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Biden Has Abandoned His Covid Worker Safety Pledge

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Biden’s much-anticipated workplace safety rule excludes most workers—and some in the labor movement are not happy.

Until she got her first Pfizer shot on July 16, Cindy Cervantes toiled in the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma for most of the pandemic without a vaccine?—?working unprotected in an industry devastated by Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.

“In one day, at least 300 people were gone” from the plant, sick from Covid, Cervantes says. Still, ?“Seaboard wanted a certain number of hogs out. They kept pushing people, the chain was going even faster. People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.” Six of her coworkers have died from Covid-19, and hundreds have gotten sick, she says.

Ravaged by the pandemic, the roughly 500,000 U.S. workers in meatpacking, meat processing and poultry are not getting much help from the industry or the government. In a sector described as ?“essential” during the pandemic, at least 50,000 have been infected and more than 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit news outlet. Yet amid this grim toll, the North American Meat Institute lobbied successfully to exclude meatpacking and poultry workers from new Covid-19 worker safety rules enacted this June.

Even as vaccine availability in the United States steadily expands, workers still face pandemic peril on the job, from breakthrough cases of Covid-19, as well as low vaccination rates in many areas due to a combination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and serious access barriers to immigrants who fear deportation. Workers and advocates are sounding the alarm that President Biden has dropped the ball on pandemic-era worker protections, violating one of the first promises of his presidency. This warning has particular salience after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that some people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where there are severe outbreaks, due to the spread of the Delta variant. 

On his second day in office, Biden signed an executive order promising to enact new emergency safety rules ?“if such standards are determined to be necessary” by March 15 to protect millions of ?“essential” workers like Cervantes. The goal was straightforward: to give workers enforceable protections on the job, such as mandating that companies provide physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the deadline came and went, with no new rule. Then, on June 10, after heavy lobbying by many industry groups?—?including the American Hospital Association, the National Retail Federation, the North American Meat Institute and the National Grocers Association?—?Biden issued a narrow rule covering only health care workers.

This is despite the fact that other industries have been devastated by the pandemic. ?“Almost all my coworkers have gotten it,” Cervantes says of the virus, noting that many of them were out sick for months, and some returned to work with lingering Covid-19 symptoms. Yet, she says, ?“a lot of workers I work with have not gotten the vaccination” for a host of reasons. Some are ?“skeptical,” and ?“think it’s got a chip in it or that it’s not going to work.” 

It’s not hard to get a vaccine at the plant, Cervantes says. But in an industry that relies heavily on immigrants, Latinx and often undocumented workers, there are many barriers to vaccination, researchers note. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, ?“Large shares of Hispanic adults?—?particularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumented?—?express concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination.” Oklahoma, home to the Seaboard plant where Cervantes works, is among the nation’s most dangerous Covid-19 states, with just 40% of the population fully vaccinated, and ?“high transmission rates,” according to the CDC.

In an email response to questions, Seaboard communications director David Eaheart said the company ?“proactively” notifies workers of any Covid-19 cases in the plant, and has taken numerous precautions based on CDC and state health guidance, including paid leave for infected workers, and plexiglass shields at ?“select line workstations.” 

Eaheart acknowledged that in May 2020, testing at the plant identified 440 employees with ?“active cases of Covid-19,” the plant’s ?“highest week of reported active cases. All these employees self-isolated at home and were required to follow CDC guidance before being allowed to return to work.” During that week, he said, ?“overall production was scaled back in the processing plant and fewer animals were processed and products produced.” More than 1000 workers at the plant have tested positive, and six have died, Eaheart confirmed. 

Since March 15, when Biden’s promised Covid-19 workplace safety protections were supposed to take effect, more than 15,000 working-age adults have died from the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). ?“Every one of those individuals had a family that was also at risk of Covid,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in a June 9 press release anticipating Biden’s rule. ?“Releasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, too late.”

The original rule drafted by the Department of Labor did cover all workers, as Bloomberg Law first reported—but then the infectious disease standard met the buzz saw of politics and industry pressure, and the White House opted to cover health care workers only.

As the Department of Labor’s draft standard stated, ?“For the first time in its 50-year history, OSHA faces a new hazard so grave that it has killed more than half a million people in the United States in barely over a year, and sickened millions more. OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV?2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) presents a grave danger in every shared workplace in the United States.” 

Citing rising vaccination rates?—?60% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, though just 49% of the population overall?—?Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said the new rules focusing on healthcare workers ?“provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor provided any explanation for why other workers in high-exposure jobs were excluded.

“That’s kind of ridiculous,” says Louisiana Walmart worker Peter Naughton. ?“They should cover retail workers as well. We come into contact with people who may have the virus without knowing it.”

In Louisiana, where new Covid-19 cases are double the national infection rate and vaccinations lag far behind, Naughton, 45, toils in fear every day at a Walmart in Baton Rouge. He got vaccinated in May, but in his job helping customers navigate self-checkout kiosks, Naughton says, ?“I come into contact with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people a week.” Naughton, who lives in Baton Rouge with his parents to make ends meet, says that despite the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, and the spread of the extra-dangerous Delta variant, there are minimal safety precautions, and ?“Walmart is acting like the pandemic is over.”

While the vaccines vastly reduce risk of death or serious illness, infections and ?“breakthrough cases” are still infecting vaccinated people. And the CDC’s befuddling guidance making masks voluntary for those who are vaccinated, on the honor system, hasn’t helped. Furthermore, the CDC explains, ?“no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from Covid-19.”

For Naughton and millions of other ?“essential workers,” laboring in the pandemic has been a mix of fear, insult and injury. Even when Covid-19 was at its most deadly and virulent, basic safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning were ?“never enforced” at Walmart, says Naughton. ?“They never gave us any PPE, just glass cleaner, which doesn’t protect us. Customers could come in without masks and nothing would be said to them. I complained about it and the manager said, ?‘Don’t worry about it, let the customers do what they want.’”

Several of Naughton’s coworkers got infected and ill from Covid-19, but ?“management never said a word to any of us,” he says. ?“Most of them I came into close contact with. That kind of scared me. … We all should have known about it.” Naughton says he filed a complaint in November 2020 requesting OSHA to inspect the Baton Rouge Walmart, but ?“I never heard back, nothing ever happened.”

To top it off, when Naughton received the vaccine in May, he was hit by a 102.4 degree fever?—?but he had to work anyway, because Walmart employees can ?“lose our job” after five absences for any reason. Nobody at Walmart took his temperature or inquired about his health, he says.

Through email, Tyler Thomason, Walmart’s senior manager of global communications, insisted to In These Times, ?“We encourage our associates to get vaccinated. We offer the vaccine at no cost to associates… We continue to request that associates and customers wear face coverings unless they are vaccinated. Any information on confirmed, positive COVID-19 cases would come from the local health authority.”

Unions Sue to Protect More Workers

Naughton isn’t the only person disappointed by Biden’s exclusion of most workers from this emergency pandemic protection. Unions have pushed for the protection since the pandemic began ravaging the United States in March 2020. First, they encountered staunch resistance from the Trump administration; now, while pledging expansive worker protections, the Biden administration has delayed and diminished them.

On June 10, as the Biden administration announced the narrow new rule leaving out millions of workers, advocates expressed disappointment and frustration. 

Biden’s decision to cover only health care workers ?“represents a broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the frontlines of this pandemic,” stated United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union International President Marc Perrone the day the new rule was announced. 

That day, the AFL-CIO added, ?“we are deeply concerned that the [standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of Covid-19 infections and death. Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 exposures and infections.”

On June 24, the AFL-CIO and UFCW filed a petition in federal court demanding that all workers be covered by the emergency standard, which, the petition says, currently ?“fails to protect employees outside the healthcare industry who face a similar grave danger from occupational exposure to Covid-19.”

Another champion of the emergency standard, Rep. Bobby Scott (D?Va.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, also expressed frustration when Biden released the narrow new rule, calling the diminished standard ?“too little, too late for countless workers and families across the country,” including workers throughout the food industry and homeless shelters. Rep. Scott added: ?“I am disappointed by both the timing and the scope of this workplace safety standard.” The rule, Scott said, ?“is long past due, and it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness from Covid-19.”

Biden’s decision to exclude meatpackers, grocery and farm workers, retail and warehouse laborers and others means especially high risks for workers of color, Rep. Scott noted. ?“With vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of a comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is a dangerous combination,” he said.

Much of this ?“essential” workforce of people of color, immigrants and low-income white people, toils in dangerous farm labor and food processing plants where Covid-19 has spread like wildfire while vaccination rates remain low. ?“Workers in this industry have a very low vaccination rate,” as low as 37% in some states, says Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2 representing meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. ?“I don’t know who in their right mind would think we’ve passed over that bridge and think all workers are safe now.” Rosas adds, ?“The federal government has failed to protect meatpacking workers” by leaving them out of the final emergency standard. ?“I’m extremely disappointed in the Biden administration.”

Both the Department of Labor and the White House declined multiple interview requests, but a Department of Labor spokesperson emailed a statement insisting that the health-care-workers-only rule ?“closely follows the CDC’s guidance for health care workers and the science, which tells us that those who come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19, are most at risk.”

The Department of Labor spokesperson stressed that the agency’s existing (yet unenforceable) ?“guidance” and the ?“general duty clause” protect other workers adequately, particularly in ?“industries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood processing, and grocery and high-volume retail.” But in its own draft standard, the Department of Labor stated the opposite: ?“existing standards, regulations, and the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause are wholly inadequate to address the Covid-19 hazard.” In its original draft, the agency insisted, ?“a Covid-19 ETS [emergency temporary standard] is necessary to address these inadequacies.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, National COSH’s co-executive director, says President Biden ?“is responsible” for the 15,000 workers who have died from Covid-19 since Biden’s March 15 deadline to enact the emergency standard. Biden, she notes, ?“promised to protect workers in his campaign and on his first day in office, but he neglected them. But workers’ safety needs aren’t over, and we’ll be continuing to demand accountability from the administration.”

This post originally appeared at In These Times on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Christopher Cook is an award-winning investigative reporter who also writes for Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis


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Quantifying the Impact of the Fight for $15: $150 Billion in Raises for 26 Million Workers, with $76 Billion Going to Workers of Color

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Introduction

In late November 2012, a small group of fast-food workers in New York City walked out of their jobs in response to low wages[1] and the challenges of organizing a union in a high-turnover and high-exploitation industry.[2] These workers—many of them Black and brown—would launch one of the most successful worker movements of the 21st century, as their demands echoed across the country, spreading the call for a $15 minimum wage and a union.

The Fight for $15, as the movement inspired by these walkouts would be called, sparked waves of action to raise the minimum wage in the ensuing years, leading dozens of states, cities, and counties to raise their wages; putting pressure on some of the world’s largest corporations to raise their pay scales; and informing the national conversation on living wages, workplace democracy, and equity.

This report quantifies the wage impact of the Fight for $15. Using U.S. Census data, we estimate that 26 million workers have been boosted by higher minimum wage policies passed by all levels of government since 2012—winning over $150 billion in additional annual income.[i] We also find that the Fight for $15 has helped raise the earnings of nearly 12 million workers of color and 18 million women—likely helping narrow the racial and gender wage gaps (though a wage gap analysis is beyond the scope of this report).

Crucially, this worker-led movement delivered these additional earnings despite the racist, sexist, and anti-worker system of laws and political climate in the United States—with laws in place around the country that permit forced arbitration,[3] wage preemption,[4] misclassification,[5] wage theft,[6] and ongoing attacks on the few parts of our system that actually aid working people.[7]

THE ECONOMIC CONTEXT

Since the end of the Great Depression, U.S. productivity has grown rapidly—an indication that workers are producing more goods and services and creating more wealth. Yet, worker pay has barely budged, while CEO pay has soared. In the four decades between 1978 and 2018, inflation-adjusted CEO compensation (base salary and realized stock options) grew by 940 percent, while median worker pay grew just 12 percent.[8] According to an analysis commissioned by the New York Times, in 2020 alone CEO pay grew by 14 percent, while median worker pay grew by less than 2 percent.[9]

Between 1948 and 1973, real hourly wages increased in proportion to the overall growth in productivity. As the U.S. economy grew, the gains were shared with workers on a roughly proportional basis.  However, since 1973, wages for the most underpaid workers have not kept pace with growth of our economy and total labor productivity.[10] In essence, corporations have not equitably shared the returns of our formidable growth in national productivity with the underpaid workers who made those gains possible.

By 2017, productivity was growing more than twice as fast as the growth in real median wages.[11] Many economists have interpreted this trend as an example of the diminishing power of workers relative to employers.[12] Increased globalization and the declining power of unions have contributed to the loss of bargaining power. But another factor is the declining value of the federal minimum wage, which places a floor on wages in the labor market.

The federal minimum wage was last raised to $7.25 per hour in 2009. In 2021, it remains at that level.

The federal minimum wage was last raised to $7.25 per hour in 2009. In 2021, it remains at that level, making this twelve-year period the longest in which the federal minimum wage has remained unchanged since the U.S. first enacted a federal minimum wage in 1938. The real value of the federal minimum wage is now only 59 percent of its peak value in 1968.[13]

Thirty states and Washington, D.C. have minimum wage levels that currently exceed $7.25 per hour—however, twenty other states follow the federal rate or do not have a state minimum wage at all. Of the states with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum, eleven states[ii] and Washington D.C. have legislated additional increases to $15 over the next few years.

The Fight for $15 has highlighted the disconnect between state and U.S. legislators who refuse to raise wages—most of whom represent states with $7.25 minimum wages—and their constituents, many of whom support a $15 minimum wage. As worker-activists in states stuck at $7.25 have made clear, zip codes should not determine whether workers are able to earn a baseline living wage.

Main Findings

In this report, we find:

  • General Impact: From 2012 to January 2021, an estimated 26 million workers have won over $150 billion[iii] in additional income through a combination of state and local minimum wage increases[iv] and an executive order for federal contractors. The affected workers comprise nearly 16 percent of the U.S. labor force. To put the $150 billion in perspective, this figure is more than 94 times the impact ($1.6 billion) of the last federal minimum wage increase to $7.25, which took effect in 2009.[14]
  • Impact on Workers of Color: Of the 26 million workers, nearly 12 million (46 percent) are Black, Latinx, or Asian American. Their additional annual income totals $76 billion—approximately 50 percent of the total for all workers.
  • Impact on Women: Women comprise approximately 13 million (50 percent) of all impacted workers. Their share of the additional annual earnings is nearly $70 billion—46 percent of the total.
  • Impact of $15 Minimum Wage Laws: Of the $150 billion in additional income for affected workers, the overwhelming share (73 percent, or nearly $111 billion) is the result of minimum wage increases in states and localities that are either on a path to $15 or have already reached a $15 or higher minimum wage. Workers affected by these laws make up 69 percent of the total.

WORKERS OF COLOR HAVE SEEN STRONG GAINS FROM FIGHT FOR $15 MINIMUM WAGE WINS

Workers of color and their economic and political demands played a significant role in shaping the movement for higher wages. [xvi] These workers have been among the most impacted by the Fight for $15, as our analysis shows.

Higher wages benefit all workers, but they can have a greater impact in communities that have been historically underpaid due to structural racism, sexism, and the enduring occupational segregation that pushes workers of color into the most underpaid jobs in the economy. This means that changes to minimum wage policies can have a profound effect in reducing racial inequity, as the workers of color leading the Fight for $15 and a union have emphasized.

A recent study by University of California economists estimates that minimum wage increases from 1990 to 2019 reduced the Black-white wage gap by 12 percent.[xvii] A separate study estimates that the 1966 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act—which expanded minimum wage protections to previously excluded occupations in which workers of color were overrepresented—explains more than 20 percent of the reduction in the racial earnings and income gaps between 1967 and 1980.[xviii]

In addition to narrowing the racial wage, earnings and income gaps, higher minimum wages can also substantially increase the earnings of workers of color. Table 2, above, shows that workers of color represent 46 percent of all workers impacted by minimum wage increases between 2012 and 2021. Of the more than $150 billion in annual additional income resulting from Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases, the share going to workers of color was nearly $76 billion (50 percent).

Tables 5 and 6 provide further details of the impact of the Fight for $15 for workers of color. They show that state minimum wage increases boosted the earnings of Black workers by $5,100 annually on average; and that local minimum wage increases raised their earnings by $7,300. The incomes of Latinx and Asian American workers rose faster: State-level minimum wage policies boosted their annual earnings by $6,300; and local increases raised their annual earnings by $8,300 and $8,200, respectively. By comparison, state and local minimum wage increases raised the earnings of white workers by $4,900 and $7,200, respectively—below the averages for workers of color and for all workers.

Black and brown worker-leaders in the Fight for $15 have not only advocated for higher wages, but have also pointed to worker power and workplace democracy as essential to increasing racial equity. These workers are now fighting to strengthen other workplace protections, such as just-cause job protections, union recognition, stronger health and safety standards, and wage theft protections.

THE FIGHT FOR $15 HAS BOOSTED WOMEN’S EARNINGS BY $70 BILLION

Since the 1970s, women’s educational attainment has increased substantially[xix], which typically correlates to higher earnings. Yet, women continue to earn less than men,[xx] and continue to be overrepresented among the underpaid workforce.

According to a 2018 analysis by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), women comprise nearly two-thirds of workers earning at or under $11.50 per hour.[xxi] In a separate analysis, NWLC finds that women make up 60 percent or more of the workforce in four of the five fastest-growing occupations. Of these, three occupations—personal care aides, home health aides, and combined food preparation and serving workers (including fast food)—pay low wages.[xxii] Women’s overrepresentation in underpaid occupations is one of the factors that drive the gender wage gap. Yet, research shows that higher minimum wages can help narrow this gap.[xxiii]

Of the more than $150 billion in annual additional income resulting from Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases, the share going to women was nearly $70 billion (46 percent).

The tables below provide further details of the impact of the Fight for $15 on women. Table 7 shows that state minimum wage increases boosted the annual earnings of affected female workers by $5,100 per worker on average, and by over $58 billion in the aggregate. Table 8—which reflects the impact of minimum wage increases in nine cities and counties for which we have data—shows that local minimum wage increases raised women’s earnings by $7,400 per worker, and by more than $11 billion in the aggregate. (More detailed figures can be found in Appendix Tables E-1 to F-2).Table 3, above, shows that women represent 50 percent of all workers impacted by minimum wage increases between 2012 and 2021. Of the more than $150 billion in annual additional income resulting from Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases, the share going to women was nearly $70 billion (46 percent). (The slightly lower income gains for women, compared with men, are likely the result of women’s overrepresentation among part-time workers[xxiv]—a reflection of gender roles that are slow to change, which have been shown to impact women’s career decisions).[xxv]

The benefit of higher wages for women and their dependents cannot be understated. With existing conditions and a government and corporate response rooted in systemic racism and sexism, the COVID-19 pandemic harmed women—particularly women of color—more than men. In the first ten months of the pandemic, women lost 1 million more jobs than men, and in the month of December 2020, alone, all of the job losses were borne by women of color.[xxvi] According to research by the National Women’s Law Center and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, women are more likely than men to experience poverty during their working years, particularly, if they are raising children as single mothers.[xxvii] Children raised by single mothers are also more likely (33 percent) to experience poverty than children raised by single fathers (21 percent).[xxviii] Higher incomes resulting from minimum wage increases are likely to have some mitigating impact on poverty for women and families.[xxix]

MOST OF THE GAINS STEM FROM STATE AND LOCAL MINIMUM WAGE INCREASES TO $15 OR MORE

Since 2012, eleven states[6] and 45 localities have adopted laws that put them on a path to $15. As Table 4, above, shows, these laws account for the bulk of the impacts on workers: 18 million workers (69 percent of the total) and nearly $111 billion in additional income (73 percent of total). Appendix Tables G and H list state and local jurisdictions on a path to $15.

Although state-level $15 minimum wage laws have had the most impact—accounting for 56 percent of all worker impacts, and 55 percent of all income increases—local jurisdictions have led the way in raising wages to $15 or more. The Fight for $15 was initially a local effort—a fast-food worker strike in New York City. However, it quickly spread, winning the first of many victories in SeaTac, Washington in 2013, followed by Seattle and San Francisco in 2014.

From there, the movement was able to scale up to states, with California and New York adopting gradual increases to $15 in 2015, around the same time as additional local jurisdictions were considering their own $15 minimum wage laws. The leadership of cities and counties in raising wages—pushed by local workers and communities—has been one of the main forces behind state action for higher wages to $15;[xxx] and now they are leading the way for even higher wages beyond $15.

Conclusion

Since 2012, the Fight for $15—a worker- and people of color-led movement—has achieved what our elected representatives in Washington, D.C. could not: Raise wages in dozens of states, cities, and counties, winning $150 billion in raises for 26 million workers. The impact of these raises is 94 times that of the last federal minimum wage increase, which took effect in 2009. These are real, material gains for millions of people—affecting workers’ ability to buy groceries, pay rent, attend school, and care for their families.

Despite this incredible achievement, the need for higher wages remains. Twenty states follow the federal minimum wage of $7.25 or do not have a minimum wage law of their own.[xxxi] Many of these states are located in the South, where a majority of African Americans live and work.[xxxii] These 20 states have not only failed to raise wages, but most also prohibit cities and counties within their borders from adopting their own minimum wage laws.[xxxiii]

It is crucial that the U.S. Congress finally pass a federal baseline wage of $15 an hour or higher, with One Fair Wage for tipped workers, young workers, and workers with disabilities.

That is why it is so crucial for the U.S. Congress to finally pass a federal baseline wage of $15 an hour or higher, with One Fair Wage for tipped workers, young workers, and workers with disabilities. With the Raise the Wage Act, Congress has an opportunity to raise the federal minimum wage to $15.00 over five years,[xxxiv] a proposal that enjoys wide support from voters.[xxxv] Without congressional action, underpaid workers in states that follow the federal minimum wage will continue to be guaranteed only a poverty wage of $7.25. These workers, who are disproportionately workers of color, will fall further and further behind other workers around the country.

The success of the movement for higher wages—demonstrated so clearly by the impact numbers highlighted in this report—only reaffirms how far out of step lawmakers in Congress are from their constituents, as they continue to refuse to raise the federal minimum wage. But just as the Fight for $15 and a union movement has won raises in cities, counties, and states nationwide, it is only a matter of time before workers win a $15 minimum wage on the federal level, and other labor protections at all levels of government—including just cause, union rights, and even wages above $15, which are increasingly necessary around the country.

Crucially, all of these policies are also essential to increasing racial equity. Structural anti-Black racism is at the core of why workers are so underpaid nationwide.[xxxvi] Illustrative of anti-Black racism are the segregation of the labor market that pushes many workers of color into underpaid jobs;[xxxvii] the original exclusion of whole categories of workers from minimum wage protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act;[xxxviii] and voting discrimination[xxxix] and wage preemption laws[xl] that prevent Black workers in these states from having a fair say in the policies that determine their lives.

Congressional lawmakers can either put their weight behind the worker activism and the racial and gender justice imperative of raising wages now, or they can bury their heads further into the sand, as workers win in spite of them.

Methodology

Our methodological approach follows one originally created by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley,[xli] who first forecasted the impact of the proposed $15-per-hour Los Angeles citywide minimum wage.[xlii]

This approach relies upon estimating what would have happened to wages if no minimum wage increases were ever passed. Specifically, we estimate the wage distribution in each state and selected localities for each year from 2012—when the Fight for $15 began—up to 2021 to establish a baseline scenario. This is referred to as a “counterfactual” wage distribution. To do this, we reconstructed what the minimum wage was in each state in 2011 and assume that minimum wages were kept at this level (i.e., without the Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases). The starting point for the counterfactual wage projection was the observed total wage income from the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) public use microdata.  Reported wages were then inflated by the average rate of inflation as measured by the CPI-U in the period from 2012 to 2020.

To capture the impacts of Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases, we constructed the actual minimum wage stepped increases by states and localities. We define an affected worker as an individual respondent with a projected baseline wage below the mandated minimum wage in 2021. Since the ACS does not report wage income on an hourly basis, we estimate the hourly wage for each worker by dividing total annual wage income by the product of usual hours worked per week and number of weeks worked per year.

To determine the number of affected workers, we first calculated the hourly wage for each employed respondent in the baseline scenario (as described above). Then we estimate the total number of employed workers with baseline wages below the mandated minimum wage in 2021 by state and locality. To calculate the income increases for workers, we first calculate the earnings difference per hour between the baseline wage and the mandated minimum wage for affected workers. Then, we convert the hourly earnings difference to a 2021 annual figure by multiplying the difference by the usual hours worked per week and the usual weeks worked per year (from the ACS).  The 2021 figures for workers affected and income increases for workers were adjusted based on the total population change in states and localities to reflect change in the population bases that have been impacted by Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases.

Cities and counties included as local areas in this analysis were determined by data availability in the 2011 ACS public use microdata sample (PUMS). The 1-Year ACS sample does identify smaller cities and/or larger cities in cases where disclosure rules would be violated. (The U.S. Census maintains disclosure controls to protect the privacy of survey respondents).[xliii] Therefore, in order to comply with disclosure rules, our analysis using the methods described above were only applicable to nine local areas. To estimate the number of workers affected in the other 43 local jurisdictions we used a quasi-elasticity for the share of total population affected relative to the average minimum wage increase between 2012 and 2021 for the nine (larger) cities available in the ACS. For example, across the nine cities available in the ACS, the average share of the 2011 population affected was 17 percent, while the average change in minimum wage was 80.5 percent. We then applied this ratio for the remaining cities using their actual percent change in minimum wage and 2011 population based on either the 3-year (2010-2012) or 5-year (2009-2013) ACS summary data. To calculate the estimate annual increase, we applied the average increase per-worker in the observed sample of nine cities ($7,816) to the estimate number of workers calculated for each city. We refer to the estimate from the set of cities that lack identification in the 1-year ACS PUMS sample as “imputed” figures and are intended to be approximations. The figures presented in this report are rounded.

Race and ethnicity categories are constructed using the ACS’s classifications for race and ethnicity. For this analysis, white represents individuals that identified as white alone (non-Hispanic or Latino), Black represents Black or African-American alone (non-Hispanic or Latino), Asian represents Asian alone (non-Hispanic or Latino), and Latinx represents Hispanic or Latino of any race. Because of the possibility of inflating possible errors, we do not report breakouts by race/ethnicity and gender for the set of cities where imputations were used for estimating the total number of workers affected.

A Note on Disemployment Effects                                 

Scholarly debates on the empirical and theoretical impact of raising the minimum wage on job losses have been raging for decades. For the purposes of the analysis presented here, we do not separately account for the so-called disemployment effect of raising the minimum wage. Historically, older studies found a consensus that raising the minimum wage had a negative impact on employment levels (a negative elasticity between 10 and 20 percent). However, more recent empirical research , using a more geographically detailed methodology, has shown convincingly that minimum wage increases do not lead to significant disemployment effects.[xliv]  This finding has held up to numerous replications and methodological changes and newer studies have confirmed the overall finding of no significant job losses.[xlv]

While these large-scale national studies of minimum wage impacts, which pool together many modest (ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent) state-level increases in minimum wage over a long time period, have consistently found employment effects close to zero, it is still possible that very large and rapid increases in the minimum wage would cause negative effects. However, the experience of Seattle, which was the first major city to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour, shows evidence that largely confirms the finding of no significant employment losses.

This report originally appeared at NELP on July 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Yannet Lathrop is a passionate advocate for economic and social policies that advance the common good. She joined NELP in 2014, after completing a public policy fellowship under the sponsorship of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


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Mental Health and Your Rights in the Workplace

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Entering the workforce is an exciting rite of passage for most young people but the ability to work a job isn’t always cut and dry. For example, you may have physical or mental limitations that impede your ability to perform certain tasks. It’s crucial to note that disabilities aren’t always visible, and mental health disorders are particularly notable in this regard.

In and out of the workplace, mental health disorders are strikingly prevalent. Data indicates that more than 46% of adults in the U.S. will experience a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Although commonplace in modern society, the unfortunate reality is that psychiatric disabilities remain widely misunderstood — even stigmatized. For workers struggling with a mental health disorder, this can be especially problematic, and you may worry about losing your job.

The good news is that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures certain protections for disabled workers no matter the nature of their disability. Here’s what you need to know about reasonable accommodations and workplace rights when it comes to mental health conditions under the ADA.

What are Your Rights as a Disabled Worker?

The ADA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Psychiatric disorders were added to the ADA in 2008, and workers with a history of mental illness today have the right to privacy as well as the right to reasonable accommodation. In layman’s terms, “reasonable accommodation” could involve altered work schedules, changes in supervisor interaction and more. 

Providing reasonable accommodation, however, isn’t solely the responsibility of your employer. You must also advocate for yourself and your workplace rights, and inform your manager or the HR department of any accommodations you may require. Always provide written documentation that verifies your condition and how it may affect your work to better protect yourself in the event of potential discrimination.

Additionally, workers who have mental health conditions including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or bipolar disorder are also legally protected against discrimination and harassment. As such, your employer cannot fire you, reduce your hours, or otherwise impede your ability to work simply because you’re living with a mental health condition. If you believe that your rights have been violated, don’t hesitate to speak up to both management and your colleagues alike. 

The Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders

An unfortunate side effect of our fast-paced modern world is that it can harm our mental health. Even before COVID altered life as we know it, the overall picture of mental health in the U.S. was rather discouraging. According to Forbes, the youngest members of the workforce are the most vulnerable in terms of poor mental health. Among young people between the ages of 12 and 17, major depressive episodes (MDEs) are increasingly commonplace, and treatment is far from consistent.

Studies show that treatment is vital when it comes to mental health disorders. Effective treatment methods can vary significantly among individuals, from therapy and counseling to medications and general lifestyle changes. To better manage your mental health condition while on the job, you can also take a more holistic approach. Techniques such as breathing exercises and practicing mindfulness can do wonders for reducing your anxiety and managing stress

Taking Charge of Your Mental Health at Work and Beyond

Within the workplace, you should be aware of your limitations in whatever form they happen to take and how they can impact your performance. Mental health disorders can be a productivity killer, significantly impacting your employer’s bottom line. Medical professionals report that the estimated economic impact of depression alone exceeds $31 billion annually in social, psychological, and occupational costs. 
For many Americans, living with a mental health condition while also actively participating in the workforce can be especially challenging. As we continue to adapt to life post-COVID, addressing mental health in the workplace and protecting workers rights is more important than ever. As such, you should take steps to protect yourself, and knowing your workplace rights under the ADA is an ideal starting point.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Dan Matthews is a writer, content consultant, and conservationist. While Dan writes on a variety of topics, he loves to focus on the topics that look inward on mankind that help to make the surrounding world a better place to reside. When Dan isn’t working on new content, you can find him with a coffee cup in one hand and searching for new music in the other.


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An Old Idea for a Guaranteed Income Is Back in Style

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A new proposal for a negative income tax could eliminate poverty in the United States.

In these heady days of progressive proposals for massive increases in the federal budget, such as the Democrats’ recently announced $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package, a timely paper has reopened an old debate with a new proposal for a guaranteed national income, in the form of a negative income tax (NIT). The NIT, first proposed in the 1970s, is one type of income guarantee. It provides a cash benefit to individuals?—?an income floor?—?that declines as their income from other sources increases. The authors claim that their plan would completely eliminate poverty in the United States, which would be a very big deal.

The United States currently establishes income floors for various groups of people, especially under Social Security, but the biggest gap has always been those of working age said to be able-bodied who for one reason or another are unable to earn much or any income. An important but limited response to this gap is the new expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), which began distributing direct cash payments to parents earlier this month.

The paper, from The Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute For The Study Of Race And Ethnicity, was authored by a group of economists and researchers, including Naomi Zewde, Kyle Strickland, Kelly Capotosto, Ari Glogower and Darrick Hamilton of the New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy. Hamilton was an adviser to Bernie Sanders during his 2020 campaign and bids fair to remain a leading economic voice on the Left for a long time to come, so this proposal is as much a news event as a policy paper. On a parallel track in Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D?Mich) has proposed an NIT in her ?“LIFT+ Act,” which would provide a $3,000-per-adult basic income.

How a negative income tax works

The negative income tax has been called an ?“upside-down” income tax. Eligible individuals receive a fixed cash benefit that is reduced according to income from other sources, also known as ?“means-testing.” For instance, if the benefit provided is $10,000 with a ?“phase-out rate” of 50 percent, and a person’s other income is $12,000, the benefit would be reduced by 50 percent of this other income, or $6,000, leaving a net benefit of $4,000. In this example, any income above $20,000 would ?“zero out” the benefit.

Like the universal basic income (UBI) idea, an NIT benefits those with the lowest incomes, or no income at all.

Means-testing has provoked criticism on the Left, but it is the only way to keep the cost of a cash benefit manageable enough to fit into the federal budget. The UBI is thought to avoid means-testing, but this is incorrect. Insofar as the UBI is taxable and returned to the government in income taxes, for all practical purposes it too is means-tested. 

The NIT proposed in the paper, which we’ll call ?‘ZSCGH,’ from an acronym of the authors names, is a logical extension of Biden’s CTC in several respects. One is that it’s ambitious in terms of cost?—?estimated at $876 billion a year?—?but not wildly out of sync with the scale of current budget thinking. Like the new CTC, it does not require recipients to be employed. The program would also be tax-based, pitched as a reform of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and administered by the Internal Revenue Service. And finally, it’s targeted and not universal, which is why its cost is plausible.

Problems with UBI

In all these respects, it surmounts the difficulties of popular UBI advocacy, the greatest of which is the unrealistic cost: A UBI that genuinely meets basic needs would be entirely out of bounds of existing or plausible federal budgets.

A UBI provides an unconditional cash grant to everyone. (Exactly who constitutes ?“everyone” is actually a ticklish issue, but one left for another time.) One UBI proposal for $6,000 a year?—?well short of ?“basic” if basic means something a person could live on?—?is estimated to cost $1.9 trillion annually. (When you hear about budget packages of $4 or $6 trillion, that generally means over a ten-year period. The annual amount would be a tenth of that.) Andrew Yang’s proposal for $12,000 per person would cost $2.8 trillion a year. 

Sometimes UBI advocates will defend against sticker shock by cautioning that the bulk of that cost would be reclaimed with higher taxes. The biggest flaw in that argument is political: Imagine Democratic politicians’ reactions to the idea of an annual tax increase of a trillion dollars, per year.

The main economic flaw of this approach is that the so-called ?“claw-back”?—?which amounts to a humongous tax increase?—?contradicts claims that a UBI would have no incentive effects. In other words, a great part of the UBI benefit is reclaimed by the federal government though the individual income tax, and the net taxes (tax increase minus the UBI benefit) of many would rise to finance a UBI. A tax on income is said to discourage work, saving or investment, though such claims are routinely exaggerated by the Right. But the claim that the UBI escapes incentive effects altogether is another myth fostered by its advocates.

Another problem is that the round-trip of that enormous amount of money?—?from government to person as UBI benefits, back to the government as tax increases?—?would lose a lot of passengers along the way: Roughly one dollar in six owed in federal taxes is not paid on time, or ever.

A more just safety net

The ZSCGH paper wisely highlights the impact of the NIT in the realm of racial justice. As with other social-democratic proposals, a benefit that reduces class inequality also reduces (but does not eliminate) racial inequality. The authors document the household poverty rate by race as follows: whites, eight percent; Blacks, 18 percent; Latinx, 17 percent. An NIT that eliminates poverty, or that just cuts it in half, benefits larger proportions of Black and Latinx households, simply because their poverty rates are higher to begin with. The paper’s authors also write that their proposal narrows median income gaps by race, since the benefits would extend well above the official poverty line. The reduction in gender inequality, especially for female-headed households, follows for the same reasons.

Eliminating poverty by raising individual incomes with cash benefits is not the limit of progressive objectives. We would not want people to rely on cash to buy health insurance or clean water, for instance. People also need public services and facilities, with social insurance programs alongside a social safety net strengthened by an NIT. 

We also want to empower workers to win higher wages from employers. The cushion afforded by a guaranteed income would help workers bargain for better deals, since they become more able to withhold their labor, or to take a spell out of the labor market. But still, you can’t knock cash. 

Even with guaranteed public employment (another Darrick Hamilton project), there will always be those unable to work who will need income. An NIT is the right field upon which to fight this battle. The ZSCGH paper and the Tlaib plan provide a running start.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Max Sawicky is a senior research fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He has worked at the Economic Policy Institute and the Government Accountability Office, and has written for numerous progressive outlets.


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We Need a Big National Strike Fund

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

More successful strikes help the entire labor movement. We should pay for them together.

On July 24, more than 600 Frito-Lay workers in Kansas who had been on strike for three weeks finally signed a new union contract. The contract, won at great personal cost for the striking factory workers, came with a modest 4 percent wage increase, and the right to at least one day off per week. 

It is absurd that these workers had to undertake a painful strike in order to win those things, and they deserve praise for being willing to fight so hard for their own rights. But after the congratulations, we should also be honest about another thing: The enormous amount of effort invested in the strike resulted in fairly paltry gains. This is sadly common, and it underscores the fact that employers often have a built-in advantage when their workers go on strike?—?namely, that low-wage workers can’t afford to go very long without getting paid. If the labor movement wants to take full advantage of the recent surge in worker militancy, it’s time that we build more than a piecemeal solution to this perpetual problem. 

The long decline in union density since the 1950s is well known, but the portion of workers who are union members is not the only way to measure the level of latent labor power in America. Strikes themselves are a meaningful metric as well. Having a lot of strikes happening shows that there are many strong, aggressive and confident unions at work. They also create a positive feedback mechanism for organized labor as a whole?—?strikes get attention, and successful strikes are a tangible demonstration of union power in action. Strikes keep unions in the news, and in the minds of the majority of working people who are not themselves union members. Every time someone sees striking workers win something, it may occur to them that unions have something to offer. In this way, strikes drive new organizing and the expansion of labor power nationwide. 

Data going back nearly 50 years shows strike activity in America peaking in 1974, when 1.8 million workers were involved in a work stoppage, and then fell steadily to a low of a mere 25,000 workers in 2017. In the past few years, however, strike activity has rebounded sharply, with more than 400,000 workers participating in 2018 and 2019. (In 2020, major strikes fell again, but that year of Covid-19 is hard to compare to previous ones.) 

The pandemic was a galvanizing event for the half or so of the working population who saw, in a very tangible way, that their lives are considered disposable. Right now, we can look across the country and see some of the upswells of worker anger that have burst forth into strikes: the nurses in Massachusetts, the miners in Alabama, the Spectrum workers in New York whose endless battle drags grimly on. These high profile strikes, to a large extent, define union power in the public mind. Winning them is important not just for the workers on the picket line, but for the entire labor movement. And, when strikes are very hard, their biggest vulnerability is the simple reality that workers on the picket line are not getting paid?—?the brutal economic calculus that ultimately defines how long and hard people can fight before they need to settle. 

Individual unions do have strike funds, but these are meager?—?often, union members can expect to get a few hundred bucks from a strike fund in the time they might have gotten a few thousand from work. Strike funds will always pay less than wages. (A little math can help demonstrate why: In Alabama, for example, 1,100 miners have been on strike for four months. If the United Mine Workers paid each of them even a thousand dollars a week, they would have already spent more than $50 million. To guarantee that rate of compensation for every strike would rapidly bankrupt most unions, and would create an incentive for unions to push hard against big strikes by members.) But the strength of the labor movement is about thinking collectively in the largest possible sense. If we want to encourage more big, high profile strikes that can carry on long enough to secure major gains, we have to have a big, national strike fund. 

To be perfectly clear, I’m not holding my breath for the creation of a centralized strike fund big enough to cover lost wages for anyone who goes on strike. The entities big enough to make those sorts of payouts are called ?“businesses.” What we can do is to build one central strike fund for the entire labor movement, that can jump in and boost the strike pay for workers engaged in strikes of major strategic value?—?and to issue hardship grants to striking workers with specific needs?—?so that those strikes can carry on long enough to be worthwhile. If the Frito-Lay workers in Kansas had had a little more money to carry them through, perhaps they could have won something better than, basically, the working conditions of a factory worker a century ago.

Every union could kick into a central strike fund that has the authority to bolster the benefits of workers engaged in strikes that have great importance for all of us. This is collective power in action. Once a fund like this is established, it can fundraise, to bring in private donations; it could also seek out government funds, the same way that unions should be doing for their new organizing efforts right now, while they have friends in Washington. (How to create new funding streams for organized labor is an exciting topic for another day.) The point is that a much larger pool of money can be put together collectively by the entire universe of unions and their political allies than can be compiled by any individual union. And that big pool of money can serve as a potent sort of insurance for workers who are considering a tough strike, but unsure of whether they can hold the line long enough. 

The labor movement would greatly benefit from a huge increase in big picture thinking. We do not want to just sit back and let things happen to us, and react as best we can. We want to have a plan and then make it a reality. We should not just want to wait for strikes to happen, then maybe throw a few bucks into a GoFundMe and hope for the best. We need to recognize some basic truths: More strikes are good for the growth of the labor movement as a whole. Each strike is a public test of union power. We all have an interest in making high profile strikes successful. And the strategic application of funding to help striking workers succeed benefits all of us by facilitating and encouraging the next strike, and the next organizing campaign, and a brighter future in which unions are strong and ubiquitous once again. 

Let’s get to work.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 27, 2021. 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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While Meatpacking Companies Reap Big Profits, Cattle Ranchers Struggle

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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Grocery store beef prices are rising. The rancher’s share is falling. And the companies that dominate the highly-concentrated meatpacking industry are making a killing.

Shad Sullivan has stopped paying for cable TV, yearly vacations and trips to movie theaters. He’s contemplated ending his health insurance, even though he needs it for his chronic bone marrow cancer.

A rancher in Olney, Texas, Sullivan, 47, has cut costs as producers like him have felt squeezed by the beef market. While consumers pay high beef prices at the grocery store, very little has trickled down to ranchers?—?in fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the gap between the retail price for beef and the price producers receive is the largest it’s ever been.

In interviews, eight ranchers in seven states agreed their profits have stagnated or even decreased, while the meatpacking companies?—?which buy the animals for slaughter, then package the meat to be sold at grocery stores?—?have benefited.


“We have to choose now. It’s either us or it’s a whole new system.” – Rancher Shad Sullivan

Iowa rancher Eric Nelson said he’s heard people say he’s probably experiencing a windfall based on grocery store prices.

“I tell them, ?‘No, we’re not getting any of it,’” the 59-year-old said. ?“We’re getting less and the consumers are having to pay more.”

Most ranchers agreed the culprit is market concentration. Four companies?—?Brazil-based JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and National Beef?—?slaughtered about 85% of the cattle in the U.S. in 2018, according to the most recent USDA data. Another school of thought placed the blame on limited capacity?—?not having enough slaughter plants to process all the beef produced.

Either way, since 2017, the price consumers have paid for beef and veal has increased each year. In 2020, the cost increased by about 10% from 2019, the sixth highest year-to-year increase in four decades.

In turn, the companies’ profits have skyrocketed. From 2010 to 2020, both Tyson and JBS saw an increase in revenue from their cattle operations, 34% and 66% respectively, according to the companies’ annual reports.

But, at the same time, the farmers’ cut has decreased. Between 2010 and 2020, the farmers’ share?—?beef’s value to the rancher divided by its retail value?—?decreased by about 9%.

JBS, Cargill and National Beef did not reply to a request for comment. A Tyson Foods spokesperson said to contact the North American Meat Institute, the industry’s lobbying arm. The institute declined to comment and pointed to its testimony from a June 23 U.S. Senate hearing.

“The members of the Meat Institute – and their livestock suppliers – benefit from, and depend on, a fair, transparent and competitive market,” the testimony reads.

The situation has drawn the attention of President Biden, Congress and organizations alike.

Biden signed an executive order July 9 to promote competition in the economy, and one section addressed consolidation in agriculture, specifically in the beef market. The order directs the USDA to consider new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act that would make it easier for farmers to win claims.

The same day the executive order was signed, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the USDA would spend half a billion dollars to encourage building more meatpacking plants closer to producers, according to the Associated Press.

Bill Bullard, CEO of the organization R?CALF USA, said he is hopeful the developments will eventually alleviate pressures on farmers and ranchers, but he is doubtful that anything will change dramatically in the next year.

“We’ve been trying to get the administrations to do this for two decades,” he said. ?“It’s a very positive step, but it’s only one of many steps that need to be taken.”

Sullivan agreed.

“(Issues from concentration) did not come about overnight,” he said, ?“and they’re not going to be fixed overnight.”

One bill introduced in the U.S. Senate would create a unit within the USDA that would investigate anticompetitive practices, and another one would require at least 50% of a meatpacker’s weekly volume be purchased on the open market. Meatpackers having to negotiate prices each week is expected to increase competitive bidding prices – instead of the commonly used formula contracts, which are sometimes made months in advance to ensure supply to the packer and leave the price unknown to the producer.

“Too many people think food comes from supermarkets,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R?Iowa, the bills’ cosponsor. ?“They don’t realize it comes from farms.”

The situation has also spurred lawsuits. R?CALF USA?—?which only represents ranchers, unlike the more well-known National Cattlemen’s Beef Association whose membership also includes meatpacking companies?—?sued the four companies in 2019. The case is ongoing, and the National Farmers Union has joined as a plaintiff. (The NCBA did not respond to a request for comment.)

Without large-scale changes, Bullard said, cattle production is at risk of becoming vertically integrated like the poultry and hog industries, meaning companies control the supply chain.

For instance, while poultry producers are technically independent farmers, meatpacking companies provide the chicks and feed. Everything else, such as maintaining the chicken houses, is the producers’ financial responsibility. The arrangement often leads to financial burden, even bankruptcy, according to previous Investigate Midwest reporting.

(Biden’s executive order includes language about ?“stopping processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers.”)

Bullard worries what the ramifications of the same arrangement in the cattle industry would mean for ranchers.

“As an organization,” he said, ?“we are fighting aggressively for congressional and administration and judicial reforms that will block the multinational meatpackers from capturing control of our industry away from independent producers.”

‘A very defeating feeling’

On the ranchers’ side, fewer companies bidding for their beef means a smaller sale. With few choices, ranchers often have to settle with the price they’re offered.

Mackenzie Johnston, 32, a fifth-generation cattle producer near Brewster, Nebraska, said she thinks the industry is spiraling out of control.

“It’s just the mere fact that the little guy can’t make it because of the way the markets are,” she said.

Ranching is a demanding business, she said. It’s a year-long operation of moving pasture, fixing fences and fighting the elements to produce the best product. Ranchers also have to update equipment and, if they don’t grow it themselves, buy feed for cattle.

In the ?“make-or-break deal” of high input costs and low reward, Johnston has started to rely more on her second income after almost 10 years of dedicated ranching, she said.

“It’s a very defeating feeling,” she said.

Johnston works in the cow-calf production sector, which raises cattle for slaughter. Her counterparts in the cattle feeding sector, which brings the cattle to the proper weight for sale, have also faced tough times.

Lee Reichmuth, 41, feeds a herd of about 2,500 to 3,500 at his feedlot in the small town of Lindsay, Nebraska, and he sells to all four major meatpacking companies. But he isn’t sure how much longer he will be able to stay in the industry. 

“I’ve got the lowest inventory I’ve had for years and I don’t know when I will step back into the market,” he said. ?“We can’t continue to buy cattle and produce food for the consumer and lose money doing it.”

‘The packers have all the leverage’

For some, concentration isn’t the market’s major issue. Instead, capacity limitations and black swan events posed a greater threat to the industry, they said.

Montana rancher John Grande, 58, has struggled with profitability. He said he thought risk would be reduced if there were more plants, even if the major companies owned them.

“The prices we don’t like (are) due to the fact that right now the packers have all the leverage because there’s a limited amount of packing capacity chasing a large amount of cattle,” he said.

James Mitchell, a University of Arkansas assistant professor and livestock economist, said he believes the existing companies are bidding as aggressively as they can.

“Right now it’s really just an issue of leverage where we’ve got a lot of animals,” he said. ?“We’re hitting the upper threshold of what we can process on a daily basis.”

Capacity limits at meatpacking plants cause low demand for cattle, which results in low sales prices for ranchers, he said. Although the market is seen as concentrated, it ?“has allowed us to enjoy levels of efficiency that we haven’t seen,” he said.

However, efficiency is not the answer Mike Stranz, the National Farmers Union vice president of advocacy, is looking for. Instead, he’s sought resiliency, he said.

He said the food industry has been endangered by a few black swan events in recent years.

First, in 2019, a fire damaged a Tyson’s plant in Holcomb, Kansas. It forced the four-month shut down of the plant, which slaughtered about 5% of the country’s cattle, according to the USDA.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Plants closed as tens of thousands of workers fell ill and hundreds died. The closures meant packers bought fewer cattle, which likely caused lower bid prices, according to the USDA. 

Some ranchers were forced to hold onto their cattle longer than they normally would, putting the cattle at risk of becoming overweight and harder to sell. Prices rose in the grocery store as restaurants closed and people ate at home, driving demand for beef.

“The disruption of meatpacking plants reduced production of meat destined for retail outlets and created a backlog of livestock destined for the closed plants,” according to a USDA report.

The most recent black swan event was the ransomware attack on JBS earlier this year. The attack on the company, which processes nearly one-quarter of U.S. beef, forced plants to shut down for several days, according to Reuters. JBS paid $11 million to reclaim control of its systems.

For ranchers, these events and the market in general have them worried about what the future holds. Sullivan, the Texas rancher, said he’s not sure he wants his children to stay in the industry.

“We have to choose now,” he said. ?“It’s either us or it’s a whole new system.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mary Hennigan is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Arkansas and an intern at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.


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Billionaires Can Have the Cosmos—We Only Want the Earth

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) | Twitter

Fleeing is what the rich do best. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz fled Texas last winter, abandoning millions to freezing temperatures. But some have tired of the Earth altogether.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are fleeing to space on rockets with stratospheric price tags.

Branson was the first to venture forth July 11, in a gambit to launch a commercial space tourism industry—as if we didn’t have enough trouble with the carbon emissions from excess tourism.

That’s what it means to be ultra-rich—to squander oodles of untaxed cash and rake in public subsidies on boyhood fantasies of “space hotels, amusement parks, yachts, and colonies,” as Bezos put it in high school.

But the billionaires playing space cowboys aren’t like the rest of us. They’re on the other side of the fault line of an accelerating climate catastrophe caused by greenhouse emissions.

Workers who plow fields, erect scaffolding, haul garbage, lay track, and stuff mail are not going to escape onboard a winged rocket. We are going to have to fight to survive on Earth.

EXTREME HEAT

From 1992 to 2017 in the U.S., heat stress killed 815 workers and injured 70,000; every year, 65,000 people visit the emergency room for heat stress.

In June, an extreme heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest. With no federal heat standards in place, the United Farmworkers called on Washington’s governor to issue protections for thousands of vulnerable farmworkers.

Washington and Oregon adopted emergency heat standards for outdoor workers, guaranteeing cool drinking water and shade breaks (Oregon’s stronger rules cover indoor workers too)—but not before Guatemalan-born farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez, 38, died moving irrigation lines in a 104-degree field in Marion County, Oregon.

Proposed heat-stress legislation in Congress, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, doesn’t go far enough, especially in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that bans union organizers from approaching farmworkers in the fields.

Telecom workers, canvassers, and even librarians are among the union members who are fighting for contractual protection from heat and smoke.

In Maine, unions are teaming up with housing advocates, environmental groups, and indigenous people to push climate bills that will recognize tribal sovereignty, build energy-efficient affordable housing, and create green jobs in low-income areas.

WE WANT THE EARTH

But these are modest efforts compared to the scale of the challenge. All told, the scalding heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed 800 people. Blistering heat melted power cables and buckled roads in normally temperate Seattle and Portland.

In New York, scorching sun gave way to floods. Viral videos showed subway riders wading through train stations waist-deep in sewage and runoff. A massive flood also hit Detroit, turning thousands of Labor Notes books to pulp.

Meanwhile the Southwest is parched; the people of Colorado are preparing for wildfires. Already the Canadian village of Lytton, British Columbia, combusted after setting an all-time heat record of 121 degrees.

European Union researchers released more evidence in July that planetary heating’s pace far outstrips the climate’s ability to adjust, noting that human-caused climate change is “abrupt and irreversible.”

But it’s never about more information; it’s about power. Alaska, for instance, is installing a cooling system to keep the permafrost frozen and prevent a section of the Trans-Alaska pipeline from crashing and spewing oil everywhere.

In other words, rather than solve the problem by removing the pipeline, the owners have geoengineered a way to keep exacerbating the very conditions that are melting the ice.

Newly leaked audio of an Exxon lobbyist reveals how sneakily the world’s biggest fossil fuel corporations have fought to stymie legislative solutions and sow doubts about the science behind climate action.

It’s up to workers to jump-start a mass movement to save life itself. If we leave it up to the oil barons and space cowboys, they will chase the last dollar till they annihilate us all.

Bezos and his space-trotting pals can have the cosmos. We only want the Earth.

This post originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luis Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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As Devastating Plant Shutdown Looms in West Virginia, National Outrage Is Hard to Find

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

A union set to be wiped out by layoffs says politicians are missing in action.

Joe Gouzd is pissed. As the president of United Steelworkers Local 8?–?957 in Morgantown, West Virginia, he represents more than 800 of the 1,500 workers who are set to lose their jobs on July 31, when the Viatris pharmaceuticals plant in Morgantown shuts down for good. And though he is used to fights, he does not like feeling abandoned.

Ask Gouzd what he is hearing from his representatives in the federal government as the plant shutdown looms, and he’ll tell you, ?“Not a god damn thing.” 

“We’ve heard nothing,” he says. ?“We’ve heard all kinds of horse shit from A to Z.” 

This is a remarkable statement, when you consider that the closure of this one plant embodies an entire galaxy of issues that should make it a prime candidate for political intervention. It represents the often-lamented effect of offshoring: a decades-old factory whose jobs are being unceremoniously shipped overseas by the enormous conglomerate Viatris, which was formed in 2019 as the combination of Mylan and Upjohn and immediately set out to slash costs. 

It represents the human and economic toll of America’s industrial decline: Many of the union jobs at the plant pay $80,000 or more, more than twice what any of the workers who are laid off are likely to get if they stay in Morgantown and find a new job. An economic analysis by the Democracy Collaborative finds that the plant’s closure could cost the surrounding county more than 4,600 jobs in total and $400 million in wages in the coming year, in a county where the median income for individuals is less than $25,000 a year.

It represents the loss of America’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capability during a pandemic: Though the coronavirus made many politicians talk about the need for America to strengthen its own supply chain at home to avoid relying on foreign countries for medicines and pharmaceutical supplies, the union’s calls for the Biden administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to take over this plant that makes generic pharmaceuticals seem to have fallen on deaf ears. All indications are that the shutdown that has loomed for seven months will go forward as scheduled next week. 

And, on a raw political level, it would seem like the closure of a major factory in West Virginia?—?a state that has served as a political football for the past five years, and that is now the home to Joe Manchin, the Senate’s single most powerful member?—?would offer a prime opportunity for the Democratic-controlled federal government to score points in a red state, prove that Democrats can in fact deliver for the workers that Donald Trump paid lip service to, and throw a bone to Manchin all at once. 

But none of this has caused any concrete action from the federal government to save the plant. The story of the fate that awaits the hundreds of workers in Morgantown has not become a huge national story. A slow-motion disaster that could be the seed of a great bipartisan effort to save unionized American jobs in West Virginia is instead unfolding just as the company said it would when it announced the closure plans, when most of the country was distracted by the question of whether Donald Trump would actually leave office. Gouzd says that the politicians ?“are running away from us.” He dismisses West Virginia Republican Senator Shelly Moore Capito as an unresponsive ?“blowup doll.” Joe Manchin, he says, gave the union members ?“two minutes of his time” several months ago, and has not done anything meaningful on their behalf. 

“He asked us if we still make penicillin,” Gouz says. ?“We haven’t done that for 20 years.” 

In a statement, Joe Manchin said, ?“For months, I have engaged in conversations with Viatris, Monongalia County, the Morgantown Area Partnership, and local and state leaders to find a solution that protects every single job.” (Since the plant’s 1,500 jobs are set to be eliminated in a week, any conversations he had were apparently fruitless.) 

The perceived lack of help is particularly noticeable because Joe Manchin has a very personal connection to this issue: His daughter, Heather Bresch, was the CEO of Mylan, the company that owned the Morgantown plant prior to the rebranding as Viatris. Bresch came under fire in 2016 for her company’s egregious price increases of EpiPens, which prompted a recent $345 million settlement after several class action lawsuits. Bresch herself retired last year after her company’s merger with Upjohn, earning herself close to $20 million during her last year on the job. The 855 unionized Viatris workers in Morgantown who are losing their jobs will receive two weeks of severance pay for every year that they had on the job. 

Our Revolution, the progressive political group, has been working for the past six weeks to elevate the profile of the workers in Morgantown, and try to win them anything it can. That work has been led by Mike Oles, an organizer who has worked on a string of similar plant closures across the country, beginning with the Carrier factory in Indiana that became a national political issue in 2016. In that case, there was a cell phone video of the company’s brutal layoff announcement that went viral; now, Oles says, companies often send workers home before making the announcements, and work strategically to bury the news. 

“This plant seems more saveable than Carrier was, even,” says Oles. ?“This idea that we’re sending 1,500 jobs to India to produce lifesaving medicines, in areas where we have concerns about supply chains… We can support a state that’s transitioning from fossil fuels. Why wouldn’t we try to keep pharmaceuticals in the state?”

The West Virginia state legislature passed resolutions calling on state leaders to keep the plant open, but Governor Jim Justice’s efforts to find a savior do not seem to have succeeded. In June, the White House issued a report calling a robust domestic pharmaceutical supply chain ?“essential for the national security and economic prosperity of the United States,” but that has not prompted any concrete action to keep the Viatris plant open. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Oles says. ?“These jobs just don’t come back. Communities don’t bounce back from plant closings like this. I’ve seen it in five different states.” 

Adding to the grim situation is the fact that not only will the factory be shutting down?—?the union will as well. United Steelworkers Local 8?–?957 represents only the Viatris workers. After more than 40 years of existence, Gouzd says, the local will be closing after the plant does. 

Viatris said in a statement that the shutdown in Morgantown is a result of the company’s efforts to ?“optimize its commercial capabilities and enabling functions, and close, downsize or divest manufacturing facilities globally that are deemed to be no longer viable.” They add that the decision ?“in no way reflects upon the company’s appreciation for the commitment, work ethic and valuable contributions of our employees.”

The feelings of appreciation are not mutual. The mood inside the factory is ?“toxic,” says Gouzd. ?“The place is caustic. They’re ready to string somebody up by a tree.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 22, 2021. 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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At World’s Largest Hilton, Workers Fight for Jobs, Daily Cleaning

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This is one of two articles from Hawaiian hotel workers. Read the other, “Hawaiian Hilton Workers Fear Permanent Layoffs As Recall Rights Expiration Nears,” here.

Tourism drives Hawaii’s economy, and housekeepers are the heart of our hotels.

But as tourism is returning to Hawaii, only a few housekeepers are being called back to work because many hotels are not providing daily room cleaning—taking advantage of the pandemic to cut labor costs.

This leaves housekeepers like me, who aren’t called back, enveloped with worries. We’ve been furloughed for 15 months already. Where are we going to find a decent paying job like our UNITE HERE Local 5 union jobs, should we get permanently laid off? How will my family keep our apartment? We can’t go back to my sister-in-law’s two-bedroom apartment where we stayed for eight years when I was still working in a non-union company.

My furloughed co-worker at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Jhorina Ancheta, is a single mom with three kids is a furloughed housekeeper. “If there was daily room cleaning, more housekeepers would be called back to work,” she says. “If I can have my job back, I will be able to support my family the way it was pre-pandemic. We are only able to survive now because my bill and loan payments are deferred until September.”

DIRTY ROOMS HURT

Guests are spending hundreds of dollars a night in our hotel. Their room is supposed to be the cleanest and safest place to be. We, the housekeepers, are in charge of creating this atmosphere. A new study by HospitalityNet on hotel cleanliness shows that 79 percent of respondents are most concerned about their room’s cleaning and sanitation, while 91 percent are more likely to stay at a hotel that helps their employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, Hilton was named the number one place to work by Fortune magazine. But at the Hilton Hawaiian Village—the largest Hilton in the world—housekeepers who are currently working are suffering from stress and fatigue.

“It’s harder to clean a filthy room that hasn’t been cleaned every day, compared to a room that is being cleaned every day,” said Maria Luz Espejo, a housekeeper here for 18 years. “Sometimes we can’t finish the rooms in a timely manner, even if we skip our lunch break. I am not getting any younger, so cleaning dirty checkouts makes me suffer with body aches and joint pains.”

Housekeepers are ready to fight for our jobs and safety. We won’t stop until management works with us to resolve this. We will work together, passing leaflets to guests encouraging them to join our call to ask for their rooms to be cleaned daily.

VICTORIES

Smaller hotels like Queen Kapiolani and The Kahala Hotel in Honolulu and Sheraton Maui in Lahaina have implemented daily room cleaning.

The Kahala workers took numerous actions to voice their concerns to management regarding their working conditions, including daily cleaning.

“We found out the hotel was reopening in May 2020,” said Carmelita “Joy” R. Melegrito, a housekeeper at the Kahala. “We demanded regular meetings with management to prepare for the reopening. We had worker leaders in these meetings representing their departments, and I was there representing housekeeping. I shared with them that if we don’t have daily room cleaning, it’s going to be really hard for us to clean the rooms. It will take much longer to clean checkout rooms.

“I’m happy that we have daily room cleaning,” said Melegrito, “because it means less worry about our safety. I got two injuries pre-pandemic because I was rushing to clean a dirty room. If it was already hard before the pandemic to clean rooms, how much more [is it] now if there’s no daily cleaning?”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nely Reinante is a housekeeper at Hilton Hawaiian Village and a member of UNITE HERE Local 5.


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Hawaiian Hilton Workers Fear Permanent Layoffs As Recall Rights Expiration Nears

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This is one of two articles from Hawaiian hotel workers. Read the other, “At World’s Largest Hilton, Workers Fight for Jobs, Daily Cleaning,” here.

“Did you see Hilton is getting rid of workers permanently?” Jungmin Kim, my co-worker, came running to ask me before I could even get to the front desk. Hilton’s CEO had told investors that when the pandemic is over, Hilton will operate with fewer workers.

My blood was boiling. “They cannot do that!” But she explained that our employer had refused to extend our union contract’s recall rights past two years. Workers who have been laid off since the start of the pandemic now have just 10 months left to win our jobs back.

‘I DON’T WANT MY FAMILY TO BE NEXT’

As Covid-19 started to reach Hawaii in March 2020, more than 2,000 workers received a letter announcing management was closing the Hilton Hawaiian Village (one of the largest hotels in the world, with 3,800 rooms) and Doubletree by Hilton Alana Hotel. We hoped the pandemic would pass and we would return to work in a month. It became more terrifying when months passed and there was still no word.

More than a year later, though Hilton-managed hotels are finally open, only a few of us have been recalled. The rest are scared: of when they will be able to return to work, how they will afford their rent or mortgage, and what they will be feeding their kids should the situation remain the same.

At the Hilton Hawaiian Village, management recently reopened the Wiki Wiki Market, Starbucks, and Starlight Luau after months of workers fighting for union restaurants to reopen. Some food and beverage workers were finally able to return to work.

Unfortunately, there are still workers like Earl Kono, an employee at Tree’s, who was told by his general manager that there are no plans to reopen Doubletree by Hilton’s only in-house restaurant.

“Losing my recall rights frightens me,” said Kono. “I am a single father taking care of my kids and my grandson. Every night, I’m on the verge of breaking down thinking about our future. I’ve been hearing stories on the news about people going homeless, and I don’t want my family to be next.”

The engineers in the maintenance departments are also anxious. Jesus Ragasa, an engineer at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Alana, is working full-time again. Many of his colleagues, however, remain furloughed. He anticipates double the workload if there continue to be only three full-time engineers, instead of the eight engineers pre-pandemic.

FIGHTING FOR EXTRA TIME

An extension of recall rights would give the furloughed workers extra time to fight for their jobs back, especially when hotels return to full occupancy. If workers who were laid off in the beginning of the pandemic are not recalled by March 2022, Hilton might end these positions permanently.

Meanwhile, workers at other union hotels represented by UNITE HERE Local 5—such as the Ala Moana Hotel, Modern Honolulu, and Waikiki Beach Resort—fought for and already won one more year of recall rights.

Jason Maxwell, a bartender at the Modern Honolulu, organized his co-workers to demand an extension from Diamond Resorts, the timeshare company that owns and operates his hotel.

“When we would get management to Zoom meetings, we would load the call with about 40 workers,” he said. “We made sure they listened to the concerns of workers directly.”

“Management tried to hide their anger, but the Diamond Resorts guy began panicking and hung up because of the number of workers on the call. The meetings lasted hours, because we brought up other issues like workplace safety.

“We also passed out leaflets to guests and conducted safety inspections to make sure management was implementing the proper safety procedures in the middle of a pandemic,” added Maxwell. “At some point, management tried to block us from coming onto property. We stood firm and kept going.”

Maxwell said he was close to achieving his dream of buying a home for his family pre-pandemic. “[Winning] the recall rights extension gave me hope. It gave our union a chance and time to fight. If they do bring jobs back, then the same workers come back,” he said, relieved that the pandemic was not the end of his dreams.

WE WANT OUR JOBS BACK

There is a false narrative that workers are living comfortably off unemployment and do not want to return to work. In reality, we are struggling and on the edge of our seats, frightened for the future. We desperately want our hotel jobs back.

“We have to stick together and fight for our jobs,” said Kono. “We have to organize and push our managers to do something about this.

“Extending isn’t going to cost them a penny, so why is it so hard for them to agree with us and give us peace of mind?”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 29, 2021.

About the Author: Aina Iglesias is a front desk worker at the DoubleTree Alana by Hilton and a member of UNITE HERE Local 5.


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