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Meet the Warehouse Worker Who Took On Amazon Over Inhumane Conditions and Harassment

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Hibaq Mohamed has worked for Ama­zon near­ly as long as she’s been in the Unit­ed States. In 2016, the twen­ty-some­thing Soma­li immi­grant land­ed in Min­neso­ta by way of a refugee camp, join­ing one of the largest East African com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try. She soon joined the legion of work­ers who fuel the state’s main Ama­zon facil­i­ty, the MSP1 ful­fill­ment cen­ter in Shakopee, near the Twin Cities.

“This was my first job,” Mohamed says. “They were hir­ing work­ers … East African and peo­ple like me. [These work­ers] didn’t have a lot of expe­ri­ence, they don’t know a lot.” 

The Shakopee facil­i­ty employs rough­ly 1,000 work­ers to exe­cute Amazon’s high­ly mech­a­nized work reg­i­men every day, pack­ing orders at a fren­zied rate of around 250 units per hour. While items zip down a con­vey­or belt, the work­ers are mon­i­tored, through an auto­mat­ed sys­tem, to track their speed and any errors that might dam­age their per­for­mance ratings.

On top of the pres­sure to meet quo­tas, Mohamed says man­age­ment decid­ed to “fire a crazy num­ber of work­ers” short­ly after she start­ed work­ing there. “And they are not telling us what they fired them for,” she recalls. She says the work­ers were immi­grants who did not speak Eng­lish fluently.

Though Ama­zon says these were sea­son­al hires—and were there­fore dis­missed once their tem­po­rary stints end­ed, the seem­ing lack of trans­paren­cy trou­bled Mohamed. “I feel like this was unfair,” she says.

Around 2017, Mohamed and oth­er East African immi­grant work­ers start­ed meet­ing with the Awood Cen­ter, a Min­neapo­lis work­er cen­ter. As fledg­ling com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers, Mohamed says, “We have to be smart, we have to have the train­ing to do this.” Over the past two years, East African work­ers have spear­head­ed a num­ber of walk­outs and protests at Ama­zon against what they per­ceive as incom­pe­tence, inhu­mane pro­duc­tiv­i­ty stan­dards and a lack of diver­si­ty among the man­age­ment. Images of hijabis walk­ing the pick­et line and ban­ners pro­claim­ing that work­ers are “not robots” gar­nered nation­al headlines. 

Fol­low­ing ini­tial protests in 2018, Ama­zon man­age­ment sat down with MSP1’s East African work­ers to dis­cuss work­ing con­di­tions—high­ly unusu­al for Ama­zon, which had pre­vi­ous­ly avoid­ed such direct talks with workers.

Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly agreed to make some accom­mo­da­tions at the facil­i­ty, such as com­mit­ting man­agers to meet quar­ter­ly with work­ers and respond to com­plaints with­in five days, accord­ing to the New York Times. But work­ers have con­tin­ued to com­plain about the intense pro­duc­tiv­i­ty pres­sure, which often leaves them with­out time for dai­ly prayers and bath­room breaks, despite Ama­zon claim­ing that work­ers can pray at any time. MSP1 also has one of the high­est injury rates among Amazon’s ful­fill­ment centers.

Awood has become a hub for the East African work­er com­mu­ni­ty, teach­ing orga­niz­ing tac­tics and build­ing mutu­al sup­port. Awood oper­ates as a grass­roots group and not a for­mal union, but oth­er unions—includ­ing the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union and the Team­sters—have been sup­port­ing Ama­zon work­ers at MSP1 and oth­er facilities.

Just over a month after Min­neso­ta issued stay-at-home orders, Ama­zon elim­i­nat­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid time off for those who opt­ed to stay home for health con­cerns, which trig­gered a walk­out by more than 50 MSP1 work­ers. The work­ers also protest­ed what they said was the retal­ia­to­ry fir­ing of two work­er activists, Faiza Osman (who Awood claims was ter­mi­nat­ed after stay­ing home with her chil­dren to avoid infec­tion, but was lat­er rein­stat­ed) and Bashir Mohamed (who appar­ent­ly was dis­ci­plined for vio­lat­ing social dis­tanc­ing guide­lines, which work­ers say are selec­tive­ly enforced).

Work­ers’ fears about the virus were con­firmed in June, when about 90 ware­house employ­ees test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19. Bloomberg report­ed that Ama­zon had care­ful­ly tracked the Covid-19 infec­tion rate at MSP1, but did not dis­close details on the num­ber of cas­es to workers.

Man­age­ment “want[ed] to hide it,” Mohamed says. But while the high­er-ups were not exposed like the front­line work­ers on the ware­house floor, “We are the ones who are going togeth­er to the bath­room, to the break room. We are the ones get­ting the virus.”

Ama­zon has boast­ed about its Covid-19 response, claim­ing it has tak­en exten­sive mea­sures to keep work­ers safe while eas­ing up on quo­tas. But Mohamed says Amazon’s lead­ers “focus more for the mon­ey than the work­ers and people.”

Last week, work­ers’ fears about their risk of infec­tion were real­ized when the com­pa­ny report­ed that more than 19,000 of its 1,372,000 employ­ees at Ama­zon and Whole Foods had test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19. Though it claims that the infec­tion rate at its facil­i­ties was about 40 per­cent low­er on aver­age than in sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties, labor advo­cates denounced the com­pa­ny for need­less­ly putting work­ers’ health at risk.

The man­age­ment seems focused on Mohamed, how­ev­er. Amid ris­ing fears of Covid-19 risks at work, Mohamed was writ­ten up in July for tak­ing too much “time off task,” Amazon’s term for inter­mit­tent breaks. But she con­tends she had rarely received any dis­ci­pli­nary write-ups until the man­age­ment “clear­ly made me a tar­get” after she had protest­ed work­ing conditions. 

She wrote to Min­neso­ta Attor­ney Gen­er­al Kei­th Elli­son seek­ing pro­tec­tion under an exec­u­tive order shield­ing whistle­blow­ers from retaliation. 

“Ama­zon man­agers have tar­get­ed me and open­ly harassed me before,” Mohamed wrote, “but increas­ing­ly dur­ing the pandemic.”

Ama­zon denies Mohamed and her cowork­ers’ claims of retal­i­a­tion. Ama­zon spokesper­son Jen Crow­croft states via email, “We do not tol­er­ate any kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place and we sup­port every employee’s right to crit­i­cize their employ­er, but that doesn’t come with blan­ket immu­ni­ty to ignore inter­nal poli­cies.” Sim­i­lar­ly, Ama­zon attrib­ut­es Bashir’s dis­missal to vio­la­tions of work­place rules. It also states Osman still works at Ama­zon and was not fired.

Mohamed’s alle­ga­tions reflect a broad­er pat­tern of fir­ings and pun­ish­ment of work­er-orga­niz­ers dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, which has prompt­ed law­mak­ers to inves­ti­gate Amazon’s labor prac­tices.. Last week, 35 work­ers at MSP1 staged yet anoth­er walk­out to protest the alleged fir­ing of one of Mohamed’s cowork­ers, Farhiyo Warsame, for “time off task” vio­la­tions, after she had voiced con­cerns about safe­ty pro­tec­tions at work.

For now, how­ev­er, Mohamed’s out­spo­ken­ness might pro­tect her, as the work­ers’ upris­ings have put Amazon’s labor prac­tices in the pub­lic spotlight. 

Ama­zon esti­mates about 30% of its Shakopee work­ers are East African, many of whom live in the Twin Cities Soma­li refugee com­mu­ni­ty, which has his­tor­i­cal­ly strug­gled with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and socioe­co­nom­ic hard­ship. Now, these bonds have trans­formed into orga­niz­ing pow­er against a cor­po­rate empire. Hav­ing built a diverse com­mu­ni­ty of mil­i­tant work­ers at MSP1—Soma­li, Span­ish and Eng­lish speak­ers alike—Mohamed knows there is safe­ty in numbers.

“We have one goal, and we can under­stand each oth­er,” Mohamed says. “We have the pow­er to change pol­i­cy. … We have the right to exer­cise that in the Unit­ed States.” Although the com­pa­ny “give[s] us a lot of fear,” she adds. “[we] still have the courage to fight back and work for the change we want.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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California Labor Federation Wins New Protections for Workers

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

Last Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a package of bills to expand worker protections. The new state laws will provide a workers’ compensation presumption for front-line workers who are afflicted with infectious diseases on the job and a requirement for employers to give timely notification of COVID-19 cases in the workplace. The California Labor Federation, under the leadership of Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski (IAM), took charge of the fight for these new policies. “Since the pandemic began, the California labor movement has strongly advocated for the most robust worker protection policies in the country. Today’s signing of a package of bills to bolster worker protections as the COVID-19 crisis continues shows our commitment as a state to policies that put the health and safety of workers first,” Pulaski said. “While more work must be done in 2021 to strengthen protections to ensure essential workers putting their lives at risk return home safely to their families after each shift, today the governor gave a much-needed boost to all workers across the state.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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If “Cancel Culture” Is About Getting Fired, Let’s Cancel At-Will Employment

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You know what should be canceled? The legal right of most bosses to fire you for a “good cause, bad cause, or no cause.”

That status quo is so widely accepted that some progressives don’t think twice about appealing to the authoritarian power of bosses in the pursuit of social justice: Many high profile social media campaigns have been employed to get people who are caught on video committing racist acts in their everyday lives fired from their jobs. But the desire to hold racists and sexists accountable—or the related struggles against sexism, homophobia and fascism—need not be in conflict with the principles of workplace rights.

So-called “cancel culture” is not well-defined, but its critics frequently use the moniker to refer to an activist program of making individuals who harm their neighbors or coworkers with acts of racism, sexism (and worse) accountable through exposure and de-platforming—including attempts to get them fired. Liberal critics have been more likely to raise free speech concerns than any about workers’ rights, while leftists are likelier to argue that free speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of speech.

Depending on what websites you read, “cancel culture” could be portrayed as the biggest threat to society outside of a pandemic with no end in sight, a cratering economy with tens of millions of people out of work and facing eviction, and unidentified men wearing camouflage and carrying machine guns removing protestors from the streets of Portland. The terms of the debate are so problematic that      Trump used the occasion of his July 4 speech to complain of leftists that, “one of their political weapons is ‘cancel culture’—driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.” Then, because the concept of irony has apparently died of complications from Covid-19, he continued, “This is the very definition of totalitarianism.”

Three years ago, we published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining how U.S. workers lack a basic right to their jobs that many workers in other countries enjoy as a legal standard. As a solution, we proposed a just cause “right to your job” law as a badly needed labor law reform. Since then, we’ve been encouraged to see the issue turn up on many progressives’ agenda.

In the debate between a right to your job and the need to de-platform bigots, some have raised concerns that without the boss’s right to fire an employee for any reason, racists and sexists would get more of a free pass at work. But this argument misses what “just cause” means. It doesn’t mean that employees cannot be fired, it means they can’t be fired for a reason that’s not related to work. Racism, sexism, harassment and other forms of conduct in and out of the workplace that make other employees feel unsafe and violate policies around respect and equity are grounds for discipline and termination—but are also subject to due process. When you look at how “just cause” plays out in areas where it exists—in the public sector, under many union contracts, or in other countries—it’s clear that racists, sexists and harassers are, in fact, disciplined.

Beyond the pale and unacceptable

American workers stand apart from those in other countries, as they’re governed by a body of judge-made law called the “at-will” employment doctrine. The doctrine is built around a sort of false mutuality, where the employee has the “liberty” to quit her job for any reason, and the employer has the right to fire her for any reason. The alternative, commonly negotiated in union contracts, is “just cause”: the principle that an employee can be fired only for a legitimate, serious, work-performance reason. In a union contract—where “just cause” is commonly found—it is usually combined with a progressive discipline system and a grievance procedure to challenge write-ups, suspensions and terminations that a worker feels was unfair.

Progressive discipline typically starts with verbal warning of an infraction or unsatisfactory performance. If, after that warning, a boss thinks that the situation has not improved, it may be followed up with a formal warning in writing, then a suspension without pay and, finally, termination. The progressive steps of discipline reflect an increasing seriousness of infraction, or inability to improve following warnings and remedial supports. Lower levels of discipline might be accompanied by new training or counseling to help the employee improve. But—and this is a key point—while some matters might go through the entire progression of discipline, other more serious infractions might go straight to a higher level of discipline.

A vocal or demonstrative racist creates a hostile work environment for her coworkers, and can be punished—or even fired—under a system of just cause and due process. Let’s look at a few real-world scenarios. Casually browsing through arbitrators’ decisions in New York, we found the case of a professionally-classified employee at a social service agency serving developmentally disabled children and families, who made racist remarks about a supervisor to a fellow worker that other co-workers overheard. Horrified, the co-workers who were subject to an unwelcome racist rant reported it to management, complaining that they were not comfortable working with such an unabashedly racist co-worker. The racist employee was fired. She brought the case to arbitration, arguing that she was not given progressive discipline and was fired without just cause.

The case went all the way up to arbitration and a neutral third-party upheld the termination. The damning judgment: “Under these circumstances, I find that the Employer acted reasonably and had just cause to terminate Grievant’s employment. In maintaining a respectful, productive and safe working environment for a diverse workforce as well as a proper atmosphere for the Employer’s clientele, the use of certain negative language is beyond the pale and is unacceptable, making progressive discipline unwarranted.”

Amy Cooper, the entitled white lady who called the cops on “an African-American” birder in the Ramble of New York’s Central Park is a slightly more complicated case. Cooper was caught on video reacting in a reflexively racist way to a Black man who just wanted to protect some birds from getting gored by an off-leash dog, threatening to unleash some unpredictable police response upon him. She was quickly doxxed, and angry internet hordes demanded she be fired from the investment firm that she worked for. The firm, Franklin Templeton didn’t hesitate to fire her to protect its own reputation. But even Amy Cooper deserved due process.                                    

The targeted campaign against the investment firm arguably made      Cooper’s behavior in Central Park a work-related cause of damage to her employer’s business. More relevant is how uncomfortable her presence in Zoom meetings and on email CC lines would be for her co-workers in the immediate aftermath of her scandalous behavior. It would not be unreasonable for an employer to move directly to a suspension under those circumstances. It could be a suspension without pay while she cooled her heels and consulted with anyone willing to represent her in an appeal. If the employer decided that her time away from regular duties should be spent in implicit bias training or anger management counseling, then the suspension could continue some form of compensation.

If the goal of “cancel culture” is to “make racists afraid again” by making their despicable behavior carry real-world consequences, then Cooper very nearly losing her job would likely have been as effective as her actually losing her job. And under a just cause standard, she probably wouldn’t have been immediately fired for this one terrible offense.

Let’s look at one more example. In a widely-discussed piece for New York Magazinecritiquing “cancel culture,” Jonathan Chait complained about the firing of a political data analyst named David Shor. In Chait’s telling, Shor tweeted a link to a paper by Princeton Professor Omar Wasow, which showed that non-violent protests increased the vote for Democrats, whereas protests viewed as violent increased the vote for Republicans. What followed was a Twitter debate between Shor and several others concerning the propriety of Shor posting the paper, wherein Shor was accused of racism and his employer was tagged. A few days later, Shor was fired from his job.

Chait uses the Shor episode, along with several others, to point to a “left-wing illiberalism” that seeks to silence people with opposing viewpoints. However, in Chait’s examples and his discussion of the problems, he almost wholly lets the employer off the hook. He engages in no discussion of at-will employment or how Shor’s employer should not have been permitted to fire him for a “superficially innocuous” tweet, but instead blames “leftists” and “the far left” for causing Shor to lose his job. Nowhere does Chait even mention that it was not the Twitter users who fired Shor, but his boss.

The problem for Chait was a “cancel culture” that included everyone except the powerful arbiter of speech who actually canceled his employment—his boss.

The cause must be just

In her 2017 book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), University of Michigan professor Elizabeth Anderson argues that we think too narrowly about the power and ubiquity of “governments.” We almost exclusively focus on the power of the politicians we elect while ignoring the far more coercive power of our bosses. All workplaces have a system of government. In the United States, a unionized workplace is like a constitutional monarchy. We have some rights and can petition the King. A non-union workplace is a dictatorship. Left-wing activists need to think twice before appealing to the authoritarian power of a boss. Even if the cause of anti-racism is just, the boss’s arbitrary authority to punish his employees for what they do in their private time is a massive restriction of our civil rights.

Corporations are only temporarily embarrassed when right-wing employees spark a controversy. But corporations actually dislike left-wing ideas and are usually all-too-happy to find an excuse to quash them, leaving progressive activists far more vulnerable to campaigns of harassment targeted against their livelihoods. This can be seen in academia, where there has been a multi-year effort to police the speech of academics—on anything from the 1619 Project to the BDS movement—that’s viewed as too far left. Critics have tried to force risk-averse university administrators into firing such professors for tweets that get caught in the right-wing media echo chamber.

All workers deserve just cause protections, and we need to fight for this right as a matter of principle and self-defense. This can be done without endorsing an alliance with the boss that enshrines a broad unchecked power to fire at-will employees.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is an In These Times contributing writer and the Program Director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College. His new book, Tell the Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the Twenty-First Century, is out now from Monthly Review Press. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.


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Which States and Cities Have Adopted Comprehensive COVID-19 Worker Protections?

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14 states have adopted comprehensive COVID worker safety protections so far.

As the COVID-19 pandemic surges in the United States, workers have continued to protest and organize for their safety and health—but action is needed at all levels of government, starting with the top. To date, the Trump administration—specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—has resisted issuing any workplace safety standards or requirements to protect workers from COVID-19 in the workplace. In the absence of federal leadership, some governors and state health departments have stepped up to expand worker protections.

Some states have issued executive orders with very specific worker protection requirements, and Virginia has just issued the first-in-the-nation Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers. Other states have issued guidelines, some of which they intend to enforce. Some cities as well have issued protective ordinances for workers.

Many states’ executive orders (including the Virginia standard) require employers to heed the following:

  • ensure physical distancing of at least six feet between employees and their coworkers and customers;
  • provide face coverings and require employees to wear them if maintaining six-foot social distance is not always possible;
  • provide employees with other personal protective equipment in addition to face coverings;
  • provide employees with regular access to hand-washing and soap;
  • have hand sanitizer readily available to workers;
  • require deep cleaning after COVID cases are discovered in the workplace; and
  • notify workers when cases are found.

In some states, such as Oregon, Michigan, and Nevada, enforcement is handled by state occupational safety and health agencies; in others, by health departments and the attorney general’s office. Some states where federal OSHA has traditionally done enforcement are still figuring out how best to enforce these protections.

Inexcusably, the Trump administration has abandoned its responsibility to ensure that workers and the general public are safe in this pandemic. As the number of workers infected with and dying from this disease continues to grow, it’s clear that a voluntary approach to worker safety is not mitigating this public health disaster.

Even while workers continue to take major risks in speaking out and organizing in their workplaces, communities of color are paying the heaviest price for this federal policy failure. Although all workers on the job now or returning to work in the near future are at risk of illness, Black and Latinx workers and other workers of color, including immigrants, are more likely to be in frontline jobs. In addition, these communities have disproportionate rates of serious illness and death related to COVID-19, stemming from structural racism over generations related to healthcare and access to care. It is crucial that state and local policymakers step up to prioritize these workers and thereby further protect communities in this pandemic.

Below is a list of the 14 states that have adopted comprehensive worker safety protections (with links to more information). In addition to these, separate executive orders requiring face masks in the workplace have been issued by some governors (e.g., North CarolinaTexas, Massachusetts), cities (e.g., Raleigh, NC), and counties. Philadelphia has also issued the first citywide ordinance protecting workers from retaliation for raising COVID-19 safety and health concerns or refusing to work under unsafe conditions related to COVID-19.

California

https://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/5199.html (the Cal/OSHA standard)

https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/coronavirus/Health-Care-General-Industry.html (unclear how this guidance is being enforced)

https://files.covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-food-packing.pdf (sample guidance)

Illinois

https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-32.aspx (initial EO issued April 30)

https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-38.aspx (updated EO issued May 29)

http://dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/guidance-food-and-meat-processing-facilities(issued by Illinois Department of Public Health)

From the reopening checklists now being published: “Any employee who has had close contact with co-worker or any other person who is diagnosed with COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days after the last/most recent contact with the infectious individual and should seek a COVID-19 test at a state or local government testing center, healthcare center or other testing locations. All other employees should be on alert for symptoms of fever, cough, or shortness of breath and taking temperature if symptoms develop.”

Kentucky

https://govstatus.egov.com/ky-healthy-at-work

Massachusetts

https://www.mass.gov/info-details/reopening-mandatory-safety-standards-for-workplaces

https://www.mass.gov/forms/report-unsafe-working-conditions-during-covid-19 (complaint form)

Michigan

https://content.govdelivery.com/attachments/MIEOG/2020/07/09/file_attachments/1492329/EO%202020-145%20Emerg%20order%20-%20Workplace%20safeguards%20-%20re-issue.pdf

Minnesota

https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/businesses.html
https://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_business_plan_template.pdf

https://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_meatpacking_guidance.pdf(for meat)

https://www.leg.state.mn.us/archive/execorders/20-54.pdf (on the right to refuse work)

Nevada

http://business.nv.gov/News_Media/COVID-19_Announcements/
http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-04-29_-_COVID-19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_016_(Attachments)/
http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-05-07_-_COVID-19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_018_-_Phase_One_Reopening_(Attachments)/

New Jersey 

https://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/562020/20200408e.shtml(the state is updating industry-specific guidance as well)

New York 

https://agriculture.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2020/04/retailfoodstoreguidanceforseniors_1.pdf(some essential industries remain without guidance)

https://forward.ny.gov/

Oregon

https://www.oregon.gov/gov/admin/Pages/eo_20-12.aspx(executive order)

https://osha.oregon.gov/news/2020/Pages/nr2020-19.aspx (Oregon OSHA)

https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/07/01/oregon-osha-to-enforce-mask-rules/ (enforcing the EO)

Pennsylvania

https://www.governor.pa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/20200415-SOH-worker-safety-order.pdf

https://www.jacksonlewis.com/sites/default/files/docs/PhiladelphiaCertifiedCopy20032801.pdf(Philadelphia ordinance that includes retaliation protections for raising concerns or refusing unsafe work; plus private right of action)

Rhode Island

https://reopeningri.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/COVID-19-Control_Plan_Fillable_Template-Final-5.13.20.pdf?189db0&189db0

Virginia

https://www.doli.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/COVID-19-Emergency-Temporary-Standard-FOR-PUBLIC-DISTRIBUTION-FINAL-7.17.2020.pdf (Virginia OSH has just passed the nation’s first Emergency Temporary Standard for workers, which will be effective the week of July 27)

Washington State

https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/covid-19-resources/covid-19-reopening-guidance-businesses-and-workers (this is written as enforceable guidance)

https://www.lni.wa.gov/safety-health/safety-rules/enforcement-policies/DD170.pdf (enforcement)

This blog originally appeared at NELP on July 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Debbie Berkowitz, NELP’s Worker Safety and Health program director, joined NELP in 2015, following six years serving as chief of staff and then a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (2009-2015).


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Trump is playing shock doctrine with COVID-19, this week in the war on workers

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One of the week’s big must-reads was How Trump is helping tycoons exploit the pandemic, by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. Specifically, Ronald Cameron, the owner of the massive poultry processing company Mountaire. Cameron is a major Trump donor, and he’s on a White House advisory board about the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, there’s a campaign to bust the union of the workers at a Mountaire plant and the Trump administration is gutting regulations that protect these workers, whose job was already both dangerous and low-paid before COVID-19. Now, workers are getting sick and the company is keeping its numbers secret—and continuing to get favorable treatment from the Trump administration.

A worker at the plant told Mayer that a fellow worker ended up on a ventilator with COVID-19 after she told the company nurse she felt unwell and “The nurse sent her right back on the God-damned line to work. The nurses aren’t worth shit in there.” Mountaire workers got hazard pay of just a dollar an hour, which was canceled in June, while a Trump executive order forced them to remain on the job. “Why are they giving us a one-dollar raise and giving two million dollars to Donald Trump? What are we, animals?” the worker told Mayer. Read the whole thing.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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A Brief Look at Today’s Workers Rights and Protections

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Workers used to be at the mercy of their employers when the topic of job-related safety and benefits arose, to say nothing of hiring and promotions. Now, after a push for employee rights gained momentum late in the 20th century, the result was a series of important laws that millions of Americans rely on for protection to this day.

Today, roughly 180 worker protection laws ranging from pay requirement to parental leave benefits are in force. Some key federal protections are below.

The Minimum Wage

Per the Fair Labor Standards Act, American workers receive a minimum wage for their work. Since 2009, most public and private employers have had to pay staff members at least $7.25 per hour, with several states providing their own minimum rates that are even higher. The law offers special protections for minors as well. For non-agricultural positions, it places limits on the number of hours children under the age of 16 can work.

Workplace Safety

Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 came into law, dangers in the American workplace have been minimized through a number of specific safety provisions, including industry-specific guidelines for construction, maritime and agricultural jobs. There also is included a “General Duty Clause” that prohibits any workplace practice that represents a clear risk to workers. Primary enforcement of these provisions has been the responsibility of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, although state agencies may also have a role. 

Health Coverage

Formed in 2010, the Affordable Care Act promised to make health insurance a right for workers at most medium and large-sized businesses. A provision that requires companies with 50 or more full-time workers, the “Employer Shared Responsibility Payment” offers workers a minimum level of health insurance. A worker that logs at least 30 hours a week, on average, is considered a “full-time” employee.

Whistleblower Protections

There is in place a patchwork of federal statutes to help protect whistleblowers who report employer violations of the law. Much of the time whistleblower protections are built into pieces of legislation that govern an industry. An example would be the Clean Air Act, which provides safeguards to those who highlight violations of environmental law, as well as the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act that affords protections to individuals that uncover unlawful manufacturing practices.

The main body responsible for protecting the rights of employees is OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. The program protects employees who may fear job loss or other reprisals if they speak up. 

Family Leave

In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Family Leave and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, which resulted in eligible employees being afforded 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year if they decide to stay home in the wake the birth of a child, adoption or serious personal or family member illness.

In order to receive FMLA benefits, an employee must have been with the company for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours during the year prior. Also, the law only applies to business that employs at least 50 employees with a 75-mile radius.

Employee Based Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for businesses to discriminate based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Subsequently, in 2009 the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act further strengthened workplace rights, prohibiting wage discrimination against minorities and women. Also in this category, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects against age discrimination for employees over 40 years and older, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provided protections against discrimination of employees with disabilities. 

The bottom line is that today, American employees benefit from the numerous protections designed to provide a minimal level of income, as well as protect them from danger in the workplace, and other safeguards.

About the Author: Jordan Fuller is a retired golfer. Now, he is coaching and teaching golf. He works with wonderful people who help him manage his schedule, mentoring materials, as well as his website, www.golfinfluence.com


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California Authorities Take Steps to Protect Workers’ Health and Rehiring Post-Quarantine

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State and local governments in California have recently signed into law several measures aimed at protecting workers. At the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order offering additional paid sick leave to food sector workers. At the local level, both the County and City of Los Angeles have now adopted worker retention and right of recall ordinances protecting the jobs of certain service sector workers. While the potential harm to workers resulting from COVID-19 remains great, these measures should provide some comfort to vulnerable workers at a time of financial insecurity. 

Food workers entitled to additional paid sick leave for reasons related to COVID-19

The statewide measure pertaining to food workers was signed into effect by Gov. Newsom on April 16, 2020. Executive Order N-51-20 points out that food service workers are far less likely to stay home from work when they’re sick if they do not have available paid sick leave. If workers feel they have no choice but to work while sick, there is a greater risk that the infection will spread to all coworkers.

The order addresses these concerns by mandating that employers of food service workers must offer supplemental paid sick leave related to COVID-19 to food service workers. Workers become eligible for this leave when: the worker has been ordered to quarantine or isolate by a federal, state, or local order; the worker is told by a healthcare worker to self-quarantine or self-isolate; or, the worker has been barred from working by their employer based on concerns of transmission of COVID-19. The amount of paid sick leave to which workers are entitled will vary based on the number of hours the employee worked. Workers considered to be “full-time” employees or who were scheduled to work an average of 40 hours per week for the two weeks prior to taking COVID-19-related leave will be entitled to 80 hours of COVID-19 supplemental sick leave. For those working fewer hours per week, the worker will be entitled to take the number of hours of paid leave across two weeks as they would have normally been scheduled to work in that time.

Los Angeles County workers now have a right to rehire and to be retained by new owners

Many laid-off workers fear that, due to the struggling economy, their positions may be filled by new and inexpensive workers rather than the experienced, possibly older, workers who held the position previously. After similar ordinances were signed into effect by City of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the County of Los Angeles has now enacted two ordinances designed to assure laid-off workers in the service industry that they have a right to be rehired when businesses reopen. The City’s orders offer protections to those working at airports; as janitorial, maintenance, or security workers at commercial properties; and at large event centers, hotels, and hotel restaurants. The City’s orders go into effect on June 14, 2020. The County’s orders cover only those who work at commercial properties and hotels, and go into effect on May 12, 2020. Both measures offer workers a right to pursue legal action if they believe their rights have been violated under these ordinances.

The City’s Worker Retention ordinance and the County’s Right of Retention ordinance each mandate that, upon the sale of a business to a new owner, any laid-off employees of that business have a right to be kept on as an employee under the new ownership. The former owner must provide a preferential hiring list of the business’ employees to the new owner. The new owner must hire from that list for six months after the business is again open to the public. In order to be eligible for inclusion on this list, the worker must have worked for the business for at least six months, must have been primarily employed by that business, who is directly employed by or works for someone who has contracted with the former owner, and who worked for the former owner after March 4, 2020 and before the business was sold. These ordinances do not include managerial, supervisory, or confidential employees. Workers rehired by a new owner must be retained for at least 90 days unless the employer can show cause for firing the worker.

The City and County ordinances related to the Right of Recall state that workers laid off on or after March 4, 2020 must be prioritized when businesses begin to rehire workers. The worker must have performed at least two hours of work for that employer each week to be eligible, and have worked for the employer for at least six months prior to layoff. Workers are entitled to an offer for open positions with their former employer if they held the same position previously, or if they could become qualified for the position after completing the same amount of training that a new worker would need. If two workers are eligible for the same position, employers must offer the more senior employee first right of refusal.

About the Author: Kurt R. Mattson is the President of Union Legal Research. He has spent more than 30 years in the legal services industry as a research attorney, writer, editor, and marketer. 


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Grocery Store Workers Need Frontline Protections

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Grocery store workers, like healthcare workers, first responders, and transportation workers, are currently among those deemed “essential” workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And, indeed, they have always been essential: they help provide the food and supplies necessary to sustain us all.

But of all the frontline workers whose work puts them in contact with potentially infected members of the public, grocery workers are among those who receive the least protections and the lowest pay.

Now grocery workers, too, are becoming infected—and some are dying of COVID-19.

It is deeply disturbing that several large corporate grocery retailers are simply not doing enough to protect workers’ safety or health during this critical time. Some of these retailers have been accused of harmful practices against workers in normal times. But lax health and safety protections during this crisis are dangerous and intolerable. Some food stores have reportedly put concerns about optics before the health and safety of workers by not allowing gloves to be worn by workers. Despite a recent Politico analysis that revealed cashiers are the largest number of at-risk workers, these workers continue to fight employer inaction.

Of all essential frontline workers, grocery workers are among the least protected and lowest paid.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?

A cashier at a major grocery store in northwest Washington, D.C. says that her employer has done nothing to ensure that workers are protected from the influx of customers that she interacts with daily. The store has not even provided every employee with requested protective gear, leaving many of them to supply their own. When she questioned management about the store supplying workers with protective gear, she was told that masks are not allowed because they only prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the company is only obligated to provide gloves to staff that come into contact with unwrapped food goods. This week, her store changed its policy and is allowing all workers to wear masks. But the workers are still responsible for supplying the masks and gloves themselves. “Even the porter, the person who cleans the bathroom, they don’t provide gloves to him. He brought his own gloves,” she said.

The federal agency in charge of workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has failed to issue a standard requiring employers to implement specific protections to safeguard at-risk workers in this crisis. Congressional efforts to require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect the most at-risk healthcare workers were blocked by the Trump administration and hospital industry lobbyists.

It has become painfully clear that state and local lawmakers need to swiftly implement health and safety protections for all frontline workers. In Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Vermont, grocery workers have been officially classified as emergency workers—a designation that will make free childcare services available to them during the crisis. But no state has implemented any other required protections for grocery or any other workers. Further, OSHA is not conducting any enforcement when workers complain about unsafe conditions.

In unionized supermarkets, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has pushed large chains to install protective shields between cashiers and customers, and to provide hand sanitizer, additional cleaning and sanitizing of store surfaces, time to wash hands with soap, face shields, masks, gloves, and extend paid sick leave. But workers in non-union grocery stores are left with no required protection and few safety rights.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores.

Black and brown retail workers already faced large disparities in pay, scheduling, and advancement in their workplaces before the current crisis. These workers also make up a disproportionate number of workers in jobs with the highest injury risksRecent reports have also shown that only 19.7% of Black workers and 16.2% of Latinx workers work in occupations that allow them to telework. The concentration of these communities in the retail and hospitality sectors is a major contributor to these inequities.

With many workers of color on the job in workplaces that may expose them to a potentially deadly transmissible virus, these workers are facing both panic and a status they know all too well: exclusion. In fact, even if Black workers have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, they must then navigate a medical system that has discriminated against their communities long before COVID-19 swept across the globe.

A 61-year old Black woman I spoke with who works as a grocery cashier and has survived two strokes is not only concerned about her health but also has had to take additional steps to purchase groceries for her family. Her shift starts at 6 a.m., but she shows up even earlier to try to buy what she needs before her shift begins and the store gets busy. She began this routine after she was unable to buy toothpaste and soap for herself one day after her six-hour shift ended.

“We don’t have none in stock. We used to have hand sanitizer on each register but since this virus there’s been a backorder for hand sanitizer, so we don’t have any,” she said.

Union protections have proven to be crucial for workers of color and will be even more vital for frontline workers right now. The COVID-19 crisis has propelled workers to unify and use their collective power to secure the protections they need to endure the daunting workdays ahead. Across the country, workers who have joined together to form unions have won some of the strongest standards for essential workers in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has propelled many workers to use their collective power to secure the protections they need.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of socioeconomic problems that workers have faced for years. In every recession, disaster, or other crisis in our history, Black and brown people have endured the hardest of hardships. It appears that the COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. The impact on our families, communities, and the economy will extend for years to come, even after we can leave our homes and return to the everyday routines that we sorely miss right now.

Essential frontline workers are keeping the U.S. running during this crisis. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their own well-being to keep the rest of us safe. We must fight for immediate solutions that prioritize strong health and safety standards, wage protections, paid leave, and unemployment insurance to protect frontline workers and all workers affected by this public health crisis.

This blog was originally published at NELP on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shayla Thompson is the government affairs manager on NELP’s Government Affairs team. She is a member of NELP’s committee tasked with change management and facilitating NELP’s commitment to dismantling structural racism. Her tenure at NELP has included conducting research in projects committed to racial equity, creating curriculum to guide NELP’s race caucuses, and facilitating equity training.

Shayla is committed to infusing race and inclusion into federal advocacy and creating policy messaging that reaches all working people.

Before joining NELP, she managed professional development training and social media campaigns for early childcare providers, infant mental health specialists, and parents.


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One Thing We Can Do to Protect Frontline Workers

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Almost exactly 10 years ago, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and seriously injuring 17 more. To clean it up, BP hired more than 40,000 local residents to remove oil from the beaches and shoreline. They would be working under the blistering summer sun, greatly increasing their risk of heat-related disease or death.

I ran the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 through January 2017. Long before the oil reached the Gulf Coast shores, I flew to Louisiana and met with leaders of the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to plan the multiagency effort to ensure that BP protected those workers’ safety and health. OSHA adapted heat disease prevention policies used by the U.S. military to protect soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and pushed BP to comply with them. The rules included extensive rest breaks in the shade, and liquids for rehydration. We had no legal authority to do so, but BP complied—and over the four-month effort, not a single worker was seriously sickened or killed by heat.

This year, a new crisis has put a much bigger swath of the workforce—far more Americans, in many industries—unexpectedly in harm’s way. Millions of American workers are literally risking their lives every day on the job, saving desperately ill patients, ensuring food and medicine get to our stores and homes, and keeping the public safe. Every day there are reports of physiciansnursespolice and emergency responders, even bus drivers, who have died from Covid-19 after their employers failed to implement appropriate infection control measures or provide the adequate respiratory protection or sanitary facilities needed to prevent exposure in the course of their work.

Yet OSHA, the federal agency under the Department of Labor charged with protecting these workers, is almost completely missing from the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of pressing employers on worker safety, Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia and President Donald Trump’s political appointees at the Labor Department have decided to tell workers there is little OSHA can do because it has no standard covering airborne infectious diseases. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising safety and health concerns, yet when workers are fired for lodging complaints about safety conditions in their hospitals or warehouses, this administration has been mute.

Existing OSHA regulations require a minimal effort of employers, such as providing soap and water, but I have yet to hear anyone from the Labor Department or the White House announce this fact to the public. Instead, workers in a wide range of industries who face the risk of fatal infection have taken matters into their own hands, launching job actions and strikes to force their employers into providing even basic protections.

We need more than guidance.

OSHA can, and should, be front and center in our efforts to protect these truly essential workers. The agency’s dedicated career staff has great expertise in worker protection, and the agency has issued useful guidance about Covid-19. But guidance is nonenforceable. This is simply shameful.

That’s because besides using its bully pulpit, OSHA has clear options for how to help. It could start by announcing that, using the general duty clause of the OSHA law, the agency will now issue citations against employers who egregiously fail to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. News coverage of these citations would have a huge effect—a recent study reported one OSHA news release is as effective as 210 inspections in reducing workplace hazards.

For health care workers, the most important single action OSHA could and should take right now is to issue an emergency temporary infectious disease standard, requiring health care institutions to develop and implement infection-control plans that follow CDC guidance. (When Congress returns from its recess, it will consider legislation requiring OSHA to issue such a standard.)

In crises, OSHA generally does not issue fines except in cases in which the employer puts its workers at extreme risk. Hospitals that try but fail to obtain needed protective equipment would not be penalized. But the existence of a standard, backed up by the threat of inspections, would motivate many employers to better protect their workers.

I know OSHA could issue this emergency standard with little difficulty because we began drafting such a rule during my tenure. Three years ago, the new administration launched a massive deregulatory effort, halting all work on the infectious disease rule and many other protections.

The larger concern is that OSHA is suffering from malign neglect, reflecting the low regard the president has for the health and safety of the nation’s workers. The agency has not had an assistant secretary—the person who actually runs the agency day to day—since I left 39 months ago. There hasn’t even been a nominee for the position in almost a year. Half of the senior executive positions are empty, and, while the nation’s workforce has gotten much larger, the size of the inspectorate is the smallest it has been in more than 40 years. It would take 165 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just one time.

The Trump administration should not wait for Congress to force it to take badly needed action. This crisis has demonstrated the vital importance of a safe and healthy workforce. OSHA is the only federal agency with the authority and expertise to ensure that worker protection is not sacrificed in the efforts to tame this epidemic and can accomplish this using modest and mostly nonpunitive tools. The administration needs to do its part so every worker who risks their life taking care of patients or stocking our stores or harvesting our crops is able to survive this terrible pandemic, safe and healthy.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Michaels served as assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health from 2009 to 2017. He is professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, and is the author of The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.


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