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How Americans Can Help the Frontline Workers Battling COVID-19

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Chad Longpre Shepersky repeatedly took COVID-19 tests‚ÄĒand waited on pins and needles for results each time‚ÄĒduring a coronavirus outbreak at Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center in Hibbing, Minnesota.

Longpre Shepersky, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), never contracted the virus. But he watched in agony as dozens of his patients and coworkers fell ill and fought for their lives.

As a weary nation enters the holiday season, Americans have an opportunity to help health care workers like Longpre Shepersky and start bringing the raging pandemic under control.

Consistently wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and taking other safety precautions will slow COVID-19‚Äôs spread and provide much-needed relief to the frontline workers battling burnout as well as the virus.

‚ÄúEveryone should do their part,‚ÄĚ insisted Longpre Shepersky, financial secretary and steward for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9349, which represents workers at Guardian Angels. ‚ÄúJust the other day, I witnessed people in Walmart not wearing masks or following 6-foot distancing. Too many people aren‚Äôt doing what they can to fight the virus.‚ÄĚ

As infection rates soar to their highest levels nationwide, 10 months into the pandemic, it continues to take a disproportionately deadly toll on frail, vulnerable nursing home residents and the people who care for them.

So many residents and workers at Guardian Angels contracted the virus that the Minnesota National Guard sent a five-person medical team in October to help keep the 90-bed facility operating. Even then, as he worried about his own safety and mourned the deaths of several patients, Longpre Shepersky logged grueling amounts of overtime to fill in for ill colleagues.

‚ÄúIt got to the point where you dreaded going to work because you didn‚Äôt know what the day was going to bring,‚ÄĚ recalled Longpre Shepersky, a CNA for 21 years who considers his coworkers and patients a second family. ‚ÄúBut there was no one else there to do it. I just pulled up my big boy pants and went in to work and got through the day.‚ÄĚ

Many nursing home workers endured staffing shortages at their facilities long before the pandemic. Because of low Medicaid payments for patient care, among other reasons, facilities paid low wages, skimped on staff or battled chronic turnover.

When COVID-19 struck, turnover and staff sicknesses compounded the chronic understaffing.

Now, nursing home workers struggle to stay physically and psychologically healthy while putting in extra shifts to ensure residents receive the highest quality care around-the-clock. Besides longer hours, many also took on additional responsibilities, such as serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from visitors during facility lockdowns.

These everyday heroes feel stretched to the breaking point. Many nursing home workers and other health care professionals report unprecedented levels of burnout and other mental health concerns as they worry not only about their own safety but the fate of their patients and the possibility of bringing the virus home to their own family members.

‚ÄúI try to go in with a positive mindset,‚ÄĚ explained Shirley Richardson, unit president for USW Local 7898, which represents workers at the 220-bed Veterans‚Äô Victory House in Walterboro, South Carolina. ‚ÄúThe main object is being safe. I try to stay focused. I don‚Äôt let little things get to me.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs going to get better,‚ÄĚ she reminds coworkers who‚Äôve endured about two dozen cases of COVID-19, including the deaths of several patients and a nurse, at their facility. ‚ÄúThis can‚Äôt go on forever. We just have to work through it.‚ÄĚ

The pandemic highlighted the essential work that nursing home staff members perform‚ÄĒand the necessity of treating them as essential workers from now on.

That will require fixing the nation‚Äôs health care system‚ÄĒeven if that means allocating additional tax dollars‚ÄĒso that nursing homes receive adequate payment for their services. Then the facilities can hire and retain adequate numbers of workers‚ÄĒand provide hazard pay and paid sick leave to ensure staffing remains at high levels during emergencies.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just the staffing that‚Äôs been the worst part of this year,‚ÄĚ explained Chris Sova, unit president for USW Local 15301-1, which represents nurses at Bay County Medical Care Facility in Essexville, Michigan.

‚ÄúI feel like a zombie, almost. I honestly don‚Äôt know how we do it anymore,‚ÄĚ marveled Sova, a third-generation nursing home worker, who described his routine some weeks as, ‚ÄúWake up. Go to work. Come home. Wake up. Go to work.‚ÄĚ

It infuriates Sova to know that while he and his coworkers put their lives on the line every day, some Americans refuse to take simple steps to slow the virus’ spread.

Across the country, some people fail to wear masks even as infection rates in their own communities skyrocket and strain the capacity of local hospitals.

So far, at least 259,000 Americans died of COVID-19, more than 65,000 of them in nursing homes. Universal mask-wearing, according to one new study, could prevent 130,000 more deaths in the U.S. in coming months.

‚ÄúPeople wear seatbelts, but they have a big thing about face masks?‚ÄĚ Sova fumed.

Longpre Shepersky faces the upcoming holidays with trepidation, realizing that the family gatherings and parties Americans long for so earnestly this year also present additional opportunities for spreading the virus.

The residents at Guardian Angels wear masks whenever they leave their rooms, and because of the risk of another outbreak, they also could face limits on visitors this holiday season.

If they can make sacrifices to help contain the virus, other Americans can as well.

‚ÄúEveryone definitely has to take this seriously,‚ÄĚ Longpre Shepersky said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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‘We went from being essential to being sacrificial, all for the sake of the bottom line’

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How much rage have you got left after four years of Donald Trump and nine months of coronavirus pandemic? Please set aside some to direct at the United States’ largest retail companies for their treatment of their workers.

A Brookings Institution report shows how 13 of the nation‚Äôs 20 largest retail chains, with a combined six million employees, have stiffed their workers through the pandemic. Well, 10 of the 13 did. Three‚ÄĒTarget, Home Depot, and Best Buy‚ÄĒwere comparatively generous, with bigger pay increases to workers than other companies and relative to their own profit increases in the time of COVID-19. But 10 companies in the analysis‚ÄĒWalmart, Amazon*, Kroger, Costco*, Walgreens, CVS, Lowe‚Äôs, Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize (the Dutch-Belgian grocery company that owns Giant), and Dollar General‚ÄĒhave not boosted worker pay as much as their profits have risen. 

The extra amount the average worker at these companies has been paid through the pandemic ranges from $4,414 at Best Buy, a 28% increase, down to just $300, or just 2%, at Walgreens and CVS. For many of the companies, hazard pay of $2 an hour early on has been yanked from workers, in some cases replaced by sporadic bonuses‚ÄĒbecause bonuses feel like a gift, whereas hourly pay becomes harder to take away after a while. 

‚ÄúThe end of hazard pay also undermined racial, ethnic, and gender equity,‚ÄĚ the Brookings report, authored by Molly Kinder, Laura Stateler, and Julia Du, notes. ‚ÄúWomen and workers of color are overrepresented among the retail frontline workforce. Women make up a significantly larger share of the frontline workforce in general retail stores and at companies such as Target and Walmart than they do in the workforce overall. Amazon and Walmart employ well above-average shares of Black workers (27% and 21%, respectively) compared to the national figure of 12%.‚ÄĚ

Meanwhile, of these companies, only Walgreens became less profitable. Others saw profits soar‚ÄĒAmazon‚Äôs by 53%, Walmart‚Äôs by 45%, Kroger by 90%, Dollar General by 77%. They just didn‚Äôt pass that along to the workers who made it possible. Instead, five of them‚ÄĒWalmart, Ahold Delhaize, Kroger, Lowe‚Äôs, and Dollar General‚ÄĒpoured hundreds of millions of dollars into stock buybacks.

‚ÄĚAll of a sudden, we went from being essential to being sacrificial, all for the sake of the bottom line. Now you‚Äôre telling us that this thing is still out here, people are still dying, and you want to do away with hazard pay and give a one-time bonus? It‚Äôs a bunch of B.S., to be honest. It is still a pandemic, the last time I checked. There is a still a hazard out there,‚ÄĚ Giant Food worker Jeffrey Reid told Brookings.

Just as workers went uncompensated for the risks they took, in many cases they were actively put at risk in ways higher-paid workers in the same companies were not. Amazon brags about its on-site testing and other safety measures, but workers aren‚Äôt so sure.

‚ÄúThe fact that [Amazon executives] decided to close the Seattle building [and allow headquarters staff to work remotely] until next year while keeping thousands of us jam-packed in a small warehouse is more than a little upsetting,‚ÄĚ Amazon Fresh warehouse worker Courtenay Brown told reporters on a call.

The bottom line is this, according to the report: ‚ÄúAmazon and Walmart could have quadrupled the hazard pay they gave their frontline workers and still earned more profit than the previous year.‚ÄĚ They didn‚Äôt.

* Costco and Amazon did have $15 per hour minimum pay prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 25, 2020 Reprinted with permission.

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

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What the workplace will look like under a Biden White House

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The U.S. workplace will look much different with Joe Biden in the Oval Office ‚ÄĒ with some significant changes possible even if Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.

‚ÄúBiden, who won the endorsement of almost every major union in the country, has made labor reform a fundamental part of his program and is widely expected to name at least one union leader to his Cabinet,‚ÄĚ your host reports. And ‚Äúas the coronavirus pandemic continues to stoke permanent job losses and compromise worker safety, the case for structural change may be stronger than ever.‚ÄĚ

What Biden can do¬†will to some extent depend on which party controls the Senate, which won‚Äôt be determined until a pair of key Georgia runoffs in early January. ‚ÄúStill, the transition will be a sharp turn from the Trump White House, under which¬†union membership has dropped,¬†pay inequity has widened¬†and¬†enforcement has dwindled.‚ÄĚ

Here’s some of what you can expect:

‚ÄĒ Heightened worker safety enforcement: One of the first things a Biden administration will likely do is instruct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to step up worker safety enforcement by enacting an emergency temporary standard, or a set of guidelines governing how employers must protect their employees from Covid-19. He‚Äôs also likely to ramp up penalties for violators.

‚ÄĒ A reversal of Trump executive orders: Biden will be able to immediately rescind some of President Donald Trump‚Äôs executive orders ‚ÄĒ including those restricting employment-based visasbanning diversity training in the federal government and peeling back civil service protections ‚ÄĒ as well as reinstate Obama-era executive orders that Trump had undone.

‚ÄĒ A more labor-friendly NLRB: The former vice president is widely expected to appoint more Democrats to the National Labor Relations Board, the agency responsible for settling disputes between unions and employers. Right now, it‚Äôs three Republicans, one Democrat ‚ÄĒ and an empty seat.

‚ÄĒ Pursuit of progressive labor policy:¬†Biden campaigned heavily on enacting Democratic labor legislation similar to that passed out of Speaker¬†Nancy Pelosi‚Äôs House in 2020 and 2019, including a measure to¬†hike the federal minimum wage to $15¬†and¬†the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize. This, of course, will hinge on the balance of power in the upper chamber, as many of the provisions are opposed by Republicans.

Union leaders rejoice:¬†‚ÄúJoe Biden and¬†Kamala Harris‚Äô victory in this free and fair election is a win for America‚Äôs labor movement,‚ÄĚ AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. Said AFSCME President Lee Saunders: ‚Äú[C]ome January 20, we will have a White House that honors our work, respects our sacrifice and fights for the aid to states, cities and towns that we need.‚ÄĚ

WHO WILL BE BIDEN’S LABOR SECRETARY? There are already several names in rotation as Biden’s transition team gets to work, our Megan Cassella reports.

‚ÄúBiden is widely expected to choose a more progressive candidate to lead the Labor Department, one that would help balance out more moderate nominees he‚Äôs expected to place at other agencies,‚ÄĚ she writes.

‚ÄúRep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer who also has Labor Department experience, is high on the list of potential nominees, as is California Labor Secretary Julie Su. Levin comes from a potentially vulnerable district, however, and Democrats may be wary of a special election there, given their unexpectedly narrow control of the House.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúOther possibilities¬†for Biden‚Äôs Labor secretary include DNC Chairman and former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs and Sen.¬†Bernie Sanders¬†(I-Vt.), who POLITICO reported is interested in the position.‚ÄĚ

CALIFORNIA‚ÄôS PROP 22 GIVES GIG COMPANIES A NEW ROAD MAP: The success of a California ballot measure allowing Uber, Lyft and other gig companies‚Äô drivers to be independent contractors ‚ÄĒ while still enjoying a few employee-like perks ‚ÄĒ may provide employers with a model to use across the country, Bloomberg‚Äôs Josh Eidelson reports.

Proposition 22 promises drivers ‚Äúa guaranteed minimum pay rate while they‚Äôre assigned a task; a review process for terminations; and health stipends if they work enough hours,‚ÄĚ he writes. ‚ÄúA University of California at Berkeley analysis concluded that after accounting for full expenses and wait times, the proposition‚Äôs pay guarantee is worth less than $6 an hour. (The companies dispute this.)‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúThe companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads ‚Ķ [and] it was money well spent. Uber and Lyft alone gained more than $10 billion in market value after the vote, and defanged a recent state court injunction that would have required them to reclassify their drivers as employees.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúThe companies don‚Äôt plan¬†to stop there,‚ÄĚ Eidelson writes. ‚Äú‚ÄėYou’ll see us more loudly advocate for new laws like Prop 22,‚Äô Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said on a Nov. 5 earnings call. DoorDash CEO Tony Xu said in a statement: ‚ÄėWe‚Äôre looking ahead and across the country, ready to champion new benefits structures that are portable, proportional, and flexible.‚Äô‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.

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Pandemic on course to overwhelm U.S. health system before Biden takes office

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The United States‚Äô surging coronavirus outbreak is on pace to hit nearly 1 million new cases a week by the end of the year ‚ÄĒ a scenario that could overwhelm health systems across much of the country and further complicatePresident-elect Joe Biden‚Äôs attempts to coordinate a response.

Biden, who is naming his own coronavirus task force Monday, has pledged to confront new shortages of protective gear for health workers and oversee distribution of masks, test kits and vaccines while beefing up contact tracing and reengaging with the World Health Organization. He will also push Congress to pass a massive Covid-19 relief package and pressure the governors who’ve refused to implement mask mandates for new public health measures as cases rise.

But all of those actions ‚ÄĒ a sharp departure from the Trump administration‚Äôs patchwork response that put the burden on states‚ÄĒ will have to wait until Biden takes office. Congress, still feeling reverberations from the election, may opt to simply run out the clock on its legislative year. Meanwhile, the virus is smashing records for new cases and hospitalizations as cold weather drives gatherings indoors and people make travel plans for the approaching holidays.

‚ÄúIf you want to have a better 2021, then maybe the rest of 2020 needs to be an investment in driving the virus down,‚ÄĚ said Cyrus Shahpar, a former emergency response leader at the CDC who now leads the outbreak tracker Covid Exit Strategy. ‚ÄúOtherwise we‚Äôre looking at thousands and thousands of deaths this winter.‚ÄĚ

The country’s health care system is already buckling under the load of the resurgent outbreak that’s approaching 10 million cases nationwide. The number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 has spiked to 56,000, up from 33,000 one month ago. In many areas of the country, shortages of ICU beds and staff are leaving patients piled up in emergency rooms. And nearly 1,100 people died on Saturday alone, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

‚ÄúThat‚Äôs three jetliners full of people crashing and dying,‚ÄĚ said David Eisenman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters. ‚ÄúAnd we will do that every day and then it will get more and more.‚ÄĚ

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts 370,000 Americans will be dead by Inauguration Day, exactly one year after the first U.S. case of Covid-19 was reported. Nearly 238,000 have already died.

The task force Biden announces Monday will be staffed with public health experts and former government officials, many of whom ran agencies duringthe Obama and Clinton administrations ‚ÄĒ including former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, New York University‚Äôs Dr. Celine Gounder, Yale‚Äôs Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, former Obama White House aide Dr. Zeke Emanuel and former Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita, who is now an executive vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Shahpar said that even before Biden takes control of government in January, he and his team can make a difference by breaking with Trump‚Äôs declarations that the virus is ‚Äúgoing away,‚ÄĚ communicating the severity of the virus‚Äô spread and encouraging people to take precautions as winter approaches.

‚ÄúThere‚Äôs been a misalignment between the reality on the ground and what our leaders are telling us,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúHopefully now those things will come closer together.‚ÄĚ

But Shahpar and other experts warn thateven if Biden and his task force start promoting public health measures now, it will take weeks to see a reduction in hospitalizations and deaths ‚ÄĒeven if states clamp down. And there is little indication that the country will drastically change its behavior in the near term.

Some governors in the Northeast, which was hit hard early in the pandemic, are imposing new restrictions. In the last week, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island activated nightly stay-at-home orders and ordered businesses to close by 10 p.m. And Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday ordered everyone to wear a mask in public, even if they can maintain social distance.

But in the Dakotas and other states where the virus is raging, governors are resisting calls from health experts to mandate masks and restrict gatherings. On Sunday morning, South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem incorrectly attributed her state’s huge surge in cases to an increase in testing and praised Trump’s approach of giving her the “flexibility to do the right thing.” The state has no mask mandate.

And unlike earlier waves in the spring and summer that were confined to a handful of states or regions, the case numbers are now surging everywhere.

In New Mexico, the number of people in the hospital has nearly doubled in just the last two weeks and state officials said Thursday that they expect to run out of general hospital beds in a matter of days.

‚ÄúNovember is going to be really rough on all of us,‚ÄĚ said Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ‚ÄĒ a¬†contender¬†to lead the Department of Health and Human Services in Biden‚Äôs administration. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs nothing we can do, nothing, that will change the trajectory. ‚Ķ It is too late to dramatically reduce the number of deaths. November is done.‚ÄĚ

Minnesota officials said last week that ICU beds in the Twin Cities metro area were 98 percent full, and in El Paso, Texas, the county morgue bought another refrigerated trailer to deal with the swelling body count.

‚ÄúWe had patients stacking up in our ER,‚ÄĚ Jeffrey Sather, the chief of staff at Trinity Health in North Dakota said during a news conference last week. ‚ÄúThe normal process is we call around to the larger hospitals and ask them to accept our patients. We found no other hospitals that could care for our patients.‚ÄĚ

An ‚Äúensemble‚ÄĚ forecast used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ‚ÄĒ based on the output of several independent models ‚ÄĒ projects that the country could see as many as 11,000 deaths and 960,000 cases per week by the end of the month. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory suggest that the U.S. will record another 6 million infections and 45,000 deaths over the next six weeks, while a team at Cal Tech predicts roughly 1,000 people will die of Covid-19 every day this month ‚ÄĒ with more than 260,000 dead by Thanksgiving. The University of Washington model forecasts 259,000 Americans dead by Thanksgiving and 313,000 dead by Christmas.

Eisenman predicted that by January, the United States could see infection rates as high as those seen during the darkest days of the pandemic in Europe ‚ÄĒ 200,000 new cases per day.

‚ÄúGoing into Thanksgiving people are going to start to see family and get together indoors,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThen the cases will spread from that and then five weeks later we have another set of holidays and people will gather then and by January, we will be exploding with cases.‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Goldberg is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro covering health care politics and policy in the states. He previously covered New York State health care for POLITICO New York.

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This Amazon Grocery Runner Has Risked Her Job to Fight for Better Safety Measures

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This arti¬≠cle is part of a series on Ama¬≠zon work¬≠ers pro¬≠duced in part¬≠ner¬≠ship with the Eco¬≠nom¬≠ic Hard¬≠ship Report¬≠ing Project.

Courte¬≠nay Brown spends her day mak¬≠ing gro¬≠cery runs for oth¬≠ers in a¬†foot¬≠ball-field-sized maze of nar¬≠row aisles and refrig¬≠er¬≠at¬≠ed enclaves. At the Ama¬≠zon Fresh unit in a¬†Newark, New Jer¬≠sey ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ter, she works on the out¬≠bound ship dock, help¬≠ing direct the load¬≠ing of trucks and send them off on local deliv¬≠ery routes. Brown says that after near¬≠ly three years at the e-tail empire, her job has been¬†‚Äúhell.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúImag¬≠ine a¬†real¬≠ly intense work¬≠out, like you just got off of the tread¬≠mill, no cool down, no noth¬≠ing,‚ÄĚ she describes one espe¬≠cial¬≠ly gru¬≠el¬≠ing day with a¬†resigned laugh.¬†‚ÄúThat‚Äôs how my legs¬†felt.‚ÄĚ

Ama¬≠zon Fresh employ¬≠ees often have to comb through huge stocks of var¬≠i¬≠ous chilled and frozen items, which means they need to wear full win¬≠ter clothes to work. The stress and phys¬≠i¬≠cal exhaus¬≠tion of the job tends to wear out many new hires with¬≠in their first few days.¬†‚ÄúYou don‚Äôt have that many that have last¬≠ed here,‚ÄĚ she says.¬†‚ÄúIt‚Äôs so¬†hard.‚ÄĚ

With the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic keep¬≠ing con¬≠sumers indoors, Ama¬≠zon gro¬≠cery sales have rough¬≠ly tripled in the sec¬≠ond quar¬≠ter over last year. The num¬≠ber of deliv¬≠ery trucks mov¬≠ing in and out of the Newark ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ter has jumped accordingly.

‚ÄúEvery day I¬†come in, it‚Äôs just more and more and more and more,‚ÄĚ Brown says.¬†‚ÄúLit¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly every day we break the pre¬≠vi¬≠ous day‚Äôs record for the total num¬≠ber of routes that went out for the entire¬†day.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúOnce we get home [from work], the only thing we can do is show¬≠er and dis¬≠in¬≠fect,‚ÄĚ she con¬≠tin¬≠ues.¬†‚ÄúA lot of us [are] too exhaust¬≠ed to eat. We pass out. Then we repeat the process the fol¬≠low¬≠ing day.‚ÄĚ Some cowork¬≠ers have end¬≠ed up over¬≠sleep¬≠ing, she adds, and¬†‚Äúend up miss¬≠ing the whole¬†day.‚ÄĚ

For its part, an Ama¬≠zon spokesper¬≠son wrote in an email that while some jobs at Ama¬≠zon Fresh are phys¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly tax¬≠ing, work¬≠ers can choose less stren¬≠u¬≠ous labor.

‚ÄúImag¬≠ine your stan¬≠dard nor¬≠mal super¬≠mar¬≠ket aisle, [then] cut that in half,‚ÄĚ she observes.¬†‚ÄúYou‚Äôre expect¬≠ed to go through that aisle with oth¬≠er peo¬≠ple stock¬≠ing the shelves, or clean¬≠ing‚Ķ it‚Äôs real¬≠ly, real¬≠ly, real¬≠ly¬†cramped.‚ÄĚ

Ama¬≠zon boasts mak¬≠ing¬†150¬†oper¬≠a¬≠tional changes¬†dur¬≠ing the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic that include dis¬≠trib¬≠ut¬≠ing mil¬≠lions of masks at work¬≠sites, adding thou¬≠sands of jan¬≠i¬≠to¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al staff, and rede¬≠ploy¬≠ing some per¬≠son¬≠nel to help enforce social dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing rules. While it has imple¬≠ment¬≠ed social-dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing rules, and even pro¬≠vides an elec¬≠tron¬≠ic mon¬≠i¬≠tor¬≠ing sys¬≠tem to help keep work¬≠ers sev¬≠er¬≠al feet apart on the ware¬≠house floor, Brown says work spaces are still too crowd¬≠ed:¬†‚ÄúIt‚Äôs pret¬≠ty much a¬†show‚ĶWhere I¬†work on the ship dock, we‚Äôre all mashed up¬†together.‚ÄĚ

The tense atmos¬≠phere has¬†‚Äúdef¬≠i¬≠nite¬≠ly changed the rela¬≠tion¬≠ship‚ÄĚ among work¬≠ers, she con¬≠tends. Her fel¬≠low employ¬≠ees were friend¬≠lier before, but now¬†‚Äúa lot of peo¬≠ple snap at each oth¬≠er a¬†bit more.‚ÄĚ

The threat of COVID-19¬†has only added to the psy¬≠cho¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal bur¬≠den.¬†‚ÄúWhen the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic first start¬≠ed, I¬†remem¬≠ber a¬†lot of us were watch¬≠ing the news,‚ÄĚ Brown reflects.¬†‚ÄúI was talk¬≠ing to man¬≠agers and try¬≠ing to get them [to lis¬≠ten].¬†‚ÄėHey, you know, this is going on and we might want to start prepar¬≠ing.‚Äô And they [were] just [act¬≠ing] like it [was] not that big of a¬†deal. Peo¬≠ple are dying, and it‚Äôs not that big of a¬†deal?‚ÄĚ

Although Ama¬≠zon even¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly enact¬≠ed safe¬≠ty mea¬≠sures, Brown says she and her col¬≠leagues spent¬†‚Äúmonths com¬≠plain¬≠ing‚ÄĚ about what they saw as sub¬≠stan¬≠dard pro¬≠tec¬≠tions, includ¬≠ing inad¬≠e¬≠quate safe¬≠ty gear and social-dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing mea¬≠sures. An Ama¬≠zon spokesper¬≠son main¬≠tains the com¬≠pa¬≠ny moved to pro¬≠tect its work¬≠ers at the out¬≠set of the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, and that masks were¬†dis¬≠trib¬≠uted¬†in ear¬≠ly¬†April.

But Brown bris¬≠tles at the com¬≠pa¬≠ny‚Äôs claims, say¬≠ing the response was slow and devoid of trans¬≠paren¬≠cy. Work¬≠ers were espe¬≠cial¬≠ly upset, she recalls, when they received news of a COVID-19 infec¬≠tion at their site two weeks after the indi¬≠vid¬≠ual had report¬≠ed¬≠ly tak¬≠en ill.

Even¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly, Brown con¬≠nect¬≠ed with oth¬≠er Ama¬≠zon orga¬≠niz¬≠ers through an online peti¬≠tion cir¬≠cu¬≠lat¬≠ed by the advo¬≠ca¬≠cy net¬≠work Unit¬≠ed for Respect. Ear¬≠li¬≠er this year, she began work¬≠ing with the Athena coali¬≠tion to pres¬≠sure Ama¬≠zon to rein¬≠state some work¬≠er pro¬≠tec¬≠tions that were insti¬≠tut¬≠ed ear¬≠li¬≠er on in the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic and then dis¬≠con¬≠tin¬≠ued. The work¬≠ers are demand¬≠ing¬†the restora¬≠tion of¬†‚Äúhaz¬≠ard pay‚Ä̬†for ful¬≠fill¬≠ment-cen¬≠ter work¬≠ers, as well as¬†unlim¬≠it¬≠ed unpaid leave¬†for those who opt to stay home to pro¬≠tect their health. (Over the objec¬≠tions of its work¬≠force, Ama¬≠zon end¬≠ed unlim¬≠it¬≠ed unpaid leave and scrapped its $2¬†hourly¬†‚Äúincen¬≠tive‚ÄĚ bonus in May.) The coali¬≠tion is also push¬≠ing for more trans¬≠paren¬≠cy in the report¬≠ing of new cas¬≠es, so man¬≠age¬≠ment will¬†‚Äúactu¬≠al¬≠ly tell us the truth about the num¬≠bers of peo¬≠ple that are¬†sick.‚ÄĚ

In April, Brown par­tic­i­pat­ed in a media con­fer­ence call with Sen. Cory Book­er, D-N.J., to pro­mote an Essen­tial Work­ers Bill of Rights that would beef up health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, pro­vide child­care sup­port and uni­ver­sal paid leave poli­cies, and pro­tect whistle­blow­ers. More recent­ly, she was fea­tured in a New York Times video about the work­ing con­di­tions at Ama­zon. She claims her pub­lic cam­paign­ing has drawn the ire of management.

‚ÄúI‚Äôm harassed every day, all day,‚ÄĚ she says. One safe¬≠ty super¬≠vi¬≠sor in par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar is¬†‚Äújust watch¬≠ing‚ÄĚ to see if she vio¬≠lates the company‚Äôs social-dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing¬†rules.

Brown recalls a¬†recent inci¬≠dent in which she was speak¬≠ing casu¬≠al¬≠ly with some co-work¬≠ers about safe¬≠ty issues when the super¬≠vi¬≠sor inter¬≠vened, shout¬≠ing at them to keep six feet apart. Although they were all main¬≠tain¬≠ing their dis¬≠tance, she says,¬†‚Äúhe [yelled],¬†‚Äėyou‚Äôre in a¬†group!‚Äô‚ÄĚ They answered,¬†‚ÄúYeah, but we‚Äôre all six feet apart from each oth¬≠er with our masks on.‚ÄĚ But she says the man¬≠ag¬≠er nonethe¬≠less threat¬≠ened to write them up and warned they could be¬†terminated.

Ama¬≠zon has stat¬≠ed that it oppos¬≠es retal¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion against employ¬≠ees who voice their con¬≠cerns about work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions. But like oth¬≠er Ama¬≠zon orga¬≠niz¬≠ers, Brown believes her treat¬≠ment reflects a broad¬≠er cam¬≠paign aimed at dis¬≠suad¬≠ing employ¬≠ees from organizing.

‚ÄúWhat they‚Äôll do is they‚Äôll find an indi¬≠vid¬≠ual, and they‚Äôll kind of make an exam¬≠ple of you. And that scares every¬≠body else,‚ÄĚ she says. Her obser¬≠va¬≠tions are affirmed by a recent Open Mar¬≠kets Insti¬≠tute report that finds that Ama¬≠zon has used sophis¬≠ti¬≠cat¬≠ed work¬≠place sur¬≠veil¬≠lance tac¬≠tics to intim¬≠i¬≠date and sup¬≠press work¬≠ers who seek to union¬≠ize or chal¬≠lenge the company‚Äôs labor practices.

Brown, mean¬≠while, is ded¬≠i¬≠cat¬≠ed to improv¬≠ing her work¬≠place. This is not the first time she has faced hos¬≠tile cir¬≠cum¬≠stances, both inside the Ama¬≠zon ware¬≠house and out. For a¬†stretch in¬†2018, she had to live in a¬†motel with her sis¬≠ter, who also works at Ama¬≠zon, because the two could not secure a¬†rental apart¬≠ment with the wages they were earn¬≠ing deliv¬≠er¬≠ing food for the cor¬≠po¬≠rate behe¬≠moth.¬†‚ÄúWe were lit¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly starv¬≠ing,‚ÄĚ she says.¬†‚ÄúWe weren‚Äôt mak¬≠ing enough to be able to pay for the room, eat, and make it to and from¬†work.‚ÄĚ

Ama¬≠zon has denied charges of employ¬≠ee sur¬≠veil¬≠lance, dis¬≠miss¬≠ing the Open Mar¬≠kets Insti¬≠tute as¬†‚Äúa peren¬≠ni¬≠al crit¬≠ic that will¬≠ful¬≠ly ignores‚ÄĚ the com¬≠pa¬≠ny‚Äôs record of cre¬≠at¬≠ing jobs with¬†‚Äúindus¬≠try lead¬≠ing wages and ben¬≠e¬≠fits.‚ÄĚ The com¬≠pa¬≠ny claims that it does eval¬≠u¬≠ate work¬≠ers‚Äô per¬≠for¬≠mance¬†‚Äúover a¬†long peri¬≠od of time,‚ÄĚ and pro¬≠vides under-per¬≠form¬≠ing work¬≠ers with¬†‚Äúded¬≠i¬≠cat¬≠ed coach¬≠ing to help them¬†improve.‚ÄĚ

Giv¬≠en the dan¬≠gers of speak¬≠ing out, Brown some¬≠times won¬≠ders if she might end up home¬≠less again. But she‚Äôs less fear¬≠ful about los¬≠ing her job than she is about the health haz¬≠ards she faces every day as she fights to hold her employ¬≠er account¬≠able.¬†‚ÄúIt‚Äôs real¬≠ly ter¬≠ri¬≠fy¬≠ing,‚ÄĚ she says,¬†‚Äúbut if I¬†don‚Äôt do this, then I¬†could poten¬≠tial¬≠ly get sick and¬†die.‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con¬≠tribut¬≠ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con¬≠tribut¬≠ing edi¬≠tor at Dis¬≠sent and a co-pro¬≠duc¬≠er of the ‚ÄúBela¬≠bored‚ÄĚ pod¬≠cast. She stud¬≠ies his¬≠to¬≠ry at the CUNY Grad¬≠u¬≠ate Cen¬≠ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent¬≠ly, Draw¬≠ing Blood and Broth¬≠ers of the Gun, (with Mar¬≠wan Hisham). Her art is in the per¬≠ma¬≠nent col¬≠lec¬≠tions of the Muse¬≠um of Mod¬≠ern Art. Her ani¬≠mat¬≠ed short, A Mes¬≠sage from the Future with Alexan¬≠dria Oca¬≠sio-Cortez, has been nom¬≠i¬≠nat¬≠ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out¬≠stand¬≠ing News Analy¬≠sis: Edi¬≠to¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al and Opinion.

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Amazon Expects Its Employees to Operate Like Fast-Moving Machines. This Amazon Picker Is Fighting Back.

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For Sean Carlisle (a pseu¬≠do¬≠nym) a 32-year-old grad¬≠u¬≠ate stu¬≠dent and native of California‚Äôs Inland Empire, the last three years at his local Ama¬≠zon ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ter have been an edu¬≠ca¬≠tion. As a stu¬≠dent of urban plan¬≠ning, he stud¬≠ies how built envi¬≠ron¬≠ments shape a community‚Äôs behav¬≠ior. As a pick¬≠er, he packs items at a break¬≠neck pace amid stacks of inven¬≠to¬≠ry and snaking con¬≠vey¬≠or belts while del¬≠i¬≠cate¬≠ly prac¬≠tic¬≠ing strate¬≠gies to raise his cowork¬≠ers‚Äô polit¬≠i¬≠cal consciousness. 

Amazon‚Äôs logis¬≠ti¬≠cal infra¬≠struc¬≠ture is designed to make humans per¬≠form with machine-like effi¬≠cien¬≠cy, but Sean is try¬≠ing to make the work¬≠place a bit more human, advo¬≠cat¬≠ing for stronger work¬≠er pro¬≠tec¬≠tions and cor¬≠po¬≠rate account¬≠abil¬≠i¬≠ty in his community.

When he first start¬≠ed at Ama¬≠zon, Sean enjoyed what he calls a¬†‚Äúhon¬≠ey¬≠moon phase.‚ÄĚ He liked that work¬≠ers were pro¬≠mot¬≠ed read¬≠i¬≠ly to man¬≠age¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al posi¬≠tions, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly peo¬≠ple with a¬†col¬≠lege edu¬≠ca¬≠tion like him¬≠self.¬†‚ÄúThey ha[d] all these things that help their employ¬≠ees advance. They have these school pro¬≠grams,‚ÄĚ he says, refer¬≠ring to Ama¬≠zon‚Äôs¬†pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠al edu¬≠ca¬≠tion schemes. But about eight months in, he real¬≠ized¬†‚Äúthere was some stuff going on here that real¬≠ly could be improved. [I thought]¬†‚ÄėI don‚Äôt know if I¬†like this com¬≠pa¬≠ny as much as I¬†did before.‚Äô‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúThe cat¬≠a¬≠lyst was see¬≠ing [so many] peo¬≠ple get hurt,‚ÄĚ he con¬≠tin¬≠ues. He says work¬≠ers would tell him, ‚Äú¬†‚ÄėI got hurt, and they gave me phys¬≠i¬≠cal ther¬≠a¬≠py, and I¬†got even more hurt because they didn‚Äôt real¬≠ly assess me right and now I¬†have this prob¬≠lem.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ It was around the hol¬≠i¬≠day sea¬≠son dur¬≠ing his sec¬≠ond year¬†‚Äúwhen things hit a¬†sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant decline in terms of safe¬≠ty, and there was more focus on pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty.‚ÄĚ He says that some¬≠times work¬≠ers would acci¬≠den¬≠tal¬≠ly strike the shelves as they nav¬≠i¬≠gat¬≠ed fork¬≠lifts through the center‚Äôs aisles, caus¬≠ing the vehi¬≠cles to tip¬†over.¬†

‚ÄúThe safe¬≠ty prob¬≠lems con¬≠tin¬≠ued to get worse, and my cowork¬≠ers and I¬†would say,¬†‚ÄėHey, [the man¬≠age¬≠ment has] got to do some¬≠thing about this,‚Äô‚ÄĚ he¬†recalls.

Sean believes the speed with which work¬≠ers must process orders‚ÄĒsome¬≠times hun¬≠dreds of items per hour‚ÄĒleads them to cut cor¬≠ners or ignore prob¬≠lems with their equip¬≠ment. He says that one byprod¬≠uct of the relent¬≠less pres¬≠sure to pack more items faster is a¬†high turnover among those who¬†‚Äúcouldn‚Äôt keep up.‚ÄĚ Burn¬≠ing through new hires cre¬≠ates a¬†con¬≠stant churn in the work¬≠force, as tem¬≠po¬≠rary work¬≠ers are cycled in and out dur¬≠ing peak¬†seasons.

Amazon‚Äôs offi¬≠cial data on work¬≠place injuries¬†sug¬≠gest that many of its ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ters have rates that far exceed the aver¬≠age ware¬≠house. Yet the com¬≠pa¬≠ny claims these sta¬≠tis¬≠tics are pri¬≠mar¬≠i¬≠ly a¬†tes¬≠ta¬≠ment to its metic¬≠u¬≠lous report¬≠ing rather than a¬†reflec¬≠tion of its shod¬≠dy safe¬≠ty stan¬≠dards.¬†‚ÄúWe ensure we are sup¬≠port¬≠ing the peo¬≠ple who work at our sites by hav¬≠ing first aid trained and cer¬≠ti¬≠fied pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠als onsite¬†24/7, and we pro¬≠vide indus¬≠try lead¬≠ing health ben¬≠e¬≠fits on day one,‚ÄĚ a¬†spokesper¬≠son said in an¬†email.

Ama¬≠zon also claims to have spent¬†‚Äúover $1¬†bil¬≠lion [on] new invest¬≠ments in oper¬≠a¬≠tions safe¬≠ty mea¬≠sures‚ÄĚ that include pro¬≠tec¬≠tive tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy, san¬≠i¬≠ti¬≠za¬≠tion pro¬≠ce¬≠dures, and train¬≠ing and edu¬≠ca¬≠tion pro¬≠grams for work¬≠ers. The com¬≠pa¬≠ny main¬≠tains that it is¬†‚Äúcon¬≠tin¬≠u¬≠ous¬≠ly learn¬≠ing and improv¬≠ing our pro¬≠grams to pre¬≠vent future inci¬≠dents.¬†‚ÄĚSean con¬≠tends that some man¬≠agers have sim¬≠ply failed to take work¬≠place haz¬≠ards seri¬≠ous¬≠ly. He recalled his sur¬≠prise when a¬†man¬≠ag¬≠er told him, ‚Äú‚Äėif peo¬≠ple didn‚Äôt feel safe, they wouldn‚Äôt go to¬†work.‚Äô‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not how that works, dude,‚ÄĚ he mus¬≠es.¬†‚ÄúPeo¬≠ple go to work because they need a¬†pay¬≠check, not because they feel¬†safe.‚ÄĚ

While work¬≠ing as a pick¬≠er, Sean‚Äôs aca¬≠d¬≠e¬≠m¬≠ic work led him to a cam¬≠paign against the planned con¬≠struc¬≠tion of a huge car¬≠go facil¬≠i¬≠ty for San Bernardi¬≠no Inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al Air¬≠port. Var¬≠i¬≠ous com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty groups, includ¬≠ing Team¬≠sters local 1932 and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal activists, formed the San Bernardi¬≠no Air¬≠port Com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ties Coali¬≠tion to oppose the project, which they warn will deep¬≠en the eco¬≠nom¬≠ic and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal exploita¬≠tion of the region by cor¬≠po¬≠ra¬≠tions like Ama¬≠zon‚ÄĒthe area‚Äôs largest pri¬≠vate employ¬≠er. Despite a legal chal¬≠lenge brought by the coali¬≠tion‚Äôs lead¬≠ing groups ear¬≠li¬≠er this year, the facility‚Äôs con¬≠struc¬≠tion is mov¬≠ing for¬≠ward, and Sean has now shift¬≠ed his focus to help¬≠ing pro¬≠tect his cowork¬≠ers from the pandemic.

One prac¬≠ti¬≠cal ben¬≠e¬≠fit that Sean and the oth¬≠er orga¬≠niz¬≠ers aim to secure for work¬≠ers in the short term is paid leave so that those affect¬≠ed by the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic can stay home with¬≠out sac¬≠ri¬≠fic¬≠ing wages. The com¬≠pa¬≠ny ini¬≠tial¬≠ly pro¬≠vid¬≠ed unlim¬≠it¬≠ed unpaid leave for work¬≠ers who self-iso¬≠lat¬≠ed due to COVID-19-relat¬≠ed health con¬≠cerns but end¬≠ed the pol¬≠i¬≠cy in May. Now Sean is encour¬≠ag¬≠ing cowork¬≠ers to seek ben¬≠e¬≠fits under a new state law for food-indus¬≠try work¬≠ers that pro¬≠vides up to two weeks paid leave for work¬≠ers who have been advised by a med¬≠ical pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠al to self-iso¬≠late or ordered not to work.

Ama¬≠zon ini¬≠tial¬≠ly argued that it was exempt from the man¬≠date. But as Vice report¬≠ed in July, com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty groups and labor activists, along with the state labor commissioner‚Äôs office, pres¬≠sured the com¬≠pa¬≠ny to com¬≠ply on the grounds that its ware¬≠hous¬≠es serve as major retail food dis¬≠trib¬≠u¬≠tors. In June, approx¬≠i¬≠mate¬≠ly two months after the order was enact¬≠ed, Ama¬≠zon final¬≠ly agreed to fol¬≠low the law.

With a¬†poster detail¬≠ing the state‚Äôs new paid-leave pol¬≠i¬≠cy now on dis¬≠play in the break¬≠room, Sean says he is advis¬≠ing his cowork¬≠ers to take advan¬≠tage of what he calls a¬†legal¬†‚Äúloop¬≠hole‚ÄĚ that allows Ama¬≠zon employ¬≠ees to take paid time off out¬≠side of the com¬≠pa¬≠ny‚Äôs more restric¬≠tive allot¬≠ment. The work¬≠ers who qual¬≠i¬≠fy have man¬≠aged to use the law¬†‚Äújust to take a¬†break, or reeval¬≠u¬≠ate their¬†situation.‚ÄĚ

Sean says that despite his advo¬≠ca¬≠cy on behalf of Ama¬≠zon employ¬≠ees, he has avoid¬≠ed the kind of retal¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion from man¬≠age¬≠ment that oth¬≠er work¬≠er-activists have reported.

At the same time, he acknowl¬≠edges,¬†‚ÄúI‚Äôm also not try¬≠ing to [pro¬≠voke] them direct¬≠ly.‚ÄĚ When it comes to engag¬≠ing with his col¬≠leagues on work¬≠place jus¬≠tice issues, he says,¬†‚ÄúUsu¬≠al¬≠ly, I‚Äôll have a¬†con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tion where it just kind of unfolds like,¬†‚ÄėMan, some¬≠one in my fam¬≠i¬≠ly just recent¬≠ly passed, and I¬†can‚Äôt take time off work.‚Äô And I‚Äôm like,¬†‚ÄėOh, you should check out the law that was just recent¬≠ly passed and I¬†think you can get time off for¬†it.‚ÄĚ

Sean is build­ing a safer work­place with­in Amazon’s e-commerce leviathan one con­ver­sa­tion at a time. The son of an iron­work­er and grand­son of a team­ster, his sense of mis­sion is informed by the fam­i­ly sto­ries he heard as a child about strikes and pick­et lines.

Ama¬≠zon, which has man¬≠aged to keep unions at bay for years, bears lit¬≠tle resem¬≠blance to the union shops of past gen¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tions. But today‚Äôs Ama¬≠zon ware¬≠house work¬≠ers and dri¬≠vers are just as crit¬≠i¬≠cal to California‚Äôs econ¬≠o¬≠my as the long¬≠shore¬≠men, truck dri¬≠vers and iron work¬≠ers were a¬†cen¬≠tu¬≠ry ago.¬†‚ÄúI see Ama¬≠zon as some¬≠thing that‚Äôs prob¬≠a¬≠bly here to stay and like¬≠ly going to shape our future and our under¬≠stand¬≠ing of Amer¬≠i¬≠can cap¬≠i¬≠tal¬≠ism and con¬≠sump¬≠tion,‚ÄĚ he¬†says.

Though yes¬≠ter¬≠day‚Äôs mil¬≠i¬≠tant shop-floor strug¬≠gles have long fad¬≠ed from Cal¬≠i¬≠for¬≠ni¬≠a‚Äôs indus¬≠tri¬≠al land¬≠scape, the chal¬≠lenges fac¬≠ing the labor move¬≠ment remain basi¬≠cal¬≠ly the same. When work¬≠ers orga¬≠nize, Sean says, they can¬†‚Äúhold the com¬≠pa¬≠ny account¬≠able and shape it to be the com¬≠pa¬≠ny it is. With¬≠out the work¬≠ers, the com¬≠pa¬≠ny would not be what it¬†is.‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing writer at¬†In These Times¬†and¬†The Nation, a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing edi¬≠tor at¬†Dis¬≠sent¬†and a¬†co-pro¬≠duc¬≠er of the¬†‚ÄúBela¬≠bored‚ÄĚ pod¬≠cast. She stud¬≠ies his¬≠to¬≠ry at the CUNY Grad¬≠u¬≠ate Cen¬≠ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent¬≠ly, Draw¬≠ing Blood and Broth¬≠ers of the Gun, (with Mar¬≠wan Hisham). Her art is in the per¬≠ma¬≠nent col¬≠lec¬≠tions of the Muse¬≠um of Mod¬≠ern Art. Her ani¬≠mat¬≠ed short, A Mes¬≠sage from the Future with Alexan¬≠dria Oca¬≠sio-Cortez, has been nom¬≠i¬≠nat¬≠ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out¬≠stand¬≠ing News Analy¬≠sis: Edi¬≠to¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al and Opinion.

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Meet the Warehouse Worker Who Took On Amazon Over Inhumane Conditions and Harassment

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Hibaq Mohamed has worked for Ama¬≠zon near¬≠ly as long as she‚Äôs been in the Unit¬≠ed States. In 2016, the twen¬≠ty-some¬≠thing Soma¬≠li immi¬≠grant land¬≠ed in Min¬≠neso¬≠ta by way of a refugee camp, join¬≠ing one of the largest East African com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ties in the coun¬≠try. She soon joined the legion of work¬≠ers who fuel the state‚Äôs main Ama¬≠zon facil¬≠i¬≠ty, the MSP1 ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ter in Shakopee, near the Twin Cities.

‚ÄúThis was my first job,‚ÄĚ Mohamed says.¬†‚ÄúThey were hir¬≠ing work¬≠ers ‚Ķ East African and peo¬≠ple like me. [These work¬≠ers] didn‚Äôt have a¬†lot of expe¬≠ri¬≠ence, they don‚Äôt know a¬†lot.‚Ä̬†

The Shakopee facil¬≠i¬≠ty employs rough¬≠ly 1,000 work¬≠ers to exe¬≠cute Amazon‚Äôs high¬≠ly mech¬≠a¬≠nized work reg¬≠i¬≠men every day, pack¬≠ing orders at a fren¬≠zied rate of around 250 units per hour. While items zip down a con¬≠vey¬≠or belt, the work¬≠ers are mon¬≠i¬≠tored, through an auto¬≠mat¬≠ed sys¬≠tem, to track their speed and any errors that might dam¬≠age their per¬≠for¬≠mance ratings.

On top of the pres¬≠sure to meet quo¬≠tas, Mohamed says man¬≠age¬≠ment decid¬≠ed to¬†‚Äúfire a¬†crazy num¬≠ber of work¬≠ers‚ÄĚ short¬≠ly after she start¬≠ed work¬≠ing there.¬†‚ÄúAnd they are not telling us what they fired them for,‚ÄĚ she recalls. She says the work¬≠ers were immi¬≠grants who did not speak Eng¬≠lish¬†fluently.

Though Ama¬≠zon says these were sea¬≠son¬≠al hires‚ÄĒand were there¬≠fore dis¬≠missed once their tem¬≠po¬≠rary stints end¬≠ed, the seem¬≠ing lack of trans¬≠paren¬≠cy trou¬≠bled Mohamed.¬†‚ÄúI feel like this was unfair,‚ÄĚ she¬†says.

Around¬†2017, Mohamed and oth¬≠er East African immi¬≠grant work¬≠ers start¬≠ed meet¬≠ing with the¬†Awood Cen¬≠ter, a¬†Min¬≠neapo¬≠lis work¬≠er cen¬≠ter. As fledg¬≠ling com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty orga¬≠niz¬≠ers, Mohamed says,¬†‚ÄúWe have to be smart, we have to have the train¬≠ing to do this.‚ÄĚ Over the past two years, East African work¬≠ers have¬†spear¬≠head¬≠ed a¬†num¬≠ber of walk¬≠outs and protests¬†at Ama¬≠zon against what they per¬≠ceive as incom¬≠pe¬≠tence, inhu¬≠mane pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty stan¬≠dards and a¬†lack of diver¬≠si¬≠ty among the man¬≠age¬≠ment. Images of hijabis walk¬≠ing the pick¬≠et line and ban¬≠ners pro¬≠claim¬≠ing that work¬≠ers are¬†‚Äúnot robots‚ÄĚ gar¬≠nered nation¬≠al¬†headlines.¬†

Fol¬≠low¬≠ing ini¬≠tial protests in¬†2018, Ama¬≠zon man¬≠age¬≠ment sat down with MSP1‚Äôs East African work¬≠ers to dis¬≠cuss work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions‚ÄĒhigh¬≠ly unusu¬≠al for Ama¬≠zon, which had pre¬≠vi¬≠ous¬≠ly avoid¬≠ed such direct talks with¬†workers.

Ama¬≠zon even¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly agreed to make some accom¬≠mo¬≠da¬≠tions at the facil¬≠i¬≠ty, such as com¬≠mit¬≠ting man¬≠agers to meet quar¬≠ter¬≠ly with work¬≠ers and respond to com¬≠plaints with¬≠in five days, accord¬≠ing to the New York Times. But work¬≠ers have con¬≠tin¬≠ued to com¬≠plain about the intense pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty pres¬≠sure, which often leaves them with¬≠out time for dai¬≠ly prayers and bath¬≠room breaks, despite Ama¬≠zon claim¬≠ing that work¬≠ers can pray at any time. MSP1 also has one of the high¬≠est injury rates among Amazon‚Äôs ful¬≠fill¬≠ment centers.

Awood has become a¬†hub for the East African work¬≠er com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, teach¬≠ing orga¬≠niz¬≠ing tac¬≠tics and build¬≠ing mutu¬≠al sup¬≠port. Awood oper¬≠ates as a¬†grass¬≠roots group and not a¬†for¬≠mal union, but oth¬≠er unions‚ÄĒinclud¬≠ing the¬†Ser¬≠vice Employ¬≠ees Inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al Union¬†and¬†the Team¬≠sters‚ÄĒhave been sup¬≠port¬≠ing Ama¬≠zon work¬≠ers at MSP1¬†and oth¬≠er¬†facilities.

Just over a month after Min¬≠neso¬≠ta issued stay-at-home orders, Ama¬≠zon elim¬≠i¬≠nat¬≠ed unlim¬≠it¬≠ed unpaid time off for those who opt¬≠ed to stay home for health con¬≠cerns, which trig¬≠gered a walk¬≠out by more than 50 MSP1 work¬≠ers. The work¬≠ers also protest¬≠ed what they said was the retal¬≠ia¬≠to¬≠ry fir¬≠ing of two work¬≠er activists, Faiza Osman (who Awood claims was ter¬≠mi¬≠nat¬≠ed after stay¬≠ing home with her chil¬≠dren to avoid infec¬≠tion, but was lat¬≠er rein¬≠stat¬≠ed) and Bashir Mohamed (who appar¬≠ent¬≠ly was dis¬≠ci¬≠plined for vio¬≠lat¬≠ing social dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing guide¬≠lines, which work¬≠ers say are selec¬≠tive¬≠ly enforced).

Work¬≠ers‚Äô fears about the virus were con¬≠firmed in June, when about 90 ware¬≠house employ¬≠ees test¬≠ed pos¬≠i¬≠tive for Covid-19. Bloomberg report¬≠ed that Ama¬≠zon had care¬≠ful¬≠ly tracked the Covid-19 infec¬≠tion rate at MSP1, but did not dis¬≠close details on the num¬≠ber of cas¬≠es to workers.

Man¬≠age¬≠ment¬†‚Äúwant[ed] to hide it,‚ÄĚ Mohamed says. But while the high¬≠er-ups were not exposed like the front¬≠line work¬≠ers on the ware¬≠house floor,¬†‚ÄúWe are the ones who are going togeth¬≠er to the bath¬≠room, to the break room. We are the ones get¬≠ting the¬†virus.‚ÄĚ

Ama¬≠zon¬†has boast¬≠ed¬†about its Covid-19¬†response, claim¬≠ing it has tak¬≠en exten¬≠sive mea¬≠sures to keep work¬≠ers safe while eas¬≠ing up on quo¬≠tas. But Mohamed says Amazon‚Äôs lead¬≠ers¬†‚Äúfocus more for the mon¬≠ey than the work¬≠ers and¬†people.‚ÄĚ

Last week, work¬≠ers‚Äô fears about their risk of infec¬≠tion were real¬≠ized when the com¬≠pa¬≠ny report¬≠ed that more than 19,000 of its 1,372,000 employ¬≠ees at Ama¬≠zon and Whole Foods had test¬≠ed pos¬≠i¬≠tive for COVID-19. Though it claims that the infec¬≠tion rate at its facil¬≠i¬≠ties was about 40 per¬≠cent low¬≠er on aver¬≠age than in sur¬≠round¬≠ing com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ties, labor advo¬≠cates denounced the com¬≠pa¬≠ny for need¬≠less¬≠ly putting work¬≠ers‚Äô health at risk.

The man¬≠age¬≠ment seems focused on Mohamed, how¬≠ev¬≠er. Amid ris¬≠ing fears of Covid-19¬†risks at work, Mohamed¬†was writ¬≠ten up in July¬†for tak¬≠ing too much¬†‚Äútime off task,‚ÄĚ Amazon‚Äôs term for inter¬≠mit¬≠tent breaks. But she con¬≠tends she had rarely received any dis¬≠ci¬≠pli¬≠nary write-ups until the man¬≠age¬≠ment¬†‚Äúclear¬≠ly made me a¬†tar¬≠get‚ÄĚ after she had protest¬≠ed work¬≠ing¬†conditions.¬†

She wrote to Min¬≠neso¬≠ta Attor¬≠ney Gen¬≠er¬≠al Kei¬≠th Elli¬≠son seek¬≠ing pro¬≠tec¬≠tion under an exec¬≠u¬≠tive order shield¬≠ing whistle¬≠blow¬≠ers from retaliation. 

‚ÄúAma¬≠zon man¬≠agers have tar¬≠get¬≠ed me and open¬≠ly harassed me before,‚ÄĚ Mohamed wrote,¬†‚Äúbut increas¬≠ing¬≠ly dur¬≠ing the¬†pandemic.‚ÄĚ

Ama¬≠zon denies Mohamed and her cowork¬≠ers‚Äô claims of retal¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion. Ama¬≠zon spokesper¬≠son Jen Crow¬≠croft states via email,¬†‚ÄúWe do not tol¬≠er¬≠ate any kind of dis¬≠crim¬≠i¬≠na¬≠tion in the work¬≠place and we sup¬≠port every employee‚Äôs right to crit¬≠i¬≠cize their employ¬≠er, but that doesn‚Äôt come with blan¬≠ket immu¬≠ni¬≠ty to ignore inter¬≠nal poli¬≠cies.‚ÄĚ Sim¬≠i¬≠lar¬≠ly, Ama¬≠zon attrib¬≠ut¬≠es Bashir‚Äôs dis¬≠missal to vio¬≠la¬≠tions of work¬≠place rules. It also states Osman still works at Ama¬≠zon and was not¬†fired.

Mohamed‚Äôs alle¬≠ga¬≠tions reflect a¬†broad¬≠er pat¬≠tern of fir¬≠ings and pun¬≠ish¬≠ment of work¬≠er-orga¬≠niz¬≠ers dur¬≠ing the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, which has prompt¬≠ed law¬≠mak¬≠ers to inves¬≠ti¬≠gate Amazon‚Äôs labor prac¬≠tices.. Last week,¬†35¬†work¬≠ers at MSP1¬†staged yet anoth¬≠er walk¬≠out¬†to protest the alleged fir¬≠ing of one of Mohamed‚Äôs cowork¬≠ers, Farhiyo Warsame, for¬†‚Äútime off task‚ÄĚ vio¬≠la¬≠tions, after she had voiced con¬≠cerns about safe¬≠ty pro¬≠tec¬≠tions at¬†work.

For now, how¬≠ev¬≠er, Mohamed‚Äôs out¬≠spo¬≠ken¬≠ness might pro¬≠tect her, as the work¬≠ers‚Äô upris¬≠ings have put Amazon‚Äôs labor prac¬≠tices in the pub¬≠lic spotlight. 

Ama¬≠zon esti¬≠mates about¬†30% of its Shakopee work¬≠ers are East African, many of whom live in the Twin Cities Soma¬≠li refugee com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, which has his¬≠tor¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly strug¬≠gled with racial dis¬≠crim¬≠i¬≠na¬≠tion and socioe¬≠co¬≠nom¬≠ic hard¬≠ship. Now, these bonds have trans¬≠formed into orga¬≠niz¬≠ing pow¬≠er against a¬†cor¬≠po¬≠rate empire. Hav¬≠ing built a¬†diverse com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty of mil¬≠i¬≠tant work¬≠ers at MSP1‚ÄĒSoma¬≠li, Span¬≠ish and Eng¬≠lish speak¬≠ers alike‚ÄĒMohamed knows there is safe¬≠ty in¬†numbers.

‚ÄúWe have one goal, and we can under¬≠stand each oth¬≠er,‚ÄĚ Mohamed says.¬†‚ÄúWe have the pow¬≠er to change pol¬≠i¬≠cy. ‚Ķ We have the right to exer¬≠cise that in the Unit¬≠ed States.‚ÄĚ Although the com¬≠pa¬≠ny¬†‚Äúgive[s] us a¬†lot of fear,‚ÄĚ she adds. ‚Äú[we] still have the courage to fight back and work for the change we¬†want.‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing edi¬≠tor at Dis¬≠sent and a¬†co-pro¬≠duc¬≠er of the¬†‚ÄúBela¬≠bored‚ÄĚ pod¬≠cast. She stud¬≠ies his¬≠to¬≠ry at the CUNY Grad¬≠u¬≠ate Cen¬≠ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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OSHA Is Failing Essential Workers. Why Not Let Them Sue Their Bosses?

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Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States early this year, frontline workers in sectors deemed ‚Äúessential‚ÄĚ have staged hundreds of strikes, sickouts and other job actions to protest unsafe working conditions.

At hospitals, warehouses, meat processing plants, fast-food restaurants, transport and delivery services, and retail and grocery stores, workers have demanded their employers do more to prevent the spread of the virus‚ÄĒincluding keeping worksites clean and providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). They have been aided in many cases by unions and new initiatives like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee‚ÄĒa joint project of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Meanwhile, the government agency tasked with ensuring on-the-job safety‚ÄĒthe Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)‚ÄĒhas received over 26,000 Covid-related complaints at the federal and state level, but to date has issued citations against only four employers, all of them nursing homes.

While the AFL-CIO has called on OSHA to adopt an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases as an immediate, enforceable mechanism to keep workplaces safe during the pandemic, the agency has refused, saying there‚Äôs a lack of ‚Äúcompelling evidence‚ÄĚ that diseases like Covid-19 pose a ‚Äúgrave threat‚ÄĚ to workers. Instead, OSHA has put forward non-binding guidelines around coronavirus.

Critics like Peter Dooley of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health say OSHA is ‚Äúmissing in action‚ÄĚ and that the agency‚Äôs lackluster pandemic response is ‚Äúa national disgrace.‚ÄĚ

In a new report released today, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR)‚ÄĒa network of over 60 scholars advocating public protections around health, safety and the environment‚ÄĒis calling on Congress to significantly strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the legislation that first created OSHA nearly 50 years ago.

Katie Tracy, senior policy analyst at CPR and a coauthor of the report, says OSHA‚Äôs poor response to the pandemic ‚Äúis emblematic of several decades of choices by our national and state leaders that prioritize short-term profits ahead of people.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúSince 1970, Congress and the White House have hollowed out [OSHA], denying it resources and trimming its authority, leaving it in a weak state,‚ÄĚ adds CPR member scholar Rena Steinzor, another report coauthor.

As a result of this hollowing out, the agency now has only one inspector for every 79,262 workers. The report explains that with so few resources, OSHA has the capability to perform only one inspection per worksite every 134 years.

CPR member and report coauthor Michael C. Duff points out that ‚ÄúBlack, Latinx and other people of color are disproportionately represented‚ÄĚ in some of the most high-risk and low-paid jobs deemed essential during the pandemic. ‚ÄúOur governing institutions have done little to safeguard these workers from the health hazards or economic challenges exacerbated by Covid-19,‚ÄĚ he says.

The CPR report specifically recommends the Occupational Safety and Health Act be amended to allow workers to enforce the law themselves by filing lawsuits under a private right of action. Such ‚Äúcitizen suits‚ÄĚ are already a feature of many other federal regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and Clean Air Act, the report notes.

‚ÄúEmpowering workers with a private right of action is critical to ensuring safer and healthier workplaces because, even with a robust regulatory system, there will always be limits on what OSHA has the resources and political will to do,‚ÄĚ the report says. ‚ÄúWhen the prospect of a private lawsuit is put on the table, the agency may be more motivated, even compelled, to pursue the serious allegations raised by employees.‚ÄĚ

The report spells out how a private right of action would work, including provisions for notice of intent to sue, waiting periods, standing, statutes of limitation, discovery, robust remedies, and more. Importantly, it calls for beefed up whistleblower protections to prevent retaliation against employees who speak up, as well as an end to arbitration agreements that require workers to forfeit the right to sue their employers.

Further, the report urges lawmakers to expand the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include public sector workers, farmworkers and gig workers misclassified as independent contractors‚ÄĒall of whom were excluded in the original 1970 legislation.

‚ÄúFixing the current system requires an updated and vastly improved labor law that empowers workers to speak up about health and safety hazards, rather than risk their lives out of fear of losing employment and pay,‚ÄĚ says CPR board member and report coauthor Thomas McGarity.

Tracy tells In These Times that as a nonprofit, CPR doesn‚Äôt do political lobbying, but still hopes that ‚Äúsome of our allies off and on the Hill will find this concept worthy of taking up because it would be such an improvement over the status quo.‚ÄĚ

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting to include employer liability protections in any new Covid relief package, warning there will be ‚Äúa second epidemic‚Ķof frivolous coronavirus lawsuits.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúRather than fight for business liability immunity,‚ÄĚ Tracy says, ‚Äúwe need to be empowering workers to enforce the law when OSHA won‚Äôt.‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Trump Administration Quietly Adds Foreign Arms Sale to List of ‚ÄúEssential Work‚ÄĚ

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Buried on the 18th page of a recently updated federal government memo defining which workers are critical during the Covid-19 pandemic is a new category of essential workers: defense industry personnel employed in foreign arms sales. 

The¬†memo, issued April 17, is a revised version of statements issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Department of Defense in mid-March. In those, the defense industry workforce was deemed ‚Äúessential‚ÄĚ alongside healthcare professionals and food producers, a broad designation that prompted criticism from a¬†former top acquisition official for the Pentagon, defense-spending¬†watchdog groups, and¬†workers¬†themselves. The original March memos made no mention of the lucrative foreign arms sales that U.S. companies make in the order of $180 billion a year.

The new text indicates that the federal government deliberately expanded the scope of work for essential employees in the mid-April memo to include the ‚Äúsale of U.S. defense articles and services for export to foreign allies and partners.‚ÄĚ In These Times spoke with numerous workers who instead say their plants could have shut down production for clients both domestic and foreign. The updated April 17 memo was issued as the United States reported more than 30,000 Covid-19 deaths, a number that would come close to tripling in the following weeks. 

The new memo, which says essential workers are those needed ‚Äúto maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily,‚ÄĚ also reflects what defense workers tell In These Times has been a reality throughout the pandemic: Work is ongoing on military-industrial shop floors across the country, including on weapons for foreign sales.

A memo in March said essential workers are those needed to ‚Äúmeet national security commitments to the federal government and U.S. military.‚ÄĚ In April, the government quietly updated the memo to include a new line of essential work: foreign arms sales.

Arms manufacturing for export has continued at a Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, which has stayed open 24 hours a day during the pandemic and manufactures the F-35 fighter jet. Asked by In These Times if F-35 production for international customers was ongoing in Fort Worth during the pandemic, a Lockheed spokesman responded that ‚Äúthere are no specific impacts to our operations at this time.‚ÄĚ The company has a robust slate of domestic and foreign orders to fulfill for the F-35‚ÄĒthe most expensive weapons program in U.S. history, one the company now advertises at a price tag of at least $89 million per jet. This slate includes 98 for the United States in the fiscal year 2020 and scores for international buyers in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, according to a recent report on the F-35 program from the Congressional Research Service.

An employee at the Fort Worth plant told In These Times, ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think it should be designated essential if we‚Äôre not doing it for our own country. I understand these other countries have put money into it. I do understand that. But these other countries are shut down, too,‚ÄĚ the worker added, referring to the major disruptions of economic activities across the globe. The employee said they have seen computer monitors indicating jets were destined for Japan and Australia in recent weeks.

In the first weeks after the country shut down, the employee says they and their fellow workers asked themselves, ‚ÄúWhy don‚Äôt we move these aircraft out of the way for a minute? And we have enough manpower here we could make masks. We could make ventilators.‚ÄĚ But the company’s priorities for its essential workers, the employee says, has been: ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs get these jets and let‚Äôs get them running. Let‚Äôs pump them out the door.‚ÄĚ

Several defense industry workers told In These Times they believe on-site manufacturing work at weapons plants for both foreign and domestic use could have been suspended at least for a matter of weeks during the pandemic. They also said they worry about the feasibility of keeping busy workplaces safe and sanitary, and that they distrust employers’ methods for handling virus cases that have emerged among workers.

Alarm over the expectation to continue reporting to shop floors for hands-on jobs has opened a rift between defense contractors and their employees, with the latter feeling constrained from speaking out publicly due to the confidentiality surrounding national security work. Several workers, all concerned about the risks of plants staying open, spoke with In These Times on the condition their names not be published, fearing repercussions or losing security clearances.

Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said at an April 30 press conference that of 10,509 major companies tracked by the Defense Contract Management Agency, just 93 were closed, while 141 had closed and reopened. While many in the defense industry can work remotely‚ÄĒa Lockheed spokesperson told In These Times by e-mail that about 9,000 of its 18,000 employees in Fort Worth are telecommuting‚ÄĒthe thousands that remain on plant floors, workers say, are often blue-collar employees whose jobs are hands-on. On an April 21 earnings call, outgoing Lockheed Martin CEO Marllyn Hewson told investors that ‚Äúour manufacturing facilities are open and our workforce is engaged.‚ÄĚ 

Concern for the safety of that workforce prompted Jennifer Escobar‚ÄĒa veteran and wife of a Lockheed Martin employee in Fort Worth who himself is a disabled veteran‚ÄĒto publicly denounce the company for staying open during the pandemic.

More than 5,000 people have signed her petition calling for the Fort Worth site to shut down and send employees home with pay. A similar petition on behalf of Lockheed Martin employees in Palmdale, Calif., garnered hundreds of signatures. Escobar spearheaded the campaign, she says, for ‚Äúeverybody else who couldn’t stand up because they have a fear of retaliation from the employer.‚ÄĚ

Escobar also started a GoFundMe page for the widow of the Fort Worth site’s first reported Covid-19 death. Claude Daniels, a material handler, and his wife, also a Lockheed employee, had together spent about seven decades working for the company, according to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union. 

The local machinists union reported in late April that the Fort Worth site had 12 confirmed virus cases among Lockheed and non-Lockheed employees. Since the plant has remained open during the pandemic, the company has responded to the outbreak by identifying and informing workers who have been in proximity with an infected employee and asking them to stay home, according to a Lockheed spokesman. 

But Escobar and one plant worker said there are gaps in that response. For example, Escobar says there were instances in which a worker was sent home while their spouse, also a company employee, was not, despite the presumably close contact the pair has in a shared living space. One Fort Worth worker also said that while the company will remove an employee who works within six feet of someone who tests positive, there are cases of people who work at greater distances‚ÄĒthe employee gave the example of workers on either side of a jet’s wings‚ÄĒwho still share items during their shift.

‚ÄúEven though we were sharing the same workstation, the same computer, the same toolbox, that doesn‚Äôt count,‚ÄĚ the employee says. 

In response to these concerns, Lockheed Martin told In These Times via email, ‚ÄúOur Facilities teams have increased cleaning schedules within all our buildings and campuses across Lockheed Martin, with a high concentration on common areas like lobbies, restrooms, breakrooms and elevators. Upon learning of probable exposure, a contracted professional cleaning and restoration company sanitizes the employee‚Äôs workspace, surrounding workspaces, common areas, and entrances and exits throughout the building.‚ÄĚ

Anger at the expectation employees continue working led one to spit on the company’s gate in Fort Worth. Escobar says, ‚ÄúHe was just really upset that the company was treating him like that.‚ÄĚ 

Lockheed Martin spokesman Kenneth Ross told In These Times that the company’s security team was aware of and investigating the reported spitting incident. ‚ÄúObviously, that kind of behavior is not fitting with what we’re trying to do to create a Covid-19 safe environment,‚ÄĚ he said

One Fort Worth employee infected with the virus filmed a video of himself from a hospital bed that went viral and was viewed by many of his coworkers. In sharing his story, he also exposed a gap in the company’s ability to respond to the virus while maintaining its floors open. 

In Anthony Melchor’s video, which has been viewed more than 16,000 times, he is interrupted by coughs and wheezy breaths. ‚ÄúI’m cool on my stool, you know me,‚ÄĚ he says, warning his fellow workers that ‚Äúthis Covid ain‚Äôt no bullshit, man.‚ÄĚ He calls on them to sanitize their work areas and not go to work if they feel unsafe.

During a weekend in early April, Melchor, who suspects he was exposed to the virus at work, began to have severe migraines. He woke up the next day in a pool of sweat. His doctor ordered a Covid-19 test, but his first result was a false negative, which Melchor believes happened because his nasal swab was too shallow. After several days passed and his condition worsened, his wife insisted he receive medical attention. A second coronavirus test then came back positive, he said.

Melchor says his delay in informing Lockheed that he was positive for the virus also meant his coworkers were delayed in being removed from the line. Asked whether workers are removed from the plant when an employee shows symptoms of the virus or only after one has tested positive, a Lockheed spokesman wrote that the company ‚Äúidentif[ies] and inform[s] any employees who interacted with individuals exposed to or diagnosed with Covid-19 while maintaining confidentiality.‚ÄĚ

At a Lockheed Martin site in Greenville, S.C., where the company is currently producing F-16s for Bahrain‚ÄĒthe company appears to have only foreign clients for the fighter jet‚ÄĒone employee expressed concern over how close workers get to one another when they often work in pairs on either side of a jet. The worker also says it is ‚Äúthe nature of our business‚ÄĚ to have employees who frequently travel, including out of the country, leading the worker to fear what they may bring back to the workplace when they return.

‚ÄúFrom a financial standpoint I know it‚Äôs not beneficial for us to be at home,‚ÄĚ the Greenville worker says, ‚Äúbut the safety of employees to me should be most important.‚ÄĚ 

Lockheed’s fighter jets are among many defense products that U.S. companies export. 

In addition to Lockheed Martin, In These Times submitted questions to three other defense firms about ongoing exports during Covid-19. Northrop Grumman announced in its April 29 earnings call that the company had delivered two Global Hawk surveillance drones to South Korea that month. Asked about the precautions the company took for the safety of workers handling the drones in the final weeks leading up to the April delivery, a spokesperson wrote that the company is ‚Äútaking extraordinary measures to maintain safe working conditions.‚ÄĚ The U.S. ambassador in Seoul tweeted a picture of the sleek gray drone emblazoned with Korean letters in an April 19 message congratulating those involved in its delivery. 

Another contractor, Wichita-based Textron Aviation, told In These Timesthat, during Covid-19, the company ‚Äúwill continue to support our customers according to our funded contract requirements, which includes foreign customers.‚ÄĚ

Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association, says the pandemic does not appear to have caused any ‚Äúdeviation‚ÄĚ from the Trump administration’s policy of promoting foreign arms sales. He notes that the State Department approved numerous potential sales, including ones to controversial clients like the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines, in the midst of the global pandemic. 

‚ÄúIt certainly seems that this administration is trying to get a message to industry that you are important. There will be work for you,‚ÄĚ Abramson says.

Despite the essential designation, some Boeing defense-industrial sites buckled under pressure as the virus spread and closed during the pandemic. A day after the death of an employee infected with the virus in Washington State, Boeing announced it would shutter its Puget Sound site, where some 70,000 people work on both commercial and defense aircraft. Boeing also shut down a Pennsylvania site that produces military aircraft for two weeks, saying the step was ‚Äúa necessary one for the health and safety of our employees and their communities.‚ÄĚ

When Boeing partially reopened Puget Sound after about three weeks, the first production it resumed was on defense products. Asked if work was underway on P-6 patrol aircraft for foreign clients such as South Korea and New Zealand, a company spokesperson responded, ‚ÄúWe are evaluating customer delivery schedules and working to minimize impacts to our international customers.‚ÄĚ

Unlike the United States, some countries have allowed defense production to shut down. Mexico did not declare its defense industry essential, prompting a rebuke from the Pentagon’s Ellen Lord, who wrote to the Mexican foreign ministry regarding interruptions to supply chains. Lord later said she had seen a ‚Äúpositive response‚ÄĚ from Mexico on resolving the issue. F-35 facilities in both Japan and Italy shut down for several days in the early weeks of the pandemic. 

Melchor, the Fort Worth employee who is now recovering from Covid-19 at home, says he agrees with the defense-industrial base’s designation as essential, including when that involves commitments to customers amongst U.S. allies. ‚ÄúI just also believe that our customers would have understood if there was a two-week delay or even a month delay because of this virus,‚ÄĚ he says. 

He believes leadership is needed to address the issue in a unified way and says debate about the crisis amongst workers, whom he called on in his video to ‚Äúpull together,‚ÄĚ has become fractious. 

‚ÄúWhat I found interesting is the very thing that we build [is] to serve and protect, foreign and domestic, to protect us from any type of evil or wrongdoing,‚ÄĚ Melchor says. ‚ÄúAt what point does our company protect us?‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 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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Being an ‚ÄúEssential Worker‚ÄĚ Won‚Äôt Save You From Deportation

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Legions of undocumented immigrants in the United States carry letters signed by their employers stating that President Donald Trump’s administration considers them essential workers amid the pandemic. While these letters exempt them from being arrested by local agents for violating stay-at-home orders, these workers could still be detained and deported by federal authorities.

Jos√© (a pseudonym to protect his identity as an undocumented worker), a landscaper in Connecticut, has had such a letter since the beginning of the stay-at-home executive orders in March. His job, though, could hardly be considered essential.

“We are sent in to maintain malls, apartment buildings, corporations and government offices,” says Jos√©, who has worked for Middletown, Connecticut-based Bravo Landscaping, for over a decade. “We first pick up all the dead leaves, then mark the edges of the green areas and cut the grass.”

Although he‚Äôs been deemed ‚Äúessential,‚ÄĚ Jos√© is not entitled to protective gear, compensation, federal financial aid or safeguards from immigration agents. For several weeks, Jos√© actually worked without protective equipment.

“Two workers already contracted Covid-19, and their whole teams were sent home to quarantine with just 60 percent of their wages,” says Jos√©. “As for the sick co-workers, I don’t know if the company is paying for their treatment.”

Connecticut has qualified landscaping as an essential industry since March. Under this cover, companies such as Bravo Landscaping can determine how to manage their undocumented workforce through a deadly pandemic.

“The Covid crisis is really highlighting the contradictions that have always existed in the United States,” says Tania Unzueta, political director of Mijente, a grassroots organization advocating for social justice. “Whether immigrants or U.S.-born, essential workers are not given a livable wage, health insurance or a social network of support.”

Undocumented essential workers were not even considered in the $2.5 trillion relief package approved by Congress and, except in California, have not received financial aid from state or local governments. Additionally, they are being detained and deported.

Though the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has suspended large-scale raids since mid-April, it still arrests immigrants that pose “a criminal or public safety threat”‚ÄĒa vague and arbitrarily enforced mandate.

In the midst of the pandemic, the Trump administration has focused its anti-immigrant zeal in removing from the United States thousands of immigrants already in detention centers and in reducing the number of work permits issued to foreigners.

With a Supreme Court ruling impending, the debate over massive ICE raids and deportations, however, will be back in the spotlight.

This ruling, which might put hundreds of thousands of people at risk, will assess whether the Trump administration’s decision to terminate DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is constitutional or if it flouted federal government regulations.

“Good” or “bad” immigrant?

Initiated by a 2014 executive order of President Barack Obama, DACA grants two-year renewable work permits and deportations deferrals to 690,000 migrants that arrived in the United States as minors before 2007. Trump’s administration argued in 2017 that the program is unconstitutional and should be terminated.

The lower courts concluded, nonetheless, that the administration’s decision to end the program was “arbitrary and capricious.” Having heard oral arguments last November, the Supreme Court has yet to issue an opinion, expected before June 20.

Whichever way the Supreme Court rules‚ÄĒwhether it terminates DACA immediately, phases it out or sides with the lower courts‚ÄĒimmigrants advocates expect that Trump will try to exploit the issue to boost his chances for reelection in November.

“Republicans have used the same playbook since 2016‚ÄĒto criminalize immigrants and blame them for anybody else’s misfortunes. And to do anything and everything in their power to fear monger and scare everybody,” says Pili Tobar, deputy director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group for immigration reform. “The upcoming election won’t be any different.”

President Trump has proposed in the past to keep DACA in exchange for accelerating deportations and drastically reducing immigration. In practical terms, he offered Democrats to save some immigrants from deportation while removing the vast majority of them. “Republicans are always going to try to pit immigrants against each other,” says Tobar.

Trump’s previous strategy certainly suggests that once the Supreme Court rules, he will try again to pit DACA recipients, U.S. citizens save for their papers, against hard-working immigrants like Jos√©, essential workers too but lacking any legal or political recognition.

“For people, it’s easier to argue for the undocumented young person or the kids locked in cages, but I think it’s important to talk about how to roll back the system,” says Unzueta. “When children are detained at the border and placed in detention centers, at the same time, their parents are being criminalized, charged with felonies and put in federal prison.”

The United States needs to figure out how to bring immigrants into the citizenry, says Tobar, rather than demonize, exploit and dispose of them during a crisis. “All of the 11 million undocumented people in this country are essential workers, contributing, one way or another, to their countries and communities.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York.

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