crisis because he was worried about how the markets would respond, and the markets tanked anyway. Everyone knows things are really, really, really bad out there. Knowing that the government is being transparent would at least be one piece of good news.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 20, 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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Worried Call Center Workers Do Not Understand Why They Are Risking Their Lives for Customer Service

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As the coronavirus has shuttered swaths of America’s offices, many workers in corporate call centers say they are still expected to work, risking their own health. Call centers have been deemed “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security, but employees with little paid sick leave say they feel forced to work, in constant fear of infection, in order to keep customer service lines functioning smoothly.

Late last week, as states from coast to coast closed businesses in order to try to restrain the spread of the disease, call center workers across the country told In These Times that their jobs were continuing. Many said that the policies instituted by their employers were wildly insufficient for protecting employees from the scale and danger of this pandemic. One person who works as a customer service rep at a Kansas call center for the government contractor Maximus, said that employees were told late last week that they could apply for leave for childcare reasons after schools shut down, but that the process was broken.

“After applying online I immediately received an email from Maximus saying that I didn’t qualify for the leave. My supervisor told me to talk to human capital (that’s what they call HR now) about it, but they wouldn’t speak to me. They said they would only take appointments. I applied for an appointment twice and got no response,” the employee said on Friday. “We were also told to tell our supervisors if we were sick. I have symptoms of a cold right now, which I relayed to my supervisor. We assumed they were going to send everyone who was sick home, but human capital never responded. And I’m still scheduled to go into work tomorrow.”

Cassie Ludwig, who works at a Maximus call center in Kentucky, said that she is required to work 30 hours a week to qualify for health insurance, and now she fears losing it when she needs it most. “I got a schedule change because the schools in our area are closed due to COVID-19, but if I don’t work the minimum hours and fall ill, I won’t be able to afford treatment.” (A Maximus spokesperson said that the company’s updated sick leave grants up to 80 hours of paid leave to employees who are self-quarantined or forced to care for sick family members, and that “if an employee needs to take COVID related leave their health insurance coverage continues.”)

Several call center workers for Wells Fargo spent last week grasping for clarity on whether they could keep themselves safe without facing unemployment. Last Wednesday, an employee at a Wells Fargo call center in Minneapolis was desperate enough that she was emailing any news outlets she could find, concerned about the health of her husband, who was working in conditions she said were “definitely closer than they should be.” Her husband was later granted 14 days of paid sick leave due to a health condition, but other employees at the call center remain on the job.

There was similar uncertainty in other locations, according to Patrick Creaven, a member of the Committee for Better Banks who works at a Wells Fargo “contact center” in Concord, California that handles customer service. At the end of last week, Creaven said, some though not all of the several hundred employees in the building were told they could work from home—theoretically. “My colleagues and I in the Social Care department could work from home if we were given laptops, but they are currently not available. We’ve been told the bank is working on securing them for us, but there’s a backlog,” he said. “Overall, the workplace this week is very similar to the workplace we had pre-coronavirus.”

Creaven said that he and his colleagues are typically given three paid sick leave days a year; Wells Fargo has told them that if they test positive for coronavirus, or are deemed to be at high risk as defined by the CDC, they can file to receive 14 days of paid leave.

“Some Wells Fargo employees who support critical operations, including contact centers, must be onsite in order to serve our customers,” said Wells Fargo spokesman John Hobot. “As the situation evolves quickly, we continue to explore alternatives, and are taking significant actions to ensure the safety of our team while ensuring customers are provided the services they need.” He added that the company is updating policies, “including benefit enhancements specifically for employees directly affected by coronavirus through illness or school closures.”

A steady theme from call center employees over the past week has been that the reactive measures taken by their employers in response to the pandemic have not been enough to reassure them that they are not placing their lives on the line for their relatively low-paying jobs. An employee at a Consumer Cellular call center in Arizona who expressed fear of infection last week told In These Times that he has now left the job, making the calculation that the health risk was too great. “I am of the opinion that states like mine that are oversaturated with mega call centers are putting an untold number of lives at risk by allowing them to continue to operate,” he said.

Call center workers themselves are the strongest believers that they should all be working from home, rather than being forced to choose between coming into crowded offices or lose their livelihoods. “We need to be allowed to work from home to prevent people from catching the virus, as a precautionary measure—not as a reactionary one,” said the Wells Fargo worker Patrick Creaven. “I’m very worried. Government agencies have told us to ‘shelter-in-place’ to prevent the spread of the virus. Going into a building with hundreds of people in it, opening the same doors and touching the same elevator buttons, has suddenly become terrifying. I feel like it’s not a matter of if, but when someone becomes sick.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 23, 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.


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OSHA Needs A Prescription for Safety Now

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Kimberly Delbrune-Mitter, a cardiac nurse, cares deeply about her patients and remains steadfast in her desire to help them, even as COVID-19 spreads across America.

What plagues her about the new disease isn’t that she might encounter it. It’s the lack of guidance, vital information that would help her balance quality care and her own health.

Medical professionals looking to the Trump administration for leadership will hear nothing but a resounding silence.

Instead, people on the front lines have to fight for their own health and safety even while they care for their patients.

A group of labor unions, including the United Steelworkers (USW), last week sent Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a petition demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implement an emergency safety standard to protect health care workers, first responders and others at risk of contracting the virus on the job.

The unions and the workers they represent want OSHA to specify the types of equipment employers must provide and the procedures they must follow to keep workers safe.

For hospitals, this could mean providing doctors, nurses and others with the most advanced facemasks on the market. It could mean minimizing the number of people who enter a patient’s room, screening workers for sickness at the start of their shifts or providing staff members with a vaccine when one becomes available.

So far, they’ve received no response.

While the Trump administration fiddles, hundreds of health care workers already are quarantined because of possible exposure to COVID-19, and many others have questions about how to do their jobs without contracting the disease.

“Do we need to wear eye shields? Do we need hair caps? Do we need gowns?” asked Delbrune-Mitter, president of USW Local 9620, which represents about 500 nurses in New Jersey.

Right now, each hospital, clinic and doctor’s office is largely free to take whatever precautions it wants. At some hospitals, nurses cite a lack of personal protective equipment like facemasks and say their employers haven’t even told them how to identify patients who might have the disease.

If large numbers of health care workers get sick or quarantined, the whole treatment system could collapse.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) struck Toronto in 2003, health care professionals became the biggest victims, making up 45 percent of those infected. A doctor and two nurses died. The city’s hospitals were so poorly prepared for infection control that they became breeding grounds for the disease, the very places where most people contracted it.

Clearly communicated safety precautions for COVID-19 will prevent a similar catastrophe limiting medical personnel on the job at a time they’re crucially needed.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time health care workers had to lead OSHA to provide common-sense protections in the face of a deadly disease.

HIV struck seemingly out of nowhere more than 30 years ago, battering patients’ immune systems before killing them. Unsure how it spread and fearful of the future, health care workers risked their own lives to treat the victims.

Research soon showed that HIV is spread through an infected person’s blood. Health care workers risked infection when they accidentally got stuck by a needle or when a patient’s blood got into a cut or scrape. Other serious diseases like hepatitis B are spread the same way, and workers demanded that OSHA set standards so they would remain safe on the job.

OSHA implemented those measures, known as the bloodborne pathogens standard, in 1991 and revised them several years later.

Workers made this happen.

Among other provisions, the standard requires that needles be equipped with safety devices that cover or retract them immediately after use.

Employers must provide gloves and other personal protective equipment to workers, decontaminate surfaces any time they’re touched by blood or other fluids, and track accidental needle sticks. Needles and other sharp objects must be discarded in puncture-proof containers. These provisions protect patients as well as health care workers.

Some hospitals opposed the bloodborne pathogen rules because they didn’t want to shell out a few extra bucks to keep workers safe.

But the standard’s effectiveness cannot be denied.  Since it was implemented, HIV and hepatitis B infections among health care workers plummeted.

Even after OSHA imposed the standard, health care workers continued fighting to make their workplaces safer.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick in New Jersey, that meant looking for new ways to further reduce the accidental needle sticks that can transmit HIV and hepatitis.

Nurses represented by USW Local 4-200 tested various syringes, lancets and IV insertion tips, then began using the ones they considered least likely to cause accidental sticks. Between 2010 and 2014, the hospital reduced needlestick injuries by 70 percent, an achievement that won the nurses recognition in a national health care journal.

These kinds of safety measures are the result of workers’ and unions’ relentless fight for health and safety.

The USW and other unions began pressuring OSHA for an infectious disease standard long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

Their demand for infectious disease controls goes back years, amid outbreaks of other diseases, including SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 flu in 2009, that exposed the nation’s lack of readiness for epidemics.

OSHA’s top officials finally put an infectious disease standard on their to-do list. Then Donald Trump, an enemy of industry regulation and worker safety, took office. OSHA suddenly put infectious disease control on the back burner.

That delay now haunts the nation. The federal government and health care organizations are as poorly prepared for an epidemic as workers knew they’d be.

Delbrune-Mitter said the lack of clear safety direction from federal officials leads some staff members to mine TV and the internet for information.

“We don’t really know what’s true,” she said.

This article was originally printed in Our Future on March 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Corona and Class Warfare Part II: Stopping a Multi-Dollar CEO Pension Tax Break

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Last week I asked everyone to consider the coronavirus pandemic as a pretty clarifying picture of class warfare—who are the people who get hurt most when millions of jobs go away or at best are in limbo because of a nationwide shutdown? It’s working people, minimum wage workers, service workers—almost none of whom have enough cash in reserve to pay bills, unlike the rich who have made their wealth by exploiting workers. Who are the people most vulnerable? It’s the people who either have to still go to work or can’t afford to stay at home because they don’t have mandated paid sick leave or family leave, even in a crisis.

Today, as so many of you either hunker down or are living in fear, I talk with one of my favorite and regular guests Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, about a menu of steps the country needs to take to mitigate the devastating health and economic hits workers are taking in the pandemic.

Then, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat from Maryland, joins me to talk about his efforts to protect tens of thousands of federal workers by calling for an expansion of their right to telework during the corona pandemic, as well as his effort with Bernie Sanders to buttress workers’ pensions by ending a multi-billion tax break for CEO retirement plans.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on March 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out more than a decade ago, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays (slacker), with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995). I’m currently working on two news books.


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Corona in the Age of Class Warfare; McKayla’s Bid to Knock Out Hoyer

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jonathan-tasini

Pandemics might be one of the single best mass events to shine a light on class warfare, especially in the U.S. Rich people don’t have to worry about getting sick—they can afford extensive care in a country in which millions of working-class people can’t even afford to see a doctor for a run-of-the-mill reason. If a rich person gets sick, well, he can just sit home in his pajamas for as long as needed and never worry about paying next week’s rent, while a fast food worker or other service worker on an hourly wage is forced to go to work, even when sick.

What the corona virus has shown, quite sharply and clearly, is that a country without paid sick leave is not only an immoral society but also, on a practical level, a country which denies the most basic benefits that could contain a health threat—which is what I talk about today with Judy Conti, government affairs director for the National Employment Law Project.

Then, you probably can’t find many people in Congress who are bigger shills for the corporate world than Steny Hoyer—and McKayla Wilkes is aiming to send Hoyer quickly into the world he really aspires to, that of a lobbyist for corporations. I talk with her today about her primary challenge.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on March 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out more than a decade ago, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays (slacker), with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995). I’m currently working on two news books.


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What Workers Have Already Won in the Face of Coronavirus

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The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the stark reality of the United States: our inadequate, for-profit health care system, our precarious employment conditions, and the deep inequality that is foundational to our society. But it’s also shown us that when things get dire enough, the working class fights back. Over the last few weeks, in dealing with the outbreak of the coronavirus, people across the United States have organized at their workplaces, and also won major reforms in the housing sector. Workers’ consciousness about the cruelty of our profit-driven society—and about their own power—is being raised by the day, thanks to the failure of government leadership. While it’s likely that we will enter a recession or even depression soon, workers are still fighting for what they deserve—and that struggle must continue after the pandemic passes.

While many workers have lost hours or even been laid off in the last few weeks, others have made advances in various industries amid the crisis, including securing paid time off and health and safety guarantees. Teachers in New York City forced Mayor Bill De Blasio to close city schools under threat of a mass sick-out, workers shut down a Chrysler plant near Detroit over concerns about how the company was dealing with the virus, and workers at McDonald’s won 14 days of paid sick leave, albeit only at corporate stores which account for about 5% of the fast food giants’ restaurants.

In Philadelphia, city library workers moved a petition among themselves, patrons and the larger community to demand both the closure of public libraries and paid time off for all workers, even those who are not members of the union. The petition dropped in the morning on Monday, March 16, and by Tuesday evening, it had over 4,000 signatures, and the workers won their demands. Terra Oliveira, an after-school leader at the Philadelphia Free Library, told In These Times, “Our access to paid leave and our basic rights shouldn’t be something that we have to fight for every single time there’s a crisis.” Non-union library workers have been organizing with their union colleagues for about a year, building the infrastructure necessary to deal with our current crisis.

Similarly, the housing movement has long fought for moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs. Both have felt like far-off possibilities, the absolute peak of what we could win in a perfect storm of political will and power. But Tara Raghuveer, campaign director of the Homes Guarantee Plan at People’s Action, told In These Times that “the pandemic is showing us what has always been possible, and what that means is that it’s always been possible to end the practice of eviction.” Because of the seriousness of coronavirus, organizers and activists have won either moratoriums on evictions or utility shut-offs in cities and states across the country, including Philadelphia, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. The coronavirus crisis is revealing what was true before: It is unconscionable to abandon people who are houseless or without work.  “This has opened up tremendous space to ask for more and win more,” Raghuvver said.

The apparent ease with which these long fought for reforms were granted demonstrates that it is—and has always been—well within the power of the state and corporations to acquiesce to our demands. It also shows that it isn’t the benevolence of politicians and CEOs that has secured these victories, but worker organizing. If workers hadn’t been demanding paid sick time and eviction moratoriums for years, we never would have won them now. “Now that these demands have been won during this emergency crisis, there is so much more solidarity and communication among library workers that wasn’t there before. We will continue to fight,” said library worker Oliveira.

The state spends exorbitant amounts of money when it’s capital that’s feeling the pain, a fact illustrated by the dramatic financial actions being taken or considered to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic: a $1.5 trillion loan by the Federal Reserve to inject into capital markets; an $8 billion spending package to fight the coronavirus; and a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill being considered at the time of this writing. These options obliterate the notion that money doesn’t exist to pay for programs like a Green New Deal, free college, free childcare, housing for all and various other social programs.

When it comes to spending to meet the needs of the millions of ordinary people who are hurting right now, politicians can’t muster the will. While the Democratic Party postures as recognizing and responding to this need in contrast to Trump, the proposals they’ve so far offered have been offensively mediocre and inadequate. H.R. 6201, trumpeted by Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, offers paid sick leave benefits to only 20% of U.S. private sector workers—a figure that does not include informal economy workers. Former presidential candidate Kamala Harris also promoted a bill she had introduced that would give workers $500 each month—a pittance compared to the $2,000 per month cash payments to U.S. households floated by sen. Bernie Sanders.

We are heading into almost unprecedented economic territory—a potential 20% unemployment rate if our leaders don’t act now. More and more workers are facing the prospect of losing hours and even being laid off, as many major cities, municipalities and states impose shut downs for businesses except those classified as essential industries. Already, nearly one in five U.S. workers reports losing hours or work altogether since the onset of the coronavirus crisis earlier this month. We can expect that number to balloon in coming weeks and months as the public health crisis—and the ensuing economic crisis—continues to deepen. 

Some are trying using this crisis to fortify the tyrannical power employers have over workers’ lives. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz just suspended some collective bargaining rights for state employees, citing the need for “flexibility… during this peacetime emergency.” As workers unite to demand what we’ve always deserved, and the crisis deepens, some politicians and bosses will undoubtedly use this as an opportunity to ram through more neoliberal reforms that dismantle our rights and public institutions.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that in times of economic hardship, workers have the least power and leverage based on the scarcity of jobs and desperation for whatever we can get to provide for ourselves and our families. But strike activity and worker organizing is on the rise, the Bernie Sanders campaign program is raising political expectations, and workers are winning in the face of this pandemic. It’s reasonable to believe that when things “return to normal”—if that ever happens—politicians and bosses will attempt to take back all that we’ve won. They’ll try to strip paid sick leave from workers, and to reinstate evictions. But we mustn’t let them. Like Oliveira said, “It feels like only the beginning.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.



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Coronavirus layoffs surge across America, overwhelming unemployment offices

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Rebecca Rainey

Employers are slashing jobs at a furious pace across the nation due to mass shutdowns over the coronavirus, slamming state unemployment offices with a crush of filers facing sudden crises.

Long before official government data is expected to reveal the depths of the economic shock inflicted by the coronavirus, reports from state officials and businesses around the country indicate the gathering of a massive wave of unemployment on a scale unseen since the Great Recession.

In New Jersey, 15,000 people applied for unemployment benefits on Monday, a twelvefold increase over normal levels. In Connecticut, nearly 8,000 applications arrived over the weekend, an eightfold increase over the norm. Rhode Island officials reported Tuesday a five-day rise in claims due to the coronavirus from 10 on March 11 to 6,282 on March 16.

More than 45,000 Ohio workers have applied for unemployment over the past week, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services told Sen. Rob Portman, a nearly sevenfold increase over the previous week.

The dramatic rise in claims could spur further action by Congress beyond the legislation now under discussion. “This demonstrates the urgency for Congress to act, and act quickly,” Portman said Tuesday in a written statement.

According to an NPR/Marist poll conducted Thursday and Friday, 18 percent of households already reported someone being laid off or having hours reduced because of the coronavirus outbreak, with women hit harder (21 percent) than men (16 percent), and people who earn less than $50,000 hit harder (25 percent) than those earning $50,000 or more (14 percent).

“A coronavirus recession is inevitable,” said Josh Bivens, director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, in a blog post. He estimated that at least 3 million jobs will be lost by summer. Meanwhile, the U.S. Travel Association was projecting 4.6 million jobs lost this year in the travel industry alone, pushing the unemployment rate up to 6.3 percent.

The layoffs swept businesses large and small. On Tuesday Marriott said it expects to lay off tens of thousands of workers worldwide. MGM Resorts International on Monday closed 150 restaurants and bars, with more closings to come; Caesars Entertainment Corp. said it also has begun layoffs. In D.C., Compass Coffee, a local Starbucks competitor, laid off most of its 189 employees, and the Dubliner, a popular Irish bar on Capitol Hill, laid off all of them, leaving the place empty on St. Patrick’s Day.

During the past 48 hours, unemployment insurance offices around the country were flooded with phone calls, and state unemployment websites crashed in KentuckyOregon, and New York.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill late Tuesday were racing toward a deal with the White House on an economic stimulus package to aid industries disrupted by the pandemic, and ironing out the details on a separate coronavirus aid package.

But many state unemployment insurance programs are ill-prepared for the downturn. Twenty-two states and jurisdictions, including California, New York, Illinois and Texas, have dangerously low reserves, and 10 have reduced the number of weeks they offer benefits since the 2007-09 Great Recession. The duration of eligibility for unemployment insurance in any given state won’t be affected by the legislation moving through Congress.

With the Trump administration and other nations considering travel restrictions, and more Americans pulling back on nonessential trips, the travel and hospitality industries have been among the first to see job cuts.

“We are adjusting global operations accordingly,” a Marriott spokesperson said in an emailed statement, “which has meant either reduction in hours or a temporary leave for many of our associates at our properties.” The spokesperson said that employees “will keep their health benefits during this difficult period and continue to be eligible for company- paid free short-term disability that provides income protection should they get sick.”

Several airlines have cut back service, and Delta recently announced a hiring freeze in the wake of the outbreak.

Ian Kullgren contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on March 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.


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Sara Nelson: Our Airline Relief Bill Is a Template for Rescuing Workers Instead of Bailing Out Execs

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Sara Nelson is the head of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and is widely considered to be a candidate for the next leader of the AFL-CIO. She gained prominence when she called for consideration of a general strike to end the government shutdown of 2019. Now, with the entire economy cratering in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Nelson is working overtime to help craft a relief package for the teetering airline industry that keeps all employees on the payroll—a model she says can be “a template” for a national bill to give relief to all workers.

She spoke to In These Times on Wednesday about how to save the airline industry, what unions should be doing to save working people from devastation during this crisis, and the opportunities for radicalism that lie ahead.

A $50 billion airline rescue package is in the news. What should it look like? 

Sara Nelson: It has to be centered on workers. We have a plan that provides payroll subsidies to keep everyone on the payroll. That’s really important, because you have to keep everyone in their job, if not on the job. Payroll subsidy for not just the airlines, but also all the airport workers, is approximately $10 billion a month. For a three month package, that’s $30 billion. So $30 billion of the $50 billion is for maintaining payroll. 

What’s your sense of the likelihood of that happening? 

Nelson: This has already been incorporated into the House Democratic plan, and they’re working with us on a package that would provide these payroll subsidies, plus a direct loan from the government to the airlines, with certain requirements attached. So this is a relief package focused on workers, not a bailout. 

What are those requirements? 

Nelson: No stock buybacks. No executive bonuses. No dividends. No breaking contracts in bankruptcies. No spending money on busting unions [The AFA-CWA says Delta has continued to send out anti-union messages during the coronavirus crisis, prompting a response from the union]. And worker representation on boards. 

Tell me about what the politics have looked like in the negotiations around this

Nelson: We’re fairly aligned with the airline industry on continuing the payroll. There’s actually zero disagreement there. Do they like some of our conditions that we want to put on them? No. But they’re not all opposed. … By continuing that payment through private company payrolls, that connects people to their healthcare. It allows them to be assured that when we get on the other side of this, they still have their jobs. The benefits for the airline industry are they don’t have the administrative nightmare of checking people out of security sensitive jobs. Nobody’s talking about the reality of what it means to put people on furlough and lay them off. It’s a huge task. Once we eradicate this threat, our economy should be able to restart immediately if we do this right. 

Couldn’t the argument about continuing payrolls apply to many other industries right now? 

Nelson: Yes—our view is that this is a template for every other industry. If we get this right for the airlines, you can do the same things for retail, for example. Or hospitality. 

Should there just be a national bill that says we’re going to do this for everyone, rather than industry-specific programs? 

Nelson: There could be a national bill. The reason that it probably makes sense to do a specific bill for the airline industry is that there is a real need right now, and we can set a template and have the political momentum to get this done. If we don’t get this done this week, or early next week, the airline industry is burning cash at a rate so great that they won’t even be able to follow federal law, or maintain the payroll in a couple months, or weeks in some cases. 

What’s your best guess as to when this will be done? 

Nelson: Part of the problem we have right now is that a lot of people are about to hurt very badly. But this all happened so fast that it hasn’t completely sunk in. … One month ago, the airlines were celebrating the biggest profit in history. All of the airlines announced hiring tens of thousands people this year. Not only has all of that flipped on its head in 30 days time, but we’re talking about a complete halt of air travel.

We’ve seen this before. We know this maybe better than the rest of the country. It was flight attendants and pilots who died first on 9/11. In the wake of dealing with all that hurt, in the bankruptcies that followed, they took our pensions, slashed our pay, diminished our healthcare, cut our jobs—they put it all on our back, while they took executive bonuses and we had to deal with the loss of homes and cars, and stressed marriages, and telling our kids they had to do without. We know this, and it’s up close and personal still. We’re not going to let this happen again, and we’re not going to let it happen to the rest of the country. 

Should there be some coordinated union attack on this? Should every union be pushing their own industry’s response, or should there be one united front from unions? 

Nelson: Transportation unions got together and agreed on a set of principles. We are coordinated around what this relief needs to look like. We’ve been sharing that through the AFL-CIO, and the labor movement has some core principles here that are aligned. The ideas around it are focused on the ability to attack the virus. So that means immediately paid sick leave, that means the ability to stay home with continued paychecks, that means getting relief to people as soon as possible, that means focusing on the resources that we need to get to people on the front lines to protect themselves. Keeping the paychecks going, and making this a worker-focused relief. 

On the offense, this is an opportunity to restructure the things that are wrong with our economy and with the financial system. This is an opportunity to put an end to stock buybacks. It’s an opportunity to say that we should be passing the PRO Act. … This crisis shows us how clearly Wall Street should not be setting the rules for our economy. 

It feels like our politics have just shifted very fast. What do you think the impact is going to be on the presidential election? 

Nelson: I think if labor leads on this message and this relief and this response, and we’re very clear that we have the solutions, then we have the opportunity on the other side of this to not only reshape policy, but also to inspire the American people to join unions in record numbers. If we do that, then no matter who is in office, we can shape the political momentum in this country to get real changes that help people. 

A lot of working people with and without unions are wondering what their leverage is at this moment, when layoffs are coming and everything feels tenuous. What’s the leverage? 

Nelson: Working people are gonna feel the hurt, and everyone is paying attention. Communications right now matters more than ever. Union communications, getting our message out into the mainstream, and pushing that by working with those who support a worker-focused relief, a.k.a. House leadership, is the way to promote that the labor movement is leading on getting results for people. People want to be part of a winning team—people want to be somewhere they can actually see results. This is a tremendous opportunity to show what the labor movement is about. 

And let me pull it back out for a second: This virus is a very clear metaphor for what we always say in the labor movement, which is “An injury to one is an injury to all.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, or where you come from. If a virus exists and we don’t do something about it, then we’re all at risk. 

When 90% of people don’t have unions, but 100% of people are in danger, will unions really be the vanguard for getting national relief? 

Nelson: We’re coordinated on that. There is a call for national relief, and there’s also a recognition that if you can’t do your job, I can’t do mine. So if one person is not able to return to work, if one person isn’t able to be protected, if one person doesn’t have the ability to safely shelter, then that continues the risk of the spread of the disease. There has to be national relief… In our view, we need to be setting a template that works for everyone else, and that’s what we can do. 

There are going to be areas where the template with the airline industry doesn’t work. There are going to be people who can’t stay on a payroll, and we have to help them too. But if we remove all the people who can just stay in the current systems that they’re in—it’s the easiest way to find out where we have other people that we haven’t addressed their needs, and then we can target that specifically. 

Is America going to like socialism more after this? 

Nelson: Every executive in America sounds like a socialist right now! 

I wonder if Joe Biden will sound like a socialist… 

Nelson: If we build up our political clout, and we can actually get things done, and we can actually provide a common narrative here, then we’re gonna move Biden to that narrative. We’ve already seen it happen. There’s tremendous movement that he’s already made from his political record on where he stands on particular issues, or how he’s talking about approaching the issues of today. And we’re not just gonna take him to his word—we’re going to hold him to it. But we can only do that by building our numbers and showing that we’ve actually got leadership and an ability to move forward.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 19, 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.


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You and Your Boss Have the Same Interests Right Now. That Is a Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity.

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“We’re a team.” “We’re a family.” “We’re all on the same side.” “A rising tide lifts all boats.” These are lies that companies regularly tell their employees. In fact, in normal times, the interests of the workers and the bosses are mutually exclusive. Their bigger slice of the pie gives you a smaller slice. But these are not normal times. For the first time in a lifetime, the interests of the workers and the bosses are—temporarily—the same. That is an opportunity.

I know a guy who owns a few bars. In the course of a week, his business dried up. His income went to zero. He had to close the doors. His 80 employees are all out of work. Even if he wanted to keep paying them, he couldn’t. All of his money is invested in the business. Now he and his employees are both powerless bystanders in the face of a disaster. It will wipe all of them out, together, unless something is done.

Multiply that scenario by a million and you have a rough picture of the American economy at the moment. This is not a normal acute business crisis, affecting a single area of the economy, which can be bailed out so that the rest of us can continue on. This is a stoppage of the economy, which renders the fight over slices of the pie moot. There is no pie now. There’s an empty plate, and we’re all going to starve together unless something meaningful is done.

Organized labor is built, and should be built, with the idea that it will always be locked in a contentious struggle with business interests, because the logic of capitalism means that every dollar that working people do not win with their own power will be snatched away by owners and investors. Broadly speaking, that is always true. Except for now. Now, today, business owners—in particular small business owners—and their workers have the exact same interest: not being completely wiped out by an unprecedented crisis that defies categorization. We all need help from above right now.

In a perverse way, this is a sort of leverage for the working class. The economic balance of power that is usually used as a weapon to force workers to take less out of desperation is being erased by the day. Yes, the working class is still fucked. But the boss is fucked too! The workers may starve faster, but we’ll all starve nonetheless. What is normally happy rhetoric that conceals a shiv is now real. We’re all on the same team, and we are losing.

A few big-picture things are clear for all of us: Whenever this virus and its quarantine pass, the businesses that employ tens of millions of people will not be able to just throw open the doors and restart on their own. For owners, the bills are still piling up while they have no income, which will drive them into bankruptcy. For workers, the bills are still piling up while they have no income, which will drive them into bankruptcy. A week ago, the boss may have been driving a Porsche and deriding his employees as ungrateful socialist kids who don’t understand the real world. Today, the idea of a rent freeze and universal government healthcare and a debt jubilee sound pretty damn good to that same boss. It has always been true that the economy should be organized around what is good for working people. Instead, it has been organized around the interests of money itself, and those who hold it. But all of the intricate rules and structures that have been built to pull wealth to the top are breaking down as we speak in the face of the fundamental fact that there is no functioning economy for anyone. That sudden equality is a form of power.

Paid sick leave funded by the government, healthcare funded by the government, financial relief funded by the government: All are in the interests of owners and workers right now. Organized labor and businesses can combine their power in this bizarre moment in time to extract what is necessary from a government that is used to picking the interests of only one side. Time for the cats and dogs to play together. The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce should be kicking down the door to Congress together and threatening the entire place with scorched-earth destruction unless they pass a massive stimulus that puts money in the pockets of working people and suspends debt obligations. (Already, unions and employers in the airline industry have put together a plan that would save the industry while prioritizing the workers, a good model of what can be done on an even grander scale right now.) If the working class emerges from this with no money to spend, there will be neither employees nor customers for any owners to come back to. Anyone too stupid to see this now is like The Millionaire stranded on Gilligan’s Island, still trying to pay money for good service while everyone else is hunting for coconuts to survive.

Union membership in America boomed after the Great Depression. Union radicalism and strikes boomed after World War II. There is nothing like an existential crisis to show people that they need to stick together. Notions of justice and urgency are sharpened when the stakes are this high. In the past week I have heard from multiple people across the country who are newly interested in unionizing. They all say that this crisis has prompted everyone at work to start talking about what can be done. That means that one of the biggest hurdles to unionizing—getting workers talking about united action—is already being crossed at workplaces all over America. The seeds of new unions are being planted. It is up to the labor movement to see to it that they grow and flourish. We may never see a more fertile environment for union organizing in the national psyche. This moment must not be squandered. Millions of people without unions have come to realize very fast that they have no safety net. Unions can build that safety net only by building newer and bigger unions. Get ready to work.

Very soon, the business class of America is going to come to the working class and say: “It is time to work together.” And they’re right. There is no choice. But this unity comes with a price. Regular people are not going to unite to rebuild the exact same set of arrangements responsible for all of them being overworked, underpaid, and unprotected in the first place. That won’t fly. Organized labor is not here to throw its power behind a government bailout that will restore organized labor to its former position of glorious inferiority. We are all on the same team now, and that team doesn’t run union-busting campaigns, or squeeze minimum-wage employees to pay enormous executive bonuses. Isn’t that right, bosses? The price of our cooperation is your cooperation. We can teach a business owner what solidarity looks like. Now they have to listen. Workers, after all, have been suffering forever. Bosses are just getting their first taste.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 17, 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.


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The Narrow, Ineffective and Wholly Inadequate U.S. Debate about Paid Sick Leave

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In the rush — or at least the pretense of rush — to bring immediate economic relief to the millions of average workers gutted by the tanking global economy brought on by the coronavirus, Democratic Party elites and centrist papers of record Washington Post and New York Times are cementing the terms of the debate to a narrow, ineffective, and wholly inadequate discussion of paid sick leave.

Over a forty-eight-hour period from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, the New York Times has run twelve articles and op-eds online that substantively mention paid sick leave, including Associated Press and Reuters reprints. Not a single one of those pieces mentions the fact that informal economy and contract workers would not benefit from such protections, which are urgently needed — but ideally would just be one strand of a much larger safety net.

piece published Saturday by the New York Times editorial board does criticize the legislation for paid sick leave passed by the House Saturday morning, shepherded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for not going far enough because it doesn’t apply to companies with 500 or more workers. “In fact, the bill guarantees sick leave only to about 20 percent of workers,” the piece notes. “Big employers like McDonald’s and Amazon are not required to provide any paid sick leave, while companies with fewer than 50 employees can seek hardship exemptions from the Trump administration.” Yet nowhere in this article will you find any mention of the informal economy workers who are entirely excluded from this legislation.

This omission is glaring, because a significant portion of the US workforce is employed in the freelance and informal economies not covered by paid sick leave. According to some counts there’s over 56 million freelancers in the United States (though not all are economically precarious, many almost certainly are).

As for the informal economy, it is, by definition, difficult to determine the exact scale of this sector. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated in 2018 that 18.1 percent of total employment in North America is in the informal sector (the ILO didn’t look just at the United States). A 2011 Urban Institute report found “there are no precise estimates of the size of the informal employment sector in the United States, but it could range from 3 to 40 percent of the total non-agricultural workforce,” which means it could be as low as 4 million or as high as 53 million Americans.

Many of these informal economy and freelance workers are already in crisis. “Sex work has given me a level of financial stability I’ve never had before, but I’m still just one rent payment away from crisis,” a New England–based sex worker told Jacobin. “Most sex workers don’t have a safety net and will almost certainly be left out of any formal systems put in place to make up for lost wages. I’m already worried about what I will do when I lose income and have nowhere to turn.”

During the same forty-eight-hour period, the Washington Post published fifteen articles and op-eds that substantively mentioned paid sick leave, including Associated Press and Bloomberg Wire reprints. Of those, none gave a clear mention of informal economy workers. One opinion column by Adam Shandler discussed gig workers, but this brief mention provided the entire scope of coverage of the informal, freelance, and undocumented economy in the context of the coronavirus relief package.

Reading the Times and Post coverage, and statements from both Republican and Democrat leaders, it’s clear that helping the vulnerable and precarious dig out from the economic conditions they face is almost incidental to the paid sick leave mechanism. “The House’s failure to require universal paid sick leave,” the aforementioned March 14 Times editorial concluded, “is an embarrassment that endangers the health of workers, consumers and the broader American public.”

The urgent concern for our political and media leaders at the moment appears to first and foremost be containing the rate of the virus’s spread. A noble goal, of course, but one that is separate from making sure people don’t suffer economic hardship.

The pressing political question is: the focus on only paid sick leave? And why only two weeks? These questions are especially important given the almost immeasurable level of need among all workers.

“Informal economy workers are being entirely left out of the conversation, on the federal level but also state and local levels,” Fahd Ahmed, the director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a New York–based organization, said to Jacobin. “Conversations have centered on more established, more formal, and resourced employers, but our membership is primarily undocumented and working in small businesses, often working on cash, doing domestic work inside of homes. A lot of the message doesn’t apply to their employers, or they wouldn’t qualify because of documentation processes that are required.”

The answer lies, in part, in the worldview of the most powerful Democrat on this issue and all others: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is a longtime ideological adherent to thinking on deficits which prioritizes finding out how “one is going to pay for things” over whether the policy is moral or needed as such. Thus, in the event of a mass catastrophe, questions of austerity will, before negotiations even begin, limit what’s possible to the bare minimum required for Democrats to look like they’re Doing Something.

The excuse for the current half of a half measure, per usual, is that the ground ceded was necessary for “compromise.” But we have decades of evidence, including comments made by Pelosi herself in the past seventy-two hours, that this wasn’t a reluctant compromise made by an otherwise progressive champion of broad populist action, but the logical conclusion of her long-standing approach to politics. Pelosi has referred to far-right deficit hawk and Republican Pete Peterson as a “national hero,” and has derided anyone to her left for suggesting the Democratic Party may be insufficiently progressive.

On Saturday, when the Times broke the news of the limited scope of the bill, Pelosi took to Twitter to defend it, insisting, “I don’t support U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing … Large employers and corporations must step up to the plate and offer paid sick leave and paid family & medical leave to their workers.” Not only does Pelosi begin her statement with the right-wing austerity catchphrase “US taxpayer money,” her rhetorical climax is mildly chiding corporations and demanding they “step up to the plate” without any sense of what the consequences are if they don’t.

In the time of the most pressing crisis facing the American poor potentially since the Great Depression, the vulnerable are offered up ideologically razor-thin hand-wringing by one of the people most empowered to actually help them.

It’s important to note that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals would implicitly solve many of the problems of freelancers and those in the informal economy. In Sunday night’s debate Sanders name-checked homeless people and prisoners and he took a big risk when, months ago, he included undocumented people in his Medicare for All plan and Ocasio-Cortez has taken to social media this week to champion eviction moratoriums, student debt cancellation, and a universal basic income — all of which would fill much of the gap left in paid sick leave framing.

The goal, of course, is not to pit formal economy and informal economy workers against each other. Whether one is laboring for Jeff Bezos or for a small employer who pays cash under the table, workers deserve to be immediately bailed out by this unforeseen pandemic. Paid sick leave must be a part of this rubric, especially in times of profound public health crisis. But when paid sick leave — for a small number of workers, and for a limited amount of time — is accepted as the only emergency response, it’s tantamount to repairing a crumbling building with scotch tape.

We need to be talking about wealth redistribution on a far grander scale: What would it look like to provide immediate material relief, in the form of guaranteed income, to workers who are losing work — and who should not work, so that we can have a hope of containing this health crisis? How can we enact such a policy to ensure no one is left behind, no matter how they make their money, or whether they are able to make any money at all, regardless of immigration status or disability? What does it look like to pursue an ambitious program to redistribute wealth, unconcerned with selective “how will you pay for it?” concern trolling, on an unprecedented scale so that the people losing their jobs, and potentially losing their homes, can survive this crisis?

Millions of people are in free fall right now: Bars and restaurants are closing, construction sites are shuttering, yet rent is still due, mouths need to be fed, and there is no clear end date to the crisis. When the parameters of debate are drawn so narrowly as to exclude the actual actions that could bring these people material relief, that’s the same thing as leaving them to fend for themselves.

First published in Jacobin.

This article was published at In These Times on March 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

About the Author: Adam Johnson is the co-host of Citations Needed podcast and a writer at the Appeal.


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