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Workers Fired, Penalized for Reporting COVID Safety Violations

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When COVID-19 began making headlines in March, Charles Collins pulled out a protective face mask from the supply at the manufacturing company in Rockaway, New Jersey, where he was the shop foreman and put it on. The dozen or so other workers at the facility followed suit. There was no way to maintain a safe distance from one another on the shop floor, where they made safety mats for machines, and a few of the men had been out sick with flu-like symptoms. Better safe than sorry.

Management was not pleased. Collins got a text message from one of his supervisors saying masks were to be used to protect workers from wood chips, metal particles and other occupational safety hazards. “We don’t provide or for that matter have enough masks to protect anybody from CORVID-19 [sic]!” If workers didn’t stop using the masks for that purpose, the supervisor texted, “we’ll have to store them away just like the candy!”

“I was shocked,” said Collins, 38. “They weren’t taking it seriously.”

Shortly after that, Collins left for a planned vacation. When he returned a week later, the company told him to quarantine at home for two weeks because he’d been traveling.

But when the quarantine ended, Collins didn’t want to go back to work. Co-workers, he said, told him that recommended safety measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distancing hadn’t been implemented. When he told human resources that he feared becoming infected and endangering his mother and his 8-year-old nephew who live with him, he said, he got an ultimatum: Return to work or resign.

Collins stayed home and says he was fired. He hired a lawyer and filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey under the state’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. The law prohibits employers from firing, demoting or otherwise retaliating against workers who refuse to take part in activities they believe are incompatible with public health and safety mandates.

As many employers, with the strong encouragement of the Trump administration, move to bring employees back, a growing number of workers are resisting what they feel are unsafe, unhealthy conditions. In recent months, a few states have passed laws specifically aimed at protecting workers who face COVID-related safety risks and retaliation for speaking up about them. Some states, like New Jersey, have whistleblower protection laws already. But advocates say stronger federal protections are needed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is responsible for enforcing 23 federal whistleblower statutes that protect workers from retaliation if they report workplace safety violations, among other problems.

But according to a new analysis, the agency isn’t up to the task. The National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy and research group, found that of 1,744 COVID-related retaliation complaints filed with OSHA between April and mid-August, 20% were docketed for investigation and 2% were resolved. More than half were dismissed or closed without investigation.

“Even before COVID, workers had a really bad track record of getting any justice for their concerns if they were retaliated against,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project and a former senior OSHA official.

The numbers are growing. Whistleblower complaints filed with OSHA increased by 30% between February and May, to 4,101, according to an August report by the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General that criticized the agency’s handling of the complaints.

Nearly 40% of the complaints — 1,618 — were related to COVID-19, the report found, filed primarily by workers who claimed they were punished for reporting workplace safety violations. Those could include, for example, not having appropriate personal protective equipment or sanitation materials, or a lack of social distancing on the job.

While complaints rose, the number of whistleblower investigators decreased from the previous year, according to the report. The average time it took to close an investigation at the end of March was roughly nine months.

Worker whistleblower protections under the Occupational Safety and Health law are “incredibly weak” compared with whistleblower statutes that protect employees who report other types of wrongdoing, Berkowitz said. If OSHA dismisses a complaint, workers have no right to appeal the decision, and once they file a complaint with OSHA they aren’t permitted to take their case to court on their own, she said.

Consumer advocates would like to see those provisions changed.

Advocates have urged OSHA to adopt mandatory COVID safety standards for workplaces, but the agency has declined to do so, maintaining that its “general duty clause,” which requires employers to maintain a workplace free from hazards likely to cause death or physical harm, is sufficient.

“The Administration has remained committed to providing the Whistleblower Protection program with the resources it needs to fulfill its mission,” a spokesperson for the Department of Labor wrote in an email to KHN. “In fiscal year 2020, OSHA asked for and received five new full-time employees and requested an additional ten in the President’s budget for fiscal year 2021.”

If workers don’t pursue a whistleblower complaint through OSHA, they can file a state lawsuit claiming “wrongful discharge” or use a state’s whistleblower law, as Collins did.

According to a COVID employment litigation tracker by Fisher Phillips, an employment law firm, since the beginning of the year 169 retaliation/whistleblower lawsuits have been filed across the country — the second-biggest category, behind suits related to remote work/leave, with 206 cases. An additional 27 lawsuits have been filed for wrongful discharge.

Juan Carlos Fernandez, the Morristown, New Jersey, attorney representing Charles Collins, said he’s seen a significant uptick in inquiries from workers about safety concerns in recent months. Before the pandemic began, he typically received one or two such calls per month. Now, he gets three or four a day.

Many callers say they were terminated after they asked for protective equipment on the job, Fernandez said. Others had asked for time off to care for a family member or a child whose school had closed because of COVID-19 and then were told not to come back to work.

In addition to reporting safety violations, Collins’ lawsuit claims, he was fired for asking to take time off. Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees are generally entitled to two weeks’ paid leave if they’re quarantined, and another two weeks’ paid sick leave at two-thirds pay to care for a child whose school has closed, as well as expanded family and medical leave. Collins has cared for his nephew since his sister died two years ago in a car accident. His nephew’s school closed in March because of COVID-19.

Collins said his employer, ASO Safety Solutions, paid him for only the first week of his company-ordered quarantine. Any additional time off would come out of his accrued sick and vacation time, he was told.

ASO Safety Solutions didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did the law firm representing the company.

In his response to the complaint submitted to the court, the lawyer representing the company denied that ASO had retaliated against Collins for whistleblowing, asserting he had resigned. The response, by John Olsen, with Ferdinand IP Law Group, also said that the provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act do not apply to the company. The lawyers have exchanged requests for discovery, Fernandez said, which should be answered in the next several weeks.

A few states and cities have stepped in to help whistleblowers. Virginia was the first to put in place statewide workplace safety standards related to COVID-19, spurred by concerns from workers in poultry plants, said Rachel McFarland, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. The standards include specific provisions protecting workers from retaliation for raising safety concerns or refusing to work in a location they believe is unsafe.

Colorado and the cities of Philadelphia and Chicago likewise passed laws prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who raise COVID-related safety concerns, refuse to work in unsafe conditions or take time off to minimize the transmission of the virus.

But these laws are the exceptions, said Brent Newell, a senior attorney at Public Justice in Oakland, California, who has represented the interests of workers in meatpacking plants. “Many states haven’t done that and won’t do that,” he said. “For the federal government to put it on the states to protect workers is wholly and fundamentally inadequate.”

This blog originally appeared at KHN on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Andrews is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience conceiving, reporting, writing and editing features, analyses, commentary and news for leading print and digital publications, including Kaiser Health News, the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR. 


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4 Overlooked Workplace Safety Hazards and What You Can Do About It

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According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, there were 2.8 million injuries in the workplace. On average, a worker injury costs a company between $38,000 and $150,000. As a facility safety manager, your job is to minimize hazards and save the company money by decreasing injuries in the workplace.

However, that’s often easier said than done. This is especially true if you work in a warehouse or factory, where hazardous equipment is part of the job. You probably already follow the standard advice, like cleaning up spills or enforcing safety training. But you might be overlooking some hidden hazards.

Here’s a look at four commonly overlooked workplace safety hazards with some tips to overcome them.

1. Overworking Employees

Every company has quotas, minimums, and costs to cut. Unfortunately, this often leads to overworked employees. Overworked employees are often suffering from severe fatigue. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleepy workers are 70% more likely to have a workplace accident.

Aside from fatigue, overextended employees are often burnt out and suffering from a lack of motivation. This not only hurts company efficiency, but it can lead to these employees being more lackadaisical about safety precautions or take more shortcuts.

Tips to Decrease the Risk: Be sure that workers aren’t working too many hours. Foster an environment that encourages a work-life balance. A happy and rested staff leads to more focused work.

2. Too Much Clutter

Keeping your facility clean is crucial, but it’s not just about deep cleaning. Clutter and disorganization can be more disrupting than a stain on the floor. If workers have to navigate machinery around a maze of clutter, the chance for an accident increases exponentially.

Inventory, trash piles, and general stuff can pile up quickly. Additionally, liquids and standing puddles can cause catastrophes. It’s not uncommon for facilities to allow standing water or liquids because their existing solutions aren’t cutting it.

Tips to Decrease the Risk: Work on developing cleaning routines for your workers and promote an environment of cleanliness. Encourage workers to keep their work areas clean and clutter-free. If there are areas that lack organization, get in, and organize them. If your facility is struggling with spills and standing water, be sure to upgrade your solutions. Consider using an industrial pre sloped trench drain system versus a standard grate drain. Or, if standing water in the parking lot is an issue, look into permeable paving.

3. Not Accounting for Comfort

While this one aligns with overworked employees, worker comfort can also become a safety hazard. If your employees work in confined spaces, uncomfortable temperatures, or in environments laden with pollutants and toxic air, they aren’t going to be comfortable.

Why does this matter? The Workers’ Compensation Board wrote an entire book on the hazard of confined spaces. Workers who work in tight areas are at higher risk of toxic fumes, low levels of oxygen, falling objects, poor visibility, and more. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also dangerous.

Temperature extremes have obvious consequences like heat exhaustion and hypothermia. Beyond that, if it’s too hot or too cold, your workers are going to feel demotivated, exhausted. As we’ve already talked about, an exhausted and unmotivated worker can lead to dangerous situations. 

Tips to Decrease the Risks: Take inventory of your workers’ comfort level. If they’re complaining about discomfort, the chances are that those uncomfortable working conditions have more serious implications. If confined spaces, temperatures, and toxic fumes are unavoidable, allow for more frequent breaks. Additionally, to combat dust build-up (which accounts for 12% of serious employee lung issues), invest in an industrial vacuum cleaner. These vacuums also ensure that the air stays breathable while minimizing the risk of combustion.

4. Ignoring Ergonomics

You probably had your employees watch a training video or read a manual about ergonomics. If they have to do any heavy lifting or maneuvering, ergonomics is crucial. According to The National Safety Council, the second leading cause of injury in adults is overexertion. It’s also the cause of 35% of workplace injuries. Additionally, it’s the most significant contributor to workers’ compensation, and it’s the primary reason for missed workdays.

It’s the simple things, like lifting with your legs and taking breaks. It’s avoiding repetitive motions. Taking ergonomics into account is all about thinking about people’s efficiency and body movements in the workplace.

Tips to Decrease Risks: Encourage proper maneuvering habits with your employees. That one-time training when the company hired them isn’t enough. Instead, ergonomic training should be ongoing and enforced. Consider regular assessments of your workers’ form to make sure that they know how to safely and effectively do their jobs. 

Creating a Safe Work Environment

Eliminating safety hazards is an ongoing and ever-evolving process. It requires diligence and attention to detail. Facility safety managers often overlook these four hazards. However, ignoring them could be dangerous and costly.

Do yourself and your company a favor by being proactive and taking action to avoid these common hazards. Moreover, be diligent about stopping any problematic behaviors or habits in their tracks. Your job isn’t an easy one, but it’s necessary for the safety of your employees and the posterity of your company.

About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.


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The Details of Worker Abuse at One of the World’s Largest Logistics Companies Are Appalling

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XPO Logistics flies under the radar. The company is one of the ten largest logistics companies in the world, with 97,000 employees and over 1,500 locations, operating in thirty countries. Last year, XPO, led by billionaire CEO Bradley Jacobs, reported over $16 billion in revenue. While you may never have heard of the company, the brands it services are more familiar: Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, Starbucks, and Peloton, among others.

But according to a new report compiled by the XPO Global Union Family, a network of unions representing workers in countries where XPO Logistics has its largest operations, business as usual at XPO deserves more attention.

“Behind the glossy marketing,” write the report’s authors, “are supply chains mired in worker exploitation, a cavalier and even negligent approach to safety that has led to injury and death, and a company where workers who protest against pregnancy discrimination and harassment are met by retaliation.” The report, titled “XPO: Delivering Injustice,” compiles workers’ stories from around the globe, painting a picture of the logistics company’s flouting of the law and blasé attitude toward worker safety, even as the global coronavirus pandemic hit. (XPO has not responded to a request for comment, but told Motherboard, “The report repeats wholly inaccurate allegations that have been entirely debunked.”)

Even as Jacobs told shareholders in April 2020 that “We’ve deliberately built XPO like a bulletproof tank to surmount all kinds of challenges,” workers at the transportation and logistics giant, which specializes in last-mile delivery, were in crisis.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

As the report details, a March 2020 survey of XPO/ASOS workers at a 4,000-person warehouse in the United Kingdom found that 98 percent of respondents felt unsafe at work, emphasizing management’s failure to provide them with personal protective equipment (PPE), ensure social distancing, and provide handwashing facilities and sufficient supplies of soap. In July 2020, the company refused to shut down another distribution center in the country, even as sixty-four workers tested positive for COVID-19.

In the United States, a survey conducted by the Teamsters found similar concern and uncertainty among XPO’s workers. Asked to rate the company’s performance in addressing COVID-19 risks on a scale of 1 to 10, 24 percent of respondents gave XPO a 1.

The situation is, if anything, even more dire in Europe. According to the report, XPO’s use of Eastern European subcontractors leads to rampant labor-law violations, leaving workers stranded abroad with fake documentation. In interviews conducted in June 2020, Ukrainian drivers told Stichting VNB, the research and enforcement arm of Dutch union FNV, that they “live for months in the cabin of their trucks, do not get paid the agreed Lithuanian salary, and are even given false attestation de détachement documents in France stating that they get a much higher €10 hourly wage.” The report continues,

The drivers told VNB that they had begged their Lithuanian employer to allow them to go home but that the company ignored their requests. For their time on the road, the drivers only receive enough money for food — with too little to enable them to leave their trucks in France and go home of their own free will.

One Ukrainian driver employed in Lithuania told VNB in June 2020 that he had not been home since December 2019, despite begging his employer, the subcontractor, to send a replacement driver. “Luka was forced to live illegally in his truck the whole time, isolated and alone,” write the report’s authors.

These exploitative conditions didn’t begin during the pandemic either. A New York Times story from October 2018 revealed rampant pregnancy discrimination against workers in a Verizon warehouse operated by XPO in Memphis, Tennessee. There, working conditions led to several miscarriages. In response to the story, XPO established a new pregnancy policy. “While the new policy appears progressive on paper and seems to be a large improvement of the former policy,” write the report’s authors, it “lacks any oversight or enforcement mechanism.” Further, shortly after rolling out the new policy, XPO closed the Memphis facility, a move Senator Richard Blumenthal, who represents Connecticut, where XPO headquarters is located, said “reeked of retaliation.”

As the report notes, XPO workers in the United States have filed 120 unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against XPO since 2014. As Lafe Solomon, a former acting general counsel of the NLRB, concluded in 2018:

The sheer number of unfair labor practice charges filed and complaints issued by NLRB regional directors against XPO, resulting in numerous board decisions and settlements, are extraordinary and outside the norm of employer opposition to its employees’ organizing efforts, and evidence XPO’s intent to flaunt its obligations under the NLRA to deny its employees their right and ability to form and join a union.

Despite this resistance, which includes the hiring of anti-union consultants, workers have unionized at seven XPO facilities in the United States. Not one of these, however, has ratified a union contract yet.

“Unions representing working people at XPO are greatly concerned that XPO’s business model is based on exploitation, illegal underpayments, and a callous approach to safety,” conclude the report’s authors. They have repeatedly demanded to meet with the company to discuss workers’ concerns, but so far, they say, XPO has refused.

This blog originally appeared at Jacobin on October 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.


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OSHA is doing virtually nothing to protect workers in the pandemic

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Two reports out this week show how badly the Trump administration is failing workers during the coronavirus pandemic. The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report looks at 9,051 complaints workers have sent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration expressing concern about safety on the job during the pandemic. OSHA has investigated just 198 of them, and 85 of 1,215 referrals. More than 2,000 of the complaints were from healthcare workers. More than 1,000 were from retail workers.

The National Employment Law Project, meanwhile, looked at workers’ retaliation complaints related to COVID-19 whistleblowing. Of 1,744 complaints, NELP “found that only 348 complaints—just one in five—were docketed for investigation; and only 35 complaints—just two percent—were resolved in that period. Most of the complaints—54 percent—were dismissed or closed without investigation.”

OSHA is failing workers—just as Trump wants.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on October 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Report: OSHA Investigated, Resolved Only 2% of COVID Retaliation Complaints

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Washington, DCBrand-new analysis by Deborah Berkowitz and Shayla Thompson of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) shows that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has failed to protect COVID safety whistleblowers who filed retaliation complaints.

NELP analyzed OSHA’s public data showing 1,744 COVID-19-related retaliation complaints filed by workers from April through August 9, and found:

  • One in five complaints (348) were docketed for investigation.
  • Only 2% of complaints (35) were resolved during that period.
  • Most complaints, 54%, were dismissed or closed without investigation.

“Resolving a mere two percent of OSHA retaliation complaints in six months is a dismal record under any circumstances. It undermines workers’ confidence that they’ll be protected when reporting unsafe working conditions. But it is especially egregious during a pandemic that, to date, has resulted in more than 210,000 COVID-related deaths and over 7.4 million cases in the United States—many likely due to workplace-related coronavirus transmissions—the most of any country in the world,” according to the study.

Reporting on the new NELP analysis, The Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg writes, “Advocates and former OSHA officials say OSHA’s lack of response to retaliation complaints is just the latest example of OSHA favoring companies over workers the agency is tasked to safeguard. Plus, the stakes are much higher in the middle a pandemic that has made so many workplaces more dangerous.”

To speak with the authors of the NELP analysis, please reach out to [email protected].

This blog originally appeared at the National Employment Law Project on October 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Deborah 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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This Amazon Grocery Runner Has Risked Her Job to Fight for Better Safety Measures

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This arti­cle is part of a series on Ama­zon work­ers pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

Courte­nay Brown spends her day mak­ing gro­cery runs for oth­ers in a foot­ball-field-sized maze of nar­row aisles and refrig­er­at­ed enclaves. At the Ama­zon Fresh unit in a Newark, New Jer­sey ful­fill­ment cen­ter, she works on the out­bound ship dock, help­ing direct the load­ing of trucks and send them off on local deliv­ery routes. Brown says that after near­ly three years at the e-tail empire, her job has been “hell.”

“Imag­ine a real­ly intense work­out, like you just got off of the tread­mill, no cool down, no noth­ing,” she describes one espe­cial­ly gru­el­ing day with a resigned laugh. “That’s how my legs felt.”

Ama­zon Fresh employ­ees often have to comb through huge stocks of var­i­ous chilled and frozen items, which means they need to wear full win­ter clothes to work. The stress and phys­i­cal exhaus­tion of the job tends to wear out many new hires with­in their first few days. “You don’t have that many that have last­ed here,” she says. “It’s so hard.”

With the pan­dem­ic keep­ing con­sumers indoors, Ama­zon gro­cery sales have rough­ly tripled in the sec­ond quar­ter over last year. The num­ber of deliv­ery trucks mov­ing in and out of the Newark ful­fill­ment cen­ter has jumped accordingly.

“Every day I come in, it’s just more and more and more and more,” Brown says. “Lit­er­al­ly every day we break the pre­vi­ous day’s record for the total num­ber of routes that went out for the entire day.”

“Once we get home [from work], the only thing we can do is show­er and dis­in­fect,” she con­tin­ues. “A lot of us [are] too exhaust­ed to eat. We pass out. Then we repeat the process the fol­low­ing day.” Some cowork­ers have end­ed up over­sleep­ing, she adds, and “end up miss­ing the whole day.”

For its part, an Ama­zon spokesper­son wrote in an email that while some jobs at Ama­zon Fresh are phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing, work­ers can choose less stren­u­ous labor.

“Imag­ine your stan­dard nor­mal super­mar­ket aisle, [then] cut that in half,” she observes. “You’re expect­ed to go through that aisle with oth­er peo­ple stock­ing the shelves, or clean­ing… it’s real­ly, real­ly, real­ly cramped.”

Ama­zon boasts mak­ing 150 oper­a­tional changes dur­ing the pan­dem­ic that include dis­trib­ut­ing mil­lions of masks at work­sites, adding thou­sands of jan­i­to­r­i­al staff, and rede­ploy­ing some per­son­nel to help enforce social dis­tanc­ing rules. While it has imple­ment­ed social-dis­tanc­ing rules, and even pro­vides an elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem to help keep work­ers sev­er­al feet apart on the ware­house floor, Brown says work spaces are still too crowd­ed: “It’s pret­ty much a show…Where I work on the ship dock, we’re all mashed up together.”

The tense atmos­phere has “def­i­nite­ly changed the rela­tion­ship” among work­ers, she con­tends. Her fel­low employ­ees were friend­lier before, but now “a lot of peo­ple snap at each oth­er a bit more.”

The threat of COVID-19 has only added to the psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den. “When the pan­dem­ic first start­ed, I remem­ber a lot of us were watch­ing the news,” Brown reflects. “I was talk­ing to man­agers and try­ing to get them [to lis­ten]. ‘Hey, you know, this is going on and we might want to start prepar­ing.’ And they [were] just [act­ing] like it [was] not that big of a deal. Peo­ple are dying, and it’s not that big of a deal?”

Although Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly enact­ed safe­ty mea­sures, Brown says she and her col­leagues spent “months com­plain­ing” about what they saw as sub­stan­dard pro­tec­tions, includ­ing inad­e­quate safe­ty gear and social-dis­tanc­ing mea­sures. An Ama­zon spokesper­son main­tains the com­pa­ny moved to pro­tect its work­ers at the out­set of the pan­dem­ic, and that masks were dis­trib­uted in ear­ly April.

But Brown bris­tles at the com­pa­ny’s claims, say­ing the response was slow and devoid of trans­paren­cy. Work­ers were espe­cial­ly upset, she recalls, when they received news of a COVID-19 infec­tion at their site two weeks after the indi­vid­ual had report­ed­ly tak­en ill.

Even­tu­al­ly, Brown con­nect­ed with oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers through an online peti­tion cir­cu­lat­ed by the advo­ca­cy net­work Unit­ed for Respect. Ear­li­er this year, she began work­ing with the Athena coali­tion to pres­sure Ama­zon to rein­state some work­er pro­tec­tions that were insti­tut­ed ear­li­er on in the pan­dem­ic and then dis­con­tin­ued. The work­ers are demand­ing the restora­tion of “haz­ard pay” for ful­fill­ment-cen­ter work­ers, as well as unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for those who opt to stay home to pro­tect their health. (Over the objec­tions of its work­force, Ama­zon end­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave and scrapped its $2 hourly “incen­tive” bonus in May.) The coali­tion is also push­ing for more trans­paren­cy in the report­ing of new cas­es, so man­age­ment will “actu­al­ly tell us the truth about the num­bers of peo­ple that are sick.”

In April, Brown par­tic­i­pat­ed in a media con­fer­ence call with Sen. Cory Book­er, D-N.J., to pro­mote an Essen­tial Work­ers Bill of Rights that would beef up health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, pro­vide child­care sup­port and uni­ver­sal paid leave poli­cies, and pro­tect whistle­blow­ers. More recent­ly, she was fea­tured in a New York Times video about the work­ing con­di­tions at Ama­zon. She claims her pub­lic cam­paign­ing has drawn the ire of management.

“I’m harassed every day, all day,” she says. One safe­ty super­vi­sor in par­tic­u­lar is “just watch­ing” to see if she vio­lates the company’s social-dis­tanc­ing rules.

Brown recalls a recent inci­dent in which she was speak­ing casu­al­ly with some co-work­ers about safe­ty issues when the super­vi­sor inter­vened, shout­ing at them to keep six feet apart. Although they were all main­tain­ing their dis­tance, she says, “he [yelled], ‘you’re in a group!’” They answered, “Yeah, but we’re all six feet apart from each oth­er with our masks on.” But she says the man­ag­er nonethe­less threat­ened to write them up and warned they could be terminated.

Ama­zon has stat­ed that it oppos­es retal­i­a­tion against employ­ees who voice their con­cerns about work­ing con­di­tions. But like oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers, Brown believes her treat­ment reflects a broad­er cam­paign aimed at dis­suad­ing employ­ees from organizing.

“What they’ll do is they’ll find an indi­vid­ual, and they’ll kind of make an exam­ple of you. And that scares every­body else,” she says. Her obser­va­tions are affirmed by a recent Open Mar­kets Insti­tute report that finds that Ama­zon has used sophis­ti­cat­ed work­place sur­veil­lance tac­tics to intim­i­date and sup­press work­ers who seek to union­ize or chal­lenge the company’s labor practices.

Brown, mean­while, is ded­i­cat­ed to improv­ing her work­place. This is not the first time she has faced hos­tile cir­cum­stances, both inside the Ama­zon ware­house and out. For a stretch in 2018, she had to live in a motel with her sis­ter, who also works at Ama­zon, because the two could not secure a rental apart­ment with the wages they were earn­ing deliv­er­ing food for the cor­po­rate behe­moth. “We were lit­er­al­ly starv­ing,” she says. “We weren’t mak­ing enough to be able to pay for the room, eat, and make it to and from work.”

Ama­zon has denied charges of employ­ee sur­veil­lance, dis­miss­ing the Open Mar­kets Insti­tute as “a peren­ni­al crit­ic that will­ful­ly ignores” the com­pa­ny’s record of cre­at­ing jobs with “indus­try lead­ing wages and ben­e­fits.” The com­pa­ny claims that it does eval­u­ate work­ers’ per­for­mance “over a long peri­od of time,” and pro­vides under-per­form­ing work­ers with “ded­i­cat­ed coach­ing to help them improve.”

Giv­en the dan­gers of speak­ing out, Brown some­times won­ders if she might end up home­less again. But she’s less fear­ful about los­ing her job than she is about the health haz­ards she faces every day as she fights to hold her employ­er account­able. “It’s real­ly ter­ri­fy­ing,” she says, “but if I don’t do this, then I could poten­tial­ly get sick and die.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 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.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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Detroit Bus Drivers Strike over Violent Attacks

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Detroit bus drivers, the first essential workers in the country to strike for safety during the pandemic, pulled a wildcat work stoppage again Friday, angry over escalating violence against drivers. Often the attacks are triggered, they said, by a driver’s request that a passenger wear a mask.

Drivers returned to work this morning with a promise of physical barriers to be constructed between driver and passengers. The city will also hold de-escalation training for drivers and said it would decrease police response time and increase the visibility of law enforcement on buses.

The work stoppage was triggered by the suspension of a driver who was captured on video punching a passenger—though the video does not show the events leading up to the driver’s self-defense. The passenger had declined to wear a mask, then approached the seated driver, snatched away a barrier chain, and raised his fist.

“‘Do I have to wait for a punch and then react? What are the rules of engagement?’” Those are the questions Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 President Glenn Tolbert said he asked in negotiations with the city. “I don’t know if they wanted him to wait till he stabbed him or hit him. If someone is breathing in my face from two feet with no mask on….”

After the drivers’ March 17 strike, they won rear boarding of passengers and a distance of at least 10 feet between them and drivers, with masks mandatory. “Once you break that barrier, you’re not coming up there to talk to me,” Tolbert said. “I’m telling you I’m waiting for you to comply, you should not be running up on me.”

Tolbert said drivers have seen “a rash of assaults, weapons being pulled, females being accosted, drivers being attacked and not being able to defend themselves. If I ask about a mask now I’m going to be abused verbally and sometimes physically.

“The membership just said they were tired. They keep in touch between the two terminals, west side and east side. Neither the department nor the city was protecting them. “

Tolbert called such incidents a “daily occurrence. Things the outside public would abhor, we think it’s just another day at DDOT. We can’t keep living in fear. The department should not want that.”

After weekend negotiations members voted by 89 percent to return with a new Memorandum of Understanding.

VIRUS IN THE AIR

More than 50 Detroit bus drivers have contracted the coronavirus; five have been ventilated and one, Jason Hargrove, died—a few days after posting complaints about a passenger who coughed on him. Tolbert himself had the virus early on, and two former Local 26 presidents also died from it.

Detroit bus drivers haven’t gotten hazard pay since June, while those in a different ATU local who operate lines that run to the suburbs (SMART buses) get an additional $7.50 per hour.

The drivers’ earlier strike won free rides for passengers, to minimize driver-passenger contact; cleaning protocols and hiring of cleaning staff; gloves, wipes, and masks; and available restrooms, given that restaurants were closed.

“We’re not satisfied till we can go to work and not be subject to that abuse,” Tolbert said. “We want to feel the same kind of safety on the bus as they feel sitting in their offices.

“I refuse to have another conversation like I had with Jason Hargrove’s wife.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.


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Restaurant Workers Are Building Solidarity Amid the Pandemic

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BOISE, IDA­HO—It was rain­ing light­ly June 29 when Geo Eng­ber­son, own­er of the Pie Hole pizze­ria, con­vened an emer­gency staff meet­ing. He had intend­ed a quick con­fer­ence in the park­ing lot behind the restau­rant, known for its steady stream of week­end bar-goers. Giv­en the weath­er, Eng­ber­son fer­ried the hand­ful of work­ers into his trailer. 

Ear­li­er that month, work­ers at the piz­za joint peti­tioned for an hourly wage bump. Wor­ried that Pie Hole was pre­pared to replace them, for­mer employ­ee Kiwi Palmer says, she and her cowork­ers refused to train new hires. This refusal trig­gered a conflict. 

In a record­ing of the trail­er meet­ing obtained by In These Times, Eng­ber­son says, “Kiwi, yes­ter­day you told [the man­ag­er] you wouldn’t train new hires, any scabs. That still how you feel?” 

When Palmer and fel­low work­er Mar­shall Har­ris reaf­firmed they would not train new hires, Eng­ber­son fired them. 

In the weeks since, the Pie Hole work­ers have orga­nized a series of pick­ets in front of the restau­rant. Call­ing them­selves the Pie Hole Work­ers Union, they filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board alleg­ing the fir­ing was retal­ia­to­ry and vio­lat­ed their right to par­tic­i­pate in “con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” with­out reprisal. 

Eng­ber­son rejects the claim that Palmer and Har­ris were fired for orga­niz­ing and that the busi­ness planned to replace them. “We got busy, and we need­ed to hire more peo­ple,” Eng­ber­son tells In These Times. He adds, “I treat my employ­ees like fam­i­ly … and I don’t ever hear from them that they’re dis­grun­tled about their wages.” Eng­ber­son also says that, when he used the word “scabs,” he was quot­ing Palmer— not con­firm­ing the new work­ers were, in fact, scabs. 

The Pie Hole work­ers have found sup­port from the Boise chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), which has aid­ed in pick­ets and con­nect­ed them with DSA’s nation­al Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project. 

Beyond Boise, mul­ti­ple left-wing labor groups have tak­en on the cause of restau­rant orga­niz­ing. In addi­tion to its Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project, DSA has col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE)—a demo­c­ra­t­ic, rank-and-file union—to advise work­ers on union dri­ves and work­place actions. Between the DSA projects and UE’s orga­niz­ing, the Left has tak­en a cen­tral role in pan­dem­ic-era organizing.

“We’ve seen a sig­nif­i­cant uptick in work­ers con­tact­ing us about orga­niz­ing from the restau­rant indus­try, and in the food ser­vice [and] hos­pi­tal­i­ty sec­tor more broad­ly,” UE orga­niz­er Mark Mein­ster says. “Work­ers are very con­cerned about the lack of safe­ty pro­tec­tions regard­ing Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many antic­i­pate as a result of serv­ing few­er customers.”

This wave of labor activism in hos­pi­tal­i­ty has already ush­ered in wins. In March, a coali­tion of New Orleans ser­vice and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers cam­paigned to dis­burse reserves from the city’s con­ven­tion cen­ter direct­ly into the hands of work­ers; by April 22, the city agreed to pro­vide $1 mil­lion in grants to work­ers affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. Some restau­rants in Philadel­phia, where hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers have orga­nized to end the sub­min­i­mum wage for servers and bar­tenders, have increased wages dur­ing the pandemic.

But the restau­rant indus­try remains dif­fi­cult to orga­nize, and union shops are still the extreme minor­i­ty, with union den­si­ty in accom­mo­da­tion and food ser­vice hov­er­ing around 2.1%.

At Augie’s Cof­fee, a chain in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, work­ers demon­strat­ed 70% sup­port for the Augie’s Union (rep­re­sent­ed by UE) and request­ed the com­pa­ny vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their bar­gain­ing unit. The com­pa­ny then shut down oper­a­tions and laid off every­one in the cafés. Now, for­mer work­ers are cam­paign­ing for union recog­ni­tion and to be rehired.

“Peo­ple are so atom­ized, and the job they do is so tem­po­rary,” says Matthew Soliz, a barista orga­niz­ing with Augie’s Union. “I think for peo­ple my age and younger, unions aren’t real­ly a con­cept, right? Like, in talk­ing to my cowork­ers, the most com­mon response is, ‘I don’t real­ly know what that is.’ ”

Giv­en the chal­lenges, restau­rant work­ers are band­ing togeth­er across restau­rants and across cities. In Chica­go, New Orleans, Den­ver and Boise, restau­rant work­ers have formed city­wide sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions. On July 24, work­ers around the coun­try marched to demand expand­ed ben­e­fits from unem­ploy­ment insurance.

“The fact that [DSA’s Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project] is grow­ing is evi­dence [that] A, we’re not crazy, and B, we’re not alone, and C, that there is sol­i­dar­i­ty that is grow­ing rapid­ly,” Har­ris says. “Inside of five weeks, I’ve gone from nev­er hav­ing done any of this to attempt­ing to orga­nize oth­er people.”

This article originally appeared at In These Times on September 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.


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Meatpacking industry got its way on COVID-19 policies, and workers died

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When the meatpacking industry was hit with major coronavirus outbreaks back in the spring, there was no question about making workers’ lives a priority—it was always out of the question. This is an industry with high injury rates and low wages for its vulnerable population of workers, with its many people of color and immigrants. Industry executives have built their careers on harming people. So when local public health departments and outcry over hundreds of COVID-19 cases threatened to close meatpacking plants, the industry asked for help from the federal government. And since Donald Trump was in the White House, that help came almost immediately, without any consultation of any group besides industry lobbyists and executives.

USA Today reports that Trump’s executive order keeping meatpacking plants open came just a week after a meat industry lobby group provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture with … very similar language for such an executive order. The North American Meat Institute’s defense boils down to “hey, we offer language for exactly what we want all the time.” But the federal government doesn’t usually use such language so directly or quickly, without input from other stakeholders, experts say.

According to Adam Culver, an attorney at Public Citizen, emails between Team Trump and the industry show a “degree of collaboration” that’s “astounding.” 

“Wealthy interest groups lobby decision makers in Washington all the time,” James Brudney, a professor at Fordham Law School and former U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor chief counsel, told USA Today. “They might get a draft from industry, but it wouldn’t just sail through because there would be other parties involved. That seems not to have happened here.”

Meanwhile, meatpacking plants have been tied to more than 40,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 200 workers have died, and the federal government has issued just two small fines. In one of those cases, Smithfield closed a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant after 350 positive cases, then used Trump’s executive order to reopen a few weeks later. By now, that plant has had 1,300 workers get sick, and four die. The company was fined about $13,000 for those workers’ deaths, in yet another message that the Trump administration does not care about the lives of meatpacking workers.

“These tiny fines are nothing to [meat plant owners]. They give an incentive to make these workers work faster and harder in the most unsafe working conditions imaginable,” Kim Cordova, the local union president at the other plant Trump’s OSHA bothered to fine, told The Washington Post. But why would we expect the government to fine companies for behavior that it had essentially signed off on in advance?

”To have government regulatory agencies intervene in a public health matter on behalf of a business interest is appalling,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law, said. “As a result, people die. It’s not just an ethical breach or something that’s a sterile issue of good governance, which it is. It also costs people’s lives, and that’s unforgivable.”

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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How Worker Safety Starts With Facilities Construction And Intelligent Design

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Worker safety is a top concern for facilities everywhere. While safety training and precautions can go a long way towards ensuring workers’ safety, safety really begins with a facility’s initial design and construction.  

If a facility is haphazardly designed, no amount of safety training can combat that. But what sort of design decisions make a work environment safer than another? In today’s work environment, workers regularly have to battle a wide range of various issues. 

From air pollution to privacy concerns, to mental health and traditional OSHA standard safety hazards, today’s workforce is fraught with dangers. While there’s no way to eliminate risks completely, there’s a lot we can do to mitigate them. 

It all starts with being proactive from the beginning. Using intelligent design, forward-thinking, and new materials, it’s possible to construct facilities that are aesthetically appealing, cost-effective, and safe. 

Let’s look at three areas where material, construction, and design choices can significantly impact workers’ safety. 

While glass doesn’t seem like the most pertinent part of a building’s construction, in many commercial offices, warehouses, and other structures, glass is a prevalent material. It’s a material, that if improperly handled during construction or underthought during planning, can present many safety hazards. 

Just at face value, broken glass presents physical hazards. Broken glass can be contaminated with chemicals. Plus, cuts and blood can promote the spread of infectious diseases. Anyone who has to handle broken glass should do so with gloves and take appropriate precautions. 

However, we’re talking about prevention. The best way to avoid broken glass is to design and purchase high-quality glass from the beginning. Don’t cut corners with cheaper glass for windows, dividers, and décor. 

But glass also prevents other safety hazards. Many office buildings use glass in their offices as walls. While it makes the building feel nice and open, it unfortunately eliminates privacy. Privacy, especially when dealing with personal information, is a worker safety concern. With thoughtful design, you can use things like Avanti glass office wall partitions, to ensure a high level of privacy for sensitive matters. 

Window Safety

While many things that we’ve said about glass can translate to windows, the windows deserve a section all on their own. Windows need to be correctly installed, because improperly installed windows can lead to some disastrous safety concerns. This is especially true with windows on the upper floors. 

However, windows are also crucial for bringing in natural light. It’s well-documented that one of the most significant hazards facing the modern-day worker is mental health safety. 83% of US workers suffer from stress-related to work. More shockingly, stress causes $190 billion in yearly healthcare costs and results in 120,000 deaths per year. 

It’s imperative to understand mental health’s impact on worker safety. One way to mitigate those risks is with wide-open windows. Studies show that natural light decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. So, it’s critical to design a building with plenty of windows for natural light. 

Additionally, windows are a prime area for air pollution to sneak into any facility. To mitigate these risks, it’s essential to design a building with something like AMC’s industrial louvers, which help to block air pollution. Louvers also help to dissuade direct sunlight. So, workers don’t have to worry about blinding sunlight to reap the benefits of some natural rays. 

Floor Drainage Safety 

You might be alarmed to know that 26% of nonfatal injuries in the workplace are because of a slip, trip, or fall. In fact, in 2016, falls caused 702 workplace deaths. While some of the issues were training issues or faulty machinery, some injuries are a direct result of standing water and slippery surfaces. 

These injuries could be avoided by proper planning in the construction phase. Namely, by incorporating proper drains and using flooring materials that prevent slips, a facility can be dramatically safer. For instance, having a driveway drainage system installed, like the one by SlotDrain, not only keeps your facilities driveway safe, it prevents erosion, foundation damage, and structural damage.

But, don’t stop with outdoor drainage systems, from the beginning of the design phase, if it’s appropriate, consider having drains inside the building, too. It’s also crucial to choose a non-slip flooring to maximize worker safety. 

Additionally, when it comes to drains, it’s imperative to keep them maintained and cleaned. Otherwise, you’ll run into a whole new slew of issues surrounding workers’ safety. 

Think Ahead to Prevent Worker Injury 

Everyone wants their facility to be a safe one. Whether you’re looking to design your facility, or you specialize in facility design, these three areas are fantastic starting points to get your brain thinking about worker safety from the beginning. Safety should be a preventative measure, not as a reactionary one. 

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the home building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.


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