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Coronavirus has killed dozens of New York City transit workers after they had to beg for masks

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Workers in New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) took measures into their own hands. They wore their own masks, brought their own bleach solutions to clean shared workspaces, and had bus passengers enter through the rear door and blocked them from sitting too close to drivers. Eventually, the MTA started to catch up. But at least 41 New York City transit workers have died of COVID-19, another 1,500 have tested positive for the virus, and more than 5,500 others are self-quarantining because they have symptoms. That’s a huge hit for a workforce of 70,000.

It’s having a ripple effect through the entire city. The MTA is so understaffed it can’t keep up with even the reduced-by-25% schedule it had planned. Even with ridership down by over 90%, subway platforms and cars are crowded because trains aren’t coming as often, which in turn increases the danger of the virus spreading through the crowds in the city that has become the epicenter of the disease.

Union officials pushed MTA bosses to hand out masks and other safety equipment earlier, but the organization stuck by the Centers for Disease Control’s advice against masks. Some workers who wore their own masks were told to take them off because they violated uniform policy.

Bus drivers, whose passengers walk right by them, have been particularly hard-hit, with at least 11 dead.

If you want a devastating illustration of how the United States has let down its working people, check out the picture up top of MTA cleaning staff in early March and compare it with the one below of a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, being disinfected in late February.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 9, 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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Social distancing complaints at city businesses flood 311

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Michelle Bocanegra

The few commercial establishments still operating in New York City saw more than 1,500 complaints of inadequate social distancing in a single week, as officials struggle to keep residents of the most densely populated big city in America away from each other.

Even with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo closing nonessential businesses on March 22, New Yorkers have had difficulty keeping their distance. And businesses like grocery stores, street vendors and takeout restaurants that have remained open are having trouble policing their customers.

The number of social distancing complaints against commercial establishments placed through the city’s 311 platforms hit 1,572 early Sunday morning, spanning a weeklong stretch of complaints beginning March 29, according to 311 data analyzed by POLITICO. And one of the biggest hot spots is a complex managed by the city’s own Economic Development Corporation.

Businessesthat have continued to operate in varying capacities amid the public health crisis took up more than a third of roughly 4,200 social distancing complaints reported to 311 that week. Businesses can control some aspects of social distancing — but much customer behavior remains out of their control, associations, owners and advocates said in interviews with POLITICO.

The business obligation is really around how many people are in that store at a time,” said Jessica Walker, president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “Beyond that, though … aisles are not necessarily big. How do you move people around?”

The guidance to socially distance — or maintain six feet between people to abate the rampant spread of the virus — has become a volatile aspect of daily life among New Yorkers otherwise accustomed to tight spaces and contact with strangers due to the physical constraints of city life.

The NYPD reported its first social distancing-related homicide last week — an 86-year-old hospital patient in Brooklyn who allegedly failed to maintain a safe distance was struck dead by another patient.

Businesses across the city received social distancing complaints on average every six minutes, according to POLITICO’s analysis. But among commercial establishments, the complaints have been concentrated in Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, received 14 complaints over the week examined by POLITICO —the highest number of complaints received among business establishments across the city.

The commercial complex spans 95 acres in Sunset Park and is a mix of warehouse operations, offices and docks. It has been operational during the Covid-19 crisis, an EDC spokesperson confirmed, though she could not say how many occupants fell under the exemption.

The spokesperson said the agency hadn’t been aware of the complaints until POLITICO inquired about them.

“The Brooklyn Army Terminal is an essential hub, in fact one of the tenants, Makerspace, produced face shields in-house for NYC Hospitals,” said agency spokesperson Shavone Williams in an email. “EDC has sent clear communications to all tenants outlining latest guidelines from the Mayors Office, Department of Health and CDC.”

Cesar Zuñiga, chairperson for Community Board 7 in Sunset Park, said he hadn’t heard members complain of the situation. He was, however, “concerned” about the complaints, given that the terminal is managed by the city’s EDC.

The 311 data isn’t immune to blind spots. It does not specify who made the complaints, such as a customer, neighbor or employee. But establishments have grappled with challenges to maintaining a healthy distance.

There is a growing concern among New Yorkers about social distancing in supermarkets, the root of which Elizabeth Peralta, executive director of the National Supermarket Association, attributed to some customers who haven’t yet adjusted their habits to the new reality.

“We’re seeing things get better and better,” said Peralta, whose association has a few hundred member businesses in New York City. “But we definitely see the negligence of people.”

Four grocery stores in Manhattan and Queens were among the top five recipients of complaints. A Fairway Market in West Harlem received eight complaints in the same week. Another Fairway, on the Upper West Side, received seven complaints; a Trade Fair Supermarket in Elmhurst, and a Met Foods in Middle Village, Queens,trailed close behind with six complaints.

Bill Fani, owner of the Middle Village Met Foods,said not all customers were taking adequate precautions within his 9,000 square foot store.

“I understand the social distancing. The store’s only so big. We allow x amount of people in the store. We put up signs … but how do I enforce people?” he said.

The remaining grocers and their parent companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Some supermarkets have hired security personnel to safeguard against masses of people entering. Gov. Cuomo extended his order on Monday to shutter nonessential businesses, leaving grocers among those spared, until April 29.

Many grocery workers have been on edge over their continued exposure to fellow New Yorkers.

Street vendors have similar concerns. None yet have tested positive for the virus, according to Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, as far as he knew.

Vendors haven’t been fined or shut down by the NYPD over social distancing complaints, since it hasn’t been a major issue, Attia said. The same was the case for restaurants and bars, limited to takeout and delivery.

“Not to say that it hasn’t happened, but I’m not aware of that,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

According to the NYPD’s breakdown of coronavirus-related enforcement, it made three arrests and issued 21 summonses in roughly the same time frame. The department did not respond to a request for further comment.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Bocanegra is an intern for POLITICO New York. She was previously at amNewYork and is currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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Everyone can get coronavirus, but economic inequality means it will be worst for those at the bottom

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Coronavirus doesn’t spare the powerful. As of this writing, two members of the Housea senator, and the president of Harvard University have tested positive. But as with so many things in the unequal United States of America, it’s going to be worse for people who are already vulnerable: low-income people, people in rural areas, homeless people, single parents, inmates, and more.

There’s the constant strain of affording health care in a system that bankrupts so many people. There’s the need to go to work no matter what if you live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have paid sick leave. There’s the fact that so many of those low-wage jobs require face-to-face contact.

COVID-19 disproportionately hits older people, and rural populations skew old. The most common jobs in rural areas tend not to offer paid sick leave. Rural areas have also lost more than 100 hospitals in the past decade, so the remaining hospitals may struggle to keep up with increased need even more than hospitals in other areas of the country—where it’s already expected to be bad.

We’re told that staying away from other people and washing our hands a lot are two of the best ways to combat the spread of coronavirus. Homeless people lack access to sanitation and often live in crowded environments, be they shelters or encampments. Inmates are another group living in crowded environments and prisons often lack soap as well.

In the workplace, a Politico analysis found that nearly 24 million people are in particularly high-risk, low-wage jobs—cashiers, home health aides, paramedics. Their jobs require them to get close to lots of people day after day, and all too often lack paid sick leave.

Low-income people also can’t stockpile food and retreat to their homes to ride it out—because most don’t have the savings to buy two weeks of food all at once. Families whose kids rely on free or reduced-price school lunches may still have access to those meals, but they are likely to have to go out every day to pick up the food. And many say that their school districts haven’t told them where to go for meals.

Anyone can get sick from COVID-19. Anyone can get very sick from it. But that doesn’t mean the suffering will be evenly distributed. 

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 24, 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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Government Must Act to Stop Spread of Economic and Financial Consequences of Coronavirus

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The stock market fell 7% at the open Monday morning. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a catastrophic collapse—a financial crisis type number. Typically, the market might gain or lose in a whole year the value that was lost by the time the sound of the opening bell faded.

The collapse appears to be the result of a combination of the spread of coronavirus and falling oil prices—two events that are themselves connected. But it needs to be interpreted as an alarm bell, because we are dealing with the threat of two deadly kinds of contagions—one biological and the other economic and financial—both of which pose serious but manageable threats to the well-being of working people.

We have heard a lot about biological contagion and how to stop the spread of coronavirus in our workplaces and our communities. You can get up-to-date information on workplace safety and coronavirus at www.aflcio.org/covid-19 and at the websites of our affiliated unions. But what about financial and economic contagion? This is something elected leaders, economic policymakers and financial regulators must take action to stop.

How does it work? Coronavirus is a shock to the global economy. It stops economic activity of all kinds—shutting down factories, canceling meetings, sending cruise ships into quarantine. The only way to prevent that is to stop the spread of the virus (see above). The consequence of economic activity slowing down or stopping is that businesses lose revenue, and generally with loss of revenue comes loss of profits.

People who trade on the stock market usually price stocks by making projections about the future profits of the companies whose stocks trade on the public markets. The stock market reacts instantaneously to changing expectations about what may happen in the economy and to specific businesses. The stock market itself doesn’t create or destroy jobs, but it does contribute to the overall financial health of companies and of people. When stock prices fall rapidly, they can create their own kind of contagion—exposing fragile financing structures for both companies and people. That can in turn lead to retreat—companies pulling back on investments or, in the worst case, going bankrupt.

So the stock market can create contagion all by itself. But the much more serious kind of contagion has to do with corporate debt. We have had low interest rates for years, and businesses around the world have gone on a borrowing spree. This spree has been one of the causes of relatively healthy economic growth in the last few years, but it has also led to businesses carrying a lot of debt relative to their earnings and growth. 

Here is where the danger gets very real, because, as we all know, if you borrow money, you have to make payments on that debt. What if businesses that have borrowed a lot of money suddenly don’t have anywhere near the revenue they expected to have? This is what empty planes and blocked supply chains mean.  

If no one does anything and the coronavirus leads to months of revenue shortfalls in overleveraged companies, there is a real risk of pullbacks in investments by those companies or, worse, bankruptcy. Falling stock markets and debt defaults can lead to weak business balance sheets and to weak financial institutions. That is what financial contagion means. We saw that in 2008 when first mortgage intermediaries failed, then hedge funds and stock brokerages, and then major banks.  

Even more seriously, once investment pullbacks, bankruptcies and layoffs start, that leads, like a spreading virus, to more losses of revenue to other businesses—in other words, economic contagion. Economic contagion, once it starts, is even harder to stop than financial contagion. Economic contagion means recession, unemployment, falling wages. What makes this crisis different is that it starts with a kind of layoff—shutdown of economic activity and quarantines to stop the spread of disease. 

We need government to act to stop financial and economic contagion until the worst of the coronavirus passes and, most importantly, until everyone has a better sense of the exact nature of the threat—that is, until the uncertainty diminishes. Working people must demand that government act, or we and our families will pay the price for others’ lack of action, as we so often have in the past.

What should government do? First, it should directly address the source of economic contraction by dealing effectively with the coronavirus itself and making sure people who are sick or need to be quarantined are able to do what they need to do for themselves and for society without being impoverished. This means emergency paid sick leave for all who need it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have proposed comprehensive emergency paid sick leave for all workers; this is an urgent medical and economic necessity. We need to recognize that until the coronavirus is contained, it will be very challenging to contain the economic consequences of the virus.

Second, government should deliver financial support credit on favorable terms to sectors of the global economy that are threatened by the coronavirus and vulnerable due to overleverage. The U.S. Federal Open Market Committee took a first step in that direction last week by lowering short-term rates by 0.5 percentage point, but that is unlikely to be enough. Central banks need to work with major financial institutions to target cheap credit to vulnerable businesses—airlines, hotels, manufacturers paralyzed by broken supply chains and the like. It is time to discard the old neoliberal idea that we should let banks lend to whomever they want when we appropriately subsidize them with cheap public assets.

Third, government should provide support to the economy as a whole. Congress cannot leave this job to the Federal Reserve. We need to look at bigger emergency appropriations to support our weakened public health infrastructure, particularly hospitals; if the Chinese experience is any indication, we are going to face serious strains to the system as the coronavirus spreads. We need to look at macroeconomic stimulus—public spending to help the economy. This would best be done in the form of investment, such as finally funding infrastructure. But we also need immediate spending; that is why universal paid sick days would be such a good idea, as would be steps to improve the effectiveness of our social safety net—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—and make it easier for everyone to get the health care they need right now.

What we don’t need is the standard right-wing response to any and all problems—tax cuts for the rich. Even more than in a normal downturn, that would do harm, diverting desperately needed public resources to those who don’t need them at all.

Most of all, we need leadership and coordination among federal, state and local governments, between the U.S. government and the Fed and governments and central banks around the world, and with multinational bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization. This is critical, because neither the coronavirus nor the world financial system respects borders, and because people will succumb to fear in the absence of credible leadership.  

If Monday morning tells us anything, it’s that we need that leadership now, because once fear becomes contagious, it may be the hardest thing to stop.

This blog was originally posted on AFL-CIO on March 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Damon A. Silvers is the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO. He joined the AFL-CIO as associate general counsel in 1997.

Silvers serves on a pro bono basis as a special assistant attorney general for the state of New York. Silvers is also a member of the Investor Advisory Committee of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department’s Financial Research Advisory Committee, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’s Standing Advisory Group and its Investor Advisory Group.

Silvers received his Juris Doctor with honors from Harvard Law School. He received his Master of Business Administration with high honors from Harvard Business School and is a Baker scholar. Silvers is a graduate of Harvard College, summa cum laude, and has studied history at King’s College, Cambridge University.


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The Coronavirus Outbreak Shows the Disgrace of Not Guaranteeing Paid Sick Leave

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The United States is unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic given that many workers throughout the economy will have financial difficulty in following the CDC’s recommendations to stay home and seek medical care if they think they’ve become infected. Millions of U.S. workers and their families don’t have access to health insurance, and only 30% of the lowest paid workers have the ability to earn paid sick days—workers who typically have lots of contact with the public and aren’t able to work from home.

There are deficiencies in paid sick days coverage per sector, particularly among those workers with a lot of public exposure. The figure below displays access to paid sick leave by sector. Information and financial activities have the highest rates of coverage at 95% and 91%, respectively. Education and health services, manufacturing, and professional and business services have lower rates of coverage, but still maintain at least three-quarters of workers with access. Trade, transportation, and utilities comes in at 72%, but there are significant differences within that sector ranging from utilities at 95% down to retail trade at 64% (not shown). Over half of private-sector workers in leisure and hospitality do not have access to paid sick days. Within that sector, 55% of workers in accommodation and food services do not have access to paid sick days (not shown).

Of the public health concerns in the workforce related to COVID-19, two loom large: those who work with the elderly because of how dangerous the virus is for that population and those who work with food because of the transmission of illness. Research shows that more paid sick days is related to reduced flu rates. There is no reason to believe contagion of COVID-19 will be any different. When over half of workers in food services and related occupations do not have access to paid sick days, the illness may spread more quickly.

What exacerbates the lack of paid sick days among these workers is that their jobs are already not easily transferable to working from home. On average, about 29% of all workers can work from home. And, not surprisingly, workers in sectors where they are more likely to have paid sick days are also more likely to be able to work from home. Over 50% of workers in information, financial activities, and professional and business services can work from home. However, only about 9% of workers in leisure and hospitality are able to work from home.

Many of the 73% of workers with access to paid sick days will not have enough days banked to be able to take off for the course of the illness to take care of themselves or a family member. COVID-19’s incubation period could be as long as 14 days, and little is known about how long it could take to recover once symptoms take hold. The figure below displays the amount of paid sick days workers have access to at different lengths of service. Paid sick days increase by years of service, but even after twenty years, only 25% of private-sector workers are offered at least 10 days of paid sick days a year.

The small sliver of green shows that a very small share (only about 4%) of workers—regardless of their length of service—have access to more than 14 paid sick days. That’s just under three weeks for a five-day-a-week worker, assuming they have that many days at their disposal at the time when illness strikes. The vast majority of workers, over three-quarters of all workers, have nine days or less of paid sick time. This clearly shows that even among workers with access to some amount of paid sick days, the amounts are likely to be insufficient.

A version of this post originally appeared at the Economic Policy Institute

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Elise Gould joined EPI in 2003. Her research areas include wages, poverty, inequality, economic mobility and health care. She is a co-author of The State of Working America, 12th Edition.


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America’s workers face an outbreak of uncertainty

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Timothy NoahAmericans are going home — and creating an economic train wreck.

The coronavirus outbreak has U.S. companies starting to shutter offices and send workers home through layoffs, furloughs or directives to telecommute until health risks from the spreading virus recede.

The evidence is expected to show up through lost consumer spending, derailed business plans and swift damage to lower-wage workers across the nation. The extent of the damage will rest largely on how long it takes for businesses and consumers to gain confidence that the threat is under control.

“If workers can’t work … production and income go down,” Georgetown University economist Harry Holzer said. “That becomes a demand problem if workers lose income and stop spending.”

When that happens, “odds of recession can go way up,” Holzer said.

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all advised Seattle employees to work at home after workers at Facebook and Amazon were diagnosed with the virus. In Everett, Wash., ten workers were sent home from a Boeing plant even before it could be confirmed that a sniffling coworker had coronavirus.

Businesses are halting non-essential travel at a rapid pace and major conferences are suddenly canceling across the U.S. As airline bookings tumble, United Airlines announced it will next month cut international flights by 20 percent and domestic flights by 10 percent. It invited staff to take unpaid leaves of absence. Other airlines around the world are already furloughing workers and slashing schedules as they face the prospect of flying empty planes.

In some cases, employees are asked to vacate the very workplaces where the virus is treated. At the University of California, Davis Medical Center, 36 registered nurses and 88 other health care workers were sent home, according to the labor union National Nurses United, after a single coronavirus patient was admitted to that hospital. Hospital workers reportedly numbering in the dozens were sent home under similar circumstances by Kaiser Permanente’s Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Ore. — long before the Oregon governor declared a state of emergency on Sunday.

For workers, the consequences of being sent home depend greatly on the circumstances. Many white-collar professions can adapt with relative ease to telecommuting from home for a temporary period, but workers in the brick-and-mortar retail, restaurant and hotel sectors cannot. Hourly workers are likelier than salaried workers to be laid off.

The sudden darkening of the outlook comes against a long stretch of resilience for the economy — in an expansion now in its 11th year, the longest on record.

For now, official statistics show a robust labor market, with 273,000 jobs created in February, the Labor Department reported Friday, and an unemployment rate at a very low 3.5 percent. But economists are bracing for a weaker jobs report in March.

The first hints of trouble are expected to come in weekly jobless claims and gauges of the factory sector, which has been under strain from President Donald Trump’s trade wars.

The manufacturing industry, which employs about 9 percent of the U.S. workforce, was underperforming even before news of China’s coronavirus outbreak first surfaced in January. The international nature of supply chains in the global economy — domestic factories’ reliance on parts produced in other countries — spell a near-certain decline in U.S. factory hiring even if the coronavirus outbreak is contained within the U.S. In a potential early sign of trouble, the Institute for Supply Management’s index of national factory activity fell to 50.1 in February, down from 50.9 in January, bringing it back to the brink of a sub-50 reading indicating recession in the sector.

“The supply shocks from quarantined factories in Asia are weeks away from idling U.S., Canadian and European factories,” said economist Michael Hicks of Ball State University, “and the demand-side impact on tourism, travel, eating and drinking establishments is already being felt across the world.”

Economists are already urging policymakers to consider a stimulus program to cushion Americans from impending damage. Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, proposes a one-time payment of $1,000 to every adult American citizen or taxpaying adult.

“If the economic shock is small and stimulus proves to be unnecessary,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, “its negative effects are likely to be small. But if the shock is bigger and policy makers fail to act now, it will be harder to reverse the economic damage.”

Eleven states, including California, Massachusetts and New York, require employers to offer workers paid leave, as does the District of Columbia. But none of these jurisdictions explicitly guarantee the benefit to healthy workers on leave because a virus outbreak sent everybody home.

Fourteen Democratic senators last week wrote to leaders of the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to urge their member companies not to penalize workers for going home during the outbreak.

Paid sick days are particularly rare for low-income workers. Ninety-three percent of workers in the top tenth of the income distribution get paid sick leave, compared with only 30 percent of those in the bottom tenth, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

“People are already losing pay,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, citing flight attendants’ loss of overtime hours and per diems.

While Trump has been trumpeting his actions in fighting the coronavirus, Nelson blames him for increasing its economic cost — through widespread cancellations of business meetings and travel — due to his initial response. “Shutting down these public meetings, she said, “is the only way to stop the spread if you don’t have a way of identifying where the threat is.”

“It makes me very angry,” she said, “because it’s my members’ lives and their jobs.”

With all the uncertainties surrounding the U.S. outbreak, experts are reluctant to predict with any specificity the coming impact on workers. But comparable episodes from the past provide some guide.

After the 9/11 attacks, which suspended air travel and required much of lower Manhattan to be evacuated, about 115,000 workers were laid off by the end of that year, according to the DOL. Forty-two percent were in the airline industry, and 28 percent were employed by hotels and motels.

The U.S. economy was already in recession by that point — it started in March 2001 and ended in November. Still, economists say the widespread uncertainty after 9/11, the start of the war in Afghanistan and the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003 all restrained hiring by employers worried about the outlook.

A global outbreak similar to the Spanish flu of 1918-19 — the most commonly cited historical comparison — would produce “a short-run impact on the worldwide economy similar in depth and duration to that of an average postwar recession in the United States,” a 2005 Congressional Budget Office report estimated. The significant caveat is that the Spanish flu was deadliest to the young and healthy, whereas the coronavirus, like most epidemics, exacts its worst toll on the elderly and the infirm.

A 2007 report by the St. Louis Federal Reserve raised the gruesome possibility that a shortage of workers from a major outbreak ultimately would increase wages, as it seems to have done in 1918, though it noted that was less likely now, “given the greater mobility of workers that exists today.” (The coronavirus is also much less deadly to the working-age population.)

“Given our highly mobile and connected society,” the report concluded, any comparable pandemic in the future “is likely to be more severe in its reach.”

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on March 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Timothy Noah is the Employment & Immigration editor at POLITICO. Previously he was a contributing writer for MSNBC.com and a senior editor at the New Republic, where he wrote the “TRB From Washington” column. For a dozen years before that he was a senior writer at Slate magazine, where he wrote the “Chatterbox” and “Prescriptions” columns. Noah has also been a Washington-based reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek; an assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report; and an editor at the Washington Monthly. He is the author of “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It” (Bloomsbury, 2012).




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