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ABB, EPI, and NELP Release Toolkit For Advocates and Policymakers On Model Policies Local Governments Can Implement to Raise Standards For Frontline Workers During COVID and Beyond

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Washington, DC— Today, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), A Better Balance (ABB), and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a toolkit for advocates and policymakers featuring four model policies that cities and counties can implement immediately to respond to workers’ calls for safety and dignity on the job—in the pandemic and beyond. The four model policies would advance premium pay, paid sick days, COVID-19 worker health and safety, and protection against retaliation.

Over a year into the COVID-19 crisis, federal law still does not guarantee workers premium pay for working on the frontlines during emergencies; the right to paid days off when they or family members are sick; enforceable COVID-19 health and safety protections; and adequate protection against being punished for speaking up on the job about unsafe conditions or violations of their rights. Far too many state laws and corporate policies also fall short when it comes to these standards.

Occupational segregation has disproportionately pushed Black and Latinx workers, the majority of them women, into underpaid, yet always essential, jobs that are now on the frontlines of the pandemic. Across the country, workers of color have tied their demands for pandemic protections to fights for racial, gender, and economic justice.

While the Biden administration has begun to address some of the gaps the Trump administration and Congress left in responding to our communities’ calls, a chasm remains. But city and county governments can step in right now to enact laws and policies that will help keep workers and the public safe during the ongoing pandemic and beyond. The new model policy toolkit from NELP, ABB, and EPI includes four model laws that cities and counties can and must adopt to heed workers’ calls:Emergency premium pay for frontline workers; a permanent right to paid sick leave with additional time off during a declared public health emergency; health and safety protections for certain frontline workers who will not be protected by upcoming OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for COVID-19 , including app-based workers and domestic workers; and anti-retaliation protections to ensure workers can speak up about job conditions and enforce their rights safely during this crisis and after. This, too, is about racial justice—a recent survey from NELP found that Black workers were twice as likely as white workers to report that they or someone at work may have been punished or fired for raising concerns about COVID-19 spreading in the workplace.

The model laws in the toolkit are designed so localities can adapt them to meet local needs.

“The pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the laws ensuring the safety of workers, unemployed people, and our communities overall are woefully inadequate. And because our lives are all so deeply intertwined, what affects one worker affects all of us—when a grocery store cashier doesn’t feel safe bringing up concerns about lacking COVID-19 safety precautions at work, and then workers get sick, the spread continues into the community. Unfortunately, we are not out of this yet, and cities must hear workers’ calls and step in now,” says NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon.

“Without paid sick leave and strong workplace health and safety standards, millions of individuals around the country are forced to sacrifice their personal and family health, or risk their income when they need it most. At A Better Balance, through our free legal helpline, we hear every day from working individuals whose experiences show how the pandemic has sharply exacerbated our nation’s longstanding crisis of care, with especially harsh consequences for low-wage workers and women of color. Local governments have a critical role to play in passing robust policies to protect workers’ health and safety and enable them to care for themselves and their loved ones,” says A Better Balance Co-Founder and Co-President Sherry Leiwant.

“Strong economies require standards that ensure workers are safe and paid fairly. Over the past year, people in frontline jobs have put their lives on the line with little bargaining power to demand higher pay or safer workplaces. They deserve basic protections to keep them and their families safe, as well as pay that compensates them for the added risk they’re taking in order to keep the economy going,” says EPI Senior Economic Analyst David Cooper.

Ultimately, the pandemic has laid bare how deeply structural racism and long-standing anti-worker policy impacts every corner of our society—and how little our laws protect workers, and especially workers of color in underpaid, frontline jobs. But there is also a tremendous opportunity here: Local governments can play a critical role in building a just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, by taking steps to advance worker and community safety and dignity, during this crisis and beyond.

Download the model local policy toolkit now

###

This blog originally appeared at NELP on April 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About A Better Balance 

A Better Balance, a national, nonprofit advocacy organization, uses the power of the law to advance justice for workers, so they can care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security. To learn more, visit abetterbalance.org and follow A Better Balance on Twitter @ABetterBalance.

About the Economic Policy Institute

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security.To achieve this goal, EPI conducts research and analysis on the economic status of working America. EPI proposes public policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers and assesses policies with respect to how they affect those workers.

About National Employment Law Project
The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048

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Tekele Abraha does not run marathons, but she wears Hoka shoes. This thick-soled choice of elite runners can cost more than $150a pair, nearly a day’s pay for Abraha, who wears them to cushion the long hours she spends on concrete floors, six days a week. She hopes the shoes will stave off the grinding joint and back pain that afflicts many of her coworkers. 

Abraha is a grocery worker. The shoes mark one of many unseen tolls of her job. 

We talk in an airless, subterranean breakroom at Safeway store 1048 in Arlington, Va., a typical, prosperous suburb of Washington, D.C. The low-slung store sits partially submerged next to an underground parking garage on the main drag of the Rosslyn neighborhood, full of gleaming office buildings and apartment towers that look like office buildings. The store’s staff is as diverse as Embassy Row, just across the Potomac River: Black and white, Eastern European, East African. 

Abraha, a 42-year-old single mother of two, grew up in poverty in Ethiopia with her mother and four brothers, unable to afford three meals a day. She came to the United States at 17, without knowing English, and worked three fast food jobs. Sometimes, she slept in a McDonald’s to save time. Eventually, Abraha scraped together $15,000, enough to buy her mother a six-bedroom house in Ethiopia, which fills her with pride. 

For the past 18 years, Abraha has worked at Safeway. Six days a week, late into the night, she helps run the front of the store. Her diligence is matched by the toll it has taken on her during the pandemic. In fear of bringing home coronavirus, she has not kissed her two college-age children since March 2020, even though they live with her. 

“Every time I go home, I was insecure,” she says. ?“I thought, ?‘I’m gonna take something with me. I’m gonna get sick. I’m gonna lose my children.’” Tears well up in her eyes when she contemplates the past year. But she is not one to complain. 

“I don’t have any choice,” she says. ?“That’s life. I have to pay the bills.” 

For many people, the past year has been a shocking break from the normal rhythms of their personal and professional lives. And then there are grocery workers. 

The lives of grocery workers have continued as usual, but with an added dose of deadly risk. They never really signed up for it. Though less celebrated than nurses or paramedics, grocery workers are quintessential frontline workers?—?the ones who have kept showing up so the rest of us can survive. 

Like their counterparts across the country, the employees of Safeway 1048have kept on working through a dangerous year. Their employer has given them mask policies, more cleaning in stores and a fleeting dose of hazard pay, but their lived experience has shown them the safety net has holes big enough to fall through. The experience has left many of them bitter. 

Safeway is neither an outlier on safety issues nor a uniquely bad employer. It has given out personal protective equipment and established a contact-tracing program with up to two weeks of quarantine pay. The company also says it intends to offer the vaccine to every worker as soon as their city or county makes it available to grocery workers. The workers at Safeway 1048, despite being eligible per state guidelines, had not been offered the vaccine by early March. (The company said that ?“our pharmacies in northern Virginia are under the direction of the [Virginia Department of Health] not to vaccinate anyone under the age of 65.”) 

A review of policies at some of Safeway’s biggest direct competitors?—?Walmart and Costco, as well as grocery conglomerates Kroger, Publix and Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant, Stop & Shop)?—?shows that Safeway’s policies on hazard pay, sick leave, masks, worker safety and vaccinations are very much in line with the industry. It almost seems as if the grocery industry’s employers, customers and regulators have settled on a set of standards without bothering to ask the workers whether they think those standards are adequate. 

The one thing Safeway’s workers have going for them is their union. They have seniority rights, pay minimums, guaranteed vacations, a grievance procedure and other basic protections their non-union counterparts lack. Safeway has been unionized since at least 1935, when it signed an agreement with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which later merged with the Retail Clerks International to form today’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Today, more than 6,000 Safeway workers in D.C. and the surrounding states are part of UFCW Local 400. Since Virginia is a so-called right-to-work state, no worker is required to pay union dues; about three-quarters of the 65 employees at Safeway 1048 are dues-paying members. 

Their longtime union rep is Heith Fenner, a solicitous, ruddy-faced man who roams the store greeting everyone by name and checking in on new issues weekly. A former grocery worker who has served as a union rep at seven different grocery chains, Fenner is a virtual encyclopedia of the industry’s problems. 

“Safeway runs a skeleton crew,” he says. ?“They run almost short-handed, particularly in key positions. When you get a small [Covid-19] outbreak in the store, that leaves you shorthanded. Even worse, it becomes a catastrophe for trying to run the store when you have four or five people out.” 

It is not hard to imagine how this corporate dedication to reducing costs could create a strong disincentive for Safeway to pay close attention to safety measures, because safety measures can be expensive. Paid sick leave while workers quarantine will inevitably raise labor costs. Employees say, over the past year, their store’s management has shown little institutional concern for worker health and safety, consistently prioritizing profits and corporate reputation over the lives of workers.

Anthony Sistrunk, a fast-talking, 39-year-old D.C. native who has worked for Safeway since he was 17, had a rough 2020. 

“The year started off fucked up,” Sistrunk remembers. In January 2020, just as he was coming off a cancer scare, he had to have his appendix removed. He returned to work after recovering, but one day soon after he felt so dizzy he went home after only a couple of hours. He slept all day, woke up at night feeling bad and passed out on his floor. After a trip to the emergency room, Sistrunk got the bad news: He was the first employee of Safeway 1048 to test positive for Covid. 

Dehydrated, coughing and his head throbbing, Sistrunk went on Facebook and made a quick post so his friends and coworkers would know he tested positive. He was primarily concerned about the health of his coworkers?—?masks were not yet mandatory, even for employees. 

“And then,” Sistrunk says, ?“all hell broke loose.” 

Shortly after his social media post, he says, he received a call from the Safeway human resources department, asking pointedly if he was ?“badmouthing” the company. 

“I was offended,” Sistrunk says. ?“I felt like Safeway was trying to stop any kind of bad media. They didn’t want any kind of uproar.” 

Sistrunk was so sick he didn’t return to work for seven weeks. He lost his sense of taste and smell and had trouble breathing. ?“The worst thing was the fatigue,” he says. ?“I felt like someone snatched my soul.” 

Fenner called him every other day to check in. Sistrunk did receive paid sick leave?—?two-thirds of his average wage?—?as a benefit of his union health insurance plan. ?“God forbid if you’re not a union member,” Sistrunk says with the tone of someone looking back on a narrowly avoided disaster. ?“You’re screwed.” 

When Sistrunk began with the company 22 years ago, he says it felt like an exclusive and highly valued job. He had to write an essay with his application about why he wanted to work there. There were employee outings: summer cookouts, bowling parties, crab feasts. But all of that faded away as the years went by and, it seemed to Sistrunk, management focused more and more intensely on profits. He sounds wistful when he reflects on his years there. ?“It’s not that family bond anymore,” he says.

Safeway is one of 20 grocery chains owned by Albertsons Companies, whose biggest investor is the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, named for the three-headed dog of Greek mythology that guards the gates of hell to make sure no one gets out. According to Andrew Whelan, a spokesperson for Albertsons, ?“When we learn that an associate has a confirmed case of Covid-19, our crisis response team conducts a close contacts investigation and may recommend that additional members of the store team self-quarantine.” The company offers up to 80 hours of ?“quarantine pay” for those who meet its standards. Whelan says the store is ?“appropriately staffed.” 

Safeway uses the definition of ?“close contact” provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of an infected person per day. It’s an extremely high bar in a store where everyone is moving around. Consequently, employees and the union say management at Safeway 1048 rarely tells a worker to quarantine. 

I got a firsthand view of this dynamic in action. When I went to the store to talk with workers, nearly everyone was discussing that an employee from the cut-fruit section had tested positive. I saw where the fruit-cutting happens: a windowless corner of steel tables in back by the breakroom, where several people work at once. If I worked in such close quarters with a Covid-positive person, I would certainly be worried. 

Fenner says, after management was alerted to the situation by the union, they ?“cleaned and sanitized” the store but did not order any quarantines or alert employees to the positive test. Whelan disputes this, saying that one employee was quarantined due to ?“close contact.” Whelan also says the company informs the staff when an employee tests positive, but workers say they usually hear through word of mouth or from the union.

Then there is the matter of customers who shop without masks. Every employee I spoke with cited this persistent minority of customers as a threat to their health, particularly because workers are not empowered to do anything about the situation except to offer a mask to customers. 

“I’ve been called ?‘bitch’ so many times” for asking customers to wear a mask, Abraha says. ?“I wish the company took it seriously.” 

The Safeway store does not have a security guard, meaning regular workers and supervisors become de facto security guards and mask-checkers. Calling the police doesn’t feel like an option. ?“By the time you call the cops,” Sistrunk says, the maskless shoppers ?“are out of here.” 

Whelan acknowledges that while the store has signs telling customers to wear masks, ?“If a customer refuses to wear a mask and to leave the store, we permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other employees and customers at risk.” 

Jason Winbush, a bearded, 44-year-old food clerk who has been at Safeway for 28 years, has a wife and five children at home. The combination of management’s failure to alert employees directly about positive tests or to find a way to make customers wear masks has convinced him the company does ?“not at all” take the safety of its workers seriously. Winbush has even used some of his vacation days to get time away from the store because the mask situation worried him so much. 

“It’s starting to get [to be] too much,” Winbush says. ?“It’s stressful. Very stressful. It’s written on the wall: Money is more important than your employees. And that’s not right, cause you don’t know if we have preexisting conditions, if my kids have preexisting conditions.”

Stuart Allison, a man with a pleasant Southern drawl and the enormous hands of a heavyweight boxer, has been cutting meat at Safeway 1048 for 25 years. That is less than half of the time he has been working for Safeway, where he began as a meat cutter in 1968. (After more than a half-century with the company, Allison makes $24 an hour.) He is 79, works six 8?hour shifts a week, exercises regularly and appears perfectly capable of wrestling a man half his age. 

Allison remembers seeing people die during a flu epidemic in the 1940s, and those experiences have left him a remarkably calm person. Even though Allison contracted a mild case of Covid in summer 2020, he has never allowed the events of the past year to throw him into a panic. ?“Things come up like that; they don’t disturb me,” he says. ?“Whatever it is, I just take it. I guess I’m more a positive thinker than a negative thinker. This is not my first time being around a virus.” 

But even Allison, a pinnacle of equanimity who has little fear for his own health, finds his hackles raised by what he sees as management’s lax attitude toward customers shopping without masks in the midst of a pandemic. ?“They were saying, ?‘You gotta wait on people that don’t have masks on,’” Allison says. ?“I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ?‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ?‘em.’”

The stress over worker health reached a high mark in the days surrounding the January 6 Trump rally and storming of the U.S. Capitol. Many of former President Donald Trump’s supporters who had come to Washington for the event stayed in the hotels that dot the blocks around the Safeway in Rosslyn. Many of them came into the store with an aggressive disregard for safety. 

“We had a really rough time that week,” says Michele Miler, a 61-year-old file maintenance manager who has served as Safeway 1048’s union shop steward for the past 25 years. ?“They were coming in without no mask.” 

In fact, the employees I spoke with remember the week of January 6 as one in which they were left to fend for themselves. As our nation’s political insanity invaded their workplace, some workers say they refused to serve maskless Trump supporters; one says she just argued with the maskless and endured insults; most said they were constantly uncomfortable and disappointed that Safeway did nothing to save them. 

Sistrunk says that when he asked a manager to intervene, the response was that the company didn’t want bad press in an age when everyone has a cell phone. 

Abraha says some of the Trump supporters ignored her request to wear a mask; one even handed her his used mask and demanded she throw it away for him. ?“If I call the police, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, because of politics,” Abraha says. ?“What about if I lose my job? … It’s crazy.”I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ‘em.’” —Stuart Allison

The pandemic has been good for business at grocery stores. Everyone remembers the empty shelves in spring 2020 as people stocked up, just in case. Albertsons saw its sales rise a remarkable 47% in March of 2020; by December, year-over-year sales were still running 12% higher. All of these sales were enabled by the fact that thousands of grocery workers, just like those at Safeway 1048, continued to come to work, putting their own health at risk to ensure stores could sell food. 

What did those workers get in return? At Safeway, they got a $2 ?“hazard pay” wage bonus from March 15 to June 13, 2020, with two one-time bonuses adding up to about $350 for full-time employees (less for part-timers, the vast majority of the workers). In other words, hazard pay ended when the country was seeing around 22,000 new daily cases of the coronavirus. Even when cases rose to 300,000 per day by January 2021?—?a 1,264% increase in risk?—?hazard pay never came back. 

Whelan, the Albertsons spokesperson, justified this discrepancy by saying, ?“We are not currently offering appreciation pay at this time because businesses large and small across our operating areas have reopened and resumed operations.” 

This argument is a bit of sleight of hand?—?right down to the use of the phrase ?“appreciation pay” rather than hazard pay. First, state governments ignored public health risks and reduced business restrictions (which fueled Covid surges and increased the number of hazards for workers). Then, companies used those policies as an excuse not to take more action or offer workers more compensation. Poof: Thanks to poor public health policies, businesses made their own obligations disappear. 

The flagrant hypocrisy of praising frontline workers as heroes while denying them payment for their heroic work is a textbook example of corporate greed and the primacy that shareholders have over labor. 

And that so few grocery workers emerged from 2020 with long-term raises is a textbook example of union workers squandering their labor leverage. The moment certainly marks a national failure by the UFCW, the nation’s biggest food and retail union, which has been unable to secure any real lasting gains for its members, even as public regard for grocery workers soared. 

Every Safeway employee I spoke with thought that, at a minimum, the $2 hazard pay increase should have become permanent. They wish everyone would wear a mask. They wish they did not have to rely on word of mouth to learn someone from work has Covid. 

They live in fear of getting their families sick. They rise at 4 a.m., work six days a week and casually discuss the many ways the job has destroyed their bodies. 

They do this whole routine for decades for, if they are lucky, a $20 wage. 

If they had stopped?—?if they had shut down the nation’s groceries?—?there would have been panic. But they worked. 

We ate.

From the perspective of the workers themselves, 2020 was a year of swallowing harsh insult after harsh insult. When I asked Marilyn Williams, who has worked at Safeway 1048 for the past eight years, what she thought of the quick disappearance of hazard pay, she paused for a long moment, then said, ?“Ha. Ha. 

“That’s my reaction. 

“Ha. Ha.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Six dead in Georgia poultry plant liquid nitrogen leak, this week in the war on workers

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Six people are dead after a liquid nitrogen leak at a Georgia poultry plant and 11 others were hospitalized, with at least three in critical condition. Two of the people killed were Mexican citizens, and those injured included at least four firefighters.

“When leaked into the air, liquid nitrogen vaporizes into an odorless gas that’s capable of displacing oxygen,” the Associated Press explains. “That means leaks in enclosed spaces can become deadly by pushing away breathable air, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.”

The Foundation Food Group plant, previously known as Prime Pak Foods, was cited for worker amputations in 2017.

”Our hearts go out to the loved ones of the six workers who tragically died and those who were critically injured in a preventable accident at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Georgia,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a response. “This did not have to happen. Safety concerns have long been raised as a major issue in many poultry plants, and Thursday’s incident shows what can happen when those calls go unheard.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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WHICH STATES AND CITIES HAVE ADOPTED COMPREHENSIVE COVID-19 WORKER PROTECTIONS?

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As the COVID-19 pandemic surges in the United States, workers have continued to protest and organize for their safety and health—but action is needed at all levels of government, starting with the top. To date, the Trump administration—specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—has resisted issuing any workplace safety standards or requirements to protect workers from COVID-19 in the workplace. In the absence of federal leadership, some governors and state health departments have stepped up to expand worker protections.

OSHA has resisted issuing any workplace safety standards or requirements to protect workers from COVID-19 in the workplace.

Some states have issued executive orders with very specific worker protection requirements, and Virginia issued a first-in-the-nation Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers. Oregon and Michigan also have issued emergency standards. Other states have issued guidelines, some of which they intend to enforce. Some cities as well have issued protective ordinances for workers.

Many states’ executive orders (including the Virginia standard) require employers to heed the following:

  • ensure physical distancing of at least six feet between employees and their coworkers and customers;
  • provide face masks to all employees if maintaining six-foot social distance is not always possible;
  • require customer to wear face masks;
  • provide employees with other personal protective equipment in addition to face coverings;
  • improve ventilation;
  • provide employees with regular access to hand-washing and soap;
  • have hand sanitizer readily available to workers;
  • require deep cleaning after COVID cases are discovered in the workplace; and
  • notify workers when cases are found.

In some states, such as Oregon, Michigan, and Nevada, enforcement is handled by state occupational safety and health agencies; in others, by health departments, labor departments, and the attorney general’s office. Some states where federal OSHA has traditionally done enforcement are still figuring out how best to enforce these protections.

Inexcusably, the Trump administration has abandoned its responsibility to ensure that workers and the general public are safe in this pandemic. As the number of workers infected with and dying from this disease continues to grow, it’s clear that a voluntary approach to worker safety is not mitigating this public health disaster.

A voluntary approach to worker safety has failed to mitigate this public health disaster.

Even while workers continue to take major risks in speaking out and organizing in their workplaces, communities of color are paying the heaviest price for this federal policy failure. Although all workers on the job now or returning to work in the near future are at risk of illness, Black and Latinx workers and other workers of color, including immigrants, are more likely to be in frontline jobs. In addition, these communities have disproportionate rates of serious illness and death related to COVID-19, stemming from structural racism over generations related to healthcare and access to care. It is crucial that state and local policymakers step up to prioritize these workers and thereby further protect communities in this pandemic.

Below is a list of the 14 states that have adopted comprehensive worker safety protections (with links to more information). In addition to these, separate executive orders requiring face masks in the workplace have been issued by some governors (e.g., North CarolinaTexas, Massachusetts), cities (e.g., Raleigh, NC), and counties. Philadelphia has also issued the first citywide ordinance protecting workers from retaliation for raising COVID-19 safety and health concerns or refusing to work under unsafe conditions related to COVID-19.

California

Cal/OSHA adopted a new emergency standard for COVID prevention on November 19, 2020:
https://www.dir.ca.gov/OSHSB/documents/COVID-19-Prevention-Emergency-apprvdtxt.pdf

https://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/5199.html (the Cal/OSHA aerosol transmission standard that covers healthcare and first-response employees)

http://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/supdocs/147290.pdf (L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to facilitate worker-led health councils to monitor business compliance with public health orders mitigating the spread of COVID-19 at work)

https://thelafed.org/releases/in-battle-against-covid-19-board-of-supervisors-propose-innovative-solution/

Illinois

https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-32.aspx (initial EO issued April 30)

https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-38.aspx (updated EO issued May 29)

http://dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/guidance-food-and-meat-processing-facilities (issued by Illinois Department of Public Health)

From the reopening checklists now being published: “Any employee who has had close contact with co-worker or any other person who is diagnosed with COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days after the last/most recent contact with the infectious individual and should seek a COVID-19 test at a state or local government testing center, healthcare center or other testing locations. All other employees should be on alert for symptoms of fever, cough, or shortness of breath and taking temperature if symptoms develop.”

Kentucky

https://govstatus.egov.com/ky-healthy-at-work

Massachusetts

https://www.mass.gov/info-details/reopening-mandatory-safety-standards-for-workplaces

https://www.mass.gov/forms/report-unsafe-working-conditions-during-covid-19 (complaint form)

https://www.mass.gov/service-details/covid-19-workplace-safety-measures-for-reopening

Michigan

Michigan OSHA issued Emergency Rules for COVID-19 on October 14, 2020. (See related press release.)

Two executive orders previously issued (here and here) will no longer be enforced by the state due to a Michigan Supreme Court decision on October 2nd invalidating the orders.

Minnesota

https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/businesses.html

https://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_business_plan_template.pdf

https://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_meatpacking_guidance.pdf(for meat)

https://www.leg.state.mn.us/archive/execorders/20-54.pdf (on the right to refuse work)

Nevada

http://business.nv.gov/News_Media/COVID-19_Announcements/

http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-04-29_-_COVID-19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_016_(Attachments)/

http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-05-07_-_COVID-19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_018_-_Phase_One_Reopening_(Attachments)/

New Jersey 

On October 28, 2020, New Jersey’s governor issued Executive Order 192 to protect New Jersey’s workers during the pandemic. The governor’s press release provides an overview.

This comes on top of an earlier executive order issued on April 8, 2020 requiring essential retail businesses and industries to take steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, among other things. (The state is also updating industry-specific guidance.)

New York 

https://agriculture.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2020/04/retailfoodstoreguidanceforseniors_1.pdf(some essential industries remain without guidance)

https://forward.ny.gov/

Oregon

On November 6, 2020, Oregon OSHA adopted a new COVID-19 emergency temporary rule addressing COVID-19 workplace risks.

This follows previous executive orders issued during the pandemic:
– https://www.oregon.gov/gov/admin/Pages/eo_20-12.aspx (executive order)
– https://osha.oregon.gov/news/2020/Pages/nr2020-19.aspx (Oregon OSHA)
– https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/07/01/oregon-osha-to-enforce-mask-rules/ (enforcing the EO)

Pennsylvania

Gov. Wolf: Health Secretary Signs Order Providing Worker Safety Measures to Combat COVID-19

COVID-19 Guidance for Businesses

https://www.governor.pa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/20200415-SOH-worker-safety-order.pdf

https://www.jacksonlewis.com/sites/default/files/docs/PhiladelphiaCertifiedCopy20032801.pdf(Philadelphia ordinance that includes retaliation protections for raising concerns or refusing unsafe work; plus private right of action)

Rhode Island

https://reopeningri.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/COVID-19-Control_Plan_Fillable_Template-Final-5.13.20.pdf?189db0&189db0

VITAL WORKPLACE RESOURCES

Virginia

https://www.doli.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/COVID-19-Emergency-Temporary-Standard-FOR-PUBLIC-DISTRIBUTION-FINAL-7.17.2020.pdf (Virginia OSH has just passed the nation’s first Emergency Temporary Standard for workers, which will be effective the week of July 27)

Washington State

https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/COVID19AgriculturalSafetyPlan.pdf(COVID protections for farmworkers)

https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/4300/TWH-RevisedRule-9-10-2020.pdf (revised emergency rule on temporary worker housing)

https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/covid-19-resources/covid-19-reopening-guidance-businesses-and-workers (this is written as enforceable guidance)

https://www.lni.wa.gov/safety-health/safety-rules/enforcement-policies/DD170.pdf (enforcement)

This blog originally appeared at NELP on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Deborah Berkowitz NELP’s Worker Safety and Health program director, joined NELP in 2015, following six years serving as chief of staff and then a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (2009-2015).


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Warehouse Workers Are on the Front Lines of the Covid Crisis. They’re Worried They’ll Be Passed Over for the Vaccine.

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As Hal­loween approached, Ronald Jack­son spent his days at a Chica­go-area ware­house for the Mars can­dy com­pa­ny ?“get­ting Hal­loween can­dy to Amer­i­ca.” After co-work­ers got Covid-19, Jack­son com­plained to man­age­ment about a lack of safe­ty pre­cau­tions. Rather than improv­ing pre­cau­tions, he said, the com­pa­ny fired Jack­son for an alleged infrac­tion that occurred months ago.

Such sit­u­a­tions are why work­ers and advo­cates are demand­ing the state of Illi­nois des­ig­nate ware­house work­ers as essen­tial work­ers and pri­or­i­tize them when Covid-19 vac­cines are dis­trib­uted. Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice and oth­er labor groups on Tuesday pub­lished a peti­tion to Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er mak­ing these demands. 

They note that ware­house work is essen­tial to the econ­o­my, includ­ing by dis­trib­ut­ing clean­ing sup­plies, per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) and oth­er prod­ucts that are espe­cial­ly crit­i­cal dur­ing the pandemic.

Work­ers in ware­hous­es are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble because the struc­ture of ware­house work?—?where employ­ees are gen­er­al­ly hired through tem­po­rary staffing agen­cies with few pro­tec­tions or rights?—?makes it easy for the own­ers and oper­a­tors of ware­hous­es to ignore risks and fire or silence work­ers like Jack­son who speak up. The peti­tion to Pritzk­er says the 650,000 tem­po­rary staffing work­ers in Illi­nois are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black and Lat­inx, mean­ing they are also among the groups at dis­pro­por­tion­ate risk for Covid-19infec­tions and com­pli­ca­tions. (There are also tem­po­rary work­ers in oth­er indus­tries, but many thou­sands are employed in the Chica­go area ware­house sector.)

“To devel­op an equi­table vac­ci­na­tion plan you have to ask who bears the brunt of the health and eco­nom­ic impact of the pan­dem­ic, and the answer will always be com­mu­ni­ties of col­or,” said Sophia Zaman, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the group Raise the Floor, a coali­tion of Chica­go work­ers centers. 

The Trump administration’s Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices Sec­re­tary, Alex Azar, said last month that while the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will issue rec­om­men­da­tions on vac­cine dis­tri­b­u­tion, it will be up to gov­er­nors to decide how to dis­trib­ute vac­cines and pri­or­i­tize recip­i­ents. The Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health has pub­lished guide­lines for local gov­ern­ments to ulti­mate­ly dis­trib­ute the vac­cine giv­en them by the state; mean­while, Chica­go will also receive vac­cines direct­ly from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Right now, ware­house work­ers are list­ed as a ?“pos­si­ble group to include” in Phase 2 of Illi­nois’ vac­cine roll­out when a ?“larg­er num­ber” of vac­cine dos­es is available.

There are sprawl­ing com­plex­es of ware­hous­es in sub­urbs and towns south­west and west of Chica­go, and increas­ing num­bers of ware­hous­es?—?includ­ing for Ama­zon?—?with­in the city lim­its. Many of the ware­house work­ers employed in the sub­urbs live in Chica­go, com­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly from Lat­inx and Black com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard-hit by Covid-19. 

The governor’s office and Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health didn’t respond to a request for com­ment about the peti­tion by the time this sto­ry was published. 

Dur­ing the governor’s dai­ly coro­n­avirus brief­ing on Decem­ber 8, pub­lic health depart­ment direc­tor Dr. Ngozi Ezike said, ?“While the vac­cine is com­ing, it’s not going to be as much as we want and won’t come out as quick­ly as we like. The first groups to receive the vac­cine will be our health care work­ers and also the res­i­dents of long-term care facil­i­ties… We’re pri­or­i­tiz­ing those at great­est risk of expo­sure and severe illness.”

Mark Balen­tine, a com­mu­ni­ty nav­i­ga­tor for Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice, also worked at the Mars ware­house until April, when an acci­dent and his con­cerns about Covid-19 caused him to leave the job, he said. 

“Peo­ple are com­ing up pos­i­tive. There’s a chance you work right next to them on the floor and (man­agers) don’t warn you,” he said, not­ing that he found out one cowork­er had Covid-19 only when he called her on unre­lat­ed Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice busi­ness. ?“The bot­tom line with Mars was the dol­lar?—?they were more con­cerned with the dol­lar bill than with people’s health. I don’t believe in play­ing Russ­ian roulette with people’s lives like that.” 

(The U.S. media office for Mars did not respond to a request for comment.)

After being fired from Mars, Jack­son got work at anoth­er sub­ur­ban Chica­go ware­house that ships prod­ucts ?“from fan­cy chi­na to per­fume and every­thing else” for Wal­mart, Ama­zon and oth­er retail­ers. A Covid-19 out­break occurred and the ware­house shut down for about a week, Jack­son said, and he was required to get a test on his own time in order to return to the job that pays $14.50 an hour with no health insur­ance. Jack­son said work­ers still wor­ry they are at high risk of con­tract­ing Covid-19 since, he said, man­age­ment does lit­tle to pro­tect them. 

“They’re just hav­ing us sign a piece of paper say­ing they took our tem­per­a­ture,” he said. ?“It’s real­ly an unsafe work area, they’re not lis­ten­ing to the work­ers, they just want to move these products.” 

Even if he or oth­er work­ers are exposed to some­one with Covid-19, he said, they would like­ly keep going to work because they are not paid if they are quar­an­ti­ning. Balen­tine said his broth­er con­tin­ues to work at the Mars ware­house despite feel­ing at risk, since he needs the money. 

“You make this mon­ey and put it in the bank and now you’re not here to spend it, so what good is it?” said Balen­tine about his deci­sion to quit. He doesn’t believe the com­pa­nies oper­at­ing ware­hous­es will improve pro­tec­tions any time soon, hence the urgency for vac­cines for workers. 

“We need our doc­tors and nurs­es in order to take care of us, we need the health­care work­ers to go by the elder­ly folks and see that they’re straight, and you need the ware­house work­ers because every­thing comes from a ware­house?—?hand san­i­tiz­er, toi­let tis­sue, clean­ing sup­plies,” said Balen­tine. ?“You want to pro­tect (ware­house work­ers) to keep them working.”

Jack­son said that while he thinks ware­house work­ers should be deemed essen­tial and giv­en pri­or­i­ty access to vac­cines, he would him­self be reluc­tant to take it. 

“Me being Black and the way the gov­ern­ment has treat­ed Black peo­ple deal­ing with (med­ical care), I’m not sure I would take the vac­cine,” he said, cit­ing the infa­mous Tuskegee syphilis exper­i­ment, in which Black men were not giv­en ade­quate care or ful­ly informed about the trial. 

Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice has long tried to raise aware­ness of abus­es in the indus­try and demand reforms. The tem­po­rary staffing struc­ture means that work­ers have lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to advance or earn high­er wages, and can be fired for any rea­son. As a result, there has been lit­tle recourse for work­ers to address report­ed­ly ram­pant health and safe­ty prob­lems, dis­crim­i­na­tionand sex­u­al harassment. 

As with many inequities and injus­tices, the pan­dem­ic has just ampli­fied and cast light upon the long­stand­ing prob­lems with the ware­hous­ing indus­try, advo­cates and work­ers say. 

“It’s not just about Covid, it’s the way we’re dis­re­spect­ed and mis­treat­ed in these ware­hous­es,” said Balen­tine. ?“They look down on us. We’re treat­ed as invis­i­ble. But with­out ware­house work­ers, noth­ing happens.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.


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Think about who doesn’t get a Thanksgiving, and who’s to blame, this week in the war on workers

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We’re heading into Thanksgiving week, and we’re hearing a lot of discussion of how people are—or aren’t—staying safe, from solitary living to plans for large gatherings and everything in between. We also need to be talking about how this holiday season kicks off after 35 straight weeks of a million or more people applying for unemployment insurance, and with Republicans still blocking the aid working people need in the COVID-19 economy.

Coronavirus rates are rising and it’s more important than ever for people to stay home as much as they can. But that would mean paying them so they could afford to do so, rather than being driven out to scrounge for whatever work they can find, however unsafe it may be. Congress won’t do that, and major companies are showing how little they value their workers. So on Thanksgiving, think about the people who can’t have a holiday not just because they can’t see family and friends, but because they are struggling to buy food and stay housed. And, just as important, think about why that is and who’s to blame.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Lawsuit over meatpacking worker’s COVID-19 death alleges truly grotesque abuses

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This is sickening. We’ve known that the meatpacking industry has acted with callous disregard for its workers’ lives in the coronavirus pandemic, keeping them on the job in unsafe conditions. But according to a lawsuit by the family of the late Isidro Fernandez, it’s worse than that. At the Tyson pork processing plant where Fernandez worked in Iowa, the family alleges, supervisors and managers placed bets on how many workers would get COVID-19.

That winner-take-all betting pool rooting against the health of workers in the plant was organized by one manager, Iowa Capital Dispatch reports. Another manager called COVID-19 a “glorified flu” and “not a big deal,” and said “everyone is going to get it.” He did his part to make sure everyone got it, too, by at one point ordering a sick supervisor to skip testing and stay at work, because “We all have symptoms—you have a job to do.”

Managers offered attendance bonuses, giving sick workers an incentive to stay on the job, and lied about COVID-19 cases in the plant. At the same time, Tyson and other meatpacking companies were lobbying state governments as well as the Trump administration to get support in staying open and fending off lawsuits.

We shouldn’t have to hear about betting pools to understand how badly the meatpacking industry has treated its workers—its largely immigrant, vulnerable, underpaid workers. The numbers tell the story: tens of thousands of coronavirus cases and hundreds of deaths, at a minimum, and lawsuits and complaints describing disgusting, unsafe practices in the plants. But when you think about it, it makes sense that the managers carrying out policies disregarding the health and safety of their workers and communities would also be putting that contempt into words directed at individuals. A policy that people should keep working even if they’re sick and pressure on individuals to skip testing and work sick go hand in hand. It’s not a giant step from taking it as your job to make people work sick and spread the virus to their coworkers to betting on how successful your push to infect large numbers of people will be.

And all of this was enabled by the Trump administration again and again, with top officials blaming workers for getting sick rather than pointing a finger at managers and forcing the companies to improve safety measures and, in case of serious outbreaks, shut down plants.

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos on November 18, 2020.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the 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 — with some significant changes possible even if Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.

“Biden, 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,” your host reports. And “as the coronavirus pandemic continues to stoke permanent job losses and compromise worker safety, the case for structural change may be stronger than ever.”

What Biden can do will to some extent depend on which party controls the Senate, which won’t be determined until a pair of key Georgia runoffs in early January. “Still, the transition will be a sharp turn from the Trump White House, under which union membership has droppedpay inequity has widened and enforcement has dwindled.”

Here’s some of what you can expect:

— 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’s also likely to ramp up penalties for violators.

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

— 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’s three Republicans, one Democrat — and an empty seat.

— Pursuit of progressive labor policy: Biden campaigned heavily on enacting Democratic labor legislation similar to that passed out of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 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: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ victory in this free and fair election is a win for America’s labor movement,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. Said AFSCME President Lee Saunders: “[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.”

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.

“Biden is widely expected to choose a more progressive candidate to lead the Labor Department, one that would help balance out more moderate nominees he’s expected to place at other agencies,” she writes.

“Rep. 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.”

“Other possibilities for Biden’s 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.”

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

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

“The companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads … [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.”

“The companies don’t plan to stop there,” Eidelson writes. “‘You’ll see us more loudly advocate for new laws like Prop 22,’ Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said on a Nov. 5 earnings call. DoorDash CEO Tony Xu said in a statement: ‘We’re looking ahead and across the country, ready to champion new benefits structures that are portable, proportional, and flexible.’”

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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Health and Safety Standards for Frontline Healthcare Workers

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America’s frontline healthcare workers have rightly been called our country’s real superheroes. But the truth is that the US healthcare system is falling far short in its obligation to protect these essential workers in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than a century.

A Failure to Protect

It should perhaps come as no surprise that frontline healthcare workers are at extreme risk for contracting communicable illnesses, particularly when we are dealing with a pathogen as infectious as COVID-19. And with a new flu season looming in the northern hemisphere, the increased influenza risk incurred by nurses and other frontline healthcare workers only serves to amplify the threat.

Worse, more than eight months after the advent of the virus, healthcare workers are still facing a significant shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). This lack of access to adequate PPE may well be the single most significant source of danger for doctors and nurses working with COVID patients.

When infected persons are asymptomatic, for example, the impulse to relax PPE standards by rationing equipment may well lead to potentially preventable disease transmission.

The Significance of Training

Because COVID-19 is a novel virus, there is still much about the disease that is unknown. Safety, prevention, and treatment guidelines continue to evolve. Healthcare systems, however, must be highly proactive in ensuring that frontline healthcare workers are up to date on the latest disease information and safety protocols.

This must include rigorous training in pre-appointment patient screening, treatment room sanitation, and risk mitigation and infection containment processes.

Job Losses and Furloughs

Perhaps one of the less-discussed but potentially most harmful risks facing today’s frontline workers is the risk of job losses and furloughs. Current research suggests that system mismanagement is pervasive across the US healthcare system, resulting in tens of thousands of job cuts, despite billions of dollars being allocated to US hospitals and healthcare systems from the emergency CARES act.

Thus, America’s frontline workers are not only confronted today by the threat of the virus, but they are also faced with the possibility of layoffs, furloughs, and termination. In the wake of a national crisis not only to public health but also to the economy, this may well leave frontline workers facing the loss of not just their health but also their income, their home, and their security.

The Takeaway

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect across the US, but few people have been more affected than America’s frontline healthcare workers. The risk of infection for these workers is particularly great, amplified by an ongoing shortage of PPE.

In addition, due to the novelty of the virus, healthcare providers may still be uninformed on best practices in risk mitigation and disease prevention. Efforts to ensure up-to-date training and support must be made to ensure that workers are prepared to protect themselves, their families, and their patients. Perhaps worst of all, the healthcare system is challenged with massive layoffs, putting frontline workers’ jobs and livelihoods at risk.

This means it is incumbent on the public whom these workers care for to help care for and protect them in return. If you are able, donate to your local organizations that are now providing equipment, financial assistance, and other resources to frontline workers. If you own a business, consider offering these heroes freebies and discounts, special operating hours, or other perks to show your appreciation and offer support.

Help relieve the burden on these healthcare workers by always remaining vigilant about your own health and the health of your community, adhering to public health guidelines to help prevent the spread. Above all, reach out to your local, state, and government officials to demand they make caring for these care providers priority number one, which must include not only financial support but also employment protection and access to quality healthcare, child and elder care, and other resources they may need to weather this crisis.

After all, our frontline workers are saving lives day in and day out. The least we can do is anything and everything we can to return the favor.

About the Author: Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but business and technology topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.


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Teachers unions test goodwill with strike threats, hardball negotiations

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In addition to safety measures, some unions are pressing for police-free schools, canceling rents and mortgages, and bans on new charter programs and standardized testing.

Teachers won newfound respect at the start of the pandemic as parents learned just how difficult it was to teach their kids at home.

But teachers unions now risk squandering the outpouring of goodwill by threatening strikes, suing state officials and playing hardball during negotiations with districts.

In California, unions fought Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom hard for teacher protections and job security as campuses were shuttered, and are demanding high-income tax hikes to fill education budget shortfalls. In New York City, a social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers called on the union to threaten “severe disruption” if the governor and the mayor implement what they describe as “reckless reopening plans.” The Florida Education Association is in a legal battle with state officials to try to overturn an order requiring schools to physically open five days a week or risk losing state funding.

“Let’s be honest: Teachers went from heroes in March when parents saw what we do everyday, and now we’ve become, in some people’s eyes, the villains because we are speaking up about the safety concerns we see,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Safety concerns have been at the heart of union objections to reopening as they confront teachers getting sick or even dying from Covid-19. Many union leaders have worked collaboratively with management on contracts and reopening plans, and they have spent months calling for additional federal money to secure personal protective equipment and allow for socially distanced instruction. But more recently, a coalition including some local unions has pushed further, laying out demands such as police-free schools, a cancellation of rents and mortgages, and moratoriums on both new charter programs and standardized testing.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, has called for “safety strikes” as a last resort if school reopening plans don’t protect the health of educators and the larger 3-million member National Education Association says nothing is off the table.

Those threats and demands have raised the ire of some lawmakers, school districts, parents and conservative groups who argue that teachers are taking advantage of the chaos the pandemic has caused to push policy changes the unions have wanted for years.

“No question, there’s a risk that some will use this moment to politicize these challenges in a way that simply is counterproductive,” said Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, a progressive political organization that advocates for students and families. “I don’t think anything that’s not related to either the health or educational implications of Covid makes sense.”

Members of a coalition of activist parents called the National Parents Union largely agree with teachers unions over what reopening should look like, and their “Family Bill of Rights” emphasizes a need to implement safety measures like masks, temperature checks and updated ventilation systems, said Keri Rodrigues, the group’s president.

But Rodrigues, whose organization represents primarily minority and low-income parents, also criticized the unions for trying to “dominate the conversation” and promote a “long-standing political agenda,” which she called an “overreach.”

“I think that parents were willing to extend a lot of grace in March, in April, even into May,” she said, adding that feeling began to erode after a long summer with little guidance and few decisions made about how to move forward. “At this point, parents are very frustrated.”

Many union officials said they are aware of the need to balance their own demands with parents’ anxiety over their children falling behind — and they know the support they have so far enjoyed could slip.

In Ohio, local unions are focused on the “balancing act” of advocating for both quality learning and teacher and student safety, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association. The state union has called on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to restrict any schools in counties with the highest levels of coronavirus cases to remote learning only, while requiring all others to follow the CDC’s safety guidelines for reopening.

“We’re very conscious of the need to be partners with parents, not to end up being in adversarial relationships,” DiMauro said. “But the longer this goes on, it’s just like everything about coronavirus — there are vulnerabilities in the system, and we can’t go on like this forever.”

Others have been more defiant. Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, defended the demands that critics have slammed as going too far, including a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“How can you do remote learning from home if you don’t have a home?” she said. “This is fundamentally about a city, about a mayor who has failed to repair a safety net.”

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially announced a hybrid reopening model before reversing course earlier this month and announcing that schools would open online-only. The decision came just days after news broke that the union, which has more than 25,000 members, was considering a potential strike vote if the district did not change its plans.

“A win for teachers, students and parents,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey posted on Twitter at the time. “It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard, but when we fight we win!”

The pandemic has made some union leaders hopeful that it will strengthen their cause and influence for the foreseeable future, as teachers who feel forced into unsafe working conditions look for support and want to get involved.

“More of our members, and more educators in general, are questioning their beliefs on things like strikes. For the first time, they’re really seeing the depths and magnitude of what it actually takes to force change and are rethinking their beliefs on work stoppages,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 65,000 of the nearly 365,000 teachers in the state. “I’ve never received as many unsolicited new memberships.”

Union strikes won’t “sit well” with those working parents who want their kids to return to the classroom, said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “That emerges as a major bone of contention, for example, with a lot of the red states that have been pushing for the kids being in the building physically,” he said.

But he said superintendents, generally, have described their negotiations with unions as a “fairly agreeable process,” and some superintendents see union pushback at the state level as an effort to prevent an “open-schools-at-all-costs attitude.”

“The unions, in a situation like this, where they have the support of the parents and the community because what they’re advocating for is the safety of the students and the staff — that’s a very powerful position,” Domenech said.

The debate over whether and how to reopen schools safely is about more than getting children back in classrooms. Proponents of fully reopening schools, including President Donald Trump, say doing so would help reopen the U.S. economy, allowing parents to get back to work, while helping more students access mental health services and meals from their schools. It would also represent a step toward normalcy, which Trump badly wants before voters head to the polls in November.

Asked about the threat of teacher strikes, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Fox News recently that “parents and children can’t be held captive to others’ fears or agendas.”

In a June poll, 76 percent of AFT members surveyed indicated they were comfortable returning to school buildings with “proper safeguards,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month. That was before the virus started to spread more rapidly in the U.S. and Trump, as well as DeVos, began what Weingarten called “reckless ‘open or else’ threats.”

“Now they’re angry and afraid,” Weingarten said of her members. “Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry too.”

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents the country’s second-largest school district, urged union members to ramp up their demands in her inaugural speech. “We can’t count on the politicians, whether it’s the White House, Congress or the governor to open up the economy in a safe and equitable manner. We can’t count on them to fully fund public education,” she said.

Both NEA and AFT have issued their own guidance for reopening schools. And AFT recently adopted a resolution setting some specific parameters for reopening, including a daily community infection rate below 5 percent and a transmission rate below 1 percent.

But local unions’ work on reopening plans have been used against them, with critics alleging that teachers are putting themselves over the needs of students. Some parents who are essential workers argue that if they are reporting to their jobs, so should teachers.

The Center for Education Reform, an organization that advocates for school choice and charter schools, slammed unions in a policy brief this month, saying that union leaders are “only interested in strikes not solutions.”

“Unions are attacking states and locales that are trying to provide options for everyone, while demanding billions more,” CER said.

The open question is where parents themselves fall in this debate. National polls largely show a majority remain uneasy about reopening: Two-thirds of parents say they see sending their children to school as a large or moderate risk, according to an Axios-Ipsos survey released last week — and almost three in four of Americans surveyed said they are concerned about schools in their community reopening too soon.

Parents of color have also been more worried about reopening than white parents, surveys show. An earlier Axios-Ipsos poll from July found nearly 90 percent of Black parents and 80 percent of Hispanic parents viewed sending their children back to school as a large or moderate risk, compared to 64 percent of white parents.

Some outside groups and experts warn that those numbers could start to shift the longer the debate goes on and students remain out of the classroom.

“With the economy reopening, a lot of individuals are putting themselves in uncomfortable positions in terms of working in light of the pandemic, and might expect teachers to have some give there as well,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who has been tracking negotiations between teachers’ unions and school districts since the spring.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said “parents rightly have given teachers and unions a lot of grace,” especially during the “chaotic” roll out of remote learning in the spring. But there’s “potential for increasing tension” between parents and unions as leaders negotiate with districts on issues such as how much live virtual instruction they will provide.

“They’re issues that parents have a vested interest in, but they’re not at the table, right? So that’s that’s where the potential tension comes in,” she said.

Some parents, frustrated with their experience in the spring, are already banding together to create private tutoring pods for small groups of students during the pandemic.

If they have to choose between the teachers and their own student’s welfare, Lake said, “they’ll choose their student.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. 

About the Author: Nicole Gaudiano is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. In more than two decades of reporting, she has covered crime, the military, Congress, presidential campaigns and, now, education. She is a reporter who cares deeply about accuracy, asks tough questions and loves learning. Along with reporting, she enjoys shooting videos and photos.

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her political watchdog reporting received a National Press Club press freedom award.


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