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Koch-Funded Think Tanks Are Lobbying to Send Workers to Their Deaths

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It’s no mystery what will happen if we rush to reopen the economy and send people back to work before epidemiologists say it is safe to do so. A model produced in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March projected a worst-case scenario of 1.7 million Americans killed. Another estimate by the Imperial College London put this number at 2.2 million. We know that COVID-19, which has already taken more than 40,000 U.S. lives, is disproportionately killing African Americans. Poor people are already bearing the brunt of this crisis—and will die in even larger numbers if they are prematurely sent back to wait tables and crowd together in warehouses and factories.

Amid this climate, a small army of right-wing think tanks and conservative organizations is cynically invoking the plight of the downtrodden to make the case for swiftly reopening the economy and sending workers into deadly conditions. Some of the organizations beating this drum the loudest—the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—are behind the most anti-worker measures of our times, from the anti-union Janus Supreme Court ruling to the Trump administration’s work requirements for food stamps. As Trump, the GOP, CEOs and now billionaire-backed “protesters” call for the economy to reopen, these think tanks are working fervently behind the scenes, crafting talking points, speaking with legislators and building coalitions aimed at boosting Wall Street’s profits, at the expense of ordinary people.

“The people running these organizations are going to remain safely ensconced in gated mansions with little danger of getting infected themselves, while they make millions of Americans go back to work standing shoulder to shoulder,” Carl Rosen, general president for the UE union (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America), told In These Times.

On April 16, Kay Coles James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, praised President Trump for issuing guidelines for states to reopen their economies in three phases. “The administration is rightly working to restore livelihoods in the midst of catastrophic job losses while also taking care to balance Americans’ health and safety,” said James. “The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission is also working quickly to deliver additional recommendations to governments at every level, the private sector, and churches, charities, and other parts of civil society on a pathway to reopen America.”

James was listed as a thought leader on Trump’s dubious “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups”—likely at least partially a P.R. stunt, but nonetheless, a measure of influence and power. For the Heritage Foundation, it’s a sign that the organization’s campaign to reopen the economy might be paying off. The group announced a “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission” on April 6 and, soon after, issued a five-phase plan for reopening America. According to the Washington Post, the Heritage Foundation is working with other conservative groups including FreedomWorks and ALEC as part of an informal “Save Our Country” coalition aimed at reopening the economy. With funding from the Koch Foundation, ExxonMobile and a bevy of wealthy donors, the Heritage Foundation is at the center of political efforts to prematurely restart the economy.

Remarkably, the organization is citing the well-being of the poor people it wants to send into treacherous conditions when issuing this call. On April 13, James declared, “Keeping the American people at work and prosperous is what will produce better health outcomes for our citizens. A growing economy has the money for research and development into new medical innovations and cures; has more resources to better educate and train medical personnel; and creates greater capacities of beds, equipment, medicines, and personnel to handle the sick. It’s also an economy where abundance allows us to have the resources to help poorer citizens get the medical help that they need.” In other words, she is arguing that reopening the economy will make people sick, but market forces will somehow offset this catastrophe by providing the things we need to treat them—a claim made without evidence, and against the advice of epidemiological experts.

This insistence on sending workers into treacherous conditions “for their own good” stems directly from the organization’s history. The Heritage Foundation was heavily influential in the Reagan administration and right-wing Tea Party movement, and was a major influencer in the Trump administration’s transition team. It is vehemently anti-union, a fierce opponent of a $15 minimum wage, a fervent supporter of the 2018 Janus ruling, which pummelled public-sector unions, and a proponent of so-called right-to-work laws, which say workers don’t have to pay dues to the unions that represent them. Heritage has  made gutting public programs for the poor a central focus throughout its existence, and opposes expanding healthcare access.

The organization saw one of its cruelest agenda items come to fruition in December of 2019, when the Trump administration placed further restrictions on who can receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, declaring that able-bodied adults without children in places that have an unemployment rate below 10% have to work 20 hours a week to qualify. This rule was approved by Trump despite warnings that 700,000 people would lose their food stamps. Maggie Dickinson, a researcher who studied SNAP in New York City from 2011 to 2013, wrote that “work requirements have been shown to not help unemployed people find work and to make it more difficult for them to feed themselves. But taking people who are unemployed off SNAP often does harm to more than just those who directly receive food assistance.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the rule change “appears to base its intellectual underpinning on policy developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, experts say.” The Heritage Foundation, for its part, claimed credit in an article titled “Heritage Research Influences Food Stamp Eligibility Rule.”

According to Rosen of UE, “The only thing these corporations want to achieve is corporate profits as usual. That’s their real goal—not making sure working people have an income, not to make sure health and economic needs were taken care of. If those were their goals, they would support much more robust policies right now that make sure everyone has a full income and full healthcare through Medicare for All. These are the steps that have been taken in many european countries.”

“People need to be paid to stay home right now—that’s the only way we can recover as a country,” Rosen added. “Attempts to force people to go back to work when it’s not safe for them to do so is a horrendous, murderous policy.”

When it comes to the push to reopen the U.S. economy, the Heritage Foundation is not going it alone. As the Associated Press notes, the Koch-backed AFP was “one early shutdown opponent,” making the case that business should be allowed to “adapt and innovate.” Intercept reporter Lee Fang noted on March 26 that AFP, which calls itself a political advocacy group, “wants employees to return to work despite desperate pleas from public health officials that people should stay home as much as possible to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.” State chapters of AFP have also joined in the effort.

Like the Heritage Foundation, the AFP cites the hardships of poor people when pushing for the economy to reopen. “We can achieve public health without depriving the people most in need of the products and services provided by businesses across the country,” the organization said on March 20. “If businesses are shut down, where will people who are most in need get the things they need to care for themselves and others? Rather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need, while continuing to do everything they can to protect the public health.”

Yet AFP, described by In These Times writer Mary Bottari as “the Kochs’ ‘grassroots’ lobbying arm,” has played a tremendous role in gutting public programs aimed at protecting ordinary people, including the CDC, and social welfare programs, particularly Medicaid. In recent years, the organization has gone on a blitz trying to pass right-to-work laws, seeing some success.

Before the COVID-19 crisis began, AFP was mobilizing against the PRO Act, which passed the House in February. This legislation would strengthen the right to strike, override “right-to-work” laws, and punish bosses who retaliate against workers for attempting to form a union. While the legislation is not perfect, it would “go a long way toward reversing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust,” Jeremy Gantz wrote in February for In These Times. AFP is presently circulating a letter which declares, “This legislation would turn back the clock on workers’ rights by undermining many pro-worker successes of recent years, just one year after the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision that affirmed union membership is a choice for all government workers nationwide.” AFP is not only pushing to send workers into dangerous conditions: It also wants to erode their right to collectively fight back.

But perhaps the biggest villain of all is ALEC, the Koch-backed “nonprofit” model-legislation shop that has devoted its nearly half-century of existence to eroding workers’ rights. ALEC has been active in efforts to reopen the economy. Its CEO Lisa B. Nelson told Newt Gingrich on March 27, “We believe preparations need to be made for a clarion call to get Americans back to work, and so the economy can start its rebound.” ALEC hosted a March 21 conference call featuring ALEC Board of Scholar Member Art Laffer, a right-wing economist and key figure behind the Reagan-era tax cuts for the rich. “We need to get production back—period,” declared Laffer, who was awarded the presidential medal of freedom by Trump last year.

As ALEC has called for policies that would endanger society’s most vulnerable, the organization has sought to portray itself as a victim. On an April 1 legislators call, ALEC Chief Economist Jonathan Williams said: “I think we all know how times of crises like these can be very dangerous times for those of us who believe in the ALEC principles of free markets and limited government and federalism.” Meanwhile, the organization is pushing for a host of other goals, including deregulation of telecommunications and supporting “federalism” and “state’s rights.”

In an interview, Laffer cited the plight of poor people when staking out his political positions. Reuters paraphrases, “‘I think it’s really important to balance out the economic consequences with the health consequences,’ Laffer said, adding that increased poverty from an extended shutdown could mean lower life expectancy, more suicide and a jump in child abuse.” (Notably, robust social programs, which Laffer opposes, are proven to reduce suicides during times of economic downturn.) And in a podcast interview, Nelson cited “working” as a public good: “Open america and get America working again,” she declared.

ALEC’s current advocacy emanates from a long history. As Mary Battari noted in a February 2018 story for In These Times, “ALEC was founded in 1973 as a venue for politicians and corporate lobbyists to meet behind closed doors and draft cookie-cutter legislation, known as ‘model bills,’ that promote corporate interests.” Today it boasts a massive network of 2,000 legislative members and 300 or more corporate members, according to The Center for Media and Democracy, which says, “ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that.” Aided by funding from corporations, corporate trade groups and the Koch Foundation, its bills have aimed to undermine unions, criminalize protests and privatize public goods. Over the past 15 years it has worked closely with conservatie advocacy groups, including AFP, to undermine unions.

According to Rosen, groups like ALEC are a big reason why we are so ill-prepared to meet the COVID-19 crises. “Over the last 50 years,” he says, “we’ve allowed corporate forces to systematically destroy the social safety net. There was no preparation done for a pandemic like this, even though it was clear that something like this could happen. The groups demanding we reopen are the ones that destroyed the social safety net, thereby creating the pressures making some people want to start up again.”

These three think tanks are pillars of a much broader effort to “reopen the economy,” which is another way of saying “treat workers as disposable widgets in service of corporate profits.” The oversized role of wealthy people in pushing this effort calls into question any claims that local protests for reopening constitute an organic, working-class movement. As the Guardian reports, “The Michigan Freedom Fund, which said it was a co-host of a recent Michigan rally against stay-at-home orders, has received more than $500,000 from the DeVos family, regular donors to rightwing groups.” The DeVos family is one of the richest in Michigan.

Joining in the cacophony are individual CEOs, who occasionally put conservative organizations’ talking points in cruder and more honest terms. Billionaire Tom Golisano, founder and chairman of Paychex Inc., told Bloomberg in late March, “The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people. I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they’re going then so many of them will have to fold.” He added, “You have to weigh the pros and cons.”

Of course, for him, the “pro” is that he will not be the one serving tables, stocking warehouses or struggling to get healthcare once the economy reopens: When he talks about the costs, he’s talking about other people. The same can be said about the leaders of the conservative think tanks and organizations that are leading the push to send workers into danger: It will cost them nothing. The price for ordinary people will be immeasurable.

Lu Zhao and Indigo Olivier contributed research to this report.

This article was published at In These Times on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.


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Trader Joe’s Said I Was ‘Essential’—Safety Concerns Made Me Quit

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I quit my job this month. No, not the well-paying NGO summer position; that was canceled weeks ago. Not the paid internship either; my boss hasn’t returned my emails or sent me back pay for the past month. I decided to let go of my last source of income because Trader Joe’s didn’t appear to take their workers’ safety seriously when I was working there.

As COVID-19 has swept through the country, the spread of the virus has been accompanied by a massive shift in how we view our workers. Blue-collar starter jobs—the grocery clerks, janitors, and postal workers of the U.S.—are now seen as essential to the survival of our country. Though they are often praised on social media and by elected officials, policy has yet to catch up.

Across America workers and their unions are rallying for increased protections and accommodations in these unprecedented times, demanding proper protective gear, sick leave, and hazard pay in order to continue to serve the public.

Some national retailers like Walmart and Target have increased wages and protections for their workers, but others, like Trader Joe’s, have been reluctant.

I have some health issues. Not too bad, but enough to make me think twice before going outside during a respiratory illness pandemic. I had always loved my job, and genuinely looked forward to showing up, especially in a time of crisis, to help my community and maybe make someone’s day that much better. I trusted my team to keep me safe. But the billion-dollar company let me down.

At Trader Joe’s, your coworkers are called your “crew,” and upper management takes the moniker “mate,” with the store manager as our “captain.” Nautical titles aside, leadership has been lacking since this crisis began and the policies around personal protection have been confusing at best.

One week we weren’t allowed to wear gloves at all. Then next, we could wear gloves when stocking shelves, but not at the register. No masks allowed, period. No restrictions on how many people can enter the store, and no guidance around social distancing and how to stay safe as a cashier.

In our daily meetings, whimsically called “huddles,” I heard less about how to protect yourself from infection and more about why unionizing would hurt us.

As the weeks went on, and the full scope of the situation became apparent, I kept waiting to hear that our management would do something. Finally, the day came, and I was shocked: there was no message of safety protocols, no guidance on how to minimize contact, just a disclosure that those who had worked during the first weeks of panic would get a small share of the profits from the store as compensation. For most, this amounted to less than $2 per hour.

A week later, for my own safety, I quit.

I ultimately made my decision from a place of privilege, and I am thankful that I had the means to make a decision like that in the first place. I am fortunate to have family with the means to support me. I have lost all my income, and like many, will not see a cent from the Care Act tax refund. I am ineligible for unemployment benefits, but unlike other immunocompromised workers, I have the luxury to sit at home and wait this out, for now at least.

Since I quit, I understand there has been some clarification in store policies. Officially, masks are now allowed, and stores can limit the number of customers. Yet still, daily reports come in from stores around the country detailing contradictory messaging from management, and confusion over what the store’s policies are. There has been a temporary 10 percent increase to the employee discount. Employees are still encouraged to donate their own paid leave to their peers. I received a letter from national management two days ago, one that went out to all TJ’s workers around the country. I opened it eagerly, hoping it contained some new information about medical leave, or compensation. It was two pages on the dangers of unions.

The pandemic has revealed the urgent need for billionaires profiting from the food industry to truly protect and support workers on the front lines. Treat your grocery workers like the heroes they are for continuing to work in the face of danger. Just understand that for many, they have no other option.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. April 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Frakes is a former Trader Joe’s employee. To protect the author from workplace retribution, their name has been changed.


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Bosses can make essential workers exposed to COVID-19 keep working, this week in the war on workers

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The Centers for Disease Control gave employers the go-ahead to make essential workers who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 keep working right up until they get sick. That’s despite the well-established risk of transmission from people who don’t have symptoms. Under the policy, exposed workers should wear a mask and companies should clean and disinfect a lot, but still!

“Essential workers in food processing, agriculture, janitorial, and many other critical industries are disproportionally workers of color, who are underpaid and already at increased risk of serious complications if they become infected with coronavirus,” National Employment Law Project executive director Rebecca Dixon said in a statement. “With this new policy, the Trump administration has completely abandoned its responsibility to protect workers.”

Parents are not okay:

Viruses — pandemics — expose and exacerbate the existing dynamics of a society — good and bad. They are like a fun-house mirror, grossly reflecting ourselves back to us. One of those dynamics is the burden we put on individual parents and families. We ask individuals to solve for problems that are systemically created.

Everything from the lack of paid sick leave and parental leave to the fact that the school day ends at 3pm when the typical work day goes several hours longer — yet aftercare is not universally available. And that’s saying nothing of the fact that we need universal healthcare, irrespective of employment. Parents pour endless energy into solving for systems that don’t make sense and don’t work.

Workers don’t know who to turn to when employers won’t close down during the pandemic:

From crafts stores to custom closet installers to home-furnishing retailers, corporate lawyers have been arguing in letters to their workforces that they are too important to close even as the public-health crisis worsens. Employees who are dubious of those claims have been parsing the language of their stay-at-home orders and asking government officials why they are still expected to clock in.

While some states have moved swiftly to clarify the exemptions, several workers told HuffPost they reached out to their governors’ offices, their mayors, their local health or police departments and have waited days for definitive answers.

Leaked memo reveals the US’ largest health system could fire nurses who post coronavirus policies on social media—and a nurse has already been suspended without pay.

? The U.S. Department of Labor warned employers not to retaliate against workers for reporting unsafe conditions.

Under threat of a strike, Instacart promised its workers hand sanitizer. It’s not coming through with even that much.

The University of Chicago is paying its workers. Including subcontracted workers. This shouldn’t be unusual, but it is.

Grocery store workers need frontline protections:

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?

Temporary SNAP benefit boost a no-brainer for more economic stimulus.

The coronavirus crisis exposes how fragile capitalism already was.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Coronavirus has killed dozens of New York City transit workers after they had to beg for masks

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Workers in New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) took measures into their own hands. They wore their own masks, brought their own bleach solutions to clean shared workspaces, and had bus passengers enter through the rear door and blocked them from sitting too close to drivers. Eventually, the MTA started to catch up. But at least 41 New York City transit workers have died of COVID-19, another 1,500 have tested positive for the virus, and more than 5,500 others are self-quarantining because they have symptoms. That’s a huge hit for a workforce of 70,000.

It’s having a ripple effect through the entire city. The MTA is so understaffed it can’t keep up with even the reduced-by-25% schedule it had planned. Even with ridership down by over 90%, subway platforms and cars are crowded because trains aren’t coming as often, which in turn increases the danger of the virus spreading through the crowds in the city that has become the epicenter of the disease.

Union officials pushed MTA bosses to hand out masks and other safety equipment earlier, but the organization stuck by the Centers for Disease Control’s advice against masks. Some workers who wore their own masks were told to take them off because they violated uniform policy.

Bus drivers, whose passengers walk right by them, have been particularly hard-hit, with at least 11 dead.

If you want a devastating illustration of how the United States has let down its working people, check out the picture up top of MTA cleaning staff in early March and compare it with the one below of a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, being disinfected in late February.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Grocery Store Workers Need Frontline Protections

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Grocery store workers, like healthcare workers, first responders, and transportation workers, are currently among those deemed “essential” workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And, indeed, they have always been essential: they help provide the food and supplies necessary to sustain us all.

But of all the frontline workers whose work puts them in contact with potentially infected members of the public, grocery workers are among those who receive the least protections and the lowest pay.

Now grocery workers, too, are becoming infected—and some are dying of COVID-19.

It is deeply disturbing that several large corporate grocery retailers are simply not doing enough to protect workers’ safety or health during this critical time. Some of these retailers have been accused of harmful practices against workers in normal times. But lax health and safety protections during this crisis are dangerous and intolerable. Some food stores have reportedly put concerns about optics before the health and safety of workers by not allowing gloves to be worn by workers. Despite a recent Politico analysis that revealed cashiers are the largest number of at-risk workers, these workers continue to fight employer inaction.

Of all essential frontline workers, grocery workers are among the least protected and lowest paid.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?

A cashier at a major grocery store in northwest Washington, D.C. says that her employer has done nothing to ensure that workers are protected from the influx of customers that she interacts with daily. The store has not even provided every employee with requested protective gear, leaving many of them to supply their own. When she questioned management about the store supplying workers with protective gear, she was told that masks are not allowed because they only prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the company is only obligated to provide gloves to staff that come into contact with unwrapped food goods. This week, her store changed its policy and is allowing all workers to wear masks. But the workers are still responsible for supplying the masks and gloves themselves. “Even the porter, the person who cleans the bathroom, they don’t provide gloves to him. He brought his own gloves,” she said.

The federal agency in charge of workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has failed to issue a standard requiring employers to implement specific protections to safeguard at-risk workers in this crisis. Congressional efforts to require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect the most at-risk healthcare workers were blocked by the Trump administration and hospital industry lobbyists.

It has become painfully clear that state and local lawmakers need to swiftly implement health and safety protections for all frontline workers. In Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Vermont, grocery workers have been officially classified as emergency workers—a designation that will make free childcare services available to them during the crisis. But no state has implemented any other required protections for grocery or any other workers. Further, OSHA is not conducting any enforcement when workers complain about unsafe conditions.

In unionized supermarkets, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has pushed large chains to install protective shields between cashiers and customers, and to provide hand sanitizer, additional cleaning and sanitizing of store surfaces, time to wash hands with soap, face shields, masks, gloves, and extend paid sick leave. But workers in non-union grocery stores are left with no required protection and few safety rights.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores.

Black and brown retail workers already faced large disparities in pay, scheduling, and advancement in their workplaces before the current crisis. These workers also make up a disproportionate number of workers in jobs with the highest injury risksRecent reports have also shown that only 19.7% of Black workers and 16.2% of Latinx workers work in occupations that allow them to telework. The concentration of these communities in the retail and hospitality sectors is a major contributor to these inequities.

With many workers of color on the job in workplaces that may expose them to a potentially deadly transmissible virus, these workers are facing both panic and a status they know all too well: exclusion. In fact, even if Black workers have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, they must then navigate a medical system that has discriminated against their communities long before COVID-19 swept across the globe.

A 61-year old Black woman I spoke with who works as a grocery cashier and has survived two strokes is not only concerned about her health but also has had to take additional steps to purchase groceries for her family. Her shift starts at 6 a.m., but she shows up even earlier to try to buy what she needs before her shift begins and the store gets busy. She began this routine after she was unable to buy toothpaste and soap for herself one day after her six-hour shift ended.

“We don’t have none in stock. We used to have hand sanitizer on each register but since this virus there’s been a backorder for hand sanitizer, so we don’t have any,” she said.

Union protections have proven to be crucial for workers of color and will be even more vital for frontline workers right now. The COVID-19 crisis has propelled workers to unify and use their collective power to secure the protections they need to endure the daunting workdays ahead. Across the country, workers who have joined together to form unions have won some of the strongest standards for essential workers in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has propelled many workers to use their collective power to secure the protections they need.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of socioeconomic problems that workers have faced for years. In every recession, disaster, or other crisis in our history, Black and brown people have endured the hardest of hardships. It appears that the COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. The impact on our families, communities, and the economy will extend for years to come, even after we can leave our homes and return to the everyday routines that we sorely miss right now.

Essential frontline workers are keeping the U.S. running during this crisis. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their own well-being to keep the rest of us safe. We must fight for immediate solutions that prioritize strong health and safety standards, wage protections, paid leave, and unemployment insurance to protect frontline workers and all workers affected by this public health crisis.

This blog was originally published at NELP on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shayla Thompson is the government affairs manager on NELP’s Government Affairs team. She is a member of NELP’s committee tasked with change management and facilitating NELP’s commitment to dismantling structural racism. Her tenure at NELP has included conducting research in projects committed to racial equity, creating curriculum to guide NELP’s race caucuses, and facilitating equity training.

Shayla is committed to infusing race and inclusion into federal advocacy and creating policy messaging that reaches all working people.

Before joining NELP, she managed professional development training and social media campaigns for early childcare providers, infant mental health specialists, and parents.


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One Thing We Can Do to Protect Frontline Workers

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Almost exactly 10 years ago, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and seriously injuring 17 more. To clean it up, BP hired more than 40,000 local residents to remove oil from the beaches and shoreline. They would be working under the blistering summer sun, greatly increasing their risk of heat-related disease or death.

I ran the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 through January 2017. Long before the oil reached the Gulf Coast shores, I flew to Louisiana and met with leaders of the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to plan the multiagency effort to ensure that BP protected those workers’ safety and health. OSHA adapted heat disease prevention policies used by the U.S. military to protect soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and pushed BP to comply with them. The rules included extensive rest breaks in the shade, and liquids for rehydration. We had no legal authority to do so, but BP complied—and over the four-month effort, not a single worker was seriously sickened or killed by heat.

This year, a new crisis has put a much bigger swath of the workforce—far more Americans, in many industries—unexpectedly in harm’s way. Millions of American workers are literally risking their lives every day on the job, saving desperately ill patients, ensuring food and medicine get to our stores and homes, and keeping the public safe. Every day there are reports of physiciansnursespolice and emergency responders, even bus drivers, who have died from Covid-19 after their employers failed to implement appropriate infection control measures or provide the adequate respiratory protection or sanitary facilities needed to prevent exposure in the course of their work.

Yet OSHA, the federal agency under the Department of Labor charged with protecting these workers, is almost completely missing from the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of pressing employers on worker safety, Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia and President Donald Trump’s political appointees at the Labor Department have decided to tell workers there is little OSHA can do because it has no standard covering airborne infectious diseases. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising safety and health concerns, yet when workers are fired for lodging complaints about safety conditions in their hospitals or warehouses, this administration has been mute.

Existing OSHA regulations require a minimal effort of employers, such as providing soap and water, but I have yet to hear anyone from the Labor Department or the White House announce this fact to the public. Instead, workers in a wide range of industries who face the risk of fatal infection have taken matters into their own hands, launching job actions and strikes to force their employers into providing even basic protections.

We need more than guidance.

OSHA can, and should, be front and center in our efforts to protect these truly essential workers. The agency’s dedicated career staff has great expertise in worker protection, and the agency has issued useful guidance about Covid-19. But guidance is nonenforceable. This is simply shameful.

That’s because besides using its bully pulpit, OSHA has clear options for how to help. It could start by announcing that, using the general duty clause of the OSHA law, the agency will now issue citations against employers who egregiously fail to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. News coverage of these citations would have a huge effect—a recent study reported one OSHA news release is as effective as 210 inspections in reducing workplace hazards.

For health care workers, the most important single action OSHA could and should take right now is to issue an emergency temporary infectious disease standard, requiring health care institutions to develop and implement infection-control plans that follow CDC guidance. (When Congress returns from its recess, it will consider legislation requiring OSHA to issue such a standard.)

In crises, OSHA generally does not issue fines except in cases in which the employer puts its workers at extreme risk. Hospitals that try but fail to obtain needed protective equipment would not be penalized. But the existence of a standard, backed up by the threat of inspections, would motivate many employers to better protect their workers.

I know OSHA could issue this emergency standard with little difficulty because we began drafting such a rule during my tenure. Three years ago, the new administration launched a massive deregulatory effort, halting all work on the infectious disease rule and many other protections.

The larger concern is that OSHA is suffering from malign neglect, reflecting the low regard the president has for the health and safety of the nation’s workers. The agency has not had an assistant secretary—the person who actually runs the agency day to day—since I left 39 months ago. There hasn’t even been a nominee for the position in almost a year. Half of the senior executive positions are empty, and, while the nation’s workforce has gotten much larger, the size of the inspectorate is the smallest it has been in more than 40 years. It would take 165 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just one time.

The Trump administration should not wait for Congress to force it to take badly needed action. This crisis has demonstrated the vital importance of a safe and healthy workforce. OSHA is the only federal agency with the authority and expertise to ensure that worker protection is not sacrificed in the efforts to tame this epidemic and can accomplish this using modest and mostly nonpunitive tools. The administration needs to do its part so every worker who risks their life taking care of patients or stocking our stores or harvesting our crops is able to survive this terrible pandemic, safe and healthy.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Michaels served as assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health from 2009 to 2017. He is professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, and is the author of The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.


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Hospital Food Workers and Janitors Are Stuck In a “Death Trap”

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The hospital where Kim Smith works is supposed to be a “safe haven,” says the patient care technician at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. But now she feels it has become a “death trap.”

Like the nurses and doctors nationwide who are risking their lives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith says she’s glad to help provide healthcare in such traumatic times. But she’s among the army of frontline healthcare service providers who, while crucial to keeping the system going, are earning much lower wages than doctors and nurses and often lack adequate healthcare and paid sick leave. And like doctors and nurses, these service workers often also lack access to personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, even though they’re put in contact with infected patients.

Now, Chicago-area healthcare service workers—technicians, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), transporters, food service workers and housekeepers—are demanding better treatment and protection from their institutions, as well as additional “hazard pay” for their work during the crisis.

On April 2, SEIU Local 73—which represents workers at University of Illinois and Cook County public healthcare facilities in the Chicago area—announced that it had secured additional compensation for its workers in the university system. Union members will get an additional $1 to $5 per hour during the pandemic depending on their job description and where exactly they work within the system. The county system serves the area’s low-income and uninsured people including the hospital at the Cook County Jail, which has turned into a COVID-19 cluster.

“The extra pay is not a really significant amount but it acknowledges that we recognize you, we know you are great, that you really care about your job and your community,” says Dian Palmer, a registered nurse and president of SEIU Local 73, which has been in contract negotiations with the University of Illinois system for about nine months.

The union SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana represents workers through contracts at hospitals including Northwestern Memorial and also has at-large members in nursing homes and hospitals in the Chicago area and across four states. They’re demanding hazard pay of 1.5 times the usual rate, and added protections for their members.

Smith, a chief steward for SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana, says fellow union members at Northwestern are “reaching out to me on an hourly basis” about being forced to work without proper safety equipment and protocols while receiving contradictory messages from management. Employees have been told to continue working even after they report COVID-like symptoms if they are “low-risk” for the disease, Smith says. With many of these workers living on the economic margins, and offered few paid sick days, they’re reluctant to take time off.

About 29,000 healthcare service workers in Illinois make below $15 an hour, and 22,000 of them make below $13 an hour, according to a study by the University of Illinois. Palmer notes that service job vacancies have been hard to fill at the University of Illinois Chicago hospital since they’re exempt from the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance.

Anne Igoe, SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana Vice-President of the Health Systems Division, notes that with such low wages, these employees regularly work more than one job—whether picking up a second shift at a nursing home or as an Uber driver—increasing their own, and by extension patients’, risk of contacting coronavirus. She says employees are also used to working while sick, since they typically are guaranteed few paid sick days and until recent changes because of the pandemic, were penalized for taking extra ones.

Igoe says the majority of their Chicago-area members are African American and are women, many of them living in marginalized neighborhoods and with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of extreme illness or death from COVID-19. In Chicago, more than two-thirds of the COVID-19 fatalities and more than half of confirmed cases have been among African Americans, even though they make up less than a third of the city’s population.

In cities nationwide, as in Chicago, lower-paid healthcare service jobs are disproportionately filled by women and people of color.

“This pandemic has made it clear who has access to testing, who has access to quality healthcare,” Igoe says. “Our low-wage workers in the finest hospitals are not given protections and not given the same access to follow-up care that some of their patients have.” 

Katina McDavis, 43, has been working as a housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial for over 20 years. She has diabetes, putting her at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. McDavis also lives with her daughter and two infant grandchildren, and is terrified of contracting the virus and passing it on to them.

Since the pandemic began, McDavis has been working overtime—often over 60 or 70 hours a week total, she says. She needs the extra pay and wants to help out, but that also leaves her physically exhausted and potentially more vulnerable to illness.

She and other housekeepers are given surgical masks—not the more protective N-95 masks—and told to keep them in a paper bag and reuse them, she says. In an informal survey of about 250 SEIU Healthcare members during an online meeting, 58% reported they lack sufficient PPE and 38% said they were told by higher-ups that they don’t need PPE.

“I’m jeopardizing myself coming here every day,” McDavis says. “I love my work but just give me the tools I need to do my job.” 

Candice Martinez, another housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial, tested positive for COVID-19 after coming down with symptoms about two weeks ago. She feels confident she contracted it on the job, having cleaned rooms where she says she was not properly notified that patients had the virus.

“It’s hard because I’m in complete isolation and I don’t get to see my son,” Martinez says. “It’s scary knowing there’s nothing they can give me to say this will help you get past this. It’s having to battle this out on my own.”

While Martinez believes she will receive workers compensation for the time she is out of work, Igoe says that human resources officials at several hospitals have told the union that workers will not be granted workers comp for COVID-19, since they could have caught it through community transmission.

Igoe says employees often “find out co-workers tested positive through the grapevine, rather than being told by their employer that someone they worked closely with yesterday tested positive.”

A statement from Northwestern Memorial did not address specific questions but said in part that: “The health and safety of our employees, physicians, and patients is our highest priority. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an environment that protects everyone.”

Loretto Hospital on the city’s West Side—where SEIU Healthcare represents employees—has granted time-and-a-half hazard pay to employees in the emergency department and COVID-19 unit. 

Loretto spokesperson Mark Walker says that workers do have access to sufficient PPE supplies, the hospital follows all CDC safety guidelines, and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will be paid during their time off. But the hospital is indeed hard-pressed as it serves a largely poor, African American clientele, Walker says. At an April 7 press conference, hospital CEO George Miller, Jr. and State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, who represents the district, appealed to the city, county, state and federal government for more resources. 

“We are a small community hospital, 90% of our patients are Medicare and Medicaid meaning we’re providing services and being reimbursed at a much lower rate,” Walker said. “You take a pandemic like this and add it onto an already stretched-thin hospital, and you can reach a breaking point. We’re not there yet, but it creates additional stress on our resources and our funds. We’re trying to do everything we can to protect this community. Without additional resources, we’re going to struggle.”

Wellington Thomas is an E.R. tech at Loretto, said he goes to work each day fearing he may contract the disease. 

“COVID turned our world upside down,” Thomas says. “We’re dealing with an influx of patients, the equipment we already struggled with (having enough of) is now scarce, employees are afraid to come to work…It’s not just contained areas, it’s spreading like a wildfire through the hospital—radiology, imaging, phlebotomy, blood tests.” 

(The Cook County health system had not responded to requests for comment by the time this story went to press.)

At other hospitals as at Loretto, workers say the pandemic has highlighted issues like inadequate staffing, low wages and insufficient equipment that have long pushed healthcare service workers to the brink.

“Support staff like us have been the underdogs for a long time,” says Megan Carr, a respiratory specialist who runs ventilators for the University of Illinois system. “So getting hazard pay makes us feel like we are finally being recognized and respected for the work that we are doing, saving lives one breath at a time.”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on April 7, 2020.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.


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Is Building Missiles ‘Essential’? The U.S. Government Thinks So.

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Taylor Barnes, Author at Culinary Backstreets

On March 19, after the novel coronavirus had spread to all 50 states, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)—the branch of Homeland Security that oversees critical infrastructure—released a list of which sectors of the economy employ “the essential workers needed to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily.” The list includes mostly obvious essentials such as healthcare, food and agriculture, and wastewater management. It also includes another sector: workers in the defense industry.

Ellen Lord, top weapons buyer for the Department of Defense, wrote in a related March 20 memo that, “if your contract or subcontract supports the development, production, testing, fielding, or sustainment of our weapons systems/software systems, or the infrastructure to support those activities, [they] are considered Essential Critical Infrastructure.”

That broad designation has led to ongoing scenes inside the nation’s military-industrial workplaces at odds with the new daily reality of millions of Americans, more than three-fourths of whom are in places with stay-at-home orders.

“Every single day I am in a plant where 500-plus people have touched maybe the same part,” says Brad Richardson, a product technician responsible for precision cleaning at United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Ala. The company, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, makes rockets that launch satellites into space, including one used in the inaugural mission of the military’s new Space Force on March 26. Richardson doesn’t single out his company for criticism—there are “tons of companies and people that are in the same boat that I am”—but he calls the continuation of hands-on factory work “contradictory” in light of countrywide efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

“My wife and kids are at home because they can’t work or go to school,” Richardson says. “My church is closed. Tons of places are just shut down.” Richardson thinks his line of work could be suspended for a few weeks while “true essential things” such as healthcare and food provisions continue.

“We’re either doing this or we’re not,” he says of the national call for social distancing.

The designation of the defense workforce as “essential” poses a particular risk in places like northern Alabama, which hosts hundreds of defense contractors centered around Huntsville. More than 70,000 people work in defense and aerospace in the Huntsville metropolitan area, according to the local chamber of commerce.

Redstone Arsenal, home to the Missile Defense Agency and a hub for the region’s robust missile and rocket-production economy, had 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases among employees as of March 27. The daily workforce on the Arsenal has been reduced from about 44,000 to fewer than 19,000, a top commander said at a March 26 video town hall. “We will continue to reduce that,” said the commander. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 105 cases and one death from COVID-19 in Madison County, which surrounds the Arsenal, as of April 1.

Still, work is ongoing on military-industrial shop floors across the region.

“Every company is claiming it’s essential now,” says David Story, a top official in the state’s machinist union, who says he’s fielded “hundreds” of calls in recent weeks about workers’ rights during the pandemic. His union’s members across the state perform hands-on functions on a variety of projects deemed essential, such as on the Mars 2020 project, reconnaissance satellites, and repairs on Army vehicles returning from the Middle East. Story says a “small group” of employees have refused to work despite the Defense Department directive, and that the union is advocating for them to be spared disciplinary actions. A second group is vocal about not wanting to be at the workplace but also refusing to go home without pay, while a final group—he estimates this group is a “silent majority”—are “playing it day by day.”

Teresa Cryer, an aerospace wire harness technician at United Launch Alliance, says that in a time of widespread volatility, being deemed essential provides some welcome job security.

“The more I thought about it, the more blessed I was that I had a job that they did feel is essential,” says Cryer, who is 62 and has worked at ULA more than 17 years. “I probably wouldn’t take off work until they tell me to.”

One former Pentagon insider well versed in the department’s priorities has criticized the Defense Department’s directive. Frank Kendall, a former Pentagon official who oversaw technology acquisition and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argues that the current guidance is “very broad” and “most of the work that’s being done for the government could be delayed without a very severe impact.” He thinks there needs to be more emphasis on steps to protect the workforce, which, he says, makes sense from both a humanitarian and business perspective. “A lot of [contractor employees] are very highly skilled defense workers in short supply,” he says.

Kendall thinks a much narrower range of functions could be defined as essential—for example, ones that support ongoing operations, such as airplane maintenance for the Afghan air force and logistical support to deployed troops. Activities like major long-term weapons projects can be slowed down to accommodate health-related constraints, generally without stopping work altogether, Kendall says.

“We are at war with this virus,” Kendall says. “I think protecting our people comes first.”

In These Times submitted questions about operations during COVID-19 to four major defense contractors in Northern Alabama, all among the region’s largest recipients of Defense Department funds. A spokesperson for Boeing, which has 3,062 employees statewide, wrote its sites are “operating under guidelines in accordance with local or national government mandates.” The spokesperson declined to answer whether Boeing’s work on a major long-term weapons project in the Huntsville area—a modernized intercontinental ballistic missile meant to enter the nuclear arsenal by the late 2020s—was ongoing despite the project’s long timeline.

Similarly, Lockheed Martin didn’t comment on whether operations were ongoing on hypersonic missile development in Huntsville and nearby Courtland. The project, according to a Lockheed press release, is “multi-year.”

Rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance said the company is “deep cleaning our facilities daily,” is “disinfecting hard surfaces throughout the day,” and has “modified certain operations to reduce personnel density.”

Spokespeople for Northrop Grumman did not respond.

All three companies that responded said that some workers were teleworking but none gave an estimate of how much of their Huntsville-area workforce was doing so.

Chris Mullins, an aerospace assembly technician who continues to report to his plant, says he feels “torn” over the federal government’s order, which places his family in a high-pressure situation: Every working-age person in his household has been declared essential, including his wife in banking and his daughter in healthcare.

“When I think about the role of our plant helping with America’s war fighters and our nation’s defense and NASA, of course I think that we are essential,” Mullins says, though he also wonders whether it would be helpful for his company to take two weeks off during the pandemic. “Some companies have a vested national interest in the government and we’re one of them. And somebody made the decision for us to continue working.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on April 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Taylor Barnes is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers militarism, conflict, dissent and foreign affairs.


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Garbage Collectors’ Lives Are Not Disposable

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The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging our country, manifesting both as a health crisis and a jobs crisis. While the unemployment rate could soar to 30%, many workers whose industries are generally ignored or disrespected have been deemed essential, and have been putting themselves in harm’s way to keep our society functioning.

No role is more critical than that of sanitation workers, who, in times of normalcy, keep cities and towns healthy, clean and safe. They have one of the most important—and most dangerous—jobs in our country, and yet are routinely belittled. But now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we need them more than ever: Their work is critical in containing COVID-19.

While many of us self-isolate at home, sanitation workers are on the front lines, picking up our garbage and potentially exposing themselves to the virus. Sanitation workers in North Carolina, many of whom are members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 150, have been organizing to protect themselves and their families from coronavirus. Unfortunately, the second reported coronavirus-related death in the state was of a Raleigh sanitation worker, Adrian Grubbs. Raleigh City Workers Union, a chapter of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150, has put forward a set of 10 demands, including immediate coronavirus tests for all Solid Waste Services workers, proper personal protective equipment, adequate hazard pay, and the ability to immediately meet and confer with the City Manager.

In These Times spoke with Charlen Parker, President of Raleigh City Workers Union. Parker hails from Clinton, North Carolina and has been a sanitation worker for nearly 16 years. He is the president of the Raleigh City Workers Union.

Mindy Isser: I am so sorry about what happened to Adrian. How are you all holding up and dealing with his passing?

Charlen Parker: To a lot of us, it’s still surreal because just about everyone knew him. We saw him just about every day when we came into work. We expected it to be like a regular work week. But then we came in and first they had a meeting where we found out he had it, and then the next day we started hearing little reports that he didn’t make it. It’s a hard pill to swallow when it’s someone that you’re used to seeing and being right there with. We hear about the coronavirus and see it on the news and everything, but a lot of people feel like it doesn’t affect them until it’s right there in your face. Hearts and prayers go out to his family, it’s been very difficult.

Mindy: It sounds like you didn’t hear that he was sick until right before he passed away.

Charlen: Yes, we had a meeting on Tuesday morning as we clocked in, and then they had us divided in groups. Our director told us that Adrian Grubbs had contracted it and that he had permission from the family to let us know about his condition. He made his statement, and we walked out and some of us talked amongst ourselves. We sent him our prayers and hoped that he was gonna be alright and that hopefully in a few weeks that we’d be able to see him. That was Tuesday. Wednesday we came into work and everybody was doing their route, and we can leave whenever we get done to keep us from being on top of each other. I was leaving and walking to the parking lot, and I got a phone call from another employee who told me that he heard that Grubbs didn’t make it, that he had passed. He had heard it from two other co-workers and I was like, okay, you know how people spread rumors and whatnot and sometimes their information is not factual. So I said, I hadn’t heard anything official, so maybe it’s just that they’re running off at the mouth and don’t have the right information. And then we came into work on Thursday morning and there’s another meeting where it’s confirmed that he had passed away.

Mindy: And when people found out, obviously they were really upset and sad. Was anyone afraid for their own health? Because I’m sure people had come into contact with him perhaps before he even knew he was sick.

Charlen: Immediately, we felt the sadness. But then right after the sadness, the question was then, how long had he been sick? Who has he been around? What has he touched? Where had he been at? That quickly became the immediate concern.

Mindy: Did anyone get time off of work to self-isolate or is everything kind of business as usual?

Charlen: When our Director made the initial statement that Grubbs had contracted coronavirus, he also said that there were two employees that had quarantined themselves because they had been in close proximity to Grubbs. They didn’t identify the two employees, and that was basically it.

We’re all always on top of each other, we’re always all running into each other, and we were all wondering who the two employees were and if they had interacted with us—because we don’t know who they are. On the administrative side, they get to work from home, so we don’t know if they were talking about them, and since we’re staggered, you can’t pinpoint if it was one of us, because we’re not all there at the same time. 

Mindy: What is Raleigh doing to protect sanitation workers?

Charlen: They’ve been giving out face masks and latex gloves. I think as of Friday, and I cannot confirm, that they’ve increased the amount of gloves you get. They’re supposed to be sanitizing the building daily, but a lot of my coworkers have expressed concerns about that. The normal person who cleans we saw on Tuesday, but since Tuesday no one that I’ve talked to can account for seeing her or anyone else in the building doing additional cleaning. I don’t want to say they haven’t had anybody, but we haven’t seen anybody. And I think they said they have a company that comes in and does a thorough cleaning of the building, but that’s only once a week.

Mindy: What do you think the city should be doing to protect you?

Charlen: The major concern right now amongst many of my co-workers is that, since Grubbs did have it, many of us want to be tested. We understand that they have limited tests, but from my perspective, we’re on the front lines, and we have to go out there and be in the middle of it. The least that they could do is to test us so that we can either confirm or deny who does or doesn’t have it. We have families. One thing that they mentioned to us was that maybe we can be tested if we start to show symptoms, but you can carry the coronavirus and not have any symptoms—a lot of people don’t feel like they’re taking that into account. Many of us have children, we have people in our families that have health issues, and no one wants to bring that home to our families.

Mindy: How does it feel to be playing such a critical role right now with how serious the coronavirus crisis is becoming?

Charlen: I’ve understood for a while the health risk of not picking up garbage, including the spread of disease and the increase of vermin. Personally, I feel good when I know I’m providing a service that helps people. Especially lately when people are staying home from work, you’ll see whole families outside waving and smiling. Even though we’re going through this crisis, you still see families out smiling and enjoying themselves. It makes it worth it.

Mindy: Many people are working from home right now, but many other workers like yourself can’t do that. What do you think all essential workers—like grocery store workers, utility workers—deserve right now in terms of protections, hazard pay, etc.?

Charlen: All of your frontline employees and essential personnel should be tested because we are the ones in direct contact, we have to be out there. I feel like it shouldn’t be an issue to get us supplies, getting us tested, and doing everything you can do to protect us. One of the options we were talking about was alternating shifts—one crew comes in for a whole week, and the following week they’re off and the other crew comes in for a week. I think this would be a great idea. My only concern is that I don’t know if we have enough personnel to do it and get stuff up off the ground in a timely manner to where guys won’t be out there all day. That’s one of my major concerns.

They have given us a 5% increase in pay, which I don’t feel like is enough. The state is considering time-and-a-half pay. That would be good. Whole Foods is paying an extra $2 an hour, which is more than what we get with our hazard pay.

Mindy: In 2006, Raleigh sanitation workers went on a wildcat strike. Many of their demands were around health and safety issues. How have things changed since you started in Raleigh six years ago?

Charlen: We’re supposed to have a safety coordinator. Since I have been at the City of Raleigh, I’ve had four different safety coordinators, and it’s been almost a year since the last one was there. We currently don’t have a safety coordinator at Solid Waste Services. With regards to safety, we still have some issues. They get into meetings and stress safety, but I don’t think they understand that there are certain things we can’t do because we don’t have enough personnel or equipment. A lot of times we have a lot of equipment issues. We do have a high turnover rate. They say right now that we’re fully staffed, but I don’t see how that could be possible when the city is constantly growing, they’re building subdivisions, and they’re increasing the amount of work we have to do, which means we have to stay out there longer. Sometimes we will go out there and our equipment is not always up to par like it should be. We need adequate equipment to work with.

Mindy: How is UE 150 organizing and fighting back to protect workers during the coronavirus crisis? Have you made any demands of the city?

Charlen: On March 17, we sent a letter with some of our concerns to Mayor Baldwin, City Manager Ruffin Hall, and City Council. They basically ignored us. After Adrian Grubbs, we also sent another letter with 10 demands. Some of the demands include meeting with the City Manager to express concerns about frontline workers. We have concerns and don’t feel like they’re listening to us. Another demand is since the passing of Adrian Grubbs, we haven’t heard the followup to how he got sick, where he got sick, where he’s been, and who he’s been in contact with.

Workers have been standing up and organizing all over the place—I saw Pittsburgh sanitation workers went out on a wildcat strike this past week. Have you all been inspired by other workers who have been speaking out and taking action since the coronavirus started?

Charlen: Yes, of course, but on the other hand, there is a lot of fear out there where I work at. You have some employees that want to stand up and do something. But other workers believe that they’re not gonna listen, they’re not gonna do anything, they’re gonna do what they want to do, they’re gonna treat us how they want, so what’s the point of standing up?

Mindy: How do you think we can fight back against that? Do you think if people saw other workers coming together and winning they would be inspired to take action?

Charlen: We have a new administration in Solid Waste Services. That’s because a couple of years ago we protested people in management, and every single name on all of the petitions we circulated are gone—they either left or were terminated. The new administration cleaned house because of our list of bad supervisors. That’s the power that we have, I’ve been explaining that to my coworkers. The only way we win is by doing something.

Mindy: What would you say to other workers right now—the ones who have to keep coming to work—about how they can keep themselves safe while they’re on the job?

Charlen: Working in sanitation is the fifth most dangerous job in the United States on fatalities. We should get hazard pay all the time. I don’t understand how the police and fire department have no problem getting hazard pay, but we can’t get hazard pay.

If I could borrow from Dominic Harris, the president of the Charlotte City Workers Chapter of UE Local 150, who said on a conference call that the coronavirus crisis is the perfect opportunity for workers. You can see how much power that you’ve got during this crisis and how much they rely and depend on us. This is the perfect opportunity to use that power and stand up and get the things that we need.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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As shutdown becomes longest in U.S. history, federal employees sue over working for no pay

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The government shutdown dragged on for a 22nd day on Saturday, making it the longest in American history. On Friday, 800,000 federal employees went without their paychecks. And though President Trump insists “the buck stops with everybody,”  51 percent of Americans are placing blame for the shutdown him and him alone, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

On Friday, federal employee unions filed a lawsuit accusing the government of violating federal labor laws by forcing “essential” employees to continue to work through the shutdown, even though they aren’t being paid. These unions — the National Federation of Federal Employees, the National Association of Government Employees, the National Weather Service Employees Organization — have sued in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. They allege that by not paying workers minimum wage and overtime, the federal government is violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In a statement, NFFE National President Randy Erwin said:

“In this country, when a worker performs a day’s work, he or she is entitled to a day’s worth of compensation. That is how working people provide for their families. Because of the chaos this wasteful government shutdown is causing, the government is trying to pay people in I.O.U.s. With this lawsuit we’re saying, ‘No, you can’t pay workers with I.O.U.s. That will not work for us.’”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association also sued the federal government Friday, as its workers, too, work sans pay throughout the shutdown. Their lawsuit argues that the administration is in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act as well as the Fifth Amendment, asserting that it “unlawfully deprived NATCA members of their earned wages without due process,” as the group wrote in a press release. According to The Hill, NATCA is asking for a hearing on its motion for a temporary restraining order against the government.

Politico reports that the Office of Management and Budget is working on “a special mid-cycle pay disbursement for impacted agencies” so that employees can be paid swiftly — that is, once the shutdown ends.

One thing that would not end the shutdown, according to the White House, is the declaration of a national emergency, a move Trump is said to be giving serious consideration.

Sources told Politico that White House officials have urged congressional Republicans to manage their expectations about the shutdown coming to a speedy conclusion in the event that Trump declares a national emergency at the border.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jessica M. Goldstein is the Culture Editor for ThinkProgress.


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The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.