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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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Trump Administration Quietly Adds Foreign Arms Sale to List of “Essential Work”

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Buried on the 18th page of a recently updated federal government memo defining which workers are critical during the Covid-19 pandemic is a new category of essential workers: defense industry personnel employed in foreign arms sales. 

The memo, issued April 17, is a revised version of statements issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Department of Defense in mid-March. In those, the defense industry workforce was deemed “essential” alongside healthcare professionals and food producers, a broad designation that prompted criticism from a former top acquisition official for the Pentagon, defense-spending watchdog groups, and workers themselves. The original March memos made no mention of the lucrative foreign arms sales that U.S. companies make in the order of $180 billion a year.

The new text indicates that the federal government deliberately expanded the scope of work for essential employees in the mid-April memo to include the “sale of U.S. defense articles and services for export to foreign allies and partners.” In These Times spoke with numerous workers who instead say their plants could have shut down production for clients both domestic and foreign. The updated April 17 memo was issued as the United States reported more than 30,000 Covid-19 deaths, a number that would come close to tripling in the following weeks. 

The new memo, which says essential workers are those needed “to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily,” also reflects what defense workers tell In These Times has been a reality throughout the pandemic: Work is ongoing on military-industrial shop floors across the country, including on weapons for foreign sales.

A memo in March said essential workers are those needed to “meet national security commitments to the federal government and U.S. military.” In April, the government quietly updated the memo to include a new line of essential work: foreign arms sales.

Arms manufacturing for export has continued at a Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, which has stayed open 24 hours a day during the pandemic and manufactures the F-35 fighter jet. Asked by In These Times if F-35 production for international customers was ongoing in Fort Worth during the pandemic, a Lockheed spokesman responded that “there are no specific impacts to our operations at this time.” The company has a robust slate of domestic and foreign orders to fulfill for the F-35—the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history, one the company now advertises at a price tag of at least $89 million per jet. This slate includes 98 for the United States in the fiscal year 2020 and scores for international buyers in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, according to a recent report on the F-35 program from the Congressional Research Service.

An employee at the Fort Worth plant told In These Times, “I don’t think it should be designated essential if we’re not doing it for our own country. I understand these other countries have put money into it. I do understand that. But these other countries are shut down, too,” the worker added, referring to the major disruptions of economic activities across the globe. The employee said they have seen computer monitors indicating jets were destined for Japan and Australia in recent weeks.

In the first weeks after the country shut down, the employee says they and their fellow workers asked themselves, “Why don’t we move these aircraft out of the way for a minute? And we have enough manpower here we could make masks. We could make ventilators.” But the company’s priorities for its essential workers, the employee says, has been: “Let’s get these jets and let’s get them running. Let’s pump them out the door.”

Several defense industry workers told In These Times they believe on-site manufacturing work at weapons plants for both foreign and domestic use could have been suspended at least for a matter of weeks during the pandemic. They also said they worry about the feasibility of keeping busy workplaces safe and sanitary, and that they distrust employers’ methods for handling virus cases that have emerged among workers.

Alarm over the expectation to continue reporting to shop floors for hands-on jobs has opened a rift between defense contractors and their employees, with the latter feeling constrained from speaking out publicly due to the confidentiality surrounding national security work. Several workers, all concerned about the risks of plants staying open, spoke with In These Times on the condition their names not be published, fearing repercussions or losing security clearances.

Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said at an April 30 press conference that of 10,509 major companies tracked by the Defense Contract Management Agency, just 93 were closed, while 141 had closed and reopened. While many in the defense industry can work remotely—a Lockheed spokesperson told In These Times by e-mail that about 9,000 of its 18,000 employees in Fort Worth are telecommuting—the thousands that remain on plant floors, workers say, are often blue-collar employees whose jobs are hands-on. On an April 21 earnings call, outgoing Lockheed Martin CEO Marllyn Hewson told investors that “our manufacturing facilities are open and our workforce is engaged.” 

Concern for the safety of that workforce prompted Jennifer Escobar—a veteran and wife of a Lockheed Martin employee in Fort Worth who himself is a disabled veteran—to publicly denounce the company for staying open during the pandemic.

More than 5,000 people have signed her petition calling for the Fort Worth site to shut down and send employees home with pay. A similar petition on behalf of Lockheed Martin employees in Palmdale, Calif., garnered hundreds of signatures. Escobar spearheaded the campaign, she says, for “everybody else who couldn’t stand up because they have a fear of retaliation from the employer.”

Escobar also started a GoFundMe page for the widow of the Fort Worth site’s first reported Covid-19 death. Claude Daniels, a material handler, and his wife, also a Lockheed employee, had together spent about seven decades working for the company, according to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union. 

The local machinists union reported in late April that the Fort Worth site had 12 confirmed virus cases among Lockheed and non-Lockheed employees. Since the plant has remained open during the pandemic, the company has responded to the outbreak by identifying and informing workers who have been in proximity with an infected employee and asking them to stay home, according to a Lockheed spokesman. 

But Escobar and one plant worker said there are gaps in that response. For example, Escobar says there were instances in which a worker was sent home while their spouse, also a company employee, was not, despite the presumably close contact the pair has in a shared living space. One Fort Worth worker also said that while the company will remove an employee who works within six feet of someone who tests positive, there are cases of people who work at greater distances—the employee gave the example of workers on either side of a jet’s wings—who still share items during their shift.

“Even though we were sharing the same workstation, the same computer, the same toolbox, that doesn’t count,” the employee says. 

In response to these concerns, Lockheed Martin told In These Times via email, “Our Facilities teams have increased cleaning schedules within all our buildings and campuses across Lockheed Martin, with a high concentration on common areas like lobbies, restrooms, breakrooms and elevators. Upon learning of probable exposure, a contracted professional cleaning and restoration company sanitizes the employee’s workspace, surrounding workspaces, common areas, and entrances and exits throughout the building.”

Anger at the expectation employees continue working led one to spit on the company’s gate in Fort Worth. Escobar says, “He was just really upset that the company was treating him like that.” 

Lockheed Martin spokesman Kenneth Ross told In These Times that the company’s security team was aware of and investigating the reported spitting incident. “Obviously, that kind of behavior is not fitting with what we’re trying to do to create a Covid-19 safe environment,” he said

One Fort Worth employee infected with the virus filmed a video of himself from a hospital bed that went viral and was viewed by many of his coworkers. In sharing his story, he also exposed a gap in the company’s ability to respond to the virus while maintaining its floors open. 

In Anthony Melchor’s video, which has been viewed more than 16,000 times, he is interrupted by coughs and wheezy breaths. “I’m cool on my stool, you know me,” he says, warning his fellow workers that “this Covid ain’t no bullshit, man.” He calls on them to sanitize their work areas and not go to work if they feel unsafe.

During a weekend in early April, Melchor, who suspects he was exposed to the virus at work, began to have severe migraines. He woke up the next day in a pool of sweat. His doctor ordered a Covid-19 test, but his first result was a false negative, which Melchor believes happened because his nasal swab was too shallow. After several days passed and his condition worsened, his wife insisted he receive medical attention. A second coronavirus test then came back positive, he said.

Melchor says his delay in informing Lockheed that he was positive for the virus also meant his coworkers were delayed in being removed from the line. Asked whether workers are removed from the plant when an employee shows symptoms of the virus or only after one has tested positive, a Lockheed spokesman wrote that the company “identif[ies] and inform[s] any employees who interacted with individuals exposed to or diagnosed with Covid-19 while maintaining confidentiality.”

At a Lockheed Martin site in Greenville, S.C., where the company is currently producing F-16s for Bahrain—the company appears to have only foreign clients for the fighter jet—one employee expressed concern over how close workers get to one another when they often work in pairs on either side of a jet. The worker also says it is “the nature of our business” to have employees who frequently travel, including out of the country, leading the worker to fear what they may bring back to the workplace when they return.

“From a financial standpoint I know it’s not beneficial for us to be at home,” the Greenville worker says, “but the safety of employees to me should be most important.” 

Lockheed’s fighter jets are among many defense products that U.S. companies export. 

In addition to Lockheed Martin, In These Times submitted questions to three other defense firms about ongoing exports during Covid-19. Northrop Grumman announced in its April 29 earnings call that the company had delivered two Global Hawk surveillance drones to South Korea that month. Asked about the precautions the company took for the safety of workers handling the drones in the final weeks leading up to the April delivery, a spokesperson wrote that the company is “taking extraordinary measures to maintain safe working conditions.” The U.S. ambassador in Seoul tweeted a picture of the sleek gray drone emblazoned with Korean letters in an April 19 message congratulating those involved in its delivery. 

Another contractor, Wichita-based Textron Aviation, told In These Timesthat, during Covid-19, the company “will continue to support our customers according to our funded contract requirements, which includes foreign customers.”

Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association, says the pandemic does not appear to have caused any “deviation” from the Trump administration’s policy of promoting foreign arms sales. He notes that the State Department approved numerous potential sales, including ones to controversial clients like the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines, in the midst of the global pandemic. 

“It certainly seems that this administration is trying to get a message to industry that you are important. There will be work for you,” Abramson says.

Despite the essential designation, some Boeing defense-industrial sites buckled under pressure as the virus spread and closed during the pandemic. A day after the death of an employee infected with the virus in Washington State, Boeing announced it would shutter its Puget Sound site, where some 70,000 people work on both commercial and defense aircraft. Boeing also shut down a Pennsylvania site that produces military aircraft for two weeks, saying the step was “a necessary one for the health and safety of our employees and their communities.”

When Boeing partially reopened Puget Sound after about three weeks, the first production it resumed was on defense products. Asked if work was underway on P-6 patrol aircraft for foreign clients such as South Korea and New Zealand, a company spokesperson responded, “We are evaluating customer delivery schedules and working to minimize impacts to our international customers.”

Unlike the United States, some countries have allowed defense production to shut down. Mexico did not declare its defense industry essential, prompting a rebuke from the Pentagon’s Ellen Lord, who wrote to the Mexican foreign ministry regarding interruptions to supply chains. Lord later said she had seen a “positive response” from Mexico on resolving the issue. F-35 facilities in both Japan and Italy shut down for several days in the early weeks of the pandemic. 

Melchor, the Fort Worth employee who is now recovering from Covid-19 at home, says he agrees with the defense-industrial base’s designation as essential, including when that involves commitments to customers amongst U.S. allies. “I just also believe that our customers would have understood if there was a two-week delay or even a month delay because of this virus,” he says. 

He believes leadership is needed to address the issue in a unified way and says debate about the crisis amongst workers, whom he called on in his video to “pull together,” has become fractious. 

“What I found interesting is the very thing that we build [is] to serve and protect, foreign and domestic, to protect us from any type of evil or wrongdoing,” Melchor says. “At what point does our company protect us?”

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

About the Author: Taylor Barnes is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers militarism, conflict, dissent and foreign affairs.


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Being an “Essential Worker” Won’t Save You From Deportation

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Legions of undocumented immigrants in the United States carry letters signed by their employers stating that President Donald Trump’s administration considers them essential workers amid the pandemic. While these letters exempt them from being arrested by local agents for violating stay-at-home orders, these workers could still be detained and deported by federal authorities.

José (a pseudonym to protect his identity as an undocumented worker), a landscaper in Connecticut, has had such a letter since the beginning of the stay-at-home executive orders in March. His job, though, could hardly be considered essential.

“We are sent in to maintain malls, apartment buildings, corporations and government offices,” says José, who has worked for Middletown, Connecticut-based Bravo Landscaping, for over a decade. “We first pick up all the dead leaves, then mark the edges of the green areas and cut the grass.”

Although he’s been deemed “essential,” José is not entitled to protective gear, compensation, federal financial aid or safeguards from immigration agents. For several weeks, José actually worked without protective equipment.

“Two workers already contracted Covid-19, and their whole teams were sent home to quarantine with just 60 percent of their wages,” says José. “As for the sick co-workers, I don’t know if the company is paying for their treatment.”

Connecticut has qualified landscaping as an essential industry since March. Under this cover, companies such as Bravo Landscaping can determine how to manage their undocumented workforce through a deadly pandemic.

“The Covid crisis is really highlighting the contradictions that have always existed in the United States,” says Tania Unzueta, political director of Mijente, a grassroots organization advocating for social justice. “Whether immigrants or U.S.-born, essential workers are not given a livable wage, health insurance or a social network of support.”

Undocumented essential workers were not even considered in the $2.5 trillion relief package approved by Congress and, except in California, have not received financial aid from state or local governments. Additionally, they are being detained and deported.

Though the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has suspended large-scale raids since mid-April, it still arrests immigrants that pose “a criminal or public safety threat”—a vague and arbitrarily enforced mandate.

In the midst of the pandemic, the Trump administration has focused its anti-immigrant zeal in removing from the United States thousands of immigrants already in detention centers and in reducing the number of work permits issued to foreigners.

With a Supreme Court ruling impending, the debate over massive ICE raids and deportations, however, will be back in the spotlight.

This ruling, which might put hundreds of thousands of people at risk, will assess whether the Trump administration’s decision to terminate DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is constitutional or if it flouted federal government regulations.

“Good” or “bad” immigrant?

Initiated by a 2014 executive order of President Barack Obama, DACA grants two-year renewable work permits and deportations deferrals to 690,000 migrants that arrived in the United States as minors before 2007. Trump’s administration argued in 2017 that the program is unconstitutional and should be terminated.

The lower courts concluded, nonetheless, that the administration’s decision to end the program was “arbitrary and capricious.” Having heard oral arguments last November, the Supreme Court has yet to issue an opinion, expected before June 20.

Whichever way the Supreme Court rules—whether it terminates DACA immediately, phases it out or sides with the lower courts—immigrants advocates expect that Trump will try to exploit the issue to boost his chances for reelection in November.

“Republicans have used the same playbook since 2016—to criminalize immigrants and blame them for anybody else’s misfortunes. And to do anything and everything in their power to fear monger and scare everybody,” says Pili Tobar, deputy director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group for immigration reform. “The upcoming election won’t be any different.”

President Trump has proposed in the past to keep DACA in exchange for accelerating deportations and drastically reducing immigration. In practical terms, he offered Democrats to save some immigrants from deportation while removing the vast majority of them. “Republicans are always going to try to pit immigrants against each other,” says Tobar.

Trump’s previous strategy certainly suggests that once the Supreme Court rules, he will try again to pit DACA recipients, U.S. citizens save for their papers, against hard-working immigrants like José, essential workers too but lacking any legal or political recognition.

“For people, it’s easier to argue for the undocumented young person or the kids locked in cages, but I think it’s important to talk about how to roll back the system,” says Unzueta. “When children are detained at the border and placed in detention centers, at the same time, their parents are being criminalized, charged with felonies and put in federal prison.”

The United States needs to figure out how to bring immigrants into the citizenry, says Tobar, rather than demonize, exploit and dispose of them during a crisis. “All of the 11 million undocumented people in this country are essential workers, contributing, one way or another, to their countries and communities.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York.


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Essential workers speak out on the unsafe conditions they face

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For all the talk about how they’re heroes, too many essential workers still aren’t feeling valued in the ways that matter: protections for their health and safety. A new study of essential workers in western Massachusetts—a region with two cities among the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country—finds that 51% said they don’t feel safe on the job, a number that rose to 67% among grocery and other retail workers.

Nearly two out of three workers said they couldn’t practice social distancing, 29% didn’t get COVID-19 transmission training, 21% don’t have masks, 17% don’t have hand sanitizer, 8% aren’t able to practice regular hand-washing, and 16% were asked by their employers to keep their health information from their coworkers. And this is in Massachusetts, where labor protections are strong by comparison with, say, Texas, where the Hillstone Restaurant Group told workers they couldn’t wear masks as restaurants reopen for on-site dining.

In the Massachusetts study, low-wage workers faced the greater risks, with two to three times as many reporting these risks compared with workers making $40 an hour or more. But low-wage workers also faced challenges paying the bills even as they faced risk on the job: 34% said they’d been unable to afford food, 16% said they couldn’t meet childcare costs, and 9% had fallen short on their housing needs. That was particularly true for Latino workers, 38% of whom were experiencing food insecurity compared with 21% of white workers.

“We are risking infecting our family by working, and they don’t give us anything extra in our paychecks to be able to buy more food,” one woman wrote in Spanish. “What we earn is for paying rent, electricity, insurance, and the rest is barely enough to buy food.”

Just 20% of the essential workers said they were getting hazard pay. The study, conducted by Jasmine Kerrissey and Clare Hammonds of the University of Massachusetts Labor Center, drew responses from 1,600 workers in health care; grocery and retail; manufacturing; transportation, construction, and utilities; public safety; and other occupations.

Retail workers said that customers weren’t reliably following social distancing guidelines, and in a number of cases, managers were making things worse. “Managers are constantly making changes in policy and procedures and not telling us,” one reported. “It’s frontline workers that have to explain changes and new policies to customers, and this adds to an already stressful work environment.” Another worker called on their city’s health department to do a better job policing the number of people allowed inside big box stores.

“There are many who are claiming that the coronavirus is the great equalizer,” Kerrissey told the Daily Hampshire Gazette‘s Dusty Christensen. “Really what this points out is that the impacts of COVID-19 are felt much more strongly by the working class and low-wage workers.”

This blog originally appeared on Daily Kos on May 7, 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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Koch-Funded Think Tanks Are Lobbying to Send Workers to Their Deaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lu Zhao and Indigo Olivier contributed research to this report.

This article was published at In These Times on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Bosses can make essential workers exposed to COVID-19 keep working, this week in the war on workers

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The Centers for Disease Control gave employers the go-ahead to make essential workers who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 keep working right up until they get sick. That’s despite the well-established risk of transmission from people who don’t have symptoms. Under the policy, exposed workers should wear a mask and companies should clean and disinfect a lot, but still!

“Essential workers in food processing, agriculture, janitorial, and many other critical industries are disproportionally workers of color, who are underpaid and already at increased risk of serious complications if they become infected with coronavirus,” National Employment Law Project executive director Rebecca Dixon said in a statement. “With this new policy, the Trump administration has completely abandoned its responsibility to protect workers.”

Parents are not okay:

Viruses — pandemics — expose and exacerbate the existing dynamics of a society — good and bad. They are like a fun-house mirror, grossly reflecting ourselves back to us. One of those dynamics is the burden we put on individual parents and families. We ask individuals to solve for problems that are systemically created.

Everything from the lack of paid sick leave and parental leave to the fact that the school day ends at 3pm when the typical work day goes several hours longer — yet aftercare is not universally available. And that’s saying nothing of the fact that we need universal healthcare, irrespective of employment. Parents pour endless energy into solving for systems that don’t make sense and don’t work.

Workers don’t know who to turn to when employers won’t close down during the pandemic:

From crafts stores to custom closet installers to home-furnishing retailers, corporate lawyers have been arguing in letters to their workforces that they are too important to close even as the public-health crisis worsens. Employees who are dubious of those claims have been parsing the language of their stay-at-home orders and asking government officials why they are still expected to clock in.

While some states have moved swiftly to clarify the exemptions, several workers told HuffPost they reached out to their governors’ offices, their mayors, their local health or police departments and have waited days for definitive answers.

Leaked memo reveals the US’ largest health system could fire nurses who post coronavirus policies on social media—and a nurse has already been suspended without pay.

? The U.S. Department of Labor warned employers not to retaliate against workers for reporting unsafe conditions.

Under threat of a strike, Instacart promised its workers hand sanitizer. It’s not coming through with even that much.

The University of Chicago is paying its workers. Including subcontracted workers. This shouldn’t be unusual, but it is.

Grocery store workers need frontline protections:

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?

Temporary SNAP benefit boost a no-brainer for more economic stimulus.

The coronavirus crisis exposes how fragile capitalism already was.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Grocery Store Workers Need Frontline Protections

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Grocery store workers, like healthcare workers, first responders, and transportation workers, are currently among those deemed “essential” workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And, indeed, they have always been essential: they help provide the food and supplies necessary to sustain us all.

But of all the frontline workers whose work puts them in contact with potentially infected members of the public, grocery workers are among those who receive the least protections and the lowest pay.

Now grocery workers, too, are becoming infected—and some are dying of COVID-19.

It is deeply disturbing that several large corporate grocery retailers are simply not doing enough to protect workers’ safety or health during this critical time. Some of these retailers have been accused of harmful practices against workers in normal times. But lax health and safety protections during this crisis are dangerous and intolerable. Some food stores have reportedly put concerns about optics before the health and safety of workers by not allowing gloves to be worn by workers. Despite a recent Politico analysis that revealed cashiers are the largest number of at-risk workers, these workers continue to fight employer inaction.

Of all essential frontline workers, grocery workers are among the least protected and lowest paid.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?

A cashier at a major grocery store in northwest Washington, D.C. says that her employer has done nothing to ensure that workers are protected from the influx of customers that she interacts with daily. The store has not even provided every employee with requested protective gear, leaving many of them to supply their own. When she questioned management about the store supplying workers with protective gear, she was told that masks are not allowed because they only prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the company is only obligated to provide gloves to staff that come into contact with unwrapped food goods. This week, her store changed its policy and is allowing all workers to wear masks. But the workers are still responsible for supplying the masks and gloves themselves. “Even the porter, the person who cleans the bathroom, they don’t provide gloves to him. He brought his own gloves,” she said.

The federal agency in charge of workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has failed to issue a standard requiring employers to implement specific protections to safeguard at-risk workers in this crisis. Congressional efforts to require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect the most at-risk healthcare workers were blocked by the Trump administration and hospital industry lobbyists.

It has become painfully clear that state and local lawmakers need to swiftly implement health and safety protections for all frontline workers. In Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Vermont, grocery workers have been officially classified as emergency workers—a designation that will make free childcare services available to them during the crisis. But no state has implemented any other required protections for grocery or any other workers. Further, OSHA is not conducting any enforcement when workers complain about unsafe conditions.

In unionized supermarkets, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has pushed large chains to install protective shields between cashiers and customers, and to provide hand sanitizer, additional cleaning and sanitizing of store surfaces, time to wash hands with soap, face shields, masks, gloves, and extend paid sick leave. But workers in non-union grocery stores are left with no required protection and few safety rights.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores.

Black and brown retail workers already faced large disparities in pay, scheduling, and advancement in their workplaces before the current crisis. These workers also make up a disproportionate number of workers in jobs with the highest injury risksRecent reports have also shown that only 19.7% of Black workers and 16.2% of Latinx workers work in occupations that allow them to telework. The concentration of these communities in the retail and hospitality sectors is a major contributor to these inequities.

With many workers of color on the job in workplaces that may expose them to a potentially deadly transmissible virus, these workers are facing both panic and a status they know all too well: exclusion. In fact, even if Black workers have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, they must then navigate a medical system that has discriminated against their communities long before COVID-19 swept across the globe.

A 61-year old Black woman I spoke with who works as a grocery cashier and has survived two strokes is not only concerned about her health but also has had to take additional steps to purchase groceries for her family. Her shift starts at 6 a.m., but she shows up even earlier to try to buy what she needs before her shift begins and the store gets busy. She began this routine after she was unable to buy toothpaste and soap for herself one day after her six-hour shift ended.

“We don’t have none in stock. We used to have hand sanitizer on each register but since this virus there’s been a backorder for hand sanitizer, so we don’t have any,” she said.

Union protections have proven to be crucial for workers of color and will be even more vital for frontline workers right now. The COVID-19 crisis has propelled workers to unify and use their collective power to secure the protections they need to endure the daunting workdays ahead. Across the country, workers who have joined together to form unions have won some of the strongest standards for essential workers in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has propelled many workers to use their collective power to secure the protections they need.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of socioeconomic problems that workers have faced for years. In every recession, disaster, or other crisis in our history, Black and brown people have endured the hardest of hardships. It appears that the COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. The impact on our families, communities, and the economy will extend for years to come, even after we can leave our homes and return to the everyday routines that we sorely miss right now.

Essential frontline workers are keeping the U.S. running during this crisis. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their own well-being to keep the rest of us safe. We must fight for immediate solutions that prioritize strong health and safety standards, wage protections, paid leave, and unemployment insurance to protect frontline workers and all workers affected by this public health crisis.

This blog was originally published at NELP on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shayla Thompson is the government affairs manager on NELP’s Government Affairs team. She is a member of NELP’s committee tasked with change management and facilitating NELP’s commitment to dismantling structural racism. Her tenure at NELP has included conducting research in projects committed to racial equity, creating curriculum to guide NELP’s race caucuses, and facilitating equity training.

Shayla is committed to infusing race and inclusion into federal advocacy and creating policy messaging that reaches all working people.

Before joining NELP, she managed professional development training and social media campaigns for early childcare providers, infant mental health specialists, and parents.


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Hospital Food Workers and Janitors Are Stuck In a “Death Trap”

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kari-lydersen

The hospital where Kim Smith works is supposed to be a “safe haven,” says the patient care technician at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. But now she feels it has become a “death trap.”

Like the nurses and doctors nationwide who are risking their lives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith says she’s glad to help provide healthcare in such traumatic times. But she’s among the army of frontline healthcare service providers who, while crucial to keeping the system going, are earning much lower wages than doctors and nurses and often lack adequate healthcare and paid sick leave. And like doctors and nurses, these service workers often also lack access to personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, even though they’re put in contact with infected patients.

Now, Chicago-area healthcare service workers—technicians, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), transporters, food service workers and housekeepers—are demanding better treatment and protection from their institutions, as well as additional “hazard pay” for their work during the crisis.

On April 2, SEIU Local 73—which represents workers at University of Illinois and Cook County public healthcare facilities in the Chicago area—announced that it had secured additional compensation for its workers in the university system. Union members will get an additional $1 to $5 per hour during the pandemic depending on their job description and where exactly they work within the system. The county system serves the area’s low-income and uninsured people including the hospital at the Cook County Jail, which has turned into a COVID-19 cluster.

“The extra pay is not a really significant amount but it acknowledges that we recognize you, we know you are great, that you really care about your job and your community,” says Dian Palmer, a registered nurse and president of SEIU Local 73, which has been in contract negotiations with the University of Illinois system for about nine months.

The union SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana represents workers through contracts at hospitals including Northwestern Memorial and also has at-large members in nursing homes and hospitals in the Chicago area and across four states. They’re demanding hazard pay of 1.5 times the usual rate, and added protections for their members.

Smith, a chief steward for SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana, says fellow union members at Northwestern are “reaching out to me on an hourly basis” about being forced to work without proper safety equipment and protocols while receiving contradictory messages from management. Employees have been told to continue working even after they report COVID-like symptoms if they are “low-risk” for the disease, Smith says. With many of these workers living on the economic margins, and offered few paid sick days, they’re reluctant to take time off.

About 29,000 healthcare service workers in Illinois make below $15 an hour, and 22,000 of them make below $13 an hour, according to a study by the University of Illinois. Palmer notes that service job vacancies have been hard to fill at the University of Illinois Chicago hospital since they’re exempt from the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance.

Anne Igoe, SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana Vice-President of the Health Systems Division, notes that with such low wages, these employees regularly work more than one job—whether picking up a second shift at a nursing home or as an Uber driver—increasing their own, and by extension patients’, risk of contacting coronavirus. She says employees are also used to working while sick, since they typically are guaranteed few paid sick days and until recent changes because of the pandemic, were penalized for taking extra ones.

Igoe says the majority of their Chicago-area members are African American and are women, many of them living in marginalized neighborhoods and with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of extreme illness or death from COVID-19. In Chicago, more than two-thirds of the COVID-19 fatalities and more than half of confirmed cases have been among African Americans, even though they make up less than a third of the city’s population.

In cities nationwide, as in Chicago, lower-paid healthcare service jobs are disproportionately filled by women and people of color.

“This pandemic has made it clear who has access to testing, who has access to quality healthcare,” Igoe says. “Our low-wage workers in the finest hospitals are not given protections and not given the same access to follow-up care that some of their patients have.” 

Katina McDavis, 43, has been working as a housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial for over 20 years. She has diabetes, putting her at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. McDavis also lives with her daughter and two infant grandchildren, and is terrified of contracting the virus and passing it on to them.

Since the pandemic began, McDavis has been working overtime—often over 60 or 70 hours a week total, she says. She needs the extra pay and wants to help out, but that also leaves her physically exhausted and potentially more vulnerable to illness.

She and other housekeepers are given surgical masks—not the more protective N-95 masks—and told to keep them in a paper bag and reuse them, she says. In an informal survey of about 250 SEIU Healthcare members during an online meeting, 58% reported they lack sufficient PPE and 38% said they were told by higher-ups that they don’t need PPE.

“I’m jeopardizing myself coming here every day,” McDavis says. “I love my work but just give me the tools I need to do my job.” 

Candice Martinez, another housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial, tested positive for COVID-19 after coming down with symptoms about two weeks ago. She feels confident she contracted it on the job, having cleaned rooms where she says she was not properly notified that patients had the virus.

“It’s hard because I’m in complete isolation and I don’t get to see my son,” Martinez says. “It’s scary knowing there’s nothing they can give me to say this will help you get past this. It’s having to battle this out on my own.”

While Martinez believes she will receive workers compensation for the time she is out of work, Igoe says that human resources officials at several hospitals have told the union that workers will not be granted workers comp for COVID-19, since they could have caught it through community transmission.

Igoe says employees often “find out co-workers tested positive through the grapevine, rather than being told by their employer that someone they worked closely with yesterday tested positive.”

A statement from Northwestern Memorial did not address specific questions but said in part that: “The health and safety of our employees, physicians, and patients is our highest priority. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an environment that protects everyone.”

Loretto Hospital on the city’s West Side—where SEIU Healthcare represents employees—has granted time-and-a-half hazard pay to employees in the emergency department and COVID-19 unit. 

Loretto spokesperson Mark Walker says that workers do have access to sufficient PPE supplies, the hospital follows all CDC safety guidelines, and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will be paid during their time off. But the hospital is indeed hard-pressed as it serves a largely poor, African American clientele, Walker says. At an April 7 press conference, hospital CEO George Miller, Jr. and State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, who represents the district, appealed to the city, county, state and federal government for more resources. 

“We are a small community hospital, 90% of our patients are Medicare and Medicaid meaning we’re providing services and being reimbursed at a much lower rate,” Walker said. “You take a pandemic like this and add it onto an already stretched-thin hospital, and you can reach a breaking point. We’re not there yet, but it creates additional stress on our resources and our funds. We’re trying to do everything we can to protect this community. Without additional resources, we’re going to struggle.”

Wellington Thomas is an E.R. tech at Loretto, said he goes to work each day fearing he may contract the disease. 

“COVID turned our world upside down,” Thomas says. “We’re dealing with an influx of patients, the equipment we already struggled with (having enough of) is now scarce, employees are afraid to come to work…It’s not just contained areas, it’s spreading like a wildfire through the hospital—radiology, imaging, phlebotomy, blood tests.” 

(The Cook County health system had not responded to requests for comment by the time this story went to press.)

At other hospitals as at Loretto, workers say the pandemic has highlighted issues like inadequate staffing, low wages and insufficient equipment that have long pushed healthcare service workers to the brink.

“Support staff like us have been the underdogs for a long time,” says Megan Carr, a respiratory specialist who runs ventilators for the University of Illinois system. “So getting hazard pay makes us feel like we are finally being recognized and respected for the work that we are doing, saving lives one breath at a time.”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on April 7, 2020.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.


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Is Building Missiles ‘Essential’? The U.S. Government Thinks So.

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Taylor Barnes, Author at Culinary Backstreets

On March 19, after the novel coronavirus had spread to all 50 states, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)—the branch of Homeland Security that oversees critical infrastructure—released a list of which sectors of the economy employ “the essential workers needed to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily.” The list includes mostly obvious essentials such as healthcare, food and agriculture, and wastewater management. It also includes another sector: workers in the defense industry.

Ellen Lord, top weapons buyer for the Department of Defense, wrote in a related March 20 memo that, “if your contract or subcontract supports the development, production, testing, fielding, or sustainment of our weapons systems/software systems, or the infrastructure to support those activities, [they] are considered Essential Critical Infrastructure.”

That broad designation has led to ongoing scenes inside the nation’s military-industrial workplaces at odds with the new daily reality of millions of Americans, more than three-fourths of whom are in places with stay-at-home orders.

“Every single day I am in a plant where 500-plus people have touched maybe the same part,” says Brad Richardson, a product technician responsible for precision cleaning at United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Ala. The company, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, makes rockets that launch satellites into space, including one used in the inaugural mission of the military’s new Space Force on March 26. Richardson doesn’t single out his company for criticism—there are “tons of companies and people that are in the same boat that I am”—but he calls the continuation of hands-on factory work “contradictory” in light of countrywide efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

“My wife and kids are at home because they can’t work or go to school,” Richardson says. “My church is closed. Tons of places are just shut down.” Richardson thinks his line of work could be suspended for a few weeks while “true essential things” such as healthcare and food provisions continue.

“We’re either doing this or we’re not,” he says of the national call for social distancing.

The designation of the defense workforce as “essential” poses a particular risk in places like northern Alabama, which hosts hundreds of defense contractors centered around Huntsville. More than 70,000 people work in defense and aerospace in the Huntsville metropolitan area, according to the local chamber of commerce.

Redstone Arsenal, home to the Missile Defense Agency and a hub for the region’s robust missile and rocket-production economy, had 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases among employees as of March 27. The daily workforce on the Arsenal has been reduced from about 44,000 to fewer than 19,000, a top commander said at a March 26 video town hall. “We will continue to reduce that,” said the commander. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 105 cases and one death from COVID-19 in Madison County, which surrounds the Arsenal, as of April 1.

Still, work is ongoing on military-industrial shop floors across the region.

“Every company is claiming it’s essential now,” says David Story, a top official in the state’s machinist union, who says he’s fielded “hundreds” of calls in recent weeks about workers’ rights during the pandemic. His union’s members across the state perform hands-on functions on a variety of projects deemed essential, such as on the Mars 2020 project, reconnaissance satellites, and repairs on Army vehicles returning from the Middle East. Story says a “small group” of employees have refused to work despite the Defense Department directive, and that the union is advocating for them to be spared disciplinary actions. A second group is vocal about not wanting to be at the workplace but also refusing to go home without pay, while a final group—he estimates this group is a “silent majority”—are “playing it day by day.”

Teresa Cryer, an aerospace wire harness technician at United Launch Alliance, says that in a time of widespread volatility, being deemed essential provides some welcome job security.

“The more I thought about it, the more blessed I was that I had a job that they did feel is essential,” says Cryer, who is 62 and has worked at ULA more than 17 years. “I probably wouldn’t take off work until they tell me to.”

One former Pentagon insider well versed in the department’s priorities has criticized the Defense Department’s directive. Frank Kendall, a former Pentagon official who oversaw technology acquisition and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argues that the current guidance is “very broad” and “most of the work that’s being done for the government could be delayed without a very severe impact.” He thinks there needs to be more emphasis on steps to protect the workforce, which, he says, makes sense from both a humanitarian and business perspective. “A lot of [contractor employees] are very highly skilled defense workers in short supply,” he says.

Kendall thinks a much narrower range of functions could be defined as essential—for example, ones that support ongoing operations, such as airplane maintenance for the Afghan air force and logistical support to deployed troops. Activities like major long-term weapons projects can be slowed down to accommodate health-related constraints, generally without stopping work altogether, Kendall says.

“We are at war with this virus,” Kendall says. “I think protecting our people comes first.”

In These Times submitted questions about operations during COVID-19 to four major defense contractors in Northern Alabama, all among the region’s largest recipients of Defense Department funds. A spokesperson for Boeing, which has 3,062 employees statewide, wrote its sites are “operating under guidelines in accordance with local or national government mandates.” The spokesperson declined to answer whether Boeing’s work on a major long-term weapons project in the Huntsville area—a modernized intercontinental ballistic missile meant to enter the nuclear arsenal by the late 2020s—was ongoing despite the project’s long timeline.

Similarly, Lockheed Martin didn’t comment on whether operations were ongoing on hypersonic missile development in Huntsville and nearby Courtland. The project, according to a Lockheed press release, is “multi-year.”

Rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance said the company is “deep cleaning our facilities daily,” is “disinfecting hard surfaces throughout the day,” and has “modified certain operations to reduce personnel density.”

Spokespeople for Northrop Grumman did not respond.

All three companies that responded said that some workers were teleworking but none gave an estimate of how much of their Huntsville-area workforce was doing so.

Chris Mullins, an aerospace assembly technician who continues to report to his plant, says he feels “torn” over the federal government’s order, which places his family in a high-pressure situation: Every working-age person in his household has been declared essential, including his wife in banking and his daughter in healthcare.

“When I think about the role of our plant helping with America’s war fighters and our nation’s defense and NASA, of course I think that we are essential,” Mullins says, though he also wonders whether it would be helpful for his company to take two weeks off during the pandemic. “Some companies have a vested national interest in the government and we’re one of them. And somebody made the decision for us to continue working.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on April 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Taylor Barnes is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers militarism, conflict, dissent and foreign affairs.


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