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States scramble to contain Covid spikes without enough workers to track outbreaks

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The failure to stage the tracing workforce harks back to U.S. officials’ inability to build up adequate testing in the early days of the pandemic.

Severe shortages of public health workers to track disease spread helped fuel coronavirus spikes in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona and could make it harder to stamp out new hot spots.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has about 10 percent of the 15,000 workers needed to contain the outbreak in his state, according to one widely cited simulatorand plans to hire just 600 more. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has 3,000 of the 4,000 tracers he said he wanted to hire in late April. And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey called up 300 National Guard members to fill the surveillance gap, more than a month after he lifted his stay-at-home order.

The failure to stage the tracing workforce harks back to U.S. officials’ inability to build up adequate testing in the early days of the pandemic and is increasing the likelihood that states will be forced to shut down their economies again to stop serious disease spread.

“This [tracing] situation is a disaster,” Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), whose Phoenix-area district is being swamped with new cases, wrote in a letter to officials in Maricopa County and Ducey on Thursday. “From late March until early June, those who may have been exposed to an infected patient received no outreach at all from public health officials.”

Ashish Jha, faculty director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, said there’s been little real interest in building the testing, tracing and isolation needed to contain the coronavirus, making the model difficult to apply as rolling outbreaks cross the nation. States “don’t have anywhere near the testing and tracing capacity needed to really get this disease under control,” Jha said.

Public health officials two months ago estimated it would take at least 100,000 contact tracers to safely reopen the country. But CDC Director Robert Redfield told Congress last week that fewer than 30,000 have been hired so far to interview infected people, identify those with whom they’ve come into contact and persuade those people to self-quarantine.

Redfield told NPR in April that the country could not safely reopen until it scaled up contact tracing, warning, “We can’t afford to have multiple community outbreaks that can spiral up into sustained community transmission.”

The shortfall is being felt in places like North Carolina, another state that’s paused reopenings due to a surge in new cases, which has about 1,500 contact tracers. Health secretary Mandy Cohen told state lawmakers last Wednesday that their program is stretched thin and on Friday selected its first vendor to expand the workforce.

“State economies reopened too soon, and state and local public health departments did not have enough time to get their programs fully implemented,” said David Harvey, executive director of National Coalition of STD Directors, which is advising many states on contact tracing. “Now, they’re continuing to race against the clock to get contact tracing in place, and there’s nowhere near enough people to do the work. It’s really scary.”

Ducey on Thursday defended his efforts, saying Arizona did enhance its contact tracing capability during April’s stay-at-home order. But the spike in daily infections — which have quadrupled since mid-May — overwhelmed the state.

Maricopa County officials say there had been no delay in investigations until recently, when cases soared.

Critics say the failing stems from a lack of direction from the Trump administration, which has left reopening decisions to states and released guidance on contact tracing weeks after state efforts were launched. That’s left sizable state-to-state disparities in readiness.

“President Trump’s refusal to focus on testing and contact tracing and the general absence of any leadership led to disastrous failures in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement to POLITICO.

Democratic lawmakers are pushing the Trump administration to quickly distribute $8 billion Congress approved weeks ago to fortify contact tracing programs. While the administration has already released $11 billion for state testing and tracing, Democrats say further delay on the remaining funds has left states inadequately prepared to deal with new spikes in infections.

Reports from the front lines bear that out.

Jennifer Kertanis, the director of the Farmington Valley Health District in Canton, Conn., told POLITICO her department only received $40,000 in federal aid and was told that would have to do until next March.

“We’ve already pretty much spent all of that money on equipment to allow staff to work safely from home and on overtime,” she said. “We have not had the money to hire anybody. We’ve been training the existing staff that we have had and shuffling duties around. We’ve been using pen and paper and Excel spreadsheets because we’ve never had the resources to invest.”

Lawmakers in the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses last week grilled Redfield over the lack of federal leadership on contact tracing. He said the CDC is currently reviewing plans states developed. But several lawmakers pointed out that states were already using these plans and that assistance from the agency is too little, too late.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) told POLITICO she found the information “really worrisome.”

“Are they really leaving it up to the states to have a contact tracer plan? Who’s going to enforce a contact tracer plan?” she said. “As we know, the states vary so much in terms of whether they take COVID-19 seriously.”

The CDC did not respond to multiple requests for comment and did not say when the agency will give feedback on states’ plans.

Despite ongoing challenges with funding, logistics and federal support, some states have built successful programs.

Hawaii, which is now seeing only a handful of new infections, increased its contact tracing staff in the last month from around 80 to more than 300 — and more than 1,400 have signed up to be trained if needed.

Gov. David Ige told POLITICO that the state, learning from past outbreaks including SARS, has been able to track every positive case so far, and that the vast majority of individuals have been willing to share information about their contacts.

“People don’t want to get their friends and neighbors sick,” he said.

Oregon also has a robust program that is currently contacting more than 90 percent of new infections within 24 hours.

But elsewhere, officials are still putting together their tracing programs months after stay-at-home orders were lifted — and training new hires as spikes threaten to overwhelm local health systems. Even those states that have hired hundreds or thousands of people have struggled to find new infections quickly and elicit useful information.

In New York City, which opened restaurants on Monday, contact tracers last week received phone numbers for about 85 percent of newly infected people, but less than half of those people provided information on their recent contacts.

New Jersey, one of the hardest hit states, has brought on almost no new contact tracers since the pandemic began. The state has roughly 900 and needs somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday. The state’s digital platform to track the program is only running in two counties, so statewide data on how successful the program has been so far is not yet available.

Houston, the latest epicenter, is still working to hire and train 150 contact tracers by July 1.

Kirstin Short, chief of the Epidemiology Bureau at the Houston Health Department, told POLITICO that not only has her team struggled to handle the volume of cases, but it’s been a challenge to convince the Covid-positive people they reach to share information about those they may have exposed.

“Now that they know they’re sick, they might have some guilt over what they did in terms of going out and socializing,” she said.

Meanwhile, tracking apps once billed as a key tool in reopenings have largely flopped both in the U.S. and abroad. Among the barriers are low smartphone and Wi-Fi access among low-income communities and the elderly — two groups at the highest risk from the virus — poor information sharing between states and widespread distrust of big tech and government surveillance.

North Dakota, for instance, is pushing two different apps that purport to alert users when they were around someone who tested positive, but so far, only four percent of the population has downloaded it — far too little to be a useful public health tool.

Alexander Miamen, a contact tracer in Boston since March, said technology can play a role but it will only be successful if it’s supplemented by well-trained health workers who understand the people they are contacting.

“A high-tech app cannot express empathy,” he said. “One of the most vulnerable times in anyone’s life is when they are ill.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Goldberg is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro covering health care politics and policy in the states. He previously covered New York State health care for POLITICO New York.

About the Author: Alice Ollstein is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering the Capitol Hill beat. Prior to joining POLITICO, she covered federal policy and politics for Talking Points Memo.


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Cities Brace For ‘Collision Course’ Of Heat Waves And COVID-19

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Aaron McCullough brought his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, to a playground in a leafy neighborhood of Rochester, New York, on a day in mid-June when the temperature topped out at 94 degrees.

The playground is one of seven spray parks in the city that offer cooling water whenever temperatures exceed 85 degrees.

Except during a pandemic.

“I was hoping that one of these water parks could open up and at least spray a little bit of water on us,” McCullough said.

Instead, he said, sweat dripping off his face, “there’s no water around at all.”

All of the city’s spray parks and air-conditioned cooling centers were shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Gathering in close proximity and engaging in physically strenuous behavior like running around the spray park appears to be a likely possibility for transmission,” said city spokesperson Justin Roj.

McCullough had bought Ariana a milkshake before they came to the park. It melted in his hand as she played on the slide.

“We’re not staying much longer,” he said. “Maybe 10 more minutes. If there were water, we’d be here till sundown.”

Across the country, authorities are finding that their usual strategies for protecting people against heat-related health problems are in direct conflict with their strategies for containing the coronavirus — and with record-breaking temperatures already recorded in some places before summer even officially began, those conflicts are likely to become more frequent.

“COVID-19 and climate change are on a collision course,” said New York City Emergency Management Department spokesperson Omar Bourne.

“There is no question that the challenges we face this summer are unprecedented.”

The balance between preventing COVID-19 and preventing heat-related illnesses is a tough one, experts said.

“I am very grateful that I am not responsible for making that very complicated decision,” said Dr. Andrea Miglani, the medical director of the emergency department at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

The first symptoms of overheating cause what doctors call heat exhaustion. They include heavy sweating, elevated pulse, tiredness, weakness and dizziness.

“But it’s when we cross into heatstroke that we get really worried,” Miglani said. At that point, she said, the body loses its ability to control temperature. The pulse races, sweating stops and fever can cause brain damage.

Miglani said one hot day might result in a slight bump in heat-related hospitalizations, but several hot days can bring cumulative effects, and the death toll can climb. People with underlying health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and those older than 65, are especially at risk — just as with COVID-19.

Making matters worse, movie theaters, libraries and restaurants — places that are normally reliably air-conditioned respites on hot days — aren’t open in many parts of the country, said Miglani.

About 90% of households in the U.S. have air conditioning, according to federal census figures. But access is not evenly distributed. Poor and minority communities tend to suffer disproportionately during heat waves, but they have a much lower prevalence of air conditioning compared with richer, whiter neighborhoods.

The decision about whether and how to open cooling centers during the pandemic needs to happen on a local level, said Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist on the steering committee of the Global Heat Health Information Network.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines for cities and states to deal with the competing problems. Suggestions include offering more assistance for people to pay their utility bills so that they can maintain air conditioning at home, having fever checks for people at cooling centers and a separate room for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, and making masks and hand sanitizers available at the centers. Utility companies could also be required not to cut off anyone’s power during heat emergencies, the CDC suggests.

Across upstate New York, cities kept cooling centers closed earlier this month, even when temperatures surpassed 90 degrees.

In Los Angeles County, officials opened cooling centers when temperatures spiked, but they required masks and limited the number of people who could be inside at one time.

That might offer an example of how to cool off the people most vulnerable to heat-related health problems without drastically increasing the risk of COVID-19, Ebi said.

But, she acknowledged, what works in Los Angeles might not work in other places. “We’ve all got different infrastructure, different access to air conditioning, different public transport systems,” she said.

“The balance of risk is different everywhere,” Ebi said.

There is one piece of the puzzle that doctors said is the same everywhere: checking on friends, family and neighbors.

“This is another time when it’s important to emphasize the difference between social distancing and physical distancing,” said Miglani.

“Give them a call, leave them a note on their door, find out what you can do to help. A lot of times, very simple gestures can go a very long way,” she said.

This blog originally appeared at Kaiser Health News on June 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brett Dahlberg has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Brett grew up in Bremerton, Washington, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.


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Coronavirus is a childcare crisis that could wipe out women’s progress toward equality

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The coronavirus pandemic has hit working parents hard, and when I say working parents, I mean mostly working mothers. Unemployment is high for everyone, but it’s worse for women than for men, and women are more likely to have left the labor market or to be thinking about quitting their jobs. Relatedly, the brunt of caring for children suddenly at home all day every day is falling on women.

The childcare industry, meanwhile, is suffering, putting more than 325,000 people—overwhelmingly women, and nearly half Black, Asian, or Latino—out of work since February. If childcare centers go out of business, as threatens to happen without government help, then those women’s jobs remain gone, and other women’s ability to work is threatened by the disproportionate amount of child care they end up shouldering. The case for a major government funding program could not be clearer, but somehow it hasn’t happened.

Democrats have introduced a $50 billion aid bill in both the House and the Senate, but a month later, childcare workers and centers along with parents who need child care are all still waiting on that. The CARES Act directed some money to Child Care and Development Block Grants and to Head Start, and the HEROES Act would send more to Child Care and Development Block Grants, but that would still leave out much of the industry. And while childcare providers are theoretically eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, many haven’t been able to get those loans and the program doesn’t meet their needs in any case.

Even some congressional Republicans—mostly women—recognize the need for some kind of action. Sens. Joni Ernst and Kelly Loeffler (both of them facing challenging elections this fall) have proposed $25 billion for childcare providers. And Rep. Jackie Walorski recently explained the issue very clearly. 

If childcare centers shut down, “parents in all industries will be unable to go back to work, significantly slowing our own economic recovery,” she said. That means “Childcare is exactly the type of smart investment we should be prioritizing as we safely reopen and rebuild America’s economy.”

While Congress drags its feet, largely but not entirely thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, women are bearing an immense burden. For women in two-income families, it’s one kind of burden—that of trying to do paid work while taking on the lion’s share of child care as well. There are some toweringly shitty men out there, but this is a structural issue, not just a question of individual relationships. As much of an emergency as this is for women in two-income families, though, “in families headed by single mothers, there’s often simply no one else to take on the responsibility,” Prism’s Ashton Lattimore wrote last month. “That makes childcare availability all the more critical, especially for mothers of color like Cecilia, who is Mexican American, as women of color are more likely to be their household’s primary earner or a co-breadwinner.”

Virtually everyone is struggling in the pandemic, but child care shows us how unevenly the challenges fall. Women are hit harder than men. Black women and other women of color are hit harder than white women. And if it doesn’t get fixed, the consequences will be dire. “We need to stabilize the childcare system or we won’t have a robust economic recovery,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. “Not getting this stuff in place will mean women will be the ones who are more likely to have to stay home,” said the Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz—and if women who have previously worked are pushed to stay home while hundreds of thousands of jobs disappear from an industry dominated by women and with many many Black, Asian, and Latina workers, decades of efforts toward equality get wiped out.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Business groups fear Trump’s extended curb on foreign workers will backfire

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Business, trade and free market groups say the restrictions will stymie job creation, decrease competitiveness, and perhaps slow economic recovery.

Business leaders fear that President Donald Trump’s extension of restrictions on foreign worker visas could backfire on the limping economy.

Business, trade and free market groups contend the restrictions — which took effect Wednesday — will stymie job creation, decrease competitiveness and potentially slow the recovery, despite the administration’s predictions that they would free up 525,000 jobs for Americans over the remainder of the year.

“It’s going to be very disruptive to a whole lot of companies. … This is going to be bad for job growth, it’s going to be bad for economic growth,” said Jon Baselice, executive director of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Visa recipients help drive growth and create jobs, he said, “and that’s going to help get us out of the economic situation that we find ourselves in.”

Trump on Monday announced he was extending restrictions that bar most categories of foreign workers through the end of the year, citing “expanding unemployment and the number of Americans who are out of work.”

Critics say the move is shortsighted.

“This order will have catastrophic negative economic consequences on the United States … and generally slow the economic recovery,” Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told POLITICO, specifically citing H-1B visas for skilled workers.

“H-1Bs are much more likely to patent, and to innovate,” he said, which creates “new businesses, new productivity, [and] new job opportunities for Americans.”

But in the other corner, anti-immigration groups, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have hailed the move as Trump putting American workers “first.”

The executive order applies to H-1B visas, a program frequently used by the tech industry that allows U.S. employers to temporarily hire non-immigrant workers in high-skilled specialty occupations, as well as H-4 visas for spouses of H-1B workers. It also applies to L visas, which allow companies to transfer a manager or specialized worker from a foreign office to a U.S. office; most J visas for work- and study-exchange programs; and most H-2B visas for temporary non-agricultural workers.

Attorneys say the administration’s targeting of the H-1B and L visa categories is creating anxiety within the business community as it struggles to climb out of the pandemic-induced recession.

“These are the people who ultimately create jobs, entrepreneurial people,” said Mark Koestler, an immigration attorney at Kramer Levin. “In a time when our economy needs to recover and needs a boost, we’re cutting out an important part of the workforce that will really help the recovery,”

“These are C suite people and to keep out a president of a company that employs hundreds if not thousands of U.S. citizens makes zero sense,” he added.

The critics say the types of workers who will be frozen out by the order — those with specialized skills, foreign executives and seasonal workers who work in industries such as landscaping, housekeeping and construction — are in jobs that won’t be easily filled by American workers.

Andrew Greenfield, a partner at the immigration law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, said his clients, which include large tech companies, are still struggling to find university-educated professionals to fill jobs, despite the 13.3 percent unemployment rate notched in May.

“Notwithstanding some of the economic devastation that we’re facing with high unemployment,” Greenfield said, “they’re not seeing the technical professional-level workforce impacted the same way.”

The unemployment rate in parts of the tech industry is far below the national jobless rate, according to some statistics, indicating a tight job market.

An analysis by the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy found that the share of some unemployed tech workers has actually declined during the pandemic.

Workers in computer occupations saw a 2.5 percent unemployment rate last month, a decline from 3 percent in January, NFAP’s analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found.

But in total, the BLS estimates 21 million Americans were unemployed in May, a figure the Trump administration and its anti-immigration allies have seized on to justify the additional restrictions.

One such group, NumbersUSA, contends American employers could use the executive order to “broaden their recruitment efforts into historically underserved communities and prove that Americans will do those jobs.”

Business groups fear ramifications beyond just filling jobs. They say the freeze could decrease America’s competitiveness, because the restrictions on L visas mean foreign-based companies will no longer be able to easily send their executives to the U.S. when those companies invest here.

“American companies, American executives are all over the world, and we would not want to see reciprocal action that would prevent an American executive from running the division in a foreign country,” said Robyn Boerstling of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“From our vantage point, it is really tying the hands of employers and those of those who support job creation,” she said of the order. “We want talented individuals to come to our country, and we want to have a competitive advantage in the United States.”

The order only applies to those seeking visas from outside the United States. So applicants who were still waiting for approval when the order went into effect Wednesday morning will be out of luck unless they are already in the United States, attorneys say.

“If you weren’t in the United States as of June 24 or already had a visa as of June 24, you’re banned from getting that visa and coming into the United States by the end of the year,” Greenfield explained.

However, Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, notes that a high rate of H-1B visas were issued to individuals already in the U.S. in 2019. He suggests that program may see less of a reduction under the order, because of that trend.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Unemployment claims worse than expected as nation hits 14th week with more than 1 million claims

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At the beginning of March, the number of new unemployment claims for the week actually fell to 216,000 as economists collectively breathed a sigh of relief that there appeared to be no surge in unemployment related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next week, the nation saw over 6.6 million claims. That was also the start of 13 straight weeks of over 1 million applications for unemployment benefits.

Make that 14. On Thursday the latest figures were released, showing 1.48 million people filed for initial unemployment benefits. Not only is that a wince-inducing number, it’s also higher than the 1.35 million that had been predicted. There are some areas of the economy that show some signs of recovery, but those are rare. Despite the sacrifice of lives and health to “reopening,” employment appears to be trudging down a long, dark slope. Even a million claims is a sign of an extraordinarily unhealthy economy, and 1.48 million is just plain awful.

To understand just how bad these numbers are, compare with the Great Recession, where the peak week saw 695,000 new claims. When a chart comparing that recession with this one first appeared in late March, it came loaded with warnings that it wasn’t fair to make the comparison, because the 2008-2009 event involved an increase of claims over a period of several months, and what was seen at the start of the pandemic was only a momentary spike.

That was then. What’s obvious now is that this event is both much more impactful than the Great Recession, and it’s not just one bad week. It’s one horrific week after another. The number this week would be a record—were it not numerous times it was beaten in the last 14 weeks. In the worst week at the end of March, unemployment claims hit 6.6 million. That may make “just” 1.48 million seem less than catastrophic. It’s not.

Right now, the real impact of these lost jobs is being softened—slightly—by extended unemployment payments. However, those emergency benefits expire at the end of July. Democrats in the House have already passed a bill that would extend those benefits and provide a second stimulus check. That bill would also protect Americans against the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment, provide funding for local and tribal healthcare, and expand testing and case tracing to bring the pandemic under control. That bill passed he House in May. Republicans in the Senate have yet to take up the bill.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Sumner is the author of the nonfiction work “The Evolution of Everything” as well as several novels including “Devil’s Tower.”


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A lack of child care is keeping women on unemployment rolls

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Women’s participation in the workforce — which is closely tied to access to child care — has dropped at a faster clip than men’s since the early spring.

A lack of safe and affordable child care amid the coronavirus pandemic is keeping many working parents from returning to the office as more companies call employees back to their jobs — threatening to extend the economic crisis and erode decades of gains for women in the workplace.

The U.S. is experiencing its highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression, even as businesses begin to reopen. More than 20 million American workers are receiving jobless benefits. Another 1.48 million applied for jobless aid last week, the Department of Labor said Thursday.

The burden is disproportionately falling on women, who are more likely to have been laid off, to have left the labor market or to be considering quitting their jobs so they can manage family responsibilities, Labor Department data, academic research and surveys show.

And the problem is on track to only get worse: Continued shutdowns and the need to implement costly safety and social distancing measures are threatening to run so many child care providers out of business that the country could permanently lose an estimated half of its capacity. Between February and April of this year, more than 1 in 3 jobs in child day care services had been erasedbefore the industry began to recover slightly in May, according to Labor Department data.

Left unaddressed, the issue will affect tens of millions of Americans. More than 325,000 child care workers have already lost their jobs since February. And more than 33 million American families have children under the age of 18. In nearly two-thirds of married-couple families with kids, both parents were working as of last year.

President Donald Trump compounded the crisis when he issued an executive order on Monday restricting certain types of foreign worker visas, including J visas used by au pairs, teachers and camp counselors.

Now, economists and industry experts are calling on Congress to funnel billions of dollars into child care, arguing that doing so would have the double-barreled benefit of providing jobs for workers in the industry while allowing working parents to return to the office. That in turn, they say, would leave everyone with more income to spend in their communities — thus accelerating the recovery.

“If you don’t fund this one, many other industries are going to pay a hidden price,” said Art Rolnick, the former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and an expert on child development and social policy.

“You won’t find a better stimulant than this industry,” he added. “That money will get spent, and it will get multiplied in the neighborhood.”

In March, as the pandemic was just getting under way, the unemployment rate for both adult men and women was 4 percent. Two months later, that rate jumped up by 7.6 percentage points for men, but nearly 10 percentage points for women.

Women’s participation in the workforce — which is closely tied to access to child care — has also dropped at a faster clip than men’s since the early spring. While 61 percent of men over the age of 20 were employed in May, less than half of women were, the data show.

“We still live in a world where women shoulder more of the responsibilities for care work,” said Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist at the Labor Department. “Not getting this stuff in place will mean women will be the ones who are more likely to have to stay home.”

Within the child care industry, too, a staggering 93 percent of jobs are held by women, according to Labor Department data, and 45.3 percent are Black, Asian or Latino. Making sure the sector stays afloat — or even strengthens — could have an outsized impact on the economic well-being of those demographics.

“It’ll be crucial that that investment is made so that these are actually decent jobs for the people who are holding them,” said Shierholz, now policy director at the Economic Policy Institute.

More than 100 economists wrote an open letter to Congress this week highlighting the need for at least $50 billion in aid for the child care industry, calling it “an essential precondition for a successful economic recovery.” Congressional Democrats have been pushing the same idea since late May, when Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced the Child Care Is Essential Act.

“This is a crisis,” DeLauro said. “This is not unlike a manufacturing crisis, an airline crisis, all of the other things that are out there.”

“If you cannot make families feel that their kids are going to be safe and secure, in a safe environment, in a learning environment, we’re not going to get our economy back on track,” she said.

DeLauro’s bill would appropriate $50 billion for grants that help child care providers affected by the coronavirus pandemic cover their expenses. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is the lead sponsor of the Senate version.

It’s a level of investment that would be significantly higher than what Congress has previously considered: The CARES Act appropriated $3.5 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants, as well as $750 million for the Head Start program. The HEROES Act, the House-passed Democratic proposal for the next round of aid, would appropriate $7 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants.

“We know that’s not enough,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said. “We need to stabilize the child care system or we won’t have a robust economic recovery.”

“It is a piece — of course, we need to continue with testing and physical distancing and all those other things — but for people going back to work, these are really long-term ramifications if we don’t address this.”

The issue has gained more prominence in recent weeks as every state begins to reopen its doors and Congress continues to debate how best to get employees back to work quickly and safely. Forty-one state and local chambers of commerce called on lawmakers earlier this month to include targeted assistance to child care centers as part of its next coronavirus response package.

Five Democrats, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have written to the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration to ask for clear guidance ensuring that child care providers have access to loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, the government-backed emergency program for small businesses. They cited one analysis showing that family child care homes were seeing an approval rate of roughly 25 percent.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also pledged that the issue “will get very big attention” and that when it comes to the economic recovery and women’s participation in the workforce, child care is “key to it all.”

But the effort will need bipartisan support to be successful, and it remains unclear whether Republicans are willing to sign on.

Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia offered a resolution last month proposing that the next coronavirus relief package include $25 billion for child care providers. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said this week that he would support sending tens of billions of dollars to aid schools and colleges, acknowledging that doing so would help parents and the economy. But he did not comment on child care specifically, and his office did not respond to a request for comment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans have said they want to continue monitoring economic conditions and CARES Act spending before they make decisions on what further stimulus aid might be needed.

In the House, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said on a recent press call with reporters that child care is “an important part of returning to work” and that he would be willing to discuss with Democrats how to maximize the number of child care facilities that can remain open.

At a Ways and Means subcommittee hearing Tuesday focused on the issue, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) went a step further, saying that the forced shutdown of a large portion of child care providers across the country would mean “parents in all industries will be unable to go back to work, significantly slowing our own economic recovery.”

“Child care is exactly the type of smart investment we should be prioritizing as we safely reopen and rebuild America’s economy,” Walorski said.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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Union representing meatpacking workers pushes for more frequent COVID-19 testing

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News broke last week that meatpacking companies exported a record amount of pork to China after using warnings of shortages to get Donald Trump to order them to stay open despite massive coronavirus outbreaks in their plants. Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are not letting that issue go, sending a letter to the CEOs of top meatpacking companies.

Warren and Booker have questions for those CEOs about exports and price increases. “These actions raise questions about the circumstances of the president’s executive order, your honesty with the American public about the reasons for higher food prices, and your commitment to providing a safe, affordable and abundant food supply for the nation,” they wrote in their letter.

Meatpacking plants remain a major concern for coronavirus outbreaks. The United Food and Commercial Workers union is calling for workers to be tested every day, saying workers would be less afraid to go to work if they could “look around the plant, or look around the locker room, or the break room, and … know that everybody inside these walls is COVID-free.” The director of health in Nashville, Tennessee, says that probably isn’t possible, but that workplaces—not just meatpacking plants but nursing homes, construction sites, and others—should conduct random tests so they could quickly get on top of new outbreaks.

That fear remains a serious issue for workers around the country, many of whom face the choice between going to workplaces they don’t consider safe and losing the wages they need to pay their bills. Many of Iowa’s 10,000 refugees from Myanmar work in meatpacking plants and are coming up against exactly that.

”If they don’t go to work, how they will survive? That is a big question,” Pastor Benjamin Sang Bawi told Iowa Public Radio. “And of course every, every family [is] concerned about that.”

Advocates for the refugees also point to racism, with refugees being told “we are the virus,” and to the need for social services and interpreters for a group that speaks 27 languages and dialects. “Families that are self-isolating in their homes need for food delivery. Not a phone number to the food pantry. They need food delivered to their door,” Abigail Sui, of the refugee advocacy group EMBARC, told officials in Waterloo, Iowa.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Respect at Work Has to Become the New Normal: ILO Convention 190 and Rebuilding for a Fairer Economy

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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the direct correlation between the exploitative labor model that fuels our global economy and the systemic racism and discrimination that leads to attacks on Black people’s bodies and lives. It is a system rooted in discrimination and oppression, one that strategically devalues and dehumanizes Black and Brown workers, particularly women. Returning to “normal” is not an option or even desirable—we must instead rebuild an economy designed to meet human needs and protect fundamental rights, including safety and respect on the job.

After years of campaigning by the global labor movement, workers, governments and employers came together June 21, 2019, at the International Labor Organization to negotiate a global standard to end violence and harassment in the world of work. The ILO Convention that resulted from those discussions, C190, was the first international treaty to recognize the right of every worker to be free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment, and the responsibility of governments and employers to ensure safe, respectful workplaces. Uruguay recently became the first country to ratify the convention, and others are soon to follow its lead. One year later, as we confront racial, economic and health crises, the convention takes on an even greater role in addressing the many forms of work-related violence and harassment workers are reporting related to the pandemic. 

With increased incidence of domestic violence and health and safety violations during the current crisis, unions are using the C190 framework to negotiate with employers and governments for policies that address the forms of violence they confront. Female workers throughout the global economy often are the first to lose their jobs as the economy contracts or are forced to work in low-paid positions with few health and safety protections. C190 requires that employers recognize gender-based violence and harassment in their safety and health protections. It is clear the convention provides an important framework for addressing the systemic discrimination and exploitation workers face around the world.

Rebuilding our economy will require that we proactively design and implement systems that empower and protect workers and address systemic power imbalances. As countries shape policies for reopening and rebuilding economies, the C190 framework provides guidance on how to ensure workplaces are safe and address the continuum of violence workers often experience. C190 calls on all governments to address the root causes of violence and harassment at work, including discrimination, and develop strategies to address the underlying factors that support these systems.

Women, particularly women of color, have been on the front lines of the pandemic, many working for very low wages. Overall, front-line workers are 64% women and disproportionately people of color. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 73% of Black immigrant domestic workers report not being provided with any form of personal protective equipment (PPE) by their employers. Women particularly are overrepresented in care work, making up more than 85% of child care workers and 75% of health care workers. Caring for others sustains our communities and allows our economy to function, but it has long been dismissed as women’s work and systematically devalued, informalized and underpaid. Not coincidentally, these professions also face high rates of violence and harassment on the job. 

In addition, women, along with marginalized groups such as migrant workers, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming individuals, are disproportionately pushed into the precarious workforce. And while precarious work arrangements—aka corporations using subcontractors, franchises and gig models to avoid a formal employment relationship and escape liability for some or all labor rights—predate COVID-19, the pandemic has spotlighted how these jobs operate with little to no regard for worker safety. 

C190 explicitly requires governments to address precarious work arrangements and ensure that everyone in the working world has legal protections from violence and harassment. It also contains protections for others in the workplace who are often left unprotected by labor laws and social protection systems, including people looking for work, unpaid interns and apprentices. As unemployment rises and state reopenings foreclose many from qualifying for emergency assistance, people will become increasingly desperate for income and can be forced into more dangerous and exploitative situations.

Critically, C190 also recognizes the importance of addressing underlying power relationships at work. Ending violence and harassment requires shifting more agency and control into the hands of workers themselves. This pandemic has made clear that far too often, workers are not viewed as human beings deserving of dignity and safety, but as expendable cogs in a machine. Violence and harassment exist in this system not as a glitch, but as a feature—tools of control used to reinforce hierarchy both in the workplace and in society.

To get all of this done, we need to build alliances across our movements. Feminist, worker, climate, racial justice, migrant and human rights organizations must build joint analysis and campaigns that work toward ratification and implementation of C190. All workers must have the ability to organize collectively to proactively shape their own working conditions. A union is how change is made, and one of the few inspiring outcomes of the pandemic has been the rise of new waves of worker and community organizing. Going forward, we must create an enabling environment for organizing to demand respect on the job by protecting everyone’s fundamental right to come together and act in concert to demand better. 

One of the most heartbreaking elements of the COVID-19 crisis is that so much of the suffering is the result of political choices, made to prioritize the stock market and uninterrupted markets, rather than human life. C190 provides us a framework for a worker-centered response and recovery that builds systems for all workers and addresses the power imbalances created by systemic discrimination. We can and must make different, better choices—choices to recognize the inherent dignity and value of all workers, to require respectful, safe working conditions, and to allow people more agency in shaping their working lives.

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

About the Author: Cathy Feingold is a leading advocate on global workers’ rights issues. As director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, Feingold is a committed and passionate advocate, strategic campaigner and policy expert. In 2018, Feingold was elected Deputy President of the International Trade Union Confederation, the organization representing 200 million unionized workers worldwide. She brings more than 20 years of experience in trade and global economic policy, and worker, human and women’s rights issues. Her work in both global and grassroots fora reflect her commitment to strengthening the voice of working people in global policy debates.


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Unpaid Prison Barber Made to Work During Covid Says, “We Aren’t Properly Disinfecting Anything”

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Each morning at 8:30, Ron begins trimming hair and beards at a barber shop from hell. As soon as he walks in, someone is waiting for a cut in a little plastic chair. Over the course of the next three hours, he flies through about 35 cuts, and another 35 in the afternoon, alongside several other barbers.

“It’s roach-infested, the mirror isn’t cleaned,” says Ron, who asked In These Times to withhold his real name for fear of retaliation. “There’s no brooms, no mops, there’s no dustpans, the sinks are clogged with hair. Dis-gust-ing.”

On a regular day, a long line forms outside the shop. Everyone is sweaty in Florida’s heat. “The barber shop doesn’t have much ventilation or air conditioning and there’s a lot of hair everywhere,” one “client” says. “Hair is stuck to everything, the capes are reused, they are wet and sticky with other people’s hair. The chairs are broken.”

Such an enterprise in a normal setting would swifty receive harsh reviews. But Ron is a barber at a prison in Florida. (In These Times is not revealing his specific location in order to protect him from retaliation.) He’s been clipping hair for about 20 years at compounds across the state, and he has never had any control over his labor conditions. Like “essential workers,” incarcerated laborers must risk their well-being for their jobs. Unlike essential workers, in Florida, they aren’t paid. “I gotta go to work every day,” Ron says. “They don’t care. They are telling us that we are doing social distance, but I’m a foot away from the next man trimming his beard, shaving him, cutting his hair…I could complain about it till kingdom come and they don’t care.”

After an outbreak at several facilities, the Florida Department of Corrections used uncompensated prison labor to make masks for the other 176,000 incarcerated people and staff across the state. But the masks are small, fragile and barely cover the nose and mouth, according to Ron. He says he was lucky to purchase a N95 mask from the custodial staff to use instead.

As of June 21, 1,704 incarcerated people and 365 prison staff have been infected with the virus in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. At least 548 incarcerated people in the United States have died from Covid-19.

Diseases were likely spreading in the barber shop long before Covid-19 hit. Per federal barber shop regulations, all tools “that come in contact with the head, neck or face of a patron, should be disinfected before use upon any patron.” But prison barber shops in Florida typically don’t allow time, and in some cases, sanitizing supplies for proper disinfecting, Ron says. Florida regulations specify that barbershop tools must be disinfected by a product registered with the Environmental Protection Agency “as a bacterial, virucidal and fungicidal disinfectant, and approved by that agency for use in hospitals, for one to five minutes.” Then, tools should be stored in an ultraviolet ray sanitizing cabinet.

According to Ron, Florida prisons aren’t abiding by these regulations. “If we did what we are supposed to do, per OSHA, we would only be able to cut one every fifteen minutes because it takes fifteen minutes to disinfect,” explains Ron. Since he only has one clipper, he wouldn’t be able to trim everyone’s beard on a weekly basis if a proper procedure were in place. And they don’t have the disinfectants registered with the EPA or UV sanitizing cabinets. “We aren’t properly disinfecting anything,” Ron says. “That’s mandated by the state of Florida. I don’t know how they passed inspections.” He says staff won’t address his concerns. “When you bring it up they say they don’t care…cut hair, or else.”

The “client,” who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, describes haircuts in prison as “scary,” citing tools “not being sanitized, and some of these blades are not properly adjusted.” He explains, “you get cut, the guy before you gets cut, the guy after you is getting cut and you don’t have a choice because you have to get a haircut.” Every incarcerated person in Florida must keep a clean shaven, or up to a half-inch, beard. Men in solitary confinement at Ron’s prison get haircuts in their cells while standing, says Ron.

Meanwhile, a right-wing, astroturfed “reopen America” movement guided by corporate interests has been pushing for reopening non-essential businesses, while scientists urge them to remain closed.

Controversy around haircuts have become symbolic of the American culture wars sparked by the movement. In May, the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which has ties to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, organized an “Operation Haircut” demonstration with free haircuts, a line that has inspired some Americans to complain that their shaggy hair is a violation of their constitutional rights.

Others, like a small coalition of Rhode Island restaurants, have pointed out that sheltering in place and bankruptcy are a false dichotomy: “Rather than call on workers and customers to risk their lives for a livelihood and social experience that we all have been deprived of,” the coalition wrote. “We instead suggest that this energy and effort be directed at our government and its officials to do their job and protect this extremely important and equally vulnerable industry during this crisis.” The coalition suggests rent and mortgage freezes and unemployment benefits as two such efforts.

Prior to the reopening of some salons in Florida on May 11, Ron questioned the inconsistency of the labor situation. “If my sister can’t get her hair and nails done, and she is dying to get them done, why should we not walk around with an afro? It doesn’t make any sense.” 

But he answers his own question: “I know what’s going on, it’s all about control, it’s all psychological. We outnumber them. But as long as we are killing each other and fighting each other we’re not looking at the problem which is them. We will always be losing, and they will always be laughing at us.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ella Fassler is an independent writer, researcher and prison abolitionist.


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Should Work-From-Home be Mandatory Even after the COVID Pandemic?

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As the pandemic wanes and the world fights to claw its way out of the economic drain, leaders and company executives are trying to figure out how to change with the changing economy. To put the situation in perspective: In 2019, only 3.4% of employees worked remotely. Working from home was considered a job perk and only a select few enjoyed this privilege. Fast-forward to 2020, the percentage of individuals working remotely is now more than 43%. This has been an unanticipated change. People had to adapt as quickly as possible because many businesses were at risk of failing, and leaders needed to act fast!

Adapting to the Setbacks of the Pandemic by Promoting Remote Work

As companies and employees adapt to this new world, executives and team leaders are faced with a harsh truth: the office is not needed after all! A lot of tasks can be accomplished remotely. This realization placed many traditionalists in a tight spot. A decade ago, team leaders countered the idea of remote working by saying workers needed constant supervision for them to be productive. The opposite has now been shown to be true. Remote workers are happier and more productive than their counterparts who commute to the office. With productivity tools readily available, a lot of team leaders now use time tracking apps to monitor their employees remotely. Technology has made it clear that employees do not need an office to be productive.

Should Companies Continue to Pursue Remote Work?

While it’s true that some jobs require physical presence and can’t be done remotely (think of delivery personnel and field workers), the figures are clear on this one, with 77% of remote workers saying they want to continue working from home after the pandemic. Companies are now making policies to accommodate remote working. Workers who can work remotely should be allowed to do so.

Tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are setting the pace in this regard. Google and Facebook are looking for ways to create a hybrid environment that will allow workers to choose when to commute or telecommute, while Twitter is going for a wholly remote-working team. Other companies are following this path or at least they are considering the possibility. The logic is simple: why waste money on renting office space and paying for employee transport if the job can be done from anywhere? Allowing for remote work also means employers have the advantage of hiring talent from different parts of the globe.

However, not everyone is suited for remote work. 23% of individuals currently being forced to work out of office because of the pandemic cannot wait to resume commuting to the office. This group of people consider themselves to be more productive when in the office and they are eager to leave the house post-pandemic. Trying to figure out how to manage time while working from home isn’t the best idea for this set of individuals. This creates a question: How can companies create a balance and allow for diversity?

Offering Job Flexibility Even After Lockdown Restrictions

The answer to this question is not far-fetched. Building a hybrid team is a great way to create a balance between remote and office work. By giving people the option to choose when to work from home and when to be in the office, companies can build flexibility and make themselves more attractive to their workforce. One way to boost productivity for remote work is to realize that flexibility is important to employees. Even if some of them choose to commute to work daily, knowing they have the option to work remotely whenever they want will increase their loyalty for the company. A research conducted by Owl Labs shows that remote workers stay longer with a company than their counterparts who commute to the office. Individuals who have no option to telecommute are more likely to look for new jobs sooner than later. This means employers who do not allow telecommuting tend to lose more employees. They will also spend extra time and resources trying to hire new talent to fill the vacancy.

In the end, making it mandatory to either work from home or the office is not the answer. Instead, company leaders should look towards implementing policies that can allow employees to choose what works for them. Every employee should have the option to choose when to work from home and when to go to the office. It is time to embrace the new and let go of the old.

About the Author: Ikechukwu Nnabeze is a tech expert and a successful freelancer whose main area of interest is to improve people’s lives with the help of modern technology. His interest in providing practical solutions to real-life tech problems has led him to a successful career in creating content for Traqq. His passion is to help individuals and organizations from all over the world to embrace the life-changing beauty of modern technology. He enjoys poetry in his spare time.


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