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How Coronavirus Exposed the Flaws of the Childcare Economy

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The U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that childcare workers in the nation have a median salary of just over $24,000 a year—below the poverty line for a family of four. The segment of our nation’s workforce that attends to the basic needs of our children is shockingly underpaid, and now during the coronavirus pandemic, left even farther behind as childcare centers are forced to downsize or close. At the same time, billionaires have minted money during our time of national crisis. The fortunes of the wealthiest have increased by a quarter over the past several months, proving once more that the economy is rigged to benefit the already-rich.

It is no coincidence that an industry dominated by women, particularly women of color (40 percent of childcare workers are women of color—twice their population representation) is in dire straits. The vast majority of childcare workers do not have health insurance. Many are self-employed and, even before the pandemic, operated on razor-thin margins to stay financially afloat. While the cost of operating a childcare center is fixed, children age out quickly, making revenues extremely unstable. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The businesses have little in the way of collateral. Banks are rarely interested in lending to them, beyond costly credit cards, making it difficult to ride out rough patches.”

In other words, childcare is not a lucrative business in spite of its crucial nature, and while the cost of childcare for parents is often far too high, the cost of operating even a bare-bones childcare business is also too high.

Once the pandemic hit, many childcare providers simply lost clients as lockdowns required families to remain at home. According to one survey conducted in April 2020, “60% of programs [were] fully closed and not providing care to any children” at that time. While some workplaces were able to transition to remote environments, by its nature, childcare work was not able to adapt to this “new normal.” While many workers like grocery store employees, nurses, and delivery drivers were deemed “essential” to society and continued working, they needed care for their out-of-school children. Suddenly American women providing childcare found themselves out of work, while women in other industries had no access to the care their children required.

Millions of parents, mostly mothers, have already left the workforce to care for their children during the pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau in August 2020 found that nearly 20 percent of “working-age adults said the reason they were not working was because COVID-19 disrupted their childcare arrangements.” Additionally, “women ages 25-44 [were] almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands.”

Melissa Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center told Politico, “the parents who are not going to be able to go back to work or who are going to have to give up their careers or jobs for less pay—because they can’t find the child care to cover the hours that they need—are disproportionately going to be women and women of color.” In other words, women of color are disproportionately impacted on both ends of the childcare equation—both as providers and as customers who rely on these services.

As I prepared for an interview with Wendoly Marte, director of economic justice at Community Change Action, about the crisis of childcare, I fielded texts from my seven-year-old son who could not find an extension cord for the tablet that he uses for school. My child was in the room next to the home-studio that I work out of and knows never to disturb me during interviews. But he was desperate to turn his device on so he wouldn’t miss his next lesson. I found myself for the umpteenth time wishing I didn’t have to work so I could be more present for my children during a time of deep uncertainty. But I also remembered how much I loved my job and continued to speak with Marte, who explained that I was not alone. “I think a lot of parents have had to make really hard choices over the last few months as they tried to balance working from home and caring for their children,” said Marte, who helps to organize childcare workers and amplify their voices in government.

Like millions of American women, I find myself constantly worrying about the state of my children’s mental health during the pandemic. Isolated from their peers and forced to learn through screens and Zoom chats, they are coping as best as they can. I am terrified of the long-term impacts on them and yet unable to leave a job on which my family depends to help pay the mortgage and purchase necessities, and at the same time resenting the fact that I have to even consider leaving a job that I love and that I have invested years of my life in.

The pandemic has highlighted, in Marte’s words, the need for “a system that is truly universal and equitable and that takes into account the perspective of parents, the children, and the childcare providers.” She articulated that “we’re going to need a serious public investment in a bold solution that actually matches the scale of the crisis.”

There was a crisis in childcare even before the pandemic. More than a year ago, the Center for American Progress explained that “Whether due to high cost, limited availability, or inconvenient program hours, child care challenges are driving parents out of the workforce at an alarming rate,” and that, “in 2016 alone, an estimated 2 million parents made career sacrifices due to problems with child care.” Add to that a public health crisis that has no end in sight, and the U.S.’s childcare industry could collapse entirely under the weight of multiple pressures.

While the federal government made available small business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program earlier this year, the Bipartisan Policy Center concluded that the program did not work for childcare businesses and only about half of applicants ever received the government-backed loans. While the federal government’s “Childcare and Development Fund” provides some measure of support through block grants, according to Marte it is not nearly enough and “the money ran out very quickly.”

In late July, House Democrats passed the Childcare Is Essential Act, which Marte’s group has supported. The bill creates a $50 billion fund to buttress the reeling industry. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made clear that he is far more interested in remaking the judicial system to benefit conservatives than ushering in financial aid bills for ordinary Americans.

President Donald Trump and his allies have expressed an eagerness to return to normal that is not couched in reality as a third wave of coronavirus infections threatens to derail the economy once more. Without direct federal government intervention to save the childcare industry, the future is frighteningly precarious for women, and especially women of color.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has shrewdly outlined a plan for what his campaign calls a “caregiving economy,” promising to “[e]nsure access to high-quality, affordable child care and offer universal preschool to three-and four-year olds through greater investment, expanded tax credits, and sliding-scale subsidies.” The ambitious $775 billion plan is a start, and Biden will need to be held to his promises if he wins the White House.

When the coronavirus upended the economy, the crisis of childcare that had been brewing for years exploded and revealed the truly barbaric nature of a society that leaves human needs to the whims of “market forces.” There is no better symbol of a society’s future potential than the well-being of its children, and judging by that, we are in deep trouble.

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

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.


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Workers Fired, Penalized for Reporting COVID Safety Violations

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When COVID-19 began making headlines in March, Charles Collins pulled out a protective face mask from the supply at the manufacturing company in Rockaway, New Jersey, where he was the shop foreman and put it on. The dozen or so other workers at the facility followed suit. There was no way to maintain a safe distance from one another on the shop floor, where they made safety mats for machines, and a few of the men had been out sick with flu-like symptoms. Better safe than sorry.

Management was not pleased. Collins got a text message from one of his supervisors saying masks were to be used to protect workers from wood chips, metal particles and other occupational safety hazards. “We don’t provide or for that matter have enough masks to protect anybody from CORVID-19 [sic]!” If workers didn’t stop using the masks for that purpose, the supervisor texted, “we’ll have to store them away just like the candy!”

“I was shocked,” said Collins, 38. “They weren’t taking it seriously.”

Shortly after that, Collins left for a planned vacation. When he returned a week later, the company told him to quarantine at home for two weeks because he’d been traveling.

But when the quarantine ended, Collins didn’t want to go back to work. Co-workers, he said, told him that recommended safety measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distancing hadn’t been implemented. When he told human resources that he feared becoming infected and endangering his mother and his 8-year-old nephew who live with him, he said, he got an ultimatum: Return to work or resign.

Collins stayed home and says he was fired. He hired a lawyer and filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey under the state’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. The law prohibits employers from firing, demoting or otherwise retaliating against workers who refuse to take part in activities they believe are incompatible with public health and safety mandates.

As many employers, with the strong encouragement of the Trump administration, move to bring employees back, a growing number of workers are resisting what they feel are unsafe, unhealthy conditions. In recent months, a few states have passed laws specifically aimed at protecting workers who face COVID-related safety risks and retaliation for speaking up about them. Some states, like New Jersey, have whistleblower protection laws already. But advocates say stronger federal protections are needed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is responsible for enforcing 23 federal whistleblower statutes that protect workers from retaliation if they report workplace safety violations, among other problems.

But according to a new analysis, the agency isn’t up to the task. The National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy and research group, found that of 1,744 COVID-related retaliation complaints filed with OSHA between April and mid-August, 20% were docketed for investigation and 2% were resolved. More than half were dismissed or closed without investigation.

“Even before COVID, workers had a really bad track record of getting any justice for their concerns if they were retaliated against,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project and a former senior OSHA official.

The numbers are growing. Whistleblower complaints filed with OSHA increased by 30% between February and May, to 4,101, according to an August report by the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General that criticized the agency’s handling of the complaints.

Nearly 40% of the complaints — 1,618 — were related to COVID-19, the report found, filed primarily by workers who claimed they were punished for reporting workplace safety violations. Those could include, for example, not having appropriate personal protective equipment or sanitation materials, or a lack of social distancing on the job.

While complaints rose, the number of whistleblower investigators decreased from the previous year, according to the report. The average time it took to close an investigation at the end of March was roughly nine months.

Worker whistleblower protections under the Occupational Safety and Health law are “incredibly weak” compared with whistleblower statutes that protect employees who report other types of wrongdoing, Berkowitz said. If OSHA dismisses a complaint, workers have no right to appeal the decision, and once they file a complaint with OSHA they aren’t permitted to take their case to court on their own, she said.

Consumer advocates would like to see those provisions changed.

Advocates have urged OSHA to adopt mandatory COVID safety standards for workplaces, but the agency has declined to do so, maintaining that its “general duty clause,” which requires employers to maintain a workplace free from hazards likely to cause death or physical harm, is sufficient.

“The Administration has remained committed to providing the Whistleblower Protection program with the resources it needs to fulfill its mission,” a spokesperson for the Department of Labor wrote in an email to KHN. “In fiscal year 2020, OSHA asked for and received five new full-time employees and requested an additional ten in the President’s budget for fiscal year 2021.”

If workers don’t pursue a whistleblower complaint through OSHA, they can file a state lawsuit claiming “wrongful discharge” or use a state’s whistleblower law, as Collins did.

According to a COVID employment litigation tracker by Fisher Phillips, an employment law firm, since the beginning of the year 169 retaliation/whistleblower lawsuits have been filed across the country — the second-biggest category, behind suits related to remote work/leave, with 206 cases. An additional 27 lawsuits have been filed for wrongful discharge.

Juan Carlos Fernandez, the Morristown, New Jersey, attorney representing Charles Collins, said he’s seen a significant uptick in inquiries from workers about safety concerns in recent months. Before the pandemic began, he typically received one or two such calls per month. Now, he gets three or four a day.

Many callers say they were terminated after they asked for protective equipment on the job, Fernandez said. Others had asked for time off to care for a family member or a child whose school had closed because of COVID-19 and then were told not to come back to work.

In addition to reporting safety violations, Collins’ lawsuit claims, he was fired for asking to take time off. Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees are generally entitled to two weeks’ paid leave if they’re quarantined, and another two weeks’ paid sick leave at two-thirds pay to care for a child whose school has closed, as well as expanded family and medical leave. Collins has cared for his nephew since his sister died two years ago in a car accident. His nephew’s school closed in March because of COVID-19.

Collins said his employer, ASO Safety Solutions, paid him for only the first week of his company-ordered quarantine. Any additional time off would come out of his accrued sick and vacation time, he was told.

ASO Safety Solutions didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did the law firm representing the company.

In his response to the complaint submitted to the court, the lawyer representing the company denied that ASO had retaliated against Collins for whistleblowing, asserting he had resigned. The response, by John Olsen, with Ferdinand IP Law Group, also said that the provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act do not apply to the company. The lawyers have exchanged requests for discovery, Fernandez said, which should be answered in the next several weeks.

A few states and cities have stepped in to help whistleblowers. Virginia was the first to put in place statewide workplace safety standards related to COVID-19, spurred by concerns from workers in poultry plants, said Rachel McFarland, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. The standards include specific provisions protecting workers from retaliation for raising safety concerns or refusing to work in a location they believe is unsafe.

Colorado and the cities of Philadelphia and Chicago likewise passed laws prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who raise COVID-related safety concerns, refuse to work in unsafe conditions or take time off to minimize the transmission of the virus.

But these laws are the exceptions, said Brent Newell, a senior attorney at Public Justice in Oakland, California, who has represented the interests of workers in meatpacking plants. “Many states haven’t done that and won’t do that,” he said. “For the federal government to put it on the states to protect workers is wholly and fundamentally inadequate.”

This blog originally appeared at KHN on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Andrews is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience conceiving, reporting, writing and editing features, analyses, commentary and news for leading print and digital publications, including Kaiser Health News, the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR. 


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OSHA is doing virtually nothing to protect workers in the pandemic

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Two reports out this week show how badly the Trump administration is failing workers during the coronavirus pandemic. The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report looks at 9,051 complaints workers have sent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration expressing concern about safety on the job during the pandemic. OSHA has investigated just 198 of them, and 85 of 1,215 referrals. More than 2,000 of the complaints were from healthcare workers. More than 1,000 were from retail workers.

The National Employment Law Project, meanwhile, looked at workers’ retaliation complaints related to COVID-19 whistleblowing. Of 1,744 complaints, NELP “found that only 348 complaints—just one in five—were docketed for investigation; and only 35 complaints—just two percent—were resolved in that period. Most of the complaints—54 percent—were dismissed or closed without investigation.”

OSHA is failing workers—just as Trump wants.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on October 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Women of color suffer as coronavirus takes existing economic inequalities and doubles down on them

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The coronavirus economy is crushing women, people of color, and especially women of color. While the economy added 661,000 jobs between August and September, 865,000 women dropped out of the paid workforce. White women have recovered 61% of the jobs they lost in the early months of the pandemic, while Black women have recovered just 39%. As of a September 30 report in The Washington Post, less than 45% of mothers of children aged six to 12 have gotten back jobs they lost, while fathers of children in that age group have seen employment rebound 70%. Workers with college degrees have gotten back 55% of lost jobs, while for workers with high school degrees it’s less than 40%.

The devastation to state and local government jobs—particularly in education—and to the childcare industry has hit women particularly hard, putting many out of work—and then, in turn, women in other industries feel the squeeze because their kids are at home and household labor and childcare fall disproportionately on them.

Unemployment actually rose among Latinas in the most recent jobs report, going from 10.5% to 11%, and Latinas accounted for 324,000 of the women dropping out of the workforce. Though unemployment among Black women is just as high, at 11.1%, only 58,000 Black women dropped out.

This may be just the tip of the iceberg, though. A study published by Lean In “found that one in four women are considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce as a result of the damage wrought by COVID-19,” The 19th reported. “It’s the first time in six years of research that the annual study has found evidence of women intending to leave their jobs at higher rates than men.”

In an unequal economy and an unequal society, go figure. The new burdens of a crisis fall hardest on the people already struggling. This is a challenge to the United States and, in particular, to Democrats should they win big in November: What are we going to do to fix this?

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Employers Are Spying on Remote Workers in Their Homes

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The future of work is here, ush­ered in by a glob­al pan­dem­ic. But is it turn­ing employ­ment into a Work­ers’ Par­adise of work­ing at home? Or more of a Big Broth­er panopticon?

Dis­turb­ing increas­es in use of dig­i­tal sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies by employ­ers to mon­i­tor their remote work­ers is rais­ing alarm bells. With the num­ber of remote work­ers surg­ing as a result of the pan­dem­ic—42% of U.S. work­ers are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, liv­ing rooms and home offices—a num­ber of employ­ers have begun requir­ing their work­ers to down­load spy­ing soft­ware to their lap­tops and smart­phones. The goal is for busi­ness­es to mon­i­tor what their remote employ­ees do all day, and to track job per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and reduce so-called “cyber-slack­ing.”

Busi­ness soft­ware prod­ucts from Hub­staff, which tracks a worker’s mouse move­ments, key­board strokes, web­pages vis­it­ed, email, file trans­fers and appli­ca­tions used, are surg­ing in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which work­ers down­load to their smart­phones so that employ­ers can track their loca­tion. Anoth­er prod­uct, called Time Doc­tor, down­loads videos of employ­ees’ screens and uses a com­put­er’s web­cam, which can take a pic­ture of the employ­ee every 10 min­utes. As one work­er who was sub­ject­ed to Time Doc­tor told NPR, “If you’re idle for a few min­utes, if you go to the bath­room or to the kitchen, a pop-up comes up and says, ‘You have 60 sec­onds to start work­ing again or we’re going to pause your time.’” 

Anoth­er sys­tem, Inter­Guard, can be secret­ly installed on work­ers’ com­put­ers. As the Wash­ing­ton Post notes, it “cre­ates a minute-by-minute time­line of every app and web­site they view, cat­e­go­riz­ing each as ‘pro­duc­tive’ or ‘unpro­duc­tive’ and rank­ing work­ers by their ‘pro­duc­tiv­i­ty score.’” Oth­er employ­ers are using a low­er tech approach, requir­ing work­ers to stay on a tele­con­fer­ence like Zoom all day so they can be con­tin­u­al­ly watched.

Since the Covid-19 out­break, one sur­veil­lance com­pa­ny, Aware­ness Tech­nolo­gies, Inc., says it has seen its sales triple. Exec­u­tives at Hub­staff and Tera­mind also say demand for their com­pa­nies’ mon­i­tor­ing prod­ucts have tripled. One web­site show­ing “Employ­ee Mon­i­tor­ing Soft­ware in the USA” lists near­ly 70 com­pa­nies with prod­ucts for sale.

Out­dat­ed laws keep it legal

Online sur­veil­lance of employ­ees may seem inva­sive and creepy, but it is a legal prac­tice in the Unit­ed States. Indi­vid­ual state laws vary over whether com­pa­nies must inform work­ers that they’re using track­ing soft­ware, but in real­i­ty “when you’re on your office com­put­er, you have no pri­va­cy at all,” Lewis Malt­by, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Workrights Insti­tute, told CNBC. “Any­thing and every­thing you do is prob­a­bly mon­i­tored by your boss.”

Cur­rent laws are vast­ly out­dat­ed, as they are based on the Elec­tron­ic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pri­va­cy Act of 1986, when the pri­ma­ry form of elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion was the tele­phone. That was a dis­tant time when desk­top com­put­ers were first becom­ing pop­u­lar, and smart phones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

And now, in response to the coro­n­avirus out­break, com­pa­nies such as Price­wa­ter­house­C­oop­ers (PwC) and Sales­force have devel­oped intru­sive appli­ca­tions that enable com­pa­nies to con­tin­u­ous­ly track the health sta­tus of their employ­ees. Often they include a sys­tem for track­ing con­tacts between employ­ees with­in an office, and a mobile app for col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion about their health sta­tus. A num­ber of large U.S. employ­ers, includ­ing Ama­zonWal­mart, Home Depot and Star­bucks, are tak­ing the tem­per­a­tures of their employ­ees before they are allowed to work. Cer­tain­ly, employ­ers have a legit­i­mate need to col­lect the nec­es­sary data to safe­guard their work­places, espe­cial­ly in response to a pan­dem­ic. But what is the appro­pri­ate lev­el of “health intru­sion”? How vol­un­tary is the par­tic­i­pa­tion of work­ers, and who gets to decide? 

The real­i­ty of this con­stant Big Broth­er dig­i­tal spy­ing in people’s homes is that dozens of remote work­ers are start­ing to com­plain that they feel burned out by this pres­sure. A recent Fish­bowl sur­vey of major com­pa­nies’ employ­ees found that three-quar­ters of those polled were opposed to using an app or device that allows their com­pa­ny to trace their con­tacts with col­leagues. Yet many fear they will be brand­ed as trou­ble­mak­ers or lose their jobs if they speak out. And since remote work­ers hard­ly see each oth­er—and increas­ing­ly may not even know many of their cowork­ers—these fac­tors will make labor orga­niz­ing and col­lec­tive work­er empow­er­ment increas­ing­ly challenging.

U.S. labor unions have been slow to advo­cate for updat­ing these out­dat­ed laws. One union, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, has been work­ing to blunt the worst of the abus­es. Labor-friend­ly media have been miss­ing this sto­ry as well. Not only should unions advo­cate to update the laws and lim­it dig­i­tal spy­ing, but why not also demand that home-based work­ers be com­pen­sat­ed by employ­ers for use of their house, util­i­ties and the inter­net? And that the employ­er remains respon­si­ble to pro­vide equip­ment and a safe work­place, even in the home?

Remote work­force growth—the new normal?

As the num­ber of remote work­ers ris­es, con­cerns are grow­ing among labor advo­cates that this is quick­ly becom­ing the “new nor­mal.” One sur­vey found that 74% of com­pa­nies intend to keep some pro­por­tion of their work­force on a per­ma­nent remote sta­tus, with near­ly a quar­ter of respon­dents say­ing they will move at least 20% of their on-site employ­ees to per­ma­nent remote sta­tus. Google, whose par­ent com­pa­ny is Alpha­bet, recent­ly announced it will keep its 200,000 full-time and con­tract employ­ees home until at least July 2021, and Mark Zucker­berg pre­dicts half of Face­book employ­ees will work from home over the next decade. HUB Inter­na­tion­al, a glob­al insur­ance bro­ker­age, has shift­ed 90% of its 12,000-plus employ­ees to remote sta­tus. Teleper­for­mance, the world’s largest call-cen­ter com­pa­ny, esti­mates that near­ly 155,000 of its employ­ees—almost half its glob­al work­force—will not return to a phys­i­cal work­site. A sur­vey of firms bythe Sur­vey of Busi­ness Uncer­tain­ty found that the share of work­ing days spent at home is expect­ed to increase four­fold from a pre-Covid-19 lev­el of 5 per­cent to 20%. Post-pan­dem­ic, many employ­ees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.

But not all at-home work­ers are cre­at­ed equal. Stan­ford econ­o­mist Nicholas Bloom says “This is gen­er­at­ing a time bomb for inequal­i­ty.” More edu­cat­ed, high­er-earn­ing employ­ees are far more like­ly to work from home, con­tin­u­ing to get paid and advance their careers. But many oth­ers are unable to work from home, often because they lack suit­able space or fast, afford­able inter­net con­nec­tions, and they are being left behind. “They face bleak prospects if their skills and work expe­ri­ence erode dur­ing an extend­ed shut­down and beyond,” says Bloom.

The future of work has become more uncer­tain than ever. In this “brave new world,” labor unions and advo­cates must ensure that the pan­dem­ic is not mis­used by busi­ness­es as an excuse to wors­en con­di­tions for employ­ees who work out of the office. It is easy to imag­ine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘plat­form’ work could blur, lead­ing to more ‘Uber­iza­tion’ as work devolves into ‘inde­pen­dent’ con­tracts, bogus self-employ­ment and ‘pay-by-project’ arrange­ments that can be eas­i­ly out­sourced to remote (and low­er cost) destinations.

Work­er advo­cates must push for a strong and mod­ern legal data pro­tec­tion frame­work. And that should include an effec­tive enforce­ment sys­tem against pri­va­cy abuse that cre­ates a dis­in­cen­tive against ille­gal spy­ing behav­ior. Remote work should not become a down­ward slide toward a Big Broth­er panop­ti­con that pen­e­trates into soci­ety ever more deeply, includ­ing into our homes.

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

About the Author: Steven Hill is the author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Econ­o­my” and Run­away Cap­i­tal­ism Are Screw­ing Amer­i­can Work­ers and The Start­up Illu­sion: How the Inter­net Econ­o­my Threat­ens Our Wel­fare.


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Seattle makes DoorDash and Postmates pay out COVID-19 hazard pay

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Seattle really pissed off gig economy companies by imposing $2.50 in hazard pay for each food delivery order during the pandemic. It’s no surprise that some of the big companies stiffed their workers—but there is a surprise here: Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards (OLS) successfully pressured DoorDash and Postmates to do internal audits and pay up.

“After receiving calls from gig workers, OLS contacted the companies, informing them that if the companies resolved issues regarding premium pay and paid workers back pay and interest by a certain date, OLS would forego a formal investigation,” OLS told Eater Seattle. In all, DoorDash paid $111,435 to 2,998 Seattle workers, and Postmates paid $250,515 to 2,975 workers.

”The city is making clear to these multi-billion dollar delivery companies that they’re not above the law,” Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington and Fair Work Center, said in a statement. “Our worker protections are only as good as our ability to enforce them, and Seattle is demonstrating once again why we’re a national model for enforcing labor standards.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Corona-fied: Employers Spying on Remote Workers in Their Homes

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The future of work is here, ushered in by a global pandemic. But is it turning employment into a Worker’s Paradise of working at home? Or more of a Big Brother panopticon?

Disturbing increases in the use of digital surveillance technologies by employers to monitor their remote workers are raising alarm bells. With the number of remote workers surging as a result of the pandemic—42 percent of U.S. workers are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, living rooms, and home offices—a number of employers have begun requiring their workers to download spying software to their laptops and smartphones. The goal is for businesses to monitor what their remote employees do all day, to track job performance and productivity, and to reduce so-called “cyber-slacking.”

Business software products from Hubstaff, which tracks a worker’s mouse movements, keyboard strokes, webpages visited, email, file transfers and applications used, are surging in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which workers download to their smartphones so that employers can track their location. Another product, called Time Doctor, “downloads videos of employees’ screens” and uses “a computer’s webcam to take a picture of the employee every 10 minutes,” NPR reports. One employee told NPR, “If you’re idle for a few minutes, if you go to the bathroom or… [to the kitchen], a pop-up will come up and it’ll say, ‘You have 60 seconds to start working again or we’re going to pause your time.’”

Another system, InterGuard, can be secretly installed on workers’ computers. The Washington Post reports that it “creates a minute-by-minute timeline of every app and website they view, categorizing each as ‘productive’ or ‘unproductive’ and ranking workers by their ‘productivity score.’” Other employers are using a lower-tech approach, requiring workers to stay logged in to a teleconference service like Zoom all day so they can be continually watched.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, one surveillance company, Awareness Technologies, says it has seen its sales triple. Executives at Hubstaff and Teramind also say demand for their companies’ monitoring products has tripled. One website showing “Employee Monitoring Software in the USA” lists nearly 70 companies with products for sale.

Outdated Laws Keep It Legal

Despite this surge in online surveillance activity, currently, it is a legal practice in the United States. Individual state laws vary over whether companies must inform workers that they’re using tracking software, but in reality, “When you’re on your office computer, you have no privacy at all,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. “Anything and everything you do is probably monitored by your boss.”

Current laws are vastly outdated, as they are based on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, when the primary form of electronic communication was the telephone. That was a distant time when desktop computers were first becoming popular, and smartphones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

And now, in response to the coronavirus outbreak, companies such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Salesforce have developed intrusive applications that enable companies to continuously track the health status of their employees. Often they include a system for tracking contacts between employees within an office, and a mobile app for collecting information about their health status. A number of large U.S. employers, including AmazonWalmart, Home Depot and Starbucks, are taking the temperatures of their employees before they are allowed to work. Certainly, employers have a legitimate need to collect the necessary data to safeguard their workplaces, especially in response to a pandemic. But what is the appropriate level of “health intrusion”? How voluntary is the participation of workers, and who gets to decide?

The reality of this constant Big Brother digital spying in people’s homes is that dozens of remote workers are starting to complain that they feel burned out by this pressure. A recent Fishbowl survey of major companies’ employees found that three-quarters of those polled were opposed to using “an app or device that allows their company to trace their contacts with colleagues.” Yet many fear they will be branded as a troublemaker or lose their job if they speak out. And since remote workers hardly see each other—and increasingly may not even know many of their coworkers—these factors will make labor organizing and collective worker empowerment increasingly challenging.

U.S. labor unions have been slow to advocate for updating these outdated laws. One union, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, has been working to blunt the worst of the abuses. Labor-friendly media have been missing this story as well. Not only should unions advocate to update the laws and limit digital spying, but why not also demand that home-based workers be compensated by employers for use of their house, utilities and the internet? And that the employer remains responsible to provide equipment and a safe workplace, even in the home?

Remote Workforce GrowthThe New Normal?

As the number of remote workers rises, concerns are growing among labor advocates that this is quickly becoming the “new normal.” One survey by Gartner, Inc. found that 74 percent of companies intend to keep some proportion of their workforce on permanent remote status, with nearly a quarter of respondents saying they will move at least 20 percent of their on-site employees to permanent remote status. Google/Alphabet recently announced it will keep its 200,000 full-time and contract employees home until at least July 2021, and half of Facebook employees will work from home over the next decade. Hub International, a global insurance brokerage, has shifted 90 percent of its 12,000 employees to remote status. “Teleperformance, the world’s largest call-center company, estimates that around 150,000 of its employees [nearly half its global workforce] will not return to a physical worksite,” according to Social Europe.

Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom says:

“A recent separate survey of firms from the Survey of Business Uncertainty that I run with the Atlanta Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago indicated that the share of working days spent at home is expected to increase fourfold from pre-COVID levels, from 5 percent to 20 percent.

“Of the dozens of firms I have talked to, the typical plan is that employees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.”

But not all at-home workers are created equal. Bloom continues:

“Taken together, this is generating a time bomb for inequality. Our results show that more educated, higher-earning employees are far more likely to work from home—so they are continuing to get paid, develop their skills and advance their careers. At the same time, those unable to work from home—either because of the nature of their jobs, or because they lack suitable space or internet connections—are being left behind. They face bleak prospects if their skills and work experience erode during an extended shutdown and beyond.”

The future of work has become more uncertain than ever. In this “brave new world,” labor unions and advocates must ensure that the pandemic is not misused by businesses as an excuse to worsen conditions for employees who work out of the office. It is easy to imagine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘platform’ work could blur, leading to more ‘Uberization’ as work devolves into ‘independent’ contracts, bogus self-employment and ‘pay-by-project’ arrangements that can be easily outsourced to remote (and lower-cost) destinations.

Worker advocates must push for a strong and modern legal data protection framework. And that should include an effective enforcement system against privacy abuse that disincentivizes illegal spying behavior. Remote work should not become a downward slide toward a Big Brother panopticon that penetrates into society ever more deeply, including into our homes.

This blog originally appeared at Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute, on September 23, 2020.

About the Author: Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is the author of Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers and Expand Social Security Now: How to Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve.


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Unemployment claims jump back over 1 million

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States have been processing roughly 1 million new unemployment applications each week since mid-March.

The number of workers applying for unemployment benefits jumped to 1.1 million last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, the first time in two weeks that new claims have gone up.

States have been processing roughly 1 million new unemployment applications each week since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping through the country, forcing the shutdown of many businesses.

An additional 542,797 workers filed for jobless aid under the new pandemic unemployment assistance program, created for those not traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits like the self-employed and gig workers.

How bad is it?: New jobless applications filed in state programs are still far above the previous record of 695,000 in 1982 — and have topped that record for 22 weeks in a row.

That figure also doesn’t include the thousands of workers who are applying for jobless benefits under the federal pandemic assistance program.

In total, there are more than 28 million people receiving jobless benefits, the department said.

New Jersey saw the largest jump in new claims last week, reporting an estimated 24,646 new applications, a more than 10,000 increase from the previous week. New York also received 62,397 new claims last week, nearly 10,000 more than it saw the week before.

Where’s Congress?: Lawmakers left Washington after Democratic leaders and the White House were unable to agree on another round of pandemic aid.

The House will gavel in for a rare weekend session on Saturday to vote on a bill to shore up the U.S. Postal Service, but Democratic leaders have been facing pressure within the party to also vote on aid programs like beefed-up unemployment insurance. Democrats are considering a proposal that would automatically extend jobless benefits to millions of Americans if the economic and health crises continue.

Unemployed workers were receiving an extra $600-a-week boost from the federal government under a program created by the CARES Act, the massive economic relief bill passed in March. But those payments expired on July 31, cutting most unemployed workers’ checks by at least 50 percent.

Republicans meanwhile, are planning to introduce a “skinny” coronavirus relief bill that is expected to include $300 in boosted weekly federal unemployment benefits until Dec. 27.

What are states doing?: Eleven states so far have applied to tap into a $400 extra unemployment payment program initiated following President Donald Trump’s move to expand jobless aid via executive action.

Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah have been approved for extra federal assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The program was launched after Trump on Aug. 8 issued an executive memorandum instructing FEMA to use disaster relief funding to send the extra $400 a week to unemployed workers.

But laid-off workers in those states will probably not see the extra cash on their unemployment checks for several weeks. The president’s memo required states to create and implement a new system and fund one-fourth of the additional $400 benefit.

Because states have to adjust their unemployment insurance system to access the funds and “accommodate program requirements,” the DOL estimates it will take each state three weeks to set up the program.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 20, 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.

 


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Job losses have now hit 40% of low-income homes

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Thirteen percent of all U.S. adults, or 20 percent of people who were employed in February, were laid off or furloughed.

One in five American workers lost their jobs in March, including almost 40 percent of those in lower-income households, according to a Federal Reserve survey, underscoring the staggering impact of the coronavirus crisis.

The data — released hours after the Labor Department reported that workers filed almost 3 million new unemployment claims last week — is further evidence that the economic crunch is pounding poorer Americans the hardest. It comes as the country increasingly looks to the Fed to ease the pain of the recession and the central bank itself presses Congress to do more to halt the wave of layoffs.

“A clearer understanding of how families are coping with the changed economic landscape is vital as the Federal Reserve considers next steps to address fallout from the pandemic,” Fed Governor Michelle Bowman said in a statement.

Thirteen percent of all U.S. adults, or 20 percent of people who were employed in February, were laid off or furloughed as the pandemic began sweeping through the country in March, the Fed said. Another 6 percent of all adults worked reduced hours or went on leave without pay, the central bank found in the survey, included in its annual Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households.

For those who lost their job or were working fewer hours, only 64 percent expected to be able to pay off all their bills, compared to 85 percent of Americans who didn’t see their employment situation change.

Yet in a sign that Americans are maintaining their optimism, 91 percent of people who lost their jobs or were furloughed said they expected to return to the same employer eventually, suggesting that government efforts to keep workers tied to their current jobs might be working. Five percent in that group had already returned to work by the time of the survey.

Still, the numbers paint a grim picture: 39 percent of employed people in households making less than $40,000 lost their job or were furloughed in March. That compares to 19 percent of individuals in households making between $40,000 and $100,000, and 13 percent of people in households with an income above $100,000, a Fed official told reporters.

Meanwhile, 7 percent of workers took a new job or increased their hours. Overall, 23 percent of Americans reported lower income in March compared to February, while only 5 percent saw their pay increase.

Some people who saw their employment situation change for the worse might have been able to get new jobs or had second jobs.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell on Wednesday warned that the depth of the crisis could result in lingering pain for the economy and said further action by Congress to mitigate that damage would be worth the high cost.

“This reversal of economic fortune has caused a level of pain that is hard to capture in words, as lives are upended amid great uncertainty about the future,” Powell said.

The survey findings also highlight disparities among workers with different education levels, with financial well-being declining among those with a high school education or less.

People with more education also had more ability to work from home; 63 percent of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree worked entirely from home during the last week of March, compared to 20 percent of workers with a high school degree or less, and 27 percent of people with some college education or an associate degree.

The supplemental survey polled roughly 1,000 adults between April 3-6.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Victoria Guida is a financial services reporter covering banking regulations and monetary policy for POLITICO Pro. She covers the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, as well as Treasury, after four years on the international trade beat, most recently for Pro and previously for Inside U.S. Trade.


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Why America Cannot Afford to Let the U.S. Postal Service Go Bankrupt

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Bill Boone was a fresh-faced 23-year-old in 1952 when he cast his first ballot for U.S. president, while proudly serving aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Korea.

The U.S. Postal Service carried that vote untold miles to the election board in Boone’s hometown of Benton, Arkansas, and he’s considered “the mail” an essential part of life ever since.

Today, the 90-year-old retired Steelworker relies on the postal service to deliver his medicines, Social Security checks and letters from relatives. A dedicated letter carrier even walks the mail up the driveway—past the mailbox—to Boone’s front door.

“I told him, ‘You can’t retire until I die,’” Boone said.

The postal service delivers to every U.S. address, no matter how isolated, and charges consistent, reasonable rates to all customers. It’s a lifeline for military members and the elderly. It keeps commerce humming and the country connected.

Americans love the postal service. Yet Donald Trump wants to kill it.

The postal service lost billions of dollars as businesses scaled back operations or closed during the pandemic. The agency usually supports itself with sales of stamps and other products. But now, without as much as $75 billion in emergency federal aid, it will go bankrupt in months.

Americans under stay-at-home orders, with limited access to stores and restaurants, need the postal service more than ever. They overwhelmingly support saving it.

But Trump refuses to help unless the agency quadruples rates on packages it delivers for Amazon and other companies. Because Amazon, UPS, and FedEx won’t deliver to some addresses, such as those in rural areas, they often rely on the postal service to carry packages the so-called “last mile” to a recipient’s door.

If the postal service raised rates, these companies would merely pass along the higher costs to their customers. And many Americans, like the 30 million or so who just lost their jobs because of the pandemic, can’t afford that.

The death of the postal service would deprive Americans of a way to vote, pay bills, apply for passports, get prescriptions, send letters, receive tax refunds, collect Social Security and ship items ranging from gold bars to cremated remains.

It would threaten the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, a law-enforcement agency that investigates narcotics trafficking, identify theft and other crimes.

And if the postal service vanished, so would the army of letter carriers who keep tabs on elderly residents, call the fire department when they smell smoke on their routes and generally serve as unofficial neighborhood watchmen.

“I just can’t believe the government would think about shutting down the postal service,” said Boone, who worked at Reynolds Metals Company for nearly 30 years and at Alcoa for 10 more.

“It would be kind of like living without people picking up your trash. In fact, it’s just not an issue that Congress or anybody should have to discuss.”

If Trump kills the postal service, people in remote areas—such as the 272 customers along a 191-mile rural delivery route in Montana and other Americans whom letter carriers now reach by mule, snowmobile and boat—would face higher rates from private shipping companies.

If they could get service at all.

“If private enterprise took over, I think it would be a lot more expensive, and our rural delivery would probably just evaporate,” said Mike Harkin, a longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L in Des Moines, Iowa. “I’d probably have to drive to town every time to mail stuff.”

Harkin, a Firestone retiree and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), seldom sees FedEx and UPS trucks on his rural road miles from the small town of Woodward.

But the mail truck is another story. Harkin says his letter carrier will gladly drive packages up his quarter-mile-long driveway if they’re too big for the mailbox.

Although the postal service hemorrhaged money during the pandemic, it’s worked hard to keep America functioning through the crisis.

In addition to the regular mail, it delivers surveys for the critically important 2020 census. It brings masks, sanitizers, toilet paper and other pandemic staples that Americans order online. It accommodates small companies trying to stay afloat by conducting more mail-order business during the crisis.

In March, Trump signed a pandemic stimulus package with money for hospitals, aid for businesses and checks of up to $1,200 for individual taxpayers. The postal service delivers those checks, which Trump insisted bear his own signature.

Postal workers pay a heavy price for their dedication. Hundreds have been sickened by COVID-19. Dozens died.

By keeping post offices open and the mail flowing, the postal service provides a rare dose of normalcy during the pandemic.

And the agency’s importance is growing. Come November, American democracy may depend on it.

More and more Americans want the federal government to make mail-in balloting a universal option because they fear catching the coronavirus at polling places.

They worry about standing in lines when public health experts stress the need for social distancing. They don’t want to touch the door handles at polling places or push buttons on voting machines, knowing the coronavirus can live on surfaces.

Boone says nothing will stop him from voting on November 3. He’ll go to the polls if he must but would feel more comfortable casting his ballot by mail for the first time since his Navy days nearly seven decades ago.

It isn’t just voters who are concerned. Some states fear they’ll have a difficult time finding poll workers, who are predominately elderly.

Only if Americans have the option of voting by mail can the nation ensure a viable turnout in a critically important election. That means saving the postal service.

Right now, Trump is among a minority of Americans who fail to see the postal service for the bargain it is. “I’d be lost without it,” Harkin said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute on May 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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