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This pandemic-year Thanksgiving, think hard about the system that has workers on the job today

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Every Thanksgiving, people across the United States gather with their family and friends to celebrate and eat and be with their loved ones. And at the same time, people across the United States are at work—maybe having rescheduled their holiday meal around their work and maybe having given up the celebration entirely. 

Well, this year is different. Fewer people will be gathered in big family groups. And the people who are working are doing so in radically different, more stressful, more dangerous circumstances. That’s true of the healthcare workers and first responders standing ready to respond to emergencies every hour of every day of the year. More than 1,000 healthcare workers have died of COVID-19, and no one is keeping a reliable count of how many have gotten sick, a fact that hangs over these workers every day.

The grocery workers ringing up the people scrambling to get that one forgotten ingredient for the big meal now do their work at risk to their health, on Thanksgiving and every other day. They’re essential workers who are too often treated as disposable, and paid too little to pay their bills. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union represents 1.3 million workers in grocery stores, other retail stores, meat packing and processing, and more. As of early September, at least 238 of its frontline members had died of COVID-19, with 29,000 having been infected or exposed to the virus. Obviously, UFCW members are just a small fraction of the grocery workers nationwide. 

Then there are the workers at the retail chains that try to milk that Black Friday business for every penny they can get by opening on Thanksgiving. Because people shouldn’t have to wait until Friday morning for those sweet sweet doorbuster deals. There’s absolutely no reason those workers should be on the job on Thanksgiving, not even a shred of a reason—besides capitalist greed.

If you’re sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal—even a much more solitary one than you had hoped for, even if back in April you were looking ahead to the holidays when the pandemic would surely be behind us—take a moment to think about these workers and about the organization of our society that forces so many of them to be on the job for such flimsy or nonexistent reasons. 

Whatever Thanksgiving means to you, it shouldn’t be a symbol of the race to the bottom, especially during a pandemic that means people in the workplace are very often people whose health is at risk. In a normal year, Thanksgiving should be time to recommit yourself to the fight for everyone to get a (paid) holiday sometimes, for everyone to have the leisure and the budget to relax and celebrate and eat well. In this coronavirus year, it should be a time to recommit yourself to the fight for the government to pay people to stay home if they don’t absolutely need to be at work, to keep people housed and fed and healthy while we wait for a safe and effective vaccine.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 26, 2020 Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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‘We went from being essential to being sacrificial, all for the sake of the bottom line’

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How much rage have you got left after four years of Donald Trump and nine months of coronavirus pandemic? Please set aside some to direct at the United States’ largest retail companies for their treatment of their workers.

A Brookings Institution report shows how 13 of the nation’s 20 largest retail chains, with a combined six million employees, have stiffed their workers through the pandemic. Well, 10 of the 13 did. Three—Target, Home Depot, and Best Buy—were comparatively generous, with bigger pay increases to workers than other companies and relative to their own profit increases in the time of COVID-19. But 10 companies in the analysis—Walmart, Amazon*, Kroger, Costco*, Walgreens, CVS, Lowe’s, Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize (the Dutch-Belgian grocery company that owns Giant), and Dollar General—have not boosted worker pay as much as their profits have risen. 

The extra amount the average worker at these companies has been paid through the pandemic ranges from $4,414 at Best Buy, a 28% increase, down to just $300, or just 2%, at Walgreens and CVS. For many of the companies, hazard pay of $2 an hour early on has been yanked from workers, in some cases replaced by sporadic bonuses—because bonuses feel like a gift, whereas hourly pay becomes harder to take away after a while. 

“The end of hazard pay also undermined racial, ethnic, and gender equity,” the Brookings report, authored by Molly Kinder, Laura Stateler, and Julia Du, notes. “Women and workers of color are overrepresented among the retail frontline workforce. Women make up a significantly larger share of the frontline workforce in general retail stores and at companies such as Target and Walmart than they do in the workforce overall. Amazon and Walmart employ well above-average shares of Black workers (27% and 21%, respectively) compared to the national figure of 12%.”

Meanwhile, of these companies, only Walgreens became less profitable. Others saw profits soar—Amazon’s by 53%, Walmart’s by 45%, Kroger by 90%, Dollar General by 77%. They just didn’t pass that along to the workers who made it possible. Instead, five of them—Walmart, Ahold Delhaize, Kroger, Lowe’s, and Dollar General—poured hundreds of millions of dollars into stock buybacks.

”All of a sudden, we went from being essential to being sacrificial, all for the sake of the bottom line. Now you’re telling us that this thing is still out here, people are still dying, and you want to do away with hazard pay and give a one-time bonus? It’s a bunch of B.S., to be honest. It is still a pandemic, the last time I checked. There is a still a hazard out there,” Giant Food worker Jeffrey Reid told Brookings.

Just as workers went uncompensated for the risks they took, in many cases they were actively put at risk in ways higher-paid workers in the same companies were not. Amazon brags about its on-site testing and other safety measures, but workers aren’t so sure.

“The fact that [Amazon executives] decided to close the Seattle building [and allow headquarters staff to work remotely] until next year while keeping thousands of us jam-packed in a small warehouse is more than a little upsetting,” Amazon Fresh warehouse worker Courtenay Brown told reporters on a call.

The bottom line is this, according to the report: “Amazon and Walmart could have quadrupled the hazard pay they gave their frontline workers and still earned more profit than the previous year.” They didn’t.

* Costco and Amazon did have $15 per hour minimum pay prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 25, 2020 Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Companies are getting creative to pay workers as little as they can get away with in the pandemic

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Unemployment remains high, Republicans allowed expanded unemployment benefits to expire, and retail companies are using that desperation to get vulnerable people to risk their health or their lives for low, low wages. Early on in the pandemic, many retail chains paid their workers some amount of hazard pay. It was usually an inadequate amount and often wasn’t backed up by a commitment to safety, but it was something.

Well, no more. Most of the companies that offered hazard pay back in the spring have phased it out, often replacing it with bonuses, so workers aren’t tempted to think of it as part of their hourly pay and fight to keep it. And, The New York Times reports, many of those same companies have spent far more buying back stock to benefit their shareholders even as they strategize carefully to avoid paying their workers a penny more than they have to. All while coronavirus rates are again surging.

Kroger initially gave workers $2 an hour in hazard pay, then took it away even though the pandemic didn’t go away. Workers have protested, but so far the company’s big generous offer is fuel discounts and a $100 store credit for “holiday appreciation.” 

According to its recent quarterly report, Lowe’s workers have gotten $800 million in pandemic extras—which sounds like a fair bit of money until you read that the company spent $1 billion on buybacks and dividends in the third quarter and plans to spend another $3 billion in the fourth quarter.

Dollar General says it will add $100 million in extra money for workers to the $73 million it’s already paid out. It’s planning $2 billion in stock buybacks on top of $602 million it’s already spent. Dollar General also initially refused to participate in a Vermont program that paid workers extra money funneled through their employers.

This was literally free money for the underpaid workers of Dollar General, but the company refused, claiming it wanted to leave the money for smaller businesses. Except the money was for workers, and Dollar General workers need the money just as much as workers at your local corner store. Yes, Dollar General should have paid that money itself to its own workers, but saying “we won’t pay you that $2,000 and we won’t let anyone else do it either” is grotesque.

Walmart, too, initially refused to apply for the money for its workers, citing the same “give it to small businesses” reason. Walmart, too, could damn well afford to pay its workers that money. Instead, full-time Walmart workers “have received a series of three cash payments of up to $300 each,” the Times reports.

“Imagine being told by your manager that corporate won’t fill out the paperwork that could get you $2,000,” said Tim Ashe, president of the Vermont Senate. Both Walmart and Dollar General say they will now apply for the program.

The U.S. has learned a little bit about how much we rely on low-paid workers in grocery stores and other retail outlets, finding them to be essential workers just like healthcare workers. Yet these workers are still brutally underpaid and underprotected in the pandemic. Then again, so are many healthcare workers. And employers have made it clear: They will not give workers fair wages of their own accord. The only way for workers to get what they deserve is to build power and make demands.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Pandemic on course to overwhelm U.S. health system before Biden takes office

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The United States’ surging coronavirus outbreak is on pace to hit nearly 1 million new cases a week by the end of the year — a scenario that could overwhelm health systems across much of the country and further complicatePresident-elect Joe Biden’s attempts to coordinate a response.

Biden, who is naming his own coronavirus task force Monday, has pledged to confront new shortages of protective gear for health workers and oversee distribution of masks, test kits and vaccines while beefing up contact tracing and reengaging with the World Health Organization. He will also push Congress to pass a massive Covid-19 relief package and pressure the governors who’ve refused to implement mask mandates for new public health measures as cases rise.

But all of those actions — a sharp departure from the Trump administration’s patchwork response that put the burden on states— will have to wait until Biden takes office. Congress, still feeling reverberations from the election, may opt to simply run out the clock on its legislative year. Meanwhile, the virus is smashing records for new cases and hospitalizations as cold weather drives gatherings indoors and people make travel plans for the approaching holidays.

If you want to have a better 2021, then maybe the rest of 2020 needs to be an investment in driving the virus down,” said Cyrus Shahpar, a former emergency response leader at the CDC who now leads the outbreak tracker Covid Exit Strategy. “Otherwise we’re looking at thousands and thousands of deaths this winter.”

The country’s health care system is already buckling under the load of the resurgent outbreak that’s approaching 10 million cases nationwide. The number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 has spiked to 56,000, up from 33,000 one month ago. In many areas of the country, shortages of ICU beds and staff are leaving patients piled up in emergency rooms. And nearly 1,100 people died on Saturday alone, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

“That’s three jetliners full of people crashing and dying,” said David Eisenman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters. “And we will do that every day and then it will get more and more.”

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts 370,000 Americans will be dead by Inauguration Day, exactly one year after the first U.S. case of Covid-19 was reported. Nearly 238,000 have already died.

The task force Biden announces Monday will be staffed with public health experts and former government officials, many of whom ran agencies duringthe Obama and Clinton administrations — including former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, New York University’s Dr. Celine Gounder, Yale’s Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, former Obama White House aide Dr. Zeke Emanuel and former Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita, who is now an executive vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Shahpar said that even before Biden takes control of government in January, he and his team can make a difference by breaking with Trump’s declarations that the virus is “going away,” communicating the severity of the virus’ spread and encouraging people to take precautions as winter approaches.

“There’s been a misalignment between the reality on the ground and what our leaders are telling us,” he said. “Hopefully now those things will come closer together.”

But Shahpar and other experts warn thateven if Biden and his task force start promoting public health measures now, it will take weeks to see a reduction in hospitalizations and deaths —even if states clamp down. And there is little indication that the country will drastically change its behavior in the near term.

Some governors in the Northeast, which was hit hard early in the pandemic, are imposing new restrictions. In the last week, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island activated nightly stay-at-home orders and ordered businesses to close by 10 p.m. And Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday ordered everyone to wear a mask in public, even if they can maintain social distance.

But in the Dakotas and other states where the virus is raging, governors are resisting calls from health experts to mandate masks and restrict gatherings. On Sunday morning, South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem incorrectly attributed her state’s huge surge in cases to an increase in testing and praised Trump’s approach of giving her the “flexibility to do the right thing.” The state has no mask mandate.

And unlike earlier waves in the spring and summer that were confined to a handful of states or regions, the case numbers are now surging everywhere.

In New Mexico, the number of people in the hospital has nearly doubled in just the last two weeks and state officials said Thursday that they expect to run out of general hospital beds in a matter of days.

“November is going to be really rough on all of us,” said Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — a contender to lead the Department of Health and Human Services in Biden’s administration. “There’s nothing we can do, nothing, that will change the trajectory. … It is too late to dramatically reduce the number of deaths. November is done.”

Minnesota officials said last week that ICU beds in the Twin Cities metro area were 98 percent full, and in El Paso, Texas, the county morgue bought another refrigerated trailer to deal with the swelling body count.

“We had patients stacking up in our ER,” Jeffrey Sather, the chief of staff at Trinity Health in North Dakota said during a news conference last week. “The normal process is we call around to the larger hospitals and ask them to accept our patients. We found no other hospitals that could care for our patients.”

An “ensemble” forecast used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — based on the output of several independent models — projects that the country could see as many as 11,000 deaths and 960,000 cases per week by the end of the month. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory suggest that the U.S. will record another 6 million infections and 45,000 deaths over the next six weeks, while a team at Cal Tech predicts roughly 1,000 people will die of Covid-19 every day this month — with more than 260,000 dead by Thanksgiving. The University of Washington model forecasts 259,000 Americans dead by Thanksgiving and 313,000 dead by Christmas.

Eisenman predicted that by January, the United States could see infection rates as high as those seen during the darkest days of the pandemic in Europe — 200,000 new cases per day.

“Going into Thanksgiving people are going to start to see family and get together indoors,” he said. “Then the cases will spread from that and then five weeks later we have another set of holidays and people will gather then and by January, we will be exploding with cases.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Goldberg is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro covering health care politics and policy in the states. He previously covered New York State health care for POLITICO New York.


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Health and Safety Standards for Frontline Healthcare Workers

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America’s frontline healthcare workers have rightly been called our country’s real superheroes. But the truth is that the US healthcare system is falling far short in its obligation to protect these essential workers in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than a century.

A Failure to Protect

It should perhaps come as no surprise that frontline healthcare workers are at extreme risk for contracting communicable illnesses, particularly when we are dealing with a pathogen as infectious as COVID-19. And with a new flu season looming in the northern hemisphere, the increased influenza risk incurred by nurses and other frontline healthcare workers only serves to amplify the threat.

Worse, more than eight months after the advent of the virus, healthcare workers are still facing a significant shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). This lack of access to adequate PPE may well be the single most significant source of danger for doctors and nurses working with COVID patients.

When infected persons are asymptomatic, for example, the impulse to relax PPE standards by rationing equipment may well lead to potentially preventable disease transmission.

The Significance of Training

Because COVID-19 is a novel virus, there is still much about the disease that is unknown. Safety, prevention, and treatment guidelines continue to evolve. Healthcare systems, however, must be highly proactive in ensuring that frontline healthcare workers are up to date on the latest disease information and safety protocols.

This must include rigorous training in pre-appointment patient screening, treatment room sanitation, and risk mitigation and infection containment processes.

Job Losses and Furloughs

Perhaps one of the less-discussed but potentially most harmful risks facing today’s frontline workers is the risk of job losses and furloughs. Current research suggests that system mismanagement is pervasive across the US healthcare system, resulting in tens of thousands of job cuts, despite billions of dollars being allocated to US hospitals and healthcare systems from the emergency CARES act.

Thus, America’s frontline workers are not only confronted today by the threat of the virus, but they are also faced with the possibility of layoffs, furloughs, and termination. In the wake of a national crisis not only to public health but also to the economy, this may well leave frontline workers facing the loss of not just their health but also their income, their home, and their security.

The Takeaway

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect across the US, but few people have been more affected than America’s frontline healthcare workers. The risk of infection for these workers is particularly great, amplified by an ongoing shortage of PPE.

In addition, due to the novelty of the virus, healthcare providers may still be uninformed on best practices in risk mitigation and disease prevention. Efforts to ensure up-to-date training and support must be made to ensure that workers are prepared to protect themselves, their families, and their patients. Perhaps worst of all, the healthcare system is challenged with massive layoffs, putting frontline workers’ jobs and livelihoods at risk.

This means it is incumbent on the public whom these workers care for to help care for and protect them in return. If you are able, donate to your local organizations that are now providing equipment, financial assistance, and other resources to frontline workers. If you own a business, consider offering these heroes freebies and discounts, special operating hours, or other perks to show your appreciation and offer support.

Help relieve the burden on these healthcare workers by always remaining vigilant about your own health and the health of your community, adhering to public health guidelines to help prevent the spread. Above all, reach out to your local, state, and government officials to demand they make caring for these care providers priority number one, which must include not only financial support but also employment protection and access to quality healthcare, child and elder care, and other resources they may need to weather this crisis.

After all, our frontline workers are saving lives day in and day out. The least we can do is anything and everything we can to return the favor.

About the Author: Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but business and technology topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.


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Latinas are getting slammed in the COVID-19 economy, this week in the war on workers

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Latina Equal Pay Day was this week, and if it’s not bad enough that it took this long for Latinas to be paid as much as white men made in 2019, the coronavirus pandemic is dumping additional bad news on them. Women are dropping out of the workforce in large numbers, but Latinas are dropping out in larger numbers than white or Black women—nearly three times and more than four times the rate, respectively.

Then there are Latina domestic workers, who have been crushed by the COVID-19 economy, losing work and in many cases not being eligible for government assistance.

The pandemic is hitting hardest where people were already struggling—with higher infection and death rates among Latino and Black people, and with the economic impact also falling disproportionately on people who are already discriminated against and underpaid and unprotected.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos Labor on October 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.


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Amazon Expects Its Employees to Operate Like Fast-Moving Machines. This Amazon Picker Is Fighting Back.

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For Sean Carlisle (a pseu­do­nym) a 32-year-old grad­u­ate stu­dent and native of California’s Inland Empire, the last three years at his local Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter have been an edu­ca­tion. As a stu­dent of urban plan­ning, he stud­ies how built envi­ron­ments shape a community’s behav­ior. As a pick­er, he packs items at a break­neck pace amid stacks of inven­to­ry and snaking con­vey­or belts while del­i­cate­ly prac­tic­ing strate­gies to raise his cowork­ers’ polit­i­cal consciousness. 

Amazon’s logis­ti­cal infra­struc­ture is designed to make humans per­form with machine-like effi­cien­cy, but Sean is try­ing to make the work­place a bit more human, advo­cat­ing for stronger work­er pro­tec­tions and cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty in his community.

When he first start­ed at Ama­zon, Sean enjoyed what he calls a “hon­ey­moon phase.” He liked that work­ers were pro­mot­ed read­i­ly to man­age­r­i­al posi­tions, espe­cial­ly peo­ple with a col­lege edu­ca­tion like him­self. “They ha[d] all these things that help their employ­ees advance. They have these school pro­grams,” he says, refer­ring to Ama­zon’s pro­fes­sion­al edu­ca­tion schemes. But about eight months in, he real­ized “there was some stuff going on here that real­ly could be improved. [I thought] ‘I don’t know if I like this com­pa­ny as much as I did before.’” 

“The cat­a­lyst was see­ing [so many] peo­ple get hurt,” he con­tin­ues. He says work­ers would tell him, “ ‘I got hurt, and they gave me phys­i­cal ther­a­py, and I got even more hurt because they didn’t real­ly assess me right and now I have this prob­lem.’ ” It was around the hol­i­day sea­son dur­ing his sec­ond year “when things hit a sig­nif­i­cant decline in terms of safe­ty, and there was more focus on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.” He says that some­times work­ers would acci­den­tal­ly strike the shelves as they nav­i­gat­ed fork­lifts through the center’s aisles, caus­ing the vehi­cles to tip over. 

“The safe­ty prob­lems con­tin­ued to get worse, and my cowork­ers and I would say, ‘Hey, [the man­age­ment has] got to do some­thing about this,’” he recalls.

Sean believes the speed with which work­ers must process orders—some­times hun­dreds of items per hour—leads them to cut cor­ners or ignore prob­lems with their equip­ment. He says that one byprod­uct of the relent­less pres­sure to pack more items faster is a high turnover among those who “couldn’t keep up.” Burn­ing through new hires cre­ates a con­stant churn in the work­force, as tem­po­rary work­ers are cycled in and out dur­ing peak seasons.

Amazon’s offi­cial data on work­place injuries sug­gest that many of its ful­fill­ment cen­ters have rates that far exceed the aver­age ware­house. Yet the com­pa­ny claims these sta­tis­tics are pri­mar­i­ly a tes­ta­ment to its metic­u­lous report­ing rather than a reflec­tion of its shod­dy safe­ty stan­dards. “We ensure we are sup­port­ing the peo­ple who work at our sites by hav­ing first aid trained and cer­ti­fied pro­fes­sion­als onsite 24/7, and we pro­vide indus­try lead­ing health ben­e­fits on day one,” a spokesper­son said in an email.

Ama­zon also claims to have spent “over $1 bil­lion [on] new invest­ments in oper­a­tions safe­ty mea­sures” that include pro­tec­tive tech­nol­o­gy, san­i­ti­za­tion pro­ce­dures, and train­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­grams for work­ers. The com­pa­ny main­tains that it is “con­tin­u­ous­ly learn­ing and improv­ing our pro­grams to pre­vent future inci­dents. ”Sean con­tends that some man­agers have sim­ply failed to take work­place haz­ards seri­ous­ly. He recalled his sur­prise when a man­ag­er told him, “‘if peo­ple didn’t feel safe, they wouldn’t go to work.’” 

“That’s not how that works, dude,” he mus­es. “Peo­ple go to work because they need a pay­check, not because they feel safe.”

While work­ing as a pick­er, Sean’s aca­d­e­m­ic work led him to a cam­paign against the planned con­struc­tion of a huge car­go facil­i­ty for San Bernardi­no Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. Var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ty groups, includ­ing Team­sters local 1932 and envi­ron­men­tal activists, formed the San Bernardi­no Air­port Com­mu­ni­ties Coali­tion to oppose the project, which they warn will deep­en the eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal exploita­tion of the region by cor­po­ra­tions like Ama­zon—the area’s largest pri­vate employ­er. Despite a legal chal­lenge brought by the coali­tion’s lead­ing groups ear­li­er this year, the facility’s con­struc­tion is mov­ing for­ward, and Sean has now shift­ed his focus to help­ing pro­tect his cowork­ers from the pandemic.

One prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit that Sean and the oth­er orga­niz­ers aim to secure for work­ers in the short term is paid leave so that those affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic can stay home with­out sac­ri­fic­ing wages. The com­pa­ny ini­tial­ly pro­vid­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for work­ers who self-iso­lat­ed due to COVID-19-relat­ed health con­cerns but end­ed the pol­i­cy in May. Now Sean is encour­ag­ing cowork­ers to seek ben­e­fits under a new state law for food-indus­try work­ers that pro­vides up to two weeks paid leave for work­ers who have been advised by a med­ical pro­fes­sion­al to self-iso­late or ordered not to work.

Ama­zon ini­tial­ly argued that it was exempt from the man­date. But as Vice report­ed in July, com­mu­ni­ty groups and labor activists, along with the state labor commissioner’s office, pres­sured the com­pa­ny to com­ply on the grounds that its ware­hous­es serve as major retail food dis­trib­u­tors. In June, approx­i­mate­ly two months after the order was enact­ed, Ama­zon final­ly agreed to fol­low the law.

With a poster detail­ing the state’s new paid-leave pol­i­cy now on dis­play in the break­room, Sean says he is advis­ing his cowork­ers to take advan­tage of what he calls a legal “loop­hole” that allows Ama­zon employ­ees to take paid time off out­side of the com­pa­ny’s more restric­tive allot­ment. The work­ers who qual­i­fy have man­aged to use the law “just to take a break, or reeval­u­ate their situation.”

Sean says that despite his advo­ca­cy on behalf of Ama­zon employ­ees, he has avoid­ed the kind of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment that oth­er work­er-activists have reported.

At the same time, he acknowl­edges, “I’m also not try­ing to [pro­voke] them direct­ly.” When it comes to engag­ing with his col­leagues on work­place jus­tice issues, he says, “Usu­al­ly, I’ll have a con­ver­sa­tion where it just kind of unfolds like, ‘Man, some­one in my fam­i­ly just recent­ly passed, and I can’t take time off work.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, you should check out the law that was just recent­ly passed and I think you can get time off for it.”

Sean is build­ing a safer work­place with­in Amazon’s e-commerce leviathan one con­ver­sa­tion at a time. The son of an iron­work­er and grand­son of a team­ster, his sense of mis­sion is informed by the fam­i­ly sto­ries he heard as a child about strikes and pick­et lines.

Ama­zon, which has man­aged to keep unions at bay for years, bears lit­tle resem­blance to the union shops of past gen­er­a­tions. But today’s Ama­zon ware­house work­ers and dri­vers are just as crit­i­cal to California’s econ­o­my as the long­shore­men, truck dri­vers and iron work­ers were a cen­tu­ry ago. “I see Ama­zon as some­thing that’s prob­a­bly here to stay and like­ly going to shape our future and our under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism and con­sump­tion,” he says.

Though yes­ter­day’s mil­i­tant shop-floor strug­gles have long fad­ed from Cal­i­for­ni­a’s indus­tri­al land­scape, the chal­lenges fac­ing the labor move­ment remain basi­cal­ly the same. When work­ers orga­nize, Sean says, they can “hold the com­pa­ny account­able and shape it to be the com­pa­ny it is. With­out the work­ers, the com­pa­ny would not be what it is.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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Meet the Warehouse Worker Who Took On Amazon Over Inhumane Conditions and Harassment

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Hibaq Mohamed has worked for Ama­zon near­ly as long as she’s been in the Unit­ed States. In 2016, the twen­ty-some­thing Soma­li immi­grant land­ed in Min­neso­ta by way of a refugee camp, join­ing one of the largest East African com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try. She soon joined the legion of work­ers who fuel the state’s main Ama­zon facil­i­ty, the MSP1 ful­fill­ment cen­ter in Shakopee, near the Twin Cities.

“This was my first job,” Mohamed says. “They were hir­ing work­ers … East African and peo­ple like me. [These work­ers] didn’t have a lot of expe­ri­ence, they don’t know a lot.” 

The Shakopee facil­i­ty employs rough­ly 1,000 work­ers to exe­cute Amazon’s high­ly mech­a­nized work reg­i­men every day, pack­ing orders at a fren­zied rate of around 250 units per hour. While items zip down a con­vey­or belt, the work­ers are mon­i­tored, through an auto­mat­ed sys­tem, to track their speed and any errors that might dam­age their per­for­mance ratings.

On top of the pres­sure to meet quo­tas, Mohamed says man­age­ment decid­ed to “fire a crazy num­ber of work­ers” short­ly after she start­ed work­ing there. “And they are not telling us what they fired them for,” she recalls. She says the work­ers were immi­grants who did not speak Eng­lish fluently.

Though Ama­zon says these were sea­son­al hires—and were there­fore dis­missed once their tem­po­rary stints end­ed, the seem­ing lack of trans­paren­cy trou­bled Mohamed. “I feel like this was unfair,” she says.

Around 2017, Mohamed and oth­er East African immi­grant work­ers start­ed meet­ing with the Awood Cen­ter, a Min­neapo­lis work­er cen­ter. As fledg­ling com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers, Mohamed says, “We have to be smart, we have to have the train­ing to do this.” Over the past two years, East African work­ers have spear­head­ed a num­ber of walk­outs and protests at Ama­zon against what they per­ceive as incom­pe­tence, inhu­mane pro­duc­tiv­i­ty stan­dards and a lack of diver­si­ty among the man­age­ment. Images of hijabis walk­ing the pick­et line and ban­ners pro­claim­ing that work­ers are “not robots” gar­nered nation­al headlines. 

Fol­low­ing ini­tial protests in 2018, Ama­zon man­age­ment sat down with MSP1’s East African work­ers to dis­cuss work­ing con­di­tions—high­ly unusu­al for Ama­zon, which had pre­vi­ous­ly avoid­ed such direct talks with workers.

Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly agreed to make some accom­mo­da­tions at the facil­i­ty, such as com­mit­ting man­agers to meet quar­ter­ly with work­ers and respond to com­plaints with­in five days, accord­ing to the New York Times. But work­ers have con­tin­ued to com­plain about the intense pro­duc­tiv­i­ty pres­sure, which often leaves them with­out time for dai­ly prayers and bath­room breaks, despite Ama­zon claim­ing that work­ers can pray at any time. MSP1 also has one of the high­est injury rates among Amazon’s ful­fill­ment centers.

Awood has become a hub for the East African work­er com­mu­ni­ty, teach­ing orga­niz­ing tac­tics and build­ing mutu­al sup­port. Awood oper­ates as a grass­roots group and not a for­mal union, but oth­er unions—includ­ing the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union and the Team­sters—have been sup­port­ing Ama­zon work­ers at MSP1 and oth­er facilities.

Just over a month after Min­neso­ta issued stay-at-home orders, Ama­zon elim­i­nat­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid time off for those who opt­ed to stay home for health con­cerns, which trig­gered a walk­out by more than 50 MSP1 work­ers. The work­ers also protest­ed what they said was the retal­ia­to­ry fir­ing of two work­er activists, Faiza Osman (who Awood claims was ter­mi­nat­ed after stay­ing home with her chil­dren to avoid infec­tion, but was lat­er rein­stat­ed) and Bashir Mohamed (who appar­ent­ly was dis­ci­plined for vio­lat­ing social dis­tanc­ing guide­lines, which work­ers say are selec­tive­ly enforced).

Work­ers’ fears about the virus were con­firmed in June, when about 90 ware­house employ­ees test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19. Bloomberg report­ed that Ama­zon had care­ful­ly tracked the Covid-19 infec­tion rate at MSP1, but did not dis­close details on the num­ber of cas­es to workers.

Man­age­ment “want[ed] to hide it,” Mohamed says. But while the high­er-ups were not exposed like the front­line work­ers on the ware­house floor, “We are the ones who are going togeth­er to the bath­room, to the break room. We are the ones get­ting the virus.”

Ama­zon has boast­ed about its Covid-19 response, claim­ing it has tak­en exten­sive mea­sures to keep work­ers safe while eas­ing up on quo­tas. But Mohamed says Amazon’s lead­ers “focus more for the mon­ey than the work­ers and people.”

Last week, work­ers’ fears about their risk of infec­tion were real­ized when the com­pa­ny report­ed that more than 19,000 of its 1,372,000 employ­ees at Ama­zon and Whole Foods had test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19. Though it claims that the infec­tion rate at its facil­i­ties was about 40 per­cent low­er on aver­age than in sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties, labor advo­cates denounced the com­pa­ny for need­less­ly putting work­ers’ health at risk.

The man­age­ment seems focused on Mohamed, how­ev­er. Amid ris­ing fears of Covid-19 risks at work, Mohamed was writ­ten up in July for tak­ing too much “time off task,” Amazon’s term for inter­mit­tent breaks. But she con­tends she had rarely received any dis­ci­pli­nary write-ups until the man­age­ment “clear­ly made me a tar­get” after she had protest­ed work­ing conditions. 

She wrote to Min­neso­ta Attor­ney Gen­er­al Kei­th Elli­son seek­ing pro­tec­tion under an exec­u­tive order shield­ing whistle­blow­ers from retaliation. 

“Ama­zon man­agers have tar­get­ed me and open­ly harassed me before,” Mohamed wrote, “but increas­ing­ly dur­ing the pandemic.”

Ama­zon denies Mohamed and her cowork­ers’ claims of retal­i­a­tion. Ama­zon spokesper­son Jen Crow­croft states via email, “We do not tol­er­ate any kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place and we sup­port every employee’s right to crit­i­cize their employ­er, but that doesn’t come with blan­ket immu­ni­ty to ignore inter­nal poli­cies.” Sim­i­lar­ly, Ama­zon attrib­ut­es Bashir’s dis­missal to vio­la­tions of work­place rules. It also states Osman still works at Ama­zon and was not fired.

Mohamed’s alle­ga­tions reflect a broad­er pat­tern of fir­ings and pun­ish­ment of work­er-orga­niz­ers dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, which has prompt­ed law­mak­ers to inves­ti­gate Amazon’s labor prac­tices.. Last week, 35 work­ers at MSP1 staged yet anoth­er walk­out to protest the alleged fir­ing of one of Mohamed’s cowork­ers, Farhiyo Warsame, for “time off task” vio­la­tions, after she had voiced con­cerns about safe­ty pro­tec­tions at work.

For now, how­ev­er, Mohamed’s out­spo­ken­ness might pro­tect her, as the work­ers’ upris­ings have put Amazon’s labor prac­tices in the pub­lic spotlight. 

Ama­zon esti­mates about 30% of its Shakopee work­ers are East African, many of whom live in the Twin Cities Soma­li refugee com­mu­ni­ty, which has his­tor­i­cal­ly strug­gled with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and socioe­co­nom­ic hard­ship. Now, these bonds have trans­formed into orga­niz­ing pow­er against a cor­po­rate empire. Hav­ing built a diverse com­mu­ni­ty of mil­i­tant work­ers at MSP1—Soma­li, Span­ish and Eng­lish speak­ers alike—Mohamed knows there is safe­ty in numbers.

“We have one goal, and we can under­stand each oth­er,” Mohamed says. “We have the pow­er to change pol­i­cy. … We have the right to exer­cise that in the Unit­ed States.” Although the com­pa­ny “give[s] us a lot of fear,” she adds. “[we] still have the courage to fight back and work for the change we want.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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OSHA Is Failing Essential Workers. Why Not Let Them Sue Their Bosses?

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Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States early this year, frontline workers in sectors deemed “essential” have staged hundreds of strikes, sickouts and other job actions to protest unsafe working conditions.

At hospitals, warehouses, meat processing plants, fast-food restaurants, transport and delivery services, and retail and grocery stores, workers have demanded their employers do more to prevent the spread of the virus—including keeping worksites clean and providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). They have been aided in many cases by unions and new initiatives like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee—a joint project of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Meanwhile, the government agency tasked with ensuring on-the-job safety—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—has received over 26,000 Covid-related complaints at the federal and state level, but to date has issued citations against only four employers, all of them nursing homes.

While the AFL-CIO has called on OSHA to adopt an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases as an immediate, enforceable mechanism to keep workplaces safe during the pandemic, the agency has refused, saying there’s a lack of “compelling evidence” that diseases like Covid-19 pose a “grave threat” to workers. Instead, OSHA has put forward non-binding guidelines around coronavirus.

Critics like Peter Dooley of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health say OSHA is “missing in action” and that the agency’s lackluster pandemic response is “a national disgrace.”

In a new report released today, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR)—a network of over 60 scholars advocating public protections around health, safety and the environment—is calling on Congress to significantly strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the legislation that first created OSHA nearly 50 years ago.

Katie Tracy, senior policy analyst at CPR and a coauthor of the report, says OSHA’s poor response to the pandemic “is emblematic of several decades of choices by our national and state leaders that prioritize short-term profits ahead of people.”

“Since 1970, Congress and the White House have hollowed out [OSHA], denying it resources and trimming its authority, leaving it in a weak state,” adds CPR member scholar Rena Steinzor, another report coauthor.

As a result of this hollowing out, the agency now has only one inspector for every 79,262 workers. The report explains that with so few resources, OSHA has the capability to perform only one inspection per worksite every 134 years.

CPR member and report coauthor Michael C. Duff points out that “Black, Latinx and other people of color are disproportionately represented” in some of the most high-risk and low-paid jobs deemed essential during the pandemic. “Our governing institutions have done little to safeguard these workers from the health hazards or economic challenges exacerbated by Covid-19,” he says.

The CPR report specifically recommends the Occupational Safety and Health Act be amended to allow workers to enforce the law themselves by filing lawsuits under a private right of action. Such “citizen suits” are already a feature of many other federal regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and Clean Air Act, the report notes.

“Empowering workers with a private right of action is critical to ensuring safer and healthier workplaces because, even with a robust regulatory system, there will always be limits on what OSHA has the resources and political will to do,” the report says. “When the prospect of a private lawsuit is put on the table, the agency may be more motivated, even compelled, to pursue the serious allegations raised by employees.”

The report spells out how a private right of action would work, including provisions for notice of intent to sue, waiting periods, standing, statutes of limitation, discovery, robust remedies, and more. Importantly, it calls for beefed up whistleblower protections to prevent retaliation against employees who speak up, as well as an end to arbitration agreements that require workers to forfeit the right to sue their employers.

Further, the report urges lawmakers to expand the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include public sector workers, farmworkers and gig workers misclassified as independent contractors—all of whom were excluded in the original 1970 legislation.

“Fixing the current system requires an updated and vastly improved labor law that empowers workers to speak up about health and safety hazards, rather than risk their lives out of fear of losing employment and pay,” says CPR board member and report coauthor Thomas McGarity.

Tracy tells In These Times that as a nonprofit, CPR doesn’t do political lobbying, but still hopes that “some of our allies off and on the Hill will find this concept worthy of taking up because it would be such an improvement over the status quo.”

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting to include employer liability protections in any new Covid relief package, warning there will be “a second epidemic…of frivolous coronavirus lawsuits.”

“Rather than fight for business liability immunity,” Tracy says, “we need to be empowering workers to enforce the law when OSHA won’t.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke


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Essential workers still lack essential protections

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The United States played fast and loose with the health of essential workers during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, and the push to reopen businesses despite surging COVID-19 infections is no different. Essential workers and advocacy groups that represent them are calling for stronger health and safety protections, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ro Khanna have called for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, and some local governments have increased protections, but businesses—backed, of course, by the Trump administration—are pushing back, even as workers are “on the frontlines like sacrificial lambs,” call center worker Hope Gilmore told NBC News.

“Employers are tending to take the position that they’re complying with OSHA guidelines, but it’s extremely clear that OSHA guidelines are not protecting workers and are toothless,” Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, said. “The entire reason for having government regulation is that the market will not create safe workplaces.”

This isn’t only the case in the Republican-controlled states that have become the new epicenters of the pandemic. “We know the majority of these essential workers are people of color in New York City, and it’s unfair in a city that was built by immigrants that there’s no job protection, health and safety during a pandemic where they’re risking their health,” Laundry Workers Center co-executive director Rosanna Rodriguez said.

“It took an epic public health crisis and economic recession to wake us up, but as the economy reopens, we must not forget what we have seen,” the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Ai-Jen Poo and Palak Shah write in The New York Times. “We must shore up every last job, especially those that have been invisible, and every worker who has taken care of us, until every job is a good job, and dignity is restored to work in America.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 11, 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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