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Meatpacking industry got its way on COVID-19 policies, and workers died

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When the meatpacking industry was hit with major coronavirus outbreaks back in the spring, there was no question about making workers’ lives a priority—it was always out of the question. This is an industry with high injury rates and low wages for its vulnerable population of workers, with its many people of color and immigrants. Industry executives have built their careers on harming people. So when local public health departments and outcry over hundreds of COVID-19 cases threatened to close meatpacking plants, the industry asked for help from the federal government. And since Donald Trump was in the White House, that help came almost immediately, without any consultation of any group besides industry lobbyists and executives.

USA Today reports that Trump’s executive order keeping meatpacking plants open came just a week after a meat industry lobby group provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture with … very similar language for such an executive order. The North American Meat Institute’s defense boils down to “hey, we offer language for exactly what we want all the time.” But the federal government doesn’t usually use such language so directly or quickly, without input from other stakeholders, experts say.

According to Adam Culver, an attorney at Public Citizen, emails between Team Trump and the industry show a “degree of collaboration” that’s “astounding.” 

“Wealthy interest groups lobby decision makers in Washington all the time,” James Brudney, a professor at Fordham Law School and former U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor chief counsel, told USA Today. “They might get a draft from industry, but it wouldn’t just sail through because there would be other parties involved. That seems not to have happened here.”

Meanwhile, meatpacking plants have been tied to more than 40,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 200 workers have died, and the federal government has issued just two small fines. In one of those cases, Smithfield closed a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant after 350 positive cases, then used Trump’s executive order to reopen a few weeks later. By now, that plant has had 1,300 workers get sick, and four die. The company was fined about $13,000 for those workers’ deaths, in yet another message that the Trump administration does not care about the lives of meatpacking workers.

“These tiny fines are nothing to [meat plant owners]. They give an incentive to make these workers work faster and harder in the most unsafe working conditions imaginable,” Kim Cordova, the local union president at the other plant Trump’s OSHA bothered to fine, told The Washington Post. But why would we expect the government to fine companies for behavior that it had essentially signed off on in advance?

”To have government regulatory agencies intervene in a public health matter on behalf of a business interest is appalling,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law, said. “As a result, people die. It’s not just an ethical breach or something that’s a sterile issue of good governance, which it is. It also costs people’s lives, and that’s unforgivable.”

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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How Worker Safety Starts With Facilities Construction And Intelligent Design

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Worker safety is a top concern for facilities everywhere. While safety training and precautions can go a long way towards ensuring workers’ safety, safety really begins with a facility’s initial design and construction.  

If a facility is haphazardly designed, no amount of safety training can combat that. But what sort of design decisions make a work environment safer than another? In today’s work environment, workers regularly have to battle a wide range of various issues. 

From air pollution to privacy concerns, to mental health and traditional OSHA standard safety hazards, today’s workforce is fraught with dangers. While there’s no way to eliminate risks completely, there’s a lot we can do to mitigate them. 

It all starts with being proactive from the beginning. Using intelligent design, forward-thinking, and new materials, it’s possible to construct facilities that are aesthetically appealing, cost-effective, and safe. 

Let’s look at three areas where material, construction, and design choices can significantly impact workers’ safety. 

While glass doesn’t seem like the most pertinent part of a building’s construction, in many commercial offices, warehouses, and other structures, glass is a prevalent material. It’s a material, that if improperly handled during construction or underthought during planning, can present many safety hazards. 

Just at face value, broken glass presents physical hazards. Broken glass can be contaminated with chemicals. Plus, cuts and blood can promote the spread of infectious diseases. Anyone who has to handle broken glass should do so with gloves and take appropriate precautions. 

However, we’re talking about prevention. The best way to avoid broken glass is to design and purchase high-quality glass from the beginning. Don’t cut corners with cheaper glass for windows, dividers, and décor. 

But glass also prevents other safety hazards. Many office buildings use glass in their offices as walls. While it makes the building feel nice and open, it unfortunately eliminates privacy. Privacy, especially when dealing with personal information, is a worker safety concern. With thoughtful design, you can use things like Avanti glass office wall partitions, to ensure a high level of privacy for sensitive matters. 

Window Safety

While many things that we’ve said about glass can translate to windows, the windows deserve a section all on their own. Windows need to be correctly installed, because improperly installed windows can lead to some disastrous safety concerns. This is especially true with windows on the upper floors. 

However, windows are also crucial for bringing in natural light. It’s well-documented that one of the most significant hazards facing the modern-day worker is mental health safety. 83% of US workers suffer from stress-related to work. More shockingly, stress causes $190 billion in yearly healthcare costs and results in 120,000 deaths per year. 

It’s imperative to understand mental health’s impact on worker safety. One way to mitigate those risks is with wide-open windows. Studies show that natural light decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. So, it’s critical to design a building with plenty of windows for natural light. 

Additionally, windows are a prime area for air pollution to sneak into any facility. To mitigate these risks, it’s essential to design a building with something like AMC’s industrial louvers, which help to block air pollution. Louvers also help to dissuade direct sunlight. So, workers don’t have to worry about blinding sunlight to reap the benefits of some natural rays. 

Floor Drainage Safety 

You might be alarmed to know that 26% of nonfatal injuries in the workplace are because of a slip, trip, or fall. In fact, in 2016, falls caused 702 workplace deaths. While some of the issues were training issues or faulty machinery, some injuries are a direct result of standing water and slippery surfaces. 

These injuries could be avoided by proper planning in the construction phase. Namely, by incorporating proper drains and using flooring materials that prevent slips, a facility can be dramatically safer. For instance, having a driveway drainage system installed, like the one by SlotDrain, not only keeps your facilities driveway safe, it prevents erosion, foundation damage, and structural damage.

But, don’t stop with outdoor drainage systems, from the beginning of the design phase, if it’s appropriate, consider having drains inside the building, too. It’s also crucial to choose a non-slip flooring to maximize worker safety. 

Additionally, when it comes to drains, it’s imperative to keep them maintained and cleaned. Otherwise, you’ll run into a whole new slew of issues surrounding workers’ safety. 

Think Ahead to Prevent Worker Injury 

Everyone wants their facility to be a safe one. Whether you’re looking to design your facility, or you specialize in facility design, these three areas are fantastic starting points to get your brain thinking about worker safety from the beginning. Safety should be a preventative measure, not as a reactionary one. 

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the home building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.


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The Return of the Construction Industry Has Brought a Surge of Immigrant Worker Deaths

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The rush to keep building through the pandemic has compounded the risks for construction workers.

The recov­ery of the con­struc­tion indus­try in the Unit­ed States after the lock­downs imposed by the pan­dem­ic has been remark­able. Activ­i­ty in the indus­try, based on data on work­ers’ hours, returned since May to pre-lock­down lev­els in 34 states, and con­struc­tion spend­ing for the first six months of 2020 was 5% high­er than the same peri­od last year.

Yet the rush to keep on build­ing despite the pan­dem­ic has com­pound­ed the risks for con­struc­tion work­ers, who account for one in five work­place deaths in the Unit­ed States. The dan­gers are even high­er for non-union­ized day labor­ers, the vast major­i­ty of whom are immi­grants from Latin America.

“Sad­ly, employ­ers see us as dis­pos­able objects,” says Guadalupe Jiménez, a 48-year-old con­struc­tion work­er who emi­grat­ed from Mex­i­co to New York City four years ago. Jiménez thinks that real estate devel­op­ers are now in a hurry.

“They want to get the job done soon and they don’t care if you have pro­tec­tive equip­ment,” she says. ?“What they want is pro­duc­tion, production.”

Con­struc­tion was allowed to resume in New York City on June 8. With­in six weeks, two day labor­ers were killed (Mario Salas and Wil­son Patri­cio López Flo­res, both from Latin Amer­i­ca) in sep­a­rate inci­dents, and three were injured.

“There are peo­ple from South Amer­i­ca who come here after pawn­ing their house deeds,” says Eduar­do Red­wood, a 60-year-old Ecuado­ri­an immi­grant who arrived in the Unit­ed States two decades ago. ?“But instead of com­ing here to work to make a liv­ing, they come here to die.”

Con­struc­tion work­ers’ deaths have spiked across the Unit­ed States. In 2018, the most recent year for which fig­ures are avail­able, 1,008 work­ers were killed nation­wide?—?the high­est fig­ure since at least 2008?—?com­pared to 971 in 2017. The New York Com­mit­tee for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health, a non­prof­it that issues what advo­cates con­sid­er a reli­able and con­sol­i­dat­ed annu­al tal­ly of deaths in the con­struc­tion indus­try, report­ed that 22con­struc­tion work­ers died in the city in 2018, an increase of 10% com­pared to 2017.

NYCOSH also report­ed that 86% of work­ers who died on pri­vate work­sites in 2017 were non-union. If his­to­ry is any guide, many of those work­ers were pre­sum­ably undoc­u­ment­ed immigrants.

New York state sen­a­tor Jes­si­ca Ramos says that the vast major­i­ty of deaths at con­struc­tion sites in the state are of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants. Many of those deaths are not con­sol­i­dat­ed in a sin­gle state registry.

Salas, a 59-year-old Mex­i­can immi­grant, died in Man­hat­tan on July 16. He was killed by a sus­pend­ed plat­form in a build­ing being worked on by Edras Group, a com­pa­ny with 43 cita­tions for safe­ty code vio­la­tions in the pre­vi­ous 10 years. His death could go unac­count­ed by the New York City Depart­ment of Build­ings. The agency man­dates only that employ­ers report only work­place fatal­i­ties involv­ing vio­la­tions of the city’s con­struc­tion code on build­ing sites. Deaths that do not involve city code vio­la­tions are report­ed instead to the fed­er­al Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA).

In 2018, employ­ers report­ed only one of the deaths in con­struc­tion sites in New York City to the Depart­ment of Build­ings. Ramos says that will prob­a­bly be Salas’ case. ?“Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, it’s as if he had nev­er existed.”

Real estate devel­op­ers and con­trac­tors?—?the mid­dle­men that direct­ly hire day labor­ers—have resist­ed efforts to count worker‘s fatal­i­ties accu­rate­ly. ?“It has been one of the ways in which undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers’ deaths have been kept clan­des­tine,” Ramos says. 

NYCOSH reg­is­tered 58 fatal­i­ties in New York state in 2018, down from 69 in 2017. 

Still, the real death toll num­ber is like­ly high­er due to coun­ty by coun­ty vari­ables, accord­ing to Ramos, who spon­sored a bill approved in July by the state leg­is­la­ture to estab­lish a reli­able count of con­struc­tion work­ers’ fatal­i­ties in the state.

Accord­ing to the bill sum­ma­ry, only 30 of the cas­es from 2017 tal­lied in the NYCOSH report were inves­ti­gat­ed by the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA).

Efforts to improve account­abil­i­ty have been resist­ed by devel­op­ers and con­trac­tors, says Nadia Marin-Moli­na, co-exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Nation­al Day Labor­er Orga­niz­ing Net­work, a grass­roots group found­ed in 2001.

Even though New York City man­dat­ed since 2019 that every con­struc­tion work­er receives a 30-hour train­ing from OSHA, com­pa­nies avoid pro­vid­ing it. Life-sav­ing train­ing for day labor­ers falls to non­prof­its, Marin-Moli­na says.

The sit­u­a­tion is ?“very sim­i­lar in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try,” Marin-Moli­na says. ?“In terms of dan­gers to the work­ers, it is very similar.”

A life worth $10,000

Immi­grants suf­fer recur­rent wage theft and are reg­u­lar­ly forced to work with­out train­ing or basic pro­tec­tive equip­ment such as har­ness­es and gloves, says Red­wood, speak­ing at a vig­il being held for Mario Salas in Manhattan.

If they com­plain, he says, the fore­men fire them on the spot. ?“They kick out work­ers as if they were dogs,” says Redwood.

If Edras Group is found crim­i­nal­ly respon­si­ble for Salas’ death, it will pay a fine to the state not exceed­ing $10,000—a con­struc­tion work­ers’ worth.

Pre­vi­ous cas­es sug­gest that would be a large amount. Accord­ing to New York state sen­a­tor James Sanders, of the more than 400,000 work­ers’ deaths reg­is­tered nation­wide by OSHA since 1970, few­er than 80 have been pros­e­cut­ed, and only about a dozen have led to con­vic­tions. That is rough­ly one con­vic­tion for every 33,000 fatal­i­ties, with a $1,000 penal­ty on average.

A bill spon­sored by Sanders, named after Car­los Mon­cayo, an immi­grant killed in Man­hat­tan in 2015, pro­pos­es fines of up to $50,000 for felonies in con­struc­tion sites. Ver­sions of ?“Car­los’ Law” have lan­guished in the Sen­ate ever since.

Sen­a­tor Ramos sug­gests the bill has not been approved because of the cor­rupt rela­tion­ship between state offi­cials and real estate com­pa­nies, which for a long time have been ?“mak­ing polit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions and buy­ing many of our col­leagues in government.”

Oth­er bills with tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits for con­struc­tion labor­ers have also been blocked. The SWEAT bill (short for Secur­ing Wages Earned Against Theft) passed the state leg­is­la­ture in 2019. It would allow work­ers to freeze their employer’s assets if they are cheat­ed out of their pay. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuo­mo vetoed it in January.

What makes con­struc­tion labor­ers’ sit­u­a­tion worse is that ?“the real estate indus­try is such a cen­ter of wealth in New York,” Marin-Moli­na says. 

Three days after Salas’ vig­il, jour­nal­ist David Siro­ta revealed that 43 of New York’s 118 bil­lion­aire fam­i­lies had donat­ed mon­ey to Cuomo’s cam­paigns and the state Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty com­mit­tee. Those donors includ­ed at least two real estate moguls (Alexan­der Rovt and Stephen Ross), accord­ing to New York records.

Inés Aré­va­lo, a 42-year-old elec­tri­cian who emi­grat­ed from Ecuador four years ago, has wit­nessed first-hand the dis­mal job con­di­tions for work­ers erect­ing the lux­u­ry con­do­mini­ums in Manhattan.

“I’ve seen col­leagues [have] acci­dents [because they’re] not using pro­tec­tive equip­ment,” Aré­va­lo says. ?“If they com­plain or denounce we know that they would fire them or sim­ply tell them: ?‘you are not from here, you have no rights.’”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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States scramble to contain Covid spikes without enough workers to track outbreaks

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The failure to stage the tracing workforce harks back to U.S. officials’ inability to build up adequate testing in the early days of the pandemic.

Severe shortages of public health workers to track disease spread helped fuel coronavirus spikes in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona and could make it harder to stamp out new hot spots.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has about 10 percent of the 15,000 workers needed to contain the outbreak in his state, according to one widely cited simulatorand plans to hire just 600 more. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has 3,000 of the 4,000 tracers he said he wanted to hire in late April. And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey called up 300 National Guard members to fill the surveillance gap, more than a month after he lifted his stay-at-home order.

The failure to stage the tracing workforce harks back to U.S. officials’ inability to build up adequate testing in the early days of the pandemic and is increasing the likelihood that states will be forced to shut down their economies again to stop serious disease spread.

“This [tracing] situation is a disaster,” Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), whose Phoenix-area district is being swamped with new cases, wrote in a letter to officials in Maricopa County and Ducey on Thursday. “From late March until early June, those who may have been exposed to an infected patient received no outreach at all from public health officials.”

Ashish Jha, faculty director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, said there’s been little real interest in building the testing, tracing and isolation needed to contain the coronavirus, making the model difficult to apply as rolling outbreaks cross the nation. States “don’t have anywhere near the testing and tracing capacity needed to really get this disease under control,” Jha said.

Public health officials two months ago estimated it would take at least 100,000 contact tracers to safely reopen the country. But CDC Director Robert Redfield told Congress last week that fewer than 30,000 have been hired so far to interview infected people, identify those with whom they’ve come into contact and persuade those people to self-quarantine.

Redfield told NPR in April that the country could not safely reopen until it scaled up contact tracing, warning, “We can’t afford to have multiple community outbreaks that can spiral up into sustained community transmission.”

The shortfall is being felt in places like North Carolina, another state that’s paused reopenings due to a surge in new cases, which has about 1,500 contact tracers. Health secretary Mandy Cohen told state lawmakers last Wednesday that their program is stretched thin and on Friday selected its first vendor to expand the workforce.

“State economies reopened too soon, and state and local public health departments did not have enough time to get their programs fully implemented,” said David Harvey, executive director of National Coalition of STD Directors, which is advising many states on contact tracing. “Now, they’re continuing to race against the clock to get contact tracing in place, and there’s nowhere near enough people to do the work. It’s really scary.”

Ducey on Thursday defended his efforts, saying Arizona did enhance its contact tracing capability during April’s stay-at-home order. But the spike in daily infections — which have quadrupled since mid-May — overwhelmed the state.

Maricopa County officials say there had been no delay in investigations until recently, when cases soared.

Critics say the failing stems from a lack of direction from the Trump administration, which has left reopening decisions to states and released guidance on contact tracing weeks after state efforts were launched. That’s left sizable state-to-state disparities in readiness.

“President Trump’s refusal to focus on testing and contact tracing and the general absence of any leadership led to disastrous failures in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement to POLITICO.

Democratic lawmakers are pushing the Trump administration to quickly distribute $8 billion Congress approved weeks ago to fortify contact tracing programs. While the administration has already released $11 billion for state testing and tracing, Democrats say further delay on the remaining funds has left states inadequately prepared to deal with new spikes in infections.

Reports from the front lines bear that out.

Jennifer Kertanis, the director of the Farmington Valley Health District in Canton, Conn., told POLITICO her department only received $40,000 in federal aid and was told that would have to do until next March.

“We’ve already pretty much spent all of that money on equipment to allow staff to work safely from home and on overtime,” she said. “We have not had the money to hire anybody. We’ve been training the existing staff that we have had and shuffling duties around. We’ve been using pen and paper and Excel spreadsheets because we’ve never had the resources to invest.”

Lawmakers in the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses last week grilled Redfield over the lack of federal leadership on contact tracing. He said the CDC is currently reviewing plans states developed. But several lawmakers pointed out that states were already using these plans and that assistance from the agency is too little, too late.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) told POLITICO she found the information “really worrisome.”

“Are they really leaving it up to the states to have a contact tracer plan? Who’s going to enforce a contact tracer plan?” she said. “As we know, the states vary so much in terms of whether they take COVID-19 seriously.”

The CDC did not respond to multiple requests for comment and did not say when the agency will give feedback on states’ plans.

Despite ongoing challenges with funding, logistics and federal support, some states have built successful programs.

Hawaii, which is now seeing only a handful of new infections, increased its contact tracing staff in the last month from around 80 to more than 300 — and more than 1,400 have signed up to be trained if needed.

Gov. David Ige told POLITICO that the state, learning from past outbreaks including SARS, has been able to track every positive case so far, and that the vast majority of individuals have been willing to share information about their contacts.

“People don’t want to get their friends and neighbors sick,” he said.

Oregon also has a robust program that is currently contacting more than 90 percent of new infections within 24 hours.

But elsewhere, officials are still putting together their tracing programs months after stay-at-home orders were lifted — and training new hires as spikes threaten to overwhelm local health systems. Even those states that have hired hundreds or thousands of people have struggled to find new infections quickly and elicit useful information.

In New York City, which opened restaurants on Monday, contact tracers last week received phone numbers for about 85 percent of newly infected people, but less than half of those people provided information on their recent contacts.

New Jersey, one of the hardest hit states, has brought on almost no new contact tracers since the pandemic began. The state has roughly 900 and needs somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday. The state’s digital platform to track the program is only running in two counties, so statewide data on how successful the program has been so far is not yet available.

Houston, the latest epicenter, is still working to hire and train 150 contact tracers by July 1.

Kirstin Short, chief of the Epidemiology Bureau at the Houston Health Department, told POLITICO that not only has her team struggled to handle the volume of cases, but it’s been a challenge to convince the Covid-positive people they reach to share information about those they may have exposed.

“Now that they know they’re sick, they might have some guilt over what they did in terms of going out and socializing,” she said.

Meanwhile, tracking apps once billed as a key tool in reopenings have largely flopped both in the U.S. and abroad. Among the barriers are low smartphone and Wi-Fi access among low-income communities and the elderly — two groups at the highest risk from the virus — poor information sharing between states and widespread distrust of big tech and government surveillance.

North Dakota, for instance, is pushing two different apps that purport to alert users when they were around someone who tested positive, but so far, only four percent of the population has downloaded it — far too little to be a useful public health tool.

Alexander Miamen, a contact tracer in Boston since March, said technology can play a role but it will only be successful if it’s supplemented by well-trained health workers who understand the people they are contacting.

“A high-tech app cannot express empathy,” he said. “One of the most vulnerable times in anyone’s life is when they are ill.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

About the Author: Alice Ollstein is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering the Capitol Hill beat. Prior to joining POLITICO, she covered federal policy and politics for Talking Points Memo.


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Cities Brace For ‘Collision Course’ Of Heat Waves And COVID-19

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Aaron McCullough brought his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, to a playground in a leafy neighborhood of Rochester, New York, on a day in mid-June when the temperature topped out at 94 degrees.

The playground is one of seven spray parks in the city that offer cooling water whenever temperatures exceed 85 degrees.

Except during a pandemic.

“I was hoping that one of these water parks could open up and at least spray a little bit of water on us,” McCullough said.

Instead, he said, sweat dripping off his face, “there’s no water around at all.”

All of the city’s spray parks and air-conditioned cooling centers were shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Gathering in close proximity and engaging in physically strenuous behavior like running around the spray park appears to be a likely possibility for transmission,” said city spokesperson Justin Roj.

McCullough had bought Ariana a milkshake before they came to the park. It melted in his hand as she played on the slide.

“We’re not staying much longer,” he said. “Maybe 10 more minutes. If there were water, we’d be here till sundown.”

Across the country, authorities are finding that their usual strategies for protecting people against heat-related health problems are in direct conflict with their strategies for containing the coronavirus — and with record-breaking temperatures already recorded in some places before summer even officially began, those conflicts are likely to become more frequent.

“COVID-19 and climate change are on a collision course,” said New York City Emergency Management Department spokesperson Omar Bourne.

“There is no question that the challenges we face this summer are unprecedented.”

The balance between preventing COVID-19 and preventing heat-related illnesses is a tough one, experts said.

“I am very grateful that I am not responsible for making that very complicated decision,” said Dr. Andrea Miglani, the medical director of the emergency department at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

The first symptoms of overheating cause what doctors call heat exhaustion. They include heavy sweating, elevated pulse, tiredness, weakness and dizziness.

“But it’s when we cross into heatstroke that we get really worried,” Miglani said. At that point, she said, the body loses its ability to control temperature. The pulse races, sweating stops and fever can cause brain damage.

Miglani said one hot day might result in a slight bump in heat-related hospitalizations, but several hot days can bring cumulative effects, and the death toll can climb. People with underlying health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and those older than 65, are especially at risk — just as with COVID-19.

Making matters worse, movie theaters, libraries and restaurants — places that are normally reliably air-conditioned respites on hot days — aren’t open in many parts of the country, said Miglani.

About 90% of households in the U.S. have air conditioning, according to federal census figures. But access is not evenly distributed. Poor and minority communities tend to suffer disproportionately during heat waves, but they have a much lower prevalence of air conditioning compared with richer, whiter neighborhoods.

The decision about whether and how to open cooling centers during the pandemic needs to happen on a local level, said Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist on the steering committee of the Global Heat Health Information Network.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines for cities and states to deal with the competing problems. Suggestions include offering more assistance for people to pay their utility bills so that they can maintain air conditioning at home, having fever checks for people at cooling centers and a separate room for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, and making masks and hand sanitizers available at the centers. Utility companies could also be required not to cut off anyone’s power during heat emergencies, the CDC suggests.

Across upstate New York, cities kept cooling centers closed earlier this month, even when temperatures surpassed 90 degrees.

In Los Angeles County, officials opened cooling centers when temperatures spiked, but they required masks and limited the number of people who could be inside at one time.

That might offer an example of how to cool off the people most vulnerable to heat-related health problems without drastically increasing the risk of COVID-19, Ebi said.

But, she acknowledged, what works in Los Angeles might not work in other places. “We’ve all got different infrastructure, different access to air conditioning, different public transport systems,” she said.

“The balance of risk is different everywhere,” Ebi said.

There is one piece of the puzzle that doctors said is the same everywhere: checking on friends, family and neighbors.

“This is another time when it’s important to emphasize the difference between social distancing and physical distancing,” said Miglani.

“Give them a call, leave them a note on their door, find out what you can do to help. A lot of times, very simple gestures can go a very long way,” she said.

This blog originally appeared at Kaiser Health News on June 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brett Dahlberg has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Brett grew up in Bremerton, Washington, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.


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Vague testing guidance hinders business reopenings

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Companies can require diagnostic coronavirus tests and temperature checks but the Trump administration hasn’t said when or how often to test.

Gaps in federal guidelines and ongoing fears about contaminated workplaces are keeping businesses from reopening the way the White House envisioned a month ago, when it shifted its pandemic message to an economic revival.

The Trump administration has said businesses can make diagnostic coronavirus tests and temperature checks a condition for returning to work. But it hasn’t answered key questions like when or how often to test workers or whether there should be a blanket testing policy for job seekers.

Now, employers worried about a do-it-yourself approach are asking Congress to give them broad legal protections in case workers or customers get Covid-19. And they’re bracing for the added cost of testing, hiring companies like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics to repeatedly screen their employees.

Critics blame the Trump administration for deferring too much decision-making to states and localities and leaving businesses hanging in its eagerness to reboot the economy.

“We’ve got different people in different places doing different things because there is no universal plan, no comprehensive plan to guide people, and I think that to me is very unacceptable,” said Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

The government’s top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, last week warned about the possibility of new hot spots if businesses don’t heed the existing recommendations and instead rush to reopen.

“We are going to see upticks in cases even in the best circumstances,” Fauci said on CNN. “Don’t start leapfrogging over some of the recommendations and the guidelines because that’s really tempting fate and asking for trouble.”

The testing picture is complicated by the fact that several federal agencies provide guidance on business planning during the pandemic, though their enforcement powers are limited.

No enforceable rules

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which polices workplace discrimination, said in April that employers can require workers to be tested, wear masks and have their temperatures checked as a condition of employment without running afoul of federal discrimination and disability law.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversees worker safety, often relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for technical expertise. But OSHA hasn’t issued a mandatory workplace safety standard for Covid-19, so whatever guidelines it and the CDC develop are largely unenforceable.

The agencies and others have moved to set guardrails for businesses coming back from lockdowns. New CDC guidelines for office buildings suggest employers step up disinfection of work spaces, promote distancing and screen for Covid-19 symptoms. FEMA separately announced the government will distribute non-contact infrared thermometers to support workplaces “with a high degree of person-to-person interaction.”

The landscape makes it possible for employers to make Covid-19 screening or testing a condition of employment, meaning they could delay a worker’s start date or withdraw a job offer if someone is shown to have symptoms, said Beth Alcalde, an attorney at the law firm Akerman LLP. However, the EEOC has cautioned an employer must screen all potential employees applying for the same job.

Beyond the evolving rules is the question of whether there are enough tests to even open critical segments of the economy. Experts including Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, have warned more than 900,000 daily tests are needed to safely reopen the country — more than double the amount being conducted today. A lack of basic supplies like swabs that bedeviled earlier efforts to contain the virus could again prove to be a roadblock.

“It was inadequate testing that precipitated the national shutdown,” Jha told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last month. “We must not make the same mistakes again as we open up our nation.”

Even blanket testing won’t guarantee that a business is free of Covid-19. Diagnostic tests can prove unreliable and can miss an infection. And antibody tests, once promoted as a vital tool for safely reopening the economy, are meant to identify who has been exposed to the virus, not active cases. The CDC says antibody tests should not be used to make decisions about employees returning to work.

“There is no way to be 100 percent certain that we’re not going to have a virus in the workplace no matter what you do,” said Jay Wohlgemuth, Quest’s chief medical officer.

Lawmakers aware of the limitations are working to insulate companies from legal claims. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the GOP is working to provide Covid-19 liability protections to companies that are sued for failing to protect their workers and customers from the illness.

Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are asking for “targeted liability relief” for businesses that work to follow the government’s guidelines.

Employers worry “about potential [legal] exposure if they do something that falls short of securing the safety and health of their population,” Alcalde said.

The CDC largely has avoided making recommendations when employees should be tested for an active coronavirus infection. But the agency says employers shouldn’t require sick employees to submit to a test or to produce a doctor’s note to qualify for sick leave or return to work.

Though the agency has taken steps like recommending facility-wide testing in nursing care facilities, it doesn’t have any corresponding guidance for businesses on testing employees. CDC spokesperson Jason McDonald told POLITICO it is up to state or local health departments to provide specific guidance to businesses on testing.

“Testing is a complex issue, and right now CDC doesn’t have the establishment-wide guidance to give an employer who’s interested in doing testing,” John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said during a worker safety hearing last week. “We may be coming out with more guidance on that issue, but right now we don’t have enough information.”

Commercial laboratories LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics have started return-to-work services, such as employee symptom screening and testing for active or past coronavirus infections to help businesses bring workers back on-site.

Quest’s Wohlgemuth told POLITICO the frequency of how often workers are screened should hinge on factors like the rates of transmission in a given community and the characteristics of jobs.

“It’s very different to be in an office with distance than to be an ER doctor or to be in a meat packing facility,” Wohlgemuth said.

Attorneys predict businesses will pick up the cost of testing, as well as giving workers the necessary time and ensuring the results are confidential.

Privacy issues

Civil liberties groups like the ACLU caution that widespread testing could still raise a host of privacy issues that keep workers and job seekers away.

“Privacy is not a side issue here, but it’s actually a core part of making the response to Covid effective,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst on technology-related privacy and civil liberties issues at the ACLU. “If people don’t feel that their privacy is being protected they will resist screening programs that they feel might threaten them.”

The CDC in its reopening guidelines states that if implementing health checks, businesses should “conduct them safely and respectfully, and in accordance with any applicable privacy laws and regulations. Confidentiality should be respected.”

Stanley recently warned that companies should “skeptically scrutinize all such products and proposals, especially where they have implications for our privacy or other civil liberties.”

“We don’t want to wake up into a post-Covid world where companies, employers or others feel like they have a permanent free hand to start collecting physiological data about people,” he told POLITICO.

The EEOC stresses that any data about workers or potential employees obtained through medical examinations must be kept confidential.

Wohlgemuth said Quest has developed an informed consent process for businesses to use to ensure employees understand how their health data will be used by employers for infection-control purposes. No personal health information will be shared with employers unless it is needed to drive a health and safety decision, Wohlgemuth said. “Even then, it’s held very tightly and we have processes in place to make sure that the identity of the person is only known when absolutely necessary,” he added.

Former EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, now a partner at Morgan Lewis, said the privacy aspect “is really not overly burdensome.”

If an employer wants to keep a record of that medical information, Feldblum says they “just need to make sure that that information is not in that employee’s personnel record, and just kept separately, as a medical record.”

But Feldblum cautions that employers should keep in mind that they do have to try to accommodate those who have disability or other concerns with procedures like wearing face masks and, if necessary, provide an unpaid leave of absence.

Companies including Ford Motor Company announced recently that they would provide Covid-19 testing for employees showing symptoms at its plants in Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. The car manufacturer has recently shut down plants for cleaning after workers tested positive in Chicagoand Kansas City.

Casino companies MGM, Caesars Entertainment and Boyd Gaming also recently announced a Covid-19 testing policy for their employees.

The Culinary Workers Union, which represents thousands of workers at Las Vegas casinos and hotels, is pushing the Nevada Gaming Control Board and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to adopt their recommended public health guidelines for the industry that include testing employees for Covid-19.

But for all the precautions, employers won’t be able to make their employees take a vaccine for Covid-19 once one is ready.

The EEOC cautions that federal disability and anti-discrimination law bars such a requirement for a flu vaccine due to a worker’s potential medical conditions or religious beliefs.

“Employers should consider simply encouraging employees to get the influenza vaccine rather than requiring them to take it,” the agency recommends.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 2, 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. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

About the Author: David Lim is a health care reporter at POLITICO focused on covering the policy, regulation and politics that affect the medical device industry and the Food and Drug Administration. Before joining POLITICO, David helped launch Industry Dive’s MedTech Dive and worked at Inside Washington Publishers’ FDA Week. A fan of the Mountain Goats, he enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and rock climbing in his spare time.


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Capitalism vs. Safety, Health: An Old Story Again

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The U.S. president recently ordered meatpacking employees back into workplaces plagued by coronavirus. He did not order the employers to make their slaughterhouses safe. GOP-proposed legislation exempts employers from lawsuits by employees sickened or killed by coronavirus infections at workplaces. The GOP is mostly silent about requiring employers to maintain safe or healthy workplaces. Employers across the country threaten workers who refuse to return to jobs they find unsafe. They demand that employees return or risk being fired. Job loss likely means loss of health insurance for employees’ families. Being fired risks also losing eligibility for unemployment insurance.

Employers are now going to extremes to evade the costs of safe and healthy workplaces. Recently, New Orleans’ authorities and their contractors fired their $10.25 per hour garbage collectors after a short strike. The strikers had demanded protective equipment against garbage possibly infected with the coronavirus and also $15 per hour “hazard” pay. New Orleans replaced the striking workers by contracting for nearby prison inmates paid $1.33 per hour and individuals from halfway houses. Capitalism’s iron fist hits the working class with this “choice”: unsafe job, or poverty, or slave labor with both.

Capitalism has always struggled to minimize outlays on workplace safety and health. Workers have protested this wherever capitalism became the prevailing economic system over the last three centuries. Upton Sinclair’s popular book, The Jungle, published over a century ago, exposed spectacularly unsafe and unhealthy conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The 1906 passages of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act responded to public outrage over that industry’s working conditions. Coronavirus infection rates among employees of U.S. pork processing plants as high as 27 percent illustrate how employers forever “economize” on workplace health and safety.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the U.S. Department of Labor was established in 1970. It sought to add more systematic federal government supervision and inspection to the regulations pressing employers to provide safe and healthy workplace conditions. Its mixed successes attest to the lengths employers will go to evade, weaken, or ignore efforts to enforce workers’ safety and health.

The profit-driven logic of capitalist enterprises incentivizes not spending capital on workplace safety and health conditions unless and until they deteriorate to the point of threatening profits. Capitalists and mainstream economics textbooks repeat endlessly that profit is every enterprise’s “bottom line.” Profitability measures each firm’s economic performance. Profits reward employers; losses punish them. Employers use capital to yield profits; that is their chief goal and priority. As objectives, workplace safety and health are secondary, tertiary or worse: obstacles to maximizing profits.

Capitalism has always sacrificed the safety and health of the employee majority to boost profits of its employer minority. That minority makes all the key enterprise decisions and excludes the employee majority from that decision-making. No wonder employers figure disproportionally among society’s rich, safe, and healthy, while employees figure disproportionally among the poor, unsafe, and unhealthy. Capitalism displays not only extreme inequalities of wealth and income, but also all their derivative inequalities: economic, political, and cultural. Pandemics expose and worsen them all.

In some times and places, capitalism’s iron fist wears velvet gloves. When profits are high and/or critics of capitalism ally strongly with its victims, employers may spend more on making workplaces less unsafe and less unhealthy. Otherwise, employers can and do spend less. If and when they fail to prevent government regulations mandating minimum health and safety standards, employers campaign to evade, weaken, and eventually repeal them. Employers usually repeat the same old arguments to block or undo regulations mandating safety and health standards. Such regulations, they insist, divert capital from productive uses (hiring workers) to “unproductive” uses (improving workers’ health and safety). Thus fewer workers will be hired, hurting the employee class. With such arguments employers have often succeeded and undermined workplace safety and health.

Capitalism’s long record of maintaining nearly constant unemployment—its “reserve army”—not only got workers to accept lower wages for fear of being replaced by more desperate unemployed. Unemployment also got employed workers to accept unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. Unemployment is a kind of torture by one class of another. It helps maintain lower wages and unsafe and unhealthy worksites. That is one reason why reduced labor needs are managed, in capitalism, not by keeping everyone employed but for fewer hours per week. That option is not generally chosen because firing a portion of the workforce—depriving those unfortunates of jobs—better disciplines workers to accept what they might otherwise reject.

In today’s situation, employers and the government, equally unprepared for the virus, did too little too late to prevent a dangerous pandemic. Sudden mass lockdowns led to mass unemployment. Expensive reconfiguring for social distancing, mass testing, cleaning and disinfection, etc., might have rendered jobsites safe and healthy. Instead, employers and their political spokespersons press employees back into unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. A “reopening the economy” is ordered. Employers get to impose unsafe and unhealthy workplaces by reframing the process as a patriotic return to a noble, national “work ethic.” Employers are counting on this sham drama now.

Consider this historic parallel: capitalists in the U.S. and elsewhere once regularly employed children as young as five years old. Their jobs’ safety and health conditions were mostly inadequate and often deplorable. Their pay fell well below that of adults. They suffered injury as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Schooling was neglected if not altogether absent. Yet capitalists insisted that economic well-being and prosperity required their access to child labor. Ending it would bring economic decline possibly “worse” than child labor. A reasonable “trade-off” was required. Employers argued that poor families needed and welcomed incomes from employed children. Employers also insisted, then as now, that they had spent all they could and all that was needed to provide adequately safe and healthy work conditions.

Working-class responses to child labor took time to develop the necessary understanding and political power. Once they did, child labor was doomed. Working-class parents confronted capitalists with a non-negotiable demand: overcome the horrors of child labor by ending it. Employers would have to find other ways to profit. Many did even as many others moved abroad where child labor is still allowed. They still do.

Today’s parallel non-negotiable demand: end unsafe and unhealthy workplaces. That requires differently organized workplaces. The majority, employees, must control their safety and health. It must be a higher priority than profit for the minority of owners, boards of directors, etc. Once again we meet society’s need for transition to a worker-coop based economy.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at democracyatwork.info.


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Workers turn to courts and states for safety protection as Trump declines to act

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Rebecca Rainey

President Donald Trump can force meatpacking plants to stay open during the pandemic, but his own administration hasn’t required employers to provide safety equipment to prevent the virus’ spread.

Now, workers in a range of industries are looking to states, Congress and the courts to step in.

A judge this week ordered leading meat company Smithfield to follow federal safety recommendations at a plant in Missouri, and labor advocates hope to use the lawsuit as a model to force companies in other sectors to protect workers.

They’re also asking Democratic lawmakers to make safety standards a part of the next round of coronavirus relief. In addition, they’re turning to state governments to enforce such protections.

The moves follow weeks of sparring with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an arm of the Labor Department. OSHA has recommended employers to encourage hand washing and practice routine disinfecting, and it has issued safety guidelines for specific industries.

But those are merely guidelines, and some local OSHA offices have declined to enforce even the most basic recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When OSHA does open an investigation into workplace safety, the process takes weeks or months to resolve.

The White House, however, issued an executive order on Tuesdaynightto keep meat plants open to minimize disruptions in the food supply.

“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on — as they should have and still must do — this would not even have become an issue.”

Labor union leaders say the federal government’s and companies’ responses to the pandemic have been inconsistent, creating hazards for those in industries deemed essential.

“Thousands of workers have died and are sick. If that’s not necessary, I don’t know what is,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Tuesday. “The government’s response has been delinquent, delayed, disorganized, chaotic and deadly.”

As a result, workers across various industries that are at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus are using their unions to negotiate for greater protections and are pressing state leaders to lead efforts. According to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, more than 16,000 workers have already fallen ill, and hundreds have died from Covid-19.

In New Jersey, workers at the Barnes & Noble distribution center in Monroe delivered a petition to Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday asking that he close the facility for two weeks due to reported cases of the coronavirus among employees. At least 100 of the 800 employees at the Middlesex County warehouse have signed the petition, according to organizers.

Unions representing roughly 10,000 correction officers, captains and wardens in New York City recently filed a lawsuit arguing the city is putting their health and safety in danger by requiring officers work 24-hour shifts and return from sick leave without first getting a negative Covid-19 test.

Dozens of McDonald’s workers organized by the union-backed Fight For $15 movement have gone on strike at restaurants in Los Angeles, ChicagoTampa, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., among other cities, over a lack of protective equipment and sick leave.

And earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers and grocery chain Kroger called on federal and state officials to designate associates at grocery stores as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel” so they could receive priority access to personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

Businesses have cautioned against issuing binding new rules.

In a letter Tuesday to local and federal leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged lawmakers “to refrain from converting public health and safety guidance into regulations that may add further challenges for businesses to reopen.”

The Smithfield lawsuit, filed by a local nonprofit advocating for worker rights and an anonymous longtime plant employee, is the first of its kind seeking to use the courts to force companies to abide by federal guidelines to protect workers operating in dangerous conditions.

Twenty meatpacking and processing workers have died from the coronavirus. At least 6,500 have tested positive for Covid-19, showed symptoms, missed work or been hospitalized, according to UFCW, which represents 1.3 million across the country.

The lawsuit, filed last week, underscores the weakness of the federal government’s ability to quickly police worker safety, even in a time of crisis. OSHA confirmed it has started an investigation into the Missouri plant, but it could take weeks before the plant abates the safety hazards and OSHA issues a citation or fines.

The agency also recently issued a new enforcement guidance specific to the meatpacking industry, suggesting that employers space workers six feet apart and provide barriers in between workers, among other precautions.

But those guidelines are still only recommendations, and are currently unenforceable by OSHA or the CDC.

Democrats and labor advocates have been clamoring for a provision mandating such worker safety requirements to be included in the next round of coronavirus relief.

Last week, House Education and Labor Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced legislation that would require OSHA to issue an emergency standard within seven days that would lay out mandatory protections companies must provide to their workers to prevent exposure to Covid-19.

“Over the past few months, we have seen the tragic consequences of the Department of Labor’s failure to take urgent action to protect frontline health care workers and other essential employees,” Scott said when introducing the bill.

“Without an enforceable workplace safety standard to protect workers against Covid-19 infection,” he added, “nurses, doctors, first responders, grocery store workers, food processors, delivery workers, and many others will continue to suffer alarming rates of infection that have already led to thousands of preventable illnesses and deaths.”

But the Trump administration maintains DOL has all the enforcement tools it needs to ensure workers were being protected.

“When it comes to workplace safety we want to provide guidance and clarity and help employers do the right thing. Most are working hard to do so,” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said on a phone call Thursday. “But we also know that unfortunately enforcement may be needed in some cases. We have the tools we need, and we’ll use them, if necessary.”

According to OSHA, the agency has received over 2,400 Covid-19 related complaints and has closed over 1,400 of them.

OSHA officials say the agency will enforce existing standards such as its safety rules regarding respiratory protection and blood-borne pathogens throughout the pandemic. But safety advocates have complained those standards don’t address risks posed by infectious illnesses like Covid-19.

Scalia also said the agency would issue citations under its broad general duty clause, which requires employers to maintain a workplace free of hazards, but that mechanism poses a high legal test.

“The human cost to America’s food, retail, and commercial workers is real and growing,” said UFCW President Marc Perrone. “From grocery stores to meatpacking plants, from senior care facilities to pharmacies, the impact on workers’ lives from this coronavirus is beyond tragic — and this crisis must be stopped before it gets worse.”

Katherine Landergan, Gabby Orr, Danielle Muoio and Ian Kullgren contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 28, 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.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.


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Coronavirus is endangering the postal service when we need vote by mail. Congress needs to act now

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Congress is failing the U.S. Postal Service, again, and with it, the nation. USPS warned recently that it could run out of money to operate by June because of the massive fall in the level of mail being sent during coronavirus business closures. Democrats tried to include money in the recent stimulus, but the only help that ended up in the final bill was $10 billion in loans that are subject to approval by the Treasury Department.

The decline in mail being sent doesn’t mean mail is less important—it means, in large part, that the people who rely most on mail are now the most vulnerable people. People who need their prescription medications. People who live in rural areas not well served by other delivery services. But democracy also needs the mail. Vote by mail will be more important than ever if COVID-19 remains a threat in the fall.

Millions of people vote by mail, with some states having universal vote-by-mail and many others allowing absentee voting by mail. That’s something we need to expand, not endanger by weakening the USPS.

We’re also talking about an organization that employs 630,000 people. One in five is African American and more than 100,000 are veterans. Every day, postal workers are risking their health by going to work to make sure we get our mail. More than 100 have tested positive for COVID-19 and one has died.

And while the USPS is in crisis, that crisis was manufactured by Republicans. Congress does not allow the postal service to compete with private business—and then it comes under attack for not being profitable. Your local post office should be a center for services like faxing, notary publics, hunting and fishing licenses, and more. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been a longtime champion of the USPS, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has pushed for postal banking, which would not only give the post office a boost but would connect low-income people with nonpredatory banking.

The coronavirus crisis should be making us see that we need more public goods, not allow the ones we have to die off—or be killed by Republicans for whom that’s long been a goal. The USPS needs funding now.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Fatalistic Grocery Workers Demand Hazard Pay, Saying “Infection Is Inevitable”

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Grocery store employees find themselves the subject of widespread public acclaim for continuing to work during the coronavirus crisis. But front-line workers at grocery chains across the country say they want something more tangible than congratulations: hazard pay. And they are winning it with spontaneous organizing campaigns forged in the crucible of a national crisis.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, at least a dozen separate campaigns by grocery employees have popped up on Coworker.org, an online organizing platform that allows workers to create campaigns for workplace change themselves. Some have already won hazard pay at their stores; others are locked in struggles with intransigent employers. Workers involved in five separate campaigns told us of stress and dangerous conditions at work—but also of the power of collective action.

At Market of Choice, an Oregon-based grocery chain, the CEO has granted a $2 per hour pay increase (less than the $3 per hour workers asked for, but an increase nonetheless). Anna Carlin, a pizza cook at Market of Choice, says the increase is not enough, and that her colleagues remain “tense” and “stressed” about their own safety. “It irks me that corporate isn’t willing to call it ‘hazard pay,’” Carlin said. “We’re being exposed to hazards. Our work is increasingly hazardous. Not calling it hazard pay reads as an attempt to obfuscate that. Everyone at work seems generally grateful for the boost but also concerned about the lack of other protections or guarantees being offered.”

Employees at New Seasons Market, a grocery chain in the Northwestern United States, also secured bonus pay and other benefits during the crisis. Anne Johnson, a cashier at a store in Portland, Oregon, says that she appreciates the benefits, but doubts that the modest increases make up for the physical and emotional toll that the ongoing crisis is taking on workers there.

“The amount of emotional labor that’s expected of cashiers (especially someone like me, a friendly young woman) has always bothered me, but at this time it is so heightened and for me personally. It has become so intense I’ve asked to be assigned tasks other than ringing people up as much as possible. Staff in every department are stressed and overworked and worried for their families,” Johnson said. “I don’t really know if any amount of money would make working in this environment and being exposed to this level of risk feel worth it. Personally, I live with my grandmother and mother so it’s just really hard to know if continuing to come to work is the right choice.”

Those are the stresses on workers at chains that have granted some outright form of hazard pay. Elsewhere, gains can be more murky. One of the most prominent grocery organizing campaigns is at Trader Joe’s, where more than 20,000 employees have signed a petition asking for hazard pay, at the same time that an internal group has been calling publicly for a union drive. The company says it is setting up a “special bonus pool” for employees—money that workers say will come out to a raise of less than $2 per hour for the past month, which falls short of the petition’s call for time-and-a-half pay for everyone as long as the crisis drags on.

A group of Trader Joe’s employees involved in the organizing campaign, who answered questions anonymously, criticized “half-measures” by management in the face of an overwhelming public health threat. Workers described facing uncertainty, enormous crowds at stores, answering the same handful of questions over and over again from frantic customers, and a lack of management coordination on a national level that meant that different stores ended up with different enforcement policies on basic safety questions like the right of cashiers to wear gloves as they worked. “The company is leaving the health and safety of the base of their pyramid up to the mercy of each store’s captain and regional manager,” one employee said.

All of that takes place in an atmosphere of “palpable” stress and long hours, in which perfect safety is impossible. Asked about the fear of becoming infected with coronavirus on the job, one worker replied, “infection is inevitable.”

Adding to the dissatisfaction is the perception that the company is using the crisis as an opportunity to undermine the nascent union drive and spread misinformation. The workers who created the Coworker.org petition say that “The company used the existence of this petition to lie to workers, telling them it was a trick to get people to sign their name to the union effort.” Another Trader Joe’s employee sent a photograph of a printed sheet of “Huddle notes”—talking points that managers use in employee meetings—that included a section of common anti-union talking points, such as “Unions are businesses. They need revenue, and they get revenue through union dues.”

Many grocery workers are holding fast in their demands for compensation that they feel matches the scale for the risk they’re taking—demands that can themselves be heartbreakingly modest. Nearly 4,500 employees of the grocery chain Fred Meyer signed a petition for hazard pay, and the company has given them, instead, a one-time bonus of $300 for full-time employees, and $150 for part-time employees. Lauren Hendricks, a Fred Meyer cake decorator in Washington state, says a $2 per hour raise would be more appropriate. “That is what I have seen other companies doing, and I think it’s a great thing because it ensures part time employees notice a difference in their paycheck as well,” Hendricks said. “Risking our lives—our health and wellbeing—for regular pay isn’t worth it. I had a customer straight up cough in my face the other day, he instantly apologized after he realized what he had done, but this is the perfect example of what we deal with on a daily basis.”

Then there are the grocery chains where workers are still struggling to win anything meaningful at all. At Publix, a large chain down south, almost 7,000 workers have signed a petition calling for time-and-a-half hazard pay. “All of my coworkers are sleep-deprived (plenty of them working 70+ hour weeks—it’s a free for all with overtime right now), they’re stressed out, on the verge of a complete meltdown, and it has made us far more agitated than I’ve ever seen,” said Summer Fitzgerald, a clerk at a Publix in Charleston, South Carolina. “We’ve worked through holidays and hurricanes, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Their thanks so far, she said, has been a $50 Publix gift card, and “a little snack table in the breakroom with free food.”

While the eruption of workplace activism inside grocery stores that have never had a labor union is inspiring, the larger context is still grim. Even as grocery employees enjoy their highest level of public support in U.S. history, most of their campaigns are demanding temporary, rather than permanent, increases in compensation and benefits. The nature of hazard pay itself is that it expires when the “hazard” is over. While some unionized grocery workers will likely hang on to their pay increases when this is all over, many others are skeptical they will get any lasting benefits. (“I foresee a pizza party as reward for our service, at most,” one worker said.)

Still, most grocery workers say they are getting more compliments and sympathy from customers than they have ever seen before. And Anna Carlin, from Market of Choice, says there may be at least one silver lining: “My parents have stopped asking if I’m going to get a ‘real job.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.