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The Miners Who Fought for Workplace Safety Have a Thing or Two to Teach OSHA Right Now

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In October 1993, Charles Patrick Hayes, or Pat, was working at a grain bin in Defuniak Springs, a small town in southern Alabama near Fairhope, where Pat was raised. Pat was knocking down corn from the walls of the silo when the crop caved off the sides and crushed him. Pat, just 19, suffocated to death. It took five hours to retrieve his body.

Pat’s father, Ron Hayes, quickly turned his grief into advocacy. A few months after Pat’s death, Hayes quit his job as an X-ray technician and manager of a clinical outpatient facility, and he founded a non-profit called the FIGHT Project, or Families In Grief Hold Together. For almost 30 years, Hayes traveled from Fairhope to Washington, D.C. (45 times by his count) pressuring legislators to improve federal worker safety regulations under the act, implemented in 1971, that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. According to Hayes, stricter enforcement of worker safety protocols may have saved his son’s life.

Although OSHA, which monitors most major employment sectors, including the agricultural, construction and service industries, has been criticized for lax regulations for almost 50 years, Covid-19 has brought worker safety back into the forefront of national news and rekindled the conversation around reform. If such reform is to happen, advocates say regulators can look for guidance from a conglomerate OSHA doesn’t monitor: the mining industry.

According to Tony Oppegard, an attorney who specializes in miner safety, the Mine Act is so much stronger than OSHA that “there’s no comparison.” Enacted in 1969, the inherent dangers in mining meant stricter regulations were implemented from the get go.

The Mine Act made mining much safer, and fatalities continue to decrease, with 24 on-the-job fatalities in 2019. While the decrease might be related to a loss of jobs—the coal industry has flatlined in recent years—experts say it’s also related to regulations in the Mine Act: For example, underground mines have to be inspected, at minimum, four times a year.

Meanwhile, OSHA guidelines have no requirement for the minimum number of inspections. That means a lot of businesses can essentially go unregulated. Along with a lack of inspections, there’s a lack of inspectors. While mines have about one inspector for every 50 miners, OSHA has just one inspector for every 79,000 workers. According to data compiled by the AFL-CIO, over 3.5 million injuries were reported to OSHA in 2017. In 2018, an average of 275 laborers died each day from workplace-related illnesses or injuries.

One of the biggest differences in these fatality numbers may also be a workplace right unique to the Mine Act: the broad right to refuse unsafe work.

Take Charles Howard. Howard worked in a number of underground coal mines around his home of Letcher County, Ky. since he was 18 years old. While Howard knew mining was dangerous work, as he grew older, he observed his supervisors making unsafe decisions to get the coal out cheaper and quicker, increasing the likelihood of injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Howard himself suffered multiple injuries while underground including a torn rotator cuff, a broken back, a traumatic brain injury and black lung—a fatal respiratory disease unique to coal miners.

So, between 1989 and when Howard retired in 2014, he fought hard for miner protections on the job site. This was easier under the Mine Act than OSHA because of a section called 105(c) which allows workers to refuse work they consider unsafe without getting fired—and quick temporary reinstatement pending a full investigation and hearing. Under 105(c), when one of Howard’s former employers, the Cumberland River Coal Company, tried to unlawfully fire him twice, Howard filed federal complaints with the help of Oppegard. After he filed, a federal review commission permanently reinstated Howard in his old job.

Under OSHA, this right isn’t nearly as strong. In order to refuse work, an employee has to prove they faced imminent danger of serious injury or death. That’s difficult to do in jobs that contain regular hazards. For example, in farming, workers could face silo explosions or extreme summer heat. In construction, laborers could fall off roofs or scaffolding. But it’s notoriously difficult to place the onus of these accidents on the employer.

But the Mine Act isn’t perfect, and OSHA can also learn from its failures. For example, under the act, safety violations can only lead to misdemeanor charges, not criminal convictions. So mining violations often mean little to no jail time for operators. When the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, caused by a dust explosion, killed 29 West Virginia miners a decade ago, Don Blakenship, CEO of Massey Energy, spent just one year in prison.

According to Oppegard, a solution could be implementing an industrial manslaughter law under the Mine Act and OSHA, like one passed in Queensland, Australia. Now, if there’s criminal negligence in a mining death, Australian operators could receive 20 years in prison.

Howard, now 60 and retired, agrees that company management might feel more incentivized to protect workers if supervisors are personally responsible for injuries and illnesses on the job site. But, according to Howard, another problem is a lack of education around miner’s rights.

“They didn’t want me on the job because I stood up for my rights,” said Howard, who believes he was let go from multiple jobs because of his advocacy. “Other miners started saying, well we ain’t going to let them [the mining company] do that either.”

For Hayes, like Howard, one of the biggest problems with OSHA is not its scaffolding, but how the act has been implemented.

“I’ve always said OSHA is fair to business and workers both, but it’s been so mismanaged over the years,” Hayes said over the phone. “We’ve got to have a leader who knows what they’re doing.”

According to the AFL-CIO, under President Trump, a pro-business agenda means worker safety has been significantly deregulated since 2016, with budgets slashed and the number of OSHA inspectors at its lowest level in half a century.

Hayes, who recently suffered a series of strokes which he attributes to stress over reforming OSHA, is frustrated by the slow pace of change, but he’s not giving up. He has one wish for the legacy of his work: “I want to be remembered as the man who gave OSHA a heart.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer from Kentucky who has written for HuffPost, onEarth, Sierra and Vice.


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Clash over government role in worker safety intensifies as businesses reopen

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Democrats and unions are trying to compel the Trump administration to aggressively police workplace safety as businesses from auto plants to retail stores begin reopening across the country. 

The AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million workers, on Monday asked a federal court to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue mandatory workplace safety rules, which the agency so far has refused to do. And House Democrats on Friday passed a coronavirus aid package that would require the agency to issue emergency safety requirements for employers.

The moves come amid a standoff that’s been brewing for weeks over who’s accountable if workers get sick on the job. Business groups say the economic downturn won’t end until places of work can reopen, and that can’t happen if employers are getting sued over exposure to the highly contagious virus. That message is gaining traction with congressional Republicans, who are pushing for liability protections for employers whose workers fall ill. And OSHA says new rules aren’t needed.

“Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time,” an OSHA spokesperson said. 

Advocates for workers point to the data: Out of 3,990 Covid-19-related complaints that OSHA has received — many concerning a lack of personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and gowns — the agency had opened only 310 coronavirus-related inspections as of May 18, according to a Labor Department spokesperson.

Some 2,694 of those complaints have been closed, and the agency has not yet issued a single Covid-19-related citation, the spokesperson said. (One possible reason is that OSHA takes into account a business’s “good faith efforts” when deciding whether to issue a citation.)

According to the watchdog group Accountable.U.S., OSHA inspections have gone down since Covid-19 was declared a national emergency on March 13,from 217 per day on average to 60. 

OSHA maintains that the agency investigates every complaint and “will enforce workplace protection requirements where appropriate.”

“The agency also responded to double the number of inquiries related to Covid-19 as compared to all inquiries handled in March and April of the previous year,” a spokesperson said. 

But David Michaels, who was OSHA chief during the Obama administration, said last week at a member briefing for the House Education and Labor Committee, “OSHA is essentially sitting back and saying, ‘We can’t do anything.’ It’s really appalling to me.”

Even when OSHA receives a complaint that someone died from potential Covid-19 exposure in the workplace, the agency’s enforcement plan says that “may warrant an on-site inspection,” but only in high-risk industries such as health care.

Safety complaints regarding lower-risk industries, the enforcement plan says, should prompt a “non-formal” response from OSHA that entails notifying the employer of the hazard by email. “All other formal complaints alleging SARS-CoV-2 exposure, where employees are engaged in medium or lower exposure risk tasks … will not normally result in an on-site inspection,” the enforcement plan directs.

The agency says the measures are an effort to take “appropriate diligence to protect our own personnel.”

“That is not enforcement. That is nothing,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA policy adviser during the Obama administration who is now with the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. “They are not responding to formal complaints and are simply sending letters to the employer.”

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia maintains his department can enforce worker safety under a provision in the 1970 statute that created OSHA called the “general duty clause,” which requires businesses to maintain “a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

The clause enables OSHA “to provide for the protection of employees who are working under such unique circumstances that no standard has yet been enacted to cover this situation,” the House Committee on Education and Labor said in 1970. Scalia has said the clause is “applicable” to Covid-19 safety enforcement, and that the agency will “use it as appropriate.”

But OSHA has rarely used the general duty clause in enforcement. According to the National Safety Council, it was applied in 1.5 percent of all OSHA citationsin fiscal year 2018 — in part, said Jordan Barab, who was OSHA deputy during the Obama administration, because it’s a cumbersome legal tool requiring a four-part legal test that makes it vulnerable to court challenge.

Worker advocates are now trying to force OSHA to become more aggressive. The AFL-CIO’s filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on Monday came after the federation and other unions petitioned the agency directly to issue a coronavirus safety standard in March. The agency did not act on their requests.

“It’s truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organization tasked with protecting our health and safety,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “But we’ve been left no choice. If the Trump administration refuses to act, we must compel them to.” 

The coronavirus stimulus bill that House Democrats passed on Friday would require OSHA to issue, within seven days of enactment, an “emergency temporary standard” — that is, mandatory coronavirus safety rules for employers. Through the crisis, OSHA has issued guidance documents, many in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to protect workers in meatpacking plantspharmaciesnursing homesdentists’ officesand various other industries. But these are all recommendations, not government directives.

The Democrats’ bill would also require OSHA to issue, within 24 months of enactment, mandatory workplace safety rules for future disease outbreaks. The Obama administration began work on such a standard in response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 but never completed work on it. That effort was shelved by the Trump administration.

To business groups and many congressional Republicans, more aggressive federal enforcement of workplace safety is a luxury that America can’t afford when business shutdowns have pushed unemployment up to Depression-era levels.

“We need to make sure bad actors are not given a break,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. “But the people who are trying to do it right, can reopen their businesses, their communities, schools and colleges with the assurance that if you practice the right procedures that you don’t have to worry about getting sued on top of everything else.”

But David Vladeck, a Georgetown Law professor, told senators at a May 12 hearing that providing blanket immunity to businesses, far from eliminating the cost of Covid-19 related injuries, would merely shift them onto workers and consumers.

“Immunity signals to workers and consumers that they go back to work, or they go to the grocery store at their peril,” Vladeck said, adding that businesses that safeguard employees and follow the recommended guidance will be protected from liability already.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.


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Workers turn to courts and states for safety protection as Trump declines to act

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Rebecca Rainey

President Donald Trump can force meatpacking plants to stay open during the pandemic, but his own administration hasn’t required employers to provide safety equipment to prevent the virus’ spread.

Now, workers in a range of industries are looking to states, Congress and the courts to step in.

A judge this week ordered leading meat company Smithfield to follow federal safety recommendations at a plant in Missouri, and labor advocates hope to use the lawsuit as a model to force companies in other sectors to protect workers.

They’re also asking Democratic lawmakers to make safety standards a part of the next round of coronavirus relief. In addition, they’re turning to state governments to enforce such protections.

The moves follow weeks of sparring with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an arm of the Labor Department. OSHA has recommended employers to encourage hand washing and practice routine disinfecting, and it has issued safety guidelines for specific industries.

But those are merely guidelines, and some local OSHA offices have declined to enforce even the most basic recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When OSHA does open an investigation into workplace safety, the process takes weeks or months to resolve.

The White House, however, issued an executive order on Tuesdaynightto keep meat plants open to minimize disruptions in the food supply.

“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on — as they should have and still must do — this would not even have become an issue.”

Labor union leaders say the federal government’s and companies’ responses to the pandemic have been inconsistent, creating hazards for those in industries deemed essential.

“Thousands of workers have died and are sick. If that’s not necessary, I don’t know what is,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Tuesday. “The government’s response has been delinquent, delayed, disorganized, chaotic and deadly.”

As a result, workers across various industries that are at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus are using their unions to negotiate for greater protections and are pressing state leaders to lead efforts. According to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, more than 16,000 workers have already fallen ill, and hundreds have died from Covid-19.

In New Jersey, workers at the Barnes & Noble distribution center in Monroe delivered a petition to Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday asking that he close the facility for two weeks due to reported cases of the coronavirus among employees. At least 100 of the 800 employees at the Middlesex County warehouse have signed the petition, according to organizers.

Unions representing roughly 10,000 correction officers, captains and wardens in New York City recently filed a lawsuit arguing the city is putting their health and safety in danger by requiring officers work 24-hour shifts and return from sick leave without first getting a negative Covid-19 test.

Dozens of McDonald’s workers organized by the union-backed Fight For $15 movement have gone on strike at restaurants in Los Angeles, ChicagoTampa, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., among other cities, over a lack of protective equipment and sick leave.

And earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers and grocery chain Kroger called on federal and state officials to designate associates at grocery stores as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel” so they could receive priority access to personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

Businesses have cautioned against issuing binding new rules.

In a letter Tuesday to local and federal leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged lawmakers “to refrain from converting public health and safety guidance into regulations that may add further challenges for businesses to reopen.”

The Smithfield lawsuit, filed by a local nonprofit advocating for worker rights and an anonymous longtime plant employee, is the first of its kind seeking to use the courts to force companies to abide by federal guidelines to protect workers operating in dangerous conditions.

Twenty meatpacking and processing workers have died from the coronavirus. At least 6,500 have tested positive for Covid-19, showed symptoms, missed work or been hospitalized, according to UFCW, which represents 1.3 million across the country.

The lawsuit, filed last week, underscores the weakness of the federal government’s ability to quickly police worker safety, even in a time of crisis. OSHA confirmed it has started an investigation into the Missouri plant, but it could take weeks before the plant abates the safety hazards and OSHA issues a citation or fines.

The agency also recently issued a new enforcement guidance specific to the meatpacking industry, suggesting that employers space workers six feet apart and provide barriers in between workers, among other precautions.

But those guidelines are still only recommendations, and are currently unenforceable by OSHA or the CDC.

Democrats and labor advocates have been clamoring for a provision mandating such worker safety requirements to be included in the next round of coronavirus relief.

Last week, House Education and Labor Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced legislation that would require OSHA to issue an emergency standard within seven days that would lay out mandatory protections companies must provide to their workers to prevent exposure to Covid-19.

“Over the past few months, we have seen the tragic consequences of the Department of Labor’s failure to take urgent action to protect frontline health care workers and other essential employees,” Scott said when introducing the bill.

“Without an enforceable workplace safety standard to protect workers against Covid-19 infection,” he added, “nurses, doctors, first responders, grocery store workers, food processors, delivery workers, and many others will continue to suffer alarming rates of infection that have already led to thousands of preventable illnesses and deaths.”

But the Trump administration maintains DOL has all the enforcement tools it needs to ensure workers were being protected.

“When it comes to workplace safety we want to provide guidance and clarity and help employers do the right thing. Most are working hard to do so,” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said on a phone call Thursday. “But we also know that unfortunately enforcement may be needed in some cases. We have the tools we need, and we’ll use them, if necessary.”

According to OSHA, the agency has received over 2,400 Covid-19 related complaints and has closed over 1,400 of them.

OSHA officials say the agency will enforce existing standards such as its safety rules regarding respiratory protection and blood-borne pathogens throughout the pandemic. But safety advocates have complained those standards don’t address risks posed by infectious illnesses like Covid-19.

Scalia also said the agency would issue citations under its broad general duty clause, which requires employers to maintain a workplace free of hazards, but that mechanism poses a high legal test.

“The human cost to America’s food, retail, and commercial workers is real and growing,” said UFCW President Marc Perrone. “From grocery stores to meatpacking plants, from senior care facilities to pharmacies, the impact on workers’ lives from this coronavirus is beyond tragic — and this crisis must be stopped before it gets worse.”

Katherine Landergan, Gabby Orr, Danielle Muoio and Ian Kullgren contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

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

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

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


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Proper Chemical Safety Tips

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Employee safety is one of the top priorities in any workplace, but it’s elevated when chemicals are involved. Laboratories, pharmaceutical facilities, warehouses and other environments such as these carry additional risks. Some materials can release caustic vapors or cause serious burns if they come in contact with exposed skin. Spills can create hazards on the floor of a facility or require specialized equipment for cleanup.

Keeping people safe while they handle these chemicals may involve the use of safety gear, which has its own set of protocols. For all of these reasons and more, it’s crucial to take extra care when working in proximity to these substances. When it comes to creating a safer environment in this context, no point is too big or too small. Every action, from the big picture to the smallest detail, matters for protecting life and limb around these various hazardous materials.

From a macro perspective, it’s essential to have clear-cut protocols in place that detail precisely what’s expected of employees when handling chemical agents. Supporting those rules should be a regular training program designed to educate newer staff and reinforce safe practices in veterans. On a smaller scale, it is important to remember that even individual beakers and flasks should be inspected periodically for signs of wear. A hairline crack or other tiny flaw can lead to a leak or spill that could have disastrous consequences. Ensuring that all personnel are equipped with safety goggles, gloves, coveralls and other pieces of protective gear is another crucial element of a safe and productive workplace. Even something as simple as keeping all containers clearly labeled and on the appropriate shelves in storage areas can reduce the risk of accidents significantly. For more tips for working safely with chemicals, take a look at the accompanying infographic.

About EOC1: EOC1 is a leading provider of controlled environmental testing and certification services. For over 14 years, their experience covers a range of industries including hospitals, laboratories, pharmaceutical, manufacturing and more. EOC1 serves to help their clients meet their contamination control needs while meeting industry and regulatory requirements.


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Coronavirus has killed dozens of New York City transit workers after they had to beg for masks

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Workers in New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) took measures into their own hands. They wore their own masks, brought their own bleach solutions to clean shared workspaces, and had bus passengers enter through the rear door and blocked them from sitting too close to drivers. Eventually, the MTA started to catch up. But at least 41 New York City transit workers have died of COVID-19, another 1,500 have tested positive for the virus, and more than 5,500 others are self-quarantining because they have symptoms. That’s a huge hit for a workforce of 70,000.

It’s having a ripple effect through the entire city. The MTA is so understaffed it can’t keep up with even the reduced-by-25% schedule it had planned. Even with ridership down by over 90%, subway platforms and cars are crowded because trains aren’t coming as often, which in turn increases the danger of the virus spreading through the crowds in the city that has become the epicenter of the disease.

Union officials pushed MTA bosses to hand out masks and other safety equipment earlier, but the organization stuck by the Centers for Disease Control’s advice against masks. Some workers who wore their own masks were told to take them off because they violated uniform policy.

Bus drivers, whose passengers walk right by them, have been particularly hard-hit, with at least 11 dead.

If you want a devastating illustration of how the United States has let down its working people, check out the picture up top of MTA cleaning staff in early March and compare it with the one below of a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, being disinfected in late February.

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

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


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Striking McDonald’s Workers Say Their Lives Are More Essential Than Fast Food

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Image result for Hamilton Nolan

The fast food industry has long insulated itself from organized labor by building a legal wall between the parent company and the individual franchised stores. That imaginary separation is being tested by the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, as McDonald’s workers across the country have held strikes and walked out, unwilling to risk their lives for fries with no safety net.

The Fight For $15 has found fertile new ground in helping to organize fast food strikes in recent days. McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa, Raleigh-Durham and elsewhere have staged job actions this week, in a coordinated push for safer working conditions, paid sick leave and hazard pay.

Maria Ruiz, who has spent 16 years at McDonald’s, was one of the workers who went on strike yesterday outside of her store in San Jose, California. Ruiz said that employees have been worried for their own health for the entire past month, watching the store’s dwindling supply of hand sanitizer, gloves and cleaning supplies. On some days, there was no hand sanitizer at all. Ruiz says employees were only recently granted permission to wear masks at work, despite the fact that there are often more than a dozen people crowded into the store’s lobby.

“We are tired of taking the risk,” said Ruiz, who earns $16.35 per hour in a city that has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. McDonald’s workers are asking for an extra $3 per hour hazard pay, along with adequate protective equipment, a guarantee of two weeks of paid sick leave for anyone who needs to quarantine, and a guarantee that the company will cover their health care costs if they get sick with COVID-19. Ruiz acknowledges that she needs to work in order to pay her bills, but said that she could no longer ignore the danger to her health. “I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she said, “but I’m more afraid to lose my life.”

The Fight For 15 said that the McDonald’s workers are expected to stay away from work until their demands for protective equipment on the job are met. It seems likely that the country will see a steady, rolling procession of fast food walkouts in coming weeks, part of a nationwide strike wave that has been gathering momentum over the past month. Grocery workers, warehouse workers, factory workers, construction workers, and others who are directly exposed to the danger of infection on the job have all walked out in protest, doubtful that their low wages make up for the risks they’re taking.

After a decade of organizing fast food workers, the Fight For 15 is well positioned to facilitate these types of job actions on short notice. One of the movement’s key wins—a step that promised to make it significantly easier for organized labor to exert influence on a national scale in the fast food industry—came in 2015, when the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board revised the “joint employer” standard to make it easier to hold fast food companies like McDonald’s responsible for the labor standards at their franchised stores. The Trump administration’s NLRB rolled back that rule change, meaning McDonald’s is once again able to keep a legal wall between the parent company and the behavior of its franchisees.

In response to questions about employee walkouts in California, McDonald’s referred to a letter from McDonald’s USA president Joe Erlinger, promising to provide gloves, increased store cleaning, “wellness checks” for employees, and to send “non-medical grade masks to the areas of greatest need.” The company also sent a statement from the owner-operator of the store in Los Angeles where employees walked out this weekend, saying the store underwent “thorough sanitization” after a worker tested positive for COVID-19, and that workers who were in contact with that person were offered two weeks of paid quarantine leave. (The fact that the statement from the store owner is being sent out by McDonald’s corporate PR team highlights how closely the parent company and store owners are intertwined, joint employer standard notwithstanding.)

Though more visible “essential” workers, like grocery store employees, have successfully won hazard pay from a number of companies, fast food workers face a steeper challenge: They are forced to continue working by employer mandate and by economic need, but still viewed as a nonessential by much of the public. Without intense public pressure or widespread work stoppages, it is easy for major fast food chains to continue with business as usual, offloading all of the risk onto those below them.

“We are essential workers,” said Maria Ruiz, “but my life is essential too.” 

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Social distancing complaints at city businesses flood 311

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Michelle Bocanegra

The few commercial establishments still operating in New York City saw more than 1,500 complaints of inadequate social distancing in a single week, as officials struggle to keep residents of the most densely populated big city in America away from each other.

Even with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo closing nonessential businesses on March 22, New Yorkers have had difficulty keeping their distance. And businesses like grocery stores, street vendors and takeout restaurants that have remained open are having trouble policing their customers.

The number of social distancing complaints against commercial establishments placed through the city’s 311 platforms hit 1,572 early Sunday morning, spanning a weeklong stretch of complaints beginning March 29, according to 311 data analyzed by POLITICO. And one of the biggest hot spots is a complex managed by the city’s own Economic Development Corporation.

Businessesthat have continued to operate in varying capacities amid the public health crisis took up more than a third of roughly 4,200 social distancing complaints reported to 311 that week. Businesses can control some aspects of social distancing — but much customer behavior remains out of their control, associations, owners and advocates said in interviews with POLITICO.

The business obligation is really around how many people are in that store at a time,” said Jessica Walker, president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “Beyond that, though … aisles are not necessarily big. How do you move people around?”

The guidance to socially distance — or maintain six feet between people to abate the rampant spread of the virus — has become a volatile aspect of daily life among New Yorkers otherwise accustomed to tight spaces and contact with strangers due to the physical constraints of city life.

The NYPD reported its first social distancing-related homicide last week — an 86-year-old hospital patient in Brooklyn who allegedly failed to maintain a safe distance was struck dead by another patient.

Businesses across the city received social distancing complaints on average every six minutes, according to POLITICO’s analysis. But among commercial establishments, the complaints have been concentrated in Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, received 14 complaints over the week examined by POLITICO —the highest number of complaints received among business establishments across the city.

The commercial complex spans 95 acres in Sunset Park and is a mix of warehouse operations, offices and docks. It has been operational during the Covid-19 crisis, an EDC spokesperson confirmed, though she could not say how many occupants fell under the exemption.

The spokesperson said the agency hadn’t been aware of the complaints until POLITICO inquired about them.

“The Brooklyn Army Terminal is an essential hub, in fact one of the tenants, Makerspace, produced face shields in-house for NYC Hospitals,” said agency spokesperson Shavone Williams in an email. “EDC has sent clear communications to all tenants outlining latest guidelines from the Mayors Office, Department of Health and CDC.”

Cesar Zuñiga, chairperson for Community Board 7 in Sunset Park, said he hadn’t heard members complain of the situation. He was, however, “concerned” about the complaints, given that the terminal is managed by the city’s EDC.

The 311 data isn’t immune to blind spots. It does not specify who made the complaints, such as a customer, neighbor or employee. But establishments have grappled with challenges to maintaining a healthy distance.

There is a growing concern among New Yorkers about social distancing in supermarkets, the root of which Elizabeth Peralta, executive director of the National Supermarket Association, attributed to some customers who haven’t yet adjusted their habits to the new reality.

“We’re seeing things get better and better,” said Peralta, whose association has a few hundred member businesses in New York City. “But we definitely see the negligence of people.”

Four grocery stores in Manhattan and Queens were among the top five recipients of complaints. A Fairway Market in West Harlem received eight complaints in the same week. Another Fairway, on the Upper West Side, received seven complaints; a Trade Fair Supermarket in Elmhurst, and a Met Foods in Middle Village, Queens,trailed close behind with six complaints.

Bill Fani, owner of the Middle Village Met Foods,said not all customers were taking adequate precautions within his 9,000 square foot store.

“I understand the social distancing. The store’s only so big. We allow x amount of people in the store. We put up signs … but how do I enforce people?” he said.

The remaining grocers and their parent companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Some supermarkets have hired security personnel to safeguard against masses of people entering. Gov. Cuomo extended his order on Monday to shutter nonessential businesses, leaving grocers among those spared, until April 29.

Many grocery workers have been on edge over their continued exposure to fellow New Yorkers.

Street vendors have similar concerns. None yet have tested positive for the virus, according to Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, as far as he knew.

Vendors haven’t been fined or shut down by the NYPD over social distancing complaints, since it hasn’t been a major issue, Attia said. The same was the case for restaurants and bars, limited to takeout and delivery.

“Not to say that it hasn’t happened, but I’m not aware of that,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

According to the NYPD’s breakdown of coronavirus-related enforcement, it made three arrests and issued 21 summonses in roughly the same time frame. The department did not respond to a request for further comment.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Bocanegra is an intern for POLITICO New York. She was previously at amNewYork and is currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school.


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Four grocery workers have died of COVID-19 in recent weeks and dozens more have tested positive

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Grocery workers have become some of the most essential workers of the coronavirus crisis—making clear that we’ve relied on them all along. But it’s also a dangerous job, exposing workers to hundreds of customers a day, often without adequate protective gear. The terrible, predictable result is that grocery workers are starting to die of the virus.

At least four grocery workers have died recently. Leilani Jordan, a worker at a Maryland Giant store, died last week. Phillip Thomas and Wando Evans, both of whom worked at the same Illinois Walmart store, died in late March. And an unidentified Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, New York, died on Monday. Dozens more grocery workers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19.

At the same time, grocery chains are trying to hire tens of thousands more workers, with many offering the princely sum of $2 extra per hour and pledging to improve access to masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Some stores are also putting up plexiglass dividers between workers and customers.

But anyone coming into contact with hundreds of people a day is going to be in danger of being infected by COVID-19. An extra $2 an hour is not enough for that risk, and the fact that grocery retailers think it is is a sign of how unequal the U.S. economy is, and how desperate that leaves some people to pay their bills.

We should honor the workers who’ve died, and those who are sick and suffering. But let’s be clear that the best way to honor them is to protect them from the virus, to pay them as the essential workers they are, to support them in efforts to organize and build power, and to press for stronger labor laws.

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

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


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5 Steps For Creating A Safer Work Environment

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Labor unions, employee rights, fair wages, and America’s workforce are all hot topics this election season. While these issues are always important, an election year really works to bring these issues to the forefront of the minds of companies and politicians.

Regardless of which side of the political fence you sit on, we can all agree that employees deserve and need a safe work environment. It’s the company’s moral obligation and legal responsibility to provide a safe environment for all of its employees. But what’s the best way to do that?

Government data shows that in 2018, 2.8 million workers suffered from an injury at work, and a total of 5,250 workers actually died while on the job. That number means that an average of one hundred U.S. employees died each week while trying to earn an income. It’s unacceptable.

Despite OSHA’s (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) efforts, accidents are clearly still a regular occurrence in the workplace. It’s the employees’ right and the company’s responsibility to ensure a safe environment.

Here are five steps for creating a safer work environment.

Step One: Prioritize Safety Training

Most companies offer safety training right after hiring an employee. However, one-time training isn’t going to cut it. Regular safety training needs to be par for the course. Beyond that, consider periodic safety evaluations for both the individual employees and the company as a whole.

Moreover, safety is an ongoing attitude more than it is a one-time conversation. Companies must make safety a part of the daily discussion and habits.

Step Two: Don’t Overlook Spills and Tripping Hazards

More than twenty-five percent of all workplace injuries are a result of a trip, slip, or fall. So, it’s no shocker that one of the first things to improve when it comes to safety is tripping and slipping hazards.

Work to eliminate clutter and keep walk spaces free and open. If standing water is an issue inside or out, look into a floor drain or a traffic rated trench drain. Fix uneven flooring and repair steep or wobbly stairs. If there’s an area that employees complain about, work to get it fixed.

Step Three: Consider Employee Comfort A Top Priority

Improving employee comfort is an essential step to creating a safer work environment. Depending on the industry, uncomfortable environments might not be totally avoidable, but maximizing employee comfort when possible can increase safety dramatically.

Overworked employees are one of the chief complaints against comfort. Overworked employees mean a more tired, burnt out, and anxious workforce. Tired workers are 70% more likely to be part of a workplace accident.

To increase comfort, be sure to avoid overworking employees with reasonable hours and allow plenty of breaks. Don’t expect unrealistic deliverables. Beyond that, try to regulate temperature and decrease the amount of time employees spend in enclosed spaces.

Step Four: Use Proper Equipment

While this one might seem obvious, it’s not uncommon for companies to cut costs by using cheaper machinery, outdated equipment, or asking employees to use inadequate or improper tools to complete their jobs. Unsurprisingly, this leads to more injuries, more exhausted employees, and ultimately lower productivity.

This step is pretty straight forward. Use the proper equipment for the right jobs. For example, if you work in a warehouse with lots of dust and chemicals, be sure to use an explosion-proof vacuum. If toxic chemicals are a part of the job, make sure safety equipment is worn and provided. If scaling to the tops of high shelves is a normal part of the job, opt for lifts instead of rickety ladders. Each industry has its own type of equipment, but regardless, there is always updated and safer equipment available for every industry.

Step Five: Focus on Psychosocial Issues

Thanks mostly to employee complaints and activism from non-profits, psychosocial issues in the workplace have made their way to the forefront of workplace safety concerns. Employees who have dealt with psychosocial issues in the workplace are more likely to struggle with increased stress, anxiety, depression, and in severe cases, drug use, and suicide.

Workplace stress accounts for $190 billion in yearly healthcare costs and 120,000 deaths each year. Aside from employee comfort, issues like sexual harassment, bullying, workplace violence, and more, are all examples of common psychosocial workplace issues.

To combat these problems, it’s essential to create an environment that encourages and promotes reporting any sort of issues that disrupt an employee’s mental wellbeing. They shouldn’t fear retaliation, and they should know that action will be taken. Consider security cameras that run 24/7 to keep your employees feeling safe. Design a layout that’s open, but then use something like modular office walls, to promote privacy when it’s needed.

Workers Demand a Safer Environment

More and more workers are demanding a safer work environment. These five steps are a surefire way to start creating a safer environment in your workplace.

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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Marriott’s ‘green choice’ isn’t so green, and it’s hurting workers

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Why would environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and 350.org have signed a pledge that they wouldn’t use a hotel chain’s environmental program? Because Marriott’s “Make a Green Choice” program, in which hotel guests are asked to opt out of having their rooms cleaned during a stay, is a classic case of greenwashing, and one that hurts workers.

According to Sierra magazine, Marriott won’t disclose the environmental benefits of not having rooms cleaned as often, while UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh told the magazine that “when housekeepers do get into a room that hasn’t been serviced in days, they report needing to use more water and chemicals, and they experience pain and injury from having to push their bodies to the limit to get the job done.” At the same time, they’re losing work hours, and income, to people doing what they think is the right thing.

Marriott has pushed “Make a Green Choice,” but it hasn’t pushed larger environmental efforts. “Despite setting a goal of acquiring 30 percent of its overall electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2025, the hotel chain did not report purchasing any of its millions of megawatt-hours of energy from renewable resources in 2018” Sierra reports. “That same year, Marriott’s $33 million investment in energy savings initiatives like LED lighting retrofit projects were dwarfed by the $3.4 billion that Marriott returned to shareholders.” Marriott’s climate goals are also less ambitious than those of rival Hilton.

Meanwhile, 91% of Marriott housekeepers told the union that they’ve lost hours since “Make a Green Choice” was put into place, with some having lost so many hours that they’re no longer eligible for health care.

We should all be making green choices. This isn’t the one, though.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

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