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Biden Has Abandoned His Covid Worker Safety Pledge

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Biden’s much-anticipated workplace safety rule excludes most workers—and some in the labor movement are not happy.

Until she got her first Pfizer shot on July 16, Cindy Cervantes toiled in the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma for most of the pandemic without a vaccine—working unprotected in an industry devastated by Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.

“In one day, at least 300 people were gone” from the plant, sick from Covid, Cervantes says. Still, “Seaboard wanted a certain number of hogs out. They kept pushing people, the chain was going even faster. People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.” Six of her coworkers have died from Covid-19, and hundreds have gotten sick, she says.

Ravaged by the pandemic, the roughly 500,000 U.S. workers in meatpacking, meat processing and poultry are not getting much help from the industry or the government. In a sector described as “essential” during the pandemic, at least 50,000 have been infected and more than 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit news outlet. Yet amid this grim toll, the North American Meat Institute lobbied successfully to exclude meatpacking and poultry workers from new Covid-19 worker safety rules enacted this June.

Even as vaccine availability in the United States steadily expands, workers still face pandemic peril on the job, from breakthrough cases of Covid-19, as well as low vaccination rates in many areas due to a combination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and serious access barriers to immigrants who fear deportation. Workers and advocates are sounding the alarm that President Biden has dropped the ball on pandemic-era worker protections, violating one of the first promises of his presidency. This warning has particular salience after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that some people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where there are severe outbreaks, due to the spread of the Delta variant. 

On his second day in office, Biden signed an executive order promising to enact new emergency safety rules “if such standards are determined to be necessary” by March 15 to protect millions of “essential” workers like Cervantes. The goal was straightforward: to give workers enforceable protections on the job, such as mandating that companies provide physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the deadline came and went, with no new rule. Then, on June 10, after heavy lobbying by many industry groups—Including the American Hospital Association, the National Retail Federation, the North American Meat Institute and the National Grocers Association—Biden issued a narrow rule covering only health care workers.

This is despite the fact that other industries have been devastated by the pandemic. “Almost all my coworkers have gotten it,” Cervantes says of the virus, noting that many of them were out sick for months, and some returned to work with lingering Covid-19 symptoms. Yet, she says, “a lot of workers I work with have not gotten the vaccination” for a host of reasons. Some are “skeptical,” and “think it’s got a chip in it or that it’s not going to work.” 

It’s not hard to get a vaccine at the plant, Cervantes says. But in an industry that relies heavily on immigrants, Latinx and often undocumented workers, there are many barriers to vaccination, researchers note. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Large shares of Hispanic adults—particularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumented—express concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination.” Oklahoma, home to the Seaboard plant where Cervantes works, is among the nation’s most dangerous Covid-19 states, with just 40% of the population fully vaccinated, and “high transmission rates,” according to the CDC.

In an email response to questions, Seaboard communications director David Eaheart said the company “proactively” notifies workers of any Covid-19 cases in the plant, and has taken numerous precautions based on CDC and state health guidance, including paid leave for infected workers, and plexiglass shields at “select line workstations.” 

Eaheart acknowledged that in May 2020, testing at the plant identified 440 employees with “active cases of Covid-19,” the plant’s “highest week of reported active cases. All these employees self-isolated at home and were required to follow CDC guidance before being allowed to return to work.” During that week, he said, “overall production was scaled back in the processing plant and fewer animals were processed and products produced.” More than 1000 workers at the plant have tested positive, and six have died, Eaheart confirmed. 

Since March 15, when Biden’s promised Covid-19 workplace safety protections were supposed to take effect, more than 15,000 working-age adults have died from the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). “Every one of those individuals had a family that was also at risk of Covid,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in a June 9 press release anticipating Biden’s rule. “Releasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, too late.”

The original rule drafted by the Department of Labor did cover all workers, as Bloomberg Law first reported—but then the infectious disease standard met the buzz saw of politics and industry pressure, and the White House opted to cover health care workers only.

As the Department of Labor’s draft standard stated, “For the first time in its 50-year history, OSHA faces a new hazard so grave that it has killed more than half a million people in the United States in barely over a year, and sickened millions more. OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) presents a grave danger in every shared workplace in the United States.” 

Citing rising vaccination rates—60% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, though just 49% of the population overall—Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said the new rules focusing on healthcare workers “provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor provided any explanation for why other workers in high-exposure jobs were excluded.

“That’s kind of ridiculous,” says Louisiana Walmart worker Peter Naughton. “They should cover retail workers as well. We come into contact with people who may have the virus without knowing it.”

In Louisiana, where new Covid-19 cases are double the national infection rate and vaccinations lag far behind, Naughton, 45, toils in fear every day at a Walmart in Baton Rouge. He got vaccinated in May, but in his job helping customers navigate self-checkout kiosks, Naughton says, “I come into contact with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people a week.” Naughton, who lives in Baton Rouge with his parents to make ends meet, says that despite the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, and the spread of the extra-dangerous Delta variant, there are minimal safety precautions, and “Walmart is acting like the pandemic is over.”

While the vaccines vastly reduce risk of death or serious illness, infections and “breakthrough cases” are still infecting vaccinated people. And the CDC’s befuddling guidance making masks voluntary for those who are vaccinated, on the honor system, hasn’t helped. Furthermore, the CDC explains, “no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from Covid-19.”

For Naughton and millions of other “essential workers,” laboring in the pandemic has been a mix of fear, insult and injury. Even when Covid-19 was at its most deadly and virulent, basic safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning were “never enforced” at Walmart, says Naughton. “They never gave us any PPE, just glass cleaner, which doesn’t protect us. Customers could come in without masks and nothing would be said to them. I complained about it and the manager said, ‘Don’t worry about it, let the customers do what they want.’”

Several of Naughton’s coworkers got infected and ill from Covid-19, but “management never said a word to any of us,” he says. “Most of them I came into close contact with. That kind of scared me. … We all should have known about it.” Naughton says he filed a complaint in November 2020 requesting OSHA to inspect the Baton Rouge Walmart, but “I never heard back, nothing ever happened.”

To top it off, when Naughton received the vaccine in May, he was hit by a 102.4 degree fever—but he had to work anyway, because Walmart employees can “lose our job” after five absences for any reason. Nobody at Walmart took his temperature or inquired about his health, he says.

Through email, Tyler Thomason, Walmart’s senior manager of global communications, insisted to In These Times, “We encourage our associates to get vaccinated. We offer the vaccine at no cost to associates… We continue to request that associates and customers wear face coverings unless they are vaccinated. Any information on confirmed, positive COVID-19 cases would come from the local health authority.”

Unions Sue to Protect More Workers

Naughton isn’t the only person disappointed by Biden’s exclusion of most workers from this emergency pandemic protection. Unions have pushed for the protection since the pandemic began ravaging the United States in March 2020. First, they encountered staunch resistance from the Trump administration; now, while pledging expansive worker protections, the Biden administration has delayed and diminished them.

On June 10, as the Biden administration announced the narrow new rule leaving out millions of workers, advocates expressed disappointment and frustration. 

Biden’s decision to cover only health care workers “represents a broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the frontlines of this pandemic,” stated United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union International President Marc Perrone the day the new rule was announced. 

That day, the AFL-CIO added, “we are deeply concerned that the [standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of Covid-19 infections and death. Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 exposures and infections.”

On June 24, the AFL-CIO and UFCW filed a petition in federal court demanding that all workers be covered by the emergency standard, which, the petition says, currently “fails to protect employees outside the healthcare industry who face a similar grave danger from occupational exposure to Covid-19.”

Another champion of the emergency standard, Rep. Bobby Scott (DVa.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, also expressed frustration when Biden released the narrow new rule, calling the diminished standard “too little, too late for countless workers and families across the country,” including workers throughout the food industry and homeless shelters. Rep. Scott added: “I am disappointed by both the timing and the scope of this workplace safety standard.” The rule, Scott said, “is long past due, and it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness from Covid-19.”

Biden’s decision to exclude meatpackers, grocery and farm workers, retail and warehouse laborers and others means especially high risks for workers of color, Rep. Scott noted. “With vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of a comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is a dangerous combination,” he said.

Much of this “essential” workforce of people of color, immigrants and low-income white people, toils in dangerous farm labor and food processing plants where Covid-19 has spread like wildfire while vaccination rates remain low. “Workers in this industry have a very low vaccination rate,” as low as 37% in some states, says Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2 representing meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. “I don’t know who in their right mind would think we’ve passed over that bridge and think all workers are safe now.” Rosas adds, “The federal government has failed to protect meatpacking workers” by leaving them out of the final emergency standard. “I’m extremely disappointed in the Biden administration.”

Both the Department of Labor and the White House declined multiple interview requests, but a Department of Labor spokesperson emailed a statement insisting that the health-care-workers-only rule “closely follows the CDC’s guidance for health care workers and the science, which tells us that those who come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19, are most at risk.”

The Department of Labor spokesperson stressed that the agency’s existing (yet unenforceable) “guidance” and the “general duty clause” protect other workers adequately, particularly in “industries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood processing, and grocery and high-volume retail.” But in its own draft standard, the Department of Labor stated the opposite: “existing standards, regulations, and the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause are wholly inadequate to address the Covid-19 hazard.” In its original draft, the agency insisted, “a Covid-19 ETS [emergency temporary standard] is necessary to address these inadequacies.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, National COSH’s co-executive director, says President Biden “is responsible” for the 15,000 workers who have died from Covid-19 since Biden’s March 15 deadline to enact the emergency standard. Biden, she notes, “promised to protect workers in his campaign and on his first day in office, but he neglected them. But workers’ safety needs aren’t over, and we’ll be continuing to demand accountability from the administration.”

This post originally appeared at In These Times on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Christopher Cook is an award-winning investigative reporter who also writes for Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis


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Nevada hospitality workers get ‘right to return,’ this week in the war on workers

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Nevada’s “right to return” law has gone into effect, requiring employers to rehire many hospitality workers laid off during the pandemic to their original jobs, or equivalents, as those jobs become available again. Workers will get 24 hours to decide whether to accept a job, and must be available to start within five days.

The non-union Station Casinos, however, are dodging the law for some positions, claiming that the law is just so complicated that they cannot figure out how to recall people to jobs in the right order, so as a result, Station won’t be filling some jobs at all. (The company has recalled 1,500 workers.) In case you were wondering about the motivation here, the company issued a statement about its decision attacking the Culinary Union.

Meanwhile, the workers who’ve long had good jobs in the Las Vegas hospitality industry just want their jobs back.

“I only want to work,” said one worker affected by Station’s decision. “I want all I lost in this time. I want to get it back.”

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Women in the Workplace: Advancing Your Career Post-Pandemic

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Economic conditions during the pandemic took an especially difficult toll on women, with nearly 2.2 million females leaving the workforce between February and October 2020, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.

Of course, this difficult environment doesn’t mean women should shy away from asserting their rights in the workplace or pursuing better opportunities. In fact, it means just the opposite. It’s more vital than ever that women speak up against discriminatory practices and for equal pay and equal opportunities for advancement.

As the pandemic eases, many employees are likely to return to an office environment in the coming months, although there’s some disconnect between leaders (who tend to prefer more office time) and workers (who have become accustomed to working from home).

With all this in mind, the question arises of how best to advance your career as a woman post-pandemic. Here are some ideas to consider.

Support union efforts.

Women have long lagged behind men in terms of union membership, which is a key mechanism for promoting wage equality

Indeed, research indicates that unions help narrow the wage gap between men and women in the workplace. In 2016, for instance, women working in unions received 94 cents on the dollar compared with unionized men. Alternatively, non-union women were paid just 78 cents on the dollar, compared with their non-union male counterparts.

And yet, as of 2020, men continued to have a higher union membership rate (11%) than women (10.5%), with the overall rate at 10.8% — barely half of what it was in 1983 — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The conclusion: Joining unions where they exist and advocating for unions where they don’t can help women narrow the wage gap and advance their careers.

Actively fight stereotypes. 

Women in the workplace are often characterized unfairly and, as a result, burdened with unrealistic expectations that go beyond those placed on their male counterparts — all while receiving less pay. 

Stereotypes are rampant and need to be continually challenged, both with evidence and active pushback against sexism. For example, the pervasive myth that men are better than math was debunked by a study in which women who focused on identifying themselves as being enrolled at an exclusive private college did as well as men on math tests. Other key research put to rest a different fable: that men are better at negotiating than women.

Not surprisingly, it is societal prejudices – not a lack of ability – that tends to hold women back. These stereotypes persist, and need to be confronted at every turn. 

Be willing to change jobs.

According to the research, changing jobs frequently can benefit you financially and allow you to advance your career more quickly. 

Staying in the same job might get you an annual cost-of-living raise, say 3%. But moving to a different position can give you a lot bigger boost: an average increase of 10% to 20%. In fact, if you stay at the same company for an average of more than two years, you’ll earn at least 50% less over your lifetime than you would have if you’d changed jobs.

Getting that new job or embarking on a new career path might require you to step out of your comfort zone and learn new skills, but it will be worth it.

Enhance your skill set.

Speaking of enhancing your skill set, continuing education is always helpful, and it doesn’t have to mean going back to school for an advanced degree. Many short-term seminars and virtual opportunities are available, too.

With tech skills especially in demand, look for marketable proficiencies in areas that translate well to multiple positions, such as familiarity with an array of commonly used software (such as Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint, etc.). Familiarity with grant writing and internet marketing, particularly search engine optimization (SEO) can help you advance, as well.

Look for training opportunities, both in person and virtually, and once you’ve mastered a skill, update your physical and online resumes to reflect your expertise.

Find your tribe, and network.

Thanks to the internet, professionals looking to advance their careers can network across far greater geographic distances than ever before. Take advantage of sites like Alignable and LinkedIn, as well as your personal network on social media, to forge alliances with others on your career path. This will allow you to share tips and ideas that have brought you success and learn the same from others. 

Furthermore, you should stay in touch with former supervisors and co-workers who can advocate for you in your quest for a new position, if and when the time comes. If your list of trusted colleagues includes a potential mentor, be sure to pursue that relationship. According to three decades of research, mentorship leads to higher pay, faster advancement, and greater career satisfaction for mentees. 

Burnish your reputation.

Prospective employers look at a range of factors in considering new hires, including your employment history (this is an instance where changing jobs too frequently can hurt you) and even your credit rating.

You can combat any negatives in your employment record by seeking out positive recommendations from past employers and colleagues. This proactive step helps ensure that nothing in your past can undermine your goals. You should also carefully curate your social media accounts, as many employers will check public posts and photos before they offer you a position. 

Although they can’t get access to your credit score, employers may view your credit history in an attempt to learn how responsible you are, especially if you’re being considered for a financial position. If you’re thinking of applying for a new role, it’s worthwhile to check your report yourself and to take the steps to build or rebuild your credit. Then employers won’t be able to use that as an excuse to pass you by. 

These are just some of the ways you can advocate for yourself and advance your career in the post-pandemic world. Other opportunities are available, too. Be on the lookout for ways to move forward in boldness and confidence, so nothing can hold you back.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Molly Barnes is a full-time digital nomad. She works remotely, travels constantly, and explores different cities across the U.S. She started her site, www.digitalnomadlife.org as a resource for travelers, nomads, and remote workers. Molly writes resources that help office and remote workers alike reach their personal and professional goals of becoming more successful. Follow along with her and her boyfriend Jacob on their blog as they pursue a nomadic lifestyle while freelancing and traveling across the country. 


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Portillo’s Food Chain Walk Out on Strike

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | ??????

A group of non-unionized workers at the Chicago-based chain staged a week-long walk out, part of a growing wave of strikes in the area.

Alleging unfairly low pay and employer mistreatment, a group of non-unionized workers at Portillo’s?—?a popular Chicago-based restaurant chain serving hot dogs, Italian beef and Polish sausages?—?staged a seven-day strike last week. 

“All we want is to be treated decently, to be treated fairly, to be paid fairly,” said striking worker Armando Huerta.

The strikers?—?all Latino?—?work at Portillo’s Food Service in suburban Addison, where the food served at the company’s nearly 50 Chicago area restaurants is prepared. They say that management has failed to replace their coworkers who left during the pandemic, instead expecting them to perform more labor while offering only a $0.35-per-hour raise.

“I was working before four days a week, and now I’m working six days a week,” explained Paty Córdova, another striker. ?“The company refuses to give us overtime. We are tired of the injustice of having us work double.”

Out of 25 employees at the Addison facility, 17 participated in the work stoppage, which lasted from June 28 to July 5. Most say they have been with Portillo’s for over a decade. According to Córdova, they have been trying to address workplace issues with management for the past four years.

“Thanks to the company for the good years, but enough is enough,” Huerta said last Friday at a rally outside Portillo’s flagship restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

The strike was organized by the workers themselves with support from Arise Chicago, a 30-year-old worker center founded by diverse faith leaders. The employees, who don’t have a union, first reached out to Arise Chicago last November. They soon formed a workplace committee to collectively bring their concerns to management.

“We have tried to engage in talks with management at several levels?—?corporate, the plant manager, human resources?—?and none of them have responded to us,” Córdova said. ?“So we created this committee, this group, and we go by the motto: ?‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’”

On June 28, the committee attempted to deliver a set of demands around safe working conditions and higher wages to the company. Managers refused to meet with them and allegedly said, ?“if you don’t like it, go home.” The workers responded by hitting the picket lines.

“The Portillo’s leadership team is committed to hearing from each of our team members individually and will continue to do so,” the company said in a statement. 

But Córdova said that this approach isn’t good enough: ?“They keep insisting on meeting with them one-on-one, individually, but we are not going to allow that because we don’t want to be intimidated at those individual meetings.” 

Portillo’s management described the strikers as ?“a small group…[that] does not speak for our team members,” but was clearly shaken by the work stoppage. The company had to bring in temp workers to ensure food production continued, and allegedly resorted to intimidation by sending letters to some strikers threatening to fire them if they didn’t return to work. Arise Chicago says the latter is an Unfair Labor Practice and has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The company eventually agreed not to discipline any of the strikers, and they returned to work together on the morning of July 6. Concerned that management might attempt to lock them out, the workers were accompanied back into the Addison facility by faith leaders from Arise Chicago. 

“I have mixed emotions because we know the struggle isn’t over yet,” striker Jesus Victoria told In These Times. ?“But walking in after our strike, I felt capable and courageous demanding what is just.” Victoria and the other strikers report that they did not face any immediate discipline after going back to work, but they noted that the company held one-on-one meetings with each of them.

The non-unionized Portillo’s workers got the attention of Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson, who tweeted about the strike last week, saying: ?“Workers are the Labor Movement, the power and purpose. They don’t have time for leadership to catch up. They are showing us the way. We have to run hard to help them form their unions that will mean lasting change and sustainable rights.”

Meanwhile, at least two other groups of Chicago-area workers were also on strike over the Fourth of July weekend. 

At Dill Pickle Food Co-op?—?a member-owned grocery store in the Logan Square neighborhood?—?workers unionized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a two-day strike on Friday and Saturday. 

The IWW says Dill Pickle management has been violating the collective bargaining agreement that’s been in place since last November, and is refusing to settle over allegations of unfair discipline, retaliation and unilateral of implementation of new policies brought to the NLRB. 

I’Talia McCarthy, the co-op’s general manager, called the union’s allegations ?“unfounded” and said that eight cases with the NLRB have been closed ?“with no enforcement action or adjudication.” 

“Their distrust, and the repeated suggestion that the Co-op is violating its contract with the union, is not only a misrepresentation?—?it is damaging sales,” McCarthy said. ?“At this time, the Co-op could really use support, not suspicion.”

But according to the IWW, the labor board ?“found merit” in the workers’ complaints.

“Dill Pickle Worker’s Union is on strike to save the co-op,” the union said on Saturday. ?“They demand that management settle rather than fight the National Labor Relations Board and bankrupt the store in the process.”

At the same time, 2,500 Cook County workers with SEIU Local 73 kept up their indefinite strike that began on June 25. The strikers include frontline employees who continued coming into work throughout the pandemic, including technicians, medical assistants, custodians, clerks and others at the county’s hospitals, health clinics, offices, courthouses and jail.

The striking Local 73 members?—?primarily Black women?—?are some of the county’s lowest paid workers. Now on day 14 of their strike?—?and nearly nine months into contract negotiations?—?they say Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bargaining team is pressuring them to accept minuscule raises while simultaneously increasing their health insurance costs by 70 to 80 percent.

The county workers have received widespread support from the local labor movement, community organizations, faith leaders, and socialist and progressive elected officials?—?and have received hundreds of individual donations to their strike solidarity fund.

On July 7, a group of Local 73 workers held a sit-in outside Preckwinkle’s office after neither she nor her staff accepted a letter from allies in the faith community.

Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cook County nurses with the National Nurses Organizing Committee also held a one-day walkout over staffing shortages on June 24. Afterward, they won a new contract that includes a commitment from management to hire 300 new registered nurses over the next 18 months, along with 12 to 31 percent pay raises.

For their part, the Portillo’s workers who were on the picket lines for a week plan to continue organizing now that they’ve returned to work.

“We are in this fight together and we will be fighting until the end,” Córdova said.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 8, 2021. 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


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New York City holds parade honoring essential workers—but many essential workers boycott

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Wednesday was “a day to celebrate and appreciate the heroes who often go unsung,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month in announcing a parade to honor the essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re going to sing about them this day.” 

Many of the workers, though, feel so unappreciated that they boycotted the parade supposedly held in their honor, saying a better way to honor them would be with better pay and working conditions. One of the groups with the biggest complaint is emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Those workers, who are more than half people of color and more than a quarter women, are paid dramatically less than firefighters, three out of four of whom are white and 99% of whom are male—and the truly essential role they played in the pandemic response did not stop de Blasio from opposing a move toward pay parity.

“A parade does not bring this workforce out of the poverty wages they are now being paid,” Oren Barzilay, the president of a union that represents more than 4,000 first responders, told the New York Daily News, describing attendance at the parade as like crossing a picket line. “It is far past time that the city gives this workforce the respect they deserve in livable wages. If taxpayer dollars can be allocated to put on this parade, then Mayor de Blasio, you can easily find the means to financially support our FDNY EMT’s, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors.”

The union has been in contract negotiations with the city since before the pandemic, and the city appears to remain intent on treating these workers as second-class first responders.

Another union representing social workers, contact tracers, health inspectors, and other workers similarly boycotted the parade, citing struggles to get personal protective equipment during the pandemic and saying in a statement, “To participate in a parade is an injustice to how we have been treated and continue to be treated. The Early Retirement Incentive was not passed, and Essential Worker pay seems to have disappeared.”

The parade included 14 floats and 260 groups of essential workers, including first responders (some of them, anyway), child care workers, transit workers, delivery workers, and more. Funeral industry workers who had to deal with the many, many bodies the pandemic produced were initially left out, then included after protest.

Eric Adams, the newly announced winner of the Democratic mayoral primary, did attend the parade, telling reporters, “We need to honor them [essential workers] with pay equity … we need to show them the respect they deserve.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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June jobs report shows an unexpectedly strong 850,000 new jobs

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The U.S. economy is up 850,000 jobs, according to the June jobs report, and the past two months’ jobs reports were adjusted upward by 15,000. June’s jobs report is the strongest result in 10 months.

The unemployment rate rose slightly, to 5.9%, while the number of people who have been jobless for six months or more rose to 4 million, and “Black unemployment remains in deeply recessionary territory at 9.2%,” the Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould tweeted. “What boosted net job growth was an increase in people staying employed,” economist Aaron Sojourner tweeted. “Flows into employment from unemployment and from out of labor force both ticked down. The # of unemployed dropping out of labor force fell 363K=16%. Instead, they continued searching.”

A positive bottom line: “at this pace of job growth, the labor market would be back to pre-COVID health by the end of 2022—a recovery roughly *five times* as fast as the recovery following the Great Recession, thanks in no small part to the [American Rescue Plan],” EPI’s Heidi Shierholz wrote.

Notably, the leisure and hospitality industry gained 343,000 jobs, and that wasn’t just a one-month blip. “Over the last three months, leisure & hospitality has added 977,000 jobs—well over half of the 1.7 million total jobs added over that period,” Shierholz pointed out. Wages have risen in that industry; it’s almost like paying workers better helps draw in more workers. Pay remains abysmally low in leisure and hospitality, though.

There are still 6.8 million fewer jobs than in February 2020. With the jobs the economy would have added since then if the trends in place in early 2020 had continued, there is still a shortfall of more than 7.7 million jobs.

This jobs report cannot be seen as an endorsement of unemployment benefits cut-offs by Republican governors—it’s the June jobs report, but covers mid-May to mid-June, with those cut-offs starting in mid-June. A survey by the jobs search engine Indeed found factors other than unemployment benefits keeping unemployed people without college degrees from looking for work more aggressively.

The economy is rebounding, but the COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, and the disruptions and trauma it has dealt to workers in all industries will be with us for a long time to come.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Dueling accounts of a hotel job fair offer a choice: Blame lazy workers, or lousy jobs

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

As [more] states cut off added federal unemployment aid to millions of workers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are on the spot with dueling takes on the effects of the cut-offs. The picture you get of the situation in Missouri—one of the earliest states to end the benefits, on June 12—is very different depending which newspaper you’re reading. But when you dig into the details, it gets interesting.

The Times opens at a job fair with few job applicants, and notes, “Work-force development officials said they had seen virtually no uptick in applicants since the governor’s announcement, which ended a $300 weekly supplement to other benefits. And the online job site Indeed found that in states that have abandoned the federal benefits, clicks on job postings were below the national average.”

The WSJ opens “The number of unemployment-benefit recipients is falling at a faster rate in Missouri and 21 other states canceling enhanced and extended payments this month, suggesting that ending the aid could push more people to take jobs.”

Hmm, okay … What does that “push” look like? 

One woman interviewed by the WSJ has just had her federal unemployment benefits cut off and is scrambling to find food for herself and her two children. But taking a low-wage job would cause her to lose the health insurance still being covered by the corporate-travel agent job that furloughed her during the pandemic. She’s hoping to be recalled to that job, but in the mean time, the unemployment aid cut-off means she’s turning to food pantries.

Is this supposed to be the face of those lazy people taking unemployment benefits because they don’t want to work? Someone whose previous job valued them enough to pay for health coverage through a long furlough, who doesn’t want to lose that benefit in exchange for minimum wage and no benefits?

The greatest moment, though, comes when you realize that the two newspapers reported on the recent hiring success of the very same hotel. According to the WSJ, hotel company Midas Hospitality had a recent uptick of applications in Missouri, in particular at the Element Hotel in St. Louis, at the time of the unemployment aid cut-off. 

Here’s the Times on the very same Element Hotel: “The hotel, which is on a major bus line, raised its starting wage to $13.50 an hour, the second increase in two months. It also offers benefits and a $50-a-month transportation allowance. The number of applicants shot up—to 40 from a handful the previous month—after the second wage increase.”

What. Do. You. Know. They raised pay and applications increased. The state’s minimum wage is $10.30 an hour, so $13.50, while still not a living wage for a single person in St. Louis, is a substantial boost over the minimum.

A woman interviewed by the Times, who was offered a job on the spot at the Element Hotel job fair and took it, already had a job as a housekeeper at a hotel near the airport, forcing her into a two-bus commute that took up to four hours on weekends. But if you read the WSJ, all you hear is that “several” of the people who were offered jobs at that job fair had been unemployed for at least six months. There’s no word on what those people’s stories were or how they would explain their choice to take that $13.50 an hour, benefits, on a major bus line job offer at this moment in time.

The U.S. economy is in recovery from a precedent-shattering, historic pandemic. No one really knows what path economic recovery will take, and many stories can be told about what is happening at any given moment. It’s clear that lots of workers are looking for a better deal than they’ve gotten in recent years—and, in some cases, finding it as employers scramble to staff back up quickly. It’s a certainty that some workers will be pushed into taking lousy jobs by the unemployment aid cut-off—but how much suffering will result?

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Engines Out and Pickets Up to Stop Health Plan Downgrade by Cummins

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East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss |  Today's Workplace

Thirty-three heavy-duty engine mechanics have been on an open-ended strike since June 8 at the Cummins service shop in San Leandro, California.

These technicians service the engines and generators that power Silicon Valley tech giants and buses for the Bay Area’s local public transit agencies. They worked through the pandemic, without adequate personal protective equipment, sanitizing procedures, or hazard pay. The shop was busier than ever.

But as their reward for their hard work, dedication, and personal risk to keep the Bay Area running, Cummins kicked them off the health care plans they sorely need.

For 18 months after the Machinists (IAM) Local 1546 contract expired in 2020, management had refused to budge on its demand to strip workers of their union-negotiated Kaiser HMO plan.

This month, declaring an impasse, the company unilaterally forced workers off their plan and onto the kind of costly health savings account plan it had already pushed on the rest of its workers nationwide. Deductibles shot up to $8,000 for individuals and $11,000 for families.

The mechanics had had enough. With nearly every worker in the shop taking part, they walked off the job and went on strike for the first time in 20 years.

LAST ONE STANDING

Cummins is a multinational Fortune 500 company that manufactures, installs, and services engines in buses and other large vehicles and ships. The company’s mobile teams install and service generators at hospitals, stadiums, and data centers around the U.S.

The strike at the San Leandro shop is the final stand against a corporate behemoth that has won health care concessions at every other shop in the country. Cummins has forced not only its nonunion shops, mostly in the South and Midwest, but also its thousands of union workers in California and the Northeast onto expensive, low-quality plans.

Louis Huaman, a mechanic at the San Leandro shop for 40 years, said that he and his co-workers saw this fight coming. “We didn’t think we’d be the last one standing, but we’re drawing the line.”

Another longtime employee, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how management’s plan would leave him high and dry: “I’m a dialysis patient. Right now I have a $15 co-pay. On management’s plan, I’d pay $600 a visit. I’d probably spend the $8,000 deductible by May—and have to do it all over the next year.”

The surging health expenses would make it impossible for him to afford to continue to live in the costly Bay Area, he said. “I’ve got an elderly dad with health issues, and he lives here. The reason I stay at this job is so I can be close to him.”

Others emphasized the importance of having good health insurance in a physically taxing job. “This job will wear you down,” said Mike Nelson, shop steward and a technician in the shop for three decades. “Batteries go up in flames. Engines can drop on you if you’re not careful. You need good health care.”

PROFITS ARE SOARING

During its push to slash workers’ health care, the company has been extremely profitable lately.

Cummins has been picking up new business, according to Nelson, since the pandemic shut down in-house service crews at many transit agencies and other clients.

“The company made $6 billion [in revenue] in the first quarter this year, which is a billion over that quarter last year,” he said. Cummins bragged that it made $600 million in profit during the quarter.

Management has pushed through mergers and corporate takeovers of independent local distributors in the last few years. The 2013 corporate takeover of the San Leandro shop, formerly a distributor with a local owner, now looks to workers like a first step in management’s strategy to break a strong union shop and its hard-earned health care.

Aware of the company’s flush profits and high demand, these machinists have been emboldened to fight back. “When we’re out here, we’re costing them at least $100,000 a day,” Nelson estimated from the picket line, pointing to lost business due to the strike.

Google cancelled its Cummins service contract this week and switched to a competitor, which workers believe is also union. Machinists have parted the picket line almost daily for local transit agencies and a manufacturer to tow their unrepaired buses out of the service yard.

MAKING IT HARD FOR SCABS

Besides maintaining a picket line at the main gate of the Cummins yard, the Machinists are placing striking workers at sites where they perform generator work across the Bay Area. They’ve cultivated relationships with the workers in other union locals who staff these sites.

With this strategy, the mechanics and their allies have been slowing down work for the scabs that Cummins has sent in from its nonunion Arizona and Colorado shops.

On their last day working before the strike, some mechanics carefully took the engines out of vehicles, and removed oil pans or other parts that would make it very difficult for scabs to take over the work.

As the work piles up into a deep backlog, the workers hope that Cummins will have no other choice but to finally concede and restore the health care plan.

“We’ll be here as long as it takes,” said Huaman. “We know they can’t run these engines without us.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Brower Brown is a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America and a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865.


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NEW REPORT PROPOSES CRITICAL UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE POLICY REFORMS

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National Employment Law Project - Home | Facebook

NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION BEING HELD IN WASHINGTON D.C. AND SIX OTHER CITIES

As 25 states cut pandemic unemployment benefits prematurely, a new report from a coalition of advocacy groups and think tanks, in partnership with workers who have experienced unemployment during COVID-19, proposes a stronger federal role in the unemployment insurance (UI) system and a slate of permanent reforms to unemployment benefits that will sustain families and the economy.

The report is a joint project of Center for American Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Economic Policy Institute, Groundwork Collaborative, National Employment Law Project, National Women’s Law Center, and Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

“A successful unemployment system can be the centerpiece of economic recovery, particularly for those communities, such as workers of color, who bear the brunt of downturns and are left behind in the wake of recessions,” said Heidi Shierholz, Director of Policy and Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute, and contributor to the report. “In addition to sustaining working families through jobless spells, swift and adequate unemployment benefits are good for the broader economy because they allow workers to search for a job that is a good match to their needs, instead of being so desperate that they have to take the first job that comes along no matter how bad it is for them.”

The report includes key insights from workers who experienced unemployment during the pandemic, including Sharon Shelton Corpening, a media gig worker in Georgia who has supported herself and her mother on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

“COVID unemployed workers like me are fighting to build a UI system that supports us until we can find good jobs that allow us to live in dignity and security. Next week, my financial lifeline will be yanked from under me because states like Georgia have too much power to reduce, restrict, or flat out deny benefits that are literally keeping us alive,” said Corpening, an Unemployed Action leader. “Unemployed people—especially Black people in the South who face systemic racism even as jobs return—want and need to work. But this current unstable unemployment insurance system hasn’t helped us get on our feet if we can’t even count on UI benefits. We need federal protections and we need them now.”

The report’s proposed structural changes include:

  • Guaranteeing universal minimum standards for benefits eligibility, duration, and levels, with states free to enact more expansive benefits;
  • Reforming financing of UI to eliminate incentives for states and employers to exclude workers and reduce benefits;
  • Updating UI eligibility to match the modern workforce and guarantee benefits to everyone looking for work but still jobless through no fault of their own;
  • Expanding UI benefit duration to provide longer protection during normal times and use effective measures of economic conditions to automatically extend and sustain benefits during downturns; and
  • Increasing UI benefits to levels working families can survive on.

“This report lays out the first steps toward transforming our unemployment insurance system, with racial equity concerns front and center. Black, Brown, and Indigenous workers in particular have borne the brunt of the pandemic and its unemployment crisis. They continue to grapple every day with workplace health and safety concerns, underpaid work, eroded transportation infrastructure, and lack of affordable child care options. The urgently needed unemployment reforms detailed in our report will be a win for everyone in our nation,” said Rebecca Dixon, Executive Director at the National Employment Law Project.

The report release coincides with a national day of action from the Center for Popular Democracy calling on Congress to act quickly and boldly to enact transformative changes for an equitable economy, including overhauling the UI system. Unemployed Action leaders from around the country will join excluded immigrant workers and others in Washington D.C. for a 5,000-person march to the U.S. Capitol. Workers will also rally in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, and Pittsfield MA.

As the report explains, when state UI structures became overwhelmed during the onset of the COVID-19 recession, federal policymakers realized that benefit levels were too low and not available to enough workers. In part to offer stimulus to a sharply contracting economy, the federal government provided unemployed workers claiming standard UI benefits with a supplemental $600 per week in additional benefits, as well as extended the duration of benefits and provided benefits to some groups of workers left out of the regular UI system, such as the self-employed and temporary workers.

But even those emergency programs have proven inadequate, with already overstretched state systems failing to get out emergency benefits in a timely manner. Half of the states are now choosing to cut off their residents’ access to these programs early, causing extraordinary harm to vulnerable families and impeding the economic recovery. These attacks on critical emergency benefits are the most vivid and recent manifestation of recurring dysfunction in the UI system: The federal government has ceded so much control to states that it has failed to equitably protect working people.

“Unemployment benefits are critical to keep us going as we continue to look for work, but our broken system keeps throwing obstacles in our paths,” said Nate Claus, an Unemployed Action leader and theater worker in New York. “Federal protections are desperately needed to strengthen unemployment insurance.”

This blog originally appeared at NELP on June 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: NELP fights for policies to create good jobs, expand access to work, and strengthen protections and support for low-wage workers and the unemployed. 


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OVER 218,000 GEORGIANS TO LOSE ALL UNEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE WITHIN DAYS

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National Employment Law Project - Home | Facebook

NEW ESTIMATE OF GEORGIA PEUC RECIPIENTS SHOWS OVER 114,000 LONG-TERM JOBLESS FACING COMPLETE AID CUTOFF JUNE 26

An estimated 218,434 Georgians will abruptly lose all unemployment assistance at the end of this week, according to a new analysis released today by the National Employment Law Project (NELP). That figure comprises 114,820 long-term unemployed workers currently receiving extended weeks of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), plus another 103,614 Georgians currently receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits.

All together, more than 347,000 people are receiving some form of jobless aid in Georgia, and nearly two in three will lose all aid when the state shuts off all federal pandemic unemployment payments on June 26th at the direction of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Governor Brian Kemp.

NELP’s analysis of the impact of states’ unilateral cutoffs of federally funded pandemic unemployment benefits includes a first-ever estimate of Georgia PEUC recipients facing the cutoff of those benefits.[1] Georgia is one of only two states that do not report this data to the U.S. Labor Department.

Additional data on the impact of Georgia’s unemployment aid cutoffs include the following:

  • Of the 347,422 people receiving unemployment payments in Georgia, 114,820 PEUC and 103,614 PUA recipients will be cut off completely, leaving them with no jobless aid at all.
  • Nearly two-thirds (62.9%) of unemployment recipients in Georgia will be cut off completely.
  • Of the 22 states ending all CARES Act pandemic unemployment programs early, Georgia (347,422) ranks second only to Texas (1,149,892) in the number of people affected.
  • Black, Latinx, and other people of color will be disproportionately affected by the cutoffs: a majority (51.8%) of state unemployment insurance recipients in Georgia are workers of color.

Nationally, more than 4.7 million people will be affected by the cutoffs of federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), the weekly $300 supplement to all benefits; Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the expanded program for self-employed, gig workers, and others excluded from regular state unemployment eligibility; and PEUC, the extended weeks for people whose regular state benefits run out.

  • Nationally, in the week ending May 29th, 76% of all unemployment recipients were PEUC or PUA benefit recipients.
  • In the 22 states ending all pandemic jobless aid early, 74.7% are PEUC or PUA recipients who will be cut off completely.

“The CARES Act’s pandemic unemployment programs continue to be a critical lifeline for millions of people looking for work in a changed economy still jolted by the pandemic,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of NELP. “The decision by Governor Kemp and Labor Commissioner Butler to abruptly end these family-sustaining payments is callous and downright cruel. These programs fill huge gaps in unemployment eligibility, benefit adequacy, and duration. They are helping families and communities—particularly Black workers and other people of color—weather an economic crisis that the U.S. is only beginning to emerge from. The success of these programs is clear proof that our unemployment insurance system is in dire need of comprehensive reform. Congress should make UI reform an urgent priority this year, and extend the pandemic aid programs for as long as people need them.”

This blog originally appeared at NELP on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: NELP fights for policies to create good jobs, expand access to work, and strengthen protections and support for low-wage workers and the unemployed. 


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