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Seattle makes DoorDash and Postmates pay out COVID-19 hazard pay

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Seattle really pissed off gig economy companies by imposing $2.50 in hazard pay for each food delivery order during the pandemic. It’s no surprise that some of the big companies stiffed their workers—but there is a surprise here: Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards (OLS) successfully pressured DoorDash and Postmates to do internal audits and pay up.

“After receiving calls from gig workers, OLS contacted the companies, informing them that if the companies resolved issues regarding premium pay and paid workers back pay and interest by a certain date, OLS would forego a formal investigation,” OLS told Eater Seattle. In all, DoorDash paid $111,435 to 2,998 Seattle workers, and Postmates paid $250,515 to 2,975 workers.

”The city is making clear to these multi-billion dollar delivery companies that they’re not above the law,” Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington and Fair Work Center, said in a statement. “Our worker protections are only as good as our ability to enforce them, and Seattle is demonstrating once again why we’re a national model for enforcing labor standards.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Teachers have public support for COVID-19 safety strikes, this week in the war on workers

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Teachers in some areas have said they might go on strike rather than going back to in-person teaching if they felt it would be unsafe—and a majority of Americans would support them, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll found. A third of people said they would strongly support teachers, and another 22% said they would somewhat support teachers.

Just 21% of people said schools should completely reopen in person, with another 26% saying schools should partially reopen in person, and 38% saying schools should be closed or online-only. A 47% plurality said that the risks of reopening schools are greater than the consequences of keeping them closed, and 45% said teachers should not be required to teach in person. Regardless of what teachers or the public think, schools have already reopened in many places and teachers are dying.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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What are the best and worst states to work in during the coronavirus pandemic?

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The coronavirus pandemic has dealt blow after blow to U.S. workers. The two biggest: Unemployment is sky-high, and many of the jobs that are left are suddenly unsafe. 

But as with so many things, from minimum wage to paid sick leave to enforcement of existing laws, how bad workers have it varies dramatically from state to state. Now, you can find out how your state ranks on labor protections in the era of COVID-19, thanks to a new report from Oxfam America. Oxfam ranked states by worker protections, healthcare, and unemployment, coming up with an overall ranking that puts Washington State, New Jersey, and California at the top, and Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia at the bottom.

At $275, Alabama’s maximum unemployment benefit is only a little higher than the minimum of $240 in Massachusetts—and in Puerto Rico, the maximum is just $190. But that’s not the only way Alabama is committed to hurting working families: “Alabama has no moratorium on evictions or utilities being shut off; no mandated paid sick or family leave; and no requirements for personal protective equipment for workers. In addition, the governor issued an executive order to protect businesses and health care providers from lawsuits resulting from COVID-19.”

Oxfam America is calling on states to:

  • Improve worker protections to ensure paid sick time, paid family and medical leave programs, and childcare for all workers
  • Expand Medicaid
  • Increase unemployment payments

Regardless of what state you live in, employers are going to vary in how much they’re doing to protect workers’ safety. The AFL-CIO has a new checklist to determine how safe you are at work, with information about workplace safety—including how to organize for it.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Trump is playing shock doctrine with COVID-19, this week in the war on workers

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One of the week’s big must-reads was How Trump is helping tycoons exploit the pandemic, by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. Specifically, Ronald Cameron, the owner of the massive poultry processing company Mountaire. Cameron is a major Trump donor, and he’s on a White House advisory board about the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, there’s a campaign to bust the union of the workers at a Mountaire plant and the Trump administration is gutting regulations that protect these workers, whose job was already both dangerous and low-paid before COVID-19. Now, workers are getting sick and the company is keeping its numbers secret—and continuing to get favorable treatment from the Trump administration.

A worker at the plant told Mayer that a fellow worker ended up on a ventilator with COVID-19 after she told the company nurse she felt unwell and “The nurse sent her right back on the God-damned line to work. The nurses aren’t worth shit in there.” Mountaire workers got hazard pay of just a dollar an hour, which was canceled in June, while a Trump executive order forced them to remain on the job. “Why are they giving us a one-dollar raise and giving two million dollars to Donald Trump? What are we, animals?” the worker told Mayer. Read the whole thing.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Public outrage gets results after Kroger tries to take back emergency payments to some workers

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When the independent news site Tennessee Holler tweeted a letter from Kroger to an employee, clawing back $461.60 in “overpaid” emergency pay and even threatening “further collection efforts,” outrage ensued. As it should. But the good news is, Kroger quickly paid attention to that outrage and backed off.

“We’ve instructed our payroll department to directly inform the small number of associates affected by the recent overpayments of Emergency Leave of Absence pay that we will not seek repayment,” a Kroger spokesperson said in response to questions.

That’s not to say Kroger is now a workers’ paradise. It’s still a company where the CEO was paid $21.1 million in 2019 while typical workers took in less than $27,000. Kroger also recently announced it was ending $2 per hour hazard pay … and then announced lump sum “thank you” bonuses. So there’s a little bit of a pattern of Kroger trying to cheap out its workers only to back off when people noticed. But that’s better than if the company stuck to its guns on its worst impulses.

Kroger isn’t the only company to have stopped paying hourly hazard pay. Starbucks, Target, and Amazon have all announced they’ll be ending the temporary increases—even though the danger hasn’t ended for workers. And there’s the fact that $2 to $3 more per hour was seen as a reasonable bonus for exposure to a potentially fatal disease, which is a devastating commentary on American corporate culture. (Or on American capitalism itself.)

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Hundreds of Fruit Packing Workers Are On Strike

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Since this article was written, apple packinghouse workers at two more companies have joined the strike: at Hansen Fruit and Columbia Reach. Six worksites in Yakima County have now seen production shut down. The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases on the West Coast. The strikes are women-led, multigenerational, and multiracial, according to Edgar Franks of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a local farmworkers’ union. —Editors

Last week the COVID-related strike in Washington state’s Yakima Valley quadrupled in size, as workers walked out at three more apple packinghouses. More than a hundred stopped work on May 7 at Allan Brothers Fruit, a large apple growing, packing and shipping company in Naches, in Central Washington. On May 12 they were joined by 200 more workers, who walked off the job at the Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yakima, and at the Matson Fruit Co. in Selah. The next day another 100 workers walked out at the Monson Fruit packing shed, also in Selah.

At the center of the stoppages are two main demands for those who decide to continue working during the pandemic: safer working conditions and an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay.

Apple sheds line the industrial streets of Yakima Valley’s small towns. Inside these huge concrete buildings, hundreds of people labor shoulder-to-shoulder, sorting and packing fruit. If someone gets sick, it can potentially spread through the workers on the lines, and from them into the surrounding towns. Although packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, their families comprise the stable heart of these areas. Most have lived here for years. Jobs in the sheds are a step up from the fields, with year-round work at 40 hours per week.

This part of agribusiness is by far Central Washington’s largest employer, and the industry has successfully fought off unions for many years. The virus may change that, however, if the strike wave becomes the spark for creating a permanent organization among these workers. It is undoubtedly what the companies fear when they see workers stop the lines, and even more so, when they see farmworker union organizers helping to sustain the walkouts.

Seeking Healthy Workplaces

“The most important demand for us is that we have a healthy workplace and protection from the virus,” said Agustin Lopez, one of the strike leaders at Allan Brothers. “Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19. So far as we know, the company isn’t paying them. We need protections at work, like adequate masks, and we want tests. How do we even know if any of us have been infected if there are no tests?” (Allan Brothers Fruit did not respond to phone and email requests for comment for this story.)

He charges that Allan Brothers didn’t disinfect the plant and stop production when the workers got sick. One worker, Jennifer Garton, told the Yakima Herald, “They are not doing what they’re saying they’re doing,” and that workers only heard about the cases of COVID-19 in the plant through their own conversations.

According to Lopez, at the end of April the workers sent an email to company managers, asking for better conditions, extra pay, and the right to take off work. “People were taking their vacations or sick leave or anything they could to stay home. The company said that if we had worked for five weeks we could stay home, but they wouldn’t pay us. We’re only making minimum wage, so how could we do that? And we have no guarantee we would even have our jobs back if we don’t come in to work now.”

In response to the demands, he says the company offered to buy the workers lunch. Over a hundred workers rejected that and struck the company.

The shed of another Yakima packer, Roche Fruit Company, did stop work in April to disinfect the plant, after two workers had become infected. Roche employees then also demanded hazard pay in a message to managers. When the company offered an additional $200 per month, the laborers stopped work after lunch on May 11. After an hour of bargaining, the company offered them $100 per week instead, and they went back to work. Operations manager Alfonso Pineda said the company had already planned to give workers “gratitude pay” for working in difficult circumstances.

“At the heart of the dissatisfaction of all these workers is the fact they are essential workers, but their pay does not reflect that,” says Edgar Franks, the political director of the new union for Washington farm workers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He explains that workers from both Roche and Allan Brothers got in touch with them when they were getting ready to strike. “The walkouts then started after management refused to raise their wages. At Roche, when union organizers and leadership arrived, management quickly relented. This is the power of the presence of the union.”

Driven By Fear

But fear is driving the strikes, even more than wages. After walking out of the packing plant, workers at Jack Frost stood in a big circle six feet apart while Claudia, a striker, explained that they were fighting for the health of their whole community. “We want everyone to have a health examination, including our children and other people possibly affected,” she declared. “We want it for our whole family, because we know the virus doesn’t just stay in the plant. It’s outside too.”

At the rally in front of the Allan Brothers packinghouse, another woman said the same thing: that the biggest question was whether they could work without getting sick. “We have people who have been affected in this shed,” she told Yakima city councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez. “We want the company to guarantee that there are no more people who have the virus here at work, so that we can protect ourselves and our families.”

The working conditions themselves are responsible for much of the danger, and Franks says the companies have not been responsive. “Ever since the governor’s order [mandating physical distancing and safe conditions], a lot of the safety measures haven’t reached the workers inside. The workers are elbow-to-elbow on the line, packing the fruit going through there. Workers got sick, and they’re concerned that no one is looking after them or the wellbeing of their family and friends still inside.”

Agustin Lopez has lived in the Yakima Valley and worked in its sheds since 1985. His experience has made him cautious, therefore, about predicting whether workers will decide if a permanent union is the answer to their problems. But when he looks at the waves of people leaving the apple sheds, each company encouraging the next one, he thinks change is not just possible, but happening around him. “This connection between us is something new,” he says, “and there are people out here from lots of the plants. Maybe we are actually a federation.” The answer will be determined by the strike, he believes. “If the companies are willing to negotiate, we’ll listen to what they have to say. And if not, then we will continue with our strike.”

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

About the Author: David Bacon is a former union organizer, photographer, and writer, covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.


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Garbage Collectors’ Lives Are Not Disposable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindy: What is Raleigh doing to protect sanitation workers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Fatalistic Grocery Workers Demand Hazard Pay, Saying “Infection Is Inevitable”

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Grocery store employees find themselves the subject of widespread public acclaim for continuing to work during the coronavirus crisis. But front-line workers at grocery chains across the country say they want something more tangible than congratulations: hazard pay. And they are winning it with spontaneous organizing campaigns forged in the crucible of a national crisis.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, at least a dozen separate campaigns by grocery employees have popped up on Coworker.org, an online organizing platform that allows workers to create campaigns for workplace change themselves. Some have already won hazard pay at their stores; others are locked in struggles with intransigent employers. Workers involved in five separate campaigns told us of stress and dangerous conditions at work—but also of the power of collective action.

At Market of Choice, an Oregon-based grocery chain, the CEO has granted a $2 per hour pay increase (less than the $3 per hour workers asked for, but an increase nonetheless). Anna Carlin, a pizza cook at Market of Choice, says the increase is not enough, and that her colleagues remain “tense” and “stressed” about their own safety. “It irks me that corporate isn’t willing to call it ‘hazard pay,’” Carlin said. “We’re being exposed to hazards. Our work is increasingly hazardous. Not calling it hazard pay reads as an attempt to obfuscate that. Everyone at work seems generally grateful for the boost but also concerned about the lack of other protections or guarantees being offered.”

Employees at New Seasons Market, a grocery chain in the Northwestern United States, also secured bonus pay and other benefits during the crisis. Anne Johnson, a cashier at a store in Portland, Oregon, says that she appreciates the benefits, but doubts that the modest increases make up for the physical and emotional toll that the ongoing crisis is taking on workers there.

“The amount of emotional labor that’s expected of cashiers (especially someone like me, a friendly young woman) has always bothered me, but at this time it is so heightened and for me personally. It has become so intense I’ve asked to be assigned tasks other than ringing people up as much as possible. Staff in every department are stressed and overworked and worried for their families,” Johnson said. “I don’t really know if any amount of money would make working in this environment and being exposed to this level of risk feel worth it. Personally, I live with my grandmother and mother so it’s just really hard to know if continuing to come to work is the right choice.”

Those are the stresses on workers at chains that have granted some outright form of hazard pay. Elsewhere, gains can be more murky. One of the most prominent grocery organizing campaigns is at Trader Joe’s, where more than 20,000 employees have signed a petition asking for hazard pay, at the same time that an internal group has been calling publicly for a union drive. The company says it is setting up a “special bonus pool” for employees—money that workers say will come out to a raise of less than $2 per hour for the past month, which falls short of the petition’s call for time-and-a-half pay for everyone as long as the crisis drags on.

A group of Trader Joe’s employees involved in the organizing campaign, who answered questions anonymously, criticized “half-measures” by management in the face of an overwhelming public health threat. Workers described facing uncertainty, enormous crowds at stores, answering the same handful of questions over and over again from frantic customers, and a lack of management coordination on a national level that meant that different stores ended up with different enforcement policies on basic safety questions like the right of cashiers to wear gloves as they worked. “The company is leaving the health and safety of the base of their pyramid up to the mercy of each store’s captain and regional manager,” one employee said.

All of that takes place in an atmosphere of “palpable” stress and long hours, in which perfect safety is impossible. Asked about the fear of becoming infected with coronavirus on the job, one worker replied, “infection is inevitable.”

Adding to the dissatisfaction is the perception that the company is using the crisis as an opportunity to undermine the nascent union drive and spread misinformation. The workers who created the Coworker.org petition say that “The company used the existence of this petition to lie to workers, telling them it was a trick to get people to sign their name to the union effort.” Another Trader Joe’s employee sent a photograph of a printed sheet of “Huddle notes”—talking points that managers use in employee meetings—that included a section of common anti-union talking points, such as “Unions are businesses. They need revenue, and they get revenue through union dues.”

Many grocery workers are holding fast in their demands for compensation that they feel matches the scale for the risk they’re taking—demands that can themselves be heartbreakingly modest. Nearly 4,500 employees of the grocery chain Fred Meyer signed a petition for hazard pay, and the company has given them, instead, a one-time bonus of $300 for full-time employees, and $150 for part-time employees. Lauren Hendricks, a Fred Meyer cake decorator in Washington state, says a $2 per hour raise would be more appropriate. “That is what I have seen other companies doing, and I think it’s a great thing because it ensures part time employees notice a difference in their paycheck as well,” Hendricks said. “Risking our lives—our health and wellbeing—for regular pay isn’t worth it. I had a customer straight up cough in my face the other day, he instantly apologized after he realized what he had done, but this is the perfect example of what we deal with on a daily basis.”

Then there are the grocery chains where workers are still struggling to win anything meaningful at all. At Publix, a large chain down south, almost 7,000 workers have signed a petition calling for time-and-a-half hazard pay. “All of my coworkers are sleep-deprived (plenty of them working 70+ hour weeks—it’s a free for all with overtime right now), they’re stressed out, on the verge of a complete meltdown, and it has made us far more agitated than I’ve ever seen,” said Summer Fitzgerald, a clerk at a Publix in Charleston, South Carolina. “We’ve worked through holidays and hurricanes, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Their thanks so far, she said, has been a $50 Publix gift card, and “a little snack table in the breakroom with free food.”

While the eruption of workplace activism inside grocery stores that have never had a labor union is inspiring, the larger context is still grim. Even as grocery employees enjoy their highest level of public support in U.S. history, most of their campaigns are demanding temporary, rather than permanent, increases in compensation and benefits. The nature of hazard pay itself is that it expires when the “hazard” is over. While some unionized grocery workers will likely hang on to their pay increases when this is all over, many others are skeptical they will get any lasting benefits. (“I foresee a pizza party as reward for our service, at most,” one worker said.)

Still, most grocery workers say they are getting more compliments and sympathy from customers than they have ever seen before. And Anna Carlin, from Market of Choice, says there may be at least one silver lining: “My parents have stopped asking if I’m going to get a ‘real job.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 30, 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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Hotel Housekeepers: Tipping as Hazard Pay?

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The New York Times has an article about failure of most hotel guests to give low-paid, hard-working housekeepers a much appreciated tip. Aside from the hard work they do,  the Times also notes the hazards of the job.

Angela Lemus, a housekeeper at the Wyndham Boston Beacon Hill who makes $19.91 per hour, said through a translator that in addition to scrubbing tubs and taking out trash, she sometimes has to clean blood or other medical waste from rooms….Desk clerk jobs don’t require the flipping of heavy mattresses or exposure to cleaning chemicals that can lead to respiratory and other health problems. Ms. Lemus, for example, developed an allergy to the latex gloves she was required to wear while cleaning. “It went on for years, and it got so bad my hands started to bleed,” she said. “I couldn’t let people see my hands.”

And let’s not forget musculoskeletal disorders from lifting bed mattresses and the threat of workplace violence from guests.

But are these really the same issue?  Are tips the solution to dangerous working conditions, or is elimination of hazards the solution to safe working conditions?  The Occupational Safety and Health Act says that all workers have a right to a safe workplace, whether they receive tips or not.

Implying the tips make it OK to work in hazardous conditions makes them sound like “hazard pay” and hearkens back to the good old pre-OSHA days where workers allegedly agreed to “assume” the risks of a job in return for a paycheck.

We’ve supposedly come a long way since then. Workers — even hotel housekeepers — deserve a living wage (including tips) for their work, AND workers have right to a safe workplace.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 31, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)


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