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Millions of gig workers are still waiting for unemployment benefits

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Rebecca Rainey

Most of the estimated 23 million independent contractors and gig workers made newly eligible last month for unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic are still waiting for relief.

Six weeks after the pandemic set off a continuing wave of massive layoffs, only 21 states have started paying out benefits to self-employed workers and others not traditionally eligible, according to the Labor Department. That’s up from 10 last week. The payments are being made under a new temporary program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

New Jersey is one of the states where self-employed workers are still waiting. More than 100,000 self-employed workers applied for jobless benefits there over the past several weeks, but the state won’t begin paying out the benefits until Friday, according to New Jersey state officials. They said the state will then need to take more time to verify those workers’ eligibility.

“The Department has worked hard over the past month to get this program up and running despite the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus, and it is now available,” said New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo. “While it will take time to determine eligibility for everyone who seeks PUA benefits, the process has begun.”

States reporting the largest number of weekly claims, including California and Florida, have just started to get their systems up and running this week.

California, which launched its new program on April 28, has received 190,000 applications already from self-employed and contract workers, according to Governor Gavin Newsom. But state officials have warned the program is threatened by its overloaded system.

“We are getting our arms around this unprecedented volume,” Newsom said Wednesday.

California’s unemployment system has been slowed and strained by the more than 3.7 million applications it’s received since layoffs began in early March, officials say. The state has distributed more than $6 billion in benefits so far.

Florida, whose unemployment system has also been overwhelmed as more than a million people struggled to get assistance, did not start accepting applications from independent contractors and those are self-employed until this past Tuesday.

The instructions sent out by the Department of Economic Opportunity urged people who had turned in applications before April 4 to try again now. DEO’s own data shows that more than 266,000 people who had applied with the state since March 15 had been deemed ineligible, although the information released by the agency does not specify why people are being turned away.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia affirmed last week that his agency is “working very closely every day with states across the country to help them get these benefits to the Americans who are entitled to them.”

According to DOL, it’s delivered more than $750 million of $1 billion in emergency administrative funding provided by Congress to state unemployment offices to help them handle the surge in claims and implement the new program. “As they request this funding, we’re distributing it quickly,” Scalia said. “And if they don’t request it. We’re contacting them to see how we can help.”

States have been struggling to figure out how to calculate weekly benefit levels for these self-employed workers, whose wage information may be contained on multiple forms and is harder to verify.

California, which last year passed a sweeping bill aimed at compelling businesses to reclassify many independent contractors as employees, has said gig economy workers should be eligible to apply for benefits under the state’s normal unemployment insurance program.

But somedrivers for Uber and Lyft in California say the state is calculating their weekly benefits to be $0, because their companies aren’t sharing payroll information with the state unemployment agency.

Those app-based workers must then request an investigation from the state into their wage information — adding more time to the process.

Workers have also complained they haven’t even been able to apply for benefits, hindered by jammed phone lines and crashing websites, as state unemployment agencies scrambled to beef up their systems following the passage of the massive unemployment benefit extension included under the CARES Act.

Florida’s unemployment website, which was first installed in 2013, had been routinely been flagged by state auditors before the coronarvirus outbreak started. But the surge in jobless claims overwhelmed the system, forcing the state to leave it offline for hours. It was offline all of last weekend as the state tried to play catch up on processing claims. Florida decided to start accepting paper applications due to the website’s constant failings.

The DOL’s Office of the Inspector General recently warned that state legacy computer systems used to process unemployment benefits weren’t up to the job, and threaten “the management and oversight of UI benefits.”

“The risk of fraud and improper payments is even higher under PUA because claimants can self-certify their UI qualifications,” the IG wrote, urging the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration to work with states to establish better methods of detecting fraud and recovering improper payments.

DOL officials say the department has been reaching out to the states to discuss and offer assistance with IT and call center issues.

But according to economists, all workers, including those who are eligible for traditional benefits and don’t have to apply under the new federal program, have been struggling to get the unemployment relief in their pockets.

For every 10 people who said they successfully filed for unemployment benefits during the past month, three to four additional people tried to apply but could not get through the system, according to an survey conducted by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

In total, DOL’s data indicates only 14 percent of the 12 million workers who filed for benefits in the month of March were paid an unemployment check, said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “While many of the claims that started in mid-March were likely paid not until April,” he said, “this figure is yet another sign underscoring the major structural challenges facing the unemployment program as it responds to the COVID-19 crisis.”

How an individual’s claim is processed varies widely from state to state.

“On the high end, Rhode Island made initial payments to 51 [percent] of the 60,000 individuals who filed claims,” he said. “On the low end, Florida only paid 2.4 [percent] of the 280,500 individuals who managed to file a claim, the third lowest in the country, just above Indiana, which stood at 2 [percent].”

In Iowa, one of the first states to get its PUA system up and running, officials pointed to its low unemployment rate and rurality as reasons why it was able to move so quickly.

“For the last couple years, our unemployment’s only been like 2.5 percent,” Iowa State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald said. “So our unemployment fund started out really full.”

“In a lot of areas we didn’t have the shutdown as early as some of the other states,” he added, “so we were probably in a better spot than most other states, and able to attack it.”

Eleanor Mueller, Gary Fineout, Katy Murphy and Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 30, 2020. 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.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.


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

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

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

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

1. Business shut down due to COVID-19 emergency

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

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

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

2. Quit due to COVID-19 safety concerns

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

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

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

3. Paid sick leave during self-quarantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Paid childcare leave

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

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

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

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

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

5. Employers can refuse leave requests from health care providers

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

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

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

6. Large employers can refuse leaves

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

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

7. Public employees

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

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

8. Small employers and paid leave

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

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

9. Workplace closes during caregiver leave

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

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

10. Independent contractors and UI benefits

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

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

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

11. Part-time workers and UI benefits

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

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

12. Undocumented workers and UI benefits

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

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

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

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

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


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Restaurants’ bailout problem: Unemployment pays more

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Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

Restaurants say their industry needs its own targeted recovery fund because the bailout package Congress passed last month is making it more attractive for their staff to draw unemployment benefits than to continue working.

The new Paycheck Protection Program waives repayment of small business loans if the borrower uses 75 percent of the money to maintain payroll, a measure intended to reduce layoffs. But with the expanded unemployment benefits included in the stimulus bill, some workers can as much as double their weekly checks if they stay unemployed.

The mismatch is particularly acute for restaurants, cafes and small shops — nonessential businesses where pay scales tend to be low that have been put into indefinite hibernation. The National Restaurant Association told Congress Monday that more than 60 percent of restaurant owners believe existing assistance programs, including PPP, are insufficient to keep employees on payroll and asked for $240 billion in aid targeted to their industry.

Restaurants represent less than 9 percent of Paycheck Protection loan recipients, but as of March accounted for the majority of layoffs nationwide as the contagion took hold.

“If the intention was to get people back to work, they’re not doing it,” said Tom Colicchio, the renowned restaurateur and “Top Chef” judge, who has been an advocate for small restaurants during the pandemic. “They’re not going to come back to work because unemployment is too attractive.”

Unemployment benefits vary by state, but in 2019, before the coronavirus crisis, the average weekly benefit nationwide was $370. A $600 sweetener that the stimulus bill added, on a temporary basis, to weekly unemployment checks raises the average weekly benefit to $970, an amount that approximates average weekly pay nationwide and is nearly double average weekly pay within the food industry: about $500 nationwide for full-time workers.

Dental assistants, security guards and travel agents similarly stand to earn more money on unemployment than they can by working.

That doesn’t make the Paycheck Protection Program a flop; indeed, the program is so popular that all available funds dried up last week. Lawmakers are now nearing a deal to add $450 billion to the $342 billionthat the Small Business Administrationhas lent.

Most of that money, however, has gone to support jobs in industries kept open during the crisis, including construction, manufacturing, professional and technical services and health care, which received $169 billion. By comparison, only $30.5 billion went to hotels and restaurants. Local stay-at-home orders could keep these businesses shut down several weeks more, and sales are projected to rise slowly under any phased economic restart because customers may well avoid public places for months.

The National Restaurant Association, in addition to requesting more funds — partly, it said, to help owners rehire and retrain workers — asked Congress to permit businesses to defer the start date of PPP loans until after local stay-at-home orders are lifted, and to allow more than 25 percent of the loans to be spent on fixed costs like rent and utilities.

The International Foodservice Distributors Association will propose similar measures Tuesday, asking Congress to allow PPP borrowers to spend only 50 percent of their loans on payroll and to increase tax credits for employee retention.

One recipient of a Paycheck Protection loan is Christian Ochsendorf, who owns several Dunn Brothers Coffee shops in the Minneapolis area. Ochsendorf says he’s been able to persuade only 40 percent of his furloughed workers to return. In Minnesota, the $600 sweetener raises the average weekly unemployment benefit above $1,000 a week. In 2019, the average weekly wage for full-time food service workers was $548.

“They’re getting paid more on unemployment than they would if they were actually working,” Ochsendorf said.

It’s the same story in Ohio, where workers can now receive $963 a week on unemployment, or slightly more than the average weekly wage. Full-time restaurant workers in the state earn, on average, less than $500.

“Heck, if they’re making more money sitting at home … I’m fearful that some may not want to come back,” said Adam Rammel, the co-owner of Brewfontaine, a bar and restaurant in Bellefontaine, Ohio.

Paycheck Protection loans cover payroll expenses for eight weeks, a time frame that many small business owners judge too short as the scope of the pandemic widens. Some owners are reluctant to accept the money at all, uncertain how they will repay the loan if their workers won’t consent to come back within the prescribed window. Unemployment benefits, meanwhile, have been extended 13 additional weeks. Even the $600 sweetener, guaranteed until July 31, will last weeks longer than a paycheck protection loan.

“The program was designed poorly,” said Amanda Ballantyne, director of Main Street Alliance, a small business advocacy group. “Business owners don’t take out loans to cover payroll when the economy is tanking.”

Many small business owners fear that they’ll have to lay off workers again when the loans run out.

“To take on a loan that has the potential to be forgiven, and then pay my staff to do nothing for eight weeks, and then furlough them in eight weeks, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Andrew Volk, the owner of Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, a cocktail bar in Portland, Maine. “It very much feels like we’re acting as the unemployment office.”

In Maine, full-time food service workers earn $553 on average — less than 60 percent of the average unemployment benefit.

Volk did apply for a loan, but he’s used it only to pay rent. The rest is sitting in a bank account until the state allows restaurants to reopen, putting him at some risk of having to repay the federal government.

Small business advocates and some members of Congress say the U.S. should adopt a European-style grant program that gives direct payments — not loans — to businesses. The Tory government in Britain pays business owners 80 percent of their workers’ wages to keep them on payroll, up to a monthly cap of 2,500 pounds. France, Spain and the Netherlands have taken similar steps, and Germany’s “Kurzarbeitergeld” system of paid furloughs is credited with helping the economy snap back from the Great Recession faster than other European nations. But such ideas have little traction in the current political environment.

“The best thing to do would be giving direct payroll subsidies [and] wage supplements to employers,” said Volk, the cocktail bar owner in Maine. “Keeping that connection between small businesses and their employees is incredibly valuable.”

Zachary Warmbrodt and Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by Politico on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.


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Furloughed Disney Workers “Can’t Wait” For Help, But Florida’s Unemployment System Is Broken

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Image result for Hamilton Nolan

At the end of this week, 43,000 unionized Walt Disney World employees will be furloughed, an unprecedented blow to families throughout the entire central Florida region. On top of the sudden loss of income, workers say that they face an even more immediate threat: the broken Florida unemployment system.

Disney is not just one of Florida’s most important employers—it represents a rare island of union power in a state where less than 7% of workers are union members. A coalition of six unions called the Service Trades Union Council that represents nearly 40,000 Disney workers negotiated an agreement with the company this week that guarantees employees will keep their benefits while they are furloughed, including health insurance. They’re also guaranteed the right to go back to their old jobs, with the same wages and seniority, when the theme parks finally reopen. Most of the employees stopped working in mid-March, but secured five weeks of pay. After April 19, however, they are on their own. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that these newly furloughed workers are now being forced to apply for unemployment benefits in Florida all at once—a virtual impossibility, since the state’s unemployment system is already overwhelmed, dysfunctional, and incapable of delivering the benefits that are owed to everyone who has found themselves newly without a job in recent weeks. 

“Nobody can do anything. Nobody can apply. The system is crashed,” said Wesny Theophin, a Unite Here member who has been a Disney food and beverage worker for five years. His coworkers, knowing he is a union activist, “keep calling me, all afternoon and all night, asking me what they’re supposed to do.” 

There are no easy answers. Fresh off negotiating the furlough agreement with Disney, Unite Here—a union that has said that 98% of its members nationally are now out of work—now finds itself forced to run a week-long protest campaign in central Florida in an attempt to push the state government to make the unemployment system functional. Eric Clinton, the president of Unite Here Local 362, which covers a portion of the workers at Disney, said that “Can you actually collect?” is the question on everyone’s minds. “Many of our members live paycheck to paycheck. How do they make ends meet? There’s going to be a gap of time here that is very concerning to me.” 

Estafania Villadiego has worked as a Disney attraction employee for the past two years. She earns about $13 an hour. She lives with her daughter and her husband, a plumber who is still working. She is concerned about the risk of him coming in contact with coronavirus, and praises the union for getting the company to maintain health benefits. But she speaks in stark terms about the dangerous implications of tens of thousands of her coworkers flooding into the state unemployment system at the same time, and finding that none of them can get through. Her family, she says, cannot survive on just one income—and many of her coworkers have it even worse, either living alone or supporting families by themselves. 

“It’s a very delicate situation for thousands of people in central Florida,” she said. “We need to fix the system right now. People need the help right away. We need it now, we can’t wait. It’s a lie that regular working people have a lot of savings. We need it now.” 

Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, facing a state filling up with unemployed people unable to access their benefit payments, suggested Tuesday that perhaps the state could directly enter the furloughed Disney employees into the system in a process of auto-enrollment. Unite Here responded that this was an idea they had suggested weeks ago, when they first started bargaining, only to see their “alarm bells” disregarded until now. 

Eric Clinton says, in fact, that other members of his union have been laid off for nearly a month and have still not received their unemployment checks. Unite Here knew that this would be an issue for Disney workers. But when they suggested the company use its political clout with the state government to seek direct access to the unemployment system for its furloughed employees, the union was rebuffed. 

“Any time they want to do something that helps them,” they can influence the governor’s office, Clinton said. “But not this.” 

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Food bank lines and rent struggles show just how big of an economic emergency coronavirus is

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Soaring unemployment is having immediate effects on millions of people, in an economy where—before coronavirus hit—40% of people said they’d struggle to deal with an unexpected $400 expense. Two of the big impacts are on two of the most basic expenses: rent and food.

According to data from a trade group, 31% of renters hadn’t paid rent during the first five days of April, compared with 18% over the same days in 2019. And food banks are overwhelmed with new demand and plummeting food donations.

While some cities and states have passed eviction moratoriums, that doesn’t solve the problem of what happens when the moratoriums are lifted and people who couldn’t pay their rent now owe months of back rent, without protections. But small landlords with mortgages also face potential problems—and if you don’t have sympathy for landlords, the head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition gave The New York Times a reason you should at least be concerned for their tenants. If the small landlords who own more affordable properties are foreclosed on, those properties are likely to be bought up by investors who will retool them for higher-income tenants, squeezing out still more people who need affordable housing. “One way or the other, we have to get aid to smaller landlords so that the precious affordable-housing stock we have still exists on the other end of this crisis,” she said.

So far, very little of the coronavirus stimulus passed by the federal government will help directly with housing, though as newly jobless people get the expanded unemployment insurance, it may ease the emergency somewhat. But this is another area Congress needs to look at in the necessary next stimulus.

While rent not being paid happens largely out of the public eye—except in a few cases of tenant organizing—the economic crisis is being made visible in food bank lines. Many of us have by now seen footage of a terrifyingly long line of cars waiting for food distribution in Pittsburgh, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Food banks across the country are seeing several times as many people as usual showing up in need—in Washington state and Louisiana, the National Guard has been called in to help with distribution. “Their presence provides safety for us during distributions,” the head of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank told The New York Times.

Meanwhile, food bank donations are down. Grocery stores that usually donate food getting close to its sell-by date have been cleaned out by people stocking up on food for periods of staying home, and restaurants and hotels that often donate food have shut down. Some food banks are getting just half the direct food donations they usually do, forcing them to buy food—and their usual ability to buy in bulk at reduced prices is also taking a hit given the runs on grocery stores. 

The Food Bank of Greater Omaha would normally be spending $73,000 a month on food. Now, it’s $675,000. Three Square Food Bank in Las Vegas reports spending an extra $300,000 to $400,000 a week on food. Feeding America, a network of food banks, is facing a $1.4 billion shortfall in the next six months.

Again, many people’s immediate food needs will become less of an emergency as aid already passed by Congress reaches them. But that’s not happening quickly enough to keep people from going hungry now—and the scale of the need we’re seeing now shows that it’s not going to be enough. Congress needs to do more.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Unemployment claims near 17 million in three weeks as coronavirus ravages economy

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Rebecca Rainey
Quint Forgey

Unemployment claims remained high last week at 6.6 million, the Labor Department reported, as massive job losses continued to pile up due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The claims, for the week ending April 4, flooded in as confirmed coronavirus cases approached 300,000 and as nearly every state ordered its citizens to stay at home. Economic forecasts that predict unemployment will exceed its historic 25 percent peak during the Great Depression are becoming routine, and the number of jobs lost in a mere three weeks now exceeds the 15 million that it took 18 months for the Great Recession to bulldoze from 2007 to 2009.

“In its first month alone, the coronavirus crisis is poised to exceed any comparison to the Great Recession,” said Glassdoor Senior Economist Daniel Zhao in a statement. “The new normal for UI claims will be the canary in the coal mine for how long effects of the crisis will linger for the millions of newly unemployed Americans.”

The jobless claims are mounting as the federal government struggles to release waves of aid to the economy and businesses shutter. The Federal Reserve on Thursday unveiled emergency programs that could dole out more than $2 trillion in loans to businesses of all sizes, as well as to struggling state and city governments. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate clashed Thursday over a new aid package aimed at bolstering the $2 trillion economic rescue deal that lawmakers approved in March.

The 16.8 million unemployment claims, filed between March 15 and April 4, translate to more than one in 10 workers seeking jobless benefits. “We are nowhere near the end of this,” tweeted Heidi Shierholz, policy director at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “The labor market has been upended.”

State unemployment agencies and the Department of Labor continued to struggle to process claims from a pool of eligible workers that now includes gig workers, independent contractors and workers who in ordinary times wouldn’t have worked long enough to qualify for benefits, but became eligible as a result of Congress’ $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package last month. That bill also increased employment benefits by $600 across the board.

The 6.6 million claims filed last week would have set a record going back to 1967, when the Labor Department’s data series began, had the previous two weeks’ claims not done so already.

“This is a catastrophe,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), vice chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee, in a statement. “Nearly 17 million Americans have lost their jobs and they likely won’t find another one until the contagion is under control — and that may be a long way off.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week that U.S. employers shed 701,000 jobs in March, pushing the unemployment rate up to 4.4 percent, but the survey week for that figure was mid-March, before the crush of claims began. Most estimates put the current unemployment rate in the double digits or close to it.

As policymakers struggled to come to terms with the economic fallout from the pandemic, one economist suggested last month’s expansion of unemployment benefits, including $600 added to every unemployment check through July, could blunt losses from mass layoffs.

Although the unemployment rate “could rise even higher over the coming months,” wrote Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, “the damage in terms of lost income may end up being less severe.”

DOL again attributed the jump in claims to the spread of Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. In previous weeks, the agency said the claims were concentrated in the services industries, as well as the health care, manufacturing, retail and construction industries.

The greatest number of new unemployment claims were in California, which processed an estimated 925,450 claims last week. America’s most populous state was an early hot spot for the coronavirus’ spread across the country.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that California had processed 2.4 million applications in the three weeks since mid-March, accounting for more than 12 percent of the state’s civilian workforce.

After California, Georgia was second with 388,175 new claims filed last week.

New York — the current epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., with more than 149,000 Covid-19 cases — reported more than 345,200 new unemployment claims, according to the federal data.

Although that number is lower than the roughly 366,600 filings two weeks ago, the state government’s failure to process a deluge of inquiries clouded the total count of jobless New Yorkers.

Since March 9, New York has received 800,000 unemployment claims and processed about 600,000 of those filings, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office said Thursday. The state’s new online system to apply for unemployment compensation is scheduled to go live later Thursday evening.

In New Jersey, the state Department of Labor reported an all-time record of nearly 215,000 residents filed for unemployment benefits last week,bringing the state’s claims to nearly 577,000 for the three-week period that began March 15.

After New York, New Jersey has the most confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the country — more than 47,000 — and Gov. Phil Murphy has warned the state could soon experience a wave of infections similar to those seen in New York City.

The unemployment figures showed Florida was slightly less hard-hit, with 170,000 claims filed last week in the nation’s third largest state, a decrease from the record 228,000 residents who sought unemployment benefits two weeks ago.

The actual number of Floridians out of work is likely higher, however, as technical glitches with the state’s unemployment benefits website have left the overloaded online system inaccessible for tens of thousands of residents.

The pandemic’s international economic toll was also laid out in devastating detail Thursday in Canada’s latest federal employment report, which revealed America’s neighbor to the north lost more than a million jobs in March.

That decline, which represented 5.3 percent of the jobs in a country of 37 million people, helped drive Canada’s unemployment rate from 5.6 percent in February to 7.8 percent — its largest one-month increase since comparable data became available in 1976.

Joe Anuta, Andy Blatchford, Gary Fineout, Katherine Landergan and Katy Murphy contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 9, 2020. 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.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.

About the Author: Quint Forgey is a breaking news reporter for POLITICO.

Quint previously worked as a digital producer and editorial intern for POLITICO, a freelancer and news intern for The Wall Street Journal, an associate producer for Louisiana Public Broadcasting, a reporting intern for The News Journal in Delaware, and a national reporting fellow for the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

Quint graduated from Louisiana State University, where he served as editor in chief of the student newspaper, The Daily Reveille.Quint Forgey


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Economy Loses 701,000 Jobs in March; Unemployment Jumps to 4.4%

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The U.S. economy lost 701,000 jobs in March, and the unemployment rate jumped by nearly a point to 4.4%, according to figures released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

In response to the March job numbers, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs said:

Though the recent spikes in unemployment claims were not captured in the March report, we experienced our steepest monthly decline in payrolls in this report since March 2009. Especially hard hit were the lowest wage sectors of the economy: leisure and hospitality and brick and mortar sections of the retail industry. Going forward, based on the unemployment claim numbers, things will get worse.

Last month’s biggest job losses were in leisure and hospitality (-459,000), health care and social assistance (-61,000), professional and business services (-52,000), retail trade (-46,000), construction (-29,000), other services (-24,000), manufacturing (-18,000) and mining (-6,000). Federal government employment added 18,000 jobs, primarily 2020 Census workers. Employment in other major industries—including wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, information, and financial activities—changed little over the month.

In March, unemployment rates rose among all major worker groups. The rate was 14.3% for teenagers, 6.7% for blacks, 6.0 % for Hispanics, 4.1% for Asians, 4.0% for adult men, 4.0% for adult women and 4.0% for whites.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) showed little change in March and accounted for 15.9% of the unemployed.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on April 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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’No words for this’: 10 million workers file jobless claims in just two weeks

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Nolan D. McCaskill

Unemployment claims soared to a record-smashing 6.6million last week, the Labor Department reported, more than double the previous week, signaling more economic pain from the coronavirus pandemic.

The rush to claim unemployment benefits occurred as the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus rose above 200,000 and government measures to contain the epidemic shut down increasing swaths of the U.S. economy, with residents in 37 states now ordered to stay at home.

The total job losses in just two weeks — almost 10 million Americans — amounts to a staggering, sudden blow to American workers never seen before in the U.S. economy. The labor market in the coming weeks could blow past the 15 million jobs lost at the peak of the 18-month Great Recession from 2007 to 2009.

President Donald Trump, who built his record for the past three years in office around economic growth and job growth, has now seen gains from much of the past decade evaporate in a matter of weeks. An official U.S. jobless rate that sat at 3.5% in February is poised to top 10% in April alone, eclipsing the peak of the last recession.

“In one line: No words for this,” Pantheon Macroeconomics Chief Economist Ian Shepherdson wrote in reaction to the numbers.

“What we are going through now dwarfs anything we’ve ever seen, including the worst weeks of the great recession,” tweeted Heidi Shierholz, chief economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “I have spent the last twenty years studying the labor market and have never seen anything like it.”

The new figure, which represents unemployment claims filed the week that ended March 28, marks the largest number of weekly claims ever recorded since the government began collecting such data in 1967. The second-highest number of claims were the 3.3 million filed the week before, and the third-highest about 700,000 claims filed one week in 1982.

The new unemployment claims figure was seasonally adjusted, but the raw numerical increase was still a record-breaking 5.8 million claims.

In a prepared statement, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said, “The administration continues to act quickly to address this impact on American workers.” He then pointed to the recent coronavirus relief package approved by Congress and a final rule issued by the Department of Labor Wednesday enacting temporary paid leave requirements for businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Covered employers must give workers who are quarantined or experiencing coronavirus symptoms two weeks paid sick leave, and an additional ten weeks leave to workers who are caring for children stuck at home.

Reports from state unemployment offices, which are still struggling to meet the high volume of requests for unemployment benefits, continue to suggest DOL’s weekly claims figure significantly understates the real number of Americans seeking help.

“We’re hoping today’s reading will be the peak, but we can’t be sure,” Shepherdson of Pantheon wrote in an email. “In any event, total layoffs between the March and April payroll surveys look destined to reach perhaps 16-to-20 [million], consistent with the unemployment rate leaping to 13-to-16 [percent].”

Additionally, the number doesn’t capture self-employed workers, who are not eligible for state unemployment benefits. But under a new temporary program that was signed into law one day before the reporting period ended, gig workers will be eligible to apply to state unemployment offices for up to 39 weeks unemployment benefits that will be funded entirely by the federal government. States are awaiting guidance from DOL on how to put this new program into effect.

Also left out of the count are people who left the workforce voluntarily for any reason — including to care for a sick family member, a child home from school, or because they are sick, themselves, from Covid-19, the illness caused by the unique coronavirus.

The Congressional Budget Office released an updated economic forecast on Thursday that suggests the effects of mass joblessness and business closures will sting for some time, with an unemployment rate as high as 9 percent by the end of 2021.

In the nearterm, the CBO projected that the jobless rate will blow past 10 percent in the second quarter of this year, with GDP expected to fall by 7 percent over the next three months.

Director Phillip Swagel cautioned that CBO’s estimates are “very preliminary“ and “based on information about the economy that was available through this morning,” warning the numbers are subject to change and even worsen. The projections assume that social distancing continues across the country for an average of three months and that later outbreaks of the virus are possible, he said.

The increase in claims remained concentrated in the services industries, according to DOL, particularly accommodation and food services. States also reported increases in claims from workers in thehealth care, manufacturing, retail and construction industries.

The greatest number of new unemployment claims were in California, which processed an estimated 878,727 claims last week. That figure is up from 186,333 in the previous week and more than 21 times the typical volume the department handled before the pandemic.

California’s employment agency, which is handling the onslaught of claims, has said it has not experienced delays, but Twitter is awash with complaints from workers about overloaded phone lines, difficulties filing online and confusion about how to apply for federal CARES Act relief as independent contractors.

To speed up the approval process, the department has added hundreds of employees to process claims. It has also relaxed its initial verification requirements at the direction of the state’s labor secretary, allowing the checks to go out more quickly.

After California, Pennsylvania was next with 405,880 new claims.

New York, which leads the country in confirmed coronavirus cases, reported 366,403 new claims last week. That figure, however, is likely a massive undercount. The official tally is almost certainly missing vast numbers of New Yorkers who have been frantically attempting to file claims with the state’s outdated website and telephone lines to no avail.

In addition to the anecdotal evidence of dropped calls and online applications interrupted by crashes, the DOL report sheds some more light onto just how few residents are getting through: New York state had to revise its jobless claim numbers from earlier in the month upward by nearly 85 percent.

“Today’s jobless report shows the grim reality of the coronavirus’ crippling effect on our economy and working families,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “The Department of Labor must move heaven and earth to — as quickly as possible — get the expanded unemployment benefits Congress passed last week into the pockets of workers who have lost their paychecks through no fault of their own. America’s workers and families cannot afford a delay.”

New Jersey, which has recorded 22,255 positive cases of Covid-19 since early last month, reported 205,515 unemployment claims.

Illinois has been taking steps to update and streamline unemployment claims. The state received more than 114,000 claims last week.

Over the past few weeks, the Illinois Department of Employment Security website has been moved to a new hardware infrastructure to handle the increased demand. Web, storage and processing capacity has also been improved to meet the increased needs, according to the governor’s office. The state says call center capacity has been increased and daily call center hours have been extended.

Florida will start accepting paper applications for unemployment benefits as a result of ongoing crashes and failures with its online system, Ken Lawson, the head of the state agency that processes claims, said Thursday.

Florida’s online system, CONNECT, went offline for hours Wednesday as the state dealt with an unprecedented surge of jobless claims. Florida had more than 222,000 claims last week.

Lawson, director of Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, announced the move at a town hall meeting with two Democratic legislators. He also apologized for the ongoing problems. The beginning of the town hall was disrupted by hackers and others who cursed at Lawson and the legislators.

The “next week or two” is going to be difficult, Lawson said.

Katy Murphy, Caitlin Emma, Shia Kapos, Joe Anuta,Gary Fineout and Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 2, 2020. 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.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.

About the Author: Nolan D. McCaskill is a national political reporter covering the 2020 presidential race.

He previously covered Congress and authored the Huddle newsletter at POLITICO, where he started as an inaugural member of POLITICO’s Journalism Institute in 2014 before accepting a yearlong fellowship through 2015, later becoming a breaking news reporter and briefly covering the White House.

Nolan is a December 2014 graduate of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. He was editor-in-chief of his college newspaper, The Famuan, and a former producer for his university’s live television newscasts.

Nolan is PJI’s inaugural Emerging Communicator and a 2017-18 National Press Foundation Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow.


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Millions of People Can’t Pay Rent Tomorrow. Here’s How Some Are Organizing.

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As April 1 looms and the first rent payment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic becomes due, countless people wonder how they’ll be able to afford to pay. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, millions have had their hours cut, been furloughed, or laid off. A whopping 3.3 million have applied for unemployment benefits, and some say the unemployment rate could reach 30%. To put that in perspective, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 25%.

The cost of rent has skyrocketed the past few decades, while the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since the $7.25 wage took effect in 2009. And as worker productivity has soared to new heights, studies show that wages have stagnated across the board. This has been a problem for working people even in times of normalcy—in expensive urban cores like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, many bounce from friends’ couches to shelters and even sometimes to their own cars. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing crisis is understandably exploding: Those who were able to just barely pay their rent before are now scrambling to keep the landlord at bay.

Housing activists have been calling for a reprieve on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, and numerous cities states have reacted quickly, placing a temporary moratorium on evictions or a pause on housing court. But none yet have frozen rent payments, and tomorrow is April 1—and the rent is due.

While the fear and panic that people may feel when they’re unable to pay their rent or mortgage can seem individual and unique, it’s actually shared between the millions of others who are in the same boat. Right to the City Alliance, a national network of more than 80 racial, economic and environmental justice organizations, is hoping to turn that collective anxiety into collective action. The alliance is calling for an immediate cancellation of rent and mortgage payments through the duration of the public health and economic crisis for all renters, homeowners and small businesses and a three-month recovery period. These demands expand beyond a rent and mortgage freeze and include calling for the immediate release of those being held in pre-trial and immigrant detention, an indefinite suspension of utility shutoffs, and a guarantee of unemployment insurance, sick time, paid leave, health care, and a living wage for all workers.

For many, rent cancellation is urgently needed to ward off personal financial catastrophe. Coya Crespin of Community Alliance of Tenants of Portland, Oregon, said in a statement, “As a pregnant single parent without any savings, and now schools being shut down, it has been difficult keeping my kids fed. Many of the members of the housing organization I’m a member of have been contacting me afraid of not being able to pay rent in April. The stimulus package check that politicians are lifting up as a solution doesn’t even cover one month’s rent in most cases. People are beyond stressed. I’m beyond stressed.”

Many of these demands have been voiced for years, but have been popularized by the Bernie Sanders campaign and the #HomesGuarantee platform, which would implement a national rent control standard and a just-cause requirement for evictions.Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders agrees that “along with pausing mortgage payments, evictions, and utility shutoffs, we must place a moratorium on rent payments” during the coronavirus pandemic. And because President Trump’s recovery proposal is a paltry $1,200—not even enough to cover rent in many cities—tenants (and even some homeowners) are being forced to make a public declaration that, without more aid, they can’t (and won’t) pay. Housing activists are using this moment of true desperation to demand the support they deserve—but there are some disagreements on the way forward.

While Right to the City Alliance is pushing for an immediate suspension of rent and mortgage payments throughout the coronavirus crisis, and for a three-month period after it ends, others are calling for rent strikes if the government doesn’t act. David Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance, said his network is “supporting a diversity of tactics in the alliance.” Rent Strike 2020, a new organizing campaign working in partnership with Socialist Alternative and the Rose Caucus, a group of socialists running for both state and federal House and Senate seats, is demanding “every Governor, in every state: freeze rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection for two months, or face a rent strike.” Tenants in New York are waiting for Governor Cuomo to provide some relief, but are prepared to take matters into their own hands and go on a rent strike if he does not act.

Davin Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance said, “We see rent strikes as a collective action that comes from deep organizing on the local level and some of our member organizations are going to use that tactic. We need people to come together, organize, and join the movement for long-term and transformative struggle so we can fundamentally change the housing system and win homes for all.”

The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its COVID-19 Tenant Organizing Guide, urges people to be strategic and think long and hard about what their demands really are: “A rent strike is a tool, not a demand,” the guide states. It specifies, “In a situation where the demand is ‘stop collecting rent from me,’ it’s questionable how effective a rent strike would be. To put it another way, how does withholding rent pressure a landlord to suspend rent?”

There are a number of tactics being put forward in this moment, but one thing is for certain: In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing movement is empowering tenants to take big and bold action. No one can predict what will happen on or immediately after April 1, when millions potentially don’t pay their rent, but Cardenas said, “It’s not likely that we’ll see relief, and even the relief that comes in before May 1 won’t be sufficient for what our families need across the country. There is not going to be a return to normalcy or a return to business as usual.”

To sustain any long-term movement—and to win real power for tenants—it’s going to take more than one-off rent strikes or single issue demands. It’s going to take building powerful, working-class organizations. The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its guide, writes “Building strong, durable organization among tenants where there is an abundance of leaders and widespread trust yields the most successful and lasting results.” This must be the lesson for our movements going forward. April 1 may indeed be a pivotal moment in a growing housing movement that is being propelled forward by the crisis of this moment. How we help to steer the real hardships that so many workers are facing into a sustained and determined fight in the days that follow, however, will determine whether we can transform this moment of collective suffering into collective power.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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Garbage Collectors’ Lives Are Not Disposable

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The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging our country, manifesting both as a health crisis and a jobs crisis. While the unemployment rate could soar to 30%, many workers whose industries are generally ignored or disrespected have been deemed essential, and have been putting themselves in harm’s way to keep our society functioning.

No role is more critical than that of sanitation workers, who, in times of normalcy, keep cities and towns healthy, clean and safe. They have one of the most important—and most dangerous—jobs in our country, and yet are routinely belittled. But now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we need them more than ever: Their work is critical in containing COVID-19.

While many of us self-isolate at home, sanitation workers are on the front lines, picking up our garbage and potentially exposing themselves to the virus. Sanitation workers in North Carolina, many of whom are members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 150, have been organizing to protect themselves and their families from coronavirus. Unfortunately, the second reported coronavirus-related death in the state was of a Raleigh sanitation worker, Adrian Grubbs. Raleigh City Workers Union, a chapter of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150, has put forward a set of 10 demands, including immediate coronavirus tests for all Solid Waste Services workers, proper personal protective equipment, adequate hazard pay, and the ability to immediately meet and confer with the City Manager.

In These Times spoke with Charlen Parker, President of Raleigh City Workers Union. Parker hails from Clinton, North Carolina and has been a sanitation worker for nearly 16 years. He is the president of the Raleigh City Workers Union.

Mindy Isser: I am so sorry about what happened to Adrian. How are you all holding up and dealing with his passing?

Charlen Parker: To a lot of us, it’s still surreal because just about everyone knew him. We saw him just about every day when we came into work. We expected it to be like a regular work week. But then we came in and first they had a meeting where we found out he had it, and then the next day we started hearing little reports that he didn’t make it. It’s a hard pill to swallow when it’s someone that you’re used to seeing and being right there with. We hear about the coronavirus and see it on the news and everything, but a lot of people feel like it doesn’t affect them until it’s right there in your face. Hearts and prayers go out to his family, it’s been very difficult.

Mindy: It sounds like you didn’t hear that he was sick until right before he passed away.

Charlen: Yes, we had a meeting on Tuesday morning as we clocked in, and then they had us divided in groups. Our director told us that Adrian Grubbs had contracted it and that he had permission from the family to let us know about his condition. He made his statement, and we walked out and some of us talked amongst ourselves. We sent him our prayers and hoped that he was gonna be alright and that hopefully in a few weeks that we’d be able to see him. That was Tuesday. Wednesday we came into work and everybody was doing their route, and we can leave whenever we get done to keep us from being on top of each other. I was leaving and walking to the parking lot, and I got a phone call from another employee who told me that he heard that Grubbs didn’t make it, that he had passed. He had heard it from two other co-workers and I was like, okay, you know how people spread rumors and whatnot and sometimes their information is not factual. So I said, I hadn’t heard anything official, so maybe it’s just that they’re running off at the mouth and don’t have the right information. And then we came into work on Thursday morning and there’s another meeting where it’s confirmed that he had passed away.

Mindy: And when people found out, obviously they were really upset and sad. Was anyone afraid for their own health? Because I’m sure people had come into contact with him perhaps before he even knew he was sick.

Charlen: Immediately, we felt the sadness. But then right after the sadness, the question was then, how long had he been sick? Who has he been around? What has he touched? Where had he been at? That quickly became the immediate concern.

Mindy: Did anyone get time off of work to self-isolate or is everything kind of business as usual?

Charlen: When our Director made the initial statement that Grubbs had contracted coronavirus, he also said that there were two employees that had quarantined themselves because they had been in close proximity to Grubbs. They didn’t identify the two employees, and that was basically it.

We’re all always on top of each other, we’re always all running into each other, and we were all wondering who the two employees were and if they had interacted with us—because we don’t know who they are. On the administrative side, they get to work from home, so we don’t know if they were talking about them, and since we’re staggered, you can’t pinpoint if it was one of us, because we’re not all there at the same time. 

Mindy: What is Raleigh doing to protect sanitation workers?

Charlen: They’ve been giving out face masks and latex gloves. I think as of Friday, and I cannot confirm, that they’ve increased the amount of gloves you get. They’re supposed to be sanitizing the building daily, but a lot of my coworkers have expressed concerns about that. The normal person who cleans we saw on Tuesday, but since Tuesday no one that I’ve talked to can account for seeing her or anyone else in the building doing additional cleaning. I don’t want to say they haven’t had anybody, but we haven’t seen anybody. And I think they said they have a company that comes in and does a thorough cleaning of the building, but that’s only once a week.

Mindy: What do you think the city should be doing to protect you?

Charlen: The major concern right now amongst many of my co-workers is that, since Grubbs did have it, many of us want to be tested. We understand that they have limited tests, but from my perspective, we’re on the front lines, and we have to go out there and be in the middle of it. The least that they could do is to test us so that we can either confirm or deny who does or doesn’t have it. We have families. One thing that they mentioned to us was that maybe we can be tested if we start to show symptoms, but you can carry the coronavirus and not have any symptoms—a lot of people don’t feel like they’re taking that into account. Many of us have children, we have people in our families that have health issues, and no one wants to bring that home to our families.

Mindy: How does it feel to be playing such a critical role right now with how serious the coronavirus crisis is becoming?

Charlen: I’ve understood for a while the health risk of not picking up garbage, including the spread of disease and the increase of vermin. Personally, I feel good when I know I’m providing a service that helps people. Especially lately when people are staying home from work, you’ll see whole families outside waving and smiling. Even though we’re going through this crisis, you still see families out smiling and enjoying themselves. It makes it worth it.

Mindy: Many people are working from home right now, but many other workers like yourself can’t do that. What do you think all essential workers—like grocery store workers, utility workers—deserve right now in terms of protections, hazard pay, etc.?

Charlen: All of your frontline employees and essential personnel should be tested because we are the ones in direct contact, we have to be out there. I feel like it shouldn’t be an issue to get us supplies, getting us tested, and doing everything you can do to protect us. One of the options we were talking about was alternating shifts—one crew comes in for a whole week, and the following week they’re off and the other crew comes in for a week. I think this would be a great idea. My only concern is that I don’t know if we have enough personnel to do it and get stuff up off the ground in a timely manner to where guys won’t be out there all day. That’s one of my major concerns.

They have given us a 5% increase in pay, which I don’t feel like is enough. The state is considering time-and-a-half pay. That would be good. Whole Foods is paying an extra $2 an hour, which is more than what we get with our hazard pay.

Mindy: In 2006, Raleigh sanitation workers went on a wildcat strike. Many of their demands were around health and safety issues. How have things changed since you started in Raleigh six years ago?

Charlen: We’re supposed to have a safety coordinator. Since I have been at the City of Raleigh, I’ve had four different safety coordinators, and it’s been almost a year since the last one was there. We currently don’t have a safety coordinator at Solid Waste Services. With regards to safety, we still have some issues. They get into meetings and stress safety, but I don’t think they understand that there are certain things we can’t do because we don’t have enough personnel or equipment. A lot of times we have a lot of equipment issues. We do have a high turnover rate. They say right now that we’re fully staffed, but I don’t see how that could be possible when the city is constantly growing, they’re building subdivisions, and they’re increasing the amount of work we have to do, which means we have to stay out there longer. Sometimes we will go out there and our equipment is not always up to par like it should be. We need adequate equipment to work with.

Mindy: How is UE 150 organizing and fighting back to protect workers during the coronavirus crisis? Have you made any demands of the city?

Charlen: On March 17, we sent a letter with some of our concerns to Mayor Baldwin, City Manager Ruffin Hall, and City Council. They basically ignored us. After Adrian Grubbs, we also sent another letter with 10 demands. Some of the demands include meeting with the City Manager to express concerns about frontline workers. We have concerns and don’t feel like they’re listening to us. Another demand is since the passing of Adrian Grubbs, we haven’t heard the followup to how he got sick, where he got sick, where he’s been, and who he’s been in contact with.

Workers have been standing up and organizing all over the place—I saw Pittsburgh sanitation workers went out on a wildcat strike this past week. Have you all been inspired by other workers who have been speaking out and taking action since the coronavirus started?

Charlen: Yes, of course, but on the other hand, there is a lot of fear out there where I work at. You have some employees that want to stand up and do something. But other workers believe that they’re not gonna listen, they’re not gonna do anything, they’re gonna do what they want to do, they’re gonna treat us how they want, so what’s the point of standing up?

Mindy: How do you think we can fight back against that? Do you think if people saw other workers coming together and winning they would be inspired to take action?

Charlen: We have a new administration in Solid Waste Services. That’s because a couple of years ago we protested people in management, and every single name on all of the petitions we circulated are gone—they either left or were terminated. The new administration cleaned house because of our list of bad supervisors. That’s the power that we have, I’ve been explaining that to my coworkers. The only way we win is by doing something.

Mindy: What would you say to other workers right now—the ones who have to keep coming to work—about how they can keep themselves safe while they’re on the job?

Charlen: Working in sanitation is the fifth most dangerous job in the United States on fatalities. We should get hazard pay all the time. I don’t understand how the police and fire department have no problem getting hazard pay, but we can’t get hazard pay.

If I could borrow from Dominic Harris, the president of the Charlotte City Workers Chapter of UE Local 150, who said on a conference call that the coronavirus crisis is the perfect opportunity for workers. You can see how much power that you’ve got during this crisis and how much they rely and depend on us. This is the perfect opportunity to use that power and stand up and get the things that we need.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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