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Your Workplace Rights During Natural Disasters and Emergencies

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Natural disasters create a level of chaos that can be hard to prepare for. Nevertheless, there are many federal employment laws that are in place to guide employers and their employees regarding rights and responsibilities when disaster strikes. 

The following federal laws provide the framework for understanding your workplace rights in the event that a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, hurricane, fire, flood, or other emergency occurs.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Salary/wage payments to be made during natural disasters are outlined by the FLSA as follows:

Exempt employees

Employers must pay exempt employees their full salary while the worksite is closed due to natural disasters or inclement weather (for less than a full working week). Employers may, however, request that employees utilize any unused leave to cover this period.

Nonexempt employees

Employers must pay nonexempt employees only for any hours actually worked, regardless of whether or not it is possible to carry out work due to a natural disaster.

Exceptions to the rule

Whereby nonexempt employees have agreed to complete an unspecified number of working hours for a specified salary amount, their employers must pay them a full week’s salary for any week in which any amount of work was carried out. 

Other FLSA guidelines include:

Waiting time

If an employee is required to wait for working conditions to be reinstated, such as waiting at work for the power to come back on, it is considered time-worked that they must be paid for.

On-call time

Whether or not any work is carried out, any employees who are required to remain on-call, either on employment premises or close-by, and are not permitted to leave, may be eligible for pay for those hours.

Not-for-profit 

Not-for-profit organization employees must be paid for any work conducted that they typically carry out as an employee, and must not be regarded as volunteers during disaster response and management.

What about layoffs?

Federal laws under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) stipulate notice requirements regarding mass layoffs and some plant closures.

Exceptions are in place for closures/layoffs that are the direct result of a natural disaster, but employers are still required to give as much notice as possible; issuing less than 60 days’ notice is only legal if the employer can prove that they meet the exception conditions.

Taking leave after a disaster

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees suffering from a serious health condition (or caring for a spouse, child or parent who is) that has been caused by a natural disaster are entitled to leave. 

Employees who are also members of an emergency services organization are protected from employment discrimination under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). The act protects such American workers from being discharged, denied employment, promotion or other employment benefits due to their membership or obligation to serve with an emergency services organization.

Employee Benefit Programs

When business operations are affected by natural disasters, employers must decide whether their employee’s coverage plans will be maintained. For COBRA coverage (continuation of health coverage following loss of benefits), employers must send employees COBRA packages upon being notified of that employee’s ineligibility for an ongoing plan (typically due to ceasing work).

In the event of a natural disaster that may affect health plans, check with your employer to determine whether your cover will continue. Governmental agencies tend to issue deadline extensions in such events, but this can vary, so it is important to check.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Employees suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from a natural disaster are eligible to reasonable accommodations from their employer, so long as no undue hardship would be caused to the business. 

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

As per the OSHA, employers are responsible for protecting their employees from (unreasonable) dangers in the workplace. Natural disasters can create safety issues (such as electrical or trip hazards), and employers must consider this before expecting employees to attend and carry out duties. 

If an employee feels that they have been placed in danger, they can file a complaint with the OSHA, and request ‘whistleblower’ protections if they feel vulnerable to retaliation. 

Both the OSHA and the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) protects employees’ rights to refuse to  work in unsafe conditions. While they must have a reasonable cause for believing the conditions to be unsafe, they are still protected even if they were genuinely mistaken regarding the risks. 

Federal relief

In the event that a worker is laid-off due to a natural disaster and is not covered by their state’s unemployment compensation program, they may apply for assistance under the federally-funded Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). This assistance scheme also provides cover to self-employed workers from a range of sectors not normally covered under state assistance programs 

Protecting your rights

If you feel that your rights have been violated by an employer, you have every right to take action.

Depending on the severity of the violation, suing your employer in small claims court may be the most appropriate action.

Still, it’s vital that you first attempt to resolve the issue out of court, and that you retain this evidence of good faith in the event that you need to take the matter further. Small claims cases tend to move along more quickly than investigations carried out by the labor department, but there are other pros and cons to consider.

If your rights have been violated, it’s best to consult with a lawyer to determine the best course of action.

This blog was contributed to Workplace Fairness by an anonymous guest author. Learn more about workers’ rights here.


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Thank You to Outten and Golden

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Outten and Golden, LLP, a law firm dedicated to employees’ rights, is sponsoring an upcoming event for Workplace Fairness. 

Next week, Workplace Fairness is hosting a panel event on climate change and workers’ safety. From 3 to 4 p.m. on August 31, the online panel will discuss the negative impact the global climate crisis has on workers, specifically people of color and workers earning low wages. 

Outten and Golden’s sponsorship helps make Workplace Fairness’ events possible, furthering workers’ interests. Wayne Outten, the president of Outten and Golden, co-founded Workplace Fairness and is currently its board chair. Outten voiced his support for the upcoming event.

“Outten and Golden has long supported Workplace Fairness and its mission of educating workers about their rights and of advocating for the rights of workers,” Outten said. “This program is a good example of such education and advocacy.”

Anyone interested in attending the upcoming panel event may register for it here. Workplace Fairness also greatly appreciates donations.

Workplace Fairness thanks Outten and Golden for its continued support. Sponsorships like these further Workplace Fairness’ efforts to advocate for workers’ rights.  


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How Managers Can Advocate for Their Warehouse

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The safety and well-being of office employees are often prioritized in the business world.
However, the protection of your blue-collar workers is just as important and should be at the
forefront of your advocacy efforts.

Every day, warehouse workers face occupational hazards like slips and falls, malfunctioning
equipment, using heavy materials, and much more. Making sure those workers are treated with
dignity and respect, and prioritizing their safety should be something you take seriously.

As a leader in your organization, you might wonder what you could be doing to ensure that your
company’s warehouse workers are getting the support they need. Let’s cover some things you
can do to advocate for those employees.

Advocate for Benefits

One of the best ways to advocate for your warehouse employees is to learn more about what
they really want. There’s often a sizable disparity between the benefits of in-office employees
and warehouse workers. Some of the basic benefits your blue-collar employees want include:

  • A company-matched retirement plan
  • Flexibility
  • Emotional and mental health programs
  • Career development opportunities

Making sure your warehouse workers feel respected and understood will help to increase
productivity
and loyalty to your company.

If your warehouse employees are interested in unionizing, don’t immediately try to shut down
those efforts. Instead, support them and work with them to create realistic negotiations and
expectations to bring to the heads of the company. You’re in a leadership position, but your
loyalty should remain with your workers, not against them. It’s far too common for warehouses
to underpay their employees in an effort to get “cheap labor.” If you notice that happening, stick
with your workers as they attempt to unionize and receive a fair salary and benefits.

Prioritize Safety

We talked about some of the potential risks of working in a warehouse above. Because of those
risks (and others), prioritizing the safety of your employees is a must.

Having safety procedures and preventative measures in place should be your first course of action. Follow this with proper training and ensuring every employee knows how to use the equipment correctly and follow all safety rules.

It’s also imperative to have the right safety equipment throughout the warehouse to remind your
employees how they can protect themselves. That includes things like:

  • Proper storage spaces
  • Signing and labels
  • Guardrails
  • First aid kits
  • Traffic visibility mirrors
  • Emergency wash stations

Don’t wait for an accident to happen to put these things in place. By setting up preventative
measures and prioritizing safety, you’re telling your warehouse workers that you’re actually
prioritizing them.

As a manager, you might not be able to change the way your entire company runs. However,
when you have warehouse workers under your care, you should be willing to do whatever it

takes to make sure they’re treated with the same respect as their office counterparts. Keep
these ideas in mind and don’t be afraid to advocate for change as necessary. Not only will your
workers appreciate you for it, but you could end up changing the entire course of your company
for the better.

About the Author: Dan Matthews is a contributor to Workplace Fairness. This blog is posted with the author’s permission.


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Working at Home Accidents – Who is Liable?

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

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

Your Employer’s Duty of Care

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

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

How to Create Safe Work Environments at Home

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

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

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

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

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

Provide Risk Assessments and Guideline Advice

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

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

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

Display Screen Equipment

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

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

Identifying and Reducing Hazards

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

Manual Handling Training and Precautions

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

Mental Health Support

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

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

Equipment Provision

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

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

Who is Liable if You Have an Accident?

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

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

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

Final Words

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

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

This blog is printed with permission.

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


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Biden Has Abandoned His Covid Worker Safety Pledge

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Biden’s much-anticipated workplace safety rule excludes most workers—and some in the labor movement are not happy.

Until she got her first Pfizer shot on July 16, Cindy Cervantes toiled in the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma for most of the pandemic without a vaccine—working unprotected in an industry devastated by Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.

“In one day, at least 300 people were gone” from the plant, sick from Covid, Cervantes says. Still, “Seaboard wanted a certain number of hogs out. They kept pushing people, the chain was going even faster. People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.” Six of her coworkers have died from Covid-19, and hundreds have gotten sick, she says.

Ravaged by the pandemic, the roughly 500,000 U.S. workers in meatpacking, meat processing and poultry are not getting much help from the industry or the government. In a sector described as “essential” during the pandemic, at least 50,000 have been infected and more than 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit news outlet. Yet amid this grim toll, the North American Meat Institute lobbied successfully to exclude meatpacking and poultry workers from new Covid-19 worker safety rules enacted this June.

Even as vaccine availability in the United States steadily expands, workers still face pandemic peril on the job, from breakthrough cases of Covid-19, as well as low vaccination rates in many areas due to a combination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and serious access barriers to immigrants who fear deportation. Workers and advocates are sounding the alarm that President Biden has dropped the ball on pandemic-era worker protections, violating one of the first promises of his presidency. This warning has particular salience after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that some people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where there are severe outbreaks, due to the spread of the Delta variant. 

On his second day in office, Biden signed an executive order promising to enact new emergency safety rules “if such standards are determined to be necessary” by March 15 to protect millions of “essential” workers like Cervantes. The goal was straightforward: to give workers enforceable protections on the job, such as mandating that companies provide physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the deadline came and went, with no new rule. Then, on June 10, after heavy lobbying by many industry groups—Including the American Hospital Association, the National Retail Federation, the North American Meat Institute and the National Grocers Association—Biden issued a narrow rule covering only health care workers.

This is despite the fact that other industries have been devastated by the pandemic. “Almost all my coworkers have gotten it,” Cervantes says of the virus, noting that many of them were out sick for months, and some returned to work with lingering Covid-19 symptoms. Yet, she says, “a lot of workers I work with have not gotten the vaccination” for a host of reasons. Some are “skeptical,” and “think it’s got a chip in it or that it’s not going to work.” 

It’s not hard to get a vaccine at the plant, Cervantes says. But in an industry that relies heavily on immigrants, Latinx and often undocumented workers, there are many barriers to vaccination, researchers note. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Large shares of Hispanic adults—particularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumented—express concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination.” Oklahoma, home to the Seaboard plant where Cervantes works, is among the nation’s most dangerous Covid-19 states, with just 40% of the population fully vaccinated, and “high transmission rates,” according to the CDC.

In an email response to questions, Seaboard communications director David Eaheart said the company “proactively” notifies workers of any Covid-19 cases in the plant, and has taken numerous precautions based on CDC and state health guidance, including paid leave for infected workers, and plexiglass shields at “select line workstations.” 

Eaheart acknowledged that in May 2020, testing at the plant identified 440 employees with “active cases of Covid-19,” the plant’s “highest week of reported active cases. All these employees self-isolated at home and were required to follow CDC guidance before being allowed to return to work.” During that week, he said, “overall production was scaled back in the processing plant and fewer animals were processed and products produced.” More than 1000 workers at the plant have tested positive, and six have died, Eaheart confirmed. 

Since March 15, when Biden’s promised Covid-19 workplace safety protections were supposed to take effect, more than 15,000 working-age adults have died from the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). “Every one of those individuals had a family that was also at risk of Covid,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in a June 9 press release anticipating Biden’s rule. “Releasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, too late.”

The original rule drafted by the Department of Labor did cover all workers, as Bloomberg Law first reported—but then the infectious disease standard met the buzz saw of politics and industry pressure, and the White House opted to cover health care workers only.

As the Department of Labor’s draft standard stated, “For the first time in its 50-year history, OSHA faces a new hazard so grave that it has killed more than half a million people in the United States in barely over a year, and sickened millions more. OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) presents a grave danger in every shared workplace in the United States.” 

Citing rising vaccination rates—60% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, though just 49% of the population overall—Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said the new rules focusing on healthcare workers “provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor provided any explanation for why other workers in high-exposure jobs were excluded.

“That’s kind of ridiculous,” says Louisiana Walmart worker Peter Naughton. “They should cover retail workers as well. We come into contact with people who may have the virus without knowing it.”

In Louisiana, where new Covid-19 cases are double the national infection rate and vaccinations lag far behind, Naughton, 45, toils in fear every day at a Walmart in Baton Rouge. He got vaccinated in May, but in his job helping customers navigate self-checkout kiosks, Naughton says, “I come into contact with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people a week.” Naughton, who lives in Baton Rouge with his parents to make ends meet, says that despite the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, and the spread of the extra-dangerous Delta variant, there are minimal safety precautions, and “Walmart is acting like the pandemic is over.”

While the vaccines vastly reduce risk of death or serious illness, infections and “breakthrough cases” are still infecting vaccinated people. And the CDC’s befuddling guidance making masks voluntary for those who are vaccinated, on the honor system, hasn’t helped. Furthermore, the CDC explains, “no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from Covid-19.”

For Naughton and millions of other “essential workers,” laboring in the pandemic has been a mix of fear, insult and injury. Even when Covid-19 was at its most deadly and virulent, basic safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning were “never enforced” at Walmart, says Naughton. “They never gave us any PPE, just glass cleaner, which doesn’t protect us. Customers could come in without masks and nothing would be said to them. I complained about it and the manager said, ‘Don’t worry about it, let the customers do what they want.’”

Several of Naughton’s coworkers got infected and ill from Covid-19, but “management never said a word to any of us,” he says. “Most of them I came into close contact with. That kind of scared me. … We all should have known about it.” Naughton says he filed a complaint in November 2020 requesting OSHA to inspect the Baton Rouge Walmart, but “I never heard back, nothing ever happened.”

To top it off, when Naughton received the vaccine in May, he was hit by a 102.4 degree fever—but he had to work anyway, because Walmart employees can “lose our job” after five absences for any reason. Nobody at Walmart took his temperature or inquired about his health, he says.

Through email, Tyler Thomason, Walmart’s senior manager of global communications, insisted to In These Times, “We encourage our associates to get vaccinated. We offer the vaccine at no cost to associates… We continue to request that associates and customers wear face coverings unless they are vaccinated. Any information on confirmed, positive COVID-19 cases would come from the local health authority.”

Unions Sue to Protect More Workers

Naughton isn’t the only person disappointed by Biden’s exclusion of most workers from this emergency pandemic protection. Unions have pushed for the protection since the pandemic began ravaging the United States in March 2020. First, they encountered staunch resistance from the Trump administration; now, while pledging expansive worker protections, the Biden administration has delayed and diminished them.

On June 10, as the Biden administration announced the narrow new rule leaving out millions of workers, advocates expressed disappointment and frustration. 

Biden’s decision to cover only health care workers “represents a broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the frontlines of this pandemic,” stated United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union International President Marc Perrone the day the new rule was announced. 

That day, the AFL-CIO added, “we are deeply concerned that the [standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of Covid-19 infections and death. Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 exposures and infections.”

On June 24, the AFL-CIO and UFCW filed a petition in federal court demanding that all workers be covered by the emergency standard, which, the petition says, currently “fails to protect employees outside the healthcare industry who face a similar grave danger from occupational exposure to Covid-19.”

Another champion of the emergency standard, Rep. Bobby Scott (DVa.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, also expressed frustration when Biden released the narrow new rule, calling the diminished standard “too little, too late for countless workers and families across the country,” including workers throughout the food industry and homeless shelters. Rep. Scott added: “I am disappointed by both the timing and the scope of this workplace safety standard.” The rule, Scott said, “is long past due, and it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness from Covid-19.”

Biden’s decision to exclude meatpackers, grocery and farm workers, retail and warehouse laborers and others means especially high risks for workers of color, Rep. Scott noted. “With vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of a comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is a dangerous combination,” he said.

Much of this “essential” workforce of people of color, immigrants and low-income white people, toils in dangerous farm labor and food processing plants where Covid-19 has spread like wildfire while vaccination rates remain low. “Workers in this industry have a very low vaccination rate,” as low as 37% in some states, says Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2 representing meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. “I don’t know who in their right mind would think we’ve passed over that bridge and think all workers are safe now.” Rosas adds, “The federal government has failed to protect meatpacking workers” by leaving them out of the final emergency standard. “I’m extremely disappointed in the Biden administration.”

Both the Department of Labor and the White House declined multiple interview requests, but a Department of Labor spokesperson emailed a statement insisting that the health-care-workers-only rule “closely follows the CDC’s guidance for health care workers and the science, which tells us that those who come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19, are most at risk.”

The Department of Labor spokesperson stressed that the agency’s existing (yet unenforceable) “guidance” and the “general duty clause” protect other workers adequately, particularly in “industries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood processing, and grocery and high-volume retail.” But in its own draft standard, the Department of Labor stated the opposite: “existing standards, regulations, and the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause are wholly inadequate to address the Covid-19 hazard.” In its original draft, the agency insisted, “a Covid-19 ETS [emergency temporary standard] is necessary to address these inadequacies.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, National COSH’s co-executive director, says President Biden “is responsible” for the 15,000 workers who have died from Covid-19 since Biden’s March 15 deadline to enact the emergency standard. Biden, she notes, “promised to protect workers in his campaign and on his first day in office, but he neglected them. But workers’ safety needs aren’t over, and we’ll be continuing to demand accountability from the administration.”

This post originally appeared at In These Times on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Christopher Cook is an award-winning investigative reporter who also writes for Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis


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From Carl’s Jr. to a gay club, Oregon workers suffered in the heat, this week in the war on workers

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Workers suffered during recent heat waves around the country, and hitting the Pacific Northwest especially hard. We’ve talked about the need for heat protections for farmworkers, but they’re not the only ones.

HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson looks at the heat complaints to Oregon OSHA, finding that restaurant workers were hit particularly hard. According to a complaint from a Carl’s Jr., “The restaurant management is forcing employees to work without air-conditioning in dangerous heat. The temperature in the building is at least 100*F. Employees are covered in sweat, and are showing signs of heat exhaustion.” At a Burger King, “110+ Degrees in the kitchen over the past few days. The AC system is broken and the employer will not fix it. This is when it’s been 101+ outside. Employees are forced to work nonetheless, no matter the heat hazard.”

It wasn’t just farmworkers and restaurant workers, either. The complaints Jamieson reviewed included a carwash, a cannabis dispensary, a canvassing agency that sends people out to fundraise for nonprofits, and dancers at a gay club. Clearly as climate change makes extreme heat a more frequent occurrence, workplace safety regulations and enforcement are going to need to catch up.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Historic heat wave highlights the need for farmworker protections

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Summer heat is a danger for farmworkers every year, with heat deaths happening steadily. But with climate change and heat waves like the one that hit the Pacific Northwest in recent weeks becoming more frequent, the need for legal protections for farmworkers is becoming more urgent. At least one worker died during that heat wave.

California farmworkers have a right to shade when the temperature reaches 80 degrees (though enforcement remains an issue), and farmworkers are winning legislative victories in the states, including Colorado recently and Washington state, gaining minimum wage and overtime protections. But nationally, farmworkers lack protections and enforcement, and heat is an annual danger. The Pacific Northwest’s record-shattering June heat wave drew renewed attention to that—even as some coverage of agriculture in the heat wave talked entirely about the danger to crops and never even mentioned workers.

The workers picking cherries and blueberries in temperatures over 100 degrees included children as young as 12 and adults in their 70s, with some employers not even supplying water, let alone shade.

“There’s no shade where I work,” a cherry picker in Yakima County, Washington, told Motherboard. “A lot of people who don’t feel well keep working so as not to lose money for lunch or rent. People endure a lot to finish. They give more than they are able to.” Elizabeth Strater, strategic campaigns director for the United Farm Workers of America, told Motherboard’s Lauren Kaori Gurley that “There is a perverse incentive to work as fast as you can not to hydrate to the extent that you’d need bathroom breaks,” because so many workers are paid piece rates.

Workers also often work in heavy clothes to protect themselves from chemicals used on crops, as they do unbelievably grueling, skilled work in dangerous heat. This is already a workplace safety issue that demands national policymaking—and it’s only going to get worse thanks to climate change.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July, 5 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Black-owned distillery embraces its workers’ union, this week in the war on workers

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

When workers at Du Nord Craft Spirits decided to form a union, joining UNITE HERE Local 17, the company voluntarily recognized them without any delay and in fact publicized the occasion itself. Du Nord bills itself as the first Black-owned distillery in the United States.

“The production staff of Du Nord Craft Spirits chose to form a union because we enjoy and appreciate working here,” the workers said in a statement to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. “We have showed up for the company by working through a pandemic, the closure of the cocktail room, an uprising, and committing to work as timelines and job duties fluctuated. The company showed up for us, most recently, by voluntarily recognizing our unionizing effort.”

“The workers knew that I would recognize a union,” owner Chris Montana told the Business Journal. Referring to organizing efforts at several other Twin Cities hospitality businesses, he said, “We hadn’t had a direct conversation about this unionization effort, but as previous places were unionizing I made very clear that if they decided that that’s something they wanted to do, I would recognize it.” Du Nord said he was ready to negotiate.

It’s not exactly going to turn around decades of declining union density in the U.S., but good news is nice to have every now and then, right?

This blog originally appeared at Dailykos on June 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Amazon makes tiny tweak to ‘time off task’ policy following report on high injury rates

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

Immediately following a report that Amazon’s workplace injury rates were significantly higher than those of its top rivals, the online retail giant announced a tweak to its notorious “time off task” metric, which workers and advocates say is responsible for the punishing pace that leads to many injuries. The Washington Post looked at Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data and found that Amazon warehouses have a rate of 5.9 serious injury incidents per 100 workers, which is nearly double the rate of other retail warehouses and more than double the rate for Walmart warehouses. This despite a decrease in serious injury rates at Amazon warehouses after the company paused performance tracking to allow workers time to wash their hands and sanitize work areas during the pandemic.

In response to the Post’s questions, Amazon detailed an array of efforts to improve injury rates at its warehouses, including “ergonomics programs, guided exercises at employees’ workstations, mechanical assistance equipment, workstation setup and design, and forklift telematics and guardrails—to name a few,” a company spokeswoman told the newspaper. What those efforts notably did not include was relaxing the speed requirements placed on workers that lead to so many of those injuries, at least outside of pandemic safety measures.

But on Tuesday, via a blog post by Dave Clark, CEO of its worldwide consumer division, the company made two announcements clearly designed to garner good publicity: It will stop testing employees for marijuana except for those in positions regulated by the Department of Transportation and will support federal marijuana legalization, and it’s changing how “time off task” is calculated. The time off task metric “can easily be misunderstood,” Clark claimed, insisting that its primary goal “is to understand whether there are issues with the tools that people use to be productive, and only secondarily to identify under-performing employees.”

This is not how Amazon employees experience that, and in any case, constantly finding ways to make the “tools that people use to be productive” go faster is another way to make the workers go faster. “Starting today,” Clark announced, “we’re now averaging Time off Task over a longer period to ensure that there’s more signal and less noise—reinforcing the original intent of the program, and focusing Time off Task conversations on how we can help.”

That’s not a big enough change, said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, in a statement: “After months of intense worker activity at Amazon workplaces everywhere, the giant tech is acknowledging that it must at least tweak its management system to soften the blow on workers who have the occasional ‘bad day’. But the basic system remains the same. This small step is welcomed but insufficient. What workers need is a real seat at the table and their voices heard.”

Let’s circle back to the top of this post and remember, we’re talking about a business with a serious injury rate nearly twice that of the industry as a whole and more than twice that of Walmart (which is not exactly known as a great employer). A small tweak is not going to do it. 

Amazon’s injury data also points to the need for stronger government enforcement. A DuPont, Washington, Amazon warehouse sported a serious injury rate of 23.9 per 100 workers in 2020, up from an already high 7.2 serious incidents per 100 workers in 2017. For those conditions, Amazon was cited by Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries, which specifically identified the following: “There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders].” But the fine was just $7,000. Why would Amazon take the need for change seriously if that’s how much it costs? Instead, the company is trying to deal with its high injury rates as a public relations problem by announcing the smallest possible change to its policy. 

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Biden administration weeks behind on Covid-19 workplace safety rules

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The federal worker safety watchdog is weeks behind on President Joe Biden’s deadline for the agency to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that experts say will fight the spread of the coronavirus and protect workers.

Shortly after taking office, Biden gave the Labor Department a March 15 deadline to decide whether such emergency rules were necessary, and it was widely assumed the department would recommend moving forward with them. But three weeks later, newly minted Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is asking the agency to continue reviewing the rule.

“Secretary Walsh reviewed the materials, and determined that they should be updated to reflect the latest scientific analysis of the state of the disease,” a Labor Department spokesperson told POLITICO. “He has ordered a rapid update based on CDC analysis and the latest information regarding the state of vaccinations and the variants. He believes this is the best way to proceed.”

Biden campaigned on making Covid-19 guidelines — currently just optional recommendations for employers — into mandatory rules. Business groups and unions have been bracing for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to release an emergency workplace safety standard that would immediately require employers to take steps to protect their workers from exposure to the virus.

The rule was expected to at least mandate CDC guidelines on mask wearing, which some industry groups have warned would create headaches for businesses in the states that have already moved to rollback social distancing and mask requirements for businesses. It also would likely require employers to develop a Covid-19 response plan, similar to a required fire drill, for how the businesses would respond if someone was exposed to the virus at work.

The delay is raising concerns among former workplace regulators and worker advocates, who fear Biden may be dropping an essential piece of his Covid-19 response plan, as well as sowing confusion in the business community.

“I’m concerned that there are administration staff who incorrectly believe that the pandemic is under control and that an ETS isn’t necessary,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration.

“The CDC director is pleading with the country to take precautions, but workers can’t take those precautions” without an ETS, said Michaels, now a professor of occupational health at George Washington University.

Business groups are also scratching their heads after broadly expecting the rules.

“I’m as in much of a befuddlement as anyone,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber of Commerce. “This sounds like Secretary Walsh and the DOL are grappling with what everyone else is seeing — the increasing success of the vaccines raises serious questions about whether an ETS is justified, such as whether employees are still in ‘grave danger,’ and an ETS can be called ‘necessary.’”

The longer it takes for the Biden administration to release the rule, the harder it could be for the rule to stand up to legal challenges, according to Freedman and attorneys who specialize in workplace safety law.

OSHA only has the authority to issue an “emergency temporary safety standard” if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.” But that justification could be slipping as the Biden administration rushes to get Americans vaccinated against the virus.

While Biden administration officials have been warning that more contagious strains of the virus are taking hold, the president has been moving to expand access to the vaccine and was optimistic in his last message to the nation, promising Americans a return to some sense of normal life by Independence Day.

Republicans, who have been broadly opposed to any mandatory safety rules, are criticizing what they see as a mixed message from the administration.

“The Biden administration is speaking out of both sides of its mouth,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. “The President claims every adult will be eligible for a vaccine in May and then argues an immediate ‘emergency’ standard is necessary to curb the crisis.”

“This politicized process highlights the Biden administration’s blatant incompetence and hypocrisy. The federal government must not add more uncertainty and bureaucratic red tape for job creators, workers, and consumers as we continue to emerge from this crisis.”

But worker-safety experts say that the longer the Biden administration waits, more workers will get sick with the virus and could die.

“We are deeply concerned about when the standard is coming out. Basically workers have been going for a year facing untold numbers of illnesses and deaths without just a basic agreement that employers need to create a safety plan,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“It’s essential, it’s life saving and it needs to come out now,” she said. “We can’t wait another day for this.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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