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The ACLU of Illinois Seeks a Playbook for Acceptable Progressive Union Busting

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The staff union and management are locked in a battle over who can be included in the union.

Aunion fight that is playing out in Illinois highlights how progressive organizations can use technical objections to the scope of a proposed union to effectively pursue union-busting while maintaining plausible deniability that they are doing so. This effort to have it both ways makes sense when you consider where this labor battle is happening: at the ACLU. 

The past two years has been a landmark one for unionization at the ACLU, part of the broader, ongoing wave of nonprofit organizing. As the pandemic raged in 2020, workers at several ACLU state branches unionized–including in Kansas, where the staff faced a corporate-style anti-union campaign. In January of 2021 about 300 staffers nationwide formed the civil liberties group’s largest staff union, called ACLU Staff United. In subsequent months, more state ACLU staffs across the country have successfully unionized, and ACLU staff union drives are underway in other states, like Virginia and Illinois*. Workers have vowed to continue until they have successfully unionized every state office. 

Though common sense might tell you that an organization that proudly declares that it “has championed the right of workers to organize unions since its inception more than 90 years ago” would be an easy place to unionize, that has not been completely true. While most of the union drives at the ACLU have secured voluntary recognition from management—a necessary baseline for any employer to be considered pro-union—that has not been the case in Illinois. In late June, workers there asked management to recognize their staff union, part of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers. More than five months later, they are still waiting. 

An ACLU of Illinois employee who is a member of the proposed staff union, and who asked for anonymity in fear of workplace retaliation, said that organizing there started in late 2020, after internal efforts to improve the workplace fell short. Employees were particularly upset after an internal staff committee aimed at improving diversity, equity and inclusion was disbanded, even as the organization lost staff members of color year after year. In June, 20 staffers signed an open letter to management requesting recognition for a union covering 27 people. 

“We expected the ACLU to live up to their values” and voluntarily recognize the union, as other state ACLUs had done, the employee said. “But instead we had a strange reaction.” Middle managers were told to keep quiet about the union, and workers were told that they could not use a Zoom background that advertised their union, according to the employee. 

For months now, management and the union have been locked in a stalemate over the issue of how many workers will be allowed to be members of the unit. Restricting the size of a proposed unit is a common tactic by employers, who often seek to assert that as many employees as possible are managers or supervisors, and are therefore not eligible to be union members. These sorts of negotiations, though cloaked in legalistic language, are usually more about power than about law—how fiercely management chooses to argue over vague job descriptions comes down to whether they are comfortable working with a staff union, or whether they see it as a priority to make the union as small and weak as possible from the very beginning. 

Fed up with the delays, the ACLU of IL Staff United finally filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in early October, seeking a resolution. The union had a two-day hearing at the NLRB that concluded on November 1. Though the timeline is not certain, the union expects to get a ruling on the size of its unit soon, and then it can proceed to a formal vote for certification.

“We were fed up, and decided if they weren’t going to be good faith partners,” going to the labor board was the only option, the employee says. “We’re deeply disappointed that the ACLU forced us to spend time and resources going before the NLRB. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time. We’d rather be doing the civil rights work everyone is here to do.”

The ACLU of Illinois said that executive director Colleen Connell was unavailable for an interview. Instead, the organization sent a statement attributed to Connell, which said that she has always been willing to extend voluntary recognition to “an appropriately defined bargaining unit of ACLU employees.” 

“To date, we have not been able to extend voluntary recognition because the Union’s proposed definition of the bargaining unit includes a number of positions that are supervisory, managerial, or confidential in nature and cannot, therefore, be lawfully included. We discussed these issues at length with the Union’s organizer prior to the Union filing its representation petition,” the statement says. It goes on to portray the dispute as one in which management is actually trying to protect employees, saying “our objections are not driven by a desire to defeat the Union’s representational objective. Just the opposite. NLRB law and policy makes clear that unionizing employees’ rights are frustrated by the inclusion in a bargaining unit of supervisors, managerial employees, and confidential employees.” 

That assertion of concern for “employees’ rights” is sharply at odds with what employees themselves say they want. Eleven positions in the proposed bargaining unit are in dispute, representing 40% of the total proposed union. The staff union filed a 50-page brief with the NLRB arguing that management has “taken dramatically expansive definitions” of who should be excluded from the unit, and that these “overbroad” arguments are inconsistent with labor law. 

The workers in Illinois are receiving vocal support from their colleagues across the country. “We’re disappointed that ACLU of Illinois leadership continues to drag out the union recognition process by failing to agree to a fair and inclusive unit,” said ACLU Staff United, the organization’s national union, in a statement. “It seems so easy for management to forget that the ACLU was founded over 100 years ago with a commitment to protecting workers’ rights. Staff at ACLU affiliates across the country and at the national organization have unionized to create a better ACLU and address pay inequities, lack of workplace diversity, remote work policies, and organizational transparency.”

There is no question that the ACLU of Illinois will eventually have some sort of staff union, covering at least some of its employees. But the outcome of its dispute will be significant. If successful in drastically restricting the size of the unit, management will have demonstrated a successful playbook for kneecapping a union’s power while insisting that you are pro-union, in line with your organization’s stated values. 

For workers at the ACLU of Illinois, the process has been eye opening—and has left them “surprised, disappointed, and disheartened.” 

“We came to work at the ACLU because we believe in civil rights,” the employee says. “And that includes labor rights.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate to go before Cincinnati-based federal court

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The mandate will be tested before a court with a majority of Republican appointees.

The legal fight over the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate will be heard before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, after a lottery conducted Tuesday by an obscure federal judicial panel.

Nearly three dozen lawsuits have been filed in multiple federal appeals courts against the requirement, triggering the lottery to consolidate the cases before one court.

The rule, released by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Nov. 5, requires private businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly for Covid-19, starting Jan. 4.

The lawsuits — brought by several Republican-controlled states, private businesses and religious groups — argue that the rule exceeds the Labor Department’s authority and Congress’ ability to delegate to federal agencies, as well as the First Amendment, the Constitution’s Commerce clause, and laws protecting religious freedom, among other legal arguments.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation selected the 6th circuit as part of a random selection where each court’s name was entered into a drum.

The New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay against the requirement earlier this month, and further instructed the Biden administration to “take no steps to implement or enforce” it, finding that the states and businesses challenging the rule “show a great likelihood of success on the merits.”

The Biden administration will now issue its response to that order in the 6th Circuit. The Cincinnati-based court has 16 judges: 11 appointed by Republican presidents and five by Democratic presidents. Six of the judges were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

However, the three-judge circuit panel that will hear the arguments is unlikely to be the final arbiter, since the losing side can request a rehearing before all the judges in that circuit and request Supreme Court review.

While it’s unclear what specific judges on the panel will hear the consolidated challenge, notably, three judges on the 6th circuit struck down a court order late last year that would have allowed Kentucky religious and private schools to reopen for in-person education amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based group that takes up court battles on behalf of Christian issues, represented one of the parties in that Kentucky school case and also filed one of the challenges against the OSHA vaccine-or-test rule in the 5th Circuit.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

This blgo originally appeared at Politico on November 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Biden vaccine mandates will hit after holiday season, offering relief to businesses

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The announcement follows weeks of pressure from business leaders who complained the rules would wreak havoc on the supply chain and possibly aggravate worker shortages.

The Biden administration’s forthcoming vaccine mandates for millions of private employers, certain health care workers and federal contractors will not be enforced until after the holiday season, following weeks of pressure from business leaders who complained the rules would wreak havoc on the supply chain and aggravate worker shortages.

The administration released two new rules on Thursday that will be enforced starting Jan. 4 — one setting up new vaccination-or-test requirements for businesses with more than 100 workers and another implementing a vaccine mandate for health care workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid. Together, the rules are expected to affect over 1 million workers.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on workers, and we continue to see dangerous levels of cases,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said. “Many businesses understand the benefits of having their workers vaccinated against COVID-19, and we expect many will be pleased to see this OSHA rule go into effect.”

Officials also said the administration is pushing back the Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated, so that all three mandates will go into force on Jan. 4.

While employers were given a brief reprieve from immediately implementing the test piece of the rule, the administration clarified that businesses must be in compliance on Dec. 5 with all other requirements, such as providing paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and requiring unvaccinated workers to wear a mask in the workplace.

Under the rules, workers at private businesses with more than 100 employees will have the option to wear a mask at work and submit to weekly Covid-19 testing in lieu of getting vaccinated. Health care workers and government contractors do not have the testing option.

Unvaccinated workers who claim they have a legally protected exception to getting the vaccine could be fired if their employer says it would be an “undue hardship” to offer remote work or some other accommodation.

Companies that fail to follow the vaccine-or-test rules can be fined up to $14,000 per infraction.

The temporary rules for private employers go into effect immediately and stay in place for six months, but can be directly challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Private employers will not be required to pay for weekly Covid-19 tests for employees who refuse to get vaccinated, according to the new emergency temporary standard released by the Labor Department on Thursday. Whether insurers will cover the cost of testing for unvaccinated workers is up to individual insurance plans, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick.

Private employers subject to the emergency standard must also provide paid time off for workers to receive and recover from the Covid-19 vaccine, according to the rule.

Senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday that the vaccine-or-test requirement for private businesses alone “will protect more than 84 million workers from the spread of the Coronavirus” on the job and estimate that it will prevent over 250,000 hospitalizations.

The requirements, which President Joe Biden announced in September as part of his latest campaign to combat Covid-19, have already ignited a legal battle with conservative states and businesses over the government’s authority to impose such directives.

Shortly after the emergency rule for private businesses was announced, the Job Creators Network, a small business advocacy group, filed a lawsuit on behalf of several businesses in federal appeals court seeking to block the requirements from going into effect, arguing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t have the authority to issue the rule.

“The Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate is clearly illegal and will have a devastating impact on our small business community and our entire economy,” said Alfredo Ortiz, president and CEO of the group, in a statement on the lawsuit.

“The Administration’s mandate will exacerbate the worst labor shortage in recorded history by requiring small business owners to terminate some employees who wish not to get vaccinated while also shrinking the pool of job applicants available for hiring,” he said.

Nineteen states, including Florida and Texas, sued the Biden administration last month over the vaccine mandate for federal contractors, arguing the requirement was an unlawful overreach. And 24 state attorneys general and various business groups have warned the administration that it would face legal challenges if it moved forward with the vaccine-or-test rules for private employers.

Some Republican governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Alabama’s Kay Ivey, have tried to preemptively block private businesses from imposing mandates of any kind via executive order, although legal experts and the administration say those state rules are preempted by the new federal requirements.

“I expect to see battle royale in Texas, in Florida or anywhere else that wants to try to stop these” rules, David Miller of Bryant Miller Olive P.A., said. States are likely to argue the federal mandate violates the First Amendment, as applied to states through the 14th Amendment, Miller said.

“I really think that’s where it’s finally going to come to the nub in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s the only way this is getting settled,” he added.

The administration’s move to delay the federal contractor mandate comes after trade groups, businesses and Republicans complained that the requirements will force employers to fire workers who refuse to get the vaccine or lead to mass resignations among workers who don’t want to comply, leading to more disruption in the labor market and the supply chain ahead of the crucial holiday season.

“In response to similar state and federal mandates, many private companies have begun firing workers who refuse the Covid-19 vaccine,” said Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), during a labor subcommittee hearing on the mandate for private employers last month. “This federal vaccine mandate will worsen the supply chain crisis, almost guaranteeing Americans will go without this Christmas.”

But Biden brushed off those concerns Thursday, arguing that vaccination requirements are popular and also good for the economy.

“As we’ve seen with businesses – large and small – across all sectors of our economy, the overwhelming majority of Americans choose to get vaccinated,” Biden said in a statement on the new rules. “There have been no ‘mass firings’ and worker shortages because of vaccination requirements. Despite what some predicted and falsely assert, vaccination requirements have broad public support.”

Unions, labor advocates, health officials and even some businesses have lauded the effort from the administration, calling the vaccine-or-test rules for private companies long overdue and finally unifying a state-by-state patchwork of requirements.

“One of the biggest struggles of the last two years is that we are dealing with an ever-changing patchwork of health and safety regulations that, in many cases, have differed not just state to state, but county by county,” Richelle Luther, chief human resources officer at Columbia Sportswear Company, told lawmakers during a hearing in October.

“A federal mandate is needed,” she added. “We do not believe it is more regulation for business, but rather, less. A quilt of local laws and approaches created vastly more regulation of business, more uncertainty, risk and inefficiency.”

Some economists predict the federal vaccine mandates could have a positive effect on the labor force. Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in September that “an increase in vaccination and almost full vaccination at workplaces should encourage many of the 5 [million] workers that have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic to return.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal agency that polices employment discrimination, has given employers the greenlight to mandate Covid-19 vaccination in their workplace, so long as they provide accommodations for workers who say they can’t get the shot because of their religious beliefs or a disability.

Last month, the EEOC clarified that “social, political, or personal preferences” are not considered protected religious beliefs under federal anti-discrimination law.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency tasked with policing worker safety, has the authority to issue emergency temporary safety rules that go into effect immediately if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.”

Emergency temporary standards are rarely issued by OSHA. Before an emergency Covid-19 workplace safety rule went into place for health care workers earlier this year, the agency hadn’t released an emergency standard since the 1980s.

OSHA has issued 10 emergency temporary standards in its five-decade history. Of those, at least five were stayed or blocked by the courts, according to the Congressional Research Service.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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How Workers at Beverage Giant Refresco Defeated a “Notorious” Union Buster

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Refresco has waged a prolonged and costly fight to stop the workers from unionizing.

As the spread of Covid-19 forced millions of workplaces to close in March 2020, Cesar Moreira continued to report to a bottling plant in Wharton, N.J., where he works as a batching technician. During 12-hour shifts, Moreira mixes vats of powdered concentrate and sugar to churn out brand-name beverages like Gatorade and Arizona Iced Tea.

Management for Resfresco Beverages Inc., the owner of the plant and one of the largest bottling companies, told workers these operations fell under the umbrella of “essential services.” Moreira was incredulous.

That the company would risk the health of its employees to maintain the supply of sugary drinks angered him. In mid-March, as workers at the plant began to call in sick with coronavirus symptoms, Moreira says plant management ignored their concerns and refused to temporarily halt production. 

On March 21, 2020, Moreira and his coworkers walked off the job to demand adequate protections and contact tracing, part of a wave of safety-related stoppages in the first months of the pandemic. Workers at a Perdue chicken plant in Georgia and a meatpacking facility in Nebraska soon followed suit, the food production sector being a particular hotspot for Covid-19 cases and emergency organizing by a heavily immigrant workforce. 

But workers at the Wharton plant didn’t stop there. Their spontaneous protest quickly blossomed into a full-fledged union drive. In June, 15 months after the walkout, Refresco workers voted 114–101 to join the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Their 250-person bargaining unit is one of the biggest victories of blue-collar organizing during the pandemic.


To win the election, Moreira and his co-workers also had to overcome an aggressive anti-union campaign targeting their predominantly Spanish-speaking workforce. The company pulled out all the stops, posting anti-union flyers and a fake UE contract—and hiring Lupe Cruz, a union avoidance expert who specializes in “bilingual consulting.” In These Times obtained more than eight hours of recordings from six weeks of mandatory anti-union meetings led by Cruz at the Refresco plant this spring. The recordings provide a window into an especially insidious union-busting strategy: exploiting ethnic and linguistic differences to sow doubt and confusion among immigrant workers.

The tactic is old, but it speaks to the increasing specialization of a multi-million-dollar union-busting industry. Labor activists say Cruz, himself a former union organizer, is infamous for his attempts to thwart organizing in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers.

Alejandro Coriat, who encountered Cruz in 2017 while organizing a union at his job at a Hilton Hotel in Stamford, Conn., even coined a term to describe this approach: “intersectional union-busting.” In a workplace dominated by Latino and Haitian immigrants, Cruz and his team “divided us according to two language groups, and with each group, they tried a different tack,” Coriat says. The workers ultimately won their union by a near-unanimous vote.

Cruz’s strategy also failed at Refresco, but the workers’ fight isn’t over. After the union won the election, Refresco moved rapidly to scrap the results on a technicality. While a representative for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recommended certification of the union in September, Refresco has signaled that it intends to appeal.

That leaves the Refresco workers in limbo, unable to start contract negotiations. At a time when essential workers are reporting more willingness to take collective action, the Refresco drive shows just how many hurdles they still face.

Licinia Ochoa has worked as a machine operator at the Wharton bottling plant for 22 years. It was her first job after she moved from Colombia to New Jersey in 1999. UE estimates that, of the 250-some workers who mix, bottle and pack beverages at the Refresco plant, more than 85 percent are Latin American immigrants.

Work at the plant, which opened in 1980, was never easy, Ochoa says. But until recently, it was dignified. Her schedule was regular, the hours weren’t too bad and she knew she would be covered if she got injured or sick.

Then, in 2016, the plant’s original owner sold it to Refresco.

The beverage giant has grown rapidly by gobbling up smaller companies in North America and Europe; its gross profit in 2020 was 1.9 billion euros, according to an annual report. Refresco operates more than 60 plants worldwide, including about 30 in the United States. The majority of workers in the U.S. facilities are not unionized.

“Many things changed since Refresco came,” Ochoa says.

Soon after acquiring the Wharton plant, Refresco switched the company’s healthcare plan to one with high deductibles and skimpier coverage. Later, the company replaced many 8-hour shifts with 12-hour shifts. For many workers, wages stagnated below $20 per hour.

Cesar Moreira immigrated to the United States from Ecuador and has worked at the plant for seven years. He suffers from sleep apnea. “I’m paying $750 [for treatment], plus $1,500 to the company that makes the mask that sends oxygen to my brain,” he says. “That’s $2,200.

“We are talking about a multinational corporation. So why couldn’t they keep our health insurance [from before]?”

Ochoa, 62, was among those assigned to 12-hour shifts. Ochoa makes $17 an hour and says her healthcare copays are so high she avoids seeing a doctor. But she had no choice after becoming seriously ill in March 2020, eventually requiring hospitalization for Covid-19. The virus put her out of work for two months.

Ochoa and several coworkers had reached out to UE in 2019, beginning talks over healthcare and scheduling concerns. But the drive didn’t kick into high gear until spring 2020.

Anthony Sanchez, an employee of 15 years, says when he tested positive for Covid-19 in March 2020, he tried to alert the company. “They didn’t talk to the coworkers I interact with all the time,” he says. “They didn’t give tests. They didn’t put anybody in quarantine.”

For months, workers kept their intentions to unionize quiet, while distributing and amassing signed union cards to demonstrate majority support.

“They never would have thought we would do this under their noses,” Ochoa says. “It was brutal when they found out.”

When workers attempt to organize a union, it’s almost a given they’ll face resistance. A 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute reveals employers spend about $340 million on anti-union services annually. Hiring professional “union avoidance” consultants to interrogate workers and carry out so-called captive audience meetings is an especially common tactic.

As the union avoidance industry has grown, it’s also become increasingly sophisticated. Richard Rehberg, a researcher for the International Union of Operating Engineers, says he first encountered Cruz and his special brand of culturally competent union-busting while working for Food and Allied Service Trades, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in the early 2000s.

“It was a new thing,” Rehberg says. “Basically, the union-busters were pandering. You know, ‘OK, how are we going to deal with these Latino workers and Spanish speakers?’”

Now, says Rehberg, this kind of specialization is common. Employers can hire union-busters to appeal—sometimes crudely—to almost any demographic. On campaigns to organize construction and building trades, for example, Rehberg says he has repeatedly encountered one man with a “pseudo-biker look” apparently intended to help a well-paid consultant relate to blue-collar workers.

In 2020, employers gained another anti-union strategy: They could simply lay off workers attempting to organize and blame it on Covid-19. That appears to have successfully stalled active union drives among nurses in North Carolina, truck drivers in New Jersey and a host of others, according to an April 2020 New York Times investigation.

“This is a continuation of behavior that has become all too common, of employers being willing to use increasingly aggressive tactics to stop unionizing,” Sharon Block, a former NLRB board member, told the Times. “The pandemic has given them another tool.”

The situation creates a kind of paradox: While unions report workers increasingly want to organize (spurred by the pandemic), the number of actual union drives has declined.

The number of union representation elections fell by 30% from 2019 to 2020—partly due to a total stoppage of NLRB elections in March 2020 and the new challenges that in-person organizing faced. The Refresco workers’ campaign was a bright spot amid the lull.

Soon after Refresco workers submitted their union cards in May, management ushered them into the first of six weeks of mandatory meetings. In a recording of one of the first meetings, obtained by In These Times, Lupe Cruz introduces himself.

“Where are you from, sir?” Cruz asks employees in the audience in Spanish. One is from Ecuador. Another is from Peru. Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico are also represented.

“All different countries—six for six!” Cruz says. The workers’ immigration backgrounds will become an ongoing theme.

“One of the first things we’re going to teach you is, What is the process and the system here in the United States,’” Cruz says. “Because the way this works in Mexico, in Colombia, in Venezuela—it’s very different.”

Throughout the meetings, Cruz and the other consultants refer to the sessions as “classes,” saying they intend to provide the workers an education about U.S. labor law.

In one session, a worker chimes in with a story about how Refresco changed the plant. Cruz interrupts him: “I’m giving you a legal opinion, not an emotional one. There’s a difference. This is objective.” 

“They wanted to trick people with an image that they were neutral,” says Anthony Sanchez, who sat through multiple anti-union meetings.

In another session, Cruz presents a truncated history of UE, implying that thousands of workers jumped ship from the union after learning about U.S. labor.

“You know what the highest number of members this union has had?” Cruz says. “Six hundred thousand. What happened with those members? They left. Those who understood the system left.”

In fact, UE’s steep decline in membership, beginning in the 1950s, followed a wave of plant closures and vicious anti-Communist attacks, including by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the same session, Cruz suggests UE is incapable of defending workers: “If this union isn’t one of the big ones, and Refresco is the biggest in the world, what kind of funds does this union have to help you in a fight?”

In an apparent attempt to cast doubt on the union, a document with the header “legal and binding contract between UE and the employees of Refresco” was posted at the plant. It contained a list of benefits and raises, as well as a blank signature line for the union—as if to say the union couldn’t actually guarantee improvements.

After casting the union as underfunded and impotent, Cruz describes a hypothetical scenario in which Refresco loses its big clients, like Pepsi, and workers are laid off.

“Who’s the real boss?” Cruz asks. “The real boss is Pepsi. If you’re Pepsi, you’re in the best position to negotiate [with bottling companies] because they all want your business. So if Pepsi looks into contracts with other businesses, what if they like them? They steal Refresco’s business. And then what happens to your jobs?” According to UE, the possibility of layoffs came up frequently in anti-union meetings.

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from threatening workers with layoffs or reduced benefits if they join a union. Because of this, “employers are more likely to make implied rather than direct threats of job loss,” explains Kate Bronfenbrenner, labor scholar and director of labor education research at Cornell University. “They are much harder to prove [as legal violations], because so much is dependent on the culture and history of a particular workplace.”

In a statement emailed to In These Times, a spokesperson for Refresco says the company’s actions are entirely legal. “As it has done throughout this election process, Refresco has and will continue to follow all the legal rules governing its behavior in connection with and arising out of the union’s efforts to organize employees at its Wharton, New Jersey facility,” writes Antonella Sacconi, Refresco’s communications manager. “This includes, but is not limited to, neither retaliating against nor rewarding employees based on their union sympathies or support.”

Neither UE nor pro-union Refresco workers allege the company’s anti-union campaign broke any laws, just that Refresco and its hired consultants sought to confuse and manipulate workers—the legality of which, they say, serves as evidence of the weak labor protections for U.S. workers.

Cruz did not respond to multiple requests for commentBut to union organizers and labor activists, he is a familiar figure. Bronfenbrenner calls him “notorious.”

Cruz once worked as an organizer for the hospitality union Unite Here but has been battling the campaigns of his former union for more than a decade. In 2006, the owners of a Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles paid Cruz $480,000 during a particularly bruising anti-union fight, according to reporting by the Los Angeles TimesHilton fired an employee active in the union drive who had allegedly been caught stealing by a “mystery shopper” posing as a guest. When workers gathered in the cafeteria to protest the firing, management suspended more than 70 of them for a week.

Cruz has since gone on to consult for such employers as Trump Hotels, the auto club AAA and others. His involvement helped quash high-profile union campaigns at American Apparel in 2015 and a New Seasons Market grocery store in Oregon in 2019.

Cruz is associated with at least two firms that have filed disclosures with the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), which requires third-party labor consultants to report income from employers. The firm Cruz & Associates reported more than $3.5 million in income in 2018 but has not filed additional reports since 2019. Quest Consulting, established in 2019 with Cruz as its president, reported $1.4 million in revenue for 2020, according to OLMS records.

Workers who have encountered Cruz on other union campaigns report seeing similar tactics to those at Refresco.

During a union drive at Tartine Bakery in 2020, workers say monolingual Spanish speakers were siloed for separate captive audience meetings. OLMS data shows Quest collected $243,363 from Tartine in 2020.

Refresco has since hired Seyfarth & Shaw, a prominent employer-side law firm, to appeal the union election results to the NLRB, which Bronfenbrenner says is an “extremely common” tactic. “It gives the employer more chances to raise questions about what the union really wants. And [make] the workers who voted for the union feel less secure,” she says.

For their part, workers on the organizing committee are preparing for steward elections and the eventuality of contract negotiations.

“I’m OK, but I’m uneasy,” Moreira says. “The only way to make a change is to pressure these people into understanding that we aren’t … animals to control at their will.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a 2020–2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.


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Covid means remote workers can live anywhere. So where’s ‘anywhere’?

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SEATTLE — In spring 2020, just as the first Covid-19 surge was peaking and businesses, schools, and whole countries were shutting down, a young couple named Elizabeth and Anton made a bold move. Little did they know it would put them in the vanguard of a pandemic-enabled geographic dispersion that demographers, economists, employers, developers and local governments are still figuring out.

Elizabeth grew up in a Seattle suburb and, after college and a spell working in Hawaii, returned to settle where she always wanted to live, in Seattle itself. She and Anton seemed to be living the Cascadia dream. Their apartment, in a walkable neighborhood packed with hip restaurants and bars, was small, but it had an iconic view of Mt. Rainier and the downtown skyline. She biked around the city’s scenic Lake Union to her job in the city’s shiny new tech district, helping oversee clinical trials at a biopharma company, and grew vegetables in a nearby community garden. On weekends they escaped to the woods and mountains.

But with each return to the city, her spirits fell. The dark, damp winter days depressed her: “When it rained, I smelled concrete rather than earth. It stressed me out to eat from my plot — two or three times I found needles there. I have a really bad image of leaving work in South Lake Union and seeing a man shooting up in his mouth. People like me were just walking by. It filled me with despair.”

Then the pandemic hit, and everyone who could was told to work at home. Elizabeth and Anton faced the prospect of living and working together, 24 hours a day, in just 550 square feet, or looking elsewhere for more space and the life they really wanted. Suddenly all options were open. They took an exploratory road trip around the Mountain West. “The call to Colorado kept getting stronger,” she recalls.

The tech giant Anton works for reluctantly agreed to let him stay remote indefinitely. Elizabeth asked the same but got shot down. She quit and landed at a smaller biopharma that was glad to let her work from home. They looked at a remote mountain village, but the broadband there was too slow to support online work — a critical factor in remote workers’ relocation choices. So they settled for a ranch house on the edge of Boulder with space for gardening and mountains nearby. Her urban blues evaporated. “Now the stressor of the day is building a barricade to keep the bobcat out of the chicken coop,” she says, laughing.

Just one hitch: Elizabeth and Anton, already priced out of Seattle’s real estate market, hoped to buy in Colorado. But prices have surged in Boulder, as they have in most of the country. They’re now looking south to New Mexico.

Meanwhile, another young tech-industry couple, Andrew and Amy, reached the same decision Elizabeth and Anton did, but it took them in the opposite direction. They’d had enough of life in San Jose, where they lived and worked for a streaming service: the sprawl and freeways, the wildfire smoke and surly neighbors, the general anomie of Silicon Valley. And with a 2-year-old daughter, they dreaded school prospects in California.

So they persuaded their employer to let them go remote permanently and chased their dream up the West Coast. They wanted to stay in a diverse, liberal coastal city; for many on the right and left, ideological compatibility is an important consideration in moving. But they also wanted a safe, cozy neighborhood and beautiful wild places to go camping.

They found it all in a quiet, leafy district of century-old bungalows with a prized public elementary school, a Carnegie library and a plethora of shops in easy walking distance, with water and mountains to east and west. With no income tax, their tax burden fell. Their immaculate three-story neo-Craftsman home cost $2 million, but they say it’s twice the house they could have gotten in a comparable Bay Area neighborhood. They still marvel at how friendly their new neighbors are. “Walking around, we get into conversations with strangers all the time,” says Andrew. “Everyone we pass says, ‘How you doing?’” All in all, the move “was a pipe dream come true.”

And not just for them. “When we sold some stuff we didn’t need on Craigslist, everyone who responded had just come here from California,” says Andrew. “Even Waffles, the neighborhood cat,” adds Amy. “His tag says 408” — San Jose’s area code.

Their dream came true in much-maligned Seattle, just two miles northwest of Amazon’s headquarters and a mile south of the apartment Elizabeth and Anton fled, on a hilltop haven overlooking the same urban landscape that oppressed her. One couple’s ordeal is another’s idyll.

Millions of Americans moved during the last 18 months, many of them spurred or influenced by the pandemic. But these two reciprocal moves to and from Seattle point up just how personal such choices are, and how they’re steered by individual circumstances. Amy and Andrew wanted a more urban setting; by selling the ranch house they’d fixed up in San Jose, they could afford a Seattle that was out of reach for Elizabeth and Anton, who longed for the country anyway.

As these divergent moves also suggest, it’s perilous to seek simple patterns and easy takeaways in complex demographic processes such as Americans’ response to Covid-19. But the pandemic has reset the residential choices and aspirations of millions of Americans, in ways that will last long after the Covid-19 emergency recedes. Those millions of individual choices together add up to forces that can sustain, reshape — and sometimes unmake — cities and communities around the country.


In March 2020, as the novel coronavirus spread from its initial beachheads in the Seattle, San Francisco and New York areas, a dire meme also spread: Americans were fleeing en masse from crowded cities to the supposedly safer suburbs and countryside. Island communities from Maine to Florida closed bridges and raised road blocks to keep outsiders out.

It’s tempting to draw early conclusions from incomplete data when something as dramatic as a pandemic intrudes. LinkedIn News’ editor was one of many to call it an “urban exodus.” The Washington Post announced the “Great American Migration of 2020” and predicted that it “might contain the seeds of a wholesale shift in where and how Americans live.” Even then-President Donald Trump weighed in from the debate podium. “New York is a ghost town. … It’s dying, everyone is leaving.”

Such sweeping statements were bound to elicit a counter-narrative. “There is not a widespread movement of people prospecting to move out of urban areas,” Bloomberg’s CityLab declared in September 2020. In April 2021 it stated the case more boldly: “There is no urban exodus; perhaps it’s more of an urban shuffle” — movement within and between metropolitan areas, rather than away from them.

But this conclusion also rested on some shaky foundations. Its first iteration relied on data from Apartment List; the renters it tracks may be more dependent on transit, more rooted to the sorts of fixed, lower-paying jobs deemed “essential” and less able to take advantage of remote working opportunities than homeowners. The second version cited census and postal data showing 84 percent of those moving from cities stayed in the same states, 7.5 percent of them in the same metropolitan areas, while 6 percent moved to other large metros and less than 1 percent left metro and micro urban areas altogether. But that tally left roughly 10 percent unaccounted for. And staying in the same state, even the same metro area, generally means radiating out to suburbs, exurbs, smaller towns and rural areas within metro counties.

It also turned out that some of the headline-grabbing early outflow was temporary — students at closed colleges and laid-off young workers returning home, affluent urbanites sheltering in beach cottages and second homes. And as Brookings Institution demographer William Frey noted this past May, plummeting immigration levels under the Trump administration had already depressed population growth in the large cities where immigrants tend to land. Then, in the words of Matt Mowell, a senior economist at the national real estate firm CBRE, “immigration ground to a halt in 2020” under pandemic restrictions, contributing to steep population dips in New York and other immigration hubs.

That’s just one of the ways the pandemic has mostly reinforced and accelerated trends that were already underway, rather than creating new winners and losers in a grand reshuffle between metropolitan areas. As Frey’s tallies show, Sunbelt and Western cities that were already growing robustly — Tampa, Sarasota, Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, Phoenix, Boise, Sacramento, Riverside — kept growing (with an extra boost from coastal California for the last four). Rust Belt and other post-industrial cities that had lost inhabitants for decades — Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee — kept losing, though the outflow slowed in some. Mowell notes that “people just stayed put” in many shrinking or slow-growth cities, such as Dayton, Ohio. “The chaos of the pandemic and labor market uncertainty likely encouraged many households to delay moving plans,” he said. As a result, despite the much-publicized disruptions in some cities, about the same number of people — 35 million — filed address changes with the Postal Service in 2020 as in 2019 and 2018.

San Francisco, San Jose, New York — in particular Manhattan — and Boston were another story. Their populations, boosted by the tech and financial booms, had held strong until the pandemic, but then suffered the highest out-migration rates among major metro areas.

Boston’s loss has begun reversing as colleges reopen, and New York is showing signs of recovery. “More people are choosing to go there now,” says LinkedIn’s chief economist, Karin Kimbrough, who tracks workplace shifts through its millions of job and résumé listings. The University of Toronto’s Richard Florida, who prophesied the rise of the “creative class” in cities like New York, is confident the Big Apple will get its mojo back: “NYC is special,” he told me via email. “It is the world’s most dominant global center. It has a diverse economy spanning real estate, finance, media and entertainment, tech and more. It is the magnet for the young and ambitious.” And it has ample experience recovering from crises.

But San Francisco, which lost residents faster than any other major city after the pandemic hit, hasn’t gotten them back, and San Jose’s recovery also lags. Tech jobs have continued to proliferate there as in other hubs, but those jobs (unlike New York’s finance and arts) are especially suited to remote work. Florida likens the West Coast’s tech meccas to the once-dominant single-industry towns of yore — more versatile and adaptable, certainly, than Pittsburgh and Detroit were, “but still not New York.”


One of the most timely indicators of how the work-from-home revolution is affecting America’s cities is key card swipes. Kastle Systems, a national office security firm, uses them to track workplace occupancy in its largest markets.

In March 2020, office attendance plummeted from nearly 100 percent to a little over 20 percent in Houston, Dallas and Austin, 10 to 15 percent in Los Angeles, San Jose, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, lower still in New York — and just 4 percent in San Francisco. Those numbers have slowly risen since (aside from sharp drops in Texas during its February cold snap). Kastle clients’ office attendance is now about 50 percent in the Texan cities. It tops 30 percent in most of the others — except San Jose, with nearly 27 percent, and San Francisco, at just 24 percent.

San Francisco’s empty offices reflect other factors as well: its scarce housing, high land-use hurdles, nosebleed rents and home prices, and strict Covid rules (which gave it the lowest infection and death rates among big cities). But even there, the net flight seems to be abating, though not reversing. Apartment asking rents, which plunged 27 percent last year, “are almost halfway back up,” says Ted Egan, the City of San Francisco’s chief economist. “The flow now is both ways.” According to USPS change-of-address records, 12,058 individuals, households and businesses left San Francisco in January 2021, 4,442 more than arrived. By August that gap had shrunk to 1,752.

But none of the experts contacted expect San Francisco to fill up again soon. And none expect America’s suburbs to lose their growth edge over San Francisco and other cities. In 2020, according to census data crunched by the Brookings Institution’s Frey, suburbs grew 43 percent faster than central cities in the 55 largest metropolitan areas. The online real estate listing and data firm Zillow recently reported that “the ZIP codes with the highest page views per online listing … became increasingly suburban over the past 18 months.”

Frey’s lone outlier was Seattle, which experienced more growth in its center than its suburbs in 2020. Since then, however, even this exception has fallen into line. The Seattle area has charted record home-price growth even in 2021 — but prices rose more than twice as fast in the suburbs to the north as in Seattle itself, reflecting higher demand for suburban housing. In January 2021, the Postal Service received nearly 2,000 more address changes from those leaving the center city than those entering; by August that gap had grown by a fifth. Incoming and outgoing address changes were roughly balanced in Seattle’s inner suburbs, but arrivals outpaced departures in the outer burbs.

Nationwide, all this accelerated a trend that began in 2015. For nearly a decade before that, central cities had grown faster than suburbs, a trend Frey credits in part to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. He believes it left many new graduates and other young adults “stranded” in the cities scraping together what work they could, putting off forming families, and living “la vie bohème.” Also, the outsize millennial generation, a.k.a. the baby boomlet, was at just the right age to relish trendy cities’ restaurants, nightlife, and meeting and mating opportunities — and to put up with cramped apartments and shared housing. Then, as the economy recovered and the tech boom spread beyond Silicon Valley and Redmond, they were perfectly placed to take advantage. Yesteryear’s barista became today’s six-figure programmer.

But now the suburbs are hot again. As Frey told me, this seeming change actually marks a “return to normal” — to the pattern of suburban growth and urban contraction that began in the postwar years. The late ’00s and early tens, when young people and empty nesters flocked to revitalized urban centers, was actually an anomaly. Now those millennials are mostly in their 30s, ready to seek family-sized houses and yards and fret over schools.

“We know millennials move when they set up households, looking for more space,” says Kimbrough.

Remote working has added a new imperative (and another advantage to the suburbs): home office space. And it’s given those in tech and some other white-collar fields undreamed-of choice in where they look. “Everybody’s kind of dreaming right now,” says Andrew in Seattle, “because you have this opening.”

Employers have pushed back, fearing they’ll lose control and their companies will lose their edge without the secret sauces of spontaneous collision and workplace culture. “We’re hearing CEOs say that creativity and innovation wane as a result of not working in groups, especially for millennials and GenZ-ers, who like socialization and miss the ‘creative collision,’” consultant Jay Garner told ChiefExecutive.Net.


Tell that to the millennials and GenZ-ers. Survey after survey finds that majorities of workers — 68 percent in one study — would choose remote over in-office work. The same survey finds that 70 percent of those who are already working remotely would forfeit benefits to continue, and 67 percent would take salary cuts.

It’s become a point of pride: “The people who want to go back are the ones who don’t do that much work,” one tech worker told me. “Who spend their days in meetings.”

As a result, going remote can give employers a recruiting advantage. In July, only 11 percent of the jobs posted on LinkedIn were remote, but they got 21percent of views. They included about 26 percent of software and IT services jobs and 23 percent in media and communications and wellness (all those Zoom Zumba classes).

A study by researchers at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México concludes that “the mass social experiment in which nearly half of all paid hours were provided from home between May and December 2020” proves that remote working works. They predict that 22 percent of workdays will remain remote after the danger passes, up from 5 percent pre-pandemic and 1 percent in 2010.

“I think companies are losing qualified applicants, so they’re conceding to that as an option,” says Anton in Boulder; he sees a “much, much higher number of permanently remote jobs advertised in the environmental field” for which he studied than he did in spring 2020. “And they’re saving on office space.” Or seeing the light: 52 percent of bosses surveyed by the consultancy PwC in December said productivity improved during the enforced work-at-home period.

“Remote work is the biggest shift in the nature of work in decades,” says the University of Toronto’s Florida. “It gives some workers more flexibility. And in these cases it shifts the balance of power from companies to workers.” And, to various degrees, from New York to upper New England and the Hudson Valley, from the Bay Area to Boise and Billings. In this way, the world is becoming flatter; remote work is leveling the field of opportunity.

Many more workers in manufacturing, service, retail, and some white-collar fields can’t join this shift. But what Susan Wachter, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Institute for Urban Research, calls “the new urban dispersion” will affect more than just the fifth or so of workers who will join it.

Kimbrough believes it will “be really healthy, a spreading-out of skills across the country” from places like New York. Will cities now compete less for job makers and more for jobholders — lavishing money on schools, parks and arts rather than tax subsidies for new factories and warehouses?

“Towns near amenities are the new hot spots now and for some time to come,” Wachter said by email. “I think cultural capital will be a continuing pull,” says San Francisco’s Egan. “I’ve told people you need to think about office workers as the new tourists. Instead of traveling they commute.” Or don’t.

Egan’s watchword may be prophetic in an unintended way. Well-paid remote workers, like affluent tourists, retirees and other transplants, can drive up property prices, pricing out those dependent on local labor markets. This introduces new class divisions, within rather than between regions. “There’s a widening affordability gap throughout the Mountain West,” says CBRE economist Mowell. “A city like Phoenix never had an affordability problem. Now it does.”

Dispersion may bring other changes, for better and worse. As Florida notes, “remote workers do not just work from home. They work in coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces, libraries, each others’ homes. Communities need to focus on building more effective remote-work ecosystems.”

It takes more than such “ecosystems” to adapt to the influx. The Boise area, with by some measures the nation’s fastest rising rents last year and biggest home price surge in the first half of 2021,is still reckoning with its own success. “This is no longer an affordable city,” says Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University, who leads the annual Idaho Public Policy Survey. “We’ve asked since 2016, do you think pace of growth is about right or too fast? Responses were evenly split in 2016. Now 75 percent say ‘too fast.’” Longtime residents grumble endlessly about rude, impatient newcomers overrunning the town and spoiling its traditional conviviality, but as Lyons notes, “the same stories about Californians ran here in the ’70s and ’80s.”

“People always think immigrants from places like California will help turn red states blue,” says Erik Berg, the Democratic Party chair in Idaho’s Ada County, which includes Boise. “But those coming here are predominantly conservative.”

Lyons’ research confirms that. “What we see in our survey data is that people who are moving here from California, Washington and Oregon tend to be Republican” — 55 to 60 percent, with 10 to 15 percent independent and 25 to 30 percent Democratic. Idaho and other mountain states beckon to those fed up with what they see as runaway regulation, taxation and disorder in a California where even Republican bastions like Orange County and San Diego have turned blue.

By contrast, argues Mowell, for liberal émigrés like Amy and Andrew, Seattle and Portland are “very easy places to adapt to. It’s the same social and economic ecosystem.” Covid-19, he adds, “has mapped onto these existing political divisions. People who were dissatisfied with government in California tend to be dissatisfied with the way California has dealt with the pandemic.” And attracted by the more permissive, mandate-free approach in Idaho, which has one of the lowest vaccination and highest infection rates in the country.

Such tendencies don’t bode well for any hopes that dispersion will soften the hardening ideological divides between regions. Rather the opposite: “We’ll see more people living in communities of choice as we disconnect from the workplace,” predicts UPenn’s Wachter.

That would reinforce prevailing political cultures, promoting local homogeneity rather than diversity. Work and the downtown areas that once depended on office workers will serve less as social mixing bowls.

So, for all the churn the pandemic has caused, the Great Dispersion may leave us even more economically and politically stratified than before, compounding, rather than easing, Americans’ isolation from people who aren’t just like them.

About the Author: Eric Scigliano is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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She’s a 64-Year-Old Taxi Driver Drowning in Medallion Debt—And She’s Fighting Back

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Dorothy LeConte is part of a movement of taxi drivers demanding that the city of New York relieve their financial anguish.

NEW YORK CITY—Outside the gated entrance to City Hall, a dozen yellow taxi drivers huddle under the canopy of a tent to take shelter from the pelting rain. They sit alongside a line of their sunflower-yellow parked cars, next to a sidewalk makeshift memorial and protest shrine with a backdrop of signs that read: Respect the Drivers, No More Suicides; No More Bankruptcies, Debt Forgiveness Now! The rain has washed away the chalk spelling out the names of the deceased drivers etched against the cold pavement. The wicks on nine tall red candles are wet. On the previous rainless nights they burned bright, illuminating like a soundless incantation the names of nine taxi drivers who have committed suicide: Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Douglas Schifter, Nicanor Ochisor, Yu Mein Kenny Chow, Abdul Saleh, Fausto Luna, Roy Kim, and Driver Brother (unnamed to honor the wishes of the family that survived him). They were lost to the anguish of crushing debts and dissipated earnings.

Dorothy LeConte, 64, wasn’t there that October 4 night, but she feels the anguish of owing a medallion debt of $558,000 with monthly payments of $2,000. “Sometimes, I think about suicide,” she tells me one sunny Saturday afternoon as we sat in foldable chairs beside the protest shrine. “And then, when I come back, I think about my children, and I turn around and say, ‘Dorothy, don’t.’” She reaches for extreme examples of horrible incidents a person can endure to convey the deflated morale of drivers. “This is worse than if a man left me pregnant in the street… What the city did to us, and they don’t care.”

LeConte’s predicament is far from unique among thousands of driver-owners of yellow taxis who the city has left in a lurch as they scramble to piece together enough earnings to payoff insurmountable debts.

Yellow taxi driver-owners and their union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), representing approximately 21,000 for-hire and yellow cab drivers, have set up a 24/7 protest encampment. They are eyeing October 31, the deadline for when Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council must sign off on a budget modification, providing an opening for drivers to attain debt relief on their terms, not those of the banks. (Disclosure: This author worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Democracy NYC Initiative as a communications director from December 2020 to January 2021.) Survey estimates put the median yellow taxi driver-owner debts at $500,000, according to a January 2020 report published by the Taxi Medallion Task Force.

Individual driver-owners account for about 40 percent of the city’s 13,587 yellow cabs. These workers, mainly from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Haiti and Ghana, purchased medallions from the city in order to operate a taxicab and pick up street hails in parts of Manhattan. The medallion originated in 1937 as a means to control the number of cabs on city streets. For nearly a century, their values were modest, but then a speculative bubble spiked their values to stratospheric heights, reaching above a vertiginous $1 million per medallion in 2014, plummeting to $100,000 in 2019 after the bubble burst, and hovering at approximately $100,000 today. Banks and the city pushed exploitative loan terms with inflated prices to immigrant drivers even as they knew the value of medallions was on a downward spiral.

After years of protest against predatory lenders who, abetted by city agencies, saddled immigrant driver-owners with insurmountable debts, Mayor de Blasio pledged in March to allocate $65 million. Under the mayor’s plan, lenders receive a $20,000 grant to go towards a down payment to restructure the debts of driver-owners. It also includes $9,000 for yellow taxi drivers to use for monthly debt payments. With the pressure mounting on Mayor Bill de Blasio, the union held a press conference on October 13 to announce the support of over 50 elected officials backing its debt relief proposal. Then, on Friday of that week, dozens of yellow taxi drivers snarled traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in protest, demanding debt forgiveness. On Monday, the union announced plans to begin a hunger strike.

“First of all, the $65 million, just the $20,000 grant won’t even cover that many people,” according to Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the NYTWA. Desai estimates there are between four to six thousand driver-owners who drive for a living and those who may be retired. 

“If you go back to the record six months ago, they basically said everyone’s going to get $20,000 as a cash down payment to restructure the debt and then $9,000 to help you pay for your mortgage for up to six months,” she adds. “But now that the rules are out, the rules make it impossible for anybody to access that $9,000 because there’s a hardship requirement. If you’re out driving, you’re not going to be considered in hardship, no matter how much you’re struggling.”

The NYTWA has vetted a different proposal with the city’s comptroller’s office that is backed by New York City’s entire Congressional delegation in addition to state and local elected officials, as well as academic experts on banking and finance. That counter proposal calls for a debt restructuring plan of $90 million over 30 years, with the city providing a guarantee in the case of default and setting a limit of medallion debt loads to $145,000 with monthly payments capped at $800. Chief benefits of the NYTWA proposal would include more driver-owners and lower monthly payments to a manageable amount. The program, unlike the city’s proposal, would include driver-owners who are in foreclosure or undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, allowing drivers to negotiate favorable terms with lenders because the city would guarantee the restructured loans.

The city says that more than 1,000 people have signed up for its proposal. “It literally just means that people are calling them up to make an appointment,” says Desai. Asked to clarify what signing up for city’s proposal means, a spokesperson for the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) responded that “1,000 medallion owners have applied to the program.” The spokesperson also said the city is working with a “dozen lenders.” According to the city, 102 drivers have received concrete debt relief.

New York Legal Assistance Group attorney Randal Wilhite characterized as “patently false” the city’s claims of how many people have signed up for the debt relief program. (For speaking out, Wilhite was suspended from NYLAG and prevented from testifying at a TLC hearing.)

One person who won’t be taking the city’s offer as it stands is Dorothy LeConte. When she started driving a yellow taxi in 1987, she wasn’t venturing entirely into the unknown. Word on the street was upbeat about the financial possibilities owning a medallion conferred on women specifically, and immigrants more generally. The evidence of financial independence was self-evident. In those days, LeConte could walk up to a driver who’d happily report on favorable remuneration and confirm a medallion was truly all that it was cracked up to be, a lifelong investment with good returns. So, she did just that, striking up a conversation with a woman sitting in her cab in the shade on Lexington Avenue. 

Her years working housing keeping at the Waldorf Astoria ended with the promise of one day being the driver-owner of a medallion. At first, she leased a car. Then, LeConte, originally from the island nation of Haiti, drew on the time-honored tradition of mutual aid among the Black diaspora, called sou-sou, or an informal savings club, to pool together a pot of cash to purchase a medallion. People in a sou-sou contribute money to a collective fund that pays out a lump sum each month to a participant based on their number in a monthlong cycle, which can average from 18 months or less based on the payout amount for each member. In 1989, she took the $17,000 payout to put down as a deposit on a medallion costing $140,000.

A single mom raising two Black boys, LeConte saw the taxi industry and her possession of a medallion as a reliable way to earn enough money to keep her children off the streets and in school.

“I’m raising two Black kids,” she says. “I’m out from four o’clock in the morning, and I’m coming home the next morning at three o’clock. I don’t want my sons to be in the street. I decided to put them in a boarding school. This is the American dream.”

But it was more than a mere pursuit of an elusive American dream. She paid $43,000 a year to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for the assurance that it would provide safety.

“My 14 year old didn’t have to hang out in the street and get killed by the police, or by the gang, or involved in drugs, saving the Rikers Island money,” she adds. “That’s what I use my money for.”

To provide for her children, she put in grueling hours, pushing her body to the limit. The pain of sitting in a cab with no end in sight hobbles the body and curves the bones, but the spirit is more dogged.

The early signs of the taxi crisis began during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tenure at City Hall. Giuliani bragged about breaking the 1998 strike among drivers organized by the NYTWA and violated their constitutional rights. When LeConte got her first taxicab, she paid $9,000. Under Giuliani, yellow cabs had to change every five years as part of his efforts to give a Hollywood facelift to New York City and increase regulations on immigrant drivers.

To drive a cab today, “you need $45,000 to $50,000. [If] you don’t have the money, you got to [borrow] against the medallion,” says LeConte. That’s excluding medallion loan debt payments. To become a driver-owner was increasingly cost prohibitive. Last year, 4,500 taxis needed to be replaced after seven years on the road at a cost of $135 million, according to Crain’s New York.

Despite these financial hardships, yellow cab drivers continued to motor down New York City streets, taking pride in serving the public. LeConte runs through the times she’s come to the aid of the city’s residents and visitors, from September 11 to the 2003 blackout. “When I say we build the city, we do.”

She says yellow taxis are peripatetic ambassadors to countless tourists on their first visits to New York.

“People come for the first time to New York. They’re so happy to grab a camera,” she says, and take a photo of a yellow taxi. “I am in the movies.”

“I’m always there. In everything, I help the city.”

According to LeConte, this includes intervention in harrowing domestic violence incidents.

“Another time, another woman, a man was beating her up. I was right in the middle of the street. I just rolled down the window. I said, ‘Jump in.’ She jumped in the cab, locked the door, and I flew with her.”

LeConte weathered ups and downs in the industry, but she said nothing prepared her for the arrival of Uber and Lyft, inundating New York City streets. Her brother, with a job in the technology sector, saw the writing on the wall and warned her in 2015. But she refused to heed his warnings.

“This is a New York City franchise. New York City will never allow this medallion to go all the way down,” she reasoned with her brother.

City data showed a 10 percent drop in revenue per yellow cab after Uber’s debut in 2011, with yellow taxi ridership in shambles. Medallion values held steady for a few more years, but the industry was soon ravaged by the combined forces of the city allowing banks and hedge funds to aggressively push predatory loans. Banks targeted people who they knew couldn’t service the loans, according to a New York Times investigation. They took advantage of immigrants whose first language wasn’t English to sign turgid contract terms they could, at best, only puzzle through. And even as the city knew there was trouble in the medallion market, it continued to inflate the value. Experts deemed the speculative bubble the largest since the housing crash of 2007.

“I don’t think I could concoct a more predatory scheme if I tried,” Roger Bertling, the senior instructor at Harvard Law School’s clinic on predatory lending and consumer protection, told The New York Times. “This was modern-day indentured servitude.”

Drive-owners of yellow taxis are now trapped in Sisyphean ordeal, pushing a proverbial boulder up a mountaintop only to see it come crashing down, seemingly until the end of time, as many drivers like LeConte are in their 60s.

“We estimate between 4,000 to 6,000 thousand have underwater loans,” says Desai from the NYTWA.

LeConte describes going to her mailbox during the pre-Uber years of the early 2000s and finding five flyers promoting loans or refinance offers. “You open the taxi news, and you find people advertising” to borrow against the equity in the medallion, she explains. “Some people borrowed against it.”

“I did not expect what happened here to me today, and to us. The city will be responsible, because I know a government is there to protect the people,” she says. “I don’t think the government is there to sell us out.”

Without the city’s protection, the banks and tech companies have had free rein to extract the last cent from workers. Because the medallion after 2015 can no longer serve as collateral, she says, “you will be the collateral. If they can’t find anything on you, they’ll probably take you to a barber shop, they’ll shave your hair. If you have long hair, they’ll sell your hair for fake hair in the street. Whatever you have, they’ll take it away from you.”

She draws parallels to the financial ruin facing yellow taxi drivers today to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In May 1921, a white mob went on a rampage in the economically thriving, predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mob was incited by a false story of a Black man assaulting a white girl, fueling the already potent adrenaline of white supremacy through the veins of an armed white mob of looters and arsonists. All told, hundreds of African Americans residents were savagely killed, their 1,250 homes and assortment of businesses annihilated by racial terrorism. According to a 2001 state commission report, property loss claims reached about $27 million in today’s dollars.

“You remember that story?” she asks me. ”The government burned its Black people down, taking their wealth, killing them. They lost everything.”

“The whole world is looking, but they [are] using the technology,” she adds, referencing the city allowing Uber to break the law and flood New York’s streets with app-based drivers.

The feminist intellectual Jacqueline Rose has attributed the unseen violence of capitalism, or what Rosa Luxemburg once called the “quiet conditions,” to the “skill with which capital cloaks its crimes.”

The fire of righteous indignation that blazes from within LeConte refuses to be tamped down, but she has also reconciled herself to the realities of age and the unseen casualties of the spirit.

“I need the day off. I need to stay home. I’m 64-years-old. When I go to my doctor, I have pains in my fingers, sprain in my knee. I can’t get up, pain in my back.”

The toll of driving a cab all these years has finally begun to manifest in her body. But it’s also overtaken her mind.

The anguish of the banks coming for her to collect $558,000 has deprived her of the balm of a good night’s sleep. “I never get a good six hours, eight hours of sleep. Never. Because I’m dreaming. What is going to happen to me? What happens with my dignity?”

About her plight, she says, “it’s not because I’m sick. It’s not because of an accident that I’m paralyzed. [It’s] because of the government that I trust. We ask Mayor de Blasio only to guarantee the loan.”

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a freelance journalist from New York City and an educator at Labor Notes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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The big takeaways from Biden’s jobs report bust

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Women, teachers and health care employees all suffered from the slow rebound last month.

The labor market recovery that President Joe Biden has promised slowed again in September, with a weaker-than-expected 194,000 new jobs created.

That suggests school reopenings and the end of generous federal jobless benefits haven’t brought enough Americans back into the labor force amid the resurgence of the coronavirus.

Yet the recovery has been uneven throughout the economy, with women, teachers and health care employees suffering from the slow rebound last month, according to a Labor Department report released Friday. Among the gainers in September were white and Asian workers, retail and hospitality employees, the long-term unemployed and wage earners generally.

While the overall unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent, the drop was likely fueled by 183,000 people leaving the labor force.

Biden touted the report as another sign that his administration has delivered steady month-over-month job growth and blamed the disappointing overall number partly on the fact the survey was taken before a recent decline in Covid cases.

“Remember, today’s report is based on a survey that was taken during the week of September the 13th, not today — September 13, when COVID cases were averaging more than 150,000 per day,” the president said in remarks after the report. “Since then, we’ve seen the daily cases fall by more than one-third and they’re continuing to trend down. We’re continuing to make progress.”

Here’s a closer look at how key groups fared in September:

Women

The report showed that 309,000 women 20 years and older dropped out of the labor market in September, marking the second straight month of losses. Men in the same age group regained 182,000 jobs.

Working women have been acutely affected by the school and child care closures prompted by the pandemic, holding many back from returning to the workforce. But they were initially expected to go back to work in September, with school reopenings relieving some of the responsibilities that had been keeping them at home. But since the Delta variant of the coronavirus took hold in late summer and disrupted school plans, economists have been bracing for a devastating September for women who may have had to continue taking care of their kids amid the uncertainty. The numbers show that concern was well-founded.

Race

While other major ethnic groups have seen their unemployment rates near or below the national level throughout most of 2021, the rate among Black workers had remained near 9 percent. In September, Black unemployment fell by almost a full percentage point to 7.9 percent, narrowing the gap on the national rate of 4.8 percent. The bad news: 83,000 Black workers also left the labor force last month, probably contributing to the drop in the jobless rate.

Black workers — and women in particular — make up large shares of the workforce in health services and child care, industries that have been slower than most to recover. AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs has also argued that the stubbornly high unemployment rate among Black workers could be due to discrimination in hiring.

Hispanic workers have also been experiencing jobless rates above the national level, seeing 6.3 percent unemployment in September, little changed from August. White and Asian workers have been recovering more quickly, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.2 percent in September for both groups.

Retail and leisure

Consumer-facing industries including retail, leisure and hospitality were walloped in early 2020 by pandemic safety restrictions and business closures, facing the largest post-pandemic jobs deficit of any sector of the economy. They remain the first to take the hit when fears of the virus increase. But both sectors saw some improvement in September, which is a good sign for the economy as coronavirus cases start to recede. Leisure and hospitality added 74,000 jobs, while retail added 56,000.

Labor force participation

Beyond the topline number, the jobs reports suggests that fewer people were optimistic enough about the market to look for work last month.

While the national unemployment rate has been falling for months, the labor force participation rate — which captures how many people are either employed or actively looking for work — has remained pretty stagnant. That rate was 61.6 percent in September, not much different from the 61.7 percent in August. It’s also still down 1.7 percentage points from February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. That matters because the size of the workforce is tied to productivity, which is the basis for wage gains.

Many Republicans had predicted that the Sept. 6 expiration of federal unemployment benefits would increase employment as Americans could no longer afford to stay away from work. But since the jobless aid has ended for millions, many people have fallen out of the labor force instead and are no longer considered “unemployed.” While this can push the unemployment rate down — if you’re not actually looking for a job, you’re not counted as unemployed — it’s also a sign that there are fewer people actively available for work.

Wages

Average hourly earnings increased in September by 19 cents, bringing them to $30.85. That follows five months of significant hikes in wages and suggests that the widespread demand for workers as businesses have reopened has put upward pressure on pay, as employers compete for labor.

Long term unemployed

The longer people remain unemployed, the longer it typically takes them to find a job, which is why economists like to keep an eye on the number of those who have been out of a job for at least six months. That figure fell by nearly 500,000 last month, which is a good indicator of labor market health, as people with large gaps on their resumés can face more obstacles to reemployment and can find themselves in deeper financial trouble. However, there were still 1.6 million more long-term unemployed in the workforce last month than before the pandemic began.

Education

One of the puzzles in the jobs report was the loss of jobs in state and local public education in September — the month when schools were supposed to reopen. Instead, the market saw a notable decrease in jobs in this area — a drop of 161,000 workers, which dragged down the headline numbers.

Much of this, however, is likely due to seasonal adjustment. That’s because schools usually ramp up hiring in September for the start of the academic year, so the models that adjust for seasonal factors expect it. But this year, some of those hires may have taken place in July and August as students started earlier, making September hiring in public education slower than normal. But while the decline of 161,000 looks bad, it’s probably due in part to hires that did not happen last month rather than actual job losses, a key distinction.

About the author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. 

About the author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Working at Home Accidents – Who is Liable?

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In many countries, the number of people working from home has doubled since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. While many businesses take reasonable care and responsibility for their employees’ safety in the workplace, many are asking what the regulations are for remote workers. 

In this article, we will be discussing accidents when working at home and who is liable.

Your Employer’s Duty of Care

Whether you’re working in the office or from home, your employer is required to protect your health, safety and welfare while you are working for them. 

Just like in-house employees, remote workers expect and are owed the same duty of care from their employers. This duty of care covers everything from the physical working environment of the individual and extends to their mental health needs.

How to Create Safe Work Environments at Home

Unlike offices, where the environment can be controlled and safety measures can be put in place to protect employees, everyone’s home environment differs. From the layout to the furnishing, creating a safe work environment at home means something different for everyone.

Despite this, governments are asking employers to be vigilant about protecting the health and safety of their remote workers, according to Health and Safety Law

Whether employees are working part-time, full-time or on an ad hoc basis, if they are ‘at work’ employers must ensure that all reasonable precautions are taken to prevent any accidents they may otherwise be liable for. McCarthy + Co. Solicitors state the scope of an employer’s duty of care falls under four principal headings, with an employer being obliged to provide his workforce with:

  • Competent co-workers
  • A safe place of work
  • Proper equipment which is fit for purpose
  • A safe system of work

Below are some of the most effective ways employers can support the health and safety of remote workers.

Provide Risk Assessments and Guideline Advice

Often, workplace risk assessments will highlight areas of concern within a workspace, whether that’s in-house or remote. These issues are then raised with the employer and appropriate action is taken to reduce any risk to the employee.

Despite so many people working from home, very few have a suitable working space that isn’t the dining room or kitchen table. As such, accidents can happen – the most common being back pain and injury caused by insufficient working set-ups. 

All employers have a responsibility to ensure the working environments for their employees are suitable for remote working on a long-term basis. Advice should also be provided that helps employees carry out their own basic risk assessment at home and share their findings with employers so that suitable adjustments can be made.

Display Screen Equipment

This includes the use of smartphones, tablets and desktops in the home that allow employees to do their job. All equipment used for work must be provided and properly maintained by the employer. A few steps employees can take to reduce the likelihood of injury whilst working from home include:

  • Regularly changing their working position.
  • Taking short breaks every 10-20 minutes away from the screen.
  • Breaking up long periods of screen time with 5-minute rest breaks every hour.
  • Stretching regularly to avoid stiff joints.

Identifying and Reducing Hazards

Most slips and trips in the office are caused by uneven floors, obstructions in walkways, or inappropriate flooring. Unsurprisingly, these factors also come into play around the home. So, a risk assessment will consider the hazards around your home to ensure any necessary changes are made before remote working commences.

Manual Handling Training and Precautions

If part of your job involves the manual handling of products or the packing of boxes, precautions must be taken to avoid injury. A risk assessment will take these factors into consideration and highlight any areas of concern. It is the responsibility of the employer to provide the necessary training to ensure all manual handling is carried out safely and for the avoidance of any injury.

Mental Health Support

Employers have a duty to protect the mental health and wellbeing of their remote employees. Mental health conditions are classed as disabilities when they have a long-term effect on the everyday functioning of an individual and, as such it is against the law for employers to discriminate against employees with mental health struggles. As such, employers are expected and legally required to provide mental health support for their workers.

The type of support that is provided will depend on each person and their individual needs. However, providing support such as paid-for therapy sessions, online consultations, space to talk, and even the provision of specialist equipment or adjustments to the duties of the job itself are all necessary steps to protect employee mental health.

Equipment Provision

One of the most common injuries suffered by remote workers is because of a chair that is not fit for purpose. Employers are required to provide guidance and advice about the ideal chair and screen positioning to reduce potential injuries.  

Employers must check that remote workers have the equipment they need to do their jobs effectively and that said equipment is in good working order. Employers must also provide remote workers with any personal protective equipment, as necessary.

Who is Liable if You Have an Accident?

Many remote workers are concerned about whether their employer would be liable if they had an accident while working at home. Your employer would only be responsible if you suffered an injury whilst working from home due to some negligence on their part.

As we have already stated in this article, employers are predominantly responsible for carrying out a risk assessment of your working environment and ensuring you have suitable and working equipment available to do your job well. Therefore, unless they neglected to provide suitable training or equipment to you and you had a work-related accident as a result of this, it is unlikely your employer would be liable.

However, it is always important to provide all the facts of your injury and your working environment to a solicitor so they can advise you on your case. The sooner you report your injury and make a claim, the better. Whether you win your case or not, raising the issue will provide useful for your employer and hopefully encourage them to act and improve on any areas of negligence within their company so that future work-related accidents are prevented.

Final Words

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, whether they work in-house or from home. This duty of care requires that employers do everything within their power to ensure their employees are supported, both physically and mentally, to carry out their jobs safely. 

As the number of remote workers around the world continues to increase, employers must continue taking positive action to ensure the health and safety of their employees. 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Gemma Hart is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards growing her brand and building relationships with leading experts.


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Social Media Policies: Know Your Rights

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The idea of using social media in the workplace is a very 21st-century problem — one that many previous generations would have never had to deal with. In many aspects, social media defines parts of our lives. It is a way to document how we feel about certain things and a way to connect with people from across the globe on issues. 

Yet here we are. Often being asked by our employers to maintain a social media presence for work, whether we want to or not.

For others, it isn’t even that our employers require a social media account. Rather the issues stem from the need to be abundantly cautious about how they act on social media. One post that is regarded in bad taste or one drunken picture from college that unexpectedly crops up could ruin a career.

Employee social media rights have become a central workplace issue. Knowing your rights when it comes to your employer and social media is essential.

Review Company Policy

Arguably the most important thing you can do to better understand your rights as an employee is to review company policy. Today, many companies that require employees to work online will have some social media rules as a condition of employment. Some examples of company policies that are commonly used include things like:

  • Laying out guidelines for company responses to negative social media posts by customers on the company feeds
  • Provide clear policy on who owns certain company accounts. For instance, does your work Twitter account belong to you since it is in your name or does it belong to the company since you set it up as an employee?
  • Provide clear rules for transparency and honesty in marketing strategies
  • Clarify if comments about the company in personal accounts are off-limits
  • Set expectations for social media use in personal accounts of employees related to political and social issues.

If a company states that your personal account is protected, then it should be. Up until that point, it can be pretty murky. Many professionals would recommend not posting something blatantly controversial, especially if you aren’t sure of the company policy.

If your company doesn’t have them, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook. Instead, it means you should contact HR about getting something reasonable on the books before someone gets in trouble.

Work-Related vs Non-Work-Related

It is important to remember that although everyone has the First Amendment right to free speech, it gets a little more convoluted when it comes to social media. First Amendment rights are not always protected in private settings. For instance, you would never go to work and say racist things and expect not to get in trouble. Likewise, you wouldn’t have drinks with a coworker and slam your boss if you thought that information might get back to him and get you in trouble. Treat social media the same way as any other interaction that would occur in person.

Going off of that general guideline is likely to more or less keep you out of trouble. But there are the occasional posts that seem like they aren’t a big deal, but turn out to be very controversial. Here it can be important to remember where you are posting from. Using social media on a work account, from a work computer, or on a work-provided cell phone can spell trouble without question. Avoid using personal accounts in those situations at all costs.

***

Social media policies for individuals in workplaces are still relatively new. Many of the protections and rights are still being worked out by the courts. For that reason, it is always worthwhile to review company policy and get clarification on your rights. If you are unsure, it is always better to play it safe, even on your personal accounts.

This blog is 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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5 Tips to Make Video Meetings Fairer to Anxious Employees

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Video calls may have taken over as the meeting method of choice during the pandemic, and the surge in remote work means that they won’t be going away any time soon. Many people appreciate the convenience and flexibility of being able to show up on time no matter where they are physically. Still, it would be wrong to assume that everyone is entirely comfortable with this new working method.

It’s not always easy to tell who might be struggling with the new meeting schedule. For example, some employees that are more than comfortable meeting in person may be anxious about appearing on camera. On the other hand, people more than happy to chat for hours on the phone may still be coming to terms with the concept of online meetings.

Managers who are already comfortable with online meetings may be surprised to learn that one study suggests that 73% of people suffered from Zoom anxiety in 2020. A further study indicated that worries over backgrounds, appearance, and speaking over someone all play a part and virtually equally between males and females.

Essentially, the majority of people still have concerns about meeting online. Nevertheless, it’s a crucial component of adjusting to remote work, so what can you do about it? Here are five ways that you, as a manager, can promote a comfortable video calling experience for everyone involved.

1. Make Being on Screen Optional

Many employee concerns around video calls stem from the thought of being on screen. While comfortable in the office, their webcam acts as a window into their home. One of the quickest ways to make everyone more comfortable is to consider appearing on camera optional.

Some people like to be able to see who they’re talking to. Others want to ensure they have the full attention of the room. However, it’s time to accept that employees are often responsible and eager to do as their employer requires, and appearing on a screen shouldn’t make or break their efforts.

It may require additional trust from some managers, but the benefits are clear. Body language can be overrated on video calls, too – in some cases, it’s easily misinterpreted. Some employees might be concerned about this happening to them, but accepting that cameras aren’t essential to productivity can eliminate much of the anxiety associated with these calls.

2. Encourage Flexibility

Try not to get into the habit of scheduling video calls at short notice. This can cultivate an opinion among employees that they are expected to be at their desks at all times. That in itself can be a significant cause of anxiety, especially for those that have struggled to adapt to remote work and have altered their routines as a result.

It might make sense to implement an official policy on video meetings, such as providing at least 24 hours’ notice or potentially even banning them on specific days. There’s also evidence to suggest that it may be time to make all meetings optional, although this won’t work for every organization, especially those with just a handful of key people.

Giving people time to prepare for an upcoming meeting can ensure their schedule is free and that they’ve taken whatever steps work for them to make them feel more comfortable on screen.

3. Make it Your Job to Promote Social Interaction

There’s always a risk that anyone that misses out on video calls through anxiety may exacerbate their issues by reducing overall social contact. Like any competence, it is possible to lose social skills over time when left unused.

Video calls can replace face-to-face meetings, but they’re also a great way to keep up at least some of the more sociable interactions from the workplace. It may sound counterintuitive to arrange additional calls for those suffering from anxiety, but many people perform better under social circumstances than professional ones.

These meetings really should be optional, but someone needs to take the lead in ensuring they’re available for people that wish to attend. As a leader, there is no better candidate than you.

4. Make a Point of Mentioning Mental Health

Mental health is not a workplace taboo. On the contrary, many managers consider it part of their job to ensure that people feel good as issues can lead to a reduction in performance.

Most employees would rather not discuss their personal mental health, especially in front of groups. However, some are even anxious about broaching the subject at all. Make it clear on video calls that you’re aware of how remote work can affect people and that you’re more than happy to arrange for assistance.

If you’re comfortable providing that assistance yourself on a one-to-one basis, then do so. If not, ensure that you have someone you can send employees to for help. Such a seismic change in working habits affects everyone differently. Even if they merely need reassurance that their camera and microphone setup works, it can significantly improve their confidence levels.

5. Support Employees at their Own Pace

Some employees will never forget the first day they didn’t even have to get out of their pajamas for work. Others may still struggle to find a routine that works for them months after commencing remote work.

It’s simply impossible to support a team based on a timetable. There’s every chance that no two employees will be at an identical stage of adaptation. This does require flexibility on a manager’s part, but it should be viewed as an opportunity.

Every instance of providing customized support to an employee is a learning experience, and the more involved you become, the easier it will be going forward.

For example, if an employee who has never appeared on video decides to switch their camera on, don’t immediately view it as cause to make a big deal out of it – that may be the last thing they want. Instead, follow-up with them to ask how they felt and understand if there’s anything else you can do to make them comfortable in the future.

Wrapping Up

While people are becoming more comfortable with Zoom, Teams, and other video meeting apps every day, their usage represents a colossal shakeup in work patterns. The key takeaways involve acceptance, support, and enabling people to progress at their own pace. Some people may never be truly comfortable with the concept, but it is only fair to do all you can to encourage them to reach their potential, just as you would do with any other aspect of their working life.

About the Author: Amy Deacon is a business coach and speaker who creates solutions for businesses seeking to change attitudes and routines to boost productivity throughout the workplace.

This blog is printed with permission.


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