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VA Workers Say Southern States Reopening Too Soon Puts Veterans’ Lives At Risk

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Image result for Hamilton Nolan

As Republican governors across the South gear up to reopen businesses in their states over the objections of public health experts, health care workers for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—already stretched thin in the face of the COVID-19 crisis—fear for their vulnerable patients, and for themselves.

The governors of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee say they are coordinating plans for regional reopening of businesses that have been shuttered for weeks by the spread of coronavirus. The most aggressive plans thus far have come from Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who announced this week that his state will allow gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and other businesses to reopen this Friday, along with restaurants and movie theaters on Monday. That announcement has drawn objections from the mayors of Georgia’s biggest cities, as well as from public health experts, who point out that the state’s infection rate has not yet peaked, and that Georgia lacks the capacity to do widespread testing in a way that would make such reopening safe.

One obvious consequence of reopening businesses before the virus is contained could be an increase in COVID-19 cases, wiping out any benefits from the past weeks of social distancing. Such a scenario is concerning for John Corn, an AFGE union steward and a nurse at a VA medical facility in Carrollton, Georgia that provides care for elderly and disabled veterans. Between staffers who are sick, forced to take time off to care for children whose schools are closed, and forced to quarantine because they came in contact with a colleague who tested positive for COVID-19, Corn says that his facility is already seriously short-staffed—sometimes there are only two medical workers, rather than the usual four, overseeing a house with 11 patients. “It’s very stressful times for the staff and the residents,” Corn says. “Twelve hours of work, stopping for just 20 minutes to throw down some food and take a drink. That’s the only break we’re getting.”

Corn and his coworkers are members of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents hundreds of thousands of VA employees nationwide. Since the coronavirus outbreak began in earnest, nurses at his facility have been trying to get access to more personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly N95 masks, which are being tightly rationed. For now, Corn and others who have direct patient contact are given only gloves and a basic surgical masks.

“We’re rationed one mask per day. You wear that one mask for twelve hours,” Corn says. At the end of his shift, he takes off the mask, goes home, and then puts the same mask on to walk back into work the next day and receive a new mask. The shortage of protective equipment puts everyone at risk. Because the facility has been locked down to visitors, Corn points out, the only way that patients can become infected is through staff members, who leave, go home and come back in every day. If the state’s business reopening causes a “massive increase” in cases as he fears, staffers can transmit that to vulnerable patients. Even though nurses are conscious of the fact that they could easily become asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus, they have not been able to secure more PPE. Instead, he says, they’re simply told that “this is what it is.”

The same problems plague VA workers in Florida—another state where a Trump-allied Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is determined to reopen businesses. Desantis appointed a special commission to come up with a plan for reopening by the end of the week. Tatishka Thomas, the president of AFGE Local 548 in Bay Pines, Florida, which represents more than a thousand VA medical workers, says that one of her top concerns is that workers who do not have direct patient contact are issued only a single surgical mask per week, well short of what she considers to be safe.

Thomas dreads the idea of businesses in the state opening in the near future. “I’m extremely concerned, Because of the simple fact that everyone hasn’t been tested,” she said. Currently, Floridians without symptoms are not being widely tested, despite the fact that there could be many asymptomatic carriers. Asked what her union’s relationship is with the governor’s office, Thomas had a one-word answer: “Nonexistent.”

The VA employees in Repulican-controlled southern states find themselves in the politically tricky position of being both union members (unpopular), and essential front-line health care workers taking care of veterans (very popular). John Corn, who is himself at increased risk from COVID-19 because he is a diabetic, understands firsthand the bitter irony of the situation: His employer, the U.S. government, will not give him and his fellow coworkers what they need to protect themselves at work, even though their primary goal is to protect the veterans in their care. The same politicians who are quick to proclaim their love for veterans—and their disdain for public sector unions like AFGE—are putting those veterans in danger by reopening businesses too soon, and exposing their caregivers to greater risks.

“I choose to do what I do because I love what I do. I love my veterans. I support my country by taking care of these veterans,” Corn says. “But i’m also a union member. I support my union. And I will be there for my members to give them that voice.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Governors release new plan for reopening — and suggest few states are ready

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Rachel Roubein

A new road map from the nation’s governors for reopening the economy urges a cautious approach, saying the White House must dramatically ramp up testing and help states bolster other public health measures before social distancing can be safely pulled back.

The plan from the National Governors Association and state health officials suggests a wide-scale reopening of the country isn’t imminent, even as President Donald Trump roots on Southern states that are dialing down restrictions despite warnings from health experts.

The 10-point governors’ road map insists there aren’t enough coronavirus tests and said the federal government needs to better distribute testing supplies to the states. The report echoes concerns from health experts that moving too quickly could reignite the spread of the virus in communities and undo the health benefits gained by weeks of social distancing.

“Opening prematurely — or opening without the tools in place to rapidly identify and stop the spread of the virus — could send states back into crisis mode, push health systems past capacity and force states back into strict social distancing measures,” reads the report from the NGA and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

The report comes amid broader debate over whether states like Georgia and Tennessee, which are lifting prohibitions, are moving too quickly, while protests cheered on by conservative groups and Trump himself are playing out in capitals across the country. Trump this morning congratulated the mostly Republican-led states moving to reopen their economies, even as coronavirus hot spots remain within their borders.

The states’ plan largely tracks with the phased approach for reopening Trump outlined last week, but said states should proceed carefully without broader testing. Despite Trump’s insistence that states have the testing they need to reopen, the states’ report said “testing capacity remains inadequate.” Several governors are still complaining of shortages of swabs and reagents needed to conduct wide scale testing.

The plan, which tacitly criticizes the Trump administration for poorly distributing supplies, estimates that the nation will need to be able to test anywhere from 750,000 to tens of millions per week, though states are still rationing testing and struggling with supply shortages.

Trump in recent weeks has pushed responsibility for testing onto the states, but the new road map said the federal government should “rapidly build” up testing capacity and coordinate distribution of supplies. A new coronavirus package moving through Congress this week includes $25 billion for testing, while calling for testing strategies from the Trump administration and the states.

Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who chairs the NGA, has criticized the administration for not doing enough to help states increase testing. Hogan’s administration over the weekend secured thousands of test kits from South Korea, prompting criticism from Trump for turning to a foreign government for help.

The plan recommends a “a significant increase” in workers who help identify those infected with the coronavirus and try to convince their contacts to self-quarantine to guard against an explosion in cases. The country currently only has a fraction of the workers needed to trace the virus. Louisiana, for example, hopes to expand its workforce for contact tracing from 70 to 700, said state health Secretary Courtney Phillips. Many of the new volunteers states are bringing on will receive just a few hours of training for work that has little margin for error.

The governors’ report also says states should have plans for quarantining the contacts of people who have become infected at places like hotels, dorms or military barracks. They should also have a robust public health infrastructure in place as they reopen, including a strong surveillance system for detecting Covid-19, develop metrics to assess the hospital’s capacity to treat both coronavirus and non-infected patients and protect at-risk populations. Those are similar to measures Trump’s reopening plan but includes more detail.

“These steps require the full participation of the federal government, state health agencies, other state agencies, local governments, the private sector, and the public,” the report said.

This article was originally published by Politico on April 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachel Roubein is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro, focusing on doctors and hospitals. She previously covered health policy and politics at The Hill and National Journal, where she reported extensively on Obamacare and the opioid epidemic. She got her start in journalism reporting for Carroll County Times, a local newspaper in Maryland, and covered everything from the rise of heroin in the county to state efforts to start a medical marijuana program, from town budgets to crime. She studied journalism at the University of Maryland, and grew up in Oklahoma — and also Louisiana, Texas and Kentucky.

Dan Goldberg

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. Before joining POLITICO New York, Dan was the health care reporter for the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University.

Brianna Ehley

About the Author: Brianna Ehley is a reporter on POLITICO Pro’s health care team. She covers federal public health policy, as well as addiction and mental health issues. Prior to joining POLITICO, she wrote about health care, economic policy and government agencies for The Fiscal Times and blogged about the DC media scene for Fishbowl DC. She started her career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covering Illinois state government while earning her master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois.


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460,000 more workers could get overtime in Pennsylvania

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The Obama administration’s effort to extend overtime eligibility to millions of workers may have stalled first in the courts and then because, well, Donald Trump. But for workers in at least one state, there’s hope of progress. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed phasing in a higher overtime eligibility threshold in his state:

The first step will raise the salary level to determine overtime eligibility for most workers from the federal minimum of $455 per week, $23,660 annually, to $610 per week, $31,720 annually, on Jan. 1, 2020. The threshold will increase to $39,832 on Jan. 1, 2021, followed by $47,892 in 2022, extending overtime eligibility to 370,000 workers and up to 460,000 in four years.

Starting in 2022, the salary threshold will update automatically every three years so workers are not left behind.  Additionally, the duties for executive, administration and professional workers will be clarified to make it easier for employers to know if a worker qualifies for overtime.

The Economic Policy Institute notes that:

On overtime pay, the governor has authority to act without the state legislature. On another vital measure to improve the lives of working families, raising the minimum wage, legislative action is required—and Pennsylvania still lags its neighboring states. Unlike these six contiguous states, the Pennsylvania legislature has failed to increase the minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25.

Which is one more reason Pennsylvania’s 2018 elections will matter. A lot.

 This blog was originally published at DailyKos on January 20, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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This is Why Labor Should Care About Virginia’s Gubernatorial Primary

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Last year, I wrote about the open shop referendum in Virginia, calling it the most important election for the labor movement in 2016. While Virginia has been a “right-to-work” state since 1947, supporters of the referendum argued that a constitutional amendment was necessary to prevent Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring or future Democratic legislative majorities from overturning the statute.

In a year where the election of an anti-labor president coincided with votes in Alabama and South Dakota that affirmed the open shop, Virginia gave labor its brightest victory: Almost 54 percent of voters across the Commonwealth rejected the constitutional amendment. And the “no” vote was spread out across the Commonwealth, with places as disparate politically as urban Arlington and rural Accomack voting against the measure, which was bitterly opposed by Virginia’s labor movement.

Much like the open shop referendum last year, this year’s gubernatorial election in Virginia is significant for labor. It’s a chance to contest the open shop in a region that has long seemed closed to any pro-labor advances on the issue. The primary vote is set for Tuesday and the labor movement would do well to make its presence felt.

Spread of the open shop

Politically, the open shop has been something of a settled matter in most of the South.

One of the first open shop statutes passed in Florida in 1944. As Gilbert Gall recounts in his Labor Studies Journal article, leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were slow to respond to the calls from its state affiliates for assistance in defeating the measure:

“…..President Green affirmed that the AFL wanted to help, but, he added, ‘it is expected that the Florida labor movement will do its part.’ He then chastised (Florida labor leader W.E.) Sullivan for the recent defeat of a liberal Florida Congressman, stating that he could not ‘understand why labor in Florida did not make a better showing.’ If it had, Green argued, it would have had ‘a tremendous moral effect’ against the coming Right to Work amendment, though exactly how he did not say.”

Floridians would go on to approve the measure with about 55 percent of the vote. While the open shop would end up spreading to places like Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa over the next three years, it was the South where the concept really took hold. By the end of the 1950s, nearly all of the southern states would have right-to-work legislation on the books.

A chance for change

Given that history, it may not come as much of a surprise that the political support for Virginia’s status as an open shop state has been bipartisan. The current governor, Terry McAuliffe, gave a speech to business leaders pledging his full-throated support for the law during his 2013 gubernatorial run and has stated that he would not seek to change it as governor.

This brings us to the Democratic gubernatorial primary this year, which features a race between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.

Northam, a former state senator and erstwhile potential party-switcher, began the race as the favorite after Herring decided to forgo a run for governor and seek re-election as attorney general. He lined up the endorsement of McAuliffe as well as a fundraising advantage of about half a million dollars. Perriello, who upset arch-conservative U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode in the 2008 congressional election, has closed the gap by turning the election into a referendum on Donald Trump.

But here’s the reason why this election is so important to labor: Perriello has taken a strong stance against the open shop. In an article outlining his campaign’s “Plan For Working Families”, Perriello states that:

“Too often, workers in Virginia don’t get the protections they need to earn their rightful pay and maintain consistent hours. Wage theft, the denial of benefits, and reduced bargaining powers are all side effects of a long, sustained attack on workers’ rights in Virginia. Workers do better when they have strong unions, and the decline in union membership is a major reason why wages have effectively flat-lined since the 1970s. That’s why I oppose so-called ‘right to work’ laws that kneecap unions from helping workers bargain for higher wages.”

He has defended this stance in gubernatorial debates as well, noting that he would fight for a repeal of the law even though it is unlikely to pass through a General Assembly that is dominated by Republicans. Northam, on the other hand, has called for Democrats to focus on other labor issues such as sick leave and an increased minimum wage instead of “pick(ing) fights that we perhaps can’t win right now.”

Sick leave and a minimum wage increase are important, for sure, but without a strong labor movement, it is hard to get the popular groundswell needed to prod legislators to make positive moves on those issues, either. Democrats should be united in their opposition to a policy that drains resources from labor unions and seeks to undermine the growth and stability of the movement as a whole.

Another major victory for the labor movement in Virginia could have major implications for the AFL-CIO’s strategy in the South further down the line. We should ensure that such a big opportunity is not missed.

This article was originally published on Inthesetimes.com on June 12, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, where his research centers around public policy, disadvantaged communities and the labor movement. He blogs at The South Lawn.


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How A Proposed Pennsylvania Law Would Make Workers Pay Taxes To Their Boss

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According to Good Jobs First, an organization that promotes accountability in economic development, several states allow corporations to literally pocket their employees’ tax payments. Rather than having those taxes go towards public services, the companies withhold money from their workers’ paychecks and just keep it, never remitting it to the state, under the guise of a job creation program.

Good Jobs First found that “nearly $700 million is getting diverted each year. And it is very unlikely that the affected workers are aware, given that no state requires that the diversion be disclosed on pay stubs.” Now, Pennsylvania is considering becoming the latest state to participate, as the Philadelphia City Paper reported:

Republican Governor Tom Corbett is deciding whether or not to sign legislation that would require some workers to pay taxes to their bosses. Yes, you read that right. The bill, which would allow companies that hire at least 250 new workers in the state to keep 95-percent of the workers’ withheld income tax, is an effort to to recruit Oracle to the state.

Your taxes would get withheld by your boss like normal, but they would then keep them and spend it on private jets or monogrammed bathroom fixtures or whatever instead of turning them over to the state–turning your tax dollars over to the state being the whole reason they were ostensibly “withheld” in the first place.

“These deals typify corporate socialism, in which business gains are privatized and costs socialized,” wrote Reuters David Cay Johnson. “Leaders in both parties embrace these giveaways because they draw campaign donations from corporate interests and votes from people who do not understand that they are subsidizing huge companies.” The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center listed a host of reasons that Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) should reject the law, including its effect on state revenue and its loopholes that will allow companies to collect their workers’ tax payments even if they create no new jobs.

This post originally appeared in ThinkProgress’s Wonk Room on October 24, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Pat Garofalo is an Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Pat’s work has also appeared in The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and In These Times. He has been a guest on MSNBC and Al-Jazeera television, as well as many radio shows. Pat graduated from Brandeis University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Brandeis Hoot, Brandeis’ community newspaper, and worked for the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.


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