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Fact-Checking Amazon’s Bogus Workplace Health and Safety Claims

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Irene Tung

In response to public scrutiny of high injury rates and growing worker organizing efforts at its facilities, Amazon recently published a report on its workplace health and safety record titled “Delivered with Care.” In this blog post, we sort out fact and fiction in Amazon’s key arguments in that report.

False Claim #1: Amazon’s injury rates should be compared with injury rates in the “Courier and Express Delivery Services” sector, not “Warehousing.”

First, Amazon claims its injury rates should be compared to those of businesses in the “Courier and Express Delivery” category, which are generally higher than those in the “Warehousing and Storage” category. While Amazon’s workforce does span both industry categories, what Amazon fails to mention is that most of Amazon’s delivery drivers are not employed directly by Amazon. Instead, Amazon subcontracts to a network of companies, which it refers to as “Delivery Service Partners” (DSPs) who in turn employ the drivers that deliver Amazon packages. Even though these workers work for DSPs that exclusively deliver Amazon packages, their injury rates are not reflected in the injury rates that Amazon reports.

A recent report by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) showed that the injury rates for Amazon drivers employed through the DSPs were even higher than the rates at Amazon warehouses. The report compares these numbers with companies in the “Courier and Express Delivery Services” category and shows that they are 50 percent higher than those at a comparable business such as UPS.

In “Delivered with Care,” Amazon also cherry picks a few industries with which to compare injury rates (p 12). One of them is pet stores. While pet stores do indeed have high injury rates, what Amazon does not mention is that Bureau of Labor Statistic (BLS) data show that about 30 percent of the reported injuries at pet stores are “cuts, lacerations or puncture wounds.” These pet store injuries are most likely pet bites, but Amazon seems to suggest that the injuries at its warehouses are somehow analogous. Despite these random comparisons, the facts are clear that Amazon’s injury rate is higher than the average for the entire warehouse industry and over two times as high as the national average for all private industry.

False Claim #2: Amazon has already implemented effective solutions to bring injury and illness numbers down at its warehouses.

No effort to adjust the dangerous pace of work at Amazon is mentioned in the report. The pace of work and the stressful, forceful movements workers must make every day in the manual material handling jobs at its warehouses cause musculoskeletal disorders. The Amazon report instead expounds on the company’s ”wellness” program and its training on proper lifting. Washington State OSHA just cited Amazon for exposing workers to hazardous conditions and violating the OSHA law, because the job pace is so fast workers don’t have time to follow their safety training, including safe lifting methods.

In the entire 35-page “Delivered with Care” report, the only specific improvement mentioned to reduce the widespread ergonomic hazards in their warehouses is the introduction of pallet lift tables to lessen the need for bending down to pick up objects off the conveyors. While this is a positive step, it represents just one of the many measures to improve warehouse safety recommended by OSHA.

These include using powered equipment instead of requiring manual lifting for heavy materials; reducing lifts from shoulder height and from floor height by repositioning shelves or bins; adding pneumatic lifts, adjustable tables, turntables, and adjustable steps, to name just a few of the other recommended measures Amazon could implement.

Much of Amazon’s ”wellness” training program is about what it calls ”conditioning” for the job (p. 16), as if it is workers’ lack of conditioning that is causing these injuries—implying that the workers are to blame for their own injuries. However, as Washington State OSHA has noted, musculoskeletal injuries at Amazon are primarily caused by ergonomic risk factors including high repetition and lifting, bending, reaching, pulling, and pushing. The solutions must address those adjustments to the job that are needed to prevent injuries—redesigning the job to make the job fit the worker.

Most of “Delivered with Care” refers to 2020 injury rates to back up its claims. However, as a recent Strategic Organizing Center report points out, the “Delivered with Care” report also uses 2021 injury rates when it refers to Amazon’s “Huddle” program (p 16), implying that the company already had its complete 2021 injury data at the time that “Delivered with Care” was published. But the authors of “Delivered with Care” withheld a key piece of information: Amazon’s overall injury rate actually increased by 20 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Even after the publication of “Delivered with Care,” Amazon has continued to misrepresent its injury rates by using outdated and out-of-context information. As recently as April 2022, CEO Andy Jassy sent a letter to shareholders using 2020 data instead of 2021 data to support a claim that Amazon’s injury rates were “misunderstood.” In response, Business Insider published a thorough fact-check of Jassy’s misleading use of those statistics.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on May 11, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Irene Tung is a senior researcher and policy analyst for NELP.


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“It tears you apart mentally and physically”: The Health Crisis Afflicting Black Farmers

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Safiya Charles (@imsafiyacharles) / Twitter

At 43 and 45 years old, husband and wife farmers Angie and Wenceslaus Provost, Jr., hope they live to see age 70. 

They don’t fear terminal illness or a farm accident that could consign them to an early grave. 

Instead, they fear stress could do them in. Years of trying to protect family land from encroaching banks and government agencies have worn on them, despite their love of farming. 

After years of mounting debt with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a bank, the New Iberia, La. sugar cane farmers filed a September 2018 lawsuit against a USDA-approved lender. The suit alleges that Wenceslaus, known as “June,” was all but run out of the profession in 2015 after the bank reduced his crop loans over successive years, effectively underfunding his farm operation. June also claims that the lender regularly dispersed his funds well past planting season, which hampered his ability to compete against other, mostly white, cane farmers in the region. Angie has had a separate and ongoing civil rights claim open against USDA since 2017.

Both Angie and June have been hospitalized with symptoms of a nervous breakdown. They endure fatigue, racing hearts, insomnia brought on by nagging fear they could lose everything: their homes, their cane fields, their tractors, even their lives. They have sometimes feared the stress might literally kill them. In 2008, June, a fourth-generation sugar cane farmer, was in his second season of farming alone when his father died of a heart attack after helping him chop soil to plant fresh cane. June’s father had fallen behind because his crop loans were delayed by his banking institution; both June and Angie feel the situation had become bad enough to put his health at risk.

“We’re very aware of the fact that the early death of our family members like June’s father and some of our other community members is due to that stress of being bankrupt and foreclosed on after going through such litigation like Pigford,” Angie said, referring to the class action lawsuits filed by Black Farmers against USDA for discrimination and failure to investigate civil rights complaints. “Those are issues of trauma. It’s a difficult thing, an almost impossible thing to live through, unless you have a support system.”

Owing the USDA more than $1 million, June at one point questioned his desire to live. “At my worst, I contemplated suicide,” he said. “I felt there was no one I could turn to.” The future seemed to be certain death by a thousand bureaucratic hurdles, racism, stress, and overwork. 

In some ways, the Provosts’ story is familiar to anyone working in agriculture. All farmers and ranchers know the standard hardships of their profession—from the high costs of doing business to being at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. The financial risks are high, and crop prices are always in flux. A devastatingly adept predator might make off with some prized livestock. Pests may gorge their way through rows of promising crops. The physical work is hard on the body; the pesticides are too. And while weather is always unpredictable, climate change’s unseasonable droughts, flooding, storms, and freezes add to the strain. Those problems make farming one of the most stressful occupations in the country.

But Black farmers have to contend with an additional menace: the systemic racism that has long marred U.S. agriculture. These producers face down all the typical hardships while also navigating other hazards, including legal battles with the government, discriminatory lenders, opportunistic land grabbers. These painful interactions tend to underscore the racist—and tragically long-standing—myth that Black people don’t belong in farming, and don’t deserve the tools required to succeed. 

“So many Black farmers—June’s father, his uncles, my aunts and uncles, our community members, our kin—have the same story: sitting there in a USDA office waiting to be serviced, and never being serviced properly; being told by local agents that you will not succeed,” said Angie. “‘You will fail.’ ‘You are not a farmer.’ Those types of things are told to you directly.”

These grinding forms of discrimination take a deeply personal toll, contributing to a mental health crisis among Black farmers that’s at once acute and yet hard to see. Help is not exactly on the way. While programs do exist to help farmers handle the stress of the profession, many existing lifelines are geared toward the approximately 95% of U.S. farmers who are white, downplaying or outright ignoring the specific forms of distress that stem from race-based prejudice. Though a small but vital body of research points to the need for a more inclusive approach, and at least one advocacy group is working to better understand the scope of the problem, few efforts are being made to address the problem on the ground. For now, too many farmers still have nowhere to turn, their suffering largely rendered invisible within the support systems that exist. 

“It’s that psychological impact that I’ve seen happen to many Black farmers,” Angie said. “You have to understand it’s a repeated pattern. It tears you apart mentally and physically.”

The research gap 

In 2021, the USDA announced $25 million to state Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Networks (FRSAN) to build crisis hotlines, establish anti-suicide trainings, and offer free or low-cost counseling, among other services. It was an important step toward recognizing the emotionally grueling, often isolating nature of farm work. But it did little to respond to the needs of Black farmers, who tend to operate smaller farms, face increased economic pressure, and are routinely exposed to racism in agriculture and beyond. Of the 50 FRSAN projects USDA funded in 2021, only seven programs—in MaineMassachusettsMinnesotaNew HampshireNew MexicoNorth Carolina, and Rhode Island—pledge to make efforts to accommodate the specific needs of communities of color. 

It’s yet another indication that the bulk of U.S. research on farming and mental or behavioral health and stress focuses on white farmers. And while that may partly be a function of demographics—Black farmers make up 1% of growers nationwide, a stat that itself testifies to the exclusionary force of systemic racism in agriculture—important research or diagnostic tools fail to be race-sensitive. Without these mechanisms, it’s difficult to provide informed treatment that responds to the specific needs of Black farmers and could improve their physical and mental well-being. 

The Farm/Ranch Stress Inventory, created in 2002 by Charles K. Welke, then a psychology doctoral student, is a tool that assesses stress, satisfaction and perceived social support among farmers and ranchers. It asks dozens of questions to assess a farmer’s anxiety level and is sometimes adapted for studies of farmer well-being. But its questions focus mostly on financial and family matters; while it inquires about conflict with relatives or community, no question mentions race or racism specifically. In another example, a 2021 Farm Bureau-commissioned study of 2,000 rural Americans found that farmers and farm workers were significantly more likely to have said their stress increased in the last year than their non-farming neighbors. But the insurance and lobbying giant told The Counter that it did not analyze its data by race. 

Laketa Smith manages the Farmers of Color Network of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA). In collaboration with North Carolina State University, she and North Carolina-based RAFI are conducting a study of farmer mental health and financial stress. Unlike many other studies, that research is intentionally oversampling farmers of color. Though the study won’t conclude until later this year, it will interview 15 Black and Indigenous farmers, respectively, in addition to the same number of white growers (a future iteration will include Latinx subjects). 

While final results aren’t in, Smith said that there’s no indication that suicide is higher among either group. Still, preliminary results suggest that chronic stress is a feature of life for many Black farmers, and that stress can manifest in a variety of ways, from family conflict or separation to substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and ill physical health. 

“Pride is the flip side of shame, and [when money problems happen and land loss is possible], there’s a lot of shame over being in that position,” Smith said. “Farming is often not [simply] what they do. It’s who they are. They’re fourth or fifth generation. And sometimes they think ‘This land’s been in the family for years, and I got us in trouble.’” 

Racism as risk factor 

It’s a realm of lived experience that’s also established science: Being subjected to racism is unhealthy. Even encountering the more subtle, daily varieties can be stressful—and, over time, that stress can impact mental and physical health outcomes in concrete ways. A 2013 article in The Atlantic summarized the current state of the medical literature, which draws links between discrimination and increased rates of hypertension, the common coldcardiovascular diseasebreast cancer, and even general mortality. One study of 30,000 participants found that racism-induced stress is directly related to poorer physical and mental health. It’s a phenomenon that social psychologist Nancy Krieger calls “embodied inequality”—and these damaging linkages have only become better established in recent years.

“The perception of racism, that feeling can have an impact on psychological well-being,” said Telisa Spikes, a cardiovascular researcher at Emory University who has conducted studies on the impacts of financial and racial stressors on African American health. “Your body responds by going into fight or flight mode—blood pressure goes up, heart rate goes up. When you’re constantly in this hypervigilant state it can have a negative impact on health.”

Spikes describes hypervigilance as a heightened response to prior racial trauma that leads African Americans to anticipate negative or discriminatory experiences when they are in predominantly white spaces. 

“You have this stigmatized status as a Black person where you feel you always have to be constantly on watch,” she said. 

Epidemiologist Camara Jones has long made the case that racism is a public health crisis. Notably, she has called on fellow researchers to prioritize data collection by race, urging them to focus their attention on the root causes of racial differences in health outcomes. 

“When we collect data by race, our findings most often reveal significant race-associated differences in health outcomes,” Jones wrote in a 2001 article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.“The differences are so ubiquitous across organ systems, over the life span, and over time that they do not surprise us or seem to require explanation. Indeed, only when there is a white excess in disease burden, as with suicide, is our professional interest piqued.”

More recently, researchers have continued to probe the role that racism plays in lowering Black Americans’ life expectancy. A 2020 Auburn University study concluded that stress caused by experiencing racism accelerates aging at the cellular level; while a study published by Georgia State University in 2019 found that experienced over time, racism and long term anxiety could “wear and tear down body systems,” weighting the body’s allostatic load—the lifelong build up of stress—and putting African Americans at greater risk for chronic illness. 

“Health cannot be separated from the social environment. Many of the disparities that we see are a result of the social environment. And going back to clinical research, you cannot address problems without highlighting the racial demographic and the role that social determinants play in contributing to these disparities,” Spikes said. “Racism is now listed as a fundamental cause of disparities. It may not be experienced in the form of interpersonal racism—I’m going to charge you a higher price because of the color of your skin—but it’s more of the institutional and systemic racism. The trickle-down policies that derive from that is what has negative implications for health: not being able to afford housing in a good school district if you have children; not being able to get a loan for a mortgage,” said Spikes. 

Those risk factors are only magnified and exacerbated within the context of farming, where discriminatory individuals, processes and systems can continually threaten one’s livelihood and land. Combine U.S. agriculture’s institutionalized racism with the profession’s inherent volatility, and there’s an argument that Black farmers are at heightened risk for all manner of stress-related ailments. 

It happened to Lucious Abrams. The 68-year-old Georgia farmer was denied compensation as a claimant to 1997’s Pigford v. Glickman racial discrimination class action lawsuit against the U.S. government. He has filed numerous legal measures since then to delay foreclosure, and rents his farmland to neighbors to keep the taxes paid. After three decades wrangling with USDA, his body became a vessel of agony and apprehension. 

“I had kidney failure. I had a blood vessel burst up in my colon. My wife had a nervous breakdown. There’s no way to tell you the trauma that we have been through over the years. Through God’s grace and his mercy … that’s the only way I know how [we’ve survived],” said Abrams. “It’s been an absolute nightmare.”

Kentucky State University economist and rural sociologist Marcus Bernard worked with farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt region as the former director of a rural training and research center for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit association of about 20,000 mostly Black farmers and landowners. While completing his PhD at the University of Kentucky, Bernard examined how racism, institutional racism, and class conflict affected Black male farmers. His research identified high levels of acute stress in both African American men and women farmers, typically wives of the male subjects he interviewed. 

The long and well-documented history of Black mistreatment at the hands of the USDA, its partners, and agricultural colleagues also produces well-founded anxieties that bias will put more roadblocks in Black farmers’ way. 

“When you think about a picture of whites farming [and] then think about a picture of Blacks in agriculture, those are two very different experiences,” said Bernard. “The picture with Blacks in agriculture is marred by stigma and labels: a feeling like ‘Someone is always out to get me.’ Like ‘I’m not going to get a fair shake.’ Either ‘I’m going to get shorted on my price,’ ‘Somebody is after my land,’ or ‘I may not get the financing that I need.’”

For decades, USDA and associated lenders withheld critical loans from Black farmers on the basis of race—only one factor among many that gave white farmers an unfair advantage, and a shorter path to profit. Today, countless hurdles remain, from fierce, hyperlocal cronyism that excludes these farmers, to price manipulation that drives down their profits and earnings, and excessive collateral required to secure loans that put them at risk of losing everything if they fall into debt—a shameful legacy that is literally written across Black farmers’ bodies. 

For 26-year-old farmer Tamarya Sims, the anxiety lies not in the fear of dispossession—but in the fear that she may never own land at all. Sims is a landless Black farmer in Asheville, North Carolina. By day, she works for a land trust, managing chickens and bees on a community farm. She runs her own business, Soulfull Simone Farm, on the side. The urban flower and herbal farm takes up less than half an acre of rented land. 

Sims, who experiences anxiety related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hopes to one day own 60 acres of forested land she envisions as a “healing space” where she can grow herbs and plants, and visitors of color can attend workshops and feel welcome. She describes the distress she deals with as threefold. 

“There’s the stress of being a farmer, then there’s the stress of being a Black farmer, and then of being a landless farmer,” she said. Added to the anxiety she feels, these stressors can make it difficult for her to focus, sapping her energy and ability to solve problems that may arise on the farm. 

As a Black female agriculturalist in an overwhelmingly white area, Sims has experienced strong feelings of alienation. When she spoke out in the wake of George Floyd’s death, she became instantly and uncomfortably recognizable in her community. 

But invisibility, rather than hypervisibility, has been the norm for her. When white visitors stop by the community farm, they often pass her wordlessly, seeking out the first white face they can find as an authority. When she was shopping for her own tractor, she brought a white male associate with her to the dealership, for fear she wouldn’t be taken seriously or get a fair deal. The sales agent spoke exclusively to the white man and refused to look her in the eye, she said. Knowing she must enlist the same tactic in her search to acquire land is upsetting and tiresome. 

“One of the main recurring things I’ve went through is being on land and folks seeing me and thinking that I don’t belong just because I’m Black. Even at my job, I’ve had people slowing down in their cars to see what I’m doing.” If they come onto the land, they ignore her just as the tractor salesperson did. “There’s nowhere I can go where people see me and think I belong, or where I feel safe.”

This feeling has been a primary motivator in Sim’s desire to carve out her own piece of land where she can enjoy the restorative benefits of nature that all farmers love: the joy and relief that comes from digging in the dirt, watching a tiny seed shoot out roots long before its verdant foliage begins to show.

“I work through a lot of my life issues in the garden, and I think that everyone should have the opportunity to do that… When you connect people with land, they see the mountains behind them, and they feel comfortable,” she said. It’s a feeling of ease she continues to chase and an irony many Black farmers experience: that working the land can relieve stress, while also exacerbating it. 

Community as coping 

Former cattle farmer Michael Rosmann is a psychologist who has worked with farmers and institutions for more than 30 years to raise awareness about the importance of behavioral health in agricultural communities. His work with the nonprofit AgriWellness, Inc., a partnership initiative between seven Prairie states facilitated by the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health, informed the framework of USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. 

“The traits that define successful farmers are a capacity to endure extreme hardship, the capacity to work alone, if necessary, self-reliance for making decisions, and keeping things to oneself. These traits cut across all races and cultures,” said Rosmann. 

However, these characteristics can have a downside: a reticence to divulge thoughts and emotions to behavioral health professionals or scholars who could document farmers’ individual or collective mental health needs. To combat this, Rosmann emphasizes a need for counselors and therapists who have a shared understanding of not only agriculture, but the complex racial and cultural histories these farmers hold. 

In practice, that’s not always easy. Rural communities, where most farms are, often lack the medical resources and services offered in major cities. At the same time, only about 3 percent of U.S. psychologists are Black. For farmers, these factors—the disparity in health care services and the lack of representation among health care professionals—mix with other forms of inequity to create barriers to relief from occupational stress. 

In the absence of doctors they can trust and enough rural mental health providers, many Black farmers like Abrams lean on religion to lessen their mental anguish. 

“There is still within this community of older Black farmers, deeply spiritual, deeply rooted ties to their churches. Their spiritual life is what I believe is the No. 1 thing that keeps them sane and grounded,” Kentucky State’s Bernard said. 

He speculated that faith may offset suicide risk among Black farmers. But because Black farmers are not often studied or written about outside the bounds of their racial experiences, there’s little to no information about the prevalence of suicide and self-harm among them. 

That most Black farmers turn to social networks for support bears out an aspect of Farm Bureau research: in general, farmers are far more likely to tap their friends and family for help than seek a doctor’s advice. 

Kaleb “KJ” Hill, 35, is a fourth-generation farmer from New Orleans and the founder of Oko Vue Produce Co., an agricultural business that specializes in edible landscapes and stormwater management. 

He looks inside and outside his community for assistance. 

“A lot of [farmers] are not very vocal with what they’re going through. They’ll speak in a lot of cliches, like ‘You know, it’s just part of the job.’ But the way I live my life, I share if I’m seeking additional support,” Hill said. 

Though he doesn’t presume to recommend mental health services to his peers, “we usually talk to each other,” he said. 

“That’s important,” he went on. “I won’t say it’s like traditional group therapy or anything that’s facilitated by a professional. It’s just us sitting around in a circle or gathering at the end of the season, and having a little dinner together with some of the things we have left over and just talking about how that was a rough year. It’s an ongoing conversation. You’re venting like ‘Man, that was frustrating, this insect ate up everything. What did you do about it’ That’s a therapeutic session in itself.” 

Still, traditional talk therapy keeps him “in touch with reality and it’s helped me grow as a man. … Sometimes you have these emotions that you don’t necessarily have a word for and that professional does,” he added. 

The Provosts also sought help to alleviate their feelings of despair. Both now speak with a therapist regularly. They say it’s had a marked effect on their ability to cope with the day-to-day stress incurred by attempts to preserve their livelihood. But the fight is long from over. What was once an almost 5,000-acre family sugarcane operationJune’s family owned about 300 of those acres and rented the remainder—is now a mere 36 acres, split between June and one of his brothers. Angie’s civil rights claim remains open, and Congress’s effort at debt cancellation, which would have offered them a much-needed reprieve, remains stalled.

This post originally appeared at The Counter on March 17, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Safiya Charles is The Counter’s future of farming fellow, covering the movement around justice for Black farmers and the pioneering agriculture work being done in communities of color nationwide. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Alabama capital’s daily newspaper. Her work has appeared in The Nation and The New Republic.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: UWUA Members Take Control of Workplace Safety

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

While COVID-19 has made safety and personal protective equipment topics of discussion worldwide, workplace hazards are nothing new for utility workers. And members of the Utility Workers (UWUA) union deal with dangers every day they are on the job. In the latest edition of UWUA’s quarterly magazine, The Utility Worker, the union features an article that explains how many of its locals are implementing a range of effective safety models at work.

“This important piece shows there’s no wrong way to strengthen workplace safety culture,” said UWUA President James Slevin. “From employing full-time safety representatives (models used by Local 1-2, Michigan State Utility Workers Council and California Water Utility Council, for example), to a peer-to-peer model (used at Locals 127, 648, 369 and 335), or a statewide consortium (like that used by Locals 428, 397, 427, 425, 434), these locals are setting the bar high. I’m confident there’s something we can take and apply in our work from all of these examples.”

This was originally appeared at AFL-CIO on 04/04/2022.

About the Authors: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at AFL-CIO.

Aaron Gallant is the Internal Communications Specialist at AFL-CIO


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How Starbucks Workers Won in Mesa

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Starbucks Workers United (SWU) won its third store election February 28 in Mesa, Arizona. The vote was an overwhelming 25-3, with three additional contested ballots, despite heavy anti-union pressure from the company and in a state with only 5.4 percent union density.

“We led with kindness and care and just did our jobs in the face of union-busting from upper management,” said shift supervisor Liz Alanna, who helped lead the effort. Shift supervisors coordinate the day-to-day running of a store but are eligible for union membership because they don’t have hiring and firing power.

The Mesa store at Powerline and Baseline Roads became the first U.S. company-run store outside Buffalo to be unionized in the recent organizing wave.

Starbucks Workers United is now three for four in the elections held so far—and workers at more than 110 more locations have filed or announced their intention to unionize. A Canadian Starbucks also filed to unionize separately with the Steelworkers (USW) in January.

In Mesa, the company’s retaliation against a cancer-afflicted manager drove workers into the arms of SWU and Workers United, the Service Employees (SEIU) affiliate that has been supporting these union drives nationwide.

COLLAPSED ON THE FLOOR

‘It was just a huge slap in the face that our manager has leukemia, we never got support from another assistant store manager, and it was holiday season and we were getting slammed,” said Alanna.

The manager, 29-year-old Brittany Harrison, had been diagnosed with leukemia in October. Harrison requested paid leave, which was denied, and asked for an assistant manager to help at the store, which was also denied. She wanted to be able to make medical appointments and take care of herself as she coped with both the diagnosis and the illness.

But in November, when Harrison became aware of Starbucks’ planned union-busting strategy in Buffalo through a corporate meeting, she blew the whistle on the company. Harrison spoke anonymously to the media about a plan to send hundreds of managers to Buffalo Starbucks. She also made contact with Starbucks Worker United members in Buffalo.

Higher-ups stopped communicating with her. “I was getting ghosted by my supervisor and that sucked,” Harrison said. “My health was deteriorating.”

Starbucks company-owned stores are run by managers like Harrison, who have hiring and firing power and are not eligible to join barista unions. Above them are district managers who are responsible for multiple stores in the same area. Below them are assistant store managers, shift supervisors, and baristas, all of whom have been eligible to vote for the union. (NLRB regional directors so far have deferred the question of whether assistant store managers will ultimately be included in the bargaining unit to post-election proceedings.)

A bronchitis outbreak hit the store on November 10 and multiple workers called out. Harrison felt unwell November 11 and called out sick; the district manager told her that night she was not allowed to call out even though there were multiple shift supervisors present, and questioned her leadership ability.

The district manager went so far as to order Harrison to work the next day even though she had not been scheduled.

That night at 3 a.m., Harrison called her again to tell her she was too sick to work, but the district manager didn’t pick up her phone. Harrison even texted her photos of the temperature reader that showed she had a fever, but got no response.

The store was already short-staffed, and Harrison was forced to come in.

She ended up working until she collapsed to the floor after six hours. Unable to get up, she defecated on herself. Even then, she was forced to stay another hour because her district manager failed to send someone to cover for her in a timely way.

“This company will not be happy until I work myself to death,” Harrison remembers thinking. She put in her two weeks’ notice that day at the corporation she had once expected to retire at.

Starbucks fired her three days later, citing an “open investigation”; the charges were not disclosed to Harrison. Her Starbucks health benefits were cut off on November 16.

The coffee giant made $816 million in profits from roughly October through January and expanded by 484 stores in the quarter.

DON’T QUIT, UNIONIZE

Starbucks eventually tried to walk back the firing, claiming in a mass email to partners that it had never happened. By then, though, the cat was out of the bag.

When word spread through a group chat, “we were all really upset,” said Michelle Hejduk, a shift supervisor and worker leader. “People were talking about quitting. Somebody said ‘unionizing’—and everybody knew I was the main one that would talk about it with everybody.”

Hejduk had previously been an IATSE member in custodial work at Universal Studios in California and an SEIU member doing costuming at Disneyland.

She called Alanna that night; the two had talked politics before. Alanna remains a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists from her past work as an opera singer.

“Both of us were scared at first that we would get fired or lose our jobs,” Alanna said. She was pregnant and nearly due; she didn’t want to risk losing her family’s health insurance and owing thousands of dollars in hospital bills.

But after the pair talked with Workers United organizing adviser Richard Bensinger about legal protections for workers trying to unionize, they felt reassured enough to move forward.

By November 16, just four days after Harrison had collapsed in the store, the workers had enough cards to file for a union authorization election.

SWU raised $30,000 through crowdfunding to support Harrison, the uninsured and cancer-stricken whistleblower, in a striking display of reciprocal solidarity.

The Mesa store is not the only one where workers allege a retaliatory firing. In February, Starbucks fired seven unionizing workers in a Memphis store. Cassie Fleischer, a bargaining committee member, was also terminated from the Buffalo Elmwood location that was the first to win a union.

UNDERSTAFFING AND DISCRIMINATION

Like other Starbucks workers organizing around the country, Mesa baristas were motivated by understaffing, pressure to come to work sick, the company’s reluctance to stop accepting mobile orders when a store is overwhelmed, and a lack of worker voice.

“People who sit behind a computer do not know how to make a latte, do not know how to clean a toilet—we need to have a say,” said Alanna.

Many Starbucks workers around the country said that people tend to underestimate the amount of physical labor they’re required to do in an environment where there’s pressure to be efficient and customer-pleasing at all times. This includes everything from heavy lifting to being on your feet all day—in some shifts, for almost six hours with only a ten-minute break.

Another concern at the Mesa store was religious discrimination. Harrison, who is Jewish, filed a complaint against the district manager for anti-Semitism.

For example, when Harrison had a swastika painted on her house and the mezuzah torn off, the district manager suggested she should try to understand where the person who did it was coming from.

Harrison and workers in the store say that the district manager, whom Alanna described as “very Christian,” regularly prayed in meetings at which they were present.

“I’m Christian and even I find it very off-putting to have her reading a Christian story at the holiday meeting—I just think it’s weird,” Alanna said.

STALLING AND INTIMIDATION

There were 25 workers for the Mesa store the day they filed for election. But in a union-busting move, Starbucks started hiring. The number of eligible voters ended up at 43.

“They hired half the store just to say ‘no,’” Alanna said.

The company also flooded the store with management—another tactic it has repeated around the country.

Whereas when Harrison was diagnosed with cancer Starbucks wouldn’t add a single assistant manager to help the workers in Mesa, now it added three, plus two managers.

“We called them the babysitters,” Hejduk said. “We were not allowed to be there without them.” One day she was scheduled for the morning, but because a new manager couldn’t come in, the store did not open until 1 p.m.

The managers held captive group meetings (“listening sessions”) and one-on-ones to pressure workers over the union. One manager cried as she told a worker, “I want you to vote ‘no’.”

Hejduk found the episode “totally bizarre.”

“They’ve done so much wild stuff,” she said. “We’ve been desensitized to everything that’s happened.”

As it has done around the country, Starbucks argued to the NLRB that the appropriate bargaining unit would be the whole district, not just one store.

The company lost on this issue in a regional director’s ruling, but then filed an appeal with the NLRB’s head office. A ruling on the appeal was not made by February 16, the day the Mesa votes were to be counted, even though Starbucks had already lost on this issue at the NLRB in Buffalo.

As a result, the final vote count for the Mesa store was postponed pending a decision by the Board’s head office. It was eventually held on February 28.

The NLRB’s decision against Starbucks set the size of the bargaining unit at the store level rather than the district. This is expected to allow the Board to more quickly stop the company’s procedural delays on this issue moving forward.

NEW CAMARADERIE

As the organizing drive continues to build, SWU is building worker-to-worker contacts nationwide.

The day the Mesa workers filed their cards with the NLRB, they met over Zoom with Colin Cochran, a Buffalo-based SWU member, who told them what union-busting tactics to expect.

“Starbucks uses the same playbook everywhere and we know the ins and outs of it,” Cochran said over email. “It’s really fulfilling to be able to help other stores.”

And among the Mesa workers themselves, Alanna said the process of organizing has forged a new sense of community.

“Previous to this, night workers might never talk to day workers,” she said. Now they’re all on the same group chat, and are going out for food and attending parties together.

“I’ve worked in four different stores and I’ve never felt this kind of camaraderie before,” Alanna said.

Within weeks, SWU will know if it has managed to replicate the successes in Mesa and Buffalo through election wins in more stores and in other parts of the country. Next up: Seattle and Boston.

This blog was originally printed at Labor Notes on March 5, 2022.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.


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Unions Stand With Exploited Immigrants Demolition Workers in NYC

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A conversation with Chaz Rynkiewicz, vice president of Laborers Local 79.

With Laborers Local 79 leading the charge, union demolition workers, construction workers, carpenters, bricklayers, and more have rallied multiple times in the past month outside the Chelsea Terminal Warehouse in New York City to protest the mishandling of workers’ pensions and the exploitation, union busting, wage theft, and hazardous conditions workers have experienced at the job site. As Dean Moses writes in The Villager, ?“Many of the Laborers are immigrant demolition workers, also called los demolicionsitas, and construction workers who say that they have been deprived of healthcare throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to face intimidation and threats for trying to unionize Terminal Warehouse. Protesters named several culprits?—?three being New Line Structures, ECD NY and Alba Services?—?which, they alleged, have a history of wage theft and permitting hazardous working conditions. There were also allegations of gender discrimination.” We talk to Chaz Rynkiewicz, Vice President and Director of Organizing for Laborers Local 79.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on 03/03/2022.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Workers Say They Breathe Polluted Air at “Green” Insulation Facility

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Kingspan employees in Santa Ana, California are demanding improved health protections—and a fair process to organize.

Mindy Isser | Author | Common Dreams

As the acceptance of climate change becomes increasingly commonplace, more and more companies will be created or adapted to ?“fight” or ?“solve” it — or, at the very least, minimize its effects. Kingspan Group, which began as an engineering and contracting business in 1965 in Ireland, has since grown into a global company with more than 15,000 employees focused on green insulation and other sustainable building materials. Its mission is to ?“accelerate a zero emissions future with the wellbeing of people and planet at its heart.” 

But workers at the Kingspan Light + Air factory in Santa Ana, Calif. don’t feel that the company has their wellbeing at its heart?—?and they say they have documented the indoor air pollution in their workplace to prove it. Differences between Kingspan’s mission and its true impact don’t stop there, workers charge: One of its products was used in the flammable cladding system on Grenfell Tower, a 24-floor public housing tower in London that went up in flames in June 2017, killing 72 people. Kingspan has been the target of protests in the United Kingdom and Ireland for its role in the disaster. Both Kingspan workers and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have called on the company to put public safety over profits.

Since the 1990s, union organizers say there have been multiple attempts from the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) union to organize employees at Kingspan, but none were successful. The company says its North America branch employs ?“1,600 staff across 16 manufacturing and distribution facilities throughout the United States and Canada.” Workers at the Santa Ana plant are tasked with welding, spray painting and assembling fiberglass to produce energy-efficient skylights. During the pandemic, when workers say Covid-19 swept through the facility, employees reached back out to SMART?—?not just because they wanted to form a union, but because they grew concerned about what they say is poor air quality in the facility. 

While SMART provided support for their campaign for clean air, the workers took control: In the summer of 2021, the Santa Ana workers came into work armed with monitors to measure indoor air pollution. Their goal was to measure airborne particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller (PM 2.5). Such fine particulate matter constitutes a form of air pollution that is associated with health problems like respiratory and cardiovascular issues, along with increased mortality. The workers found that the average PM 2.5 concentration inside the facility was nearly seven times higher than outdoors. (To put that in perspective, wildfires usually result in a two- to four-fold increase in PM 2.5.) The majority of monitors found PM 2.5 levels that would rank between ?“unhealthy” and ?“very unhealthy” if measured outdoors, according to Environmental Protection Agency standards, the workers reported. 

Because this is the air workers were breathing in for 40 hours per week, in October 2021, they went public with both their campaign to form a union and their fight for a safe workplace?—?a campaign that continues to this day. 

According to Jorge Eufracio, a welder who’s worked at Kingspan for six years, ?“The campaign started for safety, better wages, and respect. We signed a petition for workers at Kingspan, and we had a delegation give it to the boss. The petition was about our whole campaign?—?including a fair process to organize.” 

Kingspan employees told In These Times that management has ignored their plea for a fair process to organize, but in response to pressure has made some strides regarding health and safety, although the changes are inadequate. Jaime Ocotlan, a welder who’s been at the company for two years, said, ?“We have seen some small changes but we believe it’s not enough. They have given us some PPE, and recently they have started to give us some ear plugs. When they say they’re going to give us PPE, it needs to be fire safe. It’s not enough yet. It’s a band-aid. We need stuff that’s protective in the long run.” 

Over Zoom, Ocotlan showed In These Times how shards of fiberglass get stuck in his work clothes, leaving small holes in the fabric and making it possible for the shards to reach his skin. 

The workers have partnered with environmental justice organizations in order to pressure Kingspan to clean up the facility. An open letter signed by environmental groups in the Santa Ana area and nationwide states that ?“Kingspan is not an appropriate source for continuing education courses or sponsorships of events for the green building community, including those that touch on fire safety.” There are 45 signatories, led by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which brings together unions and union activists to fight for environmental justice. 

A coalition of environmental activists and workers is coalescing. Both Eufracio and Ocotlan told In These Times that most workers at this Kingspan facility live in Santa Ana, and mentioned that one coworker lives directly behind the facility. Ocotlan said workers are concerned not only for themselves but ?“for the kids and the elderly. The contamination is something you can’t see but we breathe every day, and causes a lot of pulmonary problems.” 

Ron Caudill, vice president of operations at Kingspan North America, told In These Times, ?“Kingspan has a long history of dedication to a safe working environment for all employees. In fact, as of today, it has been over 600 days since we had a lost time injury or illness, and we have never had an illness related to air quality.”

But workers at Kingspan are not only concerned with their own situation at work, or even at home: They’re also thinking of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. This past December, workers held a candlelight vigil in solidarity with a concurrent march in London to honor the 4.5 year anniversary of the fire. The British public inquiry into the fire found that Kingspan’s insulation product Kooltherm K15 was used in the cladding system on the Grenfell Tower. According to Kingspan, K15 only made up about 5% of the insulation layer of the system. But the U.K. government’s Grenfell Tower Inquiry unearthed a number of allegations concerning the company’s role in the fire, including the that workers kept secret the results of fire safety tests. Going forward, the government now demands that Kingspan and other insulation companies contribute a ?“significant portion” to the approximately £9 billion ($12 billion) in remediation costs.

Kingspan workers and victims of the Grenfell Tower fire are more than 5,000 miles apart, but they say they share a common interest: safety. Eufracio told In These Times, ?“We’re supporting Grenfell.” 

He added, ?“We want to avoid what happened there.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on 03/03/2022.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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Essential workers worried about CDC’s honor-system mask guidance, this week in the war on workers

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The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents many grocery workers, is … not happy about the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ (CDC) new guidance that vaccinated people can go unmasked indoors. Food and retail workers, after all, have been contending all along with people who refused rules about masks, and are now guaranteed to have to contend with people who may be lying about being vaccinated. The honor system guidance doesn’t take these workers into account. 

“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “With so many states already ending their mask mandates, this new CDC guidance must do more to acknowledge the real and daily challenge these workers and the American people still face.”

The UFCW wants the CDC to clarify how exactly workers will be kept safe. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 15, 2020. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and full-time staff since 2011. She is currently the assistant managing editor.


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Masks for thee, but not for me?

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Rebecca Rainey

What everyone’s thinking about this week: Should workers still be required to wear masks on the job?

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suddenly updated its guidance last week to allow fully vaccinated Americans to gather without masks indoors and outdoors, even if some in their group are unvaccinated, the agency created confusion about what that change means for the workplace.

Right now, it’s up to your boss to decide whether you need to wear a mask or not. The CDC’s guidelines are optional. (The Biden administration is working on mandatory workplace Covid-19 rules, but we’ll get to that later.)

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, warned that the CDC failed to consider the risks the new guidance creates for workers and that it now requires them to become “vaccination police” for customers.

And employers in the same sector are taking their side: “The Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group, said the CDC’s mask announcement creates ambiguity since it doesn’t align with state and local orders,” Robbie Whelan and Sarah Nassauer reported for the Wall Street Journal. Some companies like Target and Kroger, as well as General Motors and Toyota, have decided to keep their own mask mandates in place for the time being.

BUT: Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, and subsidiary Sam’s Club said Friday it would stop requiring masks — depending on state and local rules — for fully vaccinated staff and customers, effective Tuesday. “Unvaccinated associates must still wear face coverings, per CDC guidance,” the company said. “Some associates may choose to continue to wear masks, and as part of our value of respect for the individual we should all support their right to do so.” Publix similarly changed its rules so that vaccinated workers and patrons don’t have to don masks.

The big takeaway: David Barron, labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor, predicts that most workers in customer-facing jobs will likely still have to wear masks, despite the CDC’s change. He also warns that it will be “difficult to enforce” separate workplace rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, which large retailers have already started to implement.

Where’s OSHA? The switcheroo from the Biden administration, which came just a few weeks after the White House urged people to still wear masks in public, raises questions about the future of any mandatory Covid-19 workplace safety rules. These rules were expected to be issued by mid-March, but weren’t sent to the Office of Management and Budget for final review until April 26.

Workplace safety experts and attorneys say that rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are typically strongly influenced by CDC guidelines — and the CDC’s advice regarding masks has been changed twice by the Biden administration in less than a month.

WE KEEP ON WAITING: Once the OSHA rules clear the White House budget office, they will become public and go into effect. OMB has review meetings on the rules scheduled through May 24, meaning we’re still at least a week away from seeing them.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 17, 2020.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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On the Introduction of the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act to Protect Meatpacking Workers

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Washington, DC—Following is a statement from Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project:

“NELP applauds the introduction of the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, championed by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Rosa DeLauro, which would protect the health and safety of meatpacking workers by suspending and prohibiting any line speed increases in meat and poultry plants during the ongoing COVID pandemic. The Act would halt any line speed waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration.

“COVID-19 spread like wildfire across the meat and poultry industry in the last year, and it continues to spread through the plants. Despite guidance issued in March 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that emphasized the key protective measure of social distancing, the companies operating the plants continued to require meat and poultry workers to work shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow through the entire pandemic. Stunningly, in the middle of the pandemic, as tens of thousands of meatpacking workers were getting sick and many were dying, the USDA gave permission for many poultry, beef, and swine slaughter plants to increase their production line speeds—thereby forcing workers to stand closer together rather than father apart.

“Workers, their families, and their communities—and especially Black and brown workers and other communities of color—paid a huge price when the meat industry failed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that this failure was associated with between 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases—and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths—just in the first few months of the pandemic (as of July 1, 2020).

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in addition to this being a workers’ right issue, this is also a racial justice issue. The meat and poultry industry is built on the labor of workers of color. The CDC estimates that 87% of all infections in the meat industry occurred among people of color in the industry.

“The Act will affect policies implemented by the USDA during the previous administration as follows: temporarily suspend line speed waivers in meat and poultry plants; block funding to implement line speed increases in hog slaughter plants; and require the issuance of an accountability report to document whether the industry implemented worker safety protections and to evaluate how the relevant agencies in the previous administration responded to the outbreaks of COVID-19 in the industry.

“This legislation is a landmark in the advocacy of meat and poultry workers, organizers, and communities that have been demanding safer workplaces and accountability for employers and government agencies that failed to put basic safety measures in place during the COVID-19 crisis. The voices and direct actions of these communities laid the groundwork for federal action.

“The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the racial inequities in housing, healthcare, and the workplace. Big Meat’s commitment to profits for a few instead of preventative and protective safety protocols to protect hundreds of thousands of meatpacking workers during the greatest public health crisis of our time exemplifies why it’s critical to hold both the industry and government accountable for practices and policies that endangered workers and their communities. Accountability must be a part of a just and inclusive recovery.

“The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act is a critical first step toward ensuring worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to working with Congress and the Biden-Harris administration to secure safety protections for the nation’s meat and poultry workers by revoking all existing line speeds waivers and relinquishing any further rulemaking that increases line speeds in the meat and poultry industry; and by promulgating and enforcing a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

This blog originally appeared at NELP on March 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers. 


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Six dead in Georgia poultry plant liquid nitrogen leak, this week in the war on workers

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Six people are dead after a liquid nitrogen leak at a Georgia poultry plant and 11 others were hospitalized, with at least three in critical condition. Two of the people killed were Mexican citizens, and those injured included at least four firefighters.

“When leaked into the air, liquid nitrogen vaporizes into an odorless gas that’s capable of displacing oxygen,” the Associated Press explains. “That means leaks in enclosed spaces can become deadly by pushing away breathable air, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.”

The Foundation Food Group plant, previously known as Prime Pak Foods, was cited for worker amputations in 2017.

”Our hearts go out to the loved ones of the six workers who tragically died and those who were critically injured in a preventable accident at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Georgia,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a response. “This did not have to happen. Safety concerns have long been raised as a major issue in many poultry plants, and Thursday’s incident shows what can happen when those calls go unheard.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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