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California lawmakers blast ‘atrocious’ UI system overloaded with 4.9M claims

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SACRAMENTO — California state lawmakers unleashed their frustrations about the state’s unemployment system Thursday, demanding answers from an agency director about the problems their jobless constituents have endured trying to access the financial lifeline during the pandemic. 

“We’ve never heard the type of suffering people are experiencing right now,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). “The feedback we’re getting is atrocious.”

The comments at a budget subcommittee hearing came hours after the U.S. Department of Labor released data showing California’s number of pandemic-induced unemployment claims had climbed to nearly 4.9 million — about 25 percent of California’s pre-pandemic workforce. The avalanche of claims has overwhelmed the state’s Employment Development Department and its aging technology systems, sending many desperate residents to lawmakers for help.

Lawmakers told the agency’s director, Sharon Hilliard, that their staff had been flooded with calls from constituents struggling to learn about the status of their claims or unable to reach EDD staff to have their questions answered. They cited a litany of problems, from delayed claims updates — provided by regular mail — to a lack of capacity to assist workers who speak languages besides English and Spanish, which Chiu said was a civil rights concern. 

Constituents desperate for a lifeline will call the department, make their way through an automated menu and then get “hangups, for Pete’s sake,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale).

“Even from some of the live calls we have hangups,” he added, referring to residents being dropped mid-call. “That’s really unacceptable.”

Hilliard did not refute the criticism, but explained that the agency — staffed earlier in the year for an unemployment rate of a mere 3.9 percent — had to rapidly escalate its operations.

“I don’t like it either,” she said. “I totally agree with you. It’s not acceptable.”

She said agency leaders expect to hire some 1,700 people in the next two weeks and upgrade the IT system as was planned before the pandemic, choosing a new vendor this fall. In response to lawmakers’ questions, she said the department was considering ways to send certain notifications by email and how to alert people more quickly if there were errors or missing information on their applications that could delay payments. 

Assemblyperson Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) said she had some sympathy for the department. But, she said, “I have more sympathy for the folks in my district, many of whom were already living on the brink of poverty.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katy Murphy covers consumer regulations with a focus on data privacy for POLITICO California. Before joining the team, she was a one-woman Capitol bureau for the The Mercury News and East Bay Times and previously covered K-12 and higher education for more than a decade, based in the Bay Area.


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Reopening reality check: Georgia’s jobs aren’t flooding back

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A month after easing lockdown restrictions, the state is still seeing a steady stream of unemployment claims, economic data shows.

Georgia’s early move to start easing stay-at-home restrictions nearly a month ago has done little to stem the state’s flood of unemployment claims — illustrating how hard it is to bring jobs back while consumers are still afraid to go outside.

Weekly applications for jobless benefits have remained so elevated that Georgia now leads the country in terms of the proportion of its workforce applying for unemployment assistance. A staggering 40.3 percent of the state’s workers — two out of every five — has filed for unemployment insurance payments since the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread shutdowns in mid-March, a POLITICO review of Labor Department data shows.

Georgia’s new jobless claims have been going up and down since the state reopened, rising to 243,000 two weeks ago before dipping to 177,000 last week. The state cited new layoffs in the retail, social assistance and health care industries for the continued high rate of jobless claims that have put it ahead of other states in the proportion of its workforce that has been sidelined.

Georgia, which began pushing to resume economic activity on April 24, presents an early reality check as the White House amps up pressure on governors to lift shutdown orders and President Donald Trump’s economic advisers predict jobless claims will nosedive after the reopening. The state’s persistent unemployment numbers suggest that government restrictions aren’t the only cause of skyrocketing layoffs and furloughs — and that the economy might not fully recover until consumers feel safe.

Georgia, one of the last states to impose widespread shutdowns, has loosened restrictions on a broad array of businesses and dine-in restaurants since its stay-at-home order officially expired on April 30. Only bars, nightclubs, theaters, live music venues and amusement parks remain fully shuttered through the end of May.

Some laid-off workers have gone back to jobs since Gov. Brian Kemp first allowed gyms, bowling alleys, hair salons and other businesses to begin limited operations: The number of workers in Georgia remaining on unemployment assistance after an initial application dropped by 11 percent over the past two weeks. But others are still heading to the unemployment line for the first time. Georgia has now seen more than 2 million workers file for unemployment in nine weeks — out of the nearly 39 million who have applied for jobless benefits nationally.

Weekly new applications have gone both up and down in Georgia in the three full weeks of data released since the reopening began. They dipped slightly at first, then rose again before dropping again in the latest week, although at a slower rate than states like Louisiana and Kentucky that have seen similar levels of unemployment claims.

“It’s nothing significant enough to say, ‘Oh, there’s a huge surge,’ — but certainly nothing to signal there’s any return to economic stability or recovery happening right now,” said Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

There are many reasons Georgia’s jobless numbers are still going up, economists say, including that the state, like most of the country, is still whittling through a backlog of applications. State officials also say some laid-off workers are filing duplicate claims, which can artificially inflate the numbers. But the data still underscores how lifting stay-at-home restrictions alone will do little to bring jobs and spending back unless consumer confidence improves, bringing demand with it.

“Think of a restaurant: They’re not going to be able to bring back their entire staff because they’re just not going to have the clientele,” said Laura Wheeler, associate director of the Center for State and Local Finance at Georgia State University. “That’s going to hinder the return of the workforce, because while we’re going to open up, we’re not going to open up to the full capacity that we were at before.”

And in Georgia, public polling indicates that confidence has yet to return. Nearly two-thirds of Georgia residents in a recent Washington Post-Ipsos pollsaid they felt their state was lifting restrictions too quickly, and only 39 percent said they approved of Kemp’s handling of the outbreak.

“We’ve been chasing a bit of a false narrative that the economic hit is about the restrictions and not the disease itself,” said Julia Coronado, president and founder of Macropolicy Perspectives, an economic research consulting firm. “The economic story really isn’t about lockdowns, and we’re going to make mistakes by pursuing that narrative. It really is about the disease, and how fearful people are about getting sick, and how businesses are going to operate in a world where this virus is with us.”

At the same time, the Trump administration is pushing to get governors to reopen their doors in the hopes that doing so will help revive the U.S. economy.

Trump has amplified calls to “liberate” states and criticized governors he feels are moving too cautiously, often accusing Democratic leaders of playing politics. “You have areas of Pennsylvania that are barely affected, and they want to keep them closed,” he said during a visit to the state last week, a hit to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. “Can’t do that.”

At the same time, The White House is also closely watching state-level claims data and expects reopening to have a major effect, Kevin Hassett, a senior economic adviser to the president, said late last week. “My fear is that the places that stay closed could have sort of skyrocketing claims,” Hassett told reporters at the White House, adding: “The places that are turning on could actually see claims go way back down towards normal.”

But many economists dispute the idea that lifting restrictions will by itself mean a major boost to the labor market, in part because of evidence that layoffs accelerated in March separate from governors’ shutdown restrictions. A recent analysis by four University of California-Berkeley researchers found that the direct effect of stay-at-home orders accounted for only one-quarter of the jobless claims at the start of the crisis — suggesting that a majority of jobs that have been erased would have been lost even without statewide shutdowns.

A drop-off in consumer demand, disruptions to global supply chains and self-imposed social distancing measures all exacerbated the job losses and will likely continue to hinder the economic recovery after shutdown restrictions are removed.

POLITICO compared nine weeks of non-seasonally-adjusted initial jobless claims to Georgia’s non-adjusted residential employment from February to determine the state’s jobless claims rate of 40.3 percent, which is currently the highest in the country.

It’s too early to know exactly why Georgia leads in terms of the proportion of its workforce filing for claims, economists say, and other states may well pass it in the coming weeks as they continue to process additional applications. The state did change its criteria early on to require employers to file unemployment claims on behalf of their employees in many situations, a move that supporters say simplifies the process and allows for quicker payouts. The state also now allows workers to earn as much as $300 each week without having their unemployment eligibility affected.

Others speculated that Georgia might employ more workers in industries like hospitality and healthcare that have been deeply affected, or that many residents are employed by small businesses that have struggled to survive during the pandemic.

But no matter the reasons, experts say the data offers an early indication of why millions of jobs across the country that were erased in mere weeks could take years to return.

“Reopening is certainly not a lights-on, lights-off situation,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “These are companies that have seen a shock in their demand, and at a certain point, they can’t keep their workers on.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


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Essential Workers Fight for Their Lives

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At a time of record unemployment, Cintya Medina feels lucky to have a job at the Barnes & Noble warehouse in Monroe, N.J.—but she does not want a job that puts her in danger.

When Medina and her coworkers learned of several confirmed Covid-19 cases at the warehouse, they organized a protest on April 7 to demand a two-week shutdown and full cleaning.

“If you continue to make workers like me go back to work, you’re not going to stop the spread of the virus because it’s highly contagious,” Medina tells In These Times in Spanish through a translator. She also questioned why the chain bookseller was forcing employees to come in at all: “It doesn’t make sense that we continue to be open because we’re not essential right now.” Businesses deemed essential, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, have special exceptions to operate during pandemic lockdown orders.

Medina is one of millions of workers who are stuck with the impossible choice between protecting their health and getting a paycheck. More than 20 million others cannot work at all, laid off from their jobs and left wrangling with their local unemployment office. Many are simply excluded from other benefits, all while the country hurtles toward a depression.

The workers faring best during the pandemic are those with high wages, access to healthcare, paid sick leave and the ability to work from home. But those benefits are exceedingly rare for much of the workforce, says Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented think tank. The coronavirus crisis has “uncovered the weakness in our social safety net,” she says. More than 40% of workers are employed in low-wage jobs and some 28 million non-elderly adults lack health insurance. Moreover, federal data suggests only about 30% of workers have the ability to work from home—and the rate is even lower for black and Latino workers. 

Workers making poverty wages in precarious jobs were struggling to survive well before the pandemic. Now, besieged by economic devastation and a public health crisis, they are in a fight for their lives. Just as the virus has exposed the vicious inequities ingrained in the country’s economic hierarchy, so is it galvanizing workers to organize for safe workplaces, fair pay, decent medical leave and the right to challenge bosses who put them in harm’s way.

Low Pay, Essential Work

Jake Douglas made $14 an hour as a driver for United Airlines’ catering service at Denver International Airport, but he took a voluntary unpaid layoff in late March. His partner is immunocompromised, and Douglas worried about potentially getting infected. Ironically, his decision to try to protect his health could cost him his healthcare. Though Douglas remains on his employer-sponsored health plan, he has lost his income, is still waiting to get benefits from the state’s overwhelmed unemployment-claim system, and fears he might no longer be able to afford his health insurance payments. Meanwhile, he suffers from a longstanding shoulder injury that hampers his employment options.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to return to work without physical therapy at a minimum, but probably surgery,” he says. “And so I’m just really nervous … I do not know what I’m going to be able to do to survive this thing if it drags on.”

Douglas’ economic precarity is shared by millions of laid-off workers, who are disproportionately women, black or Latino.

Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, says the economic devastation of the coronavirus will “be tremendously damaging for lower-wage workers, who tend to not have savings and assets to withstand economic shocks like this.”

The CARES Act—the federal stimulus package passed in late March—was intended to cushion the job losses precipitated by the pandemic. Its expansions of unemployment assistance include an extra $600 tacked onto state unemployment benefits, plus an unprecedented extension of assistance to the self-employed, such as Uber and Lyft drivers and other gig workers.

But Shierholz argues unemployment insurance is not an ideal way to deliver relief to dislocated workers. Mass layoffs, she says, would ultimately slow down the recovery, by requiring businesses to rebuild their workforce from scratch as they reopen. “It’s incredibly better for both workers and businesses to furlough but not lay off,” she says. “But we don’t really have a culture of holding onto workers during a downturn and then just bringing them back online after the downturn is over.”

Several European governments have opted to preserve jobs by subsidizing companies to keep workers on their payrolls. By contrast, the U.S. relief package offered an extremely limited pool of supplementary loans for small businesses to avoid laying off staff (which was quickly exhausted, and hastily replenished), while hundreds of billions of dollars were funneled into massive hotel, retail and supermarket corporations—largely free of any concrete mandates to retain workers.

In other words, lawmakers have opted to make unemployment more bearable rather than compel employers to furlough workers and preserve their livelihoods.

Even workers who receive several hundred dollars a week in unemployment benefits could be devastated by the loss of their employer-sponsored healthcare.

The coronavirus “really lays bare the inhumanity of employer-sponsored health insurance,” says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor and employment relations at Rutgers University.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates some 3.5 million laid-off workers lost their employer-sponsored health plans between mid-March and early April—just as their families (who likely shared those health plans) will need care to deal with the growing public health crisis.

None of the federal stimulus acts have expanded healthcare coverage, aside from providing funds for hospitals and testing, although Democratic lawmakers have proposed expansions of Medicaid and of some private insurance coverage.

Givan emphasizes that millions of workers never had insurance in the first place for myriad reasons, whether they were undocumented, or their jobs never offered it, or they couldn’t afford it. Many are still working without healthcare, often in frontline jobs that expose them to health risks every day, as they staff grocery stores, clean hospitals and deliver goods.

“We’re saying, ‘Do this job that’s essential to the functioning of our society … and you will risk being infected with this virus,’ ” Givan says. “And if that happens, you’ll be left with large bills or with no access to care, whether that’s because you’re undocumented, uninsured or under-insured.”

Underpaid Heroes

A worker’s ability to stay healthy amid the pandemic hinges on their ability to take time off without sacrificing their wages. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, seven in 10 low-wage workers did not have a single paid sick day. The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides two weeks of paid leave for full-time employees affected by Covid-19. Additionally, the CARES Act temporarily extends federal family medical leave laws to provide workers with limited wage replacement for the care of a child, for up to 12 weeks.

But again, the protections are patchy. The paid leave and child care provisions exclude private employers with 500 or more employees and allow an exemption for firms with fewer than 50 employees. These carve-outs could effectively exclude up to 106 million private-sector workers, including millions of the poorest.

Josh (a pseudonym to protect him from employer retaliation) is a Walmart pharmacy assistant in Illinois and a self-described “Walmart baby”—the son of Walmart employees. He fears that, while keeping the nation’s largest retailer operating, he and his parents are exposed daily to hazardous conditions. Although workers have some protective equipment, he says, what they really need is adequate paid leave to protect themselves and their families.

In March, Walmart announced a new two-week paid leave policy for employees who test positive for the virus—but it excludes workers who, for example, are immunocompromised or tending to ill family members. Josh, who is part of the worker advocacy group United for Respect, notes that people are reluctant to actually use what paid leave they have in fear of “repercussion from management.”

“For [my parents] to not be treated and protected on a daily basis … just irks me to the highest degree,” Josh says. He suggests workers be compensated with hazard pay, so they can at least have their “essential” role reflected in their paycheck.

“[People say] we’re heroes and everything—but it doesn’t feel like we’re heroes,” Josh adds. “It feels like we don’t have a choice.” With hazard pay, “at least [workers] might get a little bit of solace in knowing that, ‘Hey, I’m working during this. My job’s important.’ Helping people is definitely worth more than $8 an hour.”

Demanding A Just Workplace

Some workers in high-risk jobs are banding together to demand their bosses do more to keep them safe.

Jordan Flowers, a worker at Amazon’s JFK8 facility in Staten Island, protested alongside coworkers in late March and early April to demand the company close its workplace until it could be fully sanitized, as reports emerged that as many as 25 workers had contracted Covid-19. “We’re in a warehouse of 5,000 people,” Flowers says. “You never know who is sick.”

The walkouts at JFK8 followed similar actions at Chicago and Detroit Amazon facilities, and were part of a national campaign to expand paid leave policies for affected workers. (Amazon provides two weeks of paid leave only for employees diagnosed or quarantined with Covid-19.)

Workers who help secure the nation’s food supply are also demanding respect and fatter paychecks.

Unionized grocery workers with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have successfully pressured several large supermarket chains and food producers to secure hazard pay, extra sanitation provisions and paid leave for hundreds of thousands of members. Workers at non-unionized chains, such as Trader Joe’s, are also campaigning for improved safety protections and hazard pay. (Trader Joe’s has made some reforms, like additional paid leave, but at the same time, sent employees a strident antiunion letter to deter organizing.) Meanwhile, Instacart workers—who provide home grocery delivery services for various outlets—went on strikein late March to demand safety equipment and $5 per order in hazard pay.

Meat-processing workers have mobilized to refuse work at claustrophobic plants where hundreds of Covid-19 cases have surfaced. An estimated 830 workers at the JBS USA meat-processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, called off work en masse, and about 50 Perdue chicken-processing workers walked off the job in late March. After some plants temporarily shuttered following outbreaks, President Trump ordered in late April that they remain open as a “critical industry.”

Some of the lowest-paid food service workers are agitating for better safety protections as well. In early April, McDonald’s workers staged protests and walkouts in Los Angeles, St. Louis and other cities to demand hazard pay and adequate safeguards. In San Jose, 26-year-old drive-through worker Irving Garza staged an informal strike with several coworkers to demand hazard pay and safety gear. Customers are constantly hovering within a few feet of his window, most not wearing masks. “I’m breathing the same air that they’re breathing … so I’m putting myself at a big risk,” he says.

Some companies, including Amazon, Instacart, JBS USA, Perdue, McDonald’s and Barnes & Noble, have introduced new safety measures, such as more intensive cleaning, masks and social-distancing rules, and in a few cases, provided additional paid sick leave for Covid-19.

But, fundamentally, workers are standing up for something more: a voice. In terms of physically safeguarding workers’ health, Givan explains, employers can offer protections at their discretion, but “anything that’s given by the good grace of the employer can be taken away just as easily.”

During the McDonald’s protests, the company announced plans to increase safety protections at its restaurants, including distributing masks and hand sanitizer—though it admitted the rollout was still in process at its restaurants, most of which are independently operated franchisees. As of mid-April, protests continued. Garza, who relies on his fast-food job to support his mother and several siblings, returned to work after his manager provided additional safety equipment, but since going on strike, his hours were cut in half.

“McDonald’s should listen to its workers … because they are all at the bottom of the pyramid,” he says. To the bosses, he says, “And we’re not serving you. You are serving us, because we’re the ones that are working. We’re the ones who are making the sales happen, who are working on the line … so just listen to the workers.”

No Papers, No Relief

Many of the workers hardest hit by the pandemic, whether they are laid off or soldiering on in their essential jobs, will receive no support from federal relief legislation—because they are undocumented.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, some 6 million immigrant workers—both with and without legal status—work in “frontline industries,” such as healthcare and manufacturing medicine and soap. Immigrant workers, a large share of them undocumented, hold about a quarter of construction and extraction jobs. Yet undocumented workers are excluded from most federal benefits programs.

So people like Fredy Moreno, an undocumented construction worker in the Twin Cities, won’t get the $1,200 stimulus check other households look forward to. But he has bigger worries, like the more than $13,000 he says he is owed by a previous employer. With the economic downturn compounding his prior employer’s wage theft, Moreno is desperate to get back to work despite the health risks.

“I don’t have the rent,” Moreno says through a Spanish translator. “I don’t have money to buy food for my family. I have a small child. … I don’t have money to go out and buy diapers—if there are even diapers to go buy. It’s been pretty difficult.”

With construction jobs drying up, Moreno laments the exclusion of undocumented workers, who contribute roughly $27 billion in local, state and federal taxes annually, from the federal relief package. “I think that we should be included,” he says, “because we also work, and we also pay taxes … and I think our families also matter.”

While the federal relief package shuts out undocumented workers, several immigrant-focused labor groups, such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), Make the Road New York and Alianza Agrícola, have launched relief funds for workers or pressed state lawmakers to help undocumented workers access aid. In mid-April, NDLON sent a “protest caravan” to California’s statehouse. A day later, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide $125 million relief fund for immigrant workers, regardless of status.

Viral Resistance

Some labor advocates hope the pandemic, and the worker uprisings it is spurring, could compel policymakers, employers and the public to address critical gaps in the welfare system and to start to give frontline workers the respect and fair compensation their essential labor deserves.

The crisis might ultimately “create a moment in the public dialogue and in the political imagination about the choices that we’re making,” says Wendy ChunHoon, executive director of Family Values @ Work, an advocacy group focused on paid leave policies. “Because we could value childcare and care jobs, and the entire care infrastructure … as [equally] important as the carveouts that we’re giving [to] large corporations right now. It’s a choice that we’re making as a country—we could choose differently.”

Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the pandemic “has exposed fundamental basic contradictions in the way public policy has been formulated to benefit the narrow interest of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, at the expense of the vast majority.” He adds the ongoing economic devastation could spur “public demand to address some of these basic structural issues within our society” to provide “a sustainable standard of living for working people.”

Right now, most workers are focused on protecting their health and feeding their families. But the momentum of grassroots organizing in the face of Covid-19 could eventually inspire more workers to form unions, call for comprehensive family-leave policies and demand employers protect jobs through arrangements like work-sharing, which allows employers to use the unemployment system to reduce work hours while avoiding layoffs.

General Electric workers recently agitated at plants in Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia, not only for health protections at work but for jobs that protect the health of others. As members of the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America, they demanded better sanitary conditions and expanded paid leave, along with the conversion of factories where workers have been laid off—which usually produce industrial parts, such as generators and jet engines—to manufacture respirators for coronavirus patients.

Douglas, the former airline-catering employee, is organizing with other airport and service-industry workers under the banner of the Denver Democratic Socialists of America to pressure the city and state government to cancel rent, mortgage and utility bills for 90 days. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced a similar federal bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments, which has been co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), among others.

“All of us feel that if we can’t work, we can’t pay,” Douglas says. As more residents are laid off, then “there’s a tipping point and a crisis coming regardless, and our local elected officials need to do everything they can to support us right now, because the system can’t sustain itself.”

The economy “will never be what it was before,” says Erica Smiley, executive director of the workers’ rights group Jobs with Justice, but says the labor movement has a chance to organize for a more just future. “The question is, will [post-pandemic society] be reorganized to continue to move more resources to those at the top? … Or will it be forever changed in a way that more ordinary people are put into positions to make decisions about our general health and well-being as a society?” Smiley says.

“It will be a fight either way.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a historian based in New York City, a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored podcast.


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Unemployment claims rise by 2.4 million as states try to open for business

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A total of 38.6 million workers have now applied for unemployment assistance over the past nine weeks.

Another 2.4 million workers filed new unemployment claims last week, DOL reported, suggesting that the economic pain from the coronavirus is continuing even as states begin to allow businesses to reopen.

The coronavirus has forced nearly 39 million Americans out of work and onto state jobless benefit rolls in nine weeks, leading to levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

“The coronavirus crisis continues to inflict swift and deep impacts on the labor market at a near unprecedented clip,” Glassdoor Senior Economist Daniel Zhao said in reaction to the numbers. “While recent indicators show the initial steep job declines are slowing, the labor market remains in a deep hole it will have to climb out of.”

Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, noted that the number of new claims filed last week is likely closer to 4.4 million, based on how DOL now separates its data.

The unadjusted raw number of claims filed in regular state unemployment programs last week totaled at 2.2 million workers. But the report indicates another 2.2 million Americans also sought jobless aid under the new temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

California saw the highest number of new claims last week, with an estimated 246,115 applications filed. New York followed with an estimated 226,521 new claims.

While the number Americans seeking jobless benefits has slowly declined over the past several weeks, some economic forecasts also suggest that huge swaths of the workforce could remain unemployed for a prolonged period.

The nonpartisan CBO warned in an update to its economic forecast Tuesday that unemployment will rise to 16 percent in the third quarter if a small business lending program created in a coronavirus stimulus package expires. By the end of 2021, the agency projects unemployment will still be as high as 8.6 percent. 

Federal Reserve officials said they worry the U.S. could be facing a long and severe recession if there are multiple outbreaks of coronavirus as lockdown orders are relaxed, in minutes of their April meeting released Wednesday. The central bank officials cited an “extraordinary amount of uncertainty and considerable risks.”

Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation said that in the 35 states that have begun to open their economies statewide, “initial claims only declined by 14 percent last week from the prior week.”

He said the data shows reopening the economy “does not necessarily equate with robust rehiring,” pointing out that among those 35 states, nine actually saw an increase in the number of new workers claiming benefits.

In Washington, Democrats and Republicans hold different views about whether another round of unemployment and small business aid is needed.

The House last Friday passed a mammoth $3 trillion stimulus bill that would expand some unemployment benefits and provide more direct payments to the public.

But Republicans and the Trump administration have said they want to wait and see the effect of three relief packages passed in March, and instead are moving forward on proposals to shield businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

President Donald Trump has also signaled he opposes extending the weekly $600 boost in unemployment insurance authorized in one of the coronavirus rescue bills that is due to expire at the end of July.

Democrats’ latest $3 trillion coronavirus relief package would extend that sweetener through Jan. 31.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 21, 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.


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Public outrage gets results after Kroger tries to take back emergency payments to some workers

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When the independent news site Tennessee Holler tweeted a letter from Kroger to an employee, clawing back $461.60 in “overpaid” emergency pay and even threatening “further collection efforts,” outrage ensued. As it should. But the good news is, Kroger quickly paid attention to that outrage and backed off.

“We’ve instructed our payroll department to directly inform the small number of associates affected by the recent overpayments of Emergency Leave of Absence pay that we will not seek repayment,” a Kroger spokesperson said in response to questions.

That’s not to say Kroger is now a workers’ paradise. It’s still a company where the CEO was paid $21.1 million in 2019 while typical workers took in less than $27,000. Kroger also recently announced it was ending $2 per hour hazard pay … and then announced lump sum “thank you” bonuses. So there’s a little bit of a pattern of Kroger trying to cheap out its workers only to back off when people noticed. But that’s better than if the company stuck to its guns on its worst impulses.

Kroger isn’t the only company to have stopped paying hourly hazard pay. Starbucks, Target, and Amazon have all announced they’ll be ending the temporary increases—even though the danger hasn’t ended for workers. And there’s the fact that $2 to $3 more per hour was seen as a reasonable bonus for exposure to a potentially fatal disease, which is a devastating commentary on American corporate culture. (Or on American capitalism itself.)

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Capitalism vs. Safety, Health: An Old Story Again

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The U.S. president recently ordered meatpacking employees back into workplaces plagued by coronavirus. He did not order the employers to make their slaughterhouses safe. GOP-proposed legislation exempts employers from lawsuits by employees sickened or killed by coronavirus infections at workplaces. The GOP is mostly silent about requiring employers to maintain safe or healthy workplaces. Employers across the country threaten workers who refuse to return to jobs they find unsafe. They demand that employees return or risk being fired. Job loss likely means loss of health insurance for employees’ families. Being fired risks also losing eligibility for unemployment insurance.

Employers are now going to extremes to evade the costs of safe and healthy workplaces. Recently, New Orleans’ authorities and their contractors fired their $10.25 per hour garbage collectors after a short strike. The strikers had demanded protective equipment against garbage possibly infected with the coronavirus and also $15 per hour “hazard” pay. New Orleans replaced the striking workers by contracting for nearby prison inmates paid $1.33 per hour and individuals from halfway houses. Capitalism’s iron fist hits the working class with this “choice”: unsafe job, or poverty, or slave labor with both.

Capitalism has always struggled to minimize outlays on workplace safety and health. Workers have protested this wherever capitalism became the prevailing economic system over the last three centuries. Upton Sinclair’s popular book, The Jungle, published over a century ago, exposed spectacularly unsafe and unhealthy conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The 1906 passages of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act responded to public outrage over that industry’s working conditions. Coronavirus infection rates among employees of U.S. pork processing plants as high as 27 percent illustrate how employers forever “economize” on workplace health and safety.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the U.S. Department of Labor was established in 1970. It sought to add more systematic federal government supervision and inspection to the regulations pressing employers to provide safe and healthy workplace conditions. Its mixed successes attest to the lengths employers will go to evade, weaken, or ignore efforts to enforce workers’ safety and health.

The profit-driven logic of capitalist enterprises incentivizes not spending capital on workplace safety and health conditions unless and until they deteriorate to the point of threatening profits. Capitalists and mainstream economics textbooks repeat endlessly that profit is every enterprise’s “bottom line.” Profitability measures each firm’s economic performance. Profits reward employers; losses punish them. Employers use capital to yield profits; that is their chief goal and priority. As objectives, workplace safety and health are secondary, tertiary or worse: obstacles to maximizing profits.

Capitalism has always sacrificed the safety and health of the employee majority to boost profits of its employer minority. That minority makes all the key enterprise decisions and excludes the employee majority from that decision-making. No wonder employers figure disproportionally among society’s rich, safe, and healthy, while employees figure disproportionally among the poor, unsafe, and unhealthy. Capitalism displays not only extreme inequalities of wealth and income, but also all their derivative inequalities: economic, political, and cultural. Pandemics expose and worsen them all.

In some times and places, capitalism’s iron fist wears velvet gloves. When profits are high and/or critics of capitalism ally strongly with its victims, employers may spend more on making workplaces less unsafe and less unhealthy. Otherwise, employers can and do spend less. If and when they fail to prevent government regulations mandating minimum health and safety standards, employers campaign to evade, weaken, and eventually repeal them. Employers usually repeat the same old arguments to block or undo regulations mandating safety and health standards. Such regulations, they insist, divert capital from productive uses (hiring workers) to “unproductive” uses (improving workers’ health and safety). Thus fewer workers will be hired, hurting the employee class. With such arguments employers have often succeeded and undermined workplace safety and health.

Capitalism’s long record of maintaining nearly constant unemployment—its “reserve army”—not only got workers to accept lower wages for fear of being replaced by more desperate unemployed. Unemployment also got employed workers to accept unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. Unemployment is a kind of torture by one class of another. It helps maintain lower wages and unsafe and unhealthy worksites. That is one reason why reduced labor needs are managed, in capitalism, not by keeping everyone employed but for fewer hours per week. That option is not generally chosen because firing a portion of the workforce—depriving those unfortunates of jobs—better disciplines workers to accept what they might otherwise reject.

In today’s situation, employers and the government, equally unprepared for the virus, did too little too late to prevent a dangerous pandemic. Sudden mass lockdowns led to mass unemployment. Expensive reconfiguring for social distancing, mass testing, cleaning and disinfection, etc., might have rendered jobsites safe and healthy. Instead, employers and their political spokespersons press employees back into unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. A “reopening the economy” is ordered. Employers get to impose unsafe and unhealthy workplaces by reframing the process as a patriotic return to a noble, national “work ethic.” Employers are counting on this sham drama now.

Consider this historic parallel: capitalists in the U.S. and elsewhere once regularly employed children as young as five years old. Their jobs’ safety and health conditions were mostly inadequate and often deplorable. Their pay fell well below that of adults. They suffered injury as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Schooling was neglected if not altogether absent. Yet capitalists insisted that economic well-being and prosperity required their access to child labor. Ending it would bring economic decline possibly “worse” than child labor. A reasonable “trade-off” was required. Employers argued that poor families needed and welcomed incomes from employed children. Employers also insisted, then as now, that they had spent all they could and all that was needed to provide adequately safe and healthy work conditions.

Working-class responses to child labor took time to develop the necessary understanding and political power. Once they did, child labor was doomed. Working-class parents confronted capitalists with a non-negotiable demand: overcome the horrors of child labor by ending it. Employers would have to find other ways to profit. Many did even as many others moved abroad where child labor is still allowed. They still do.

Today’s parallel non-negotiable demand: end unsafe and unhealthy workplaces. That requires differently organized workplaces. The majority, employees, must control their safety and health. It must be a higher priority than profit for the minority of owners, boards of directors, etc. Once again we meet society’s need for transition to a worker-coop based economy.

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

About the Author: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at democracyatwork.info.


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Hundreds of Fruit Packing Workers Are On Strike

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Since this article was written, apple packinghouse workers at two more companies have joined the strike: at Hansen Fruit and Columbia Reach. Six worksites in Yakima County have now seen production shut down. The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases on the West Coast. The strikes are women-led, multigenerational, and multiracial, according to Edgar Franks of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a local farmworkers’ union. —Editors

Last week the COVID-related strike in Washington state’s Yakima Valley quadrupled in size, as workers walked out at three more apple packinghouses. More than a hundred stopped work on May 7 at Allan Brothers Fruit, a large apple growing, packing and shipping company in Naches, in Central Washington. On May 12 they were joined by 200 more workers, who walked off the job at the Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yakima, and at the Matson Fruit Co. in Selah. The next day another 100 workers walked out at the Monson Fruit packing shed, also in Selah.

At the center of the stoppages are two main demands for those who decide to continue working during the pandemic: safer working conditions and an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay.

Apple sheds line the industrial streets of Yakima Valley’s small towns. Inside these huge concrete buildings, hundreds of people labor shoulder-to-shoulder, sorting and packing fruit. If someone gets sick, it can potentially spread through the workers on the lines, and from them into the surrounding towns. Although packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, their families comprise the stable heart of these areas. Most have lived here for years. Jobs in the sheds are a step up from the fields, with year-round work at 40 hours per week.

This part of agribusiness is by far Central Washington’s largest employer, and the industry has successfully fought off unions for many years. The virus may change that, however, if the strike wave becomes the spark for creating a permanent organization among these workers. It is undoubtedly what the companies fear when they see workers stop the lines, and even more so, when they see farmworker union organizers helping to sustain the walkouts.

Seeking Healthy Workplaces

“The most important demand for us is that we have a healthy workplace and protection from the virus,” said Agustin Lopez, one of the strike leaders at Allan Brothers. “Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19. So far as we know, the company isn’t paying them. We need protections at work, like adequate masks, and we want tests. How do we even know if any of us have been infected if there are no tests?” (Allan Brothers Fruit did not respond to phone and email requests for comment for this story.)

He charges that Allan Brothers didn’t disinfect the plant and stop production when the workers got sick. One worker, Jennifer Garton, told the Yakima Herald, “They are not doing what they’re saying they’re doing,” and that workers only heard about the cases of COVID-19 in the plant through their own conversations.

According to Lopez, at the end of April the workers sent an email to company managers, asking for better conditions, extra pay, and the right to take off work. “People were taking their vacations or sick leave or anything they could to stay home. The company said that if we had worked for five weeks we could stay home, but they wouldn’t pay us. We’re only making minimum wage, so how could we do that? And we have no guarantee we would even have our jobs back if we don’t come in to work now.”

In response to the demands, he says the company offered to buy the workers lunch. Over a hundred workers rejected that and struck the company.

The shed of another Yakima packer, Roche Fruit Company, did stop work in April to disinfect the plant, after two workers had become infected. Roche employees then also demanded hazard pay in a message to managers. When the company offered an additional $200 per month, the laborers stopped work after lunch on May 11. After an hour of bargaining, the company offered them $100 per week instead, and they went back to work. Operations manager Alfonso Pineda said the company had already planned to give workers “gratitude pay” for working in difficult circumstances.

“At the heart of the dissatisfaction of all these workers is the fact they are essential workers, but their pay does not reflect that,” says Edgar Franks, the political director of the new union for Washington farm workers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He explains that workers from both Roche and Allan Brothers got in touch with them when they were getting ready to strike. “The walkouts then started after management refused to raise their wages. At Roche, when union organizers and leadership arrived, management quickly relented. This is the power of the presence of the union.”

Driven By Fear

But fear is driving the strikes, even more than wages. After walking out of the packing plant, workers at Jack Frost stood in a big circle six feet apart while Claudia, a striker, explained that they were fighting for the health of their whole community. “We want everyone to have a health examination, including our children and other people possibly affected,” she declared. “We want it for our whole family, because we know the virus doesn’t just stay in the plant. It’s outside too.”

At the rally in front of the Allan Brothers packinghouse, another woman said the same thing: that the biggest question was whether they could work without getting sick. “We have people who have been affected in this shed,” she told Yakima city councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez. “We want the company to guarantee that there are no more people who have the virus here at work, so that we can protect ourselves and our families.”

The working conditions themselves are responsible for much of the danger, and Franks says the companies have not been responsive. “Ever since the governor’s order [mandating physical distancing and safe conditions], a lot of the safety measures haven’t reached the workers inside. The workers are elbow-to-elbow on the line, packing the fruit going through there. Workers got sick, and they’re concerned that no one is looking after them or the wellbeing of their family and friends still inside.”

Agustin Lopez has lived in the Yakima Valley and worked in its sheds since 1985. His experience has made him cautious, therefore, about predicting whether workers will decide if a permanent union is the answer to their problems. But when he looks at the waves of people leaving the apple sheds, each company encouraging the next one, he thinks change is not just possible, but happening around him. “This connection between us is something new,” he says, “and there are people out here from lots of the plants. Maybe we are actually a federation.” The answer will be determined by the strike, he believes. “If the companies are willing to negotiate, we’ll listen to what they have to say. And if not, then we will continue with our strike.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a former union organizer, photographer, and writer, covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.


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A Quiet Frenzy of Union Organizing Has Gripped the Nonprofit World

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“The reason we all work at nonprofits is because we support the mission of the nonprofits,” says Kayla Blado, who works at the Economic Policy Institute. It makes sense. Like many fields that involve doing something good for the world, nonprofit work tends to come with low pay and long hours. But now, more than ever before, it comes with something else: a union drive. The nonprofit union wave is rising right along with the intensity of the crises that nonprofits are dealing with in our bad, bad world.

Over the past two years, there has been a legitimate boom in nonprofit union campaigns. All of those that have gone public have been successful. Alongside the recent rise in unionization at media outlets, museums and cultural institutions, nonprofit workers are part of an unprecedented uprising of labor organizing in white collar professions.

At the center of it all is the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), where Kayla Blado serves as president. The NPEU has been around since 1998, when EPI unionized, but two years ago it began aggressively attracting new nonprofits. Now—seemingly all of a sudden—it represents 27 different workplaces, including influential D.C. institutions like the Center for American Progress, Open Markets Institute and J Street. Though affiliated with the national union IFPTE, the NPEU is run as a volunteer operation (with a single quarter-time paid organizer), with an executive board made up of members and an organizing strategy driven by word of mouth in the tight-knit D.C. nonprofit world. The numbers tell the story of how dramatic and recent the surge in organizing has been: According to Blado, the NPEU has 250 dues-paying members, another 400 bargaining contracts now, and more than a thousand organizing at shops that are not public yet.

So far, the NPEU has won voluntary recognition in every single union campaign it has organized—a remarkable record that reflects skillful use of the fact that the management of most progressive nonprofits don’t want to be seen as anti-union (even if they wish that the union didn’t exist). The fact that in multiple recent campaigns management has taken weeks to voluntarily recognize the union hints at the grudging nature of their acceptance of the new, organized reality of their work force.

During a two-week period in the month of April, as the coronavirus crisis raged, the economy buckled, and office workers fled to their homes, the NPEU announced seven successful union drives, boosting their number of shops by a full third. That record is likely unmatched anywhere in the union world. Blado says that the organizing at all of them had begun before the crisis, but was accelerated by the urgency of the moment. It doesn’t hurt that all of those workers now have a vehicle to participate in the conversation about when it is safe to reopen their offices. “This is exactly why people have chosen to have a union,” Blado says, “because of situations like this where management could [otherwise] make a unilateral decision.”

At the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, staffers began discussing unionizing last fall. After a couple of months shopping around for various unions, they settled on NPEU. “We felt really connected to NPEU because they’re mission driven, and we’re similarly a very mission driven organization,” says Morgan Conley, a national election protection coordinator there. Employees saw their union drive, which management announced an “intent” to recognize in April, as perfectly aligned with the group’s civil rights purpose. “We wanted to make sure we were making the right decision for the Lawyers Committee,” she says. “We felt this would really ensure the success and viability of the organization.”

At progressive nonprofits, the decision of how intense and public to make any labor battle is a tricky one. Unlike at regular companies, many of the employees in the union may feel torn between protecting the organization’s reputation, which is valuable for serving a purpose they believe in, and protecting their own labor rights. The NPEU’s surge in organizing no doubt benefits from the increased militancy of a younger generation of workers—not just in nonprofits, but everywhere—who are already living through the second economic crisis of their careers. “Many non-profits expect that mission-driven work will keep workers, especially younger workers, satisfied with lower pay,” says Alyson Samach, a staffer at the liberal pro-Israel nonprofit J Street, which recognized its new union last week after a month of negotiations. “Our millennial staff have already struggled to launch careers through one recession, and our Gen-Z staff are now thrust into financial instability by another. As we are all faced with a dire economic outlook, we are banding together to ensure more protections for our staff.”

That commitment to “mission” is ubiquitous as a motivation to organize. Jessie Hahn and Trudy Rebert are attorneys at the National Immigration Law Center, which works to advance the rights of low-income immigrants in America. When staffers began talking to one another about organizing many months ago, they realized there was a shared desire for transparency and some system for joint decision making at work. A union seemed like a natural fit. “We are a mission driven organization,” Hahn says. “People come to work here because they align with those values. We saw starting a union as an important way to model those values.” Rebert echoes this, noting that she and other attorneys came to the organization specifically because they want to live out those values, “not because we want to be paid the big bucks.” Despite this, the NILC Union has now been negotiating for recognition from management for more than a month. The head of NILC, Marielena Hincapié, was recently announced as a member of the Biden-Sanders immigration task force, which will be closely scrutinized for progressive bona fides.

Rather quietly, and without a paid staff, the NPEU has taken serious strides toward unionizing an industry with a good deal of inherent political power and a high public profile. Many left-leaning media outlets and allegedly liberal cultural institutions have already been through full-scale battles against their own employees who painted them as hypocritical for fighting against unionization. The NPEU has not had to do that yet, but history tells us that that day will come. (In fact, an ongoing fight for union recognition at the ACLU in California may turn into such a battle.) Everyone at the union—whose members include many lawyers, researchers, and P.R. professionals that amount to the makings of a volunteer army—indicates they aren’t scared of the fight, though they are not seeking one.

In a big picture sense, the future of the labor movement needs blue collars and white collars, for-profit and nonprofit. Each staff union campaign that NPEU wins is one step towards a world in which progressive activist organizations will be able to say that they put their money where their mouths are. “Just because you have an advanced degree doesn’t make you immune from discrimination at work, or getting fired without having just cause,” Blado says. “I think we’re creating the labor movement that we want to see.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. 


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Nationalize Payrolls Now; Gig Work is a Fancy Name for Exploitation; Domestic Workers in the Pandemic

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Calling people “gig” workers is a subtle trap. “Gig” can sound anywhere from upbeat to just a mundane description. The truth is the “gig” economy is just another way of exploiting people and it’s a dream for all capitalists to have a pool of workers who can be used and abused at the beckon call of a supply chain or a big tech company, at the lowest cost possible. And not a surprise—lots of gig workers are at great risk during the pandemic. I explore the lives of “gig” workers in a conversation with Bama Athreya, an economic policy fellow at the Open Society Foundation and a veteran social movement activist.

The pandemic has put domestic workers at risk. Think of it logically: you can be locked down in a home with your client, essentially enslaved, with nowhere to go and no social distancing space. You could easily be trapped in a home, forced to stay inside because of a curfew, without personal protection equipment. Elizabeth Tang, the General Secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation, joins me from her perch in Hong Kong to talk about the pandemic threats facing domestic workers.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on May 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. He is 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.


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Clash over government role in worker safety intensifies as businesses reopen

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Democrats and unions are trying to compel the Trump administration to aggressively police workplace safety as businesses from auto plants to retail stores begin reopening across the country. 

The AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million workers, on Monday asked a federal court to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue mandatory workplace safety rules, which the agency so far has refused to do. And House Democrats on Friday passed a coronavirus aid package that would require the agency to issue emergency safety requirements for employers.

The moves come amid a standoff that’s been brewing for weeks over who’s accountable if workers get sick on the job. Business groups say the economic downturn won’t end until places of work can reopen, and that can’t happen if employers are getting sued over exposure to the highly contagious virus. That message is gaining traction with congressional Republicans, who are pushing for liability protections for employers whose workers fall ill. And OSHA says new rules aren’t needed.

“Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time,” an OSHA spokesperson said. 

Advocates for workers point to the data: Out of 3,990 Covid-19-related complaints that OSHA has received — many concerning a lack of personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and gowns — the agency had opened only 310 coronavirus-related inspections as of May 18, according to a Labor Department spokesperson.

Some 2,694 of those complaints have been closed, and the agency has not yet issued a single Covid-19-related citation, the spokesperson said. (One possible reason is that OSHA takes into account a business’s “good faith efforts” when deciding whether to issue a citation.)

According to the watchdog group Accountable.U.S., OSHA inspections have gone down since Covid-19 was declared a national emergency on March 13,from 217 per day on average to 60. 

OSHA maintains that the agency investigates every complaint and “will enforce workplace protection requirements where appropriate.”

“The agency also responded to double the number of inquiries related to Covid-19 as compared to all inquiries handled in March and April of the previous year,” a spokesperson said. 

But David Michaels, who was OSHA chief during the Obama administration, said last week at a member briefing for the House Education and Labor Committee, “OSHA is essentially sitting back and saying, ‘We can’t do anything.’ It’s really appalling to me.”

Even when OSHA receives a complaint that someone died from potential Covid-19 exposure in the workplace, the agency’s enforcement plan says that “may warrant an on-site inspection,” but only in high-risk industries such as health care.

Safety complaints regarding lower-risk industries, the enforcement plan says, should prompt a “non-formal” response from OSHA that entails notifying the employer of the hazard by email. “All other formal complaints alleging SARS-CoV-2 exposure, where employees are engaged in medium or lower exposure risk tasks … will not normally result in an on-site inspection,” the enforcement plan directs.

The agency says the measures are an effort to take “appropriate diligence to protect our own personnel.”

“That is not enforcement. That is nothing,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA policy adviser during the Obama administration who is now with the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. “They are not responding to formal complaints and are simply sending letters to the employer.”

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia maintains his department can enforce worker safety under a provision in the 1970 statute that created OSHA called the “general duty clause,” which requires businesses to maintain “a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

The clause enables OSHA “to provide for the protection of employees who are working under such unique circumstances that no standard has yet been enacted to cover this situation,” the House Committee on Education and Labor said in 1970. Scalia has said the clause is “applicable” to Covid-19 safety enforcement, and that the agency will “use it as appropriate.”

But OSHA has rarely used the general duty clause in enforcement. According to the National Safety Council, it was applied in 1.5 percent of all OSHA citationsin fiscal year 2018 — in part, said Jordan Barab, who was OSHA deputy during the Obama administration, because it’s a cumbersome legal tool requiring a four-part legal test that makes it vulnerable to court challenge.

Worker advocates are now trying to force OSHA to become more aggressive. The AFL-CIO’s filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on Monday came after the federation and other unions petitioned the agency directly to issue a coronavirus safety standard in March. The agency did not act on their requests.

“It’s truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organization tasked with protecting our health and safety,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “But we’ve been left no choice. If the Trump administration refuses to act, we must compel them to.” 

The coronavirus stimulus bill that House Democrats passed on Friday would require OSHA to issue, within seven days of enactment, an “emergency temporary standard” — that is, mandatory coronavirus safety rules for employers. Through the crisis, OSHA has issued guidance documents, many in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to protect workers in meatpacking plantspharmaciesnursing homesdentists’ officesand various other industries. But these are all recommendations, not government directives.

The Democrats’ bill would also require OSHA to issue, within 24 months of enactment, mandatory workplace safety rules for future disease outbreaks. The Obama administration began work on such a standard in response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 but never completed work on it. That effort was shelved by the Trump administration.

To business groups and many congressional Republicans, more aggressive federal enforcement of workplace safety is a luxury that America can’t afford when business shutdowns have pushed unemployment up to Depression-era levels.

“We need to make sure bad actors are not given a break,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. “But the people who are trying to do it right, can reopen their businesses, their communities, schools and colleges with the assurance that if you practice the right procedures that you don’t have to worry about getting sued on top of everything else.”

But David Vladeck, a Georgetown Law professor, told senators at a May 12 hearing that providing blanket immunity to businesses, far from eliminating the cost of Covid-19 related injuries, would merely shift them onto workers and consumers.

“Immunity signals to workers and consumers that they go back to work, or they go to the grocery store at their peril,” Vladeck said, adding that businesses that safeguard employees and follow the recommended guidance will be protected from liability already.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 18, 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.


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