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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week in the war on workers

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

If a worker steals from their employer, they can be fired or even face criminal charges. If an employer steals their workers’ wages, they … usually get to keep the money with no penalties. Wage theft is outrageously common, and it’s rarely treated as a serious civil violation, let alone a criminal one, despite taking money from people who desperately need it to get by. Minimum wage violations, for instance, are one common form of wage theft, and wage theft doesn’t hit all workers equally. According to the National Employment Law Project, “Black workers experience wage theft at three times the rate of white workers. Foreign-born workers experience wage theft at twice the rate of their U.S.-born counterparts. And women experience wage theft at a rate of 30 percent, compared to 20 percent for male workers.”

In 2017, an Economic Policy Institute analysis found that minimum wage violations stole $8 billion a year from workers—in just the 10 most populous states. In 2019, forced arbitration agreements denying workers the chance to make their case in court let employers steal $40 million from Maine workers, NELP reports.

NELP has an answer: retaliation funds. Retaliation funds should be set up by a labor enforcement agency, and workers could draw on them if, after they filed a wage theft complaint with the labor enforcement agency, their pay was reduced or they were fired. At that point, they’d get a one-time payment, and “If the enforcement agency eventually finds that the employer unlawfully retaliated, the employer should replenish the fund with a payment equal to three times the amount the worker received.” That would protect workers from retaliation, which would reduce their fears about reporting wage theft to begin with, and it would act as a disincentive to employers tempted to steal from their workers. Is there a blue state that will consider trying this out?

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Nebraska AFL-CIO Rallies with Meatpacking Workers in Lincoln

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

On April 8, Nebraska State AFL-CIO President/Secretary-Treasurer Martin spoke at a rally in Lincoln, Nebraska, with members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 293 who are in the middle of contract negotiations with Smithfield Foods. Smithfield has refused to negotiate for COVID-19 protections and is opposing any state legislation. Martin talked about how passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is vitally important in guaranteeing workers the right to negotiate for better working conditions without fear or intimidation by our employers. Some 50 people showed up in the rain to show their support for the workers.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Pathway to Progress: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

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History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. Today’s topic is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978.

In the late 1970s, conditions in the United States were ripe for positive change for working families. Jimmy Carter and a pro-union majority in Congress were pushed by active and organized civil rights and women’s movements. Labor unions were ready to push for change.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in General Electric v. Gilbert that employers could refuse benefits to pregnant women. The case was brought by the International Union of Electrical Radio and Machine Workers and after the court ruled against them, unions were inspired to fight harder. At the 1977 convention of the UAW a resolution declaring that “women’s issues are also UAW issues” and pushing for stronger benefits related to affirmative action, child care and maternity. A special emphasis was placed on protecting the rights of pregnant workers. The UAW, AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Women’s Law Project joined with other unions, civil rights organizations and women’s right’s groups in order to secure passage of Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which passed in 1978. 

After passage, it was important to get employers to actually respect the law’s provisions. Unions had the built-in infrastructure to reach the on-the-ground worksites across the country. The first step was for unions to begin including the protections of the PDA into collective bargaining agreements. This included member and employer education, the remedying violations through grievance procedures and other measures. UAW negotiated with the Big Three automakers in order to secure these benefits and others. Once the Big Three were on board, the changes began to spread to other companies in the industry and beyond.

When the PDA passed, it essentially gave pregnant workers the same rights and benefits as workers with disabilities. Unions made sure that collective bargaining agreements reflected this. That meant that workers got access to paid sick leave and insurance and the option to lighter-duty work. These benefits were scarce at nonunion worksites, except that, no matter where one works, they could no longer be fired for pregnancy. Workers and nonunion workplaces attempted to get the measures of the PDA implemented, but often faced resistance from local management, who clung to stereotypes about women workers and pregnant women.

The UAW and other unions used internal communications, workshops and labor education programs to teach union leaders and shop stewards about the law and its ability to protect working women. Across the country, people were trained to take on the cause of their pregnant colleagues, stand up to management and pursue grievances or strikes to establish the rights included in the law.

The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), which formed in 1974, had included the PDA as one of its goals from inception. CLUW members came together to figure out how to convince male union leaders to support the law. This effort was instrumental in pushing back against challenges against the law both from within the labor movement and without.

In her summary of union efforts in support of the passage and implementation of the PDA, author Judith A. Scott said that the story of the passage of the PDA “is the story of how the empowerment of working women and collective action were crucial to improving workplace culture and practices for pregnant workers…and why those same factors are necessary today if we are to dramatically better the lives of working women. Through their unions, women workers can assert collective strength to win workplace improvements at the bargaining table and in the legislative arena through effective political campaigning.”

Source: “Why a Union Voice Makes a Real Difference for Women Workers: Then and Now,” by Judith A. Scott.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Pennsylvania Nurses Near Their Breaking Point

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On top of the typical stresses, intense work, and long hours common to the profession, nurses working at smaller hospitals in more remote parts of the country face many unique challenges. With fewer staff and 24?–?7 services, facilities like the two Lehigh Valley Health Network hospitals in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, rely on nurses, nursing assistants, and other staff to perform many jobs simultaneously with little rest. But when nurses begin to leave for better working conditions and the hospital does not replace them, those who remain are put under even more strain, which endangers them and their patients. 

For workers with Schuylkill Hospital Nurses United, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In this episode, we talk with two Schuylkill County nurses, Brandee Brown and Chrissy Newton, and Seth Goldstein from the Office and Professional Employees International Union, about the day-to-day grind of working at small-town hospitals while also combatting union-busting and bad-faith bargaining from management at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Northern Valley Labor Council Distributes Food to Families in North Dakota and Minnesota

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

The Northern Valley Labor Council in North Dakota, led by President Mark Froemke (BCTGM), plans to distribute more than 1,300 boxes of food and gallons of milk later this month for community members in need. The North Dakota AFL-CIO, the St. Paul (Minnesota) Regional Labor Federation and the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program are also sponsoring the events. Distribution will take place in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Belcourt, North Dakota, as well as in Mahnomen, Minnesota. The union is working with Native American tribes to make sure the distribution announcement reaches those communities as well.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Union defeat at Amazon warehouse turns spotlight to the Hill

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The battle over organized labor’s clout will be focused more squarely on Capitol Hill now that workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama have soundly defeated an effort to form a union there.

Supporters and opponents of legislation that would significantly bolster unions were refining their arguments on Friday in light of the outcome in the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, which was a bitter defeat for the nationally watched drive to establish the first union at the e-commerce giant.

Leaders of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, along with their supporters, accused Amazon of unfairly interfering with the vote and touted the legislation as a way to level the playing field between business and labor.

“Without knowing it, [Amazon is] igniting a movement to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and return workers in Alabama, Michigan and all corners of this land to their rightful place as drivers of broadly shared prosperity that represents America at its best,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said.

Opponents of the legislation, also called the PRO Act, were just as quick to find justification for their position in the Bessemer outcome.

“Labor bosses should understand that when workers vote against forming a union, it signifies that the arguments made by organizers were not compelling or persuasive,” said Kristen Swearingen, chair of the business-backed Coalition for a Democratic Workplace said. 

“The PRO Act, which is also supported by the same union bosses seeking to organize businesses across the country, would hurt small businesses as they struggle to survive during the pandemic and strip employees of their privacy and vital rights to make a choice on their own if they want to join a union,” Swearingen said.

The fact that President Joe Biden included the PRO Act in the $2 trillion infrastructure plan he proposed last week will keep a spotlight on the issue. 

Labor leaders had hoped the time was ripe for a major victory in Alabama, amid an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, concerns about the growing economic clout of Amazon and with pro-union Democrats in charge of the White House and Congress, who lent their support.

But workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer voted 1,798-738 against joining the union. Nearly 6,000 workers were eligible and roughly more than half cast ballots.

The union says it plans to challenge the results and ask the National Labor Relations Board to consider setting the vote aside, alleging Amazon “created an atmosphere” that interfered “with the employees’ freedom of choice.”

“We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election,” the union said in a statement.

Amazon battled the organizing effort but denied any interference or wrongdoing in the election.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company wrote in a blog post following the vote tally. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us.”

Despite what looked like propitious timing for organizing the Amazon facility, the union faced an uphill battle in a traditionally union-averse state like Alabama. And the broader headwinds that labor has fought for decades, with a sharp drop in private-sector membership, apparently didn’t dissipate.

Among other things, the company touted its health care benefits and $15 hourly minimum wage to argue a union wasn’t needed.

The vote spanned seven weeks, beginning in February, and the NLRB spent nearly two weeks tallying the ballots, after disputes over ineligible voters slowed the process. Around 500 of the 3,215 ballots cast in the election were challenged and nearly 400 of the objections were raised by Amazon, according to a union spokesperson.

The union drive caught the attention of Washington, D.C., and put significant pressure on Biden to voice his support for workers exercising their collective bargaining rights. 

Biden eventually released a 2 1/2-minute video in early March backing the workers’ right to organize — which was billed by union leaders as “the most pro-union statement from a president” in history — although he omitted Amazon’s name from his remarks.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Biden would wait “for the NLRB to finish its process and declare a result to make a further comment.”

“But I will say broadly … we know it’s very difficult for workers to make the choice to form a union,” Psaki said, plugging the PRO Act.

The legislation “would give more workers the ability to organize and bargain collectively with their employees,” Psaki said. “That’s a fundamental priority for him, something he’s fought for throughout his career.”

As the vote in Bessemer was under way, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union brought workers to Capitol Hill to testify at a Senate Budget Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who later went to the town to rally support for the union.

Jennifer Bates, a worker at the Bessemer fulfillment center, told lawmakers during the hearing in March that she was required to go to “union education meetings” hosted by the company, sometimes “several times a week,” that pushed anti-union messages. She said management put “anti-union signs and messages” all around the facility and even sent messages to workers’ phones.

Some of that activity would be prohibited under the PRO Act. 

Republicans and employers staunchly oppose the legislation, saying it would make businesses less competitive, and it’s unlikely to ever garner the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster. The fact that the bill would preempt state right-to-work laws like the one in Alabama, rendering them invalid, is particularly controversial.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Movement to End At-Will Employment Is Getting Serious

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On March 31, a group of worker centers, unions, community groups and policy organizations in Illinois officially formed a new coalition, Stable Jobs Now, that aims to dramatically shift the power balance between workers and bosses by eliminating ?“at-will” employment?—?the practice that allows employers to fire their employees on a whim.

In most of the rest of the world, workers are protected by the ?“just cause” principle, which says they can only be terminated for legitimate, documented reasons connected to poor job performance. But in the United States, the at-will doctrine allows bosses to arbitrarily fire employees for any reason or no reason whatsoever, with the burden of proving it was an unlawful dismissal placed on the worker. 

“It’s like we’re disposable to them,” said Estrella Hernandez, who was abruptly fired from her stitching job at a Chicago-area factory in December 2020. ?“I got to work one morning at 4am and the supervisor told me I couldn’t be there, that they had let me go the day before… I asked the reason and they said they didn’t have to tell me and told me to just go home.”

Hernandez believes she was fired as illegal retaliation for raising concerns about the inability to practice social distancing in her cramped work area, but she can’t prove it, especially since her employer never provided a reason for her dismissal. 

Predominantly Black and Latino workers in Chicago’s low-wage jobs routinely face illegal retaliation for reporting workplace injustices like unsafe conditions, wage theft, injuries, sexual harassment and discrimination. The at-will doctrine makes it practically impossible for employees to prove they were fired as retaliation for speaking up against illegal abuses.

new study published by Raise the Floor Alliance, a group of Chicago worker centers, and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that 37percent of Illinois workers have been fired for an unfair reason and 42 percent have been terminated for no reason at all, with Black and Latino workers the most likely to be fired. A third of those who faced unfair discharge say it was over raising concerns about problems on the job.

“While conditions were bad for working people well before the pandemic, this past year has highlighted and exacerbated these conditions,” said Sophia Zaman, executive director of Raise the Floor Alliance.

The Stable Jobs Now coalition is pushing for passage of the Secure Jobs Act, a bill recently introduced in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. The legislation would make Illinois the second state to adopt a just cause system. Only Montana currently restricts at-will employment, a law dating back to 1987.

Among other measures, the Secure Jobs Act would lay out valid reasons for termination, grant workers a fair chance to improve their job performance before being fired, prohibit ?“constructive discharge” where employers pressure workers into resigning by creating a hostile work environment, outlaw ?“Do Not Hire” lists (a practice prevalent in the temp industry), and allow workers to accrue severance pay that employers would have to disburse upon termination. The law would be enforced by the Illinois Department of Employment Security, but would also permit fired workers to sue their employers under a private right of action.

“At-will employment has been a longstanding problem in the state and at-will termination has long endangered the stability of our communities,” said State Rep. Carol Ammons, the Secure Jobs Act’s chief sponsor in the Illinois House of Representatives. Ammons previously spearheaded a successful legislative effort to enshrine more rights for temp workers in Illinois. 

The new campaign in Illinois is part of a budding national movement to end the at-will employment system. In the past two years, Philadelphia and New York City have both enacted just cause bills covering parking lot attendants and fast-food workers, respectively. 

“This cries out for a signature federal bill, however long it takes to pass,” said Shaun Richman, an In These Times contributor and advocate for a national just cause rule. ?“In the absence of that, you’ve got these sort of rebel cities and blue states that are introducing their own bills as signal efforts.”

“This movement is still at an early stage, perhaps where the Fight for $15 or the paid sick days movements were a decade ago, which is why the work being done here in Illinois is so important and exciting,” explained NELP senior researcher and policy analyst Irene Tung.

Proposals to enact just cause laws are widely popular, with a recent pollfinding that 67 percent of likely voters support the idea.

“At-will isn’t a law anyone voted for, it was just made up by judges in the 19thcentury,” Richman said. ?“Let’s actually have a vote on this. Let’s put this to the people.”

Traditionally, U.S. employers only have to follow just cause rules in workplaces governed by union contracts, but only 11 percent of the national workforce is currently unionized. Several unions have joined the Stable Jobs Now coalition, including the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare, SEIU Local 73, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, Cook County College Teachers Union, and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.

Coalition organizers say they are also in communication with the Illinois AFL-CIO. The state labor federation supported a similar wrongful discharge bill in 2017, but so far has not endorsed the Secure Jobs Act and did not respond to In These Times’ requests for comment. 

“The American labor movement has this weird, total exception to the rule that we base this right in collective bargaining,” Richman said. ?“It’s time to get over that. This really should just be a law. It sucks up so much time in collective bargaining. Also, workers know they will be fired for organizing a union. Let’s make it a law that you can’t be fired unless it’s for a good reason, and then we’ll get more unions.”

Importantly, the Secure Jobs Act includes a provision that would restrict bosses from using data gathered through electronic monitoring to make decisions around discipline or dismissal, instead limiting such decisions only to human-based information. The new study by NELP and Raise the Floor Alliance found that 52 percent of Illinois workers are observed, recorded, or tracked at work through various forms of surveillance technology.

Delivery driver Jesus Ruelas told In These Times that he was fired by Amazon last year partly because he had a low score on Mentor, an app he said the company uses to monitor ?“how fast we’re driving, if we’re reversing, how fast we’re turning, how hard we’re braking, and whether we’re putting a seatbelt on.”

Amazon drivers nationwide complain that Mentor often provides glitchy, inaccurate, or misleading data that doesn’t take real-world conditions into account?—?leading to unfair discipline and discharge. 

“The app just records what you do, it’s not advanced enough to know if you’re doing it for a reason. If you brake on a slick road, it records that as a negative thing,” Ruelas said. ?“Amazon will let you go for anything they can think of.”

The proposed legislation is certain to face opposition from employer groups, but since 2019, the Illinois General Assembly has managed to pass a host of progressive reforms, including a $15-an-hour minimum wagelegalization of recreational marijuana and abolition of cash bail.

“At its core, this is a racial justice and economic justice issue that can no longer be ignored,” said State Sen. Celina Villanueva, the bill’s chief sponsor in the Illinois Senate. ?“We have to catch up with the rest of the world and end this perverse and broken system that seeks to subjugate workers.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst.


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McGraw Hill Rejects Calls to Stop Charging Its Freelancers a Fee in Order to Get Paid

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The revelation that McGraw Hill (MH), a multibillion-dollar educational publishing company, has begun charging its freelancers and independent contractors a fee in order to get paid has prompted a wave of public outrage, along with a letter from advocacy groups demanding that the company end the practice. The company’s response: No. 

Two weeks ago, In These Times reported on the existence of the 2.2% fee that the company began charging last October. The fee applies to freelancers and independent contractors who submit invoices through the company’s invoicing system, called Fieldglass?—?but because that is the only way to invoice the company, it amounts to a mandatory fee that workers must pay in order to get what the company owes. The company calls it an ?“administrative fee” levied in order to ?“cover the cost of third-party vendors that help us ensure that each contractor meets the requirements needed to be classified as an Independent Contractor under various state laws and IRS regulations.” But it is, in effect, an across-the-board mandatory pay cut for all of the workers, a brazen and unusual move by the company to shift its normal administrative costs onto the backs of its freelancers. 

The story caused an uproar among the wider community of people who do freelance editorial work for a living. On social media, the fee was referred to as ?“incredible,” ?“utter crap,” and ?“bullshit.” The existence of the fee, which was not widely known, even caused mortification inside McGraw Hill itself. ?“The fee is an embarrassment. We’ve always been good to our freelancers so I was very surprised to learn we’d be charging a fee to process their invoices. Taking a cut from their pay is petty and makes us look bad,” said one MH employee, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear over professional repercussions. ?“I really hope the company reconsiders and rolls back this policy. The invoicing system is already a pain to use.”

On March 30, representatives of more than a dozen groups representing editorial and freelance workers, including the National Writers Union, Freelancers Union and the Authors Guild, sent a letter to the company demanding ?“that you immediately cease this inequitable practice that amounts to a wage cut at an unprecedented time… and reimburse all freelancers who have already been charged this outrageous fee.” The letter called the practice ?“shocking,” and noted that MH’s digital revenue has been growing even as the company shifted costs onto its freelance work force. 

The company was unmoved. David Stafford, the SVP and general counsel of MH, sent a reply letter on April 1 saying that ?“The 2.2% fee offsets the incremental costs we now incur to ensure proper labor force classification. We communicated the fee in advance to our independent contractors and they agreed to pay it.” 

The letter also includes a common rationalization used by ?“gig economy” companies that seek to lower labor costs by using more freelancers and fewer full time employees: ?“Many of the independent contractors we engage already have full-time jobs and the work they do for us provides them with additional income. The rate of independent contractors returning to do work with us is very high and during the pandemic, the percentage of independent contractors who had more than one project with us increased. The high return rate implies satisfaction among the independent contractors who work with us.” This is an example of the gig economy’s underlying sleight of hand?—?to force workers to take up more and more freelance work out of economic necessity, and then use the fact that they are doing that work as proof that they’re satisfied with the arrangement. 

The groups that sent the complaint letter are unsatisfied. Mary Rasenberger, the CEO of the Authors Guild, said that the fee itself is ?“exploitative, and an outrage,” and that it sets a ?“dangerous precedent.” Rafael Espinal, the head of the Freelancers Union, called the company’s response ?“tone-deaf.”

“The simple fact that freelancers have agreed to these terms is not evidence that they are happy with the system, it’s proof that they feel they have no recourse when presented with usurious terms such as this,” Espinal said. ?“It is a matter of course that corporations bear the administrative and payroll costs associated with their employees. There is absolutely no reason they should not bear the same responsibility when hiring freelancers.”

Advocates are unanimous in rejecting the company’s assertion that charging a fee in order to get paid is either standard or defensible. ?“In no way is this a common or justified business practice,” said Larry Bleiberg, the president of the Society of American Travel Writers and a signatory of the letter. ?“It’s a scheme dreamed up by his company to squeeze out extra revenue. I’m just disappointed that a publisher that claims to support writers, photographers and graphic artists?—?and profits from their work?—?would so shamelessly try to take advantage of them.”

The company appears to have made the calculation that the revenue it takes in by charging freelancers in order to get paid is worth the bad publicity it has received thus far. There is serious money at stake for both sides. Were it to become common, the practice of shifting administrative costs away from employers and onto freelancers would constitute a permanent decline in wages for independent contractors?—?another incremental step downward for workers in an era when full-time employment is becoming harder and harder to find. The National Writers Union, which represents freelance writers, is actively seeking MH freelancers who have been charged the fee, in order to organize them to fight the practice. 

“I understand being hesitant to reach out,” said NWU president Larry Goldbetter, ?“but they can make all the difference here.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048

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Tekele Abraha does not run marathons, but she wears Hoka shoes. This thick-soled choice of elite runners can cost more than $150a pair, nearly a day’s pay for Abraha, who wears them to cushion the long hours she spends on concrete floors, six days a week. She hopes the shoes will stave off the grinding joint and back pain that afflicts many of her coworkers. 

Abraha is a grocery worker. The shoes mark one of many unseen tolls of her job. 

We talk in an airless, subterranean breakroom at Safeway store 1048 in Arlington, Va., a typical, prosperous suburb of Washington, D.C. The low-slung store sits partially submerged next to an underground parking garage on the main drag of the Rosslyn neighborhood, full of gleaming office buildings and apartment towers that look like office buildings. The store’s staff is as diverse as Embassy Row, just across the Potomac River: Black and white, Eastern European, East African. 

Abraha, a 42-year-old single mother of two, grew up in poverty in Ethiopia with her mother and four brothers, unable to afford three meals a day. She came to the United States at 17, without knowing English, and worked three fast food jobs. Sometimes, she slept in a McDonald’s to save time. Eventually, Abraha scraped together $15,000, enough to buy her mother a six-bedroom house in Ethiopia, which fills her with pride. 

For the past 18 years, Abraha has worked at Safeway. Six days a week, late into the night, she helps run the front of the store. Her diligence is matched by the toll it has taken on her during the pandemic. In fear of bringing home coronavirus, she has not kissed her two college-age children since March 2020, even though they live with her. 

“Every time I go home, I was insecure,” she says. ?“I thought, ?‘I’m gonna take something with me. I’m gonna get sick. I’m gonna lose my children.’” Tears well up in her eyes when she contemplates the past year. But she is not one to complain. 

“I don’t have any choice,” she says. ?“That’s life. I have to pay the bills.” 

For many people, the past year has been a shocking break from the normal rhythms of their personal and professional lives. And then there are grocery workers. 

The lives of grocery workers have continued as usual, but with an added dose of deadly risk. They never really signed up for it. Though less celebrated than nurses or paramedics, grocery workers are quintessential frontline workers?—?the ones who have kept showing up so the rest of us can survive. 

Like their counterparts across the country, the employees of Safeway 1048have kept on working through a dangerous year. Their employer has given them mask policies, more cleaning in stores and a fleeting dose of hazard pay, but their lived experience has shown them the safety net has holes big enough to fall through. The experience has left many of them bitter. 

Safeway is neither an outlier on safety issues nor a uniquely bad employer. It has given out personal protective equipment and established a contact-tracing program with up to two weeks of quarantine pay. The company also says it intends to offer the vaccine to every worker as soon as their city or county makes it available to grocery workers. The workers at Safeway 1048, despite being eligible per state guidelines, had not been offered the vaccine by early March. (The company said that ?“our pharmacies in northern Virginia are under the direction of the [Virginia Department of Health] not to vaccinate anyone under the age of 65.”) 

A review of policies at some of Safeway’s biggest direct competitors?—?Walmart and Costco, as well as grocery conglomerates Kroger, Publix and Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant, Stop & Shop)?—?shows that Safeway’s policies on hazard pay, sick leave, masks, worker safety and vaccinations are very much in line with the industry. It almost seems as if the grocery industry’s employers, customers and regulators have settled on a set of standards without bothering to ask the workers whether they think those standards are adequate. 

The one thing Safeway’s workers have going for them is their union. They have seniority rights, pay minimums, guaranteed vacations, a grievance procedure and other basic protections their non-union counterparts lack. Safeway has been unionized since at least 1935, when it signed an agreement with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which later merged with the Retail Clerks International to form today’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Today, more than 6,000 Safeway workers in D.C. and the surrounding states are part of UFCW Local 400. Since Virginia is a so-called right-to-work state, no worker is required to pay union dues; about three-quarters of the 65 employees at Safeway 1048 are dues-paying members. 

Their longtime union rep is Heith Fenner, a solicitous, ruddy-faced man who roams the store greeting everyone by name and checking in on new issues weekly. A former grocery worker who has served as a union rep at seven different grocery chains, Fenner is a virtual encyclopedia of the industry’s problems. 

“Safeway runs a skeleton crew,” he says. ?“They run almost short-handed, particularly in key positions. When you get a small [Covid-19] outbreak in the store, that leaves you shorthanded. Even worse, it becomes a catastrophe for trying to run the store when you have four or five people out.” 

It is not hard to imagine how this corporate dedication to reducing costs could create a strong disincentive for Safeway to pay close attention to safety measures, because safety measures can be expensive. Paid sick leave while workers quarantine will inevitably raise labor costs. Employees say, over the past year, their store’s management has shown little institutional concern for worker health and safety, consistently prioritizing profits and corporate reputation over the lives of workers.

Anthony Sistrunk, a fast-talking, 39-year-old D.C. native who has worked for Safeway since he was 17, had a rough 2020. 

“The year started off fucked up,” Sistrunk remembers. In January 2020, just as he was coming off a cancer scare, he had to have his appendix removed. He returned to work after recovering, but one day soon after he felt so dizzy he went home after only a couple of hours. He slept all day, woke up at night feeling bad and passed out on his floor. After a trip to the emergency room, Sistrunk got the bad news: He was the first employee of Safeway 1048 to test positive for Covid. 

Dehydrated, coughing and his head throbbing, Sistrunk went on Facebook and made a quick post so his friends and coworkers would know he tested positive. He was primarily concerned about the health of his coworkers?—?masks were not yet mandatory, even for employees. 

“And then,” Sistrunk says, ?“all hell broke loose.” 

Shortly after his social media post, he says, he received a call from the Safeway human resources department, asking pointedly if he was ?“badmouthing” the company. 

“I was offended,” Sistrunk says. ?“I felt like Safeway was trying to stop any kind of bad media. They didn’t want any kind of uproar.” 

Sistrunk was so sick he didn’t return to work for seven weeks. He lost his sense of taste and smell and had trouble breathing. ?“The worst thing was the fatigue,” he says. ?“I felt like someone snatched my soul.” 

Fenner called him every other day to check in. Sistrunk did receive paid sick leave?—?two-thirds of his average wage?—?as a benefit of his union health insurance plan. ?“God forbid if you’re not a union member,” Sistrunk says with the tone of someone looking back on a narrowly avoided disaster. ?“You’re screwed.” 

When Sistrunk began with the company 22 years ago, he says it felt like an exclusive and highly valued job. He had to write an essay with his application about why he wanted to work there. There were employee outings: summer cookouts, bowling parties, crab feasts. But all of that faded away as the years went by and, it seemed to Sistrunk, management focused more and more intensely on profits. He sounds wistful when he reflects on his years there. ?“It’s not that family bond anymore,” he says.

Safeway is one of 20 grocery chains owned by Albertsons Companies, whose biggest investor is the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, named for the three-headed dog of Greek mythology that guards the gates of hell to make sure no one gets out. According to Andrew Whelan, a spokesperson for Albertsons, ?“When we learn that an associate has a confirmed case of Covid-19, our crisis response team conducts a close contacts investigation and may recommend that additional members of the store team self-quarantine.” The company offers up to 80 hours of ?“quarantine pay” for those who meet its standards. Whelan says the store is ?“appropriately staffed.” 

Safeway uses the definition of ?“close contact” provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of an infected person per day. It’s an extremely high bar in a store where everyone is moving around. Consequently, employees and the union say management at Safeway 1048 rarely tells a worker to quarantine. 

I got a firsthand view of this dynamic in action. When I went to the store to talk with workers, nearly everyone was discussing that an employee from the cut-fruit section had tested positive. I saw where the fruit-cutting happens: a windowless corner of steel tables in back by the breakroom, where several people work at once. If I worked in such close quarters with a Covid-positive person, I would certainly be worried. 

Fenner says, after management was alerted to the situation by the union, they ?“cleaned and sanitized” the store but did not order any quarantines or alert employees to the positive test. Whelan disputes this, saying that one employee was quarantined due to ?“close contact.” Whelan also says the company informs the staff when an employee tests positive, but workers say they usually hear through word of mouth or from the union.

Then there is the matter of customers who shop without masks. Every employee I spoke with cited this persistent minority of customers as a threat to their health, particularly because workers are not empowered to do anything about the situation except to offer a mask to customers. 

“I’ve been called ?‘bitch’ so many times” for asking customers to wear a mask, Abraha says. ?“I wish the company took it seriously.” 

The Safeway store does not have a security guard, meaning regular workers and supervisors become de facto security guards and mask-checkers. Calling the police doesn’t feel like an option. ?“By the time you call the cops,” Sistrunk says, the maskless shoppers ?“are out of here.” 

Whelan acknowledges that while the store has signs telling customers to wear masks, ?“If a customer refuses to wear a mask and to leave the store, we permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other employees and customers at risk.” 

Jason Winbush, a bearded, 44-year-old food clerk who has been at Safeway for 28 years, has a wife and five children at home. The combination of management’s failure to alert employees directly about positive tests or to find a way to make customers wear masks has convinced him the company does ?“not at all” take the safety of its workers seriously. Winbush has even used some of his vacation days to get time away from the store because the mask situation worried him so much. 

“It’s starting to get [to be] too much,” Winbush says. ?“It’s stressful. Very stressful. It’s written on the wall: Money is more important than your employees. And that’s not right, cause you don’t know if we have preexisting conditions, if my kids have preexisting conditions.”

Stuart Allison, a man with a pleasant Southern drawl and the enormous hands of a heavyweight boxer, has been cutting meat at Safeway 1048 for 25 years. That is less than half of the time he has been working for Safeway, where he began as a meat cutter in 1968. (After more than a half-century with the company, Allison makes $24 an hour.) He is 79, works six 8?hour shifts a week, exercises regularly and appears perfectly capable of wrestling a man half his age. 

Allison remembers seeing people die during a flu epidemic in the 1940s, and those experiences have left him a remarkably calm person. Even though Allison contracted a mild case of Covid in summer 2020, he has never allowed the events of the past year to throw him into a panic. ?“Things come up like that; they don’t disturb me,” he says. ?“Whatever it is, I just take it. I guess I’m more a positive thinker than a negative thinker. This is not my first time being around a virus.” 

But even Allison, a pinnacle of equanimity who has little fear for his own health, finds his hackles raised by what he sees as management’s lax attitude toward customers shopping without masks in the midst of a pandemic. ?“They were saying, ?‘You gotta wait on people that don’t have masks on,’” Allison says. ?“I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ?‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ?‘em.’”

The stress over worker health reached a high mark in the days surrounding the January 6 Trump rally and storming of the U.S. Capitol. Many of former President Donald Trump’s supporters who had come to Washington for the event stayed in the hotels that dot the blocks around the Safeway in Rosslyn. Many of them came into the store with an aggressive disregard for safety. 

“We had a really rough time that week,” says Michele Miler, a 61-year-old file maintenance manager who has served as Safeway 1048’s union shop steward for the past 25 years. ?“They were coming in without no mask.” 

In fact, the employees I spoke with remember the week of January 6 as one in which they were left to fend for themselves. As our nation’s political insanity invaded their workplace, some workers say they refused to serve maskless Trump supporters; one says she just argued with the maskless and endured insults; most said they were constantly uncomfortable and disappointed that Safeway did nothing to save them. 

Sistrunk says that when he asked a manager to intervene, the response was that the company didn’t want bad press in an age when everyone has a cell phone. 

Abraha says some of the Trump supporters ignored her request to wear a mask; one even handed her his used mask and demanded she throw it away for him. ?“If I call the police, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, because of politics,” Abraha says. ?“What about if I lose my job? … It’s crazy.”I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ‘em.’” —Stuart Allison

The pandemic has been good for business at grocery stores. Everyone remembers the empty shelves in spring 2020 as people stocked up, just in case. Albertsons saw its sales rise a remarkable 47% in March of 2020; by December, year-over-year sales were still running 12% higher. All of these sales were enabled by the fact that thousands of grocery workers, just like those at Safeway 1048, continued to come to work, putting their own health at risk to ensure stores could sell food. 

What did those workers get in return? At Safeway, they got a $2 ?“hazard pay” wage bonus from March 15 to June 13, 2020, with two one-time bonuses adding up to about $350 for full-time employees (less for part-timers, the vast majority of the workers). In other words, hazard pay ended when the country was seeing around 22,000 new daily cases of the coronavirus. Even when cases rose to 300,000 per day by January 2021?—?a 1,264% increase in risk?—?hazard pay never came back. 

Whelan, the Albertsons spokesperson, justified this discrepancy by saying, ?“We are not currently offering appreciation pay at this time because businesses large and small across our operating areas have reopened and resumed operations.” 

This argument is a bit of sleight of hand?—?right down to the use of the phrase ?“appreciation pay” rather than hazard pay. First, state governments ignored public health risks and reduced business restrictions (which fueled Covid surges and increased the number of hazards for workers). Then, companies used those policies as an excuse not to take more action or offer workers more compensation. Poof: Thanks to poor public health policies, businesses made their own obligations disappear. 

The flagrant hypocrisy of praising frontline workers as heroes while denying them payment for their heroic work is a textbook example of corporate greed and the primacy that shareholders have over labor. 

And that so few grocery workers emerged from 2020 with long-term raises is a textbook example of union workers squandering their labor leverage. The moment certainly marks a national failure by the UFCW, the nation’s biggest food and retail union, which has been unable to secure any real lasting gains for its members, even as public regard for grocery workers soared. 

Every Safeway employee I spoke with thought that, at a minimum, the $2 hazard pay increase should have become permanent. They wish everyone would wear a mask. They wish they did not have to rely on word of mouth to learn someone from work has Covid. 

They live in fear of getting their families sick. They rise at 4 a.m., work six days a week and casually discuss the many ways the job has destroyed their bodies. 

They do this whole routine for decades for, if they are lucky, a $20 wage. 

If they had stopped?—?if they had shut down the nation’s groceries?—?there would have been panic. But they worked. 

We ate.

From the perspective of the workers themselves, 2020 was a year of swallowing harsh insult after harsh insult. When I asked Marilyn Williams, who has worked at Safeway 1048 for the past eight years, what she thought of the quick disappearance of hazard pay, she paused for a long moment, then said, ?“Ha. Ha. 

“That’s my reaction. 

“Ha. Ha.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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The ‘Trashman’ Who Became an Influencer

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In the latest instalment of ?“Working People,” we sit down and chat with (former) Philly sanitation worker and Instagram sensation Terrill Haigler?—?or, as listeners may know him, ?“Ya Fav Trashman.” Terrill’s incredible and inspiring story took an interesting turn during the Covid-19 pandemic when he was working for the Philly sanitation department and started an Instagram account where he would post updates from the job and answer residents’ questions about trash pickup. With his platform, Terrill has helped spread awareness of the hard work sanitation workers do, the conditions they face, and what residents can do to clean up their neighborhoods. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 25, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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