Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Working or Unemployed, Construction Workers Are Screwed

Image result for Hamilton Nolan

With no firm national standards about shutting down construction projects as the coronavirus stalks the nation, building trade unions and their members are facing a grim multidimensional crisis: high unemployment, faltering pensions, lost benefits, plummeting dues revenue—and, for those who do remain on the job, the constant question of whether they should quit in order to protect their health.

Leaders at two major building trade unions this week described an increasingly desperate economic climate for their members. Eric Dean, the president of the 130,000-member Ironworkers Union, said that 30% of his work force was “idle or sitting at home,” and that unemployment continues to rise by the day. Jim Williams, vice president and organizing director at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said that unemployment among his members has shot up to 50% in the course of a single week.

The price of this sudden economic dislocation is vast. In particular, health care benefits of the idled construction workers are now at risk, just when they need it most. Also at risk are the unions’ pension funds, which have cratered along with financial markets, endangering retirement benefits for thousands of members. The multi-employer pension fund of the Ironworkers, which was still recovering from the losses of the 2008 financial crisis, has now taken a 20% hit on its portfolio. “With our hours down and our investments down, a blind man can see that we’ve been severely impacted,” Dean said.

It is hard to know whether those construction workers who are still working should be considered lucky. In the coronavirus epicenter of New York, and in most other states, construction workers have been deemed “essential employees,” allowing their employers to keep them building on crowded job sites, where “social distancing” is next to impossible. Dean said that, for the first time in his career, he has seen construction projects building worker housing on job sites in order to keep workers isolated and close to their workplace. At the same time, ironworkers have told him that walking through empty streets in order to get to their still-active building sites “makes me feel that I’m expendable.”

“There’s a growing sentiment among our workforce that maybe [unemployment] should be higher, because of the health and safety risk of being on a construction site,” Jim Williams said. Among IUPAT members, there is a split down the middle between those who are more concerned about health risks, and those who say “I need to work so that I have my health care coverage, so that I can continue my way of life. It’s a Catch-22.” Though the union can see why work on critical infrastructure like the electrical and water systems must continue, commercial construction “can certainly slow down,” he said. “I don’t believe building a millionaire’s or billionaire’s condominium” is worth the risk.

The stimulus bill now working its way through Congress is only a half measure, as far as the unions are concerned. A coalition of building trade unions lobbied for four “planks” to be included in the bill: better unemployment compensation, healthcare coverage that won’t lapse, shoring up pension funds, and a large investment in national infrastructure—a policy that Democrats and Republicans have been talking about for years without ever making it a reality. Of those four goals, only the unemployment compensation aspect will be fulfilled in the current bill. Already, the building trades are pushing for another stimulus bill after this one is completed. “This was the relief bill,” Williams said. “There’s going to have to be a recovery bill, too.”

Besides the direct impacts to members, the unions themselves are now staring down the second-order consequence of widespread unemployment: a dropoff in union dues. IUPAT has already told its locals that it is waiving member dues for the month of April as a relief measure, and will assess again after that. Waiving dues, however, inevitably eats away at the revenue unions use to maintain their staffing—and to lobby Congress for whatever comes next. According to Dean, the Ironworkers lost around 15% of their members after the 2008 recession, a figure they are using as a baseline now. But everyone acknowledges that this time could be worse. And Dean suspects that if work dries up, more members closing in on retirement age may decide to go ahead and retire early, further weakening the active membership numbers.

If there is any silver lining, it is that whenever the industry picks back up again, non-union construction workers may feel more enticed to organize, after witnessing their higher-paid union colleagues make use of at least a marginal safety net during this crisis. “It presents the opportunity for the labor movement to get it right,” said Williams. “Any time we miss that, we miss a golden opportunity.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 26, 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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

Amazon Says It’s Giving Part-Time Workers PTO—But There May Be a Catch

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has rolled out a new policy that extends paid time off to thousands of part-time operations employees.

The change follows a months-long campaign by workers in Amazon’s last-mile delivery stations to demand PTO, touted in the company’s public communications as an “essential” benefit offered to all its workers. After being told that a special classification made them ineligible, workers at Sacramento’s DSM1 delivery station launched a petition demanding the same benefits as other part-time employees and staged a walkout in December. Workers at delivery stations in Chicago and Queens took up the call earlier this year, and more than 4,300 Amazon employees nationwide signed on.

On March 20, delivery workers celebrated after receiving a “manager’s update” that reads, “We are excited to announce that Amazon will offer paid-time off benefits to all our regular part-time and seasonal employees in the United States working in the [Operations] network.

But employees still have questions.

It’s still unclear how the policy will apply in localities that already require paid sick leave. Chicago-area Amazon workers who say they previously caught the company breaking local sick-leave law suspect the company is now trying to pull a bait-and-switch.

Workers at Chicago’s DCH1 delivery station say they currently accrue 15 minutes of paid sick time per 8 hours worked, a rate slightly above what’s required by local law. Over the weekend, members of the group DCH1 Amazonians United asked an area manager to confirm whether they would receive PTO on top of existing sick leave. They say they were told that they would accrue both, separately, until June 1. At that point, sick time would “disappear,” and they would continue racking up PTO: at the same rate they do now.

An internal announcement at the facility, provided to In These Times, reads: “PTO and sick time will continue to accrue. In June it will combine and sick time bucket on HUB will disappear.” (HUB refers to the online system where employees can track their available paid and unpaid time off.)

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about the new PTO policy.

According to Ted Miin, a Chicago Amazon employee and member of DCH1 Amazonians United, “Amazon is making a few concessions to motivate workers who are desperate and poor to keep coming into the warehouse and putting themselves at risk. But once we get this, we’re not going to let them take it away.”

To meet soaring demand from home-bound consumers, Amazon last week announced plans to hire 100,000 additional warehouse employees. The online-retail giant is also raising workers’ pay by $2 an hour through April, creating a $25 million hardship fund and granting two weeks of paid sick leave to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Those changes fall short of demands outlined in a petition for coronavirus protections from Amazon, including time-and-a-half pay, childcare pay and subsidies for workers impacted by school and daycare closures, paid sick leave without a requirement for positive diagnosis, and complete facility shutdowns in order to sanitize warehouses where workers test positive for COVID-19.

Last week, a Queens delivery hub reopened the day after an employee tested positive, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at a U.S. Amazon facility.

Workers say that the standard precautions—stand at least six-feet apart, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching surfaces that might be contaminated—are almost impossible to follow inside crowded facilities. The volume of packages they’re handling has peaked, and the goods they’re moving are heavier.

“At the same time that they’ve been telling us to work more safely and sanitize our stations, they’ve raised productivity quotas,” said a worker at the Queens facility station who asked to remain anonymous. “Some people still have trouble hitting them even if they’re not washing their hands, and they’re not giving us extra time to wash our hands.”

Chicago Amazon employees have set up a mutual aid fund to support workers who they say are struggling to make ends meet during the crisis.

“While Amazon has publicly announced a policy to give workers sick/quarantine pay, several of our coworkers under CDC-advised self-quarantine due to medical status or recent travel are still getting the run-around by Amazon and have thus far not been able to get that pay,” they write on the page. “We will fight until we get it, but in the meantime funds are running low for medicine, food, baby supplies, and rent.”

Last week, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos, urging him to grant workers sick leave and hazard pay. The letter also poses questions about precautions Amazon is taking, with a March 26 deadline to respond.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Americans who are taking every precaution … might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

Everyone can get coronavirus, but economic inequality means it will be worst for those at the bottom

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is avatar_2563.jpg

Coronavirus doesn’t spare the powerful. As of this writing, two members of the Housea senator, and the president of Harvard University have tested positive. But as with so many things in the unequal United States of America, it’s going to be worse for people who are already vulnerable: low-income people, people in rural areas, homeless people, single parents, inmates, and more.

There’s the constant strain of affording health care in a system that bankrupts so many people. There’s the need to go to work no matter what if you live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have paid sick leave. There’s the fact that so many of those low-wage jobs require face-to-face contact.

COVID-19 disproportionately hits older people, and rural populations skew old. The most common jobs in rural areas tend not to offer paid sick leave. Rural areas have also lost more than 100 hospitals in the past decade, so the remaining hospitals may struggle to keep up with increased need even more than hospitals in other areas of the country—where it’s already expected to be bad.

We’re told that staying away from other people and washing our hands a lot are two of the best ways to combat the spread of coronavirus. Homeless people lack access to sanitation and often live in crowded environments, be they shelters or encampments. Inmates are another group living in crowded environments and prisons often lack soap as well.

In the workplace, a Politico analysis found that nearly 24 million people are in particularly high-risk, low-wage jobs—cashiers, home health aides, paramedics. Their jobs require them to get close to lots of people day after day, and all too often lack paid sick leave.

Low-income people also can’t stockpile food and retreat to their homes to ride it out—because most don’t have the savings to buy two weeks of food all at once. Families whose kids rely on free or reduced-price school lunches may still have access to those meals, but they are likely to have to go out every day to pick up the food. And many say that their school districts haven’t told them where to go for meals.

Anyone can get sick from COVID-19. Anyone can get very sick from it. But that doesn’t mean the suffering will be evenly distributed. 

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 24, 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.

Trump administration wants states to zip their lips about soaring unemployment numbers

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is avatar_2563.jpg

Unemployment is skyrocketing as entire industries shut down or scale back dramatically in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment claims rose 30% last week, with 281,000 newly jobless people filing for unemployment insurance. But the numbers that are still to come are going to be much worse. How much worse? Well, the Labor Department is asking states not to give any numbers until the official report comes out, because the financial markets will see and it will be bad.

On Wednesday, the Labor Department’s administrator of the Office of Employment Insurance (a career official, not a political appointee) sent state officials an email telling them to “provide information using generalities to describe claims levels (very high, large increase).” Perhaps state officials should pay a visit to Thesaurus.com for some help, and tell the public, “We can’t give you exact numbers here, but there has been an enormous/giant/gigantic/hefty/huge increase in unemployment claims this week. For exact numbers, wait until the federal government releases them next week.” That will surely ease anxieties!

Washington state’s new unemployment claims rose by 150% last week—and while officials there aren’t giving numbers, they did say there’s an “even more dramatic increase this week.” In Pennsylvania, a state labor official told lawmakers and union leaders that there had been 180,000 new unemployment claims in recent days. That’s more than the state typically sees in a month.

It sounds like we might need to go back to the thesaurus to convey the magnitude of the job losses going on. How about gargantuan? Immense? Massive?

Or maybe—here’s a thought—numbers. Waiting until Thursday to know the scope of the economic crisis is not going to calm anyone down. We saw that when Donald Trump attempted to downplay the coronavirus crisis because he was worried about how the markets would respond, and the markets tanked anyway. Everyone knows things are really, really, really bad out there. Knowing that the government is being transparent would at least be one piece of good news.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 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.

Worried Call Center Workers Do Not Understand Why They Are Risking Their Lives for Customer Service

Image result for Hamilton Nolan

As the coronavirus has shuttered swaths of America’s offices, many workers in corporate call centers say they are still expected to work, risking their own health. Call centers have been deemed “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security, but employees with little paid sick leave say they feel forced to work, in constant fear of infection, in order to keep customer service lines functioning smoothly.

Late last week, as states from coast to coast closed businesses in order to try to restrain the spread of the disease, call center workers across the country told In These Times that their jobs were continuing. Many said that the policies instituted by their employers were wildly insufficient for protecting employees from the scale and danger of this pandemic. One person who works as a customer service rep at a Kansas call center for the government contractor Maximus, said that employees were told late last week that they could apply for leave for childcare reasons after schools shut down, but that the process was broken.

“After applying online I immediately received an email from Maximus saying that I didn’t qualify for the leave. My supervisor told me to talk to human capital (that’s what they call HR now) about it, but they wouldn’t speak to me. They said they would only take appointments. I applied for an appointment twice and got no response,” the employee said on Friday. “We were also told to tell our supervisors if we were sick. I have symptoms of a cold right now, which I relayed to my supervisor. We assumed they were going to send everyone who was sick home, but human capital never responded. And I’m still scheduled to go into work tomorrow.”

Cassie Ludwig, who works at a Maximus call center in Kentucky, said that she is required to work 30 hours a week to qualify for health insurance, and now she fears losing it when she needs it most. “I got a schedule change because the schools in our area are closed due to COVID-19, but if I don’t work the minimum hours and fall ill, I won’t be able to afford treatment.” (A Maximus spokesperson said that the company’s updated sick leave grants up to 80 hours of paid leave to employees who are self-quarantined or forced to care for sick family members, and that “if an employee needs to take COVID related leave their health insurance coverage continues.”)

Several call center workers for Wells Fargo spent last week grasping for clarity on whether they could keep themselves safe without facing unemployment. Last Wednesday, an employee at a Wells Fargo call center in Minneapolis was desperate enough that she was emailing any news outlets she could find, concerned about the health of her husband, who was working in conditions she said were “definitely closer than they should be.” Her husband was later granted 14 days of paid sick leave due to a health condition, but other employees at the call center remain on the job.

There was similar uncertainty in other locations, according to Patrick Creaven, a member of the Committee for Better Banks who works at a Wells Fargo “contact center” in Concord, California that handles customer service. At the end of last week, Creaven said, some though not all of the several hundred employees in the building were told they could work from home—theoretically. “My colleagues and I in the Social Care department could work from home if we were given laptops, but they are currently not available. We’ve been told the bank is working on securing them for us, but there’s a backlog,” he said. “Overall, the workplace this week is very similar to the workplace we had pre-coronavirus.”

Creaven said that he and his colleagues are typically given three paid sick leave days a year; Wells Fargo has told them that if they test positive for coronavirus, or are deemed to be at high risk as defined by the CDC, they can file to receive 14 days of paid leave.

“Some Wells Fargo employees who support critical operations, including contact centers, must be onsite in order to serve our customers,” said Wells Fargo spokesman John Hobot. “As the situation evolves quickly, we continue to explore alternatives, and are taking significant actions to ensure the safety of our team while ensuring customers are provided the services they need.” He added that the company is updating policies, “including benefit enhancements specifically for employees directly affected by coronavirus through illness or school closures.”

A steady theme from call center employees over the past week has been that the reactive measures taken by their employers in response to the pandemic have not been enough to reassure them that they are not placing their lives on the line for their relatively low-paying jobs. An employee at a Consumer Cellular call center in Arizona who expressed fear of infection last week told In These Times that he has now left the job, making the calculation that the health risk was too great. “I am of the opinion that states like mine that are oversaturated with mega call centers are putting an untold number of lives at risk by allowing them to continue to operate,” he said.

Call center workers themselves are the strongest believers that they should all be working from home, rather than being forced to choose between coming into crowded offices or lose their livelihoods. “We need to be allowed to work from home to prevent people from catching the virus, as a precautionary measure—not as a reactionary one,” said the Wells Fargo worker Patrick Creaven. “I’m very worried. Government agencies have told us to ‘shelter-in-place’ to prevent the spread of the virus. Going into a building with hundreds of people in it, opening the same doors and touching the same elevator buttons, has suddenly become terrifying. I feel like it’s not a matter of if, but when someone becomes sick.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 23, 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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

OSHA Needs A Prescription for Safety Now

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is conway1.png

Kimberly Delbrune-Mitter, a cardiac nurse, cares deeply about her patients and remains steadfast in her desire to help them, even as COVID-19 spreads across America.

What plagues her about the new disease isn’t that she might encounter it. It’s the lack of guidance, vital information that would help her balance quality care and her own health.

Medical professionals looking to the Trump administration for leadership will hear nothing but a resounding silence.

Instead, people on the front lines have to fight for their own health and safety even while they care for their patients.

A group of labor unions, including the United Steelworkers (USW), last week sent Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a petition demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implement an emergency safety standard to protect health care workers, first responders and others at risk of contracting the virus on the job.

The unions and the workers they represent want OSHA to specify the types of equipment employers must provide and the procedures they must follow to keep workers safe.

For hospitals, this could mean providing doctors, nurses and others with the most advanced facemasks on the market. It could mean minimizing the number of people who enter a patient’s room, screening workers for sickness at the start of their shifts or providing staff members with a vaccine when one becomes available.

So far, they’ve received no response.

While the Trump administration fiddles, hundreds of health care workers already are quarantined because of possible exposure to COVID-19, and many others have questions about how to do their jobs without contracting the disease.

“Do we need to wear eye shields? Do we need hair caps? Do we need gowns?” asked Delbrune-Mitter, president of USW Local 9620, which represents about 500 nurses in New Jersey.

Right now, each hospital, clinic and doctor’s office is largely free to take whatever precautions it wants. At some hospitals, nurses cite a lack of personal protective equipment like facemasks and say their employers haven’t even told them how to identify patients who might have the disease.

If large numbers of health care workers get sick or quarantined, the whole treatment system could collapse.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) struck Toronto in 2003, health care professionals became the biggest victims, making up 45 percent of those infected. A doctor and two nurses died. The city’s hospitals were so poorly prepared for infection control that they became breeding grounds for the disease, the very places where most people contracted it.

Clearly communicated safety precautions for COVID-19 will prevent a similar catastrophe limiting medical personnel on the job at a time they’re crucially needed.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time health care workers had to lead OSHA to provide common-sense protections in the face of a deadly disease.

HIV struck seemingly out of nowhere more than 30 years ago, battering patients’ immune systems before killing them. Unsure how it spread and fearful of the future, health care workers risked their own lives to treat the victims.

Research soon showed that HIV is spread through an infected person’s blood. Health care workers risked infection when they accidentally got stuck by a needle or when a patient’s blood got into a cut or scrape. Other serious diseases like hepatitis B are spread the same way, and workers demanded that OSHA set standards so they would remain safe on the job.

OSHA implemented those measures, known as the bloodborne pathogens standard, in 1991 and revised them several years later.

Workers made this happen.

Among other provisions, the standard requires that needles be equipped with safety devices that cover or retract them immediately after use.

Employers must provide gloves and other personal protective equipment to workers, decontaminate surfaces any time they’re touched by blood or other fluids, and track accidental needle sticks. Needles and other sharp objects must be discarded in puncture-proof containers. These provisions protect patients as well as health care workers.

Some hospitals opposed the bloodborne pathogen rules because they didn’t want to shell out a few extra bucks to keep workers safe.

But the standard’s effectiveness cannot be denied.  Since it was implemented, HIV and hepatitis B infections among health care workers plummeted.

Even after OSHA imposed the standard, health care workers continued fighting to make their workplaces safer.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick in New Jersey, that meant looking for new ways to further reduce the accidental needle sticks that can transmit HIV and hepatitis.

Nurses represented by USW Local 4-200 tested various syringes, lancets and IV insertion tips, then began using the ones they considered least likely to cause accidental sticks. Between 2010 and 2014, the hospital reduced needlestick injuries by 70 percent, an achievement that won the nurses recognition in a national health care journal.

These kinds of safety measures are the result of workers’ and unions’ relentless fight for health and safety.

The USW and other unions began pressuring OSHA for an infectious disease standard long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

Their demand for infectious disease controls goes back years, amid outbreaks of other diseases, including SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 flu in 2009, that exposed the nation’s lack of readiness for epidemics.

OSHA’s top officials finally put an infectious disease standard on their to-do list. Then Donald Trump, an enemy of industry regulation and worker safety, took office. OSHA suddenly put infectious disease control on the back burner.

That delay now haunts the nation. The federal government and health care organizations are as poorly prepared for an epidemic as workers knew they’d be.

Delbrune-Mitter said the lack of clear safety direction from federal officials leads some staff members to mine TV and the internet for information.

“We don’t really know what’s true,” she said.

This article was originally printed in Our Future on March 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).

Corona and Class Warfare Part II: Stopping a Multi-Dollar CEO Pension Tax Break

jonathan-tasini

Last week I asked everyone to consider the coronavirus pandemic as a pretty clarifying picture of class warfare—who are the people who get hurt most when millions of jobs go away or at best are in limbo because of a nationwide shutdown? It’s working people, minimum wage workers, service workers—almost none of whom have enough cash in reserve to pay bills, unlike the rich who have made their wealth by exploiting workers. Who are the people most vulnerable? It’s the people who either have to still go to work or can’t afford to stay at home because they don’t have mandated paid sick leave or family leave, even in a crisis.

Today, as so many of you either hunker down or are living in fear, I talk with one of my favorite and regular guests Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, about a menu of steps the country needs to take to mitigate the devastating health and economic hits workers are taking in the pandemic.

Then, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat from Maryland, joins me to talk about his efforts to protect tens of thousands of federal workers by calling for an expansion of their right to telework during the corona pandemic, as well as his effort with Bernie Sanders to buttress workers’ pensions by ending a multi-billion tax break for CEO retirement plans.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on March 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out more than a decade ago, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays (slacker), with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995). I’m currently working on two news books.

Corona in the Age of Class Warfare; McKayla’s Bid to Knock Out Hoyer

jonathan-tasini

Pandemics might be one of the single best mass events to shine a light on class warfare, especially in the U.S. Rich people don’t have to worry about getting sick—they can afford extensive care in a country in which millions of working-class people can’t even afford to see a doctor for a run-of-the-mill reason. If a rich person gets sick, well, he can just sit home in his pajamas for as long as needed and never worry about paying next week’s rent, while a fast food worker or other service worker on an hourly wage is forced to go to work, even when sick.

What the corona virus has shown, quite sharply and clearly, is that a country without paid sick leave is not only an immoral society but also, on a practical level, a country which denies the most basic benefits that could contain a health threat—which is what I talk about today with Judy Conti, government affairs director for the National Employment Law Project.

Then, you probably can’t find many people in Congress who are bigger shills for the corporate world than Steny Hoyer—and McKayla Wilkes is aiming to send Hoyer quickly into the world he really aspires to, that of a lobbyist for corporations. I talk with her today about her primary challenge.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on March 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out more than a decade ago, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays (slacker), with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995). I’m currently working on two news books.

What Workers Have Already Won in the Face of Coronavirus

Image result for mindy isser

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the stark reality of the United States: our inadequate, for-profit health care system, our precarious employment conditions, and the deep inequality that is foundational to our society. But it’s also shown us that when things get dire enough, the working class fights back. Over the last few weeks, in dealing with the outbreak of the coronavirus, people across the United States have organized at their workplaces, and also won major reforms in the housing sector. Workers’ consciousness about the cruelty of our profit-driven society—and about their own power—is being raised by the day, thanks to the failure of government leadership. While it’s likely that we will enter a recession or even depression soon, workers are still fighting for what they deserve—and that struggle must continue after the pandemic passes.

While many workers have lost hours or even been laid off in the last few weeks, others have made advances in various industries amid the crisis, including securing paid time off and health and safety guarantees. Teachers in New York City forced Mayor Bill De Blasio to close city schools under threat of a mass sick-out, workers shut down a Chrysler plant near Detroit over concerns about how the company was dealing with the virus, and workers at McDonald’s won 14 days of paid sick leave, albeit only at corporate stores which account for about 5% of the fast food giants’ restaurants.

In Philadelphia, city library workers moved a petition among themselves, patrons and the larger community to demand both the closure of public libraries and paid time off for all workers, even those who are not members of the union. The petition dropped in the morning on Monday, March 16, and by Tuesday evening, it had over 4,000 signatures, and the workers won their demands. Terra Oliveira, an after-school leader at the Philadelphia Free Library, told In These Times, “Our access to paid leave and our basic rights shouldn’t be something that we have to fight for every single time there’s a crisis.” Non-union library workers have been organizing with their union colleagues for about a year, building the infrastructure necessary to deal with our current crisis.

Similarly, the housing movement has long fought for moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs. Both have felt like far-off possibilities, the absolute peak of what we could win in a perfect storm of political will and power. But Tara Raghuveer, campaign director of the Homes Guarantee Plan at People’s Action, told In These Times that “the pandemic is showing us what has always been possible, and what that means is that it’s always been possible to end the practice of eviction.” Because of the seriousness of coronavirus, organizers and activists have won either moratoriums on evictions or utility shut-offs in cities and states across the country, including Philadelphia, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. The coronavirus crisis is revealing what was true before: It is unconscionable to abandon people who are houseless or without work.  “This has opened up tremendous space to ask for more and win more,” Raghuvver said.

The apparent ease with which these long fought for reforms were granted demonstrates that it is—and has always been—well within the power of the state and corporations to acquiesce to our demands. It also shows that it isn’t the benevolence of politicians and CEOs that has secured these victories, but worker organizing. If workers hadn’t been demanding paid sick time and eviction moratoriums for years, we never would have won them now. “Now that these demands have been won during this emergency crisis, there is so much more solidarity and communication among library workers that wasn’t there before. We will continue to fight,” said library worker Oliveira.

The state spends exorbitant amounts of money when it’s capital that’s feeling the pain, a fact illustrated by the dramatic financial actions being taken or considered to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic: a $1.5 trillion loan by the Federal Reserve to inject into capital markets; an $8 billion spending package to fight the coronavirus; and a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill being considered at the time of this writing. These options obliterate the notion that money doesn’t exist to pay for programs like a Green New Deal, free college, free childcare, housing for all and various other social programs.

When it comes to spending to meet the needs of the millions of ordinary people who are hurting right now, politicians can’t muster the will. While the Democratic Party postures as recognizing and responding to this need in contrast to Trump, the proposals they’ve so far offered have been offensively mediocre and inadequate. H.R. 6201, trumpeted by Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, offers paid sick leave benefits to only 20% of U.S. private sector workers—a figure that does not include informal economy workers. Former presidential candidate Kamala Harris also promoted a bill she had introduced that would give workers $500 each month—a pittance compared to the $2,000 per month cash payments to U.S. households floated by sen. Bernie Sanders.

We are heading into almost unprecedented economic territory—a potential 20% unemployment rate if our leaders don’t act now. More and more workers are facing the prospect of losing hours and even being laid off, as many major cities, municipalities and states impose shut downs for businesses except those classified as essential industries. Already, nearly one in five U.S. workers reports losing hours or work altogether since the onset of the coronavirus crisis earlier this month. We can expect that number to balloon in coming weeks and months as the public health crisis—and the ensuing economic crisis—continues to deepen. 

Some are trying using this crisis to fortify the tyrannical power employers have over workers’ lives. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz just suspended some collective bargaining rights for state employees, citing the need for “flexibility… during this peacetime emergency.” As workers unite to demand what we’ve always deserved, and the crisis deepens, some politicians and bosses will undoubtedly use this as an opportunity to ram through more neoliberal reforms that dismantle our rights and public institutions.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that in times of economic hardship, workers have the least power and leverage based on the scarcity of jobs and desperation for whatever we can get to provide for ourselves and our families. But strike activity and worker organizing is on the rise, the Bernie Sanders campaign program is raising political expectations, and workers are winning in the face of this pandemic. It’s reasonable to believe that when things “return to normal”—if that ever happens—politicians and bosses will attempt to take back all that we’ve won. They’ll try to strip paid sick leave from workers, and to reinstate evictions. But we mustn’t let them. Like Oliveira said, “It feels like only the beginning.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


Coronavirus layoffs surge across America, overwhelming unemployment offices

Rebecca Rainey

Employers are slashing jobs at a furious pace across the nation due to mass shutdowns over the coronavirus, slamming state unemployment offices with a crush of filers facing sudden crises.

Long before official government data is expected to reveal the depths of the economic shock inflicted by the coronavirus, reports from state officials and businesses around the country indicate the gathering of a massive wave of unemployment on a scale unseen since the Great Recession.

In New Jersey, 15,000 people applied for unemployment benefits on Monday, a twelvefold increase over normal levels. In Connecticut, nearly 8,000 applications arrived over the weekend, an eightfold increase over the norm. Rhode Island officials reported Tuesday a five-day rise in claims due to the coronavirus from 10 on March 11 to 6,282 on March 16.

More than 45,000 Ohio workers have applied for unemployment over the past week, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services told Sen. Rob Portman, a nearly sevenfold increase over the previous week.

The dramatic rise in claims could spur further action by Congress beyond the legislation now under discussion. “This demonstrates the urgency for Congress to act, and act quickly,” Portman said Tuesday in a written statement.

According to an NPR/Marist poll conducted Thursday and Friday, 18 percent of households already reported someone being laid off or having hours reduced because of the coronavirus outbreak, with women hit harder (21 percent) than men (16 percent), and people who earn less than $50,000 hit harder (25 percent) than those earning $50,000 or more (14 percent).

“A coronavirus recession is inevitable,” said Josh Bivens, director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, in a blog post. He estimated that at least 3 million jobs will be lost by summer. Meanwhile, the U.S. Travel Association was projecting 4.6 million jobs lost this year in the travel industry alone, pushing the unemployment rate up to 6.3 percent.

The layoffs swept businesses large and small. On Tuesday Marriott said it expects to lay off tens of thousands of workers worldwide. MGM Resorts International on Monday closed 150 restaurants and bars, with more closings to come; Caesars Entertainment Corp. said it also has begun layoffs. In D.C., Compass Coffee, a local Starbucks competitor, laid off most of its 189 employees, and the Dubliner, a popular Irish bar on Capitol Hill, laid off all of them, leaving the place empty on St. Patrick’s Day.

During the past 48 hours, unemployment insurance offices around the country were flooded with phone calls, and state unemployment websites crashed in KentuckyOregon, and New York.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill late Tuesday were racing toward a deal with the White House on an economic stimulus package to aid industries disrupted by the pandemic, and ironing out the details on a separate coronavirus aid package.

But many state unemployment insurance programs are ill-prepared for the downturn. Twenty-two states and jurisdictions, including California, New York, Illinois and Texas, have dangerously low reserves, and 10 have reduced the number of weeks they offer benefits since the 2007-09 Great Recession. The duration of eligibility for unemployment insurance in any given state won’t be affected by the legislation moving through Congress.

With the Trump administration and other nations considering travel restrictions, and more Americans pulling back on nonessential trips, the travel and hospitality industries have been among the first to see job cuts.

“We are adjusting global operations accordingly,” a Marriott spokesperson said in an emailed statement, “which has meant either reduction in hours or a temporary leave for many of our associates at our properties.” The spokesperson said that employees “will keep their health benefits during this difficult period and continue to be eligible for company- paid free short-term disability that provides income protection should they get sick.”

Several airlines have cut back service, and Delta recently announced a hiring freeze in the wake of the outbreak.

Ian Kullgren contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on March 17, 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.

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.