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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 [email protected].


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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 [email protected].


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Ivanka Trump promised her dad would deliver a great family leave plan. Here’s what we got.

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Ivanka Trump once promised that if her father was elected, she would ensure paid family leave was a staple in every workplace, and Donald Trump promised the program would finance itself.

Two years later, the Trump administration is no closer to accomplishing this goal than they were when Ivanka and her father told prospective voters and working parents that they could be trusted to deliver on paid leave and thus deserved their votes.

“My father’s policy will give paid leave to mothers whose employers are among the almost 90 percent of U.S. business that currently do not offer this benefit,” Ivanka Trump said at a September 2016 rally.

Trump himself said he would “provide six weeks of paid maternity leave to any mother with a newborn child whose employer does not provide the benefit” and “get them to be okay, right? And we will be completely self-financing.” He said he would do that “by recapturing fraud and improper payments in the unemployment insurance program.”

His campaign website also promised “6 weeks of paid leave to new mothers before returning to work.” The campaign’s proposal did not include fathers or adoptive parents in their paid family leave proposal. Offering paid leave only to mothers carries economic costs to women, who already face a motherhood penalty in the workplace.

Since then, there have been paid family leave policies announced in budget documents that were subsequently ignored by the administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.

Ivanka Trump was there for the announcement of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) paid family leave bill in August, which would allow working parents to access some of their Social Security benefits early, to give them the facsimile of paid leave at the expense of the worker’s retirement.

That this campaign promise has seemingly died on the vine shouldn’t be too surprising, as Trump’s own businesses often fell far short of paid family leave for its own workers.

Ivanka Trump, who was an executive at the Trump Organization before joining her father’s administration, asserted that the company provided paid family leave to all of its workers. But that turned out not to be true — the company complied with the Family Medical Leave Act which requires employers to allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, however it did not provide paid parental leave to employees across all its properties and hotels.

The United States is one of only nine countries in the United Nations that doesn’t guarantee paid time off for new mothers.

Some states have struck out on their own to pick up the slack, passing legislation that ensures the expansion of paid family leave coverage for their residents.

But working parents nationwide are still waiting for a solution to a crisis that impacts millions of new parents who need to work to support their families.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on December 7, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Koronowski is the Research Director for ThinkProgress. He grew up on the north shore of Massachusetts and graduated from Vassar College with dual degrees in psychology and political science, focusing on foreign policy and social persuasion. He earned his M.S. in energy policy and climate at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he was the research director and rapid response manager at the Climate Reality Project. He has worked on Senate and presidential campaigns, predominantly doing political research and rapid response.


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Southern Cities Are Passing Paid Sick Leave—But Republicans Won’t Let Them Have It

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On August 16, the San Antonio city council voted 9-2 to pass a paid sick leave ordinance that will allow residents to earn an hour of time off for every 30 hours worked up to six days a year at small employers and eight at larger ones. 

The United States is alone among 22 wealthy countries in having no national guaranteed paid sick-leave policy. As a result, states are left to pass their own laws, and in those like Texas where GOP legislatures stand opposed to paid sick leave, it’s up to the cities.

San Antonio became the 33rd city in the country to take such a step, and the second in the South after Austin passed a similar law in February.

The San Antonio law is supposed to go into effect in January, and Austin’s was scheduled to go into effect in October. But the fate of both laws is up in the air.

The very day after San Antonio’s ordinance passed, an appeals court temporarily put Austin’s law on hold in the midst of a lawsuit brought by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation— a member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network—that claims the law violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act.

Even if that lawsuit fails, many Republican members of the Texas legislature have vowed to pass legislation to block such local progressive laws throughout the state. Lawmakers are expected to take up broad preemption legislation as a top priority when the next legislative session begins in the new year.

Texas cities have watched the state erase their laws before. After he took office in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to preempt cities’ ability to pass their own ordinances. In 2017 he explained this decision would “continue our legacy of economic freedom” and “limit the ability of cities to California-ize the great state of Texas.” In 2015, the state blocked cities from regulating oil and gas drilling activity, including fracking, and it has also banned local laws that would create sanctuary cities.

It’s a growing trend in legislatures controlled by Republicans. At least 25 states have passed preemption laws that block cities from raising the minimum wage, and 20 have banned cities from instituting paid sick leave. The majority of these laws have been enacted since 2013 and advocates for higher workplace standards say the trend is only accelerating.

Texas advocates for paid sick leave haven’t given up hope, however. They plan to wield the sheer amount of popular support for these ordinances in their favor and against the state politicians who block them. “Our state leadership is out of touch with what the majority of Texans believe and want for their communities,” says Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, a community organizing group behind the paid sick leave ordinance.

Two years ago, the Texas Organizing Project began surveying working families in San Antonio about what issues were most important to them and what would most improve their lives. “It was very clear…that issues addressing economic security were at the very top of the list,” Tremillo says. Number one was access to jobs that pay well, but in Texas only the state can raise the minimum wage, followed by benefits and the ability to get paid time off for illness, understandable since an estimated 350,000 city residents don’t have access to paid sick days.

Advocates also eagerly watched what happened in Austin. “It just made sense that we would figure out how to make that happen in San Antonio as well,” Tremillo says.

Her group and others decided to take the issue directly to city residents. In San Antonio, anyone can put an issue before the city council by collecting signatures from 10 percent of the eligible voting population in the previous municipal election. If they succeed, the city council can either decide to vote on the topic directly or reject it, thus sending it to the ballot for voters to weigh in on. To hit the 10 percent requirement, paid sick leave advocates needed to collect at least 70,000 signatures to force the issue.

Within ten weeks they managed to collect more than double that number, eventually receiving more than 144,000. “The response was forceful. People wanted to sign it,” Tremillo says. “People understand immediately how important that basic right is, it is a basic right to take care of yourself and your family.”

It was the first time in Rey Saldaña’s seven years on the city council that he saw any issue get above the 70,000-signature threshold, he says. “It was an easy sell, easier than many folks had actually thought,” he says. Surprised at the level of support behind the issue, the mayor and Saldaña’s fellow council members decided to take it up and pass the ordinance themselves.

Saldaña, who supported paid sick leave from the beginning, chalks the support up to the fact that so many people in the city work in the service industry where paid sick day are uncommon. “Many of them know what it feels like to have to make decisions between going in sick or taking a pay cut that week,” he says. “[But] they didn’t realize that they had that power to try to ask the government to step in and intervene on some of the pressures they have in life.”

That support, he believes, will make it hard for state lawmakers to reverse the progress made. “The time is going to expire on the state of Texas’s ability to ignore that issue,” he says.

“Unfortunately we have a state leadership that is determined to interfere with our cities’ ability to do what’s best for their citizens,” Tremillo says. “We have a state leadership that is not at all concerned about improving conditions for working people.”

“The state has turned its back on working Texans and turned its back on solutions,” Saldaña agrees. “It does not surprise the city of San Antonio, just like it does not surprise Austin or Dallas or Houston, that the state wants to step in and keep cities from innovating and applying rules and laws that support the working men and women who prop up our economies.”

But that only adds urgency to the campaign to protect the laws that cities have passed on their own. Advocates pledge to keep up the momentum no matter what the state does. “We will continue to fight at the city level and at the state level for what people really need and want,” Tremillo says.

And she notes that San Antonio’s experience, with over a hundred thousand people voicing their support, shows that the state is up against a swell of popular support. “These are large numbers of voters and people in our community who are demanding improvements to working conditions,” she says. “I think our numbers are only going to get bigger. I think people are going to stand up against our state leadership… We’ll continue to increase the number of people participating in our democracy.”

She adds, “They should stay out of interfering with what our cities are doing and they should start listening to the needs of regular Texans.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has written for The New Republic, The Nation, the Washington Post, The New York Daily News, New York magazine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus.


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New Jersey to be tenth state with paid sick leave, but the U.S. stays at the bottom worldwide

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More than a million workers will be getting paid sick leave soon after New Jersey’s legislature has passed a bill, which Gov. Phil Murphy has said he supports. That makes New Jersey the tenth state to require paid sick leave, and the second to do so in 2018, but New Jersey’s path to this point has been especially tough. Republican former Gov. Chris Christie kept a statewide sick leave bill from becoming law even as 13 cities and towns, including some of the state’s largest, passed their own local laws. Now:

The legislation, variations of which have been making its way through the Statehouse for years, would allow private-sector workers to accrue one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

They can use that time to care for themselves or a family member who is ill, to attend school conferences or meetings, or to recover from domestic violence.

Family Values @ Work co-directors Ellen Bravo and Wendy Chun-Hoon noted in a statement that, in addition to the domestic violence provisions, the law “includes the most inclusive definition of family, mirroring America’s families. Those in LGBTQ relationships, people who care for grandparents, aunts, uncles and loved ones outside of the nuclear family model, can heed doctors’ orders and take the time they need to care for their chosen family.”

Republicans continue to stand in the way of the United States joining the overwhelming majority of other countries in requiring some form of paid sick leave.

This blog was published at DailyKos on April 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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


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