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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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States become worker safety watchdogs as pandemic worsens

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States are increasingly bypassing the federal government and imposing their own rules to protect workers from the coronavirus, creating a patchwork of regulations that could serve as a blueprint for new national standards promised by President-elect Joe Biden.

Oregon last month began requiring employers to supply masks, develop infection control plans and notify staff of ill coworkers. California rushed out 21 pages of business mandates covering everything from proper ventilation and social distancing to testing, reporting and quarantine procedures. In New Jersey, more than 1,000 complaints of alleged workplace health and safety violations have poured in from workers in the four weeks since the state enacted its own new safety program.

In all, 14 states have instituted their own comprehensive restrictions as the federal worker safety watchdog, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has come under fire for its lax enforcement during a pandemic that has turned America’s most mundane jobs into dangerous, frontline deployments.

Labor leaders and other advocates for tougher rules say the hands-off approach taken by President Donald Trump’s administration has put workers in harm‘s way, forcing the states to step in.

“It would be pretty hard to fall on your face as hard as OSHA has during the pandemic,” said Maggie Robbins, an occupational health specialist at Worksafe, a statewide workplace advisory group in California that has pushed for new rules. “It’s easy to outperform OSHA right now.”

Experts say Biden could borrow heavily from the states that have crafted their own policies, and the most stringent local requirements could give the new administration a baseline for those standards. But negotiating with industry groups could take months, and labor leaders say any delay will only result in more cases and, in turn, more deaths.

report released Nov. 19 found that up to 8 percent of the early U.S. coronavirus cases could be rooted in outbreaks among workers at meatpacking plants. Large outbreaks of the virus, which has killed more than 250,000 Americans, continue to be linked to employers that hold important positions in the nation’s supply chain.

Some state-level business groups acknowledged the need for a nationwide standard, saying a jumble of state-by-state — and, in places, town-by-town — regulations has been difficult for employers to navigate. But, they say, the vast majority of companies are doing the right thing, and imposing too many regulations will hinder the country’s economic recovery.In the unfolding pandemic, economic crisis and reckoning on race, governors and mayors are shaping our shared future. Who are the power players, and how are they driving politics and influencing Washington?Full coverage »

“If a national standard isn’t feasible or isn’t well-written, it could be worse than the presently evolving patchwork,” said Rob Moutrie, policy advocate and workplace safety lead for the California Chamber of Commerce.

Critics say OSHA has done little to punish companies when their workers get sick or even die from the coronavirus. While the agency has cited more companies for coronavirus-related risks over the past several months, large corporations have received meager fines, and OSHA has used its special enforcement powers far more leniently than previous administrations.

Megan Sweeney, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, said DOL is committed to protecting the country’s workforce during the pandemic, and OSHA has been “working around the clock to that end.”

OSHA has preexisting requirements and standards that are enforceable and has issued guidance for employers, including additional resources for high-risk industries, like meat and poultry processing. Through Nov. 26, the agency has issued citations arising from 255 inspections for violations related to coronavirus, resulting in proposed penalties totaling $3,403,139.

Sweeney also said that earlier this year, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that OSHA reasonably determined that a new emergency temporary standard is not necessary.

“Since that court ruling, OSHA has continued to rely on its preexisting authorities to keep America’s workplaces safe,” Sweeney said. “OSHA continues to investigate every complaint about workplace safety.”

While federal OSHA sets national standards, states are allowed to run their own occupational health and safety plans, so long as they are at least as stringent as the federal government’s standard. About half the states have their own plans. Those that don’t have separate plans found creative ways to enforce standards, using executive orders and rulemaking to set new rules without OSHA approval.

The new rules adopted by states are consistent in mandating things like social distancing, mask wearing and improved ventilation in workspaces. States are also making it easier for workers to know their rights and report any violations. Many states have taken punitive action on their own and imposed some hefty fines where federal OSHA has not.

State-level business groups say that while employers want to keep their workers safe, some of these restrictions have been cumbersome and at times unrealistic, particularly for smaller businesses that are struggling to stay afloat. There are not just the added costs of protective supplies, but the increased labor costs as well: Workers are being redirected to police how many people are in a store and routinely wipe down surfaces.

One way that Oregon made these regulations easier for businesses is by phasing in requirements. The state adopted a temporary rule in November that has several elements that employers must comply with, including developing infection control plans, improving ventilation and notifying workers when someone contracts the coronavirus.

Paloma Sparks, Oregon Business Industry vice president and general counsel, said her organization convinced the state to gradually implement new rules instead of imposing them all at once. Some of the requirements, like servicing HVAC systems, can be challenging for small businesses that won’t have someone on staff to do the work.

“We want to make sure our employees are safe and healthy, and we’ve been very clear about that point throughout,” Sparks said. “The difficulty is that at this point in the pandemic, you’ve got businesses that are really struggling, they have limited resources, their staff are exhausted.”

Graham Trainor, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said he is hopeful the requirements will make a difference. Oregon had previously issued Covid-19 recommendations for employers to follow, but his union has seen countless examples of workers being “unnecessarily and dangerously” exposed to the virus.

The Oregon Health Authority found that, to date, workplace outbreaks of coronavirus have resulted in 11,139 cases and 61 deaths.

“There’s no question that there’s a correlation between cases on the rise, deaths from the virus, and the lack of workplace protections,” Trainor said.

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser for OSHA under President Barack Obama, said the incoming Biden administration should look to Virginia, the first state to issue emergency rules, and California, the most recent state to take action, as guides for creating national policy. Those states have some of the more comprehensive policies. She urged Biden to draft new standards as soon as possible.

“It’s an emergency,” said Berkowitz, who now works at the National Employment Law Project. “The only way we’re going to mitigate this disease is if we protect the workers at work.”

California has just implemented a stringent, 21-page emergency standard that covers everything from social distancing and ventilation protocols to employee notification and testing following an outbreak.

Robbins of Worksafe, the California group that lobbied for the emergency standard, said the state needed something that was more easily enforceable and gave clear expectations for employers.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Drive an appropriate speed for the conditions on the road,’” Robbins said. “It’s another to say, ‘You should go 35 miles per hour, no faster.’”

Some business groups have pushed back on the speed of California’s emergency rulemaking. Industry groups are already considering lawsuits to block the emergency regulation.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy released guidelines earlier in the pandemic related to worker protection. But a coalition of labor groups waged a six-month campaign urging the governor to take further action to mandate these rules, and create a process in which workers can actually report violations. Murphy eventually committed to signing an executive order that did just that in late October.

“Like so much else where Washington has failed to lead, New Jersey will step up to fill the void,” Murphy said.

About the Author: Katherine Landergan covers the state budget, tax policy and labor issues for POLITICO New Jersey.

About the Author: Katy Murphy covers consumer regulations with a focus on data privacy for POLITICO California. 

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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As Covid Surges, Doctors Are Striking Against “Retail Health”

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We’re back with Sea­son Four of Work­ing Peo­ple! In this urgent episode, we talk with Dr. Amir Atabey­gi, a physi­cian at Mul­ti­Care Indi­go Urgent Care in Thurston Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton. On Novem­ber 23, amid a ter­ri­fy­ing surge in COVID-19 cas­es around the coun­try, Dr. Atabey­gi joins his fel­low physi­cians, physi­cian assis­tants, and advanced reg­is­tered nurse prac­ti­tion­ers on the pick­et line as they strike for the basic safe­ty mea­sures their employ­er refus­es to pro­vide. We talk to Dr. Atabey­gi about what he and his cowork­ers face on the job, the rise of ?“retail health” com­pa­nies like Mul­ti­Care Health Sys­tems, and the grow­ing labor con­scious­ness of tra­di­tion­al­ly non-union­ized health­care workers.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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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Think about who doesn’t get a Thanksgiving, and who’s to blame, this week in the war on workers

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We’re heading into Thanksgiving week, and we’re hearing a lot of discussion of how people are—or aren’t—staying safe, from solitary living to plans for large gatherings and everything in between. We also need to be talking about how this holiday season kicks off after 35 straight weeks of a million or more people applying for unemployment insurance, and with Republicans still blocking the aid working people need in the COVID-19 economy.

Coronavirus rates are rising and it’s more important than ever for people to stay home as much as they can. But that would mean paying them so they could afford to do so, rather than being driven out to scrounge for whatever work they can find, however unsafe it may be. Congress won’t do that, and major companies are showing how little they value their workers. So on Thanksgiving, think about the people who can’t have a holiday not just because they can’t see family and friends, but because they are struggling to buy food and stay housed. And, just as important, think about why that is and who’s to blame.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Lawsuit over meatpacking worker’s COVID-19 death alleges truly grotesque abuses

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This is sickening. We’ve known that the meatpacking industry has acted with callous disregard for its workers’ lives in the coronavirus pandemic, keeping them on the job in unsafe conditions. But according to a lawsuit by the family of the late Isidro Fernandez, it’s worse than that. At the Tyson pork processing plant where Fernandez worked in Iowa, the family alleges, supervisors and managers placed bets on how many workers would get COVID-19.

That winner-take-all betting pool rooting against the health of workers in the plant was organized by one manager, Iowa Capital Dispatch reports. Another manager called COVID-19 a “glorified flu” and “not a big deal,” and said “everyone is going to get it.” He did his part to make sure everyone got it, too, by at one point ordering a sick supervisor to skip testing and stay at work, because “We all have symptoms—you have a job to do.”

Managers offered attendance bonuses, giving sick workers an incentive to stay on the job, and lied about COVID-19 cases in the plant. At the same time, Tyson and other meatpacking companies were lobbying state governments as well as the Trump administration to get support in staying open and fending off lawsuits.

We shouldn’t have to hear about betting pools to understand how badly the meatpacking industry has treated its workers—its largely immigrant, vulnerable, underpaid workers. The numbers tell the story: tens of thousands of coronavirus cases and hundreds of deaths, at a minimum, and lawsuits and complaints describing disgusting, unsafe practices in the plants. But when you think about it, it makes sense that the managers carrying out policies disregarding the health and safety of their workers and communities would also be putting that contempt into words directed at individuals. A policy that people should keep working even if they’re sick and pressure on individuals to skip testing and work sick go hand in hand. It’s not a giant step from taking it as your job to make people work sick and spread the virus to their coworkers to betting on how successful your push to infect large numbers of people will be.

And all of this was enabled by the Trump administration again and again, with top officials blaming workers for getting sick rather than pointing a finger at managers and forcing the companies to improve safety measures and, in case of serious outbreaks, shut down plants.

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos on November 18, 2020.  Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Meatpacking Workers Say Attendance Policies Force Them to Work With Covid-19 Symptoms

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In April, despite his fever, a meat­pack­ing work­er con­tin­ued to carve neck bones out of pig car­cass­es at a JBS plant in Iowa.

Two weeks lat­er, he would test pos­i­tive for COVID-19. But in the mean­time, he said, he kept clock­ing in because of a puni­tive atten­dance sys­tem wide­ly used in meat­pack­ing plants: the point system.

Under the pol­i­cy, work­ers usu­al­ly receive a point or points for miss­ing a day. If they gain enough points, they’re fired.

For a few months ear­li­er this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods sus­pend­ed its point sys­tem, and Smith­field Foods said it has halt­ed its ver­sion for the time being.

How­ev­er, the point sys­tem has endured at Tyson and JBS plants through­out the pan­dem­ic, and it has con­tin­ued to coerce peo­ple with poten­tial Covid-19 symp­toms into show­ing up to work, said plant employ­ees, their fam­i­ly mem­bers, activists and researchers.

“Peo­ple are afraid now to lose points, and they start to go to work even when they’re sick,” Alfre­do, a machine oper­a­tor in a Tyson poul­try plant in Arkansas, said through an inter­preter. He asked to be iden­ti­fied only by his first name out of fear of retribution. 

“If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep work­ing,” he con­tin­ued. ?“If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home.”

Spokes­peo­ple for the country’s two biggest meat pro­cess­ing com­pa­nies said employ­ees are encour­aged to stay home while ill.

“Our cur­rent atten­dance pol­i­cy encour­ages our peo­ple to come to work when they’re healthy and instructs them to stay home with pay if they have symp­toms of Covid-19 or have test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mick­el­son said. 

“Regard­less of our atten­dance pol­i­cy, at no point dur­ing the pan­dem­ic have we assessed atten­dance points against team mem­bers for absences due to doc­u­ment­ed ill­ness,” JBS spokes­woman Nik­ki Richard­son said.

Still, the point sys­tem has like­ly con­tributed to the virus’s spread, said Jose Oli­va, co-founder of the HEAL Food Alliance, a non-prof­it that orga­nizes food indus­try workers.

“It’s prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter prop­a­ga­tors for the coro­n­avirus that we’ve seen,” he said. ?“It’s absolute­ly dis­as­trous to have a point sys­tem in the midst of a pandemic.”

Work­ers at one Tyson plant and two JBS plants said the only way they can stay home with­out penal­ty is if they test pos­i­tive for the dis­ease. They are required to go to work if they’re wait­ing for test results, they said. 

Once he test­ed pos­i­tive, the Iowa work­er, 50, was allowed to miss work with­out rack­ing up points, he said. He request­ed anonymi­ty because he fears los­ing his job.

Com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion is that many work­ers strug­gle to access test­ing or avoid Covid-19 tests due to the cost, wait times and fear of being tar­get­ed by immi­gra­tion author­i­ties, work­ers and advo­cates said.

The point sys­tem varies from plant to plant.

At the JBS plant in Gree­ley, Colo., where about 300 work­ers have con­tract­ed the virus, employ­ees can rack up six points before they’re fired, accord­ing to a doc­u­ment shared by the local chap­ter of the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers union. 

At a JBS plant in Mar­shall­town, Iowa, it’s sev­en points, and at a Tyson poul­try plant in Arkansas, where hun­dreds of work­ers have fall­en ill, it’s 14 points, accord­ing to screen­shots and pho­tos shared by meat­pack­ing work­ers in those plants. 

At the Tyson plant, the company’s gen­er­al atten­dance pol­i­cy notes that ?“approval of pre­arranged absences is based upon the busi­ness needs of the Com­pa­ny.” Even if work­ers give the plant prop­er noti­fi­ca­tion that they’ll miss a day, they receive a point, accord­ing to a copy of the atten­dance pol­i­cy.

Mick­el­son said the doc­u­ment did not accu­rate­ly reflect the company’s atten­dance pol­i­cy dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, as work­ers have been encour­aged to remain home if they’re sick. 

The point system’s enforce­ment can also depend on the super­vi­sor. They can bend the rules for employ­ees with whom they have a good rela­tion­ship, work­ers said.

While requir­ing employ­ees to wear masks and installing plas­tic bar­ri­ers between work­ers can reduce the trans­mis­sion of the virus, the dis­ease will keep spread­ing if plants don’t iso­late and quar­an­tine sick work­ers, said Shelly Schwed­helm, exec­u­tive direc­tor of emer­gency man­age­ment and bio­pre­pared­ness at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Med­ical Center.

To curb the virus’s spread, ?“get rid of the point sys­tem and don’t deter peo­ple from call­ing in ill,” she said.

After the Iowa meat­pack­ing work­er test­ed pos­i­tive, he stayed home for two weeks before return­ing to the plant. 

Dur­ing the day, he did jump­ing jacks in his base­ment in hopes of strength­en­ing his body enough to fight the virus and recit­ed gasp­ing prayers over the phone with his pas­tor. At night, he walked alone through his desert­ed neigh­bor­hood, wor­ried he wouldn’t wake up again if he fell asleep.

He said the com­pa­ny is ?“mak­ing us go back to work because some damn hogs got to die. But they don’t care about human life. They care more about the damn hogs than they do about people.”

New sys­tem for the pandemic

Before the pan­dem­ic, the JBS plant in Gree­ley allowed 7.5 points before a fir­ing. Now, it’s six, said Kim Cor­do­va, pres­i­dent of UFCW Local 7, the union that rep­re­sents the plant’s 3,000 workers.

“The atten­dance pol­i­cy became even more restric­tive,” she said.

Six work­ers died at the plant, mak­ing it one of the dead­liest pub­licly report­ed meat­pack­ing plant out­breaks in the coun­try, accord­ing to Mid­west Cen­ter track­ing.

Sick employ­ees can only recoup points at the Gree­ley plant if they have a doctor’s note and if they call into an Eng­lish-only atten­dance hot­line, a prob­lem for a work­force that speaks more than 38 lan­guages, Cor­do­va said.

To remove points from their record, work­ers must sub­mit to the union screen­shots of their call his­to­ry to the hot­line. Many work­ers find it to be a con­vo­lut­ed process, Cor­do­va said.

“They’ll give the point, and then the work­er has to fight to have it removed,” she said. ?“They make it real­ly dif­fi­cult to call in while sick, so work­ers are com­pelled to come into work even if they’re symptomatic.”

Richard­son, JBS’s spokes­woman, said their new point sys­tem is more for­giv­ing now because it allows work­ers to miss mul­ti­ple days in a row. The com­pa­ny reset all its employ­ees’ points to zero in late July, she said.

Tyson tem­porar­i­ly relaxed its point sys­tem in March but brought it back in June, even as case counts swelled.

The tim­ing of Tyson’s deci­sion was no coin­ci­dence, said Don Stull, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas who has researched meat­pack­ing for 35 years.

“As that ini­tial atten­tion being focused on the indus­try began to wane, they start­ed try­ing to run as near to pre-pan­dem­ic lev­els as they could. So they need­ed as many work­ers as they could get,” he said.

Mick­el­son, Tyson’s spokesman, said Stull’s claim was not true.

Few oth­er opportunities 

Large meat­pack­ing plants are often in rur­al areas with­out many jobs oppor­tu­ni­ties. That leaves work­ers in a bind when deal­ing with the point sys­tem, work­ers and advo­cates said.

Eric Lopez, a sales man­ag­er at U.S. Cel­lu­lar, said his moth­er works at the JBS plant in Mar­shall­town. A Mex­i­can immi­grant with no for­mal edu­ca­tion who doesn’t speak Eng­lish, she had few jobs avail­able to her in Mar­shall­town oth­er than the pork plant, he said. 

She knows peo­ple with symp­toms have con­tin­ued show­ing up to work, he said, and it’s caused her to break down after com­ing home from work because she fears catch­ing the virus.

For decades, the meat­pack­ing indus­try has relied on immi­grant, minor­i­ty and poor work­ers, a demo­graph­ic that activists and researchers said the pri­mar­i­ly white meat­pack­ing exec­u­tives have exploited. 

“Com­pa­nies are run by old, white guys who think of work­ers as a piece of machin­ery,” said Joe Hen­ry, the polit­i­cal direc­tor for the League of Unit­ed Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens of Iowa, a His­pan­ic civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tion. ?“They see them as peo­ple with dif­fer­ent skin col­ors and dif­fer­ent lan­guages that they can just go ahead and treat like animals.” 

Tyson and JBS strong­ly denied this characterization.

“That is com­plete­ly untrue,” said JBS’s Richard­son, whose response echoed Tyson’s. ?“We have done every­thing pos­si­ble to both pro­tect and sup­port our team mem­bers dur­ing this chal­leng­ing time.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heather Schlitz is a senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign where she stud­ies jour­nal­ism, glob­al stud­ies and East Asian lan­guages and cul­tures. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Heather report­ed on cli­mate change and the envi­ron­ment as a Dow Jones Data Jour­nal­ism intern at AccuWeath­er and has spent three years writ­ing about sci­ence news for the stu­dent news­pa­per and the Uni­ver­si­ty News Bureau.


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What the workplace will look like under a Biden White House

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The U.S. workplace will look much different with Joe Biden in the Oval Office — with some significant changes possible even if Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.

“Biden, who won the endorsement of almost every major union in the country, has made labor reform a fundamental part of his program and is widely expected to name at least one union leader to his Cabinet,” your host reports. And “as the coronavirus pandemic continues to stoke permanent job losses and compromise worker safety, the case for structural change may be stronger than ever.”

What Biden can do will to some extent depend on which party controls the Senate, which won’t be determined until a pair of key Georgia runoffs in early January. “Still, the transition will be a sharp turn from the Trump White House, under which union membership has droppedpay inequity has widened and enforcement has dwindled.”

Here’s some of what you can expect:

— Heightened worker safety enforcement: One of the first things a Biden administration will likely do is instruct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to step up worker safety enforcement by enacting an emergency temporary standard, or a set of guidelines governing how employers must protect their employees from Covid-19. He’s also likely to ramp up penalties for violators.

— A reversal of Trump executive orders: Biden will be able to immediately rescind some of President Donald Trump’s executive orders — including those restricting employment-based visasbanning diversity training in the federal government and peeling back civil service protections — as well as reinstate Obama-era executive orders that Trump had undone.

— A more labor-friendly NLRB: The former vice president is widely expected to appoint more Democrats to the National Labor Relations Board, the agency responsible for settling disputes between unions and employers. Right now, it’s three Republicans, one Democrat — and an empty seat.

— Pursuit of progressive labor policy: Biden campaigned heavily on enacting Democratic labor legislation similar to that passed out of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House in 2020 and 2019, including a measure to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize. This, of course, will hinge on the balance of power in the upper chamber, as many of the provisions are opposed by Republicans.

Union leaders rejoice: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ victory in this free and fair election is a win for America’s labor movement,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. Said AFSCME President Lee Saunders: “[C]ome January 20, we will have a White House that honors our work, respects our sacrifice and fights for the aid to states, cities and towns that we need.”

WHO WILL BE BIDEN’S LABOR SECRETARY? There are already several names in rotation as Biden’s transition team gets to work, our Megan Cassella reports.

“Biden is widely expected to choose a more progressive candidate to lead the Labor Department, one that would help balance out more moderate nominees he’s expected to place at other agencies,” she writes.

“Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer who also has Labor Department experience, is high on the list of potential nominees, as is California Labor Secretary Julie Su. Levin comes from a potentially vulnerable district, however, and Democrats may be wary of a special election there, given their unexpectedly narrow control of the House.”

“Other possibilities for Biden’s Labor secretary include DNC Chairman and former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who POLITICO reported is interested in the position.”

CALIFORNIA’S PROP 22 GIVES GIG COMPANIES A NEW ROAD MAP: The success of a California ballot measure allowing Uber, Lyft and other gig companies’ drivers to be independent contractors — while still enjoying a few employee-like perks — may provide employers with a model to use across the country, Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson reports.

Proposition 22 promises drivers “a guaranteed minimum pay rate while they’re assigned a task; a review process for terminations; and health stipends if they work enough hours,” he writes. “A University of California at Berkeley analysis concluded that after accounting for full expenses and wait times, the proposition’s pay guarantee is worth less than $6 an hour. (The companies dispute this.)”

“The companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads … [and] it was money well spent. Uber and Lyft alone gained more than $10 billion in market value after the vote, and defanged a recent state court injunction that would have required them to reclassify their drivers as employees.”

“The companies don’t plan to stop there,” Eidelson writes. “‘You’ll see us more loudly advocate for new laws like Prop 22,’ Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said on a Nov. 5 earnings call. DoorDash CEO Tony Xu said in a statement: ‘We’re looking ahead and across the country, ready to champion new benefits structures that are portable, proportional, and flexible.’”

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

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


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