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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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Health providers’ scramble for staff and supplies reveals sharp disparities

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Doctors, nurses and caregivers at smaller and poorer hospitals and medical facilities across the country are still struggling to obtain the protective gear, personnel and resources they need to fight the coronavirus despite President Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that the problems are solved.

Health care workers at all types of facilities scrambled for scarce masks, gloves and other life-protecting gear at the beginning of the pandemic. The White House was letting states wage bidding wars against one another, rather than establish a central national manufacturing, supply and distribution chain.

But now, health care workers say a clear disparity has emerged and persisted. Larger and richer hospitals and practices outbid their smaller peers, sometimes for protective gear, sometimes to fill in staffing gaps. And some of those having the hardest time are precisely where the virus is spreading.

A POLITICO survey of health care workers elicited dozens of stories from the front lines across the country. Reporters did follow up interviews with about a dozen survey respondents, and also interviewed other health care practitioners and policy experts. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from employers, as some medical facilities have threatened to fire workers for airing complaints publicly.

Health care administrators say the smaller and poorer facilities are also being outbid in the labor market, as providers compete for a limited pool of trained nurses and specialists who can care for Covid-19 patients amid chronic staff shortages and pandemic-induced industry upheaval. Their descriptions illustrate the shortcomings of a federal response that was initially focused on major hospitals while scores of smaller providers fell through the cracks.

The resulting disparities, especially among long-term care providers who often continue to care for patients after they leave the hospital or whose patients don’t require hospitalization but are still infectious, puts an asterisk on Trump’s claim that “they’re very much stocked up, they’re in great shape,” as he put it at one of his recent briefings.

“There’s not a single building I work in that has adequate Covid-19 supplies,” said a nursing home worker in Colorado, who requested anonymity.

The challenges may persist. On Friday, the FDA included surgical gowns, gloves, masks, certain ventilators and various testing supplies on its list of medical devices in shortage, based on manufacturer reports. The agency has required companies to report potential supply disruptions since May under the CARES Act.

The shortages of personal protective gear, or PPE, has taken a toll. Without adequate protection against a contagious pathogen, thousands of health workers have fallen ill, and at least 922 have died, according to a 50-state tracking project by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian.

Congressional Democrats have repeatedly petitioned the administration for more comprehensive information about lingering shortages and have been frustrated by the lack of up-to-date projections. Just this week, House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) complained that it has taken him months to get information on PPE from the administration — and then it’s out of date.

“They’ve fumbled at every turn,” Neal said in a statement.

GetUsPPE, the largest national organization distributing donated equipment, said it’s received a massive increase in requests for PPE over the past two months, as the virus walloped the Sun Belt states and spread throughout the country. But the group said there’s been a noticeable shift in who’s pleading for help. It’s no longer primarily hospitals, but smaller providers who can’t muster the same negotiating leverage.

“Those hospitals, at least speaking from experience, are figuring out the supply chains necessary to stock PPE,” said Ali Raja, the organization’s cofounder and vice chair of emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “What we’re seeing now is a lot of requests from visiting nurse associations, rehab facilities – the kind of places that take care of patients after they leave the hospital but still have weeks or months of illness.”

Health care leaders said these shortages stem from a mismatch of resources, as well as the pandemic’s shifting nature. While Congress made available $175 billion in coronavirus relief payments to help hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and other care providers, much of the initial funding went to well-resourced hospital systems regardless of need, with more targeted funding rounds coming later.

“Unfortunately, at every level of government, there has not been a coordinated response,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association (AHCA) and National Center for Assisted Living. “And there have been some public health mistakes that were made. Early on, everyone thought that every hospital in the country was going to be overrun with Covid. So the decision was made to put all the resources in the hospitals.”

That’s not to say PPE shortages are completely resolved in hospitals. Some front-line workers, even at well-resourced hospitals, say ongoing shortages have forced them to clean and reuse masks and gowns that were intended for single use.

“It’s an inappropriate use of PPE, it should be used one time on one patient,” said an ICU nurse in Henderson, Nev. who requested anonymity. “When we get sick because of inadequate PPE, it’s just adding to the problem of short staffing.”

Kevin Warren, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, said that rising prices for PPE were putting financial strain on nursing homes and assisted living communities his group represents. He said that’s made it harder for some facilities to hire more nurses as they’re also struggling to compete with new bonus payments hospitals are offering to attract recruits.

“Given the cost of hero pay, and bonus payments and recruiting bonuses, they can’t compete in the market,” Warren said. “They can’t recruit someone away to work for them because they can’t compete in the labor market.”

At a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, congressional Democrats argued that exorbitant prices for PPE were emblematic of the Trump administration’s failures.

Robert Wiehe, the chief supply chain and logistics officer for UC Health in Ohio, presented data at the hearing showing that his health system had paid up to ten times the normal price for masks and gowns due to shortages. After peaking in April and May, those prices began to decline but remained well above their pre-pandemic levels — particularly N95 masks, which still averaged more than double their normal price throughout June.

The Trump administration has pushed back, arguing it has mustered a massive supply of resources in response to an unprecedented pandemic.

“President Trump has led the greatest mobilization of the private sector since World War II to deliver critical supplies, including face masks, PPE, and ventilators, to the areas that need it most and saving countless lives,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said.

According to the latest White House estimates, FEMA and HHS have distributed 203 million N95 masks, 855 million surgical masks, 36 million goggles and face shields, 364 million gowns, and 21 billion gloves.

Ways and Means’ Neal officially requested information from the administration on PPE distribution in early April. By the time he got it in early August, it was out of date.

“Given the length of time it took for them to even respond to my request, I had low expectations for the details and explanation the Trump administration would have for disbursing personal protective equipment. This really should be one of their highest priorities and unfortunately, it is another example of how ill-prepared they were to handle this pandemic,” he said.

In June, an internal FEMA document projected that PPE supply would just barely cover demand if various kinds of single-use equipment could be cleaned and reused. But that forecast assumed steadily declining case numbers, and has not been updated since, according to agency. Health officials and workers say that once another wave of cases crested in July, shortages of PPE and personnel resumed.

A health director for an assisted living community in Texas, who requested anonymity, said she had seen this grim financial calculus play out firsthand, calling it a “recipe for disaster.” Unlike hospitals and nursing homes, assisted living communities have not received any targeted financial aid through the federal provider relief fund.

When her workplace saw an influx of coronavirus patients in late June, she requested additional nursing staff from her parent company. She was told by a regional operations manager that they were not hiring additional staff because the company’s investors would not approve the spending. Since then, as the only registered nurse caring for a community of approximately 100 elderly residents, she said she has overseen more than 60 positive cases and 8 deaths.

Even for unskilled positions like home health aides — who are paid low wages for grueling jobs — labor shortages remain problematic. A home health worker in Ohio said her short-staffed employer saw a dramatic decline in job applications because “there’s fear attached to working in a health care environment.”

While hospitals have generally fared better, doctors and nurses say efforts were hampered by the massive staff furloughs that occurred during lockdown in the spring. With elective procedures paused, hospitals grappled with large revenue shortfalls and cut payrolls to cope.

In April and May, the health care industry reported more than 1.4 million job losses, including 161,600 hospital and 83,800 nursing home jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While hospitals rebounded in June with a gain of 6,000 jobs, nursing homes continued to suffer with an additional 18,300 job losses.

“You were just working with less than you started with,” said Carrie Kroll, vice president at the Texas Hospital Association. “First it was just trying to get people deployed. Now we’ve been much more focused on trying to figure out how that’s getting paid for, and there are only so many people to go around.”

An ICU nurse in Las Vegas said that staffing levels at her small hospital fell noticeably while elective procedures were paused, and did not fully rebound when they resumed. She described the harrowing experience of caring for multiple unstable patients in the dead of night without the ability to call for backup because of thin staffing.

“The feeling you have when no one shows up to help you, it’s like ice in your veins, you never forget it,” she said. She added that while other nearby hospitals had bolstered nursing staff with $1,000 hiring bonuses, her workplace has not.

Adequate nurse staffing was already a contentious issue before the pandemic — for years, nursing unions have pushed for policies that mandate a minimum ratio of nurses-to-patients. California was the only state to enact such a mandate, but hospitals in the state since March have been able to apply for temporary waivers excusing them from the requirement.

Jessica Vasquez, an ICU nurse at San Joaquin General Hospital, which recently obtained such a waiver, argued that exceeding the ratios would put patients at risk.

“You take out the ratios, you mess with safe ratios, there’s possibility that this can be life or death for some patients,” she said. “There’s no way a nurse can give her attention to so many patients.”

San Joaquin General Hospital CEO David Culberson confirmed that his hospital had received a waiver for coronavirus-related patient surges in the ICU, telemetry and emergency departments, but stressed that the hospital was “committed to providing as many nurses as possible to all its patients in order to provide optimal patient care and meet staffing ratios.” He noted that the hospital had hired additional full-time nurses in recent weeks and was offering nursing staff extra shifts and paid overtime to meet the demand.

Many hospitals that did have funds to hire nonetheless struggled to find staff with specialist training and experience dealing with a highly contagious respiratory disease.

“You have people going there that in many cases had literally no idea what they are doing,” said Sunny Jha, an anesthesiologist at the University of Southern California. “They’ve never worked in an ICU, they’ve never worked in a disaster field, they had never worked with Covid patients, and in some cases they had never worked period — this was their first job out of school.” 

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tucker Doherty is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro.


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In-person school won’t be safe, and it won’t be a return to the old normal, teachers say

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A new poll of teachers shows just how much of the burden is being pushed off on them. More than four out of five of the teachers said they were worried about in-person teaching, with 77% fearful for their own health. In that context, it’s kind of amazing that just two out of three said they thought schools should be primarily remote—some number of people afraid for their safety are still ready to go back to in-person teaching.

But the teachers’ responses to the NPR/Ipsos poll, and interviews they gave to accompany it, show how much more complicated the issue is for them. Large majorities of teachers were concerned about the education experience students would have in school, with 73% concerned about their ability to effectively teach and connect with students while wearing a mask and 84% saying it would be difficult to enforce social distancing. In other words, in-person learning would not be anything like a return to normal, in ways that worry these teachers.

To be sure, 55% of the teachers said they can’t teach effectively enough online, and 84% cited inequities associated with online learning. But one Philadelphia teacher pointed out that in-person teaching under these circumstances could also contribute to racial inequities.

“As a white teacher who works with predominantly Black students,” Charlie McGeehan wrote to NPR in an email, “I think a lot about the ways that I exert control in my classroom—and how that manifests white supremacy and racism. … [I’m] considering going back to a school environment where I’m asked to constantly police how far away students are from each other, whether or not they are wearing masks, where they’re allowed to go during the day, etc. If this is the type of classroom I’m going to have to facilitate, is in-person learning worth all the risks?”

Teachers in other areas will be coping with Trump’s politicization of mask-wearing as they try to get their students to comply.

The poll was conducted July 21-24, and since then there’s been plenty of news to confirm the teachers’ worries about the safety of in-person classes at this time. Some districts have moved recently to all-remote learning at least for the beginning of the school year, with teachers helping to push that in Chicago by threatening to strike over the issue. But in other areas, state and local education officials continue to push in-person learning despite the fact that not just teachers but a majority of parents are opposed.

And this didn’t need to happen.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 6, 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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Thousands of federal workers say they’ve gotten COVID-19 on the job

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Even when people survive COVID-19, their health can be seriously damaged, and their lives changed. We don’t know yet how many people will suffer long-lasting effects, but we can find one sign of how widespread the physical devastation is in federal workers’ claims for disability compensation after they contracted the virus on the job.

About 4,000 federal workers have filed for disability compensation, The Washington Post reports, while 60 families are seeking survivors’ benefits. The number is expected to grow to 6,000 by August 4.

The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act program administered by the Labor Department announced in March that, for workers at high risk of being infected on the job, such as first responders, public health and medical workers, or law enforcement, it would “accept that the exposure to COVID-19 was proximately caused by the nature of the employment and will only require medical evidence that establishes a diagnosis of COVID-19, such as a positive COVID-19 test result.” Other workers have to show that they contracted the virus on the job.

”Employees of three departments with high concentrations of jobs deemed to carry the highest risk of exposure—Homeland Security, Justice and Veterans Affairs—accounted for most of the 4,011 claims filed through July 23,” the Post reports. “Of those, 1,623 had been granted, fewer than seven denied, 25 withdrawn and the rest were waiting to be adjudicated—including all of the death claims.”

But even setting aside the claims by survivors of federal workers who died, there are around 4,000 claims by people who say they contracted the virus in the course of working for the government. And they’re a drop in the bucket of federal workers who’ve gotten sick or died: more than 5,000 infections among civilian Defense Department employees and 32 deaths; more than 3,000 total cases among Veterans Affairs employees and 40 deaths; and more.

Some federal agencies have been recalling workers to the office in July, a move that exposes more to risk especially as coronavirus cases spike in many states.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 27, 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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Which States and Cities Have Adopted Comprehensive COVID-19 Worker Protections?

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14 states have adopted comprehensive COVID worker safety protections so far.

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.

Some states have issued executive orders with very specific worker protection requirements, and Virginia has just issued the first-in-the-nation Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers. 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 coverings and require employees to wear them if maintaining six-foot social distance is not always possible;
  • provide employees with other personal protective equipment in addition to face coverings;
  • 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 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.

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

https://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/5199.html (the Cal/OSHA standard)

https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/coronavirus/Health-Care-General-Industry.html (unclear how this guidance is being enforced)

https://files.covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-food-packing.pdf (sample guidance)

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)

Michigan

https://content.govdelivery.com/attachments/MIEOG/2020/07/09/file_attachments/1492329/EO%202020-145%20Emerg%20order%20-%20Workplace%20safeguards%20-%20re-issue.pdf

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 

https://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/562020/20200408e.shtml(the state is updating industry-specific guidance as well)

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

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

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

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/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 July 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Debbie 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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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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Essential workers still lack essential protections

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The United States played fast and loose with the health of essential workers during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, and the push to reopen businesses despite surging COVID-19 infections is no different. Essential workers and advocacy groups that represent them are calling for stronger health and safety protections, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ro Khanna have called for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, and some local governments have increased protections, but businesses—backed, of course, by the Trump administration—are pushing back, even as workers are “on the frontlines like sacrificial lambs,” call center worker Hope Gilmore told NBC News.

“Employers are tending to take the position that they’re complying with OSHA guidelines, but it’s extremely clear that OSHA guidelines are not protecting workers and are toothless,” Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, said. “The entire reason for having government regulation is that the market will not create safe workplaces.”

This isn’t only the case in the Republican-controlled states that have become the new epicenters of the pandemic. “We know the majority of these essential workers are people of color in New York City, and it’s unfair in a city that was built by immigrants that there’s no job protection, health and safety during a pandemic where they’re risking their health,” Laundry Workers Center co-executive director Rosanna Rodriguez said.

“It took an epic public health crisis and economic recession to wake us up, but as the economy reopens, we must not forget what we have seen,” the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Ai-Jen Poo and Palak Shah write in The New York Times. “We must shore up every last job, especially those that have been invisible, and every worker who has taken care of us, until every job is a good job, and dignity is restored to work in America.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 11, 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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7 Best Practices to Accelerate Employee Safety in the Workplace

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Research has shown there’s a direct link between worker productivity and workplace health and safety. These findings should be enough to motivate employers to accelerate the safety of all staff members in the workplace, and for many businesses, they have been. 

“Safety culture” is a phrase often repeated, and it refers to the concept of making high standards of occupational health and safety a core company value. By fostering such a culture, employees are not only physically protected; they feel like valued team members and are empowered to take initiative. As the workers are strengthened, so too is the organization – and vice versa.

The seven best practices listed below need to be an intrinsic part of a business owner’s vision. If your employer doesn’t actively strive to achieve them, the Occupational Safety and Administration (OSHA) recommends you bring the issue to their attention. If no resolution is reached, you can file a confidential complaint with the Administration. 

Take a closer look at the treatment you should be getting, and the conditions you’re within your rights to expect.

Inclusion in a Safety Task Force

As employees, you must be involved in health and safety initiatives at all stages. This creates a strong foundation, and creating a dedicated task force is a crucial element of this. 

You’ll need time to meet, plan, and execute activities during the workday rather than after hours – none of your own time or wages may be sacrificed. If you take on additional responsibilities as a result of being included in such a task force, you must be properly remunerated.

Engagement in Discussions 

As each business is different, the requirements for an effective health and safety program also vary. The OSHA provides several helpful resources on how to assess and maintain safety standards in diverse work environments. 

In discussions on how to maintain health and safety, staff should be treated as equals to executives, with as much to contribute to the conversation. After all, you have front-line experience of work circumstances and conditions. The number of employees, their various tasks, and the equipment used must all be considered. As part of best practice, these circumstances will be regularly reviewed.

Involvement in Developing Protocols

The discussions the worker-centric task force is involved in should result in the development of several protocols. Safety, inspection, training, and recording procedures, among others, would be developed by this team, and be reexamined on a scheduled basis. 

Any new practices or apparatus must be factored in, and protocols appropriately expanded or amended. The protocols will stipulate how frequently you receive training, and what specific issues are covered.

Regular Training Sessions

New employees must receive comprehensive training as part of their induction, along with further instruction when any new policies or procedures are introduced. Thereafter, sessions can be scheduled at regular intervals and assessments conducted to verify that your knowledge and skills are up to date.

Frequent Inspections of Working Conditions

The condition of all equipment and work environments, including offices, factory floors and outside areas, must be checked according to a list of requirements. In addition, you should be assessed according to KPAs (key performance areas) as developed in taskforce discussions. You know how to do your job well and giving this input in the discussions means you’ll know what to expect in the inspections too.

Proper Maintenance of Records

Meticulous records are essential in the case of injuries (or illness, as the current COVID-19 pandemic illustrates) that result in workman’s compensation claims. If you have a rightful claim, the proper documentation will make it easier for you to access your payout. In addition, your employer will require valid, in-date compensation insurance so that you are properly covered.

Records are also helpful in identifying positive or negative trends regarding health and safety standards and culture, so they can help prevent future incidents. Best practice recommendations are to keep detailed records that are easy to access and understand, and to review them at regular intervals.

Investigation of All Incidents

If something goes wrong in the workplace a thorough investigation needs to be conducted. By reviewing what happened, companies can take steps to avoid recurrences. This will accelerate your safety, and any employees who were on the scene or have knowledge of the situation must be consulted. 

You should also see clear evidence that changes have been made, to guard against the incident happening again. Executives are required to act – and if they don’t, you can remind them to.

About the Author: With a passion for writing, Megan is a freelance writer focusing on business, workplace compliance, and GRC topics. When she’s not typing away at her keyboard, Meg loves playing Broadway scores on the piano and enjoys roasting her own coffee.


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N95 masks pour in from unions, corporations, schools, churches … while the federal government lags

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Donald Trump keeps coming up with excuses for why the federal government is not providing medical professionals with the protection they need as they fight coronavirus. And other groups keep coming up with the N95 masks that are so badly needed. On Thursday, SEIU-UHW, a union representing healthcare workers, announced it had located 39 million N95 masks, which were sitting in a medical supplier’s warehouse in Pennsylvania.

The union made call after call until they found a company that had one of the pieces of equipment that’s so desperately needed. While, it cannot be emphasized enough, Donald Trump makes excuses.

The supplier with the 39 million masks is now selling them to the state of California, several California healthcare providers, and the Greater New York Hospital Association. In California, SEIU-UHW workers will benefit directly by having more of the protective gear they need. But, as the union’s president said in a statement, “While we are pleased with these initial results, we recognize they are stopgap measures in light of the estimated 3.5 billion masks that could be needed during this pandemic. We urgently need the federal government to step in and drive a coordinated national response to the PPE shortage.”

SEIU-UHW wasn’t the only organization stepping up to find masks. Building trades unions previously donated masks their workers use to protect themselves on the job. In Washington, D.C., the head stonemason at the National Cathedral remembered a stash of thousands of masks, which the cathedral donated. Goldman Sachs is the latest company to donate hundreds of thousands of masks out of its own disaster preparedness supply. And more local organizations are scraping together every last mask and other protective gear they can and sending them to their local hospitals—like Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, Massachusetts, which donated 215 masks along with safety glasses and other protective equipment.

Across the country and from the most massive corporations to small organizations, people are working to equip our medical professionals to stay safe and treat us when we get sick. And with the resources of the federal government at his disposal, Donald Trump just keeps failing to deliver that kind of care for public health and safety.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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OSHA Needs A Prescription for Safety Now

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Kimberly Delbrune-Mitter, a cardiac nurse, cares deeply about her patients and remains steadfast in her desire to help them, even as COVID-19 spreads across America.

What plagues her about the new disease isn’t that she might encounter it. It’s the lack of guidance, vital information that would help her balance quality care and her own health.

Medical professionals looking to the Trump administration for leadership will hear nothing but a resounding silence.

Instead, people on the front lines have to fight for their own health and safety even while they care for their patients.

A group of labor unions, including the United Steelworkers (USW), last week sent Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a petition demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implement an emergency safety standard to protect health care workers, first responders and others at risk of contracting the virus on the job.

The unions and the workers they represent want OSHA to specify the types of equipment employers must provide and the procedures they must follow to keep workers safe.

For hospitals, this could mean providing doctors, nurses and others with the most advanced facemasks on the market. It could mean minimizing the number of people who enter a patient’s room, screening workers for sickness at the start of their shifts or providing staff members with a vaccine when one becomes available.

So far, they’ve received no response.

While the Trump administration fiddles, hundreds of health care workers already are quarantined because of possible exposure to COVID-19, and many others have questions about how to do their jobs without contracting the disease.

“Do we need to wear eye shields? Do we need hair caps? Do we need gowns?” asked Delbrune-Mitter, president of USW Local 9620, which represents about 500 nurses in New Jersey.

Right now, each hospital, clinic and doctor’s office is largely free to take whatever precautions it wants. At some hospitals, nurses cite a lack of personal protective equipment like facemasks and say their employers haven’t even told them how to identify patients who might have the disease.

If large numbers of health care workers get sick or quarantined, the whole treatment system could collapse.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) struck Toronto in 2003, health care professionals became the biggest victims, making up 45 percent of those infected. A doctor and two nurses died. The city’s hospitals were so poorly prepared for infection control that they became breeding grounds for the disease, the very places where most people contracted it.

Clearly communicated safety precautions for COVID-19 will prevent a similar catastrophe limiting medical personnel on the job at a time they’re crucially needed.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time health care workers had to lead OSHA to provide common-sense protections in the face of a deadly disease.

HIV struck seemingly out of nowhere more than 30 years ago, battering patients’ immune systems before killing them. Unsure how it spread and fearful of the future, health care workers risked their own lives to treat the victims.

Research soon showed that HIV is spread through an infected person’s blood. Health care workers risked infection when they accidentally got stuck by a needle or when a patient’s blood got into a cut or scrape. Other serious diseases like hepatitis B are spread the same way, and workers demanded that OSHA set standards so they would remain safe on the job.

OSHA implemented those measures, known as the bloodborne pathogens standard, in 1991 and revised them several years later.

Workers made this happen.

Among other provisions, the standard requires that needles be equipped with safety devices that cover or retract them immediately after use.

Employers must provide gloves and other personal protective equipment to workers, decontaminate surfaces any time they’re touched by blood or other fluids, and track accidental needle sticks. Needles and other sharp objects must be discarded in puncture-proof containers. These provisions protect patients as well as health care workers.

Some hospitals opposed the bloodborne pathogen rules because they didn’t want to shell out a few extra bucks to keep workers safe.

But the standard’s effectiveness cannot be denied.  Since it was implemented, HIV and hepatitis B infections among health care workers plummeted.

Even after OSHA imposed the standard, health care workers continued fighting to make their workplaces safer.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick in New Jersey, that meant looking for new ways to further reduce the accidental needle sticks that can transmit HIV and hepatitis.

Nurses represented by USW Local 4-200 tested various syringes, lancets and IV insertion tips, then began using the ones they considered least likely to cause accidental sticks. Between 2010 and 2014, the hospital reduced needlestick injuries by 70 percent, an achievement that won the nurses recognition in a national health care journal.

These kinds of safety measures are the result of workers’ and unions’ relentless fight for health and safety.

The USW and other unions began pressuring OSHA for an infectious disease standard long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

Their demand for infectious disease controls goes back years, amid outbreaks of other diseases, including SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 flu in 2009, that exposed the nation’s lack of readiness for epidemics.

OSHA’s top officials finally put an infectious disease standard on their to-do list. Then Donald Trump, an enemy of industry regulation and worker safety, took office. OSHA suddenly put infectious disease control on the back burner.

That delay now haunts the nation. The federal government and health care organizations are as poorly prepared for an epidemic as workers knew they’d be.

Delbrune-Mitter said the lack of clear safety direction from federal officials leads some staff members to mine TV and the internet for information.

“We don’t really know what’s true,” she said.

This article was originally printed in Our Future on March 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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