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As Covid Surges, Doctors Are Striking Against “Retail Health”

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We’re back with Sea­son Four of Work­ing Peo­ple! In this urgent episode, we talk with Dr. Amir Atabey­gi, a physi­cian at Mul­ti­Care Indi­go Urgent Care in Thurston Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton. On Novem­ber 23, amid a ter­ri­fy­ing surge in COVID-19 cas­es around the coun­try, Dr. Atabey­gi joins his fel­low physi­cians, physi­cian assis­tants, and advanced reg­is­tered nurse prac­ti­tion­ers on the pick­et line as they strike for the basic safe­ty mea­sures their employ­er refus­es to pro­vide. We talk to Dr. Atabey­gi about what he and his cowork­ers face on the job, the rise of ?“retail health” com­pa­nies like Mul­ti­Care Health Sys­tems, and the grow­ing labor con­scious­ness of tra­di­tion­al­ly non-union­ized health­care workers.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Overcoming Inequality in Unemployment Benefit Access and Utilization

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History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. Today’s unemployed Black workers face a system of unequal state policies and practices that were created after the Civil War to maintain white supremacy and prevent Black Americans from obtaining wealth. These discriminatory policies drive enormous and persistent wage and wealth gaps, as well as the ongoing exclusion of Black workers from the benefits, rights, and protections we all deserve.

A reckoning is due.

Early in the pandemic, Working America — an organization that mobilizes working-class people to take action on pocketbook issues — partnered with policy experts at the National Employment Law Project, with the support of Open Society Foundations, to address a portion of this legacy: the unequal distribution of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic but much less likely to receive UI. Law, policy, and practice may be the problems, but the solution begins with mobilization. 

Money Changes Everything

It’s no secret that the United States has a history of exploiting Black workers. But the extent to which one can draw a direct line between the current unemployment crisis and the history of enslavement is staggering. Throughout America’s history, Black Americans, especially in rural communities, have been subjected to discriminatory laws and policies aimed at keeping them from achieving economic parity with white workers.

Unemployment insurance is a good example. The program was designed so that not all workers would be eligible for benefits — including lower-paid workers, workers with short periods of employment, seasonal workers, and workers in industries that tend to be more highly populated by people of color, such as domestic and agricultural work. As a result, many Black workers don’t expect to be eligible for benefits and, therefore, never apply. Why apply just to be denied? 

The lowest UI benefit levels are in southern states with large Black populations. In states such as North Carolina and Florida, for example, fewer than 12 percent of jobless individuals received unemployment benefits last year. When workers in many southern states do get UI, the benefits are so low that they would barely cover the essentials. The maximum weekly benefit in Florida and Tennessee is $275; in Alabama, it’s $265; in Arizona, it’s $240; and in Mississippi, it’s $235. 

Black workers are far less likely to receive UI even when they apply for benefits. In a survey our organizations conducted in July, a majority of Black workers responded that they had exhausted their savings; nearly two-thirds admitted that they were now going without necessities. In comparison, only one in four white workers said they had exhausted their savings and only one in five admitted to skipping necessities.

A major reason for this disparity was workers’ ability to access UI. An analysis by Nyanya Browne and William Spriggs of Howard University and the AFL-CIO found that, “Just 13 percent of Black people out of work from April to June received unemployment benefits, compared with 24 percent of white workers, 22 percent of Latinx workers and 18 percent of workers of other races.” What’s more, 30 percent of Black adults who filed for unemployment benefits did not receive their payments. 

The difficulties people of color — and Black people in particular — have in accessing UI are systemic and ongoing. It isn’t only that most UI systems create barriers to access, including insufficient staffing, outdated web systems, and lack of adequate explainers for claimants. Individuals with uncommon or ethnic names were more likely to be denied benefits they were entitled to. This is not a function of law or policy but of individual people practicing discriminatory conduct. This practice robs individuals and their families of the meager economic safety net our society provides, putting them at a disadvantage that is hard to recover from. That is a lot of historical rhyming.

Changing the UI Experience

Working America and NELP partnered on this project to understand the problems with UI access and utilization for Black workers, use our available toolset to mitigate harm, and assist eligible workers in enrolling in UI. For this project, Working America is leveraging its digital organizing capacity and clinical testing know-how to boost UI utilization rates among Black workers using targeted text messages, email, and phone calls that can reach three million people a week.

Listening is the key to all good organizing, so we began our project by reaching out to 14,531 workers. Our goal was to document their experiences with the unemployment system, their attitudes toward the system, and their knowledge of the application process.

A full 53 percent of people told us that they or someone in their households had lost a job as a result of the pandemic. That number rose to 68 percent when we asked them about their friends.

Ayana, a 46-year-old Westland, Michigan, resident working in health care, said, “My friends, neighbors, and family members all have had to apply to UI … They all had technical difficulties [when applying]. It seemed like no one could ever talk to a live person.”

Keshia, a 44-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina, resident who works in human resources, said, “My sister lost her job in the medical field. She had to wake up very, very early, like 3:00 a.m., in order to apply through the online portal. Otherwise, it would be so slow it wouldn’t work. She was denied because there was some discrepancy with her name and had to keep going back and forth, but she eventually got it.”

Through conversations like these, we diagnosed several problems.

First, there was a clear geographic disparity. In southern states, problems were borne of deliberate policy choices that continue the long legacy of structural racism, including restrictive eligibility and low benefit levels. In addition, those living in rural counties faced greater difficulty accessing benefits than those living in urban areas. Even with Working America’s help, unemployed Black Americans in rural communities waited seven-to-eight days longer than unemployed white and Latinx Americans to receive benefits. 

Second, most people we spoke to were not aware of program eligibility rules and benefits. This was one of the primary reasons that they did not apply for benefits. Further, many saw their hours reduced rather than being laid off; these workers were often unaware that they were eligible for unemployment benefits.

In addition to these informal conversations, our large-scale survey of 14,135 workers found alarming but unsurprising conditions. Black and brown workers were the least likely to have savings, the most likely to have lost wages during the pandemic, and the most likely to be unable to pay for essentials such as groceries, medications, and rent. Across the board, there was little knowledge about the unemployment program’s eligibility criteria or benefit amounts, confirming what we heard in our informal conversations. 

There is reason to hope, however. A majority of people we talked with were willing to take action to help their friends and family access benefits. 

Our organizers provided Ayana, Keshia, and other similarly situated “peer organizers” with information about unemployment eligibility and how to access benefits in their state. We also followed up to make sure members of their communities were accessing benefits. 

We’ve been in back-and-forth communication with almost 7,540 Black workers who are sharing information about UI in their networks. By constantly testing our outreach through randomized control trials and making adjustments based on the evidence of what works, we are finding agents of change in the community. 

One UI recipient in Pennsylvania told us, “We’re never going to get out of this mess here in Philadelphia unless we start treating Blacks like everyone else … I can tell you care, and it sounds like you’ve been helping people here, so I’m going to share your stuff because I know a lot of people that sure can use it, and you’re right, I already know a few that might get evicted.” 

Another Pennsylvania resident told us he works as a manager for a construction company that had to lay off a lot of workers. He wanted information so he could help his employees file for unemployment benefits. Yet another man told us he was a landlord, and while he didn’t need help applying for benefits, he was interested in helping his unemployed tenants get the benefits they needed to stay afloat. 

Turning Enthusiasm into Action

We know we need to scale up this program to reach more affected workers. Our goal is to build an organizing formula that measurably increases the application and filing rates — and ultimately the level of income — in these communities.

Working with the Labor Lab at Columbia University, we are implementing randomized control trials to assess the effectiveness of campaign strategies in increasing awareness of unemployment benefits and action on UI claims in Black communities. We are focusing our efforts on the 42 counties across the country with the highest concentration of Black workers. In half the counties, we’ll saturate residents with calls, digital contacts, and grasstops organizing techniques. We will then track the change in claims at the county level to get hard data on the impact of our work.

We found that there is a lot of misinformation about unemployment benefits, so we developed quiz-style engagement actions. For example: “True or false? If you were out of work but found a new job, you can still get unemployment benefits for the time you were out of work.” These types of actions tend to have greater engagement.

In phone conversations, we have found that people are much less likely to agree to help with unemployment outreach if they have not been personally impacted by the unemployment crisis. However, upon learning that only one in four eligible Black workers applies for benefits, many wonder if people they know might be missing out. Overall, 70 percent of these people agreed to help others apply for unemployment benefits.

Our next step is to follow up with these peer organizers who have been sharing UI information in their communities to connect them with fellow activists, skilled organizers, and resources to help them become more effective at reaching those who need it most. By talking directly to workers and members of the community, we are able to help them navigate the complexities of accessing regular and expanded unemployment insurance benefits. By recruiting them as community organizers, we’re creating a movement that will help many more families who have lost wages gain financial ground.

Fixing Broken Policies

At the grasstops level, Working America and NELP are collaborating with other organizations to advocate for short- and long-term policy solutions to the unemployment crisis.

In the short term, we must meet the immediate needs of unemployed and underemployed workers. Congress must not only reinstate the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit and other CARES Act provisions but also provide funding to state and local governments, ensure paid sick leave and child care for all working people, and deliver relief for workers ineligible for unemployment payments. USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) must also make it clear that suitable work does not include unsafe work; if employers have not taken the minimum precautions set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines, workers who quit their jobs should be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In the long term, Congress should consider federalizing UI — to operate similarly to Social Security — in order to address the wide disparity across states and populations. We should have permanent levers to automatically extend benefits during a recession, make worksharing available in every state, and provide dependent allowances for people who have children. Workers who are fleeing domestic violence, following a spouse whose job has moved, or leaving a job that jeopardizes their health and safety should be able to receive UI. And we should make sure that all workers, including those with erratic or part-time schedules and those whose job categories are currently excluded, are eligible to receive meaningful UI benefits. Finally, UI information technology (IT) systems must be easier for claimants to access. Individual states can take steps now to immediately address problems.

Ground-Up Systemic Change 

Many smart organizations and people have tried to increase UI access over the years, and a lot of work has gone into improving actualization of similar programs, such as Medicaid, EITC, and SNAP. What all these programs have in common is that they can change the dynamics of personal wealth and give working people what they need to gain some stability. We aren’t the first to tackle this issue, and we won’t be the last. 

The real power of this organizing project is the movement we’re creating to fix this rigged political economy and fight for the policy changes we desperately need. By arming people with the information they need to navigate the systems that have failed them for centuries, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that have kept wealth out of the hands of Black people. The key, we believe, is organizing communities not only to demand change of their elected officials but to make change themselves.

This blog originally appeared at The Forge on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Morrison is the executive director of Working America, a three-million-member labor organization mobilizing working people who don’t have the benefit of a union at their jobs. He is a leading political practitioner with experience working in over 500 elections throughout his career.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP is a respected leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and the go-to resource for state and local worker movements, providing unmatched policy, legal, and technical assistance.


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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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Unemployment Payments Are Running Out for Millions, Even As Long-Term Unemployment Surges

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Large numbers of jobless workers are seeing their unemployment payments come to an end as they reach their maximum weeks of eligibility despite short-term federal extensions. If Congress fails to act, millions more will suffer a total loss of income as their benefits expire at the end of the year.

The loss of unemployment payments hits workers of color, especially Black workers, the hardest. Because of structural racism, occupational segregation, and discriminatory exclusions from the labor market, Black workers have higher rates of unemployment, longer durations of joblessness, fewer funds to fall back on, and are more likely to live in states with the fewest weeks of available benefits.

An acute crisis looms in the very near term as the number of long-term unemployed workers—those out of work for 26 weeks or longer—is now surging. The seasonally adjusted number of long-term unemployed workers grew from 1.624 million in August to 2.405 million in September, the largest month-over-month increase since these data were first measured.

Historically, the duration of unemployment has been significantly longer for Black and Asian workers than for white workers, due to racist exclusions and other labor market inequities. In the 3rd quarter of 2019, an unemployment spell for Black and Asian workers lasted an average of nearly 26 weeks, compared with 19 weeks for white workers. As of 2019, 25.66 percent of Black unemployed workers were out of work for more than 26 weeks, versus 19.62 percent of white unemployed workers. Keep in mind that the unemployment rate for Black workers is usually about double that for white workers, so Black workers are facing a higher long-term unemployment rate on top of an already higher rate of joblessness.

If Congress fails to extend not only higher benefit levels but also the number of weeks of benefits, millions of unemployed workers will soon have zero income support, and these losses will hit Black and lower-income communities most affected by early layoffs the worst.

HOW MANY WEEKS OF UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS ARE AVAILABLE UNDER CURRENT PROGRAMS?

Workers in many states may qualify for up to 26 weeks of regular state unemployment insurance. However, after the Great Recession of 2007-2009, 10 states cut benefit duration. Alabama was the last state to do so; in June 2019 it cut benefits to 14 weeks. Three states cut maximums from 26 to 20 weeks (Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina), one state cut maximum benefit duration to 16 weeks (Arkansas), and five states adopted sliding scales tied to state unemployment rates (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, and Idaho).

Since the start of the pandemic, however, four of those states restored benefits to 26 weeks: Michigan, Kansas, Idaho, and Georgia. Unfortunately, Michigan’s executive order restoring benefits was recently struck down by the state’s Supreme Court, which caused the state to temporarily drop back to 20 weeks until emergency temporary legislation was signed this week once again restoring 26 weeks of benefits through the end of the year. Idaho’s duration is based on its unemployment rate and has decreased to a maximum of 20 weeks.

As part of the CARES Act, Congress added 13 weeks of additional benefits called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). But that program is set to expire at the end of the year, as is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which pays unemployment aid to millions of workers who don’t qualify for regular unemployment insurance (UI). Another program called Extended Benefits (EB) may add 50 percent more weeks than are available in regular state UI if the state’s unemployment rate is over 5 percent and more than 120 percent higher than it was for the same 13-week period over the past year; or states may adopt optional triggers that allow EB to kick in more readily. Moreover, states can adopt an additional trigger to add seven more weeks during periods of very high unemployment of more than 8 percent. You can find out if a state has triggered onto EB and the number of weeks here.

After that time, if workers have a qualifying COVID-related reason for being unemployed, they can then move into Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to get up to 39 total weeks of benefits, or 46 weeks in states with the extra high-unemployment-rate trigger allowing for seven more weeks. Generally, PUA will not apply to someone who originally was eligible for UI plus the available extensions, except in states with fewer than 26 weeks of regular benefits. PUA is generally available for 39 or 46 weeks—that is, until the end of December, when the program is currently set to expire.

HOW DO WORKERS APPLY FOR EXTENDED UNEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE?

Does that all sound confusing? Hopefully, for a claimant, shifting between programs should be a smooth process. Federal guidelines do require that workers affirmatively apply for the extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits available under PEUC, and states are supposed to inform workers when they are eligible and tell them how to apply. It appears some agencies may not be doing that. But overall, the most current data showing regular UI exhaustion versus PEUC recipiency seem to indicate that the transition is by and large smooth for most workers. Anecdotally, workers in states like Michigan report the process to be seamless.

IS CONGRESS GOING TO EXTEND UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS INTO 2021?

Without Congressional action to extend the CARES Act’s PEUC and PUA programs into 2021, millions of workers will drop to zero benefits by the end of this year. Workers who became unemployed the third week in March will run out of benefits before the last week of the year—about a week earlier than the CARES Act programs run out. Any worker who was unemployed prior to the start of the pandemic, however, will not only run out sooner but also may be unlikely to qualify for PUA without a COVID-related cause for their initial unemployment. Considering PUA eligibility extends to pandemic-related unemployment going back to the end of January, some workers are already exhausting PUA. Layoffs related to the pandemic stretch back much farther than the initial spike in new claims—the State of Washington reported a 30 percent increase in claims the first week in March, for example. Finally, workers in states with fewer than 26 weeks of regular eligibility may have difficulty establishing a COVID-related cause to qualify for PUA after their regular UI, PEUC, and EB run out. Given the first-fired, last-hired systemic racial discrimination in employment for Black workers, and the fact that this recession has hit Black workers harder than white workers, extensions in the duration of unemployment payments is a particularly important racial justice issue.

In the short term, Congress and the Trump administration must reach a deal to extend the number of weeks available during this recession. To ensure we do not repeat past mistakes of leaving workers behind in the recovery, we should peg the number of weeks of benefits available to the duration of unemployment that Black workers experience. And we must address the long-term structural changes that are needed to ensure we have a UI system that centers the experiences of Black workers so that it is built to meet the needs of all workers.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michele Evermore is a Senior Policy Analyst for NELP. Her areas of expertise are Retirement Security, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and Worker Training.


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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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Unemployment is sky-high for young workers in the COVID-19 economy

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The Great Recession dragged down Millennials, putting them years behind economically. Now, the COVID-19 recession is damaging another generation of young workers. Workers aged 16 to 24 typically have higher unemployment and underemployment than older workers (and remember here that you only count as unemployed if you’re trying to find work—it’s not like this statistic counts kids who don’t want to work), but “The overall unemployment rate for young workers ages 16–24 jumped from 8.4% to 24.4% from spring 2019 to spring 2020, while unemployment for their counterparts ages 25 and older rose from 2.8% to 11.3%,” the Economic Policy Institute reports. “Spring 2020 unemployment rates were even higher for young Black, Hispanic, and Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers (29.6%, 27.5%, and 29.7%, respectively).”

That’s not just a problem now. It puts young people behind the curve on getting job experience, it means debts can build up faster, and “Research on prior recessions finds substantial evidence that workers who enter the labor market during an economic downturn are scarred for many years. These unlucky workers are more likely to experience lower earnings, greater earnings instability, and more spells of unemployment in the long term compared with similar individuals who entered the labor market in better times.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on October 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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The Nightmare Facing the Poor and Working Class If There’s Not Another Stimulus

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As mil­lions of U.S. work­ers face unem­ploy­ment, food inse­cu­ri­ty and evic­tion amid the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, the lim­it­ed aid pro­vid­ed by the fed­er­al government’s flawed CARES Act from March has long since dried up. 

Last week, fol­low­ing more than six months of stalled nego­ti­a­tions with con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats over a new eco­nom­ic relief pack­age, Pres­i­dent Trump abrupt­ly announced he was halt­ing talks until after the Novem­ber election.

While the pres­i­dent quick­ly back­tracked and is now report­ed­ly con­tin­u­ing to nego­ti­ate, the fed­er­al government’s ongo­ing fail­ure to pass a new relief pack­age spells cat­a­stro­phe for a U.S. work­ing class already pushed to the brink by an eco­nom­ic cri­sis seem­ing­ly on par with the Great Depression. 

Here’s a break­down of what the con­tin­ued lack of fed­er­al help means for workers:

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced unem­ploy­ment checks

Per­haps the most ben­e­fi­cial part of the CARES Act was the extra $600 a week it pro­vid­ed to work­ers on unem­ploy­ment—a tem­po­rary life­line that the GOP-led Sen­ate allowed to expire on July 31. 

Week­ly unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits vary wide­ly by state, rang­ing from $44 in Okla­homa to $497 in Wash­ing­ton. The $600 week­ly sup­ple­ment was an across-the-board ben­e­fit that ensured unem­ployed work­ers in any state main­tained a decent income despite los­ing their jobs due to the pandemic.

The Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute found that the con­sumer spend­ing gen­er­at­ed by that extra $600 per week sup­port­ed over 5 mil­lion jobs, and that con­tin­u­ing the sup­ple­ment through the mid­dle of next year would have raised U.S. gross domes­tic prod­uct (GDP) by a quar­ter­ly aver­age of 3.7 percent.

After this ben­e­fit expired, rather than agree to Democ­rats’ demands to extend it, Pres­i­dent Trump signed an exec­u­tive order slash­ing it by 50 per­cent—allow­ing states to use fed­er­al funds to pro­vide only a $300 week­ly unem­ploy­ment sup­ple­ment. At least sev­en states have already exhaust­ed these funds. 

Mean­while, by los­ing the week­ly $600 boost, unem­ployed work­ers saw their incomes drop by two-thirds, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to pay the bills and afford gro­ceries. There are cur­rent­ly 25.5 mil­lion work­ers receiv­ing unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. With at least 14 mil­lion more job­less work­ers than job open­ings, mil­lions will be forced to rely on unem­ploy­ment insur­ance for the fore­see­able future—but now with a great­ly reduced check.

Mass fur­loughs in the air­line industry

Anoth­er one of the CARES Act’s most help­ful pro­vi­sions was the Pay­roll Sup­port Pro­gram (PSP), which pro­vid­ed $32 bil­lion in grants to the avi­a­tion indus­try for the sole pur­pose of keep­ing work­ers on pay­roll and pro­vid­ing ben­e­fits dur­ing the Covid-19 cri­sis. The avi­a­tion indus­try employs 750,000 work­ers, many of them union­ized, and accounts for 5 per­cent of GDP.

The Sen­ate allowed the PSP to expire on Octo­ber 1, result­ing in 40,000 air­line work­ers imme­di­ate­ly being fur­loughed with­out pay or health insur­ance. The industry’s unions are wag­ing an aggres­sive cam­paign to extend the pro­gram. With­out the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tin­u­ing the PSP, more fur­loughs are like­ly to come as pas­sen­ger air­lines suf­fer a loss in busi­ness due to the pandemic.

More lay­offs at small businesses

The Pay­check Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram (PPP), anoth­er com­po­nent of the CARES Act, offered up to $659 bil­lion in for­giv­able loans to small busi­ness­es to keep work­ers on pay­roll. The pro­gram has been crit­i­cized for allo­cat­ing mil­lions of dol­lars to large cor­po­ra­tions and com­pa­nies con­nect­ed to politi­cians, but it has also offered much-need­ed finan­cial sup­port to small busi­ness­es across the country.

The appli­ca­tion dead­line for PPP loans was on August 8. While the Trump admin­is­tra­tion claims the pro­gram saved 51 mil­lion jobs, econ­o­mists have put that num­ber at any­where from only 2.3 mil­lion to 13.6 mil­lion.

What­ev­er the pre­cise num­ber, the PPP’s impact is quick­ly run­ning out of steam. Bor­row­ers say they expect to lay off work­ers with­in six months, while a Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion sur­vey indi­cates that a whop­ping 40 per­cent of all U.S. restau­rants could go out of busi­ness in the com­ing months, lead­ing to mil­lions of more layoffs. 

No sec­ond $1,200 stim­u­lus check

While Sen. Bernie Sanders and pro­gres­sive Democ­rats have been call­ing on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to pro­vide a $2,000 month­ly check to every U.S. adult for the dura­tion of the pan­dem­ic, the CARES Act instead pro­vid­ed a one-time check of $1,200—which exclud­ed many undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants and col­lege-age adults. Econ­o­mists report that the checks did vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing to stim­u­late the econ­o­my, though they did help poor and unem­ployed work­ers par­tial­ly cov­er a few weeks’ worth of basic expenses.

Pres­i­dent Trump and con­gres­sion­al lead­ers have been say­ing for months that a sec­ond $1,200 check is on the way. But with­out anoth­er relief bill, even this mea­ger finan­cial assis­tance will not materialize.

An uncer­tain future

On Octo­ber 1, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic-con­trolled House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed a scaled-down ver­sion of the HEROES Act, an eco­nom­ic relief pack­age they orig­i­nal­ly passed in May that extends the lim­it­ed aid from the CARES Act. 

Among oth­er things, the $2.2 trillion bill would con­tin­ue the $600 week­ly unem­ploy­ment sup­ple­ment to the end of Jan­u­ary (mak­ing it retroac­tive to Sep­tem­ber 6), allo­cate anoth­er $25 bil­lion for air­line work­ers, allow small busi­ness­es to apply for a sec­ond PPP loan, send out a sec­ond $1,200 stim­u­lus check, pro­vide $50 bil­lion in emer­gency rental assis­tance, and give an addi­tion­al $10 bil­lion to the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP).

Over the week­end, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion coun­tered with a small­er, $1.8 trillion pro­pos­al that would include a $400-per-week unem­ploy­ment sup­ple­ment, $20 bil­lion for air­lines, anoth­er $330 bil­lion for PPP loans, and a sec­ond $1,200 check, among oth­er mea­sures—but nei­ther House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi nor Sen­ate Repub­li­cans appear ready to push this bill in their caucus.

While mil­lions of U.S. work­ers are left in the lurch and mass lay­offs con­tin­ue to mount, Trump and Sen­ate Repub­li­cans are instead focus­ing their atten­tion on ensur­ing right-wing, anti-union judge Amy Coney Bar­rett is hasti­ly con­firmed to the Supreme Court in time for the election.

“If this gov­ern­ment doesn’t work for us, then we need to focus on the fact that it is our labor that gives all the val­ue to this coun­try,” Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son—who famous­ly called for a gen­er­al strike to end Trump’s fed­er­al shut­down in Jan­u­ary 2019—said last week. “This coun­try doesn’t run with­out us as work­ers. So we have to think about that option as well.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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Tracking Remote Employees: How To Not Cross The Line

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With the COVID-19 on the current agenda, the offline work seems to be far away. However, remote work is trending now because more and more businesses realize which benefits it drives. However, hiring top talent from different parts of the country and saving from rent come with the liabilities of remote working employment law.

One of the frequent questions that entrepreneurs discuss during a labor law free consultation is tracking remote employees. It’s only logical that they want to know how much time their workers dedicate to tasks daily. But what about the related remote work legal issues?

Tracking Remote Employees: Definition and Advantages

Basically, tracking remote employees implies the usage of special software that monitors the activity of a worker during the day. It tracks the amount of working time and presents them in an Excel or CSV file.

However, some programs offer much more. They can monitor keystrokes. Record videos or make screenshots, track the location, and assess productivity. Thus, employers can know almost everything about their remote employees.

Since Gartner claims that almost 80% of the businesses will monitor the employees with tracking software by the end of 2020, we can conclude that they see a number of benefits. Among them can be:

  • Privacy and Security: Remote work increases the risk of a cyberattack. Some of them can be even initiated from inside since employees can use personal devices and store valuable data on cloud storage. Monitoring their activities allows detecting an unreliable employee timely.
  • Improved Productivity: Its human nature to be more productive when being under control. Therefore, workers are likely to be more diligent working remotely if they are monitored.
  • Tracking of Assets: In case a business provides hardware for remote employees, it’ll want to locate it for the safety measures. Tracking applications show the data.

A Sustainable Approach to Tracking Remote Employees

Not all employees can be satisfied with the tracking apps being installed on the working computer. Therefore, it’s vital to prepare them, preferably at the hiring stage. But before we move to the educational and psychological part, let’s cover some legal issues.

The legal aspect of employee tracking highly depends on the implementation. The answer that will solve all the problems is a remote work policy that will state how the management can use the collected data. The policy should be clarified, signed and accepted at the recruitment. If you implement it when the company already employs workers, they also need to sign the acceptance.

As for the psychological part, it’s essential to adhere to several principles in implementing a tracking system:

  1. Gradual percolation
  2. Systematic education on what benefits the tracking system drives
  3. Communication with every employee to resolve any issues
  4. Periodic training in order to reinforce the initial message.

As you can see, implementing a tracking software is pretty easy. You just have to prepare a special policy and communicate it to the employees. Would you use tracking software for your remote employees?

About the Author: Yuriy Moshes is the CEO of Moshes Law and attorney with broad expertise. He has two bachelor’s degrees. Being an experienced expert, he is considered one of the most in-demand specialists in the employment law field. Apart from that, he provides labor law attorney free consultation for everyone who faces discrimination in the workplace.


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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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Report: OSHA Investigated, Resolved Only 2% of COVID Retaliation Complaints

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Washington, DCBrand-new analysis by Deborah Berkowitz and Shayla Thompson of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) shows that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has failed to protect COVID safety whistleblowers who filed retaliation complaints.

NELP analyzed OSHA’s public data showing 1,744 COVID-19-related retaliation complaints filed by workers from April through August 9, and found:

  • One in five complaints (348) were docketed for investigation.
  • Only 2% of complaints (35) were resolved during that period.
  • Most complaints, 54%, were dismissed or closed without investigation.

“Resolving a mere two percent of OSHA retaliation complaints in six months is a dismal record under any circumstances. It undermines workers’ confidence that they’ll be protected when reporting unsafe working conditions. But it is especially egregious during a pandemic that, to date, has resulted in more than 210,000 COVID-related deaths and over 7.4 million cases in the United States—many likely due to workplace-related coronavirus transmissions—the most of any country in the world,” according to the study.

Reporting on the new NELP analysis, The Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg writes, “Advocates and former OSHA officials say OSHA’s lack of response to retaliation complaints is just the latest example of OSHA favoring companies over workers the agency is tasked to safeguard. Plus, the stakes are much higher in the middle a pandemic that has made so many workplaces more dangerous.”

To speak with the authors of the NELP analysis, please reach out to [email protected].

This blog originally appeared at the National Employment Law Project on October 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Deborah Berkowitz, NELP’s Worker Safety and Health program director, joined NELP in 2015, following six years serving as chief of staff and then a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (2009-2015).


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