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It’s Time For Mandated Maternity and Paternity Leave

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Ask any parent and they’ll tell you that having a child changes everything. It shifts your priorities. It changes the way you look at life, the world, and your place in it. 

Unfortunately, though, not all employers are willing to accommodate the many profound transformations that occur when an employee becomes a parent — and that has led to some pretty egregious oversights that U.S. labor laws have yet to sufficiently redress. 

For example, despite proclaiming itself the leader of the free world, the great, shining example of human rights across the globe, the U.S. remains the only industrialized country not to guarantee paid maternity leave for new mothers. That said, if America is to retain its moral standing in the international community, then mandated maternity and paternity leave for all workers in the U.S. must be instituted immediately.

Why It Matters

Despite opponents’ claims to the contrary, paid leave for new parents is not a mere luxury, or a desirable, but optional, perk to be offered by employers who can afford it. Rather, mandated leave is an attribute of the human right to enjoy safe and healthy work environments and conditions. 

Simply put, paid leave supports the physical, emotional, and financial well-being of all concerned. Women who have just given birth, for instance, face numerous physical and psychological challenges in the postpartum months, from physical pain and fatigue to postpartum depression. New mothers need time at home to recover not only from the pregnancy and childbirth, but also from the physical demands of caring for a newborn and infant.

However, it’s not only about giving a new mother time to recover in mind and body from having a baby, it’s also about giving new parents the time and space to bond with their child. This is why mandated leave needs to apply both to new biological mothers and also to fathers, adoptive parents, and domestic partners. 

Infants need ample time with their parents because it’s in these first formative months of life that essential foundations for learning and socialization are built. 

New parents who are able to stay home with their infant without fear of losing their income or their job can focus their entire attention on nurturing and teaching their little one. This paves the path to healthy future development. 

For instance, children begin to hone their communication and socialization skills in preschool and this positions them to advance and thrive in their primary and secondary schooling, which, in turn, fosters the transition to higher education. 

But success in preschool often begins in the nursery, with engaged, attentive, affectionate parents who have the time and resources to shower their infant with love and care in the critical first weeks and months of life.

Without paid leave, however, not only are far too many infants deprived of much of this bonding time with their parents, but our nation as whole risks perpetuating the social and economic inequities which currently plague it. For example, studies show that 81% of new moms without a high school diploma are not given paid maternity leave. 

In other words, the issue is often one of class. More affluent and educated parents often have greater bargaining power when it comes to securing a job or negotiating for benefits. But poor and working-class parents, especially those without an education, often must take what work they can get. It’s not only the parents and children who suffer but also entire communities who must endure the consequences of an entire generation of children growing up without the strong foundations they should have enjoyed in infancy.

The Takeaway

Mandated maternal and paternal leave is not a choice but a necessity. If the United States is to retain its status of moral, political, and economic leader of the free world, then it must join all other industrialized nations in guaranteeing this right to its workers and the children who are our nation’s future.

This blog was printed with permission.

About the Author: Dan Matthews is a writer, content consultant, and conservationist. While Dan writes on a variety of topics, he loves to focus on the topics that look inward on mankind that help to make the surrounding world a better place to reside. When Dan isn’t working on new content, you can find him with a coffee cup in one hand and searching for new music in the other.


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Here’s What’s in the New Bill Jointly Backed by Uber and the Teamsters in Washington State

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Uber’s lobbyists, after clinching an agreement with UFCW Canada to launch a charm offensive at the Ontario provincial government for employee-like benefits on behalf of an estimated 100,00 drivers, weren’t done hobnobbing with unions.

Next up, the Teamsters in Washington state are working on a deal with Uber and Lyft.

The legislation would give ride-hail workers new benefits—sick pay, a process to appeal deactivations, protections against retaliation, and workers’ compensation—in exchange for codifying their status as independent contractors rather than employees, and preempting cities from regulating the rideshare companies as Seattle has done.

Washington lawmakers passed the bill, HB 2076, backed by Teamsters Local 117,
with 55 yeas to 42 nays on February 23. The Senate will hold a public hearing February 26.

“HB 2076 exemplifies Washington State’s spirit of leadership and innovation,” Teamsters Local 117 Vice President Brenda Wiest wrote to House representatives February 22 in an email obtained by Labor Notes. “This bill is supported by both Uber and Lyft, as well as the Teamsters, their affiliated Drivers Union, and dozens of labor and community-based organizations across the state. Moreover, it is backed by the people who matter most—the drivers themselves.”

The Teamsters international declined to comment on the legislation.

FLASHPOINT OF DEBATE

It’s a flashpoint of debate in the labor movement: should unions keep fighting for employee status for gig workers, or cut a deal to head off worse odds down the road? After all, unions and drivers are squaring off against Uber and Lyft, who with their bottomless pits of cash forced their way in California in a 2020 ballot initiative, Prop 22.

The companies have made explicit the threat that, if they don’t get this legislative compromise, they will pursue a ballot initiative in Washington. Lyft has put $2 million into a newly formed political action committee Washington Coalition for Independent Work with clones in New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts. It also has the backing of Instacart, DoorDash, and Uber, which have committed to contribute to the PAC.

What’s curious about this bill is that it has the backing of Teamsters Local 117 and its affiliate Drivers Union, which previously supported efforts to boost gig worker protections. Drivers Union members said the rationale for throwing their support behind a legislative deal with Uber and Lyft is the ballot initiative threat.

“They’re also holding the gun at our heads with the possibility of an initiative,” said Don Creery, 68, a ridehail driver since 2013 and a board member of the Drivers Union. “They spent $200 million on California. It comes down to the reality that we don’t have the money to buy TV ads. They do. They will misinform the public with a barrage of TV ads, so we will lose an initiative. We could lose everything.”

Jake Laundry, 29, has been an Uber driver since 2015; he is a member of both the Drivers Union and IATSE Local 15, where he is an audiovisual worker. He considers himself a Teamster and didn’t want to say anything that would jeopardize the union. But he’s heard that pitch about the initiative threat too many times. Laundry views this bill as making “a deal with the devil.”

“It’s great you have a wage floor and then will improve wage conditions in outlying areas [outside] of Seattle,” he said. “But this contractor relationship also locks in a sort of technocratic feudalism.”

Creery has no qualms with contractor status. “I’m not really concerned about us not being designated as employees,” he said. “In our union, we abandoned that seven years ago, eight years ago. We can be independent contractors and get rights. These are laws that can be changed by us, and we did.”

The Drivers Union’s biggest victories, though, were won at the city of Seattle—and this bill would put an end to that by reserving the regulation of rideshare companies to the state.

“Now you’re just kind of at the whim of the state legislature, which swings really moderate,” Laundry said. “Here in Washington, we have crazy secessionists that want a holy war. We’re not gonna get any labor victories out of them.”

PAY RAISES

What Creery feels “conflicted” about is the pay raises in the bill. “If you’re a Tacoma driver, it’s really outstanding pay rates,” he said. Currently, “once you leave Seattle city limits, our pay drops by 40 percent.” Drivers in Tacoma, who now get 80 cents a mile, would increase to $1.17.

Waiting time and travel miles without a passenger in the car would be uncompensated, though, and the base fare would be between $3 and $5.17 per trip. “To pay one of us $3 is class warfare,” said Creery.

The bill establishes two tiers of pay. For trips originating in cities with more than 600,000 people (Seattle), the rate would be $1.38 per mile driven with a passenger in the car and 59 cents per minute. Those figures are based on Seattle’s Fair Pay Law, which took effect January 1, 2022. Elsewhere, the rate would be $1.17 per passenger mile and 34 cents a minute.

Yearly pay increases based on the cost of living would begin September 30, 2022.

Mohamed Diallo, 33, has been driving for Lyft and Uber since 2017. He’s in favor of the legislation because his rent in Kent has skyrocketed. He also wants to extend the benefits like sick pay and the right to contest deactivations through an appeals process beyond Seattle to Kent and other parts of Washington state.

He said other drivers from his native Guinea are also in favor of the bill, describing it as “wonderful news.”

“Last year, my two-bedroom used to be $1,500,” Diallo said. “Today I talked to my leasing office because my lease is going to be over and I have to sign a new one. It’s $2,030.” He also feels the financial strain at the gas pump; he’s averaging $180-$200 to fill the tank of his Toyota Highlander SUV. He says the new legislation will increase his average earnings from about 90 cents per mile in Kent to $1.17, and spare him the commute into Seattle where the rates are higher.

Diallo works six days a week, 12-hour shifts, with only Tuesdays off. He has two young children, a boy of six months and a two-year-old girl. “The most important thing about the bill is I will get more money to put food on the table,” he said.

Uber touts “flexibility” as a perk it offers to drivers. But “I don’t think flexibility is as important for the guys with the Teamsters,” said Laundry, who connected me with Diallo. “They’re driving 70, 80 hours a week. They’re just scrambling to support their families. They’re working their tails off, so they don’t really have a flexible life.”

THE BEST WE CAN GET?

Why would any union agree to be involved in these compromise bills? The argument goes that we’re not going to win on employee status, plus there are innumerable hurdles to organizing gig workers at scale… so creating a third category, an independent contractor with at least some labor rights, is the best deal the labor movement can get.

Nicole Moore from Rideshare Drivers United in California finds a contradiction in that position. “There’s more demand for unions, a better minimum wage, and labor rights,” she said. “Compromise is absolutely the wrong direction. This is not to say we can’t get legislation on the road to employee status—but not at the cost of our labor rights.”

The app-based companies and their labor collaborators tout the notion of creating “portable benefits” that follow you from gig to gig. But “labor rights are portable benefits,” Moore said. “I have my rights to unemployment. If I get hurt on the job, I have portable benefits to workers’ compensation. Anything other than that is taking some people completely out of the picture.”

For Moore, the defeatist attitude that employee status isn’t winnable harks back to the National Labor Relations Act’s exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers. Like those workforces, the gig workforce is largely people of color and immigrants.

A personal vehicle makes for a very isolated and lonely workplace, which is why most gig workers’ organizing kicks off online. “We know each other in the parking lot of the airports,” Moore said. “We know each other online, because we find Facebook pages and Reddit in order to share information and understand. We are ready to organize.”

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

In the breezy language of Wiest’s email to state representatives, the benefits of the deal appear excellent. But not all that shines is gold. It can be a spear.

One of the sharpest daggers in the bill is preemption—giving the state government the exclusive power to regulate rideshare companies, so that Seattle could no longer enact wage increases or new rules about drivers’ working conditions.

“The Teamsters-affiliated Drivers Union has already won the nation’s leading labor standards for Uber and Lyft drivers at the local level in Seattle,” said Kerry Harwin, communications director for the Drivers Union, in a statement to Labor Notes. “Seattle’s first-in-the-nation protections have demonstrated a meaningful impact for Uber and Lyft drivers, who enjoy the highest minimum wage in the country, the nation’s first paid-sick days for gig workers during the pandemic, and the country’s only legal protections against unfair deactivations.”

Seattle’s City Council passed the Gig Worker Paid Sick and Safe Time ordinance, backed by Teamsters Local 117, in June 2020. Since then the city’s Office of Labor Standards has reached a $3.4 million settlement for violation of the policy with Uber and a $1 million settlement with the online food delivery company PostMates. It also reached a $350,000 settlement with DoorDash and PostMates in violation of a pandemic-related hazard pay law for food delivery workers; each company had to pay restitution to about 3,000 workers.

In September 2020, Seattle hiked the minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers to $16.39 per hour (it’s now $17.27) and required the ridehail companies to pay drivers at least 56 cents per minute drivers are traveling to pick up a passenger or carrying one; it also covers driver expenses.

For Uber and Lyft, this combination of a progressive city council and workers organizing was too much. Their business model depends on misclassification, and on state government footing the bill for benefits that employers are traditionally on the hook to provide. So they went to the legislature.

NO BENEFITS DURING ROVING TIME

In the email to state representatives, Wiest said the bill would provide rideshare drivers with workers’ compensation under the “same robust state-run program that protects employees in Washington State.”

But in fact, workers’ comp would only be in effect when a driver is on the way to pick up a passenger or actually has a passenger in the car; the legislation describes these activities as “dispatch platform time” and “passenger platform time” respectively.

This leaves workers vulnerable if they get injured between fares, while they are roving and awaiting a new trip request. A 2020 UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment study estimated this cruising without a passenger is 35 percent of their work time. This method is also used to calculate the premiums that Lyft and Uber will pay into state coffers for workers’ comp.

Weist championed the paid sick protections, which she said would be “at the same accrual rates for all workers.”

But paid sick leave would not accrue at the same rates for independent contractors as it does for employees. Again, it would exclude the time drivers are waiting for passengers, and in this case also the time they drive to fetch them after being pinged for a trip. Drivers would only earn paid sick time when a passenger is in the car, which the same study estimated to be roughly 53 percent of their work time. As a result, drivers will have to work twice as long as other workers to qualify for the same amount of time off.

“We are frontline workers—providing trips to nurses and other essential workers during the pandemic,” said Ahmed Farah, a Drivers Union member who has driven for Uber and Lyft since 2016, in an emailed statement. “As a father of three, paid sick days is a very important protection when my kids get sick.”

Drivers would be eligible for unpaid sick leave after working for 90 days for a ridehail app.

Paid family leave was included in an earlier draft of the bill, but was scrapped from the final legislation. Weist’s email doesn’t mention the change, but Drivers Union staff continue promoting the idea that it is in the current bill.

Unemployment insurance will be studied by a “work group of stakeholders” drawn from labor and the gig industry with the deadline of producing a report by December 1, 2022.

‘DRIVER RESOURCE CENTER’

Protection from retaliation and an appeals process to negotiate driver deactivations are critically important for drivers. How would the legislation address this? It would provide a direct line of funding for the Drivers Union, which presumably meets the criteria in the legislation to serve as a “driver resource center.” (It may be the only group to qualify, since the bill says such a group must be able to demonstrate that it has past experience representing rideshare drivers and “providing culturally competent driver representation services.”)

A driver resource center’s services will be paid through a 15-cent per-trip surcharge on riders, with dues membership modeled after the Independent Drivers’ Guild (IDG) in New York City, a Machinists-affiliated company union of Lyft and Uber drivers that receives an undisclosed amount of funding from both companies.

And what would it do? The legislation makes scant mention of what services drivers would receive from the resource center. Asked about that, Harwin, the spokesperson for the Drivers Union, didn’t elaborate much: “It will provide support services to drivers, including representation” when faced with a deactivation.

??The state treasury would oversee the fund. The state director of the Department of Labor would choose the driver resource center through what the bill describes as a “competitive process.” Workers won’t have a say in choosing the non-profit organization, nor in how the money is spent.

The legislation also says the “driver resource center may not be funded, excessively influenced, or controlled by a transportation network company.”

Joe DeManuelle-Hall wrote last year when a similar draft legislation was floated in New York that at a 10-cent surcharge, a similar resource center would have netted $75,000 per day—a staggering $27.5 million per year, based on a calculation of 750,000 rides daily in New York City shortly before the pandemic.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

The idea of bringing an IDG-like deal to the West Coast can be traced back to disgraced ex-Teamsters leader Rome Aloise.

Aloise, once a vice president of the international union, was eventually found guilty of taking gifts from employers, negotiating a sham contract, and using union resources to rig a local union election—and then of running Local 853 and Northern California’s Joint Council 7 while he was suspended from the union for these offenses. He has been “permanently barred from the Teamsters” and “permanently enjoined from participating in union affairs” effective January 31, 2022.

But back in 2018, Aloise was still in power and trying to cut a deal with Lyft and Uber. Among the many exhibits and court documents compiled when he was brought up on internal union charges were various emails from that fall discussing plans (never realized) to create employer-linked driver guilds in Seattle and San Francisco.

Aloise proposed that Seattle’s Teamsters Local 117 and the Workers Benefit Fund, which has ties to Uber and Lyft, should jointly “support the creation of legislation and a guild infrastructure for Seattle Drivers.” In a document shared with WBF CEO Benjamin Geyerhahn, Aloise wrote: “WBF will provide with [sic] polling, legislative support, legal support, its expertise and its relationships with Uber and Lyft. This support includes financial support for these items carrying through until legislation is passed. In exchange, it receives the Teamsters full support and exclusive right to provide benefits to the Seattle drivers…”

In a revealing email to a few other California Teamsters leaders on November 21, 2018, Aloise wrote: “Maybe it is worth talking about setting up a Driver’s Guild in SF, and then of course expanding it at a later date… In NY, a lot of money is pouring into the Guild and back to the Machinists who were behind the establishment of the Guild.”

One year later, he wrote on February 1, 2019: “[Local] 117 heavily involved and substantial negotiations this coming week with both companies. The issue, of course, is how to stop any legislation which would give our core industries any loop hole [sic] to move into this TNC [Transportation Network Company] type model, while allowing Lyft and Uber to operate with some type of meaningful representation for the drivers.”

In 2018, he exchanged emails with former Service Employees president Andy Stern about the need to protect “core industries” for the Teamsters– package delivery and freight transportation– in order to enter into an agreement with Uber. “For any of this to get any traction in California, it will need to have some language about staying out of certain functions, which are core industries to the Teamsters, i.e.; such as package delivery, freight transportation, etc. If there is to be a carve out of their ‘industry,’ this will be essential, and perhaps a model for the other companies to deal with the ramifications of the Dynamix decision.” (At the time, the state’s Supreme Court in its Dynamix decision ruled against misclassification, creating a framework for standards to determine employee status.)

Last-mile transportation and delivery has gigified rapidly since 2018. Think: Uber Freight and Uber Eats. In September of 2020, United Parcel acquired Roadie, a crowd-sourced, same-day delivery company. FedEx bought Shoprunner. Amazon, Walmart, and Target have adopted and expanded their speedy gig-delivery business models to everything from yoga pants and furniture to pet food.

“Online competitors are shipping it from a distribution center going across multiple zones where we’re taking it in the back of a DoorDasher’s car for the same cost as if it was a tennis ball, delivering it the same day, and delivering it at lower cost,” said Petco CEO Ron Coughlin in a March 2021 interview.

What’s to protect UPS Teamsters from their work shifting to Roadie?

Update: this article has been updated to clarify that paid family and medical leave aren’t included in the current bill. But Weist and Drivers Union staff continue to promote the perks of the bill with those as included benefits. It has also been updated to reflect what the passage of the bill would mean for Teamsters in freight and transportation. —Editors

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on February 25, 2022

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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‘Can we find a deal?’: Coronavirus sparks debate over paid leave

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Democrats, Republicans and corporate America are coalescing behind a federal paid leave policy for the first time in the U.S., one of few rich nations where workers aren’t automatically provided the benefit. But as they hammer out the details, fracture lines are already emerging that could derail the decades-long effort once again.

President Joe Biden’s support for a federal program, combined with public frustration at a lack of paid leave during the pandemic, has Democrats reaching for a robust policy. Republicans and employers, many of whom balk at the potential cost to businesses and the government, are seeking a more targeted approach.

“We’re closer to a federal paid leave policy than we’ve ever been,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, an advocacy group. “This is the time when we can push it to the finish line.”https://a4c41b575340f869f83742e574252ee9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

But negotiating the specifics, she acknowledged, will be an uphill battle: “There’s a lot of questions and various paths forward, and a lot of real-time chess being played.”

There is already a wide gap between what Biden campaigned on, what Republicans are amenable to and what employers think is workable. The president wants to provide all workers with a week of paid sick leave to care for a personal illness, and 12 weeks of longer-term paid family and medical leave to care for themselves or a family member. Some GOP members have floated a narrower approach, while others remain wary of a universal standard that could burden businesses.

“[A] permanent one-size-fits-all federal mandate being pushed by Democrats is not the answer,” House Education and Labor ranking member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said. “New and small businesses are the least equipped to deal with sweeping national mandates during the best of times, let alone a pandemic, and the last thing we want to do is pile on yet another.”

But some advocates say a paid leave policy would have saved the government a load of money during the pandemic. Before the crisis struck, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. workers lacked access to paid sick leave, while 4 in 5 lacked access to paid family leave. More than half are estimated to lack access to paid medical leave.

“We did sort of a back-of-the-envelope analysis of this, and it would have saved the federal government a trillion dollars to have had a federal national paid leave program in place before this pandemic hit,” said Maggie Cordish, who advised Ivanka Trump on paid leave during the Trump administration. “A lot of people would be able to have kept their jobs, taking the time off they needed to deal with caregiving responsibilities, to reorganize their sort of carefully constructed caregiving infrastructure.”

For its part, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce prefers that lawmakers hold off on paid sick leave but would be open to a paid family leave policy.

“We are no longer in the ‘just say no’ mode, which we had been for a long time,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber. “We are now in the ‘can we find a deal?’ mode.”

Deciding the length of leave is “the least difficult thing to figure out,” Freedman said. Even if Congress and the White House can manage to reach an agreement on the breadth of a policy, other, more complicated questions abound. Who pays for it? Would a federal policy preempt the web of existing state and local requirements? What type of employers would be covered, and what kind of workers could be eligible?

In search of answers, policymakers and businesses are looking to state and local governments that have implemented policies “to see how they have impacted workers and employers,” said Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors.

The skeleton of a paid leave policy in the U.S. was first erected in 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. It entitled employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for personal illness, the illness of a family member or military deployment.

But the last three decades have seen no further federal action outside of a successful 2019 push to provide federal employees paid parental leave.

In the absence of congressional action, state and local governments took matters into their own hands.

Joshua Seidman, an attorney who represents employers, said that in a matter of years, businesses have seen new laws pop up in Washington state, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and Colorado, among others. And that’s “just in the paid family leave space,” he said.

“This year, we’ve seen the paid sick leave landscape explode,” Seidman said, as the pandemic prompted a flurry of legislative activity.

Over the past decade, unions and labor activists have accelerated their lobbying activity at the municipal and state levels. Their efforts were fruitful: 12 states and the District of Columbia have implemented their own versions of paid sick leave; nine states and D.C. have rolled out a form of paid family and medical leave.

“As we win and study more of the laws that have passed at the state level, it does help to make the case federally,” said Jared Make, vice president for A Better Balance, a national nonprofit advocacy organization for workers.

Make, who works closely with paid leave advocates in statehouses, said his group will push for Congress to enact a law similar to what was just implemented in Colorado. That law, considered to be the most robust in the nation, covers all workers.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) have been fighting to establish permanent paid sick leave and family and medical leave at the federal level — most notably via their FAMILY Act, which they reintroduced earlier this month and would give workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Then-Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled a plan from the campaign trail that would give workers six months of paid family and medical leave. And Democrats fought to include a permanent paid leave policy in rounds of coronavirus relief legislation.

With the support of the Trump administration, Republicans began to warm to the idea. Ivanka Trump’s lobbying for the benefit contributed to its inclusion in the Families First relief package, which provided half the workforce with two weeks of coronavirus-related sick leave at full pay and up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave to care for family members at two-thirds pay.

The Families First program was a statistic-backed success: States that gained access to paid sick leave experienced about 400 fewer cases of Covid-19 per day, researchers at Cornell University and the Swiss Economic Institute found.But the tax credit portion of the program alone was extended in December — not the actual teeth of the policy, the mandate — and language to renew it was dropped from Biden’s rescue plan. The version of the bill moving through the House would once more extend the tax credits only.

At least one state, New Jersey, decided to give state workers coronavirus sick days after the federal provision lapsed, on top of the state’s other existing paid leave programs.

With a paid leave advocate in the Oval Office and narrow majorities in both chambers, Democrats are redoubling their efforts for a permanent policy.

“This shouldn’t be a partisan issue — it isn’t for families, and I’m going to keep making it clear that it’s not and trying to get this done,” said Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney rolled out a bill last month alongside DeLauro and others that would provide federal employees with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, which she said she hopes can serve as a model for a similar program covering the private sector.

Still, Republicans remain concerned about how the policy could be funded in a way that does not place too much pressure on employers. In part, this is why employers and Republicans are more amenable to paid family leave over paid sick leave: Not only does FMLA provide an existing structure, but many states have rolled out paid family leave programs that are paid for in whole or in part via employee contributions, a model that would place less of a burden on businesses. The cost of paid sick leave, on the other hand, “is basically stuck on the employer,” Freedman said.

It’s a key example of wait-and-see at the state level: “Two of the biggest and what might be considered to be the most left of center states, New York and California, both are over 100 percent, employee-funded programs,” said Glenn Spencer, senior vice president of employment policy at the Chamber of Commerce.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 25, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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Democrats say DOL keeping workers in the dark about paid leave

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“They’re not stupid,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “They know how to get the word out. They just don’t want to.”

An Indiana truck driver denied paid leave while experiencing coronavirus symptoms. An Arizona HVAC employee paid for just two of 13 days spent in self-quarantine. A California USPS worker rejected for paid leave when caring for her child whose school was closed.

These are just a few of the 700-plus cases that employees who became temporarily entitled to paid leave under coronavirus response legislation have brought against their employers.

Though the Families First package enacted emergency paid leave for as many as 60 million workers, many report being uninformed, misled or in some cases, even threatened by their employers over the new benefit.

DOL says it is educating workers on their rights to the emergency paid leave to the best of its ability, including by fielding phone calls and hosting what it says is hundreds of outreach events. But Democrats and worker advocates say the agency could be doing more and may even be purposely keeping employees in the dark in an attempt to “run the clock” before the provisions expire in December.

“They’re not stupid,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “They know how to get the word out. They just don’t want to.”

More than half of Americans are unaware of or believe they are ineligible for the paid leave protections enacted via the coronavirus response legislation, according to a poll released in May by the National Partnership for Women and Families. And a poll released in June by the Paid Leave for All campaign found that just 53 percent of voters have heard a great deal or some about the provisions.

“I don’t think people really understand what their rights are,” said Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. “We have to do a better job.”

DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which is responsible for enforcing the Families First paid leave provisions, employed 756 investigators at the end of April, a DOL official told POLITICO. The agency has concluded more than 700 cases related to the legislation, the official said, and there are “hundreds more” under way.

Much of the agency’s education surrounding workers’ entitlement to paid leave under Families First is tied to these cases, the official said. When the division receives a complaint from an employee, part of investigators’ job is to educate the employer in question on the provisions.

The division has also conducted more than 500 outreach events related to Families First, published an online series of FAQ pertaining to the legislation and posted a “Notice of Rights” in more than 10 languages about the provisions for employers to send employees.

That’s “a significant accomplishment, given that prior to March 2020, federal law had never broadly required private employers to provide paid leave,” a DOL spokesperson said in an email.

“[T]he public has taken notice of this material — since [Families First] was enacted, more than 25 million people have visited WHD’s website,” Labor Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella wrote in an op-ed this month.

But these steps are not enough, Democrats and advocates say.

“We provided $15 million [to DOL] to administer paid leave,” DeLauro said. “So far, [WHD] have $2.5 million that have been spent on outreach efforts. They don’t want to do it.”

Being active on social media, giving interviews to radio stations and local newspapers, conducting outreach at Covid-19 testing sites and food bank lines and hosting press conferences with mayors and governors are all ways that DOL can and should be going about getting the word out, DeLauro said.

“Congress has put the money on the table, now it is time for this administration to step up and educate Americans on the options and resources available to them,” Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) said in an email.

“This is just a failure on behalf of the administration,” Dawn Huckelbridge, the director of Paid Leave for All campaign, said. “They should be … deploying media, public service announcements, radio, local press. This should be a full ‘know your rights’ campaign.”

“We haven’t seen an effort or an investment or a lot of concern even from the Department of Labor.”

The Wage and Hour Division is working to set up “public awareness campaigns” that involve radio and TV outlets, the DOL official said. The official was unable to provide a timeline for when the campaigns will go into effect.

Aura Hernandez is a McDonald’s employee in California who became entitled to paid leave under Families First. When she developed coronavirus symptoms, she used up all of her accrued time off — and then her employer asked her to come back to work, even though she still felt sick, Hernandez said.

She was never informed that she had additional paid leave available to her under Families First — not even when she threatened to quit. She is now on strike.

“They did not explain what were my rights,” Hernandez said through an interpreter. She never received nor saw a “Notice of Rights” or other educational materials at her place of work, she said.

“The Department of Labor must do more in terms of public education and outreach to publicize the entitlements under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) said. “With now more than 100,000 COVID-19-related deaths in the United States, the burden cannot fall all onto the workers to understand the various nuances of these newly developed benefits.”

Democrats and advocates point to DOL’s guidance implementing Families First, which excluded employers of health care providers and others from having to comply with the law.

“The Department of Labor gutted the emergency paid leave protections that were passed by Congress, so it’s not a surprise that they’re neglecting their duty to make sure workers heard about them,” Huckelbridge said.

Adams said her subcommittee is working to schedule an oversight hearing at which lawmakers can hear from DOL officials, paid leave advocates, workers and others.

“Sometimes we just have to put the questions out there, ask the question again, because they may be doing more than we think they’re doing,” Adams said. “But we need to know.”

And Democrats may address the issue in their negotiations with Republicans over the next round of coronavirus aid, DeLauro said.

“When we get to dealing with the Senate on this, we’ll get maybe more specific with regard to the kinds of efforts they should be doing,” she said.

With the provisions scheduled to sunset in December, officials have less than six months to educate workers on what they’re entitled to.

“We only really have so much time here,” DeLauro said. “They’re gonna run the clock. That’s what they’d like to do.”

In the meantime, advocates are doing their best to fill in the gaps.

“The advocate community is trying to step up,” Huckelbridge said, citing Paid Leave for All’s website as well as a “know your rights video” the campaign is set to release this month. “But this is the job of the government, and this is a program that they need to fully implement and educate people about.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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Amazon’s Unlimited Unpaid Time Off Ends May 1, and Workers Say That Could Be Deadly

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Amazon warehouse workers across the country today decried the company’s decision to end a policy of unlimited unpaid time off, and said that working conditions inside Amazon fulfillment centers are putting their lives at risk.

Employees from New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, working with Athena Coalition, said on a call today that a policy change announced late last week—which will replace the unlimited paid time off offered to workers as a response to the coronavirus crisis with a more restrictive policy at the end of this month—is “outrageous” in light of the very real level of danger that still persists for those forced to work in close quarters. “People have to choose, do I stay home and risk losing my job, or go to work and risk getting sick?” said Hafsa Hassan, who walked out of work yesterday in protest, along with about 50 colleagues at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota.

Amazon’s announcement that it will roll back unlimited unpaid time off at the end of April means that employees will soon be required to apply to be granted leaves of absence if they must be away from work for health reasons, or to take care of children who are out of school, or to protect vulnerable family members. But employees say that system is confusing and broken, even for those who should qualify. Rachel Belz, an Amazon warehouse worker in New Jersey who also works with the activist group United for Respect, has not been at work since mid-March because of fears of infecting her family, especially her son. Her attempts to apply for a leave of absence, though, have resulted in multiple dropped calls, unanswered emails, and no response from the company. “H.R. is overloaded. You can open a case, and they won’t get back to you,” she said. “If you’re expecting people at a high volume to apply to these things, you need to work out the kinks in the system.”

Belz, who is in contact daily with other workers at the facility, said that the company’s attempts to keep the warehouse free of coronavirus are inadequate. Among the problems, she said: No soap in the bathrooms, cleaning supplies that are kept locked in cages that can only be opened by managers, and temperature screenings for workers that are being conducted using only a thermal camera—and workers who appear too warm are encouraged to go outside for a few minutes, cool down, and try again.

Amazon spokesperson Rachel Lighty said that “we are providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures.” She also called Amazon employees “heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis.” The company had its first confirmed Covid death two weeks ago, when an operations manager at a California Amazon warehouse died.

Multiple workers said that their facilities lacked cleaning supplies, and that hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes are being kept in one location away from work stations, making it impossible to regularly sanitize your individual work area throughout a shift. They said that Amazon’s current hiring boom is making break rooms and common areas even more crowded, making proper social distancing impossible. They expressed doubt that the single mask being issued per person per shift is enough to keep them safe. And they described the unnerving experience of seeing fully protected cleaning crews descend on their job sites after a coworker reported testing positive for Covid.

Jordan Flowers, who works at the Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island that has been the target of protests and walkouts in recent weeks, said that he knows coworkers who are now choosing to sleep in their cars, rather than going home and risking getting their families sick. “It’s frightening,” he said. Billie Jo Ramey, an Amazon worker in Michigan who has been taking unpaid leave since March after getting ill with Covid-like symptoms, fears what the policy change will mean for her, and for those around her. “I’m in no shape to go back. I’m at high risk,” she said.

Several workers noted the wealth of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos—who’s gotten tens of billions of dollars richer since the beginning of this crisis, thanks to Amazon’s booming stock price—and contrasted his resources with the lack of resources they feel they’re being given on the job. “That’s not just terrifying,” said Rachel Belz, “it’s pathetic that we can’t trust a trillion-dollar company to do the most basic thing, which is to clean.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 27, 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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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Know Your Rights to Paid Leave and Unemployment During the COVID-19 Crisis

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On March 18 Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), in part to discourage layoffs and in part to guarantee paid leave to workers who need to stay home due to the COVID-19 emergency. On March 27 Congress enacted the CARES Act to expand unemployment insurance eligibility and benefits. Both laws expire on December 31, 2020, unless extended.

What follows is a selection of questions relating to the new laws. Please note that this is a complicated and rapidly changing area. Although the U.S. Department of Labor has issued several regulations and guides, aspects of the programs remain hazy.

Moreover, enforcement is likely to be slow and spotty, as a poorly staffed federal Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor appears unable to effectively oversee the leave program and state UI agencies claim to be overwhelmed by the crush of applications. Union workers should always review their contracts to see if they have stronger protections.

1. Business shut down due to COVID-19 emergency

Q. Our governor has ordered nonessential retail businesses to close temporarily due to the COVID-19 emergency. My employer, a department store, has issued over 300 layoff notices. Can I collect unemployment insurance (UI) benefits though I only worked there for a week?

A. Yes. The CARES Act awards UI benefits to workers who are laid off, temporarily furloughed, or reduced in hours due to the COVID-19 emergency–even if they have a sparse wage history. Most states pay approximately 50 percent of wages up to a maximum amount that varies significantly around the country. Some add more for dependents.

The CARES Act adds $600 to weekly UI benefits between March 27 and July 31, 2020—even if this raises benefit checks above a claimant’s regular pay. UI payments are taxable.

2. Quit due to COVID-19 safety concerns

Q. I work in a supermarket in close contact with customers and co-workers. Social distancing is impossible. Management has not responded to our complaints about the lack of proper protective equipment. Two workers have contracted COVID-19. If I quit because of the virus risk, could I qualify for unemployment insurance?

A. Possibly. The CARES Act grants UI eligibility to an employee “who has to quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19.” Although the Act does not elaborate, the entitlement would appear to apply to a worker who stops work because of a reasonable concern of contracting the virus. A state UI official will ultimately decide.

Tip: Put your resignation in writing, making sure to explain your fears.

3. Paid sick leave during self-quarantine

Q. My doctor has told me to self-quarantine for two weeks due to COVID-19 symptoms. Does my employer have to grant me paid leave for the absence?

A. Yes, unless you are a health care provider or an emergency responder or work for an employer with 500 or more employees (see questions 5 and 6 below).

Under the FFCRA a full-time worker who needs to quarantine due to COVID-19, or who is experiencing symptoms of the virus and seeking a diagnosis, is entitled to up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at a rate of up to $511 per day over a two-week period. Part-timers are entitled to pay on a pro-rata basis. The employer is reimbursed dollar-for-dollar through tax credits from the federal government.

You cannot be required to use other accrued benefits, such as paid vacation or sick leave, in place of FFCRA leave. Nor can you be required to make up the time.

Your employer must continue paying for group health coverage during your leave. If your workplace has 25 or more employees, you must be restored to your regular job or an equivalent position (unless a layoff affecting you has transpired).

Your employer can deny paid leave if 1) you decline an offer of telework, or 2) there is no work available. In the latter event, you would qualify for UI benefits.

After two weeks, if you continue in quarantine, or if you are still experiencing COVID-19 symptoms (but are not severely ill), you may file for benefits from your state UI agency.

Note: You are also entitled to paid leave to care for a family member or other person with whom you have a relationship who is subject to a quarantine order or is advised by a physician to self-quarantine. Your rate will be two-thirds of your regular pay up to a maximum of $1,000 per week.

Note: Workers requesting paid sick leave under the FFCRA must give notice to their employer as soon as is practicable after the first day missed, providing the name of the health care provider who issued the stay-at-home advisory.

4. Paid childcare leave

Q. My ten-year-old child’s school has closed due to the COVID-19 crisis and I must be home to care for her. Does my boss have to provide me with paid time off?

A. Yes. You are covered by the FFCRA if you have worked 30 days or longer for your employer and you are not in one of the Act’s exempt categories (see questions 5 and 6 below). Eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of protected paid time off if a child’s school or daycare center closes due to the COVID-19 crisis and no other parent or usual childcare provider is available.

The pay rate for workers taking childcare leave under the FFCRA is two-thirds of regular pay up to a maximum of $200 per day. You may supplement your check up to your regular earnings with other available paid leave such as sick or vacation pay. Leaves may be taken intermittently—up to a total of 12 weeks—if your employer agrees. Your employer may not take adverse action against you because of your time-off request.

Your weeks out of work will count against your annual 12-week Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) entitlement. If your employer violates your leave rights, you may file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

A worker whose request for childcare leave is denied may apply for UI benefits. UI benefits may also be available if you need more than 12 weeks time off. You cannot collect UI benefits for any weeks that you receive paid leave.

5. Employers can refuse leave requests from health care providers

Q. I am a hospital nurse. My child’s regular caregiver cannot come to my home because of the COVID-19 virus. Am I entitled to paid time off?

A. This is a sore point. To guarantee the availability of medical personnel, the FFCRA allows covered employers, public and private, large and small, to deny COVID-related sick and caregiver leave to persons who serve as “health care providers.” A similar federal law (the FMLA) restricts this term to physicians and other professionals qualified to issue medical diagnosis. According to the Labor Department, however, for purposes of FFCRA leave the phrase includes everyone employed by a hospital, clinic, nursing home, pharmacy, medical products manufacturer, or other similar institution. Consequently, your hospital can refuse your request.

Note: A hospital employee whose request for a COVID-related caregiver leave is denied can stop work and file for UI benefits under the CARES Act. The possible downside is that the employee may lose his or her rights to paid health insurance and reemployment.

6. Large employers can refuse leaves

Q. We work for General Motors. Are we entitled to sick and caregiver leaves under the FFCRA?

A. Surprisingly, no. Congress excluded private employers with 500 or more employees (across all facilities) from the FFCRA, supposedly to prevent such employers from claiming the Act’s tax credits.

7. Public employees

Q. Are state workers entitled to paid sick and childcare leaves under the FFCRA?

A. Yes. The FFCRA applies to all state and local government agencies and many, but not all, federal agencies.

8. Small employers and paid leave

Q. I work for a private social service agency with 12 employees. Does the agency have to approve FFCRA leaves?

A. Yes, with one exception. An employer with less than 50 employees can deny a COVID-19 child care leave if the employee’s absence would prevent the employer from working at minimum capacity or would cause expenses to exceed its revenues.

9. Workplace closes during caregiver leave

Q. I am in the midst of a 12-week FFCRA leave to care for my children. If my company closes its workplace during my absence, can it stop paying me?

A. Yes. Pay to a COVID-related leavetaker can be halted if the employer closes its doors or otherwise has no work available. You would then be able to apply for UI benefits.

10. Independent contractors and UI benefits

Q. I drive for Uber. Due to COVID-19, rides have dried up all over the city. Where I used to pull in $1,200 a week, I now make less than $200. Can I file for UI?

A. Yes. The CARES Act allows self-employed persons, including independent contractors and “gig” workers, whose incomes have dried up due to the COVID-19 crisis to file for total or partial UI benefits through December 26, 2020. Successful claimants will receive their regular weekly rate plus the $600 bonus through July 31, 2020. You will have to document or otherwise certify your income loss.

But note: Many state agencies are delaying decisions on claims from self-employed persons until they can make changes in their claims verification system. When approved, however, your benefits should be retroactive to the first week you lost work due to COVID-19.

11. Part-time workers and UI benefits

Q. I was working part-time when my employer ceased operations due to the COVID crisis. Do I have to look for full-time work to receive UI benefits?

A. No. The CARES Act allows persons out of work because of the COVID crisis to limit their job search to part-time work.

12. Undocumented workers and UI benefits

Q. Can undocumented immigrants file for UI benefits due to the COVID-19 public health emergency?

A. No. Although undocumented workers are deemed essential in some industries, they are still excluded from UI programs.

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Robert M. Schwartz is a retired union-side labor lawyer and author of several Labor Notes books, including The Legal Rights of Union Stewards, The FMLA Handbook, and Just Cause: A Union Guide to Winning Discipline Cases. Ordering information is at labornotes.org for when our online store reopens.


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Amazon Says It’s Giving Part-Time Workers PTO—But There May Be a Catch

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has rolled out a new policy that extends paid time off to thousands of part-time operations employees.

The change follows a months-long campaign by workers in Amazon’s last-mile delivery stations to demand PTO, touted in the company’s public communications as an “essential” benefit offered to all its workers. After being told that a special classification made them ineligible, workers at Sacramento’s DSM1 delivery station launched a petition demanding the same benefits as other part-time employees and staged a walkout in December. Workers at delivery stations in Chicago and Queens took up the call earlier this year, and more than 4,300 Amazon employees nationwide signed on.

On March 20, delivery workers celebrated after receiving a “manager’s update” that reads, “We are excited to announce that Amazon will offer paid-time off benefits to all our regular part-time and seasonal employees in the United States working in the [Operations] network.

But employees still have questions.

It’s still unclear how the policy will apply in localities that already require paid sick leave. Chicago-area Amazon workers who say they previously caught the company breaking local sick-leave law suspect the company is now trying to pull a bait-and-switch.

Workers at Chicago’s DCH1 delivery station say they currently accrue 15 minutes of paid sick time per 8 hours worked, a rate slightly above what’s required by local law. Over the weekend, members of the group DCH1 Amazonians United asked an area manager to confirm whether they would receive PTO on top of existing sick leave. They say they were told that they would accrue both, separately, until June 1. At that point, sick time would “disappear,” and they would continue racking up PTO: at the same rate they do now.

An internal announcement at the facility, provided to In These Times, reads: “PTO and sick time will continue to accrue. In June it will combine and sick time bucket on HUB will disappear.” (HUB refers to the online system where employees can track their available paid and unpaid time off.)

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about the new PTO policy.

According to Ted Miin, a Chicago Amazon employee and member of DCH1 Amazonians United, “Amazon is making a few concessions to motivate workers who are desperate and poor to keep coming into the warehouse and putting themselves at risk. But once we get this, we’re not going to let them take it away.”

To meet soaring demand from home-bound consumers, Amazon last week announced plans to hire 100,000 additional warehouse employees. The online-retail giant is also raising workers’ pay by $2 an hour through April, creating a $25 million hardship fund and granting two weeks of paid sick leave to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Those changes fall short of demands outlined in a petition for coronavirus protections from Amazon, including time-and-a-half pay, childcare pay and subsidies for workers impacted by school and daycare closures, paid sick leave without a requirement for positive diagnosis, and complete facility shutdowns in order to sanitize warehouses where workers test positive for COVID-19.

Last week, a Queens delivery hub reopened the day after an employee tested positive, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at a U.S. Amazon facility.

Workers say that the standard precautions—stand at least six-feet apart, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching surfaces that might be contaminated—are almost impossible to follow inside crowded facilities. The volume of packages they’re handling has peaked, and the goods they’re moving are heavier.

“At the same time that they’ve been telling us to work more safely and sanitize our stations, they’ve raised productivity quotas,” said a worker at the Queens facility station who asked to remain anonymous. “Some people still have trouble hitting them even if they’re not washing their hands, and they’re not giving us extra time to wash our hands.”

Chicago Amazon employees have set up a mutual aid fund to support workers who they say are struggling to make ends meet during the crisis.

“While Amazon has publicly announced a policy to give workers sick/quarantine pay, several of our coworkers under CDC-advised self-quarantine due to medical status or recent travel are still getting the run-around by Amazon and have thus far not been able to get that pay,” they write on the page. “We will fight until we get it, but in the meantime funds are running low for medicine, food, baby supplies, and rent.”

Last week, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos, urging him to grant workers sick leave and hazard pay. The letter also poses questions about precautions Amazon is taking, with a March 26 deadline to respond.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Americans who are taking every precaution … might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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Corona and Class Warfare Part II: Stopping a Multi-Dollar CEO Pension Tax Break

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Last week I asked everyone to consider the coronavirus pandemic as a pretty clarifying picture of class warfare—who are the people who get hurt most when millions of jobs go away or at best are in limbo because of a nationwide shutdown? It’s working people, minimum wage workers, service workers—almost none of whom have enough cash in reserve to pay bills, unlike the rich who have made their wealth by exploiting workers. Who are the people most vulnerable? It’s the people who either have to still go to work or can’t afford to stay at home because they don’t have mandated paid sick leave or family leave, even in a crisis.

Today, as so many of you either hunker down or are living in fear, I talk with one of my favorite and regular guests Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, about a menu of steps the country needs to take to mitigate the devastating health and economic hits workers are taking in the pandemic.

Then, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat from Maryland, joins me to talk about his efforts to protect tens of thousands of federal workers by calling for an expansion of their right to telework during the corona pandemic, as well as his effort with Bernie Sanders to buttress workers’ pensions by ending a multi-billion tax break for CEO retirement plans.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on March 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out more than a decade ago, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays (slacker), with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995). I’m currently working on two news books.


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The Narrow, Ineffective and Wholly Inadequate U.S. Debate about Paid Sick Leave

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In the rush — or at least the pretense of rush — to bring immediate economic relief to the millions of average workers gutted by the tanking global economy brought on by the coronavirus, Democratic Party elites and centrist papers of record Washington Post and New York Times are cementing the terms of the debate to a narrow, ineffective, and wholly inadequate discussion of paid sick leave.

Over a forty-eight-hour period from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, the New York Times has run twelve articles and op-eds online that substantively mention paid sick leave, including Associated Press and Reuters reprints. Not a single one of those pieces mentions the fact that informal economy and contract workers would not benefit from such protections, which are urgently needed — but ideally would just be one strand of a much larger safety net.

piece published Saturday by the New York Times editorial board does criticize the legislation for paid sick leave passed by the House Saturday morning, shepherded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for not going far enough because it doesn’t apply to companies with 500 or more workers. “In fact, the bill guarantees sick leave only to about 20 percent of workers,” the piece notes. “Big employers like McDonald’s and Amazon are not required to provide any paid sick leave, while companies with fewer than 50 employees can seek hardship exemptions from the Trump administration.” Yet nowhere in this article will you find any mention of the informal economy workers who are entirely excluded from this legislation.

This omission is glaring, because a significant portion of the US workforce is employed in the freelance and informal economies not covered by paid sick leave. According to some counts there’s over 56 million freelancers in the United States (though not all are economically precarious, many almost certainly are).

As for the informal economy, it is, by definition, difficult to determine the exact scale of this sector. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated in 2018 that 18.1 percent of total employment in North America is in the informal sector (the ILO didn’t look just at the United States). A 2011 Urban Institute report found “there are no precise estimates of the size of the informal employment sector in the United States, but it could range from 3 to 40 percent of the total non-agricultural workforce,” which means it could be as low as 4 million or as high as 53 million Americans.

Many of these informal economy and freelance workers are already in crisis. “Sex work has given me a level of financial stability I’ve never had before, but I’m still just one rent payment away from crisis,” a New England–based sex worker told Jacobin. “Most sex workers don’t have a safety net and will almost certainly be left out of any formal systems put in place to make up for lost wages. I’m already worried about what I will do when I lose income and have nowhere to turn.”

During the same forty-eight-hour period, the Washington Post published fifteen articles and op-eds that substantively mentioned paid sick leave, including Associated Press and Bloomberg Wire reprints. Of those, none gave a clear mention of informal economy workers. One opinion column by Adam Shandler discussed gig workers, but this brief mention provided the entire scope of coverage of the informal, freelance, and undocumented economy in the context of the coronavirus relief package.

Reading the Times and Post coverage, and statements from both Republican and Democrat leaders, it’s clear that helping the vulnerable and precarious dig out from the economic conditions they face is almost incidental to the paid sick leave mechanism. “The House’s failure to require universal paid sick leave,” the aforementioned March 14 Times editorial concluded, “is an embarrassment that endangers the health of workers, consumers and the broader American public.”

The urgent concern for our political and media leaders at the moment appears to first and foremost be containing the rate of the virus’s spread. A noble goal, of course, but one that is separate from making sure people don’t suffer economic hardship.

The pressing political question is: the focus on only paid sick leave? And why only two weeks? These questions are especially important given the almost immeasurable level of need among all workers.

“Informal economy workers are being entirely left out of the conversation, on the federal level but also state and local levels,” Fahd Ahmed, the director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a New York–based organization, said to Jacobin. “Conversations have centered on more established, more formal, and resourced employers, but our membership is primarily undocumented and working in small businesses, often working on cash, doing domestic work inside of homes. A lot of the message doesn’t apply to their employers, or they wouldn’t qualify because of documentation processes that are required.”

The answer lies, in part, in the worldview of the most powerful Democrat on this issue and all others: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is a longtime ideological adherent to thinking on deficits which prioritizes finding out how “one is going to pay for things” over whether the policy is moral or needed as such. Thus, in the event of a mass catastrophe, questions of austerity will, before negotiations even begin, limit what’s possible to the bare minimum required for Democrats to look like they’re Doing Something.

The excuse for the current half of a half measure, per usual, is that the ground ceded was necessary for “compromise.” But we have decades of evidence, including comments made by Pelosi herself in the past seventy-two hours, that this wasn’t a reluctant compromise made by an otherwise progressive champion of broad populist action, but the logical conclusion of her long-standing approach to politics. Pelosi has referred to far-right deficit hawk and Republican Pete Peterson as a “national hero,” and has derided anyone to her left for suggesting the Democratic Party may be insufficiently progressive.

On Saturday, when the Times broke the news of the limited scope of the bill, Pelosi took to Twitter to defend it, insisting, “I don’t support U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing … Large employers and corporations must step up to the plate and offer paid sick leave and paid family & medical leave to their workers.” Not only does Pelosi begin her statement with the right-wing austerity catchphrase “US taxpayer money,” her rhetorical climax is mildly chiding corporations and demanding they “step up to the plate” without any sense of what the consequences are if they don’t.

In the time of the most pressing crisis facing the American poor potentially since the Great Depression, the vulnerable are offered up ideologically razor-thin hand-wringing by one of the people most empowered to actually help them.

It’s important to note that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals would implicitly solve many of the problems of freelancers and those in the informal economy. In Sunday night’s debate Sanders name-checked homeless people and prisoners and he took a big risk when, months ago, he included undocumented people in his Medicare for All plan and Ocasio-Cortez has taken to social media this week to champion eviction moratoriums, student debt cancellation, and a universal basic income — all of which would fill much of the gap left in paid sick leave framing.

The goal, of course, is not to pit formal economy and informal economy workers against each other. Whether one is laboring for Jeff Bezos or for a small employer who pays cash under the table, workers deserve to be immediately bailed out by this unforeseen pandemic. Paid sick leave must be a part of this rubric, especially in times of profound public health crisis. But when paid sick leave — for a small number of workers, and for a limited amount of time — is accepted as the only emergency response, it’s tantamount to repairing a crumbling building with scotch tape.

We need to be talking about wealth redistribution on a far grander scale: What would it look like to provide immediate material relief, in the form of guaranteed income, to workers who are losing work — and who should not work, so that we can have a hope of containing this health crisis? How can we enact such a policy to ensure no one is left behind, no matter how they make their money, or whether they are able to make any money at all, regardless of immigration status or disability? What does it look like to pursue an ambitious program to redistribute wealth, unconcerned with selective “how will you pay for it?” concern trolling, on an unprecedented scale so that the people losing their jobs, and potentially losing their homes, can survive this crisis?

Millions of people are in free fall right now: Bars and restaurants are closing, construction sites are shuttering, yet rent is still due, mouths need to be fed, and there is no clear end date to the crisis. When the parameters of debate are drawn so narrowly as to exclude the actual actions that could bring these people material relief, that’s the same thing as leaving them to fend for themselves.

First published in Jacobin.

This article was published at In These Times on March 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

About the Author: Adam Johnson is the co-host of Citations Needed podcast and a writer at the Appeal.


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Unions Across America Are Screaming For Paid Sick Leave and Healthcare

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As coronavirus spreads, sowing panic and economic dislocation, unions across the country are using the crisis as an opportunity to call for priorities that were dismissed as left-wing fantasies not long ago—and now seem like common sense. 

Virtually every union with members in a position to be exposed to the illness itself or to its economic side effects (which is to say, almost everyone) has reached out to members with tips about how to navigate the crisis. Many, particularly those representing front-line service workers, are also speaking to reporters, holding press conferences, and issuing press releases about the failings of the government and corporations to deal effectively with the needs of working people. AFGE, which represents federal government workers, criticized the Trump administration’s lack of guidance about what to do as the virus spread. The Association of Flight Attendant’s called Trump’s European travel ban “irresponsible,” and criticized the administration’s “failure to adequately test for the virus, failure to contain the spread, suppression of advice from leading scientists, and failure to consult with stakeholders.” Most unions called for immediate paid sick leave policies, some targeting individual companies where union members work, and others calling on the government to create a national paid sick leave program to bring the United States in line with the standards of the developed world.

Demands of different unions vary based on their membership, but all coalesce around public health and economic security. The Chicago Teacher’s Union called on city leaders to promise that teachers and staff would not lose any pay in the event of a school shutdown. It also broadened its focus to the entire community, demanding that “the City take all action within their authority to support fifteen days of paid sick leave for all CPS parents and Chicago residents.”

The SEIU is running several different campaigns at once that focus on needs exposed by the coronavirus crisis. The union represents doctors in training, and launched a “Hospital Interns, Residents and Fellows Bill of Rights,” calling for better wages and working conditions, as well as a right to unionize. In New York, where 32BJ SEIU represents thousands of airport workers, the union held a press conference calling for the passage of a state law that would require employers to give a health insurance subsidy to those workers—including subcontractors—many of whom cannot currently afford health insurance.

Massive, nationwide public fear of an infectious disease is a great way to get people to care about the health of the working people they come into contact with in their daily lives. Even the most conservative Republicans have now acquired an intense desire to ensure that the people who drive them around, serve their food, ring them up at stores, and take care of them at hospitals are not sick. Unions are trying to use this newfound leverage to score gains that can last past the day when the coronavirus dies down.

Perhaps the most bluntly effective campaign is now being waged by Chipotle workers in New York City, who are trying to organize with SEIU. Workers went on strike last week, charging that the company is violating the city’s paid sick leave laws by retaliating against employees who take time off. To put a fine point on it, the union quoted Chipotle worker Carlos Hernandez in a press release: “Several times in my year at Chipotle, I’ve gotten sick and had diarrhea while at work,” Hernandez said. “Every time this happened, I went to the on-duty manager, let them know I had diarrhea, and asked to go home. Unfortunately, every time I did this, the manager merely told me to switch from the grill, where I normally work, to washing dishes or working the cash register.”

With diarrhea and the coronavirus on their side, working people may achieve fair health care at last.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 13, 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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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