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Know Your Rights to Paid Leave and Unemployment During the COVID-19 Crisis

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On March 18 Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), in part to discourage layoffs and in part to guarantee paid leave to workers who need to stay home due to the COVID-19 emergency. On March 27 Congress enacted the CARES Act to expand unemployment insurance eligibility and benefits. Both laws expire on December 31, 2020, unless extended.

What follows is a selection of questions relating to the new laws. Please note that this is a complicated and rapidly changing area. Although the U.S. Department of Labor has issued several regulations and guides, aspects of the programs remain hazy.

Moreover, enforcement is likely to be slow and spotty, as a poorly staffed federal Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor appears unable to effectively oversee the leave program and state UI agencies claim to be overwhelmed by the crush of applications. Union workers should always review their contracts to see if they have stronger protections.

1. Business shut down due to COVID-19 emergency

Q. Our governor has ordered nonessential retail businesses to close temporarily due to the COVID-19 emergency. My employer, a department store, has issued over 300 layoff notices. Can I collect unemployment insurance (UI) benefits though I only worked there for a week?

A. Yes. The CARES Act awards UI benefits to workers who are laid off, temporarily furloughed, or reduced in hours due to the COVID-19 emergency–even if they have a sparse wage history. Most states pay approximately 50 percent of wages up to a maximum amount that varies significantly around the country. Some add more for dependents.

The CARES Act adds $600 to weekly UI benefits between March 27 and July 31, 2020—even if this raises benefit checks above a claimant’s regular pay. UI payments are taxable.

2. Quit due to COVID-19 safety concerns

Q. I work in a supermarket in close contact with customers and co-workers. Social distancing is impossible. Management has not responded to our complaints about the lack of proper protective equipment. Two workers have contracted COVID-19. If I quit because of the virus risk, could I qualify for unemployment insurance?

A. Possibly. The CARES Act grants UI eligibility to an employee “who has to quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19.” Although the Act does not elaborate, the entitlement would appear to apply to a worker who stops work because of a reasonable concern of contracting the virus. A state UI official will ultimately decide.

Tip: Put your resignation in writing, making sure to explain your fears.

3. Paid sick leave during self-quarantine

Q. My doctor has told me to self-quarantine for two weeks due to COVID-19 symptoms. Does my employer have to grant me paid leave for the absence?

A. Yes, unless you are a health care provider or an emergency responder or work for an employer with 500 or more employees (see questions 5 and 6 below).

Under the FFCRA a full-time worker who needs to quarantine due to COVID-19, or who is experiencing symptoms of the virus and seeking a diagnosis, is entitled to up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at a rate of up to $511 per day over a two-week period. Part-timers are entitled to pay on a pro-rata basis. The employer is reimbursed dollar-for-dollar through tax credits from the federal government.

You cannot be required to use other accrued benefits, such as paid vacation or sick leave, in place of FFCRA leave. Nor can you be required to make up the time.

Your employer must continue paying for group health coverage during your leave. If your workplace has 25 or more employees, you must be restored to your regular job or an equivalent position (unless a layoff affecting you has transpired).

Your employer can deny paid leave if 1) you decline an offer of telework, or 2) there is no work available. In the latter event, you would qualify for UI benefits.

After two weeks, if you continue in quarantine, or if you are still experiencing COVID-19 symptoms (but are not severely ill), you may file for benefits from your state UI agency.

Note: You are also entitled to paid leave to care for a family member or other person with whom you have a relationship who is subject to a quarantine order or is advised by a physician to self-quarantine. Your rate will be two-thirds of your regular pay up to a maximum of $1,000 per week.

Note: Workers requesting paid sick leave under the FFCRA must give notice to their employer as soon as is practicable after the first day missed, providing the name of the health care provider who issued the stay-at-home advisory.

4. Paid childcare leave

Q. My ten-year-old child’s school has closed due to the COVID-19 crisis and I must be home to care for her. Does my boss have to provide me with paid time off?

A. Yes. You are covered by the FFCRA if you have worked 30 days or longer for your employer and you are not in one of the Act’s exempt categories (see questions 5 and 6 below). Eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of protected paid time off if a child’s school or daycare center closes due to the COVID-19 crisis and no other parent or usual childcare provider is available.

The pay rate for workers taking childcare leave under the FFCRA is two-thirds of regular pay up to a maximum of $200 per day. You may supplement your check up to your regular earnings with other available paid leave such as sick or vacation pay. Leaves may be taken intermittently—up to a total of 12 weeks—if your employer agrees. Your employer may not take adverse action against you because of your time-off request.

Your weeks out of work will count against your annual 12-week Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) entitlement. If your employer violates your leave rights, you may file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

A worker whose request for childcare leave is denied may apply for UI benefits. UI benefits may also be available if you need more than 12 weeks time off. You cannot collect UI benefits for any weeks that you receive paid leave.

5. Employers can refuse leave requests from health care providers

Q. I am a hospital nurse. My child’s regular caregiver cannot come to my home because of the COVID-19 virus. Am I entitled to paid time off?

A. This is a sore point. To guarantee the availability of medical personnel, the FFCRA allows covered employers, public and private, large and small, to deny COVID-related sick and caregiver leave to persons who serve as “health care providers.” A similar federal law (the FMLA) restricts this term to physicians and other professionals qualified to issue medical diagnosis. According to the Labor Department, however, for purposes of FFCRA leave the phrase includes everyone employed by a hospital, clinic, nursing home, pharmacy, medical products manufacturer, or other similar institution. Consequently, your hospital can refuse your request.

Note: A hospital employee whose request for a COVID-related caregiver leave is denied can stop work and file for UI benefits under the CARES Act. The possible downside is that the employee may lose his or her rights to paid health insurance and reemployment.

6. Large employers can refuse leaves

Q. We work for General Motors. Are we entitled to sick and caregiver leaves under the FFCRA?

A. Surprisingly, no. Congress excluded private employers with 500 or more employees (across all facilities) from the FFCRA, supposedly to prevent such employers from claiming the Act’s tax credits.

7. Public employees

Q. Are state workers entitled to paid sick and childcare leaves under the FFCRA?

A. Yes. The FFCRA applies to all state and local government agencies and many, but not all, federal agencies.

8. Small employers and paid leave

Q. I work for a private social service agency with 12 employees. Does the agency have to approve FFCRA leaves?

A. Yes, with one exception. An employer with less than 50 employees can deny a COVID-19 child care leave if the employee’s absence would prevent the employer from working at minimum capacity or would cause expenses to exceed its revenues.

9. Workplace closes during caregiver leave

Q. I am in the midst of a 12-week FFCRA leave to care for my children. If my company closes its workplace during my absence, can it stop paying me?

A. Yes. Pay to a COVID-related leavetaker can be halted if the employer closes its doors or otherwise has no work available. You would then be able to apply for UI benefits.

10. Independent contractors and UI benefits

Q. I drive for Uber. Due to COVID-19, rides have dried up all over the city. Where I used to pull in $1,200 a week, I now make less than $200. Can I file for UI?

A. Yes. The CARES Act allows self-employed persons, including independent contractors and “gig” workers, whose incomes have dried up due to the COVID-19 crisis to file for total or partial UI benefits through December 26, 2020. Successful claimants will receive their regular weekly rate plus the $600 bonus through July 31, 2020. You will have to document or otherwise certify your income loss.

But note: Many state agencies are delaying decisions on claims from self-employed persons until they can make changes in their claims verification system. When approved, however, your benefits should be retroactive to the first week you lost work due to COVID-19.

11. Part-time workers and UI benefits

Q. I was working part-time when my employer ceased operations due to the COVID crisis. Do I have to look for full-time work to receive UI benefits?

A. No. The CARES Act allows persons out of work because of the COVID crisis to limit their job search to part-time work.

12. Undocumented workers and UI benefits

Q. Can undocumented immigrants file for UI benefits due to the COVID-19 public health emergency?

A. No. Although undocumented workers are deemed essential in some industries, they are still excluded from UI programs.

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Robert M. Schwartz is a retired union-side labor lawyer and author of several Labor Notes books, including The Legal Rights of Union Stewards, The FMLA Handbook, and Just Cause: A Union Guide to Winning Discipline Cases. Ordering information is at labornotes.org for when our online store reopens.


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Restaurants’ bailout problem: Unemployment pays more

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Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

Restaurants say their industry needs its own targeted recovery fund because the bailout package Congress passed last month is making it more attractive for their staff to draw unemployment benefits than to continue working.

The new Paycheck Protection Program waives repayment of small business loans if the borrower uses 75 percent of the money to maintain payroll, a measure intended to reduce layoffs. But with the expanded unemployment benefits included in the stimulus bill, some workers can as much as double their weekly checks if they stay unemployed.

The mismatch is particularly acute for restaurants, cafes and small shops — nonessential businesses where pay scales tend to be low that have been put into indefinite hibernation. The National Restaurant Association told Congress Monday that more than 60 percent of restaurant owners believe existing assistance programs, including PPP, are insufficient to keep employees on payroll and asked for $240 billion in aid targeted to their industry.

Restaurants represent less than 9 percent of Paycheck Protection loan recipients, but as of March accounted for the majority of layoffs nationwide as the contagion took hold.

“If the intention was to get people back to work, they’re not doing it,” said Tom Colicchio, the renowned restaurateur and “Top Chef” judge, who has been an advocate for small restaurants during the pandemic. “They’re not going to come back to work because unemployment is too attractive.”

Unemployment benefits vary by state, but in 2019, before the coronavirus crisis, the average weekly benefit nationwide was $370. A $600 sweetener that the stimulus bill added, on a temporary basis, to weekly unemployment checks raises the average weekly benefit to $970, an amount that approximates average weekly pay nationwide and is nearly double average weekly pay within the food industry: about $500 nationwide for full-time workers.

Dental assistants, security guards and travel agents similarly stand to earn more money on unemployment than they can by working.

That doesn’t make the Paycheck Protection Program a flop; indeed, the program is so popular that all available funds dried up last week. Lawmakers are now nearing a deal to add $450 billion to the $342 billionthat the Small Business Administrationhas lent.

Most of that money, however, has gone to support jobs in industries kept open during the crisis, including construction, manufacturing, professional and technical services and health care, which received $169 billion. By comparison, only $30.5 billion went to hotels and restaurants. Local stay-at-home orders could keep these businesses shut down several weeks more, and sales are projected to rise slowly under any phased economic restart because customers may well avoid public places for months.

The National Restaurant Association, in addition to requesting more funds — partly, it said, to help owners rehire and retrain workers — asked Congress to permit businesses to defer the start date of PPP loans until after local stay-at-home orders are lifted, and to allow more than 25 percent of the loans to be spent on fixed costs like rent and utilities.

The International Foodservice Distributors Association will propose similar measures Tuesday, asking Congress to allow PPP borrowers to spend only 50 percent of their loans on payroll and to increase tax credits for employee retention.

One recipient of a Paycheck Protection loan is Christian Ochsendorf, who owns several Dunn Brothers Coffee shops in the Minneapolis area. Ochsendorf says he’s been able to persuade only 40 percent of his furloughed workers to return. In Minnesota, the $600 sweetener raises the average weekly unemployment benefit above $1,000 a week. In 2019, the average weekly wage for full-time food service workers was $548.

“They’re getting paid more on unemployment than they would if they were actually working,” Ochsendorf said.

It’s the same story in Ohio, where workers can now receive $963 a week on unemployment, or slightly more than the average weekly wage. Full-time restaurant workers in the state earn, on average, less than $500.

“Heck, if they’re making more money sitting at home … I’m fearful that some may not want to come back,” said Adam Rammel, the co-owner of Brewfontaine, a bar and restaurant in Bellefontaine, Ohio.

Paycheck Protection loans cover payroll expenses for eight weeks, a time frame that many small business owners judge too short as the scope of the pandemic widens. Some owners are reluctant to accept the money at all, uncertain how they will repay the loan if their workers won’t consent to come back within the prescribed window. Unemployment benefits, meanwhile, have been extended 13 additional weeks. Even the $600 sweetener, guaranteed until July 31, will last weeks longer than a paycheck protection loan.

“The program was designed poorly,” said Amanda Ballantyne, director of Main Street Alliance, a small business advocacy group. “Business owners don’t take out loans to cover payroll when the economy is tanking.”

Many small business owners fear that they’ll have to lay off workers again when the loans run out.

“To take on a loan that has the potential to be forgiven, and then pay my staff to do nothing for eight weeks, and then furlough them in eight weeks, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Andrew Volk, the owner of Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, a cocktail bar in Portland, Maine. “It very much feels like we’re acting as the unemployment office.”

In Maine, full-time food service workers earn $553 on average — less than 60 percent of the average unemployment benefit.

Volk did apply for a loan, but he’s used it only to pay rent. The rest is sitting in a bank account until the state allows restaurants to reopen, putting him at some risk of having to repay the federal government.

Small business advocates and some members of Congress say the U.S. should adopt a European-style grant program that gives direct payments — not loans — to businesses. The Tory government in Britain pays business owners 80 percent of their workers’ wages to keep them on payroll, up to a monthly cap of 2,500 pounds. France, Spain and the Netherlands have taken similar steps, and Germany’s “Kurzarbeitergeld” system of paid furloughs is credited with helping the economy snap back from the Great Recession faster than other European nations. But such ideas have little traction in the current political environment.

“The best thing to do would be giving direct payroll subsidies [and] wage supplements to employers,” said Volk, the cocktail bar owner in Maine. “Keeping that connection between small businesses and their employees is incredibly valuable.”

Zachary Warmbrodt and Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by Politico on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.


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Trump is putting the shock doctrine in action, using COVID-19 as an excuse to slash regulations

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It’s not just immigration. Donald Trump plans to use coronavirus as an excuse to weaken environmental, labor, health, and other regulations in exactly the ways he’s wanted to all along. While the White House negotiates with Congress, including Democrats, over what the next round of coronavirus relief could look like, regulatory changes can be made without congressional approval.

The administration already decided not to enforce air quality standards—during a respiratory disease pandemic. Now, Trump and advisers like director of the United States National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and incoming chief of staff Mark Meadows are talking about ideas like suspending regulations on small businesses—an absolute invitation to wage theft and dangerous working conditions, among other things—and “expanding an existing administration program that requires agencies to revoke two regulations for every new one they issue,” The Washington Post reports. Because nothing says “we’re serious about making good policy” like arbitrary rules limiting what the government can do on a strictly numeric level.

“This sounds exactly like the type of opportunistic political move that absolutely should not be attempted right now,” Jared Bernstein, who was the chief economic adviser to Joe Biden during his time as vice president, told The Washington Post. “Correlations between regulations and economic activity are far shakier than they assume, and I don’t believe this idea will help at all.”

According to Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, “all attention should be focused on improving the regulatory state to protect the public. We should be focused on the crisis at hand, not loosening standards.” There’s a great example of someone saying something that is 100% true and 100% not what is on the table in the current administration. Protecting the public? Ha ha. Focused on the crisis at hand rather than on loosening standards—indeed, rather than using the crisis as an excuse to loosen standards? Bitter laughter to infinity.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 21, 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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Amazon Will Not Change Without a Union

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Jeff Bezos has gotten $24 billion richer. Amazon’s stock price has risen more than 40% since mid-March. This explosive creation of corporate wealth has coincided with an unprecedented level of labor activism against Amazon, including multiple well-publicized workplace walkouts, protests, and a growing drumbeat of negative PR about the company’s handling of the pandemic, particularly regarding the workplace safety of warehouse workers. There has never been as much coordinated labor action against Amazon. And Amazon has never been more successful. If the goal is to truly change Amazon, it’s time to make the strategy sharper.

Yes, Amazon is a behemoth. It is not just a trillion-dollar company run by the world’s richest man; it is a machine that is slowly eradicating the traditional retail industry in America and changing the entire landscape of work. It is the engine that will eliminate millions of service industry jobs and reconstitute them as warehouse jobs. For this reason, Amazon warehouse workers are the most strategically important workers in America for the labor movement. If unions aspire to the fundamental goal of ensuring that working people get a fair share of the proceeds of the economy they create, then unions must be able to exert serious influence in the strongest parts of the economy. It’s that simple. If unions are relegated to economic niches, they will not be able to transform the economy in favor of workers in the way they should. And for decades, with the decline of manufacturing and the rise of anti-labor law, this is exactly what has been happening. If Amazon is America’s most powerful company, the influence of organized labor must be strong inside Amazon. Otherwise, organized labor cannot accomplish its mission on a national scale. The efforts of labor campaigns should be evaluated with this reality in mind.

These facts have been clear for years. The covid pandemic has provided an opportunity for a host of labor groups, many operating under the Athena Coalition, to crank up pressure on the company with walkouts and a media campaign—and the company has responded by firing both warehouse workers and tech workers who protested, exhibiting a bold industrial shamelessness that would make Henry Frick proud.

Because labor organizing is so difficult, and the odds are stacked so high against regular working people, we often tend to focus exclusively on what workers have won, emphasizing and celebrating every sign of hope or victory, no matter how small. This is important for the sake of morale. But it is equally important to look at our campaigns in the cold economic light of the corporate view. From the perspective of Amazon, here is what has happened lately: Their stock price is through the roof; the are rapidly capturing market share from wounded and dying competitors; they are hiring tens of thousands of new employees to meet exploding demand; and all signs indicate that they will come out on the other side of this crisis stronger than ever before. Shareholders and executives are fat, happy, and rich. A few minor flare-ups of labor unrest here and there is an exceeding small price to pay for what the bottom line is telling them right now.

I am sorry to say that there is only one thing that organized labor can do that will have any real lasting impact on Amazon, and that is: unionizing it. Neither a media campaign nor a PR campaign nor a political campaign is going to cut it. I say this not to denigrate any of the activists doing that work now, nor any of the brave Amazon employees who have agitated and spoken out at the risk of losing their jobs and being demonized by corporate spokespeople. All of that work is valuable. But it is valuable instrumentally, in that it lays the groundwork for a successful union campaign. A union can exercise power directly in a way that none of these other tactics can. Amazon warehouse workers who are unionized can win better pay and better benefits and a safer workplace directly, through collective bargaining, rather than indirectly through public pressure that may well simply be ignored by their staggeringly rich and powerful employer. The primary goal of all of the Amazon-related work that is being done by political and labor activists must be to unionize as much of the company as can possibly be unionized. That is the path to power. Realistically, the only path.

Will it be easy? No. It will be very hard. Walmart was the Amazon of a previous generation. It got much of the same sort of attention from organized labor. Are there any unionized Walmarts? To make a very long story short: no. A year and a half ago, the Retail Workers union announced with great fanfare that they were organizing an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. Has that warehouse been unionized? No. The Fight For 15 is an example of a labor campaign that has, in fact, won widespread concrete wage gains for fast food workers without creating any unions. But the fast food industry is different from Amazon. It includes many different employers, who can be played off against one another; unlike Amazon, it is a public-facing retail business with physical locations that open it up to a much greater variety of public actions; and huge portions of its work force can reap substantial increases in pay from minimum wage increases that can be imposed on the local or state level, which is less true for Amazon, where hourly pay is somewhat higher.

The amount of money that Jeff Bezos made in the past month is many times greater than the combined budgets of every labor union in America. The labor movement cannot hire more PR consultants, lobbyists, or advertising firms than Amazon, nor can the company’s economic influence over politicians and regulators be matched. Jeff Bezos could personally fund ten anti-labor campaigns the size of the entire Fight For 15 out of his own pocket and not even miss the money.

Yes, it will be hard. But it is necessary if we want to prevent the future of work in America from being ground up in a vast algorithmic machine in service of a lone mega-billionaire. So it has to be done. The one thing that all of Amazon’s spending cannot change is the fact that, if 50% plus one of the employees in an Amazon warehouse decide that they want to stop being exploited, they will have a union, by law. And once they have a union, they will collectively bargain, by law. And once they collectively bargain, they become a serious force to be reckoned with, something that Amazon has never yet had to deal with. There is a reason why companies like Amazon have such sophisticated internal anti-union surveillance systems. It is because they understand that a union gives employees a type of power that they will never otherwise have. Not a power that depends on influencing others, but an inherent structural power of their own.

Is Amazon willing to close down sophisticated fulfillment centers to stop union campaigns, costing themselves hundreds of millions of dollars? Perhaps. Are they willing to fire and retaliate against any worker they think might be an organizer? Perhaps. But those are the stakes. This is a long war. The alternative is allowing Jeff Bezos, a man who said that he could not think of any way to spend his fortune except space travel even after his employees had been complaining of horrific workplace exploitation for decades, to set the agenda for working conditions in America. The alternative is unacceptable. The alternative is death to organized labor, and it is doom and poverty to working people. So we fight it. We have to fight it with the strongest weapon we have. That’s a union. Everything else must be a step in that direction. Otherwise, we will look back in 20 years, wondering why we lost.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 20, 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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Koch-Funded Think Tanks Are Lobbying to Send Workers to Their Deaths

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It’s no mystery what will happen if we rush to reopen the economy and send people back to work before epidemiologists say it is safe to do so. A model produced in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March projected a worst-case scenario of 1.7 million Americans killed. Another estimate by the Imperial College London put this number at 2.2 million. We know that COVID-19, which has already taken more than 40,000 U.S. lives, is disproportionately killing African Americans. Poor people are already bearing the brunt of this crisis—and will die in even larger numbers if they are prematurely sent back to wait tables and crowd together in warehouses and factories.

Amid this climate, a small army of right-wing think tanks and conservative organizations is cynically invoking the plight of the downtrodden to make the case for swiftly reopening the economy and sending workers into deadly conditions. Some of the organizations beating this drum the loudest—the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—are behind the most anti-worker measures of our times, from the anti-union Janus Supreme Court ruling to the Trump administration’s work requirements for food stamps. As Trump, the GOP, CEOs and now billionaire-backed “protesters” call for the economy to reopen, these think tanks are working fervently behind the scenes, crafting talking points, speaking with legislators and building coalitions aimed at boosting Wall Street’s profits, at the expense of ordinary people.

“The people running these organizations are going to remain safely ensconced in gated mansions with little danger of getting infected themselves, while they make millions of Americans go back to work standing shoulder to shoulder,” Carl Rosen, general president for the UE union (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America), told In These Times.

On April 16, Kay Coles James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, praised President Trump for issuing guidelines for states to reopen their economies in three phases. “The administration is rightly working to restore livelihoods in the midst of catastrophic job losses while also taking care to balance Americans’ health and safety,” said James. “The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission is also working quickly to deliver additional recommendations to governments at every level, the private sector, and churches, charities, and other parts of civil society on a pathway to reopen America.”

James was listed as a thought leader on Trump’s dubious “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups”—likely at least partially a P.R. stunt, but nonetheless, a measure of influence and power. For the Heritage Foundation, it’s a sign that the organization’s campaign to reopen the economy might be paying off. The group announced a “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission” on April 6 and, soon after, issued a five-phase plan for reopening America. According to the Washington Post, the Heritage Foundation is working with other conservative groups including FreedomWorks and ALEC as part of an informal “Save Our Country” coalition aimed at reopening the economy. With funding from the Koch Foundation, ExxonMobile and a bevy of wealthy donors, the Heritage Foundation is at the center of political efforts to prematurely restart the economy.

Remarkably, the organization is citing the well-being of the poor people it wants to send into treacherous conditions when issuing this call. On April 13, James declared, “Keeping the American people at work and prosperous is what will produce better health outcomes for our citizens. A growing economy has the money for research and development into new medical innovations and cures; has more resources to better educate and train medical personnel; and creates greater capacities of beds, equipment, medicines, and personnel to handle the sick. It’s also an economy where abundance allows us to have the resources to help poorer citizens get the medical help that they need.” In other words, she is arguing that reopening the economy will make people sick, but market forces will somehow offset this catastrophe by providing the things we need to treat them—a claim made without evidence, and against the advice of epidemiological experts.

This insistence on sending workers into treacherous conditions “for their own good” stems directly from the organization’s history. The Heritage Foundation was heavily influential in the Reagan administration and right-wing Tea Party movement, and was a major influencer in the Trump administration’s transition team. It is vehemently anti-union, a fierce opponent of a $15 minimum wage, a fervent supporter of the 2018 Janus ruling, which pummelled public-sector unions, and a proponent of so-called right-to-work laws, which say workers don’t have to pay dues to the unions that represent them. Heritage has  made gutting public programs for the poor a central focus throughout its existence, and opposes expanding healthcare access.

The organization saw one of its cruelest agenda items come to fruition in December of 2019, when the Trump administration placed further restrictions on who can receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, declaring that able-bodied adults without children in places that have an unemployment rate below 10% have to work 20 hours a week to qualify. This rule was approved by Trump despite warnings that 700,000 people would lose their food stamps. Maggie Dickinson, a researcher who studied SNAP in New York City from 2011 to 2013, wrote that “work requirements have been shown to not help unemployed people find work and to make it more difficult for them to feed themselves. But taking people who are unemployed off SNAP often does harm to more than just those who directly receive food assistance.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the rule change “appears to base its intellectual underpinning on policy developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, experts say.” The Heritage Foundation, for its part, claimed credit in an article titled “Heritage Research Influences Food Stamp Eligibility Rule.”

According to Rosen of UE, “The only thing these corporations want to achieve is corporate profits as usual. That’s their real goal—not making sure working people have an income, not to make sure health and economic needs were taken care of. If those were their goals, they would support much more robust policies right now that make sure everyone has a full income and full healthcare through Medicare for All. These are the steps that have been taken in many european countries.”

“People need to be paid to stay home right now—that’s the only way we can recover as a country,” Rosen added. “Attempts to force people to go back to work when it’s not safe for them to do so is a horrendous, murderous policy.”

When it comes to the push to reopen the U.S. economy, the Heritage Foundation is not going it alone. As the Associated Press notes, the Koch-backed AFP was “one early shutdown opponent,” making the case that business should be allowed to “adapt and innovate.” Intercept reporter Lee Fang noted on March 26 that AFP, which calls itself a political advocacy group, “wants employees to return to work despite desperate pleas from public health officials that people should stay home as much as possible to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.” State chapters of AFP have also joined in the effort.

Like the Heritage Foundation, the AFP cites the hardships of poor people when pushing for the economy to reopen. “We can achieve public health without depriving the people most in need of the products and services provided by businesses across the country,” the organization said on March 20. “If businesses are shut down, where will people who are most in need get the things they need to care for themselves and others? Rather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need, while continuing to do everything they can to protect the public health.”

Yet AFP, described by In These Times writer Mary Bottari as “the Kochs’ ‘grassroots’ lobbying arm,” has played a tremendous role in gutting public programs aimed at protecting ordinary people, including the CDC, and social welfare programs, particularly Medicaid. In recent years, the organization has gone on a blitz trying to pass right-to-work laws, seeing some success.

Before the COVID-19 crisis began, AFP was mobilizing against the PRO Act, which passed the House in February. This legislation would strengthen the right to strike, override “right-to-work” laws, and punish bosses who retaliate against workers for attempting to form a union. While the legislation is not perfect, it would “go a long way toward reversing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust,” Jeremy Gantz wrote in February for In These Times. AFP is presently circulating a letter which declares, “This legislation would turn back the clock on workers’ rights by undermining many pro-worker successes of recent years, just one year after the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision that affirmed union membership is a choice for all government workers nationwide.” AFP is not only pushing to send workers into dangerous conditions: It also wants to erode their right to collectively fight back.

But perhaps the biggest villain of all is ALEC, the Koch-backed “nonprofit” model-legislation shop that has devoted its nearly half-century of existence to eroding workers’ rights. ALEC has been active in efforts to reopen the economy. Its CEO Lisa B. Nelson told Newt Gingrich on March 27, “We believe preparations need to be made for a clarion call to get Americans back to work, and so the economy can start its rebound.” ALEC hosted a March 21 conference call featuring ALEC Board of Scholar Member Art Laffer, a right-wing economist and key figure behind the Reagan-era tax cuts for the rich. “We need to get production back—period,” declared Laffer, who was awarded the presidential medal of freedom by Trump last year.

As ALEC has called for policies that would endanger society’s most vulnerable, the organization has sought to portray itself as a victim. On an April 1 legislators call, ALEC Chief Economist Jonathan Williams said: “I think we all know how times of crises like these can be very dangerous times for those of us who believe in the ALEC principles of free markets and limited government and federalism.” Meanwhile, the organization is pushing for a host of other goals, including deregulation of telecommunications and supporting “federalism” and “state’s rights.”

In an interview, Laffer cited the plight of poor people when staking out his political positions. Reuters paraphrases, “‘I think it’s really important to balance out the economic consequences with the health consequences,’ Laffer said, adding that increased poverty from an extended shutdown could mean lower life expectancy, more suicide and a jump in child abuse.” (Notably, robust social programs, which Laffer opposes, are proven to reduce suicides during times of economic downturn.) And in a podcast interview, Nelson cited “working” as a public good: “Open america and get America working again,” she declared.

ALEC’s current advocacy emanates from a long history. As Mary Battari noted in a February 2018 story for In These Times, “ALEC was founded in 1973 as a venue for politicians and corporate lobbyists to meet behind closed doors and draft cookie-cutter legislation, known as ‘model bills,’ that promote corporate interests.” Today it boasts a massive network of 2,000 legislative members and 300 or more corporate members, according to The Center for Media and Democracy, which says, “ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that.” Aided by funding from corporations, corporate trade groups and the Koch Foundation, its bills have aimed to undermine unions, criminalize protests and privatize public goods. Over the past 15 years it has worked closely with conservatie advocacy groups, including AFP, to undermine unions.

According to Rosen, groups like ALEC are a big reason why we are so ill-prepared to meet the COVID-19 crises. “Over the last 50 years,” he says, “we’ve allowed corporate forces to systematically destroy the social safety net. There was no preparation done for a pandemic like this, even though it was clear that something like this could happen. The groups demanding we reopen are the ones that destroyed the social safety net, thereby creating the pressures making some people want to start up again.”

These three think tanks are pillars of a much broader effort to “reopen the economy,” which is another way of saying “treat workers as disposable widgets in service of corporate profits.” The oversized role of wealthy people in pushing this effort calls into question any claims that local protests for reopening constitute an organic, working-class movement. As the Guardian reports, “The Michigan Freedom Fund, which said it was a co-host of a recent Michigan rally against stay-at-home orders, has received more than $500,000 from the DeVos family, regular donors to rightwing groups.” The DeVos family is one of the richest in Michigan.

Joining in the cacophony are individual CEOs, who occasionally put conservative organizations’ talking points in cruder and more honest terms. Billionaire Tom Golisano, founder and chairman of Paychex Inc., told Bloomberg in late March, “The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people. I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they’re going then so many of them will have to fold.” He added, “You have to weigh the pros and cons.”

Of course, for him, the “pro” is that he will not be the one serving tables, stocking warehouses or struggling to get healthcare once the economy reopens: When he talks about the costs, he’s talking about other people. The same can be said about the leaders of the conservative think tanks and organizations that are leading the push to send workers into danger: It will cost them nothing. The price for ordinary people will be immeasurable.

Lu Zhao and Indigo Olivier contributed research to this report.

This article was published at In These Times on April 20, 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.


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How COVID-19 Showed America’s Dependence on Blue-Collar Workers

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At the start of each shift, Eric Jarvis takes a handful of anti-bacterial wipes and sanitizes the equipment he uses at the Packaging Corporation of America mill in Valdosta, Georgia.

He worries about getting the coronavirus every time he leaves for work, but knows the nation depends on paper workers like him to produce the linerboard that goes into the cardboard boxes used to ship millions of items to stores and homes each day.

Jarvis, president of USW Local 646, may not be on the front lines of the pandemic in the same way as nurses and first responders. But he and other manufacturing workers also fulfill a vital role on the nation’s production lines, ensuring that Americans still have the food, medicine, toiletries and other items crucial for everyday life.

“If we don’t make boxes, then the grocery stores don’t have groceries,” Jarvis said.

“We know our job is an essential job,” he said of the local’s 235 members. “You can see the pride in the workers doing their jobs out there.”

Truck drivers, bakers, transit operators, grocery store clerks, warehouse packers and manufacturing workers form the backbone of America’s economy.

They show up every day and get the job done, performing so reliably that the nation long took their work for granted. No one questioned, for example, whether stores would have toilet paper and cleaning products.

Then the pandemic struck, and surging demand for consumer goods exposed America’s dependence on the blue-collar workers who supply almost every need.

Life would grind to a halt without them.

Right now, these workers risk COVID-19 by laboring in groups at mills, factories, warehouses and stores while many other Americans do their jobs alone at home. It angers Jarvis to think that service workers put their lives on the line for the poverty-level wages common in their industry.

“I hope people never forget that,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis and his co-workers protect themselves as best they can.

Besides wiping down equipment, they stagger their starting times to reduce contact with one another. They wait in their cars and trucks before a shift instead of congregating at the time clock. Inside the mill, they remain at their work stations unless their presence elsewhere is a necessity.

Still, workers worry about bringing the coronavirus home to their families. Some shower, change clothes and even wash their eyeglasses the minute they get home to avoid spreading any germs they picked up during their shifts.

“It gets a little rough,” explained Colt Kovatch, vice president of USW Local 14693, which represents about 80 workers at the International Paper box shop in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. “You have family at home. You want to be with them. But I understand what I’m doing, what I’m making, and how it helps. It keeps my blood pumping.”

The box shop makes packaging for food and drug companies, plastics manufacturers and online retailers.

“We might not be the frontline workers,” Kovatch said. “But we’re right there behind them.”

At Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, members of USW Local 8888 continue building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the Navy even though 23 co-workers contracted COVID-19. Local President Charles Spivey said the workers who report each day “are making a great sacrifice.”

“We do unique work here,” Spivey observed. “We can’t just shut down. There’s pride here. We know that we’re the best shipbuilders in the world.”

Some of the workers at Morton Salt’s production facilities in Lyons and Hutchinson, Kansas, have worked together for years.

Now, that camaraderie helps the members of USW Local 12606 cope with the risks they face from the coronavirus.

“We recognize that there’s a danger, but we also recognize that there’s a job to do,” local President Jon Ahrens said. “We still have to provide not only for our families but for the whole United States.”

Table salt in blue containers may be the most recognizable product supplied by the local’s approximately 200 members. But their salt also is used as an additive in shampoos and water softeners; as a preservative in the chips, snack cakes and other comfort foods in high demand during the pandemic; and in the saline solutions that hospitals use to treat patients.

So far, at least 33,200 Americans have died from COVID-19, and more than 671,000 have been infected. An influx of patients overwhelmed some hospitals and ambulance crews.

Jay Wright, president of USW Local 188S, figures that many exhausted health care workers and first responders survive on caffeine these days. And he’s happy to do his part to keep them going.

Each day, Wright and about 140 co-workers at the Ardagh factory in Valparaiso, Indiana, make more than 40 million tops for aluminum cans.

When the pandemic began, manufacturers of sodas, energy drinks and other beverages experienced increased demand for their products—so they requested more lids.

The factory is so loud that workers often speak mouth to ear. Because social distancing is crucial to controlling the spread of COVID-19, Wright successfully pushed Ardagh to purchase radio sets so workers can communicate while standing several feet apart.

USW members say they’re proud to belong to a union that fights for fair wages and benefits and holds employers accountable for worker safety.

But they worry about the home health aides, food delivery drivers and other service workers who put their lives on the line while laboring for low pay and few, if any, benefits.

“That minimum wage is a joke,” said Jarvis, referring to the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. “People should see that after this.”

Jarvis and other workers at Packaging Corporation make more than the minimum wage largely because they have the protection of a union contract. They recognize others aren’t as lucky.

For years, labor leaders and other advocates pushed for an increase in the minimum wage. Raising it to $15 an hour would help 33 million Americans, including many who live in poverty even though they juggle multiple part-time jobs.

The House last year passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. However, Senate Republican leaders refuse even to consider it.

Working-class people make, package and ship just about everything Americans need. Although their work is essential, they believe consumers long showed little appreciation for it because much of what they do occurs behind the scenes.

COVID-19 shined a light on their role, and they hope people will remember it after life returns to normal.

These workers are the lifeblood of the nation. They step up every day and keep America running—even during a pandemic.

“I think this has really opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Wright said.

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Trader Joe’s Said I Was ‘Essential’—Safety Concerns Made Me Quit

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I quit my job this month. No, not the well-paying NGO summer position; that was canceled weeks ago. Not the paid internship either; my boss hasn’t returned my emails or sent me back pay for the past month. I decided to let go of my last source of income because Trader Joe’s didn’t appear to take their workers’ safety seriously when I was working there.

As COVID-19 has swept through the country, the spread of the virus has been accompanied by a massive shift in how we view our workers. Blue-collar starter jobs—the grocery clerks, janitors, and postal workers of the U.S.—are now seen as essential to the survival of our country. Though they are often praised on social media and by elected officials, policy has yet to catch up.

Across America workers and their unions are rallying for increased protections and accommodations in these unprecedented times, demanding proper protective gear, sick leave, and hazard pay in order to continue to serve the public.

Some national retailers like Walmart and Target have increased wages and protections for their workers, but others, like Trader Joe’s, have been reluctant.

I have some health issues. Not too bad, but enough to make me think twice before going outside during a respiratory illness pandemic. I had always loved my job, and genuinely looked forward to showing up, especially in a time of crisis, to help my community and maybe make someone’s day that much better. I trusted my team to keep me safe. But the billion-dollar company let me down.

At Trader Joe’s, your coworkers are called your “crew,” and upper management takes the moniker “mate,” with the store manager as our “captain.” Nautical titles aside, leadership has been lacking since this crisis began and the policies around personal protection have been confusing at best.

One week we weren’t allowed to wear gloves at all. Then next, we could wear gloves when stocking shelves, but not at the register. No masks allowed, period. No restrictions on how many people can enter the store, and no guidance around social distancing and how to stay safe as a cashier.

In our daily meetings, whimsically called “huddles,” I heard less about how to protect yourself from infection and more about why unionizing would hurt us.

As the weeks went on, and the full scope of the situation became apparent, I kept waiting to hear that our management would do something. Finally, the day came, and I was shocked: there was no message of safety protocols, no guidance on how to minimize contact, just a disclosure that those who had worked during the first weeks of panic would get a small share of the profits from the store as compensation. For most, this amounted to less than $2 per hour.

A week later, for my own safety, I quit.

I ultimately made my decision from a place of privilege, and I am thankful that I had the means to make a decision like that in the first place. I am fortunate to have family with the means to support me. I have lost all my income, and like many, will not see a cent from the Care Act tax refund. I am ineligible for unemployment benefits, but unlike other immunocompromised workers, I have the luxury to sit at home and wait this out, for now at least.

Since I quit, I understand there has been some clarification in store policies. Officially, masks are now allowed, and stores can limit the number of customers. Yet still, daily reports come in from stores around the country detailing contradictory messaging from management, and confusion over what the store’s policies are. There has been a temporary 10 percent increase to the employee discount. Employees are still encouraged to donate their own paid leave to their peers. I received a letter from national management two days ago, one that went out to all TJ’s workers around the country. I opened it eagerly, hoping it contained some new information about medical leave, or compensation. It was two pages on the dangers of unions.

The pandemic has revealed the urgent need for billionaires profiting from the food industry to truly protect and support workers on the front lines. Treat your grocery workers like the heroes they are for continuing to work in the face of danger. Just understand that for many, they have no other option.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. April 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Frakes is a former Trader Joe’s employee. To protect the author from workplace retribution, their name has been changed.


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Is There Any Better Time Than Now For a General Strike?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief the inequalities baked into the U.S.’s capitalist system—one that deems nurses and grocery workers “essential,” but leaves them with just as few rights and privileges as they had before the crisis struck. The scenario before us, where society depends more than ever on the bottom rung of the working class, offers a perfect storm for these “essential workers” to use their leverage and demand better protections for themselves now and in the future. This perfect storm may well unfold on May 1—a day with historic roots in the U.S., marked by workers all around the world to demand their labor rights.

For those of us considered “non-essential workers,” May 1, 2020, also offers an opportunity to say a resounding “no” to President Donald Trump, who is desperate to salvage his flagging shot at reelection and demanding that people return to work at the beginning of May. Trump has made clear that his needs are more important than ours in defying health experts who agree that May 1 is far too early to return to “normal.” He has claimed “total” authority over lifting state and citywide quarantines during the pandemic. A general strike on May 1 would lay waste to his wishful thinking for totalitarianism.

Kali Akuno, the co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, laid out his organization’s call for a May Day strike this year and shared with me in an interview that, “we are calling on all workers to come as one, in particular the essential workers to strike for their lives.” He explained that, “If Trump is calling for businesses to return to normal, if that is allowed to proceed without the personal protective gear being in place for every single one of our essential workers, we’re just going to create a calamity and keep this crisis going further.”

Akuno also sees the pandemic as a turning point where workers can send a message of refusing to “go back to business-as-usual”—the status quo where a massive underclass of working people are living paycheck-to-paycheck without adequate health care, paid leave, childcare for their dependents, or decent wages is no longer acceptable. “It was business-as-usual that allowed this to roll out in the way that it has,” he said.

Workers deemed “essential” have been forced to work in order to keep their jobs but offered little recompense or even protection from the virus. A supermarket worker at Tem’s Food Market in Macon, Mississippi, found my personal mask-making project on social media and begged me to make 20 masks for her colleagues and her. In the early days of the crisis, not only were grocery workers like her not provided with protective gear, but many were also stunningly not allowed to wear their own safety equipment such as masks and gloves. My own cousin, a grocery store manager in Boston, Massachusetts, responded to my worried queries about his health and safety saying that upper management was not permitting him and others to wear masks at work until recently. This was corroborated by supermarket analyst Phil Lempert who told the Washington Post, “One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to.”

It is no wonder that the workers we rely on to feed and care for us are falling ill from the virus and dying. Thousands of grocery workers have already tested positive for COVID-19 and as of mid-April more than 40 have died. Although such “essential workers” are naturally terrified of catching the virus in their workplace, their vulnerable socioeconomic status also means they cannot afford to quit. The pressure to conform and fall in line with the demands of corporate America are all too real as workers face a choice between accepting their oppression or being fired. More than 16 million Americans have already lost their jobs, and beyond a $1,200 payout from the federal government and hard-to-access unemployment benefits, there is little else to compensate them.

Still, in the face of such an untenable situation, workers are already agitating for their rights with walkouts and protests. The New York Times’ labor writer Steven Greenhouse explained that, “Fearing retaliation, American workers are generally far more reluctant to stick their necks out and protest working conditions than are workers in other industrial countries.” However, now, “with greater fear of the disease than of their bosses, workers have set off a burst of walkouts, sickouts and wildcat strikes.” Whole Foods workers had planned an action for May Day but moved up their “sick out” to March 31 to demand better conditions and pay. Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, organized a walkout, but the world’s largest retail giant simply fired the organizer. The person ultimately responsible for overseeing workers at Whole Foods and Amazon is Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man who personally racked up an extra $24 billion this year alone largely as a result of the pandemic. Bezos’s wealth and power, when contrasted with the harsh conditions under which his employees work, are an appropriate symbol for a general strike on May Day as the best chance for workers to demand their rights.

On its website, Akuno’s organization Cooperation Jackson spells out the demands it is making for May Day in encouraging workers to not show up for their jobs, and for all Americans to collectively refuse to shop for a day. These include not only short-term demands for personal protective equipment for all essential workers, but also long-term demands for a Universal Basic Income, health care for all, housing rights, and a Green New Deal.

Americans are perhaps more receptive to the idea of a general strike than they have been in a century. Alongside the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet are calls on social media for a #GeneralStrike2020. High-profile left thinkers like Naomi Klein have already embraced the idea of a general strike. But Akuno admits that a strike will not work if only small numbers of Americans participate, saying, “we need to reach people in the hundreds of millions,” and “we have to organize in such a way where we change the fundamental dynamics of labor, how it’s valued, how it’s treated.” In other words, there is the potential for transformative change in this crisis—but only if we can seize the moment.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute on April 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Furloughed Disney Workers “Can’t Wait” For Help, But Florida’s Unemployment System Is Broken

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At the end of this week, 43,000 unionized Walt Disney World employees will be furloughed, an unprecedented blow to families throughout the entire central Florida region. On top of the sudden loss of income, workers say that they face an even more immediate threat: the broken Florida unemployment system.

Disney is not just one of Florida’s most important employers—it represents a rare island of union power in a state where less than 7% of workers are union members. A coalition of six unions called the Service Trades Union Council that represents nearly 40,000 Disney workers negotiated an agreement with the company this week that guarantees employees will keep their benefits while they are furloughed, including health insurance. They’re also guaranteed the right to go back to their old jobs, with the same wages and seniority, when the theme parks finally reopen. Most of the employees stopped working in mid-March, but secured five weeks of pay. After April 19, however, they are on their own. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that these newly furloughed workers are now being forced to apply for unemployment benefits in Florida all at once—a virtual impossibility, since the state’s unemployment system is already overwhelmed, dysfunctional, and incapable of delivering the benefits that are owed to everyone who has found themselves newly without a job in recent weeks. 

“Nobody can do anything. Nobody can apply. The system is crashed,” said Wesny Theophin, a Unite Here member who has been a Disney food and beverage worker for five years. His coworkers, knowing he is a union activist, “keep calling me, all afternoon and all night, asking me what they’re supposed to do.” 

There are no easy answers. Fresh off negotiating the furlough agreement with Disney, Unite Here—a union that has said that 98% of its members nationally are now out of work—now finds itself forced to run a week-long protest campaign in central Florida in an attempt to push the state government to make the unemployment system functional. Eric Clinton, the president of Unite Here Local 362, which covers a portion of the workers at Disney, said that “Can you actually collect?” is the question on everyone’s minds. “Many of our members live paycheck to paycheck. How do they make ends meet? There’s going to be a gap of time here that is very concerning to me.” 

Estafania Villadiego has worked as a Disney attraction employee for the past two years. She earns about $13 an hour. She lives with her daughter and her husband, a plumber who is still working. She is concerned about the risk of him coming in contact with coronavirus, and praises the union for getting the company to maintain health benefits. But she speaks in stark terms about the dangerous implications of tens of thousands of her coworkers flooding into the state unemployment system at the same time, and finding that none of them can get through. Her family, she says, cannot survive on just one income—and many of her coworkers have it even worse, either living alone or supporting families by themselves. 

“It’s a very delicate situation for thousands of people in central Florida,” she said. “We need to fix the system right now. People need the help right away. We need it now, we can’t wait. It’s a lie that regular working people have a lot of savings. We need it now.” 

Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, facing a state filling up with unemployed people unable to access their benefit payments, suggested Tuesday that perhaps the state could directly enter the furloughed Disney employees into the system in a process of auto-enrollment. Unite Here responded that this was an idea they had suggested weeks ago, when they first started bargaining, only to see their “alarm bells” disregarded until now. 

Eric Clinton says, in fact, that other members of his union have been laid off for nearly a month and have still not received their unemployment checks. Unite Here knew that this would be an issue for Disney workers. But when they suggested the company use its political clout with the state government to seek direct access to the unemployment system for its furloughed employees, the union was rebuffed. 

“Any time they want to do something that helps them,” they can influence the governor’s office, Clinton said. “But not this.” 

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 15, 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 Head of the Postal Workers Union Says the Postal Service Could Be Dead in Three Months

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Among the most prominent victims of the coronavirus financial crisis is the United States Postal Service, which could quite literally run out of money to operate if the federal government does not approve a rescue package for it soon. The Trump administration—which, like much of the GOP, has long advocated for cutbacks and privatization of the postal service—actively prevented the USPS from being bailed out in the CARES Act, even as Donald Trump has made a show of publicly thanking Fedex and UPS for their work. Not very subtle. 

Fifty years ago last month, U.S. postal workers staged an unprecedented and historic eight-day strike, backing down the Nixon administration and winning the right to collective bargaining. A half century later, Mark Dimondstein, the leader of the 200,000-strong American Postal Workers Union, says that Republicans are using today’s crisis as an opportunity to destroy the postal service as a public entity once and for all. In These Times spoke to Dimondstein about the existential peril facing postal workers, and what they plan to do about it. 

What specifically are you asking for from Congress right now? 

Mark Dimondstein: The pandemic is having a huge economic impact on mail. The Post Office is not taxpayer funded, so it normally runs on revenue from postage and services. And if 40 to 50% of that dries up in this pandemic—which is what looks like it’s happening, in a very quick and precipitous way—then that money has to be made up. So the Postal Board of Governors is asking for $25 billion for relief, and another $25 billion for modernization, which gives them money to modernize the fleet. This is a relief for every single person in the country. It’s not a relief for a private entity. 

We had bipartisan support for some real relief [in the CARES Act], and it was actually stopped by Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin, representing this administration. 

What do you think is the source of the Republican hostility towards rescuing the Post Office?

Dimondstein: I think it’s pretty straightforward. In June of 2018, an Office of Management and Budget report—that’s the White House—openly called for an opportunity to sell off the Post Office to private corporations. Their agenda is to enrich a few of their private sector friends at the expense of the people of our country. 

What makes it even more shameful is, we have massive unemployment at a rate that’s never been seen, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. And there are 600,000 good, living-wage jobs in the Post Office. That they would dare come after these jobs makes it much more shameful. 

The underlying thing is, they’re coming after a right of the people. If the Post Office is privatized and sold off to private corporations, then who gets mail will depend on who we are, where we live, and how much it would cost. 

How urgent is the situation at the Post Office right now? If the rescue package doesn’t happen, when could people start seeing an impact on their mail? 

Dimondstein: The Post Office has done some modeling, so there are estimates of what would happen. Some time between July and September, the Post Office will likely run out of money. And when they run out of money, their operations will cease. There isn’t any way to put fuel in the trucks, there isn’t any way to pay workers, there isn’t any way to keep the lights on. 

We had bipartisan support in the House and Senate [to fund the Post Office in the CARES Act]. And a Wall Street, Goldman Sachs Secretary of the Treasury said to both parties,”You will not have an incentive package that the Post Office is in.” Even though they gave $500 billion to the private sector. So we have to flip it. We now need Congress to tell Mnuchin, “There will be no incentive package that you want without the Post Office in it.” 

Are you afraid that they might try to come after your collective bargaining rights as some sort of tradeoff? 

Dimondstein: The presidential task force that Mnuchin headed up actually called for an end to our collective bargaining rights. So that’s on their agenda too. Since 2010, our workers made great sacrifices, and made huge concessions worth billions and billions of dollars a year to the Post Office. So we’ll vigorously oppose any effort to tie any strings to it—no strings should be tied to anything that happened Covid-related. 

You’ve got postal workers on the front lines, doing essential work. We’ve had over 30 postal workers die from the coronavirus. Thousands have been sick, thousands more have been quarantined. And they’re gonna talk about coming after our wages and benefits? No way. 

Your union has a fairly large membership. Since you find yourself in this borderline existential situation right now, are there any more militant actions you might take as a union, if it comes down to life or death for the Post Office? 

Dimondstein: We haven’t given a lot of thought to that right now. Right now we’re focused on worker health and safety primarily, and focused on getting Congress to do the right thing. In terms of how people will react if Congress doesn’t, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But I am sure that workers will be highly upset. Their families will be highly upset. Their communities will be highly upset. And I would think that certainly there would be escalating efforts on the part of the people of this country to make sure that the Post Office is saved.

I want to mention one other thing: The whole question of whether the ballot is going to be protected. Here you have a situation where people are unable to come vote physically. Poll workers are unable to come and be safe in their civic duties. Poll by mail is safe, there’s a paper trail, it’s working in states that do it by law, it’s working in states that do it voluntarily. It increases participation. And look, there are those in this country who would rather not have people coming to the ballot box. The work of the ballot box is largely going to become the mail. So again, the public Post Office is the civic life of this country. 

Your union endorsed Bernie. What are your thoughts on how the primary turned out?

Dimondstein: I think Senator Sanders did a terrific job over the last number of years, 2016 and 2020, boldy raising issues that needed to be raised. And that’s why people responded so well. Sanders has raised up single-payer healthcare, i.e. Medicare for All. It was a fringe issue. Now it’s not a fringe issue. Look at what this pandemic says to us: We live in a society. If we’re going to be healthy, everybody has to have health insurance. If you’re sick, guess what? You may give it to somebody else. 

I think what happened was, and Sanders put it this way himself: He lost the electability argument. That’s unfortunate, because I think Sanders was the most electable. I think this pandemic underscores that we have to have a more collective, take-care-of-each-other approach, whether it’s on paid sick leave, whether it’s on Medicare for All, whether it’s on child care, whether it’s on the ability of the federal government–I mean, the idea that this government couldn’t figure out in advance to have tests for people, and to be able to get it done quickly? That’s an absurdity. 

What do you think this crisis is going to mean for the labor movement going forward? Will it damage unions, or will it be a big opportunity? 

Dimondstein: If we’re really gonna be a movement, I think this is the time when workers are saying to each other, “We have to have a true voice at work.” Workers all over this country are absolutely vulnerable in this pandemic. I think it’s a valuable lesson for workers of this country that we need stronger unions, and we need stronger societal and collective benefits. 

I would hope—and there’s certainly some sentiment out there, in the articles I’ve been reading, from the Instacart workers, to the Walmart workers, the Amazon workers, all sorts of warehouse workers and so on—that they have felt much more vulnerable without having an organization to defend themselves. 

The labor movement has to act like a movement. The labor movement needs to be much more clearly, in my view, fighting for all workers, whether they’re in unions or not. That means fighting for societal-based health insurance, not employer-based health insurance. Societal-based sick leave, not employer-based sick leave. The AFL-CIO and the other unions have a great opportunity to be at the forefront of the entire working class in those negotiations.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 16, 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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