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Millions of People Can’t Pay Rent Tomorrow. Here’s How Some Are Organizing.

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As April 1 looms and the first rent payment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic becomes due, countless people wonder how they’ll be able to afford to pay. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, millions have had their hours cut, been furloughed, or laid off. A whopping 3.3 million have applied for unemployment benefits, and some say the unemployment rate could reach 30%. To put that in perspective, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 25%.

The cost of rent has skyrocketed the past few decades, while the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since the $7.25 wage took effect in 2009. And as worker productivity has soared to new heights, studies show that wages have stagnated across the board. This has been a problem for working people even in times of normalcy—in expensive urban cores like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, many bounce from friends’ couches to shelters and even sometimes to their own cars. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing crisis is understandably exploding: Those who were able to just barely pay their rent before are now scrambling to keep the landlord at bay.

Housing activists have been calling for a reprieve on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, and numerous cities states have reacted quickly, placing a temporary moratorium on evictions or a pause on housing court. But none yet have frozen rent payments, and tomorrow is April 1—and the rent is due.

While the fear and panic that people may feel when they’re unable to pay their rent or mortgage can seem individual and unique, it’s actually shared between the millions of others who are in the same boat. Right to the City Alliance, a national network of more than 80 racial, economic and environmental justice organizations, is hoping to turn that collective anxiety into collective action. The alliance is calling for an immediate cancellation of rent and mortgage payments through the duration of the public health and economic crisis for all renters, homeowners and small businesses and a three-month recovery period. These demands expand beyond a rent and mortgage freeze and include calling for the immediate release of those being held in pre-trial and immigrant detention, an indefinite suspension of utility shutoffs, and a guarantee of unemployment insurance, sick time, paid leave, health care, and a living wage for all workers.

For many, rent cancellation is urgently needed to ward off personal financial catastrophe. Coya Crespin of Community Alliance of Tenants of Portland, Oregon, said in a statement, “As a pregnant single parent without any savings, and now schools being shut down, it has been difficult keeping my kids fed. Many of the members of the housing organization I’m a member of have been contacting me afraid of not being able to pay rent in April. The stimulus package check that politicians are lifting up as a solution doesn’t even cover one month’s rent in most cases. People are beyond stressed. I’m beyond stressed.”

Many of these demands have been voiced for years, but have been popularized by the Bernie Sanders campaign and the #HomesGuarantee platform, which would implement a national rent control standard and a just-cause requirement for evictions.Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders agrees that “along with pausing mortgage payments, evictions, and utility shutoffs, we must place a moratorium on rent payments” during the coronavirus pandemic. And because President Trump’s recovery proposal is a paltry $1,200—not even enough to cover rent in many cities—tenants (and even some homeowners) are being forced to make a public declaration that, without more aid, they can’t (and won’t) pay. Housing activists are using this moment of true desperation to demand the support they deserve—but there are some disagreements on the way forward.

While Right to the City Alliance is pushing for an immediate suspension of rent and mortgage payments throughout the coronavirus crisis, and for a three-month period after it ends, others are calling for rent strikes if the government doesn’t act. David Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance, said his network is “supporting a diversity of tactics in the alliance.” Rent Strike 2020, a new organizing campaign working in partnership with Socialist Alternative and the Rose Caucus, a group of socialists running for both state and federal House and Senate seats, is demanding “every Governor, in every state: freeze rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection for two months, or face a rent strike.” Tenants in New York are waiting for Governor Cuomo to provide some relief, but are prepared to take matters into their own hands and go on a rent strike if he does not act.

Davin Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance said, “We see rent strikes as a collective action that comes from deep organizing on the local level and some of our member organizations are going to use that tactic. We need people to come together, organize, and join the movement for long-term and transformative struggle so we can fundamentally change the housing system and win homes for all.”

The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its COVID-19 Tenant Organizing Guide, urges people to be strategic and think long and hard about what their demands really are: “A rent strike is a tool, not a demand,” the guide states. It specifies, “In a situation where the demand is ‘stop collecting rent from me,’ it’s questionable how effective a rent strike would be. To put it another way, how does withholding rent pressure a landlord to suspend rent?”

There are a number of tactics being put forward in this moment, but one thing is for certain: In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing movement is empowering tenants to take big and bold action. No one can predict what will happen on or immediately after April 1, when millions potentially don’t pay their rent, but Cardenas said, “It’s not likely that we’ll see relief, and even the relief that comes in before May 1 won’t be sufficient for what our families need across the country. There is not going to be a return to normalcy or a return to business as usual.”

To sustain any long-term movement—and to win real power for tenants—it’s going to take more than one-off rent strikes or single issue demands. It’s going to take building powerful, working-class organizations. The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its guide, writes “Building strong, durable organization among tenants where there is an abundance of leaders and widespread trust yields the most successful and lasting results.” This must be the lesson for our movements going forward. April 1 may indeed be a pivotal moment in a growing housing movement that is being propelled forward by the crisis of this moment. How we help to steer the real hardships that so many workers are facing into a sustained and determined fight in the days that follow, however, will determine whether we can transform this moment of collective suffering into collective power.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

Coronavirus is endangering the postal service when we need vote by mail. Congress needs to act now

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Congress is failing the U.S. Postal Service, again, and with it, the nation. USPS warned recently that it could run out of money to operate by June because of the massive fall in the level of mail being sent during coronavirus business closures. Democrats tried to include money in the recent stimulus, but the only help that ended up in the final bill was $10 billion in loans that are subject to approval by the Treasury Department.

The decline in mail being sent doesn’t mean mail is less important—it means, in large part, that the people who rely most on mail are now the most vulnerable people. People who need their prescription medications. People who live in rural areas not well served by other delivery services. But democracy also needs the mail. Vote by mail will be more important than ever if COVID-19 remains a threat in the fall.

Millions of people vote by mail, with some states having universal vote-by-mail and many others allowing absentee voting by mail. That’s something we need to expand, not endanger by weakening the USPS.

We’re also talking about an organization that employs 630,000 people. One in five is African American and more than 100,000 are veterans. Every day, postal workers are risking their health by going to work to make sure we get our mail. More than 100 have tested positive for COVID-19 and one has died.

And while the USPS is in crisis, that crisis was manufactured by Republicans. Congress does not allow the postal service to compete with private business—and then it comes under attack for not being profitable. Your local post office should be a center for services like faxing, notary publics, hunting and fishing licenses, and more. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been a longtime champion of the USPS, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has pushed for postal banking, which would not only give the post office a boost but would connect low-income people with nonpredatory banking.

The coronavirus crisis should be making us see that we need more public goods, not allow the ones we have to die off—or be killed by Republicans for whom that’s long been a goal. The USPS needs funding now.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

Why COVID-19 Will Strain the Safety Net for Homeless Vets to the Breaking Point

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Under normal circumstances, Jerry Porter would be spending his time helping the veterans he finds in tent camps and run-down housing.

But the escalating threat of COVID-19 forces the community activist and retired Steelworker to remain at home for now, even though vulnerable vets need him more than ever.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the poor bear the brunt of a pandemic that’s exposed the deep class lines in U.S. society.

The rich have big savings accounts and quality health care. They’ll emerge from the crisis just fine.

But Americans at the margins, including homeless vets who rely on a frayed safety net stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, now face an even greater struggle to survive.

“I don’t know where they end up,” said Porter ruefully. Porter, 75, is a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105 who worked more than 40 years at the aluminum plant in Davenport, Iowa, now owned by Arconic.

Porter and a group of friends work together to help veterans in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.

But now, they’re heeding the request of public health officials. They stay home to help their community slow the spread of COVID-19.

That prevents them from helping veterans like the one Porter found sleeping on a squalid mattress in a “junky” house. He got the man into a clean apartment and—thanks to a friend who owned a bedding store—a new mattress and box spring for just $180.

Just as alarming, COVID-19 halted the fund-raising supporting that kind of intervention. Local veterans groups just canceled a taco dinner and a poppy sale that together raise about $6,000 each year.

For some veterans, that money is the difference between sleeping indoors or on the street.

Porter and his friends use some of the funds to provide life’s basics to the homeless vets they move into government-subsidized housing with little but the clothes on their backs.

“There’s nothing,” Porter explained. “There’s no bedding, silverware, dishes, glassware, towels, sheets.”

Twice a year, advocates in the Quad Cities hold “stand down” events that serve as a one-stop shop for veterans needing anything from counseling to jobs.

Porter already worries that the three-day event planned for September will be canceled because of COVID-19, leaving veterans to face a long winter without important services.

Porter’s union job ensured good wages, a pension and affordable health care. He devotes his retirement to the less fortunate, feeling a duty to fellow vets with no one else to help them.

The federal government fails veterans who struggle to find adequate employment or wrestle with health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

For example, the nation hasn’t adequately addressed the challenges that doom many vets to unemployment or low-wage jobs. Among other problems, veterans have difficulty converting their skills to the private sectorfinding purpose in civilian work and obtaining occupational licenses enabling them to apply skills learned in the military.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25, would benefit about 1.8 million vets, along with millions of other Americans, who barely scrape by. The House last year approved a bill to increase the minimum wage, but Senate Republicans refuse to act on it.

Although significant progress in combating veteran homelessness has been made in recent years, unemployment, low wages and health problems still force veterans onto the streets or into shelters. About 40,000 are homeless, and 1.4 million more are only a lost paycheck or other crisis away from losing the roof over their heads.

A collection of government agencies and nonprofits operates soup kitchens, shelters and other services to serve America’s homeless. But this underfunded system is strained to capacity even in ordinary times.

Volunteers like Porter provide crucial support, stepping in when government agencies don’t know who else to call for help.

A veterans hospital once contacted Porter and asked him to help a man who lived outdoors. His tent was broken, and rain kept getting inside.

Porter picked up the vet and drove him to see a friend who owned an awning company. The businessman fixed the tent for free.

In a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, this patchwork system is easily overwhelmed.

Some service providers already reduced services or limited new admissions to slow the spread of the disease.

Agencies closed drop-in centers where homeless veterans can get out of the elements. Some now want to counsel clients remotely, even though homeless people may not have cell phones.

And in the Quad Cities, Porter and his crew are sidelined, too.

Homeless vets face even greater odds during the COVID-19 crisis even though they have a higher risk of contracting the disease than other Americans.

Many live in cramped quarters without the social distancing and sanitary measures vital to controlling the virus. The closing of libraries, malls and coffee shops deprived them of places to wash their hands. They have nowhere to isolate themselves if they get sick.

Some cities are scrambling to place homeless people in places such as unused motel rooms, vacant houses and recreational vehicles on public streets. The goal is to disperse the population and keep the disease from spreading like wildfire if someone contracts it.

While the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, the slapdash response underscores how fragile the safety net for America’s homeless really is.

As cities struggle to adapt, the ranks of the homeless likely will grow because of the economic slowdown, putting more stress on the overtaxed system.

The government’s response to COVID-19 must include injecting funds into programs that support homeless veterans and keep other vets from losing their homes.

But federal officials also must think about what the economy and social-service network will look like after the pandemic.

That means better funding a system now overly reliant on fundraisers like taco dinners and poppy sales. It means comprehensively addressing the problems servicemen and servicewomen face when they leave the armed forces.

Thoughtful interventions will save lives, says Porter, who recently ran into the veteran he rescued from the “junky” house.

“I’m on my feet,” the man told him. “I’m doing OK.”

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. on March 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Fatalistic Grocery Workers Demand Hazard Pay, Saying “Infection Is Inevitable”

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Grocery store employees find themselves the subject of widespread public acclaim for continuing to work during the coronavirus crisis. But front-line workers at grocery chains across the country say they want something more tangible than congratulations: hazard pay. And they are winning it with spontaneous organizing campaigns forged in the crucible of a national crisis.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, at least a dozen separate campaigns by grocery employees have popped up on Coworker.org, an online organizing platform that allows workers to create campaigns for workplace change themselves. Some have already won hazard pay at their stores; others are locked in struggles with intransigent employers. Workers involved in five separate campaigns told us of stress and dangerous conditions at work—but also of the power of collective action.

At Market of Choice, an Oregon-based grocery chain, the CEO has granted a $2 per hour pay increase (less than the $3 per hour workers asked for, but an increase nonetheless). Anna Carlin, a pizza cook at Market of Choice, says the increase is not enough, and that her colleagues remain “tense” and “stressed” about their own safety. “It irks me that corporate isn’t willing to call it ‘hazard pay,’” Carlin said. “We’re being exposed to hazards. Our work is increasingly hazardous. Not calling it hazard pay reads as an attempt to obfuscate that. Everyone at work seems generally grateful for the boost but also concerned about the lack of other protections or guarantees being offered.”

Employees at New Seasons Market, a grocery chain in the Northwestern United States, also secured bonus pay and other benefits during the crisis. Anne Johnson, a cashier at a store in Portland, Oregon, says that she appreciates the benefits, but doubts that the modest increases make up for the physical and emotional toll that the ongoing crisis is taking on workers there.

“The amount of emotional labor that’s expected of cashiers (especially someone like me, a friendly young woman) has always bothered me, but at this time it is so heightened and for me personally. It has become so intense I’ve asked to be assigned tasks other than ringing people up as much as possible. Staff in every department are stressed and overworked and worried for their families,” Johnson said. “I don’t really know if any amount of money would make working in this environment and being exposed to this level of risk feel worth it. Personally, I live with my grandmother and mother so it’s just really hard to know if continuing to come to work is the right choice.”

Those are the stresses on workers at chains that have granted some outright form of hazard pay. Elsewhere, gains can be more murky. One of the most prominent grocery organizing campaigns is at Trader Joe’s, where more than 20,000 employees have signed a petition asking for hazard pay, at the same time that an internal group has been calling publicly for a union drive. The company says it is setting up a “special bonus pool” for employees—money that workers say will come out to a raise of less than $2 per hour for the past month, which falls short of the petition’s call for time-and-a-half pay for everyone as long as the crisis drags on.

A group of Trader Joe’s employees involved in the organizing campaign, who answered questions anonymously, criticized “half-measures” by management in the face of an overwhelming public health threat. Workers described facing uncertainty, enormous crowds at stores, answering the same handful of questions over and over again from frantic customers, and a lack of management coordination on a national level that meant that different stores ended up with different enforcement policies on basic safety questions like the right of cashiers to wear gloves as they worked. “The company is leaving the health and safety of the base of their pyramid up to the mercy of each store’s captain and regional manager,” one employee said.

All of that takes place in an atmosphere of “palpable” stress and long hours, in which perfect safety is impossible. Asked about the fear of becoming infected with coronavirus on the job, one worker replied, “infection is inevitable.”

Adding to the dissatisfaction is the perception that the company is using the crisis as an opportunity to undermine the nascent union drive and spread misinformation. The workers who created the Coworker.org petition say that “The company used the existence of this petition to lie to workers, telling them it was a trick to get people to sign their name to the union effort.” Another Trader Joe’s employee sent a photograph of a printed sheet of “Huddle notes”—talking points that managers use in employee meetings—that included a section of common anti-union talking points, such as “Unions are businesses. They need revenue, and they get revenue through union dues.”

Many grocery workers are holding fast in their demands for compensation that they feel matches the scale for the risk they’re taking—demands that can themselves be heartbreakingly modest. Nearly 4,500 employees of the grocery chain Fred Meyer signed a petition for hazard pay, and the company has given them, instead, a one-time bonus of $300 for full-time employees, and $150 for part-time employees. Lauren Hendricks, a Fred Meyer cake decorator in Washington state, says a $2 per hour raise would be more appropriate. “That is what I have seen other companies doing, and I think it’s a great thing because it ensures part time employees notice a difference in their paycheck as well,” Hendricks said. “Risking our lives—our health and wellbeing—for regular pay isn’t worth it. I had a customer straight up cough in my face the other day, he instantly apologized after he realized what he had done, but this is the perfect example of what we deal with on a daily basis.”

Then there are the grocery chains where workers are still struggling to win anything meaningful at all. At Publix, a large chain down south, almost 7,000 workers have signed a petition calling for time-and-a-half hazard pay. “All of my coworkers are sleep-deprived (plenty of them working 70+ hour weeks—it’s a free for all with overtime right now), they’re stressed out, on the verge of a complete meltdown, and it has made us far more agitated than I’ve ever seen,” said Summer Fitzgerald, a clerk at a Publix in Charleston, South Carolina. “We’ve worked through holidays and hurricanes, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Their thanks so far, she said, has been a $50 Publix gift card, and “a little snack table in the breakroom with free food.”

While the eruption of workplace activism inside grocery stores that have never had a labor union is inspiring, the larger context is still grim. Even as grocery employees enjoy their highest level of public support in U.S. history, most of their campaigns are demanding temporary, rather than permanent, increases in compensation and benefits. The nature of hazard pay itself is that it expires when the “hazard” is over. While some unionized grocery workers will likely hang on to their pay increases when this is all over, many others are skeptical they will get any lasting benefits. (“I foresee a pizza party as reward for our service, at most,” one worker said.)

Still, most grocery workers say they are getting more compliments and sympathy from customers than they have ever seen before. And Anna Carlin, from Market of Choice, says there may be at least one silver lining: “My parents have stopped asking if I’m going to get a ‘real job.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

‘Now, I’m Unemployed’: How Coronavirus Killed Off the Capitol Hill Internship

Jordan Muller (@jordanmuller18) | Twitter

They thought they were getting their foot in the door for a career in politics. Now, their internships have abruptly ended — and their ambitions are on hold.

Congress’ frenzied effort to respond to the coronavirus crisis has been one of the most furious sessions of lawmaking in history. Just days after a congressional staffer tested positive for the virus, the House passed a bipartisan coronavirus response bill securing food aid, free access to testing and extended paid time off for vulnerable Americans. On the other side of the Capitol building, senators and their aides remained at work deep into the night this week, negotiating the specifics of the $2 trillion economic rescue package they passed unanimously late Wednesday night — and which the House is expected to vote on as early as Friday morning.

Noticeably absent from the hubbub? Congressional interns, whose semesters on the Hill have ended abruptly in response to the coronavirus.

For thousands of students, the coronavirus has disrupted the usual flow of college life, forcing students from their dorms, leading school administrators to cancel graduation ceremonies, and driving professors to their laptops to wrap up their classes via video conference. But for those students who had lined up internships in Washington this semester, efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus have disrupted or outright canceled what those interns had hoped would be a foot in the door for a post-collegiate job in politics.

“I’m pretty much in limbo,” said Wayne A. Rodriquez Jr., an American University student who interned in Rep. Jim Himes’ office this semesteruntil two weeks ago, when his internship abruptly ended due to coronavirus fears. “I don’t really know where to go from here, because I was supposed to carry on, and now, I’m unemployed.”

Unlike their colleagues in staff jobs, who are federal employees, interns are totally discretionary — each office hires its own — even as they are subject to many of the same centralized rules that apply to staffers. Similarly, it’s left to each individual congressional office how to handle coronavirus — whether that meant a premature end to internships, a work-from-home arrangement, or something else entirely. So, almost at random, as some of their offices swung into furious action and some went into hibernation, interns found themselves on the outside.

While some congressional interns have been forced to work from home, others have been furloughed or had their program cut completely. Those who are out of work join the swelling ranks of Americans who have lost their jobs in recent days, and whose career prospects remain uncertain as the economy tumbles and businesses shut down.

By March 12, the day after a Senate staffer tested positive for the coronavirus, some congressional offices had begun ordering their staff to work remotely. For some interns, whose programs are managed by individual offices, that marked an unceremonious end to their short semester on the Hill.

“[That] was my last day, and I was only in [the office] for like two hours,” said one congressional intern, who, like most interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press and feared that doing so could hurt their career prospects. “I didn’t even say goodbye to anyone.”

For young politicos, congressional internships are something of a rite of passage — the first rung of the ladder in a career in government and politics. Each semester, hundreds of college students flock to congressional offices to answer phone calls and emails, give tours to constituents, draft press releases, research legislation and schedule appointments. Many of those tasks are impossible to do remotely, and even among those interns who were able to retain their positions, it’s impossible to access the secure congressional computers and networks necessary to do many of their usual daily tasks.

“To go from working eight or nine hours a day to doing two or three hours of work, if that, is pretty difficult,” said one House intern, who’s working remotely and still getting paid. “I’m used to doing stuff all day, and now I’m doing nothing.”

Another House intern told POLITICO that he’s been out of work for a week and a half, since his member’s office began working from home. He’s still receiving a monthly $500 stipend, but can’t access his House email account remotely and hasn’t been assigned any work. In the meantime, he’s waiting out the crisis at his mom’s house in Maryland, and preparing to apply for other jobs in D.C.

Capitol Hill, long known for its close quarters where members and staff mingle collegially as a constant stream of visitors pass through, is seen as particularly vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Members must vote in person, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges Americans to gather in groups of no larger than 10. The average age of a House member is nearly 59; for Senators, it’s 63. Two House members and one senator have already tested positive for the virus, with dozens more in self-quarantine.

Congressional offices often hire interns from the pool of students in Washington-area colleges. But those schools, like most across the country, have shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some of the region’s largest colleges, including Georgetown, George Washington University, Howard University and American University, are shuttering their dorms and shifting classes online — leaving students scrambling to figure out their housing situations, move out of the dorms and wrap up their internships.

One student at GW whose House internship ended two weeks ago, said that even if their member’s office returns to in-person work, they won’t be able to live in D.C. to finish their internship: They’ve already moved all their belongings out of the dorm, flown home, and the college will not let students move back.

Another student, a Senate intern who is now working remotely, took the semester off from college to intern on Capitol Hill. He had been living in dorm-style housing with six other congressional interns who are now unable to work from their members’ offices. After a few days cooped up with his roommates, unable to get work done — or even to seek a reprieve by taking his laptop to the neighborhood Starbucks — he packed up his belongings and moved out of the dorm to stay with relatives in the area.

“I’m hoping that this isn’t the end of my internship,” he said.“I guess it really makes me value the ability to be able to do in-person work experience a lot more.”

This article was originally published at Politico on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Muller is an editorial intern at Politico Magazine.

N95 masks pour in from unions, corporations, schools, churches … while the federal government lags

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Donald Trump keeps coming up with excuses for why the federal government is not providing medical professionals with the protection they need as they fight coronavirus. And other groups keep coming up with the N95 masks that are so badly needed. On Thursday, SEIU-UHW, a union representing healthcare workers, announced it had located 39 million N95 masks, which were sitting in a medical supplier’s warehouse in Pennsylvania.

The union made call after call until they found a company that had one of the pieces of equipment that’s so desperately needed. While, it cannot be emphasized enough, Donald Trump makes excuses.

The supplier with the 39 million masks is now selling them to the state of California, several California healthcare providers, and the Greater New York Hospital Association. In California, SEIU-UHW workers will benefit directly by having more of the protective gear they need. But, as the union’s president said in a statement, “While we are pleased with these initial results, we recognize they are stopgap measures in light of the estimated 3.5 billion masks that could be needed during this pandemic. We urgently need the federal government to step in and drive a coordinated national response to the PPE shortage.”

SEIU-UHW wasn’t the only organization stepping up to find masks. Building trades unions previously donated masks their workers use to protect themselves on the job. In Washington, D.C., the head stonemason at the National Cathedral remembered a stash of thousands of masks, which the cathedral donated. Goldman Sachs is the latest company to donate hundreds of thousands of masks out of its own disaster preparedness supply. And more local organizations are scraping together every last mask and other protective gear they can and sending them to their local hospitals—like Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, Massachusetts, which donated 215 masks along with safety glasses and other protective equipment.

Across the country and from the most massive corporations to small organizations, people are working to equip our medical professionals to stay safe and treat us when we get sick. And with the resources of the federal government at his disposal, Donald Trump just keeps failing to deliver that kind of care for public health and safety.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

Working or Unemployed, Construction Workers Are Screwed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

OSHA Needs A Prescription for Safety Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, they’ve received no response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workers made this happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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