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ABB, EPI, and NELP Release Toolkit For Advocates and Policymakers On Model Policies Local Governments Can Implement to Raise Standards For Frontline Workers During COVID and Beyond

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Washington, DC— Today, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), A Better Balance (ABB), and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a toolkit for advocates and policymakers featuring four model policies that cities and counties can implement immediately to respond to workers’ calls for safety and dignity on the job—in the pandemic and beyond. The four model policies would advance premium pay, paid sick days, COVID-19 worker health and safety, and protection against retaliation.

Over a year into the COVID-19 crisis, federal law still does not guarantee workers premium pay for working on the frontlines during emergencies; the right to paid days off when they or family members are sick; enforceable COVID-19 health and safety protections; and adequate protection against being punished for speaking up on the job about unsafe conditions or violations of their rights. Far too many state laws and corporate policies also fall short when it comes to these standards.

Occupational segregation has disproportionately pushed Black and Latinx workers, the majority of them women, into underpaid, yet always essential, jobs that are now on the frontlines of the pandemic. Across the country, workers of color have tied their demands for pandemic protections to fights for racial, gender, and economic justice.

While the Biden administration has begun to address some of the gaps the Trump administration and Congress left in responding to our communities’ calls, a chasm remains. But city and county governments can step in right now to enact laws and policies that will help keep workers and the public safe during the ongoing pandemic and beyond. The new model policy toolkit from NELP, ABB, and EPI includes four model laws that cities and counties can and must adopt to heed workers’ calls:Emergency premium pay for frontline workers; a permanent right to paid sick leave with additional time off during a declared public health emergency; health and safety protections for certain frontline workers who will not be protected by upcoming OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for COVID-19 , including app-based workers and domestic workers; and anti-retaliation protections to ensure workers can speak up about job conditions and enforce their rights safely during this crisis and after. This, too, is about racial justice—a recent survey from NELP found that Black workers were twice as likely as white workers to report that they or someone at work may have been punished or fired for raising concerns about COVID-19 spreading in the workplace.

The model laws in the toolkit are designed so localities can adapt them to meet local needs.

“The pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the laws ensuring the safety of workers, unemployed people, and our communities overall are woefully inadequate. And because our lives are all so deeply intertwined, what affects one worker affects all of us—when a grocery store cashier doesn’t feel safe bringing up concerns about lacking COVID-19 safety precautions at work, and then workers get sick, the spread continues into the community. Unfortunately, we are not out of this yet, and cities must hear workers’ calls and step in now,” says NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon.

“Without paid sick leave and strong workplace health and safety standards, millions of individuals around the country are forced to sacrifice their personal and family health, or risk their income when they need it most. At A Better Balance, through our free legal helpline, we hear every day from working individuals whose experiences show how the pandemic has sharply exacerbated our nation’s longstanding crisis of care, with especially harsh consequences for low-wage workers and women of color. Local governments have a critical role to play in passing robust policies to protect workers’ health and safety and enable them to care for themselves and their loved ones,” says A Better Balance Co-Founder and Co-President Sherry Leiwant.

“Strong economies require standards that ensure workers are safe and paid fairly. Over the past year, people in frontline jobs have put their lives on the line with little bargaining power to demand higher pay or safer workplaces. They deserve basic protections to keep them and their families safe, as well as pay that compensates them for the added risk they’re taking in order to keep the economy going,” says EPI Senior Economic Analyst David Cooper.

Ultimately, the pandemic has laid bare how deeply structural racism and long-standing anti-worker policy impacts every corner of our society—and how little our laws protect workers, and especially workers of color in underpaid, frontline jobs. But there is also a tremendous opportunity here: Local governments can play a critical role in building a just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, by taking steps to advance worker and community safety and dignity, during this crisis and beyond.

Download the model local policy toolkit now

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

About A Better Balance 

A Better Balance, a national, nonprofit advocacy organization, uses the power of the law to advance justice for workers, so they can care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security. To learn more, visit abetterbalance.org and follow A Better Balance on Twitter @ABetterBalance.

About the Economic Policy Institute

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security.To achieve this goal, EPI conducts research and analysis on the economic status of working America. EPI proposes public policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers and assesses policies with respect to how they affect those workers.

About National Employment Law Project
The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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Biden administration weeks behind on Covid-19 workplace safety rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Universal Health Care Is a Popular Idea in America—Will Biden Keep Enriching Private Insurance or ‘Go Big’?

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on people’s lives, President Joe Biden has been on a victory tour to promote the American Rescue Plan, a hefty $1.9 trillion spending package that not only sends direct stimulus payments to struggling Americans, but also greatly expands health care options through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “We’re becoming a nation where health care is a right and not for the privileged few,” said Biden in his remarks at a hospital on the campus of Ohio State University. Eleven years after the ACA was first passed into law as President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform, it has survived relentless Republican attacks in the form of legal challenges and defunding attempts. Preserving and expanding it under Democratic leadership certainly constitutes a win against Republican obstructionism and a refusal to offer better alternatives. But this latest strengthening of the ACA is first and foremost a victory for the health insurance industry.

The American Rescue Plan includes tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to substantially lower premiums for insurance options purchased through the ACA health exchanges. Additionally, it covers 100 percent of the cost of COBRA coverage for those who have been laid off during the pandemic. Even the New York Times characterized it with the headline, “Private Insurance Wins in Democrats’ First Try at Expanding Health Coverage.”

Dr. Paul Song, co-chair of the Campaign for a Healthy California, and board member of Physicians for a National Health Program, explained to me in an interview that, “that’s money that’s just going to the private insurance industry.” He asked, “why not say to anyone who lost their job during the pandemic and lost their health care coverage, that you would automatically be enrolled in Medicare until you found your new job?” Such a move would cost significantly fewer taxpayer dollars but would have boosted the arguments in favor of a Medicare for All program, which centrist Democrats like Biden have vehemently railed against for years. Ironically, insurance industry loyalists cite high costs as central to their opposition to Medicare for All.

new poll by Morning Consult and Politico finds that a majority of Americans—55 percent—support Medicare for All. Strangely, the pollsters headlined their results by saying, “Medicare for All Remains Polarizing.” Nearly 80 percent of all Democrats support it, and even among Republicans, more than a quarter back the idea of a government-run health plan for all.

As Biden touts the success of the ACA (without mentioning the high cost of supporting it), a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are refusing to fall in line. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) dismissed the health care subsidies in the American Rescue Plan, saying, “I don’t think this was the most efficient way to do this,” and had instead called for exactly what Song suggested: that unemployed Americans sign on to a Medicare plan rather than their former employer’s plan.

Jayapal recently introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2021, which was co-sponsored by more than half the House Democratic Caucus. Her office released a statement explaining that the bill “guarantees health care to everyone as a human right by providing comprehensive benefits including primary care, vision, dental, prescription drugs, mental health, long-term services and supports, reproductive health care, and more with no copays, private insurance premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing.”

Dr. Song is hopeful, saying there is “more momentum every year” for such a program. Whereas in previous years Democrats like former Congressman Joe Crowley would have railed against Medicare for All, “they’ve all been voted out by the AOCs, by the Jamaal Bowmans,” said Song, referring to the freshmen representatives from New York who in recent years ousted centrist incumbents like Crowley from their party in primary challenges. Now, “for the first time, the entire New York delegation has supported Medicare for All,” he said.

The timing for a bold and comprehensive health care plan is ideal. According to Axios, Biden “loves the growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama.” Democrats are looking to distinguish themselves from Republicans in willingly spending what it takes to care for a population battered by the pandemic after years of austerity measures that have whittled away safety net programs. Criticism of Medicare for All from a cost perspective will not only be deemed hypocritical, but it will also sound Republican-like in its callous calculation to prioritize private interests ahead of human needs.

According to the advocacy group Public Citizen, the U.S.’s private health insurance-based system put the nation at such a deep disadvantage during the pandemic that according to a new analysis, “millions of Americans have contracted COVID-19 unnecessarily and hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been prevented.” This estimate is not based on people dying because they did not have health insurance. On the contrary, the government rightly stepped up to ensure that COVID-19 related treatments for the uninsured would be covered by taxpayers (yet more proof that lawmakers are willing to cover everyone’s health care costs if the crisis is dire).

Rather Public Citizen found that our entire health care infrastructure failed because “hospitals focused on profit and revenue were unable to respond to COVID-19 while safety net hospitals faced closure.” The patchwork of private health insurance systems and limited public systems left the nation in a confusing mess at a time when streamlined approaches to a deadly pandemic required systematic testing, contact tracing, and now, vaccine distribution. In contrast, as per Public Citizen, “Countries that had more unified systems were better able to roll out testing, track the spread of the disease via a central information hub, and intervene appropriately.”

Given the fact that Democrats require either some Republican support or an end to the Senate’s filibuster rule in order to pass any major legislation, Jayapal’s bill is likely to remain aspirational. However, newly seated Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra may be able to offer another pathway to a government-run health system. Backers of such a system ought to take heart from Becerra’s confirmation hearing where the likes of Republican Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said to him, “Your long-standing support for single-payer, government-run health care seems hostile to our current system from my perspective.” Of course, Becerra said what he had to in order to win confirmation and toed the Democratic party line by responding that he would be enacting President Biden’s agenda, not his own.

Still, according to Dr. Song, “Secretary Becerra has been very public in saying that he thinks states should be afforded waivers, and now he has the ability to do that.” One of the positive aspects of the ACA is that states have the right to apply for federal waivers and that the HHS secretary oversees the granting of such waivers. According to the New York Times, “Because these waivers do not require congressional approval, they could become a crucial policymaking tool for the Biden administration,” regardless of which party controls the Senate.

“States like California could set up their own state-based health care system if it at least met the standards determined by the ACA,” explained Song. Just like their federal-level centrist Democratic counterparts, California Governor Gavin Newsom (and before him, Jerry Brown) spoke out in favor of Medicare for All while they were candidates only to back off from taking a strong stand on the issue once they had the power to do something about it. Newsom, who is facing a Republican-led recall effort, is now facing a push from his Democratic colleagues in California’s legislature to keep his promise on health care.

Regardless of how we arrive at a government-run health care plan, there is growing momentum for it. Scientists worry that the next pandemic is just around the corner. Instead of throwing taxpayer dollars into the pockets of private health insurance industry executives, a government-run plan would not only be more efficient and cheaper but also save lives—which is ultimately what should be the most important consideration.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.


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Rebuilding U.S. Manufacturing Is the Only Path to an Economic Renaissance

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Brad Greve knew it was just a matter of time before the computer chip shortage disrupting the auto industry had a ripple effect on aluminum manufacturing in Iowa.

Greve and his colleagues at Arconic Davenport Works—members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105—supply the Ford F-150 pickup and other vehicles.

Automakers forced to cut production because of the semiconductor crunch scaled back the amount of aluminum they take from the facility, just as Greve expected, posing another potential setback to a plant already fighting to rebound from the COVID-19 recession.

America cannot afford to jeopardize major industries for want of parts.

The nation’s prosperity depends on ensuring the ready availability of all of the raw materials and components that go into the products essential for crises and daily life.

That will mean ramping up domestic production of the semiconductors—now made largely overseas—that serve as the “brains” of automobiles, computers, cell phones, communications networks, appliances and life-saving medical equipment.

But it will also require building out supply chains in other industries. For example, America needs to produce titanium sponge for warplanes and satellites, pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines and the bearings that keep elevators and other machinery running.

The failure of just one link in a supply chain—as the semiconductor shortage shows—has the potential to paralyze huge swaths of the economy. That’s why it’s crucial not only to source components on U.S. soil but also to incorporate redundancy into supply lines so that an industry can survive the loss of a single supplier.

“It’s that ripple effect,” said Greve, president of Local 105, recalling the time when a fire at a die-cast parts supplier disrupted production of the F-150. “If you shut down a car manufacturer—or they can’t get one part—you can affect a whole lot of jobs around the country.”

COVID-19 interrupted computer chip production even as demand for televisions, home computers and other goods soared among consumers locked down in their homes. Now, neither U.S. automakers nor manufacturers of other goods can obtain adequate amounts of the semiconductors they need.

Because of the shortage, carmakers cut shifts and laid off workers. The production cuts come when the nation needs the boost from auto sales—and other items containing semiconductors—to climb out of the recession.

Although the decreased aluminum shipments haven’t resulted in layoffs at Davenport, the automotive supply-chain meltdown couldn’t have come at a worse time. When the pandemic curbed air travel last year, airplane manufacturers cut back on the aluminum they get from Arconic.

“Automotive is what kept us going,” Greve said.

America was once a leader in computer chip manufacturing. But as with many other industries in recent decades, the U.S. frittered away the upper hand while other countries boosted production.

The nation’s share of chip manufacturing capacity fell from 37 percent to 12 percent over the past 30 years. And although demand for chips continues to grow, the U.S. stands to gain only a fraction of the additional capacity currently in the pipeline.

That leaves the country overly reliant on foreign suppliers who can encounter their own production shortfalls, as happened during the pandemic, or who can cut off shipments for political or economic reasons at any time.

“If you’re going to war with somebody, they’re not going to sell you anything,” Greve said, noting dependence on overseas supplies threatens the nation’s ability not only to make cars and other consumer goods but also to obtain the chips needed for defense and intelligence purposes.

Although the current crisis centers on semiconductors, neglect of the nation’s manufacturing base decimated America’s capacity to produce parts and components for many other industries.

“It affects everybody,” Libbi Urban, vice president of USW Local 9231, said of hollowed-out supply chains that threaten jobs and access to goods. Because of the semiconductor shortage, automakers now take less of the galvanized steel she and her coworkers make at Cleveland-Cliffs’ New Carlisle, Indiana, Works.

Shortages of medical and safety equipment during the pandemic revealed how much manufacturing power the nation let slip away.

But it wasn’t only the finished products, like face masks, America found itself ill-equipped to produce. Makers of hand sanitizer and cleaning products struggled to obtain adequate supplies of the hand pumps and spray triggers made overseas.

“How much time and money are being lost waiting on overseas companies to get products and supplies to the U.S.?” Urban asked.

President Joe Biden took the first step toward rebuilding manufacturing power with an executive order in February requiring immediate reviews of supply chains for the semiconductor, pharmaceutical, electric-battery and rare earth minerals industries as well as longer-term reviews of other sectors.

But after identifying weaknesses, America needs to implement a strategy for restoring supply lines and ensuring long-term resiliency.

That will include direct investment in U.S. manufacturing facilities, such as the $37 billion Biden proposed to ramp up chip production.

It involves strategically using tax incentives to encourage employers to expand operations and invest in new technology. And it means building strong markets for U.S. products, partly through policies that encourage federal contractors and other companies to buy domestic goods.

Besides cutting shifts, Greve noted, automakers have been trying to weather the semiconductor shortage by allocating chips to their most popular models or leaving vehicles partially completed until chips arrive.

GM even eliminated an important feature, an advanced fuel management system, in some models just to save chips and get vehicles to market.

“We shouldn’t have that happen in this country,” Greve said. “If we don’t make the supplies here, then we have no control.”

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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


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A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048

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Tekele Abraha does not run marathons, but she wears Hoka shoes. This thick-soled choice of elite runners can cost more than $150a pair, nearly a day’s pay for Abraha, who wears them to cushion the long hours she spends on concrete floors, six days a week. She hopes the shoes will stave off the grinding joint and back pain that afflicts many of her coworkers. 

Abraha is a grocery worker. The shoes mark one of many unseen tolls of her job. 

We talk in an airless, subterranean breakroom at Safeway store 1048 in Arlington, Va., a typical, prosperous suburb of Washington, D.C. The low-slung store sits partially submerged next to an underground parking garage on the main drag of the Rosslyn neighborhood, full of gleaming office buildings and apartment towers that look like office buildings. The store’s staff is as diverse as Embassy Row, just across the Potomac River: Black and white, Eastern European, East African. 

Abraha, a 42-year-old single mother of two, grew up in poverty in Ethiopia with her mother and four brothers, unable to afford three meals a day. She came to the United States at 17, without knowing English, and worked three fast food jobs. Sometimes, she slept in a McDonald’s to save time. Eventually, Abraha scraped together $15,000, enough to buy her mother a six-bedroom house in Ethiopia, which fills her with pride. 

For the past 18 years, Abraha has worked at Safeway. Six days a week, late into the night, she helps run the front of the store. Her diligence is matched by the toll it has taken on her during the pandemic. In fear of bringing home coronavirus, she has not kissed her two college-age children since March 2020, even though they live with her. 

“Every time I go home, I was insecure,” she says. ?“I thought, ?‘I’m gonna take something with me. I’m gonna get sick. I’m gonna lose my children.’” Tears well up in her eyes when she contemplates the past year. But she is not one to complain. 

“I don’t have any choice,” she says. ?“That’s life. I have to pay the bills.” 

For many people, the past year has been a shocking break from the normal rhythms of their personal and professional lives. And then there are grocery workers. 

The lives of grocery workers have continued as usual, but with an added dose of deadly risk. They never really signed up for it. Though less celebrated than nurses or paramedics, grocery workers are quintessential frontline workers?—?the ones who have kept showing up so the rest of us can survive. 

Like their counterparts across the country, the employees of Safeway 1048have kept on working through a dangerous year. Their employer has given them mask policies, more cleaning in stores and a fleeting dose of hazard pay, but their lived experience has shown them the safety net has holes big enough to fall through. The experience has left many of them bitter. 

Safeway is neither an outlier on safety issues nor a uniquely bad employer. It has given out personal protective equipment and established a contact-tracing program with up to two weeks of quarantine pay. The company also says it intends to offer the vaccine to every worker as soon as their city or county makes it available to grocery workers. The workers at Safeway 1048, despite being eligible per state guidelines, had not been offered the vaccine by early March. (The company said that ?“our pharmacies in northern Virginia are under the direction of the [Virginia Department of Health] not to vaccinate anyone under the age of 65.”) 

A review of policies at some of Safeway’s biggest direct competitors?—?Walmart and Costco, as well as grocery conglomerates Kroger, Publix and Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant, Stop & Shop)?—?shows that Safeway’s policies on hazard pay, sick leave, masks, worker safety and vaccinations are very much in line with the industry. It almost seems as if the grocery industry’s employers, customers and regulators have settled on a set of standards without bothering to ask the workers whether they think those standards are adequate. 

The one thing Safeway’s workers have going for them is their union. They have seniority rights, pay minimums, guaranteed vacations, a grievance procedure and other basic protections their non-union counterparts lack. Safeway has been unionized since at least 1935, when it signed an agreement with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which later merged with the Retail Clerks International to form today’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Today, more than 6,000 Safeway workers in D.C. and the surrounding states are part of UFCW Local 400. Since Virginia is a so-called right-to-work state, no worker is required to pay union dues; about three-quarters of the 65 employees at Safeway 1048 are dues-paying members. 

Their longtime union rep is Heith Fenner, a solicitous, ruddy-faced man who roams the store greeting everyone by name and checking in on new issues weekly. A former grocery worker who has served as a union rep at seven different grocery chains, Fenner is a virtual encyclopedia of the industry’s problems. 

“Safeway runs a skeleton crew,” he says. ?“They run almost short-handed, particularly in key positions. When you get a small [Covid-19] outbreak in the store, that leaves you shorthanded. Even worse, it becomes a catastrophe for trying to run the store when you have four or five people out.” 

It is not hard to imagine how this corporate dedication to reducing costs could create a strong disincentive for Safeway to pay close attention to safety measures, because safety measures can be expensive. Paid sick leave while workers quarantine will inevitably raise labor costs. Employees say, over the past year, their store’s management has shown little institutional concern for worker health and safety, consistently prioritizing profits and corporate reputation over the lives of workers.

Anthony Sistrunk, a fast-talking, 39-year-old D.C. native who has worked for Safeway since he was 17, had a rough 2020. 

“The year started off fucked up,” Sistrunk remembers. In January 2020, just as he was coming off a cancer scare, he had to have his appendix removed. He returned to work after recovering, but one day soon after he felt so dizzy he went home after only a couple of hours. He slept all day, woke up at night feeling bad and passed out on his floor. After a trip to the emergency room, Sistrunk got the bad news: He was the first employee of Safeway 1048 to test positive for Covid. 

Dehydrated, coughing and his head throbbing, Sistrunk went on Facebook and made a quick post so his friends and coworkers would know he tested positive. He was primarily concerned about the health of his coworkers?—?masks were not yet mandatory, even for employees. 

“And then,” Sistrunk says, ?“all hell broke loose.” 

Shortly after his social media post, he says, he received a call from the Safeway human resources department, asking pointedly if he was ?“badmouthing” the company. 

“I was offended,” Sistrunk says. ?“I felt like Safeway was trying to stop any kind of bad media. They didn’t want any kind of uproar.” 

Sistrunk was so sick he didn’t return to work for seven weeks. He lost his sense of taste and smell and had trouble breathing. ?“The worst thing was the fatigue,” he says. ?“I felt like someone snatched my soul.” 

Fenner called him every other day to check in. Sistrunk did receive paid sick leave?—?two-thirds of his average wage?—?as a benefit of his union health insurance plan. ?“God forbid if you’re not a union member,” Sistrunk says with the tone of someone looking back on a narrowly avoided disaster. ?“You’re screwed.” 

When Sistrunk began with the company 22 years ago, he says it felt like an exclusive and highly valued job. He had to write an essay with his application about why he wanted to work there. There were employee outings: summer cookouts, bowling parties, crab feasts. But all of that faded away as the years went by and, it seemed to Sistrunk, management focused more and more intensely on profits. He sounds wistful when he reflects on his years there. ?“It’s not that family bond anymore,” he says.

Safeway is one of 20 grocery chains owned by Albertsons Companies, whose biggest investor is the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, named for the three-headed dog of Greek mythology that guards the gates of hell to make sure no one gets out. According to Andrew Whelan, a spokesperson for Albertsons, ?“When we learn that an associate has a confirmed case of Covid-19, our crisis response team conducts a close contacts investigation and may recommend that additional members of the store team self-quarantine.” The company offers up to 80 hours of ?“quarantine pay” for those who meet its standards. Whelan says the store is ?“appropriately staffed.” 

Safeway uses the definition of ?“close contact” provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of an infected person per day. It’s an extremely high bar in a store where everyone is moving around. Consequently, employees and the union say management at Safeway 1048 rarely tells a worker to quarantine. 

I got a firsthand view of this dynamic in action. When I went to the store to talk with workers, nearly everyone was discussing that an employee from the cut-fruit section had tested positive. I saw where the fruit-cutting happens: a windowless corner of steel tables in back by the breakroom, where several people work at once. If I worked in such close quarters with a Covid-positive person, I would certainly be worried. 

Fenner says, after management was alerted to the situation by the union, they ?“cleaned and sanitized” the store but did not order any quarantines or alert employees to the positive test. Whelan disputes this, saying that one employee was quarantined due to ?“close contact.” Whelan also says the company informs the staff when an employee tests positive, but workers say they usually hear through word of mouth or from the union.

Then there is the matter of customers who shop without masks. Every employee I spoke with cited this persistent minority of customers as a threat to their health, particularly because workers are not empowered to do anything about the situation except to offer a mask to customers. 

“I’ve been called ?‘bitch’ so many times” for asking customers to wear a mask, Abraha says. ?“I wish the company took it seriously.” 

The Safeway store does not have a security guard, meaning regular workers and supervisors become de facto security guards and mask-checkers. Calling the police doesn’t feel like an option. ?“By the time you call the cops,” Sistrunk says, the maskless shoppers ?“are out of here.” 

Whelan acknowledges that while the store has signs telling customers to wear masks, ?“If a customer refuses to wear a mask and to leave the store, we permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other employees and customers at risk.” 

Jason Winbush, a bearded, 44-year-old food clerk who has been at Safeway for 28 years, has a wife and five children at home. The combination of management’s failure to alert employees directly about positive tests or to find a way to make customers wear masks has convinced him the company does ?“not at all” take the safety of its workers seriously. Winbush has even used some of his vacation days to get time away from the store because the mask situation worried him so much. 

“It’s starting to get [to be] too much,” Winbush says. ?“It’s stressful. Very stressful. It’s written on the wall: Money is more important than your employees. And that’s not right, cause you don’t know if we have preexisting conditions, if my kids have preexisting conditions.”

Stuart Allison, a man with a pleasant Southern drawl and the enormous hands of a heavyweight boxer, has been cutting meat at Safeway 1048 for 25 years. That is less than half of the time he has been working for Safeway, where he began as a meat cutter in 1968. (After more than a half-century with the company, Allison makes $24 an hour.) He is 79, works six 8?hour shifts a week, exercises regularly and appears perfectly capable of wrestling a man half his age. 

Allison remembers seeing people die during a flu epidemic in the 1940s, and those experiences have left him a remarkably calm person. Even though Allison contracted a mild case of Covid in summer 2020, he has never allowed the events of the past year to throw him into a panic. ?“Things come up like that; they don’t disturb me,” he says. ?“Whatever it is, I just take it. I guess I’m more a positive thinker than a negative thinker. This is not my first time being around a virus.” 

But even Allison, a pinnacle of equanimity who has little fear for his own health, finds his hackles raised by what he sees as management’s lax attitude toward customers shopping without masks in the midst of a pandemic. ?“They were saying, ?‘You gotta wait on people that don’t have masks on,’” Allison says. ?“I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ?‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ?‘em.’”

The stress over worker health reached a high mark in the days surrounding the January 6 Trump rally and storming of the U.S. Capitol. Many of former President Donald Trump’s supporters who had come to Washington for the event stayed in the hotels that dot the blocks around the Safeway in Rosslyn. Many of them came into the store with an aggressive disregard for safety. 

“We had a really rough time that week,” says Michele Miler, a 61-year-old file maintenance manager who has served as Safeway 1048’s union shop steward for the past 25 years. ?“They were coming in without no mask.” 

In fact, the employees I spoke with remember the week of January 6 as one in which they were left to fend for themselves. As our nation’s political insanity invaded their workplace, some workers say they refused to serve maskless Trump supporters; one says she just argued with the maskless and endured insults; most said they were constantly uncomfortable and disappointed that Safeway did nothing to save them. 

Sistrunk says that when he asked a manager to intervene, the response was that the company didn’t want bad press in an age when everyone has a cell phone. 

Abraha says some of the Trump supporters ignored her request to wear a mask; one even handed her his used mask and demanded she throw it away for him. ?“If I call the police, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, because of politics,” Abraha says. ?“What about if I lose my job? … It’s crazy.”I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ‘em.’” —Stuart Allison

The pandemic has been good for business at grocery stores. Everyone remembers the empty shelves in spring 2020 as people stocked up, just in case. Albertsons saw its sales rise a remarkable 47% in March of 2020; by December, year-over-year sales were still running 12% higher. All of these sales were enabled by the fact that thousands of grocery workers, just like those at Safeway 1048, continued to come to work, putting their own health at risk to ensure stores could sell food. 

What did those workers get in return? At Safeway, they got a $2 ?“hazard pay” wage bonus from March 15 to June 13, 2020, with two one-time bonuses adding up to about $350 for full-time employees (less for part-timers, the vast majority of the workers). In other words, hazard pay ended when the country was seeing around 22,000 new daily cases of the coronavirus. Even when cases rose to 300,000 per day by January 2021?—?a 1,264% increase in risk?—?hazard pay never came back. 

Whelan, the Albertsons spokesperson, justified this discrepancy by saying, ?“We are not currently offering appreciation pay at this time because businesses large and small across our operating areas have reopened and resumed operations.” 

This argument is a bit of sleight of hand?—?right down to the use of the phrase ?“appreciation pay” rather than hazard pay. First, state governments ignored public health risks and reduced business restrictions (which fueled Covid surges and increased the number of hazards for workers). Then, companies used those policies as an excuse not to take more action or offer workers more compensation. Poof: Thanks to poor public health policies, businesses made their own obligations disappear. 

The flagrant hypocrisy of praising frontline workers as heroes while denying them payment for their heroic work is a textbook example of corporate greed and the primacy that shareholders have over labor. 

And that so few grocery workers emerged from 2020 with long-term raises is a textbook example of union workers squandering their labor leverage. The moment certainly marks a national failure by the UFCW, the nation’s biggest food and retail union, which has been unable to secure any real lasting gains for its members, even as public regard for grocery workers soared. 

Every Safeway employee I spoke with thought that, at a minimum, the $2 hazard pay increase should have become permanent. They wish everyone would wear a mask. They wish they did not have to rely on word of mouth to learn someone from work has Covid. 

They live in fear of getting their families sick. They rise at 4 a.m., work six days a week and casually discuss the many ways the job has destroyed their bodies. 

They do this whole routine for decades for, if they are lucky, a $20 wage. 

If they had stopped?—?if they had shut down the nation’s groceries?—?there would have been panic. But they worked. 

We ate.

From the perspective of the workers themselves, 2020 was a year of swallowing harsh insult after harsh insult. When I asked Marilyn Williams, who has worked at Safeway 1048 for the past eight years, what she thought of the quick disappearance of hazard pay, she paused for a long moment, then said, ?“Ha. Ha. 

“That’s my reaction. 

“Ha. Ha.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Black workers, hammered by pandemic, now being left behind in recovery

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Black Americans, who were among the hardest hit by coronavirus layoffs, are now recovering at the slowest rate, a one-two punch that threatens to worsen the United States’ already stark wealth and income disparities long after the pandemic recedes.

While Hispanic workers initially saw the sharpest uptick in unemployment when business shutdowns began last spring, Black people have seen a slower return to work even as the economy is poised for a robust rebound, government data and economic analyses show. When the overall unemployment rate ticked down in February, Black workers were the only group that saw a rise in joblessness, a 0.7 percentage point increase.

The share of Black Americans holding jobs also dropped over the month while it continued to move up for all other races and ethnicities. Over the past year, white, Asian and Hispanic Americans have regained roughly two-thirds of their initial job losses in terms of what share of their population is working, a key measure of labor and unemployment known as the “employment-population ratio.” Black workers have only recovered slightly more than half.

The data has fueled fears that the nascent recovery will not be evenly shared, a dynamic that would exacerbate income and wealth inequality while prolonging the return to full employment. The trend is reminiscent of the Great Recession, when Black workers saw a worse downturn and slower rate of return to normal. And this time, it has caught the attention of top policymakers across the Biden administration and in Congress.

“We’re trying to make sure that it is not like so many other recoveries,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the most senior Black lawmaker in Congress and chair of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. “Slow for everybody, and a snail’s pace for Black and brown communities.”

The headwinds that Black workers face are plenty, some unique to the coronavirus recession but others the result of structural inequities that have long contributed to high rates of unemployment — typically double that of white workers even in strong economies.

For one, many of the industries in which Black workers are heavily represented are not recovering as quickly as others as the economy reopens — or are even continuing to backslide. State and local governments have long been a major employer for African Americans. But while the labor market broadly improved last month, state and local governments shed another 83,000 jobs and remain down 1.4 million workers from a year ago.

“Those sectors in which the rebound is really not happening, or not happening in impactful ways, are really almost the same industries in which African Americans are overrepresented,” said Michelle Holder, a labor economist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She cited transportation, a major employer for Black men, and health services, where Black women are heavily represented, as two other industries that have taken longer to come back, keeping the unemployment rate high.

The devastation of the child care sector amid the shutdowns has also heavily affected Black and Hispanic women, who are more likely to work at child care centers and to depend on them in order to be able to take jobs elsewhere.

And while employment in high-wage sectors has almost completely recovered, low-wage industries remain down 28 percent from a year ago, according to Harvard’s Opportunity Insights tracker — a disparity that disproportionately affects workers of color.

Structural inequities in the U.S. labor market that have affected Black and Hispanic workers’ ability to advance out of low-paying jobs, as well as discrimination in hiring practices, are also likely having an effect, some economists say.

When unemployment spiked in April, the gap between Black and white rates of joblessness narrowed significantly, indicating the losses were spread across the board. But it has steadily grown since then as white workers have returned to work faster — which William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO, said he took as “proof” of the effect of discriminatory hiring practices.

Spriggs also said that for much of the past year, unemployment has been higher for all Black workers, including those with college degrees, than for those of all races with less than a high school education.

“This is not a matter of skills,” Spriggs said. “It’s a matter of the way discrimination takes place within the recovery.”

One way to address the slower recovery among workers of color is to ensure that federal support remains in place as long as Black and Hispanic unemployment remains elevated, advocates say, rather than cut it off once the levels return closer to normal. And given that these workers typically remain out of work the longest, President Joe Biden will need a prolonged economic recovery to ensure the labor market gets tight enough to pull them back in from the sidelines.

Clyburn’s focus is two-fold: tracking the Covid relief money as it goes out to ensure that it’s being spent equitably, and pushing the Biden administration to invest heavily in a second stimulus package focused on infrastructure, which would spark job creation across the country.

Clyburn said he has spoken about the need to address the uneven recovery with both Biden and Susan Rice, the president’s top domestic policy adviser, adding that Biden has made clear “he plans to do the right thing.”

There are signs the administration is focused on the disparities. The White House Council of Economic Advisers highlighted adjusted unemployment rates, which include those who have given up the search for work, broken down by race and gender after the latest jobs data was released for February. The report showed that the Black unemployment rate stood at nearly 15 percent — affecting nearly 1 in 6 workers — compared to an overall rate of 9.5 percent. The adjusted Hispanic unemployment rate is 12.4 percent.

At the Labor Department, chief economist Janelle Jones penned a blog post last month stressing the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic on Black Americans, particularly women.

And Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell says he is tracking the Black and Hispanic unemployment rates, among other statistics, because elevated joblessness there signals weakness in the broader labor market.

“This particular downturn, of course, was just a direct hit on a part of the economy that employs many minorities and lower paid workers… and it’s the slowest part of the economy to recover,” Powell said at a March 17 press conference. “We’d like to see those people continue to get support as the broader economy recovers, as it’s very much doing now.”

The longer the rate of recovery for Black workers continues to lag, the more likely it is to have a lasting impact. Workers who fall into long-term unemployment — defined as being out of a job for six months or more — take longer to return to work and are more likely to drop out of the labor market entirely.

Black workers are also far less likely to have had savings to lean on to weather an extended period of joblessness — the net worth of an average Black family is about one-tenth that of a white family — and therefore more vulnerable to falling into debt or losing their homes. And another prolonged economic recovery for Black Americans could worsen the already dramatic racial wealth gap, particularly as it drags on both personal savings and future earnings.

The key to addressing the inequities lies in promoting a strong economic recovery for everyone, while recognizing that some communities and workers will take longer to return to normal and require more help than others, economists say.

“People love the quote [from] John F. Kennedy, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ It lifts all the boats that got solid bottoms,” Clyburn said. “If the bottoms got holes in them or if the boats have deteriorated, a rising tide ain’t gonna lift them.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Support Staff Keep Our Students Learning

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

Schools are communities that include students, teachers, administrators, families and, of course, support staff who keep the schools running. In a video, the California School Employees Association (CSEA) celebrates the contributions of school support professionals who have stepped up to the plate during the pandemic. “We can connect—we can connect with these families. We can hear them when they express what they’re going through, and we can reach out and help them,” said Maria Castillo, a CSEA member and health clerk at a California middle school. “I believe that we make a difference and that’s what we’re here for, to make that difference.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on March 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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The Pandemic’s Impact on Workers and Looking Towards a Just Recovery

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NELP’s roadmap for a Just Recovery is based on our vision for bold structural change and on our fall 2020 survey of workers on the COVID frontlines, people who lost their jobs, and other community members seriously impacted by this disease and the failure of so many of our lawmakers and employers to properly address its dangers.

Our findings illustrated how structural racism created the pre-conditions for Black communities and other communities of color to suffer the most during the pandemic, from our health to our wallets.

It’s a disturbing picture, and one that public officials can only hope to address if they start listening to workers’ demands immediately.

Here were some of our major findings on the effects of the pandemic: 

  • 34% of Black workers had a claim for Unemployment Insurance, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation denied;
  • Covering rent, utility, credit card, student loan, medical, and living expenses got harder for a large share of U.S. households, particularly those of frontline workers and Black and Latinx workers;
  • A significant share of all workers, and a larger share of working Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, say that fear of employer retaliation would prevent them from refusing unsafe work;
  • Workers classified as independent contractors and workers employed by temporary help and staffing agencies were 2X as likely have lost income than other workers.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on March 18, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers. 


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On the Introduction of the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act to Protect Meatpacking Workers

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Washington, DC—Following is a statement from Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project:

“NELP applauds the introduction of the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, championed by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Rosa DeLauro, which would protect the health and safety of meatpacking workers by suspending and prohibiting any line speed increases in meat and poultry plants during the ongoing COVID pandemic. The Act would halt any line speed waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration.

“COVID-19 spread like wildfire across the meat and poultry industry in the last year, and it continues to spread through the plants. Despite guidance issued in March 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that emphasized the key protective measure of social distancing, the companies operating the plants continued to require meat and poultry workers to work shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow through the entire pandemic. Stunningly, in the middle of the pandemic, as tens of thousands of meatpacking workers were getting sick and many were dying, the USDA gave permission for many poultry, beef, and swine slaughter plants to increase their production line speeds—thereby forcing workers to stand closer together rather than father apart.

“Workers, their families, and their communities—and especially Black and brown workers and other communities of color—paid a huge price when the meat industry failed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that this failure was associated with between 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases—and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths—just in the first few months of the pandemic (as of July 1, 2020).

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in addition to this being a workers’ right issue, this is also a racial justice issue. The meat and poultry industry is built on the labor of workers of color. The CDC estimates that 87% of all infections in the meat industry occurred among people of color in the industry.

“The Act will affect policies implemented by the USDA during the previous administration as follows: temporarily suspend line speed waivers in meat and poultry plants; block funding to implement line speed increases in hog slaughter plants; and require the issuance of an accountability report to document whether the industry implemented worker safety protections and to evaluate how the relevant agencies in the previous administration responded to the outbreaks of COVID-19 in the industry.

“This legislation is a landmark in the advocacy of meat and poultry workers, organizers, and communities that have been demanding safer workplaces and accountability for employers and government agencies that failed to put basic safety measures in place during the COVID-19 crisis. The voices and direct actions of these communities laid the groundwork for federal action.

“The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the racial inequities in housing, healthcare, and the workplace. Big Meat’s commitment to profits for a few instead of preventative and protective safety protocols to protect hundreds of thousands of meatpacking workers during the greatest public health crisis of our time exemplifies why it’s critical to hold both the industry and government accountable for practices and policies that endangered workers and their communities. Accountability must be a part of a just and inclusive recovery.

“The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act is a critical first step toward ensuring worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to working with Congress and the Biden-Harris administration to secure safety protections for the nation’s meat and poultry workers by revoking all existing line speeds waivers and relinquishing any further rulemaking that increases line speeds in the meat and poultry industry; and by promulgating and enforcing a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

This blog originally appeared at NELP on March 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers. 


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Economy Gains 379,000 Jobs in February; Unemployment Down to 6.2%

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The U.S. economy gained 379,000 jobs in February, and the unemployment rate fell to 6.2%, according to figures released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In response to the February job numbers, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs tweeted:

Last month’s biggest job gains were in leisure and hospitality (+355,000), health care and social assistance (+46,000), retail trade (+41,000) and manufacturing (+21,000). The biggest losses were in construction (-61,000), local government education (-37,000), state government education (-32,000) and mining (-8,000). Employment changed little in other major industries, including wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, information, financial activities and other services.

In February, the unemployment rate increased for Black Americans (9.9%). The unemployment rates for teenagers (13.9%) and Asians (5.1%) declined. The rates for Hispanics (8.5%), adult men (6.0%), adult women (5.9%) and White Americans (5.6%) showed little or no change.

The number of long-term unemployed workers (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) barely changed in February and accounted for 41.5% of the total unemployed.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on March 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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