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How Starbucks Workers Won in Mesa

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Starbucks Workers United (SWU) won its third store election February 28 in Mesa, Arizona. The vote was an overwhelming 25-3, with three additional contested ballots, despite heavy anti-union pressure from the company and in a state with only 5.4 percent union density.

“We led with kindness and care and just did our jobs in the face of union-busting from upper management,” said shift supervisor Liz Alanna, who helped lead the effort. Shift supervisors coordinate the day-to-day running of a store but are eligible for union membership because they don’t have hiring and firing power.

The Mesa store at Powerline and Baseline Roads became the first U.S. company-run store outside Buffalo to be unionized in the recent organizing wave.

Starbucks Workers United is now three for four in the elections held so far—and workers at more than 110 more locations have filed or announced their intention to unionize. A Canadian Starbucks also filed to unionize separately with the Steelworkers (USW) in January.

In Mesa, the company’s retaliation against a cancer-afflicted manager drove workers into the arms of SWU and Workers United, the Service Employees (SEIU) affiliate that has been supporting these union drives nationwide.

COLLAPSED ON THE FLOOR

‘It was just a huge slap in the face that our manager has leukemia, we never got support from another assistant store manager, and it was holiday season and we were getting slammed,” said Alanna.

The manager, 29-year-old Brittany Harrison, had been diagnosed with leukemia in October. Harrison requested paid leave, which was denied, and asked for an assistant manager to help at the store, which was also denied. She wanted to be able to make medical appointments and take care of herself as she coped with both the diagnosis and the illness.

But in November, when Harrison became aware of Starbucks’ planned union-busting strategy in Buffalo through a corporate meeting, she blew the whistle on the company. Harrison spoke anonymously to the media about a plan to send hundreds of managers to Buffalo Starbucks. She also made contact with Starbucks Worker United members in Buffalo.

Higher-ups stopped communicating with her. “I was getting ghosted by my supervisor and that sucked,” Harrison said. “My health was deteriorating.”

Starbucks company-owned stores are run by managers like Harrison, who have hiring and firing power and are not eligible to join barista unions. Above them are district managers who are responsible for multiple stores in the same area. Below them are assistant store managers, shift supervisors, and baristas, all of whom have been eligible to vote for the union. (NLRB regional directors so far have deferred the question of whether assistant store managers will ultimately be included in the bargaining unit to post-election proceedings.)

A bronchitis outbreak hit the store on November 10 and multiple workers called out. Harrison felt unwell November 11 and called out sick; the district manager told her that night she was not allowed to call out even though there were multiple shift supervisors present, and questioned her leadership ability.

The district manager went so far as to order Harrison to work the next day even though she had not been scheduled.

That night at 3 a.m., Harrison called her again to tell her she was too sick to work, but the district manager didn’t pick up her phone. Harrison even texted her photos of the temperature reader that showed she had a fever, but got no response.

The store was already short-staffed, and Harrison was forced to come in.

She ended up working until she collapsed to the floor after six hours. Unable to get up, she defecated on herself. Even then, she was forced to stay another hour because her district manager failed to send someone to cover for her in a timely way.

“This company will not be happy until I work myself to death,” Harrison remembers thinking. She put in her two weeks’ notice that day at the corporation she had once expected to retire at.

Starbucks fired her three days later, citing an “open investigation”; the charges were not disclosed to Harrison. Her Starbucks health benefits were cut off on November 16.

The coffee giant made $816 million in profits from roughly October through January and expanded by 484 stores in the quarter.

DON’T QUIT, UNIONIZE

Starbucks eventually tried to walk back the firing, claiming in a mass email to partners that it had never happened. By then, though, the cat was out of the bag.

When word spread through a group chat, “we were all really upset,” said Michelle Hejduk, a shift supervisor and worker leader. “People were talking about quitting. Somebody said ‘unionizing’—and everybody knew I was the main one that would talk about it with everybody.”

Hejduk had previously been an IATSE member in custodial work at Universal Studios in California and an SEIU member doing costuming at Disneyland.

She called Alanna that night; the two had talked politics before. Alanna remains a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists from her past work as an opera singer.

“Both of us were scared at first that we would get fired or lose our jobs,” Alanna said. She was pregnant and nearly due; she didn’t want to risk losing her family’s health insurance and owing thousands of dollars in hospital bills.

But after the pair talked with Workers United organizing adviser Richard Bensinger about legal protections for workers trying to unionize, they felt reassured enough to move forward.

By November 16, just four days after Harrison had collapsed in the store, the workers had enough cards to file for a union authorization election.

SWU raised $30,000 through crowdfunding to support Harrison, the uninsured and cancer-stricken whistleblower, in a striking display of reciprocal solidarity.

The Mesa store is not the only one where workers allege a retaliatory firing. In February, Starbucks fired seven unionizing workers in a Memphis store. Cassie Fleischer, a bargaining committee member, was also terminated from the Buffalo Elmwood location that was the first to win a union.

UNDERSTAFFING AND DISCRIMINATION

Like other Starbucks workers organizing around the country, Mesa baristas were motivated by understaffing, pressure to come to work sick, the company’s reluctance to stop accepting mobile orders when a store is overwhelmed, and a lack of worker voice.

“People who sit behind a computer do not know how to make a latte, do not know how to clean a toilet—we need to have a say,” said Alanna.

Many Starbucks workers around the country said that people tend to underestimate the amount of physical labor they’re required to do in an environment where there’s pressure to be efficient and customer-pleasing at all times. This includes everything from heavy lifting to being on your feet all day—in some shifts, for almost six hours with only a ten-minute break.

Another concern at the Mesa store was religious discrimination. Harrison, who is Jewish, filed a complaint against the district manager for anti-Semitism.

For example, when Harrison had a swastika painted on her house and the mezuzah torn off, the district manager suggested she should try to understand where the person who did it was coming from.

Harrison and workers in the store say that the district manager, whom Alanna described as “very Christian,” regularly prayed in meetings at which they were present.

“I’m Christian and even I find it very off-putting to have her reading a Christian story at the holiday meeting—I just think it’s weird,” Alanna said.

STALLING AND INTIMIDATION

There were 25 workers for the Mesa store the day they filed for election. But in a union-busting move, Starbucks started hiring. The number of eligible voters ended up at 43.

“They hired half the store just to say ‘no,’” Alanna said.

The company also flooded the store with management—another tactic it has repeated around the country.

Whereas when Harrison was diagnosed with cancer Starbucks wouldn’t add a single assistant manager to help the workers in Mesa, now it added three, plus two managers.

“We called them the babysitters,” Hejduk said. “We were not allowed to be there without them.” One day she was scheduled for the morning, but because a new manager couldn’t come in, the store did not open until 1 p.m.

The managers held captive group meetings (“listening sessions”) and one-on-ones to pressure workers over the union. One manager cried as she told a worker, “I want you to vote ‘no’.”

Hejduk found the episode “totally bizarre.”

“They’ve done so much wild stuff,” she said. “We’ve been desensitized to everything that’s happened.”

As it has done around the country, Starbucks argued to the NLRB that the appropriate bargaining unit would be the whole district, not just one store.

The company lost on this issue in a regional director’s ruling, but then filed an appeal with the NLRB’s head office. A ruling on the appeal was not made by February 16, the day the Mesa votes were to be counted, even though Starbucks had already lost on this issue at the NLRB in Buffalo.

As a result, the final vote count for the Mesa store was postponed pending a decision by the Board’s head office. It was eventually held on February 28.

The NLRB’s decision against Starbucks set the size of the bargaining unit at the store level rather than the district. This is expected to allow the Board to more quickly stop the company’s procedural delays on this issue moving forward.

NEW CAMARADERIE

As the organizing drive continues to build, SWU is building worker-to-worker contacts nationwide.

The day the Mesa workers filed their cards with the NLRB, they met over Zoom with Colin Cochran, a Buffalo-based SWU member, who told them what union-busting tactics to expect.

“Starbucks uses the same playbook everywhere and we know the ins and outs of it,” Cochran said over email. “It’s really fulfilling to be able to help other stores.”

And among the Mesa workers themselves, Alanna said the process of organizing has forged a new sense of community.

“Previous to this, night workers might never talk to day workers,” she said. Now they’re all on the same group chat, and are going out for food and attending parties together.

“I’ve worked in four different stores and I’ve never felt this kind of camaraderie before,” Alanna said.

Within weeks, SWU will know if it has managed to replicate the successes in Mesa and Buffalo through election wins in more stores and in other parts of the country. Next up: Seattle and Boston.

This blog was originally printed at Labor Notes on March 5, 2022.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.


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Workers Say They Breathe Polluted Air at “Green” Insulation Facility

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Kingspan employees in Santa Ana, California are demanding improved health protections—and a fair process to organize.

Mindy Isser | Author | Common Dreams

As the acceptance of climate change becomes increasingly commonplace, more and more companies will be created or adapted to ?“fight” or ?“solve” it — or, at the very least, minimize its effects. Kingspan Group, which began as an engineering and contracting business in 1965 in Ireland, has since grown into a global company with more than 15,000 employees focused on green insulation and other sustainable building materials. Its mission is to ?“accelerate a zero emissions future with the wellbeing of people and planet at its heart.” 

But workers at the Kingspan Light + Air factory in Santa Ana, Calif. don’t feel that the company has their wellbeing at its heart?—?and they say they have documented the indoor air pollution in their workplace to prove it. Differences between Kingspan’s mission and its true impact don’t stop there, workers charge: One of its products was used in the flammable cladding system on Grenfell Tower, a 24-floor public housing tower in London that went up in flames in June 2017, killing 72 people. Kingspan has been the target of protests in the United Kingdom and Ireland for its role in the disaster. Both Kingspan workers and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have called on the company to put public safety over profits.

Since the 1990s, union organizers say there have been multiple attempts from the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) union to organize employees at Kingspan, but none were successful. The company says its North America branch employs ?“1,600 staff across 16 manufacturing and distribution facilities throughout the United States and Canada.” Workers at the Santa Ana plant are tasked with welding, spray painting and assembling fiberglass to produce energy-efficient skylights. During the pandemic, when workers say Covid-19 swept through the facility, employees reached back out to SMART?—?not just because they wanted to form a union, but because they grew concerned about what they say is poor air quality in the facility. 

While SMART provided support for their campaign for clean air, the workers took control: In the summer of 2021, the Santa Ana workers came into work armed with monitors to measure indoor air pollution. Their goal was to measure airborne particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller (PM 2.5). Such fine particulate matter constitutes a form of air pollution that is associated with health problems like respiratory and cardiovascular issues, along with increased mortality. The workers found that the average PM 2.5 concentration inside the facility was nearly seven times higher than outdoors. (To put that in perspective, wildfires usually result in a two- to four-fold increase in PM 2.5.) The majority of monitors found PM 2.5 levels that would rank between ?“unhealthy” and ?“very unhealthy” if measured outdoors, according to Environmental Protection Agency standards, the workers reported. 

Because this is the air workers were breathing in for 40 hours per week, in October 2021, they went public with both their campaign to form a union and their fight for a safe workplace?—?a campaign that continues to this day. 

According to Jorge Eufracio, a welder who’s worked at Kingspan for six years, ?“The campaign started for safety, better wages, and respect. We signed a petition for workers at Kingspan, and we had a delegation give it to the boss. The petition was about our whole campaign?—?including a fair process to organize.” 

Kingspan employees told In These Times that management has ignored their plea for a fair process to organize, but in response to pressure has made some strides regarding health and safety, although the changes are inadequate. Jaime Ocotlan, a welder who’s been at the company for two years, said, ?“We have seen some small changes but we believe it’s not enough. They have given us some PPE, and recently they have started to give us some ear plugs. When they say they’re going to give us PPE, it needs to be fire safe. It’s not enough yet. It’s a band-aid. We need stuff that’s protective in the long run.” 

Over Zoom, Ocotlan showed In These Times how shards of fiberglass get stuck in his work clothes, leaving small holes in the fabric and making it possible for the shards to reach his skin. 

The workers have partnered with environmental justice organizations in order to pressure Kingspan to clean up the facility. An open letter signed by environmental groups in the Santa Ana area and nationwide states that ?“Kingspan is not an appropriate source for continuing education courses or sponsorships of events for the green building community, including those that touch on fire safety.” There are 45 signatories, led by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which brings together unions and union activists to fight for environmental justice. 

A coalition of environmental activists and workers is coalescing. Both Eufracio and Ocotlan told In These Times that most workers at this Kingspan facility live in Santa Ana, and mentioned that one coworker lives directly behind the facility. Ocotlan said workers are concerned not only for themselves but ?“for the kids and the elderly. The contamination is something you can’t see but we breathe every day, and causes a lot of pulmonary problems.” 

Ron Caudill, vice president of operations at Kingspan North America, told In These Times, ?“Kingspan has a long history of dedication to a safe working environment for all employees. In fact, as of today, it has been over 600 days since we had a lost time injury or illness, and we have never had an illness related to air quality.”

But workers at Kingspan are not only concerned with their own situation at work, or even at home: They’re also thinking of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. This past December, workers held a candlelight vigil in solidarity with a concurrent march in London to honor the 4.5 year anniversary of the fire. The British public inquiry into the fire found that Kingspan’s insulation product Kooltherm K15 was used in the cladding system on the Grenfell Tower. According to Kingspan, K15 only made up about 5% of the insulation layer of the system. But the U.K. government’s Grenfell Tower Inquiry unearthed a number of allegations concerning the company’s role in the fire, including the that workers kept secret the results of fire safety tests. Going forward, the government now demands that Kingspan and other insulation companies contribute a ?“significant portion” to the approximately £9 billion ($12 billion) in remediation costs.

Kingspan workers and victims of the Grenfell Tower fire are more than 5,000 miles apart, but they say they share a common interest: safety. Eufracio told In These Times, ?“We’re supporting Grenfell.” 

He added, ?“We want to avoid what happened there.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on 03/03/2022.

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


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Cities Brace For ‘Collision Course’ Of Heat Waves And COVID-19

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Aaron McCullough brought his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, to a playground in a leafy neighborhood of Rochester, New York, on a day in mid-June when the temperature topped out at 94 degrees.

The playground is one of seven spray parks in the city that offer cooling water whenever temperatures exceed 85 degrees.

Except during a pandemic.

“I was hoping that one of these water parks could open up and at least spray a little bit of water on us,” McCullough said.

Instead, he said, sweat dripping off his face, “there’s no water around at all.”

All of the city’s spray parks and air-conditioned cooling centers were shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Gathering in close proximity and engaging in physically strenuous behavior like running around the spray park appears to be a likely possibility for transmission,” said city spokesperson Justin Roj.

McCullough had bought Ariana a milkshake before they came to the park. It melted in his hand as she played on the slide.

“We’re not staying much longer,” he said. “Maybe 10 more minutes. If there were water, we’d be here till sundown.”

Across the country, authorities are finding that their usual strategies for protecting people against heat-related health problems are in direct conflict with their strategies for containing the coronavirus — and with record-breaking temperatures already recorded in some places before summer even officially began, those conflicts are likely to become more frequent.

“COVID-19 and climate change are on a collision course,” said New York City Emergency Management Department spokesperson Omar Bourne.

“There is no question that the challenges we face this summer are unprecedented.”

The balance between preventing COVID-19 and preventing heat-related illnesses is a tough one, experts said.

“I am very grateful that I am not responsible for making that very complicated decision,” said Dr. Andrea Miglani, the medical director of the emergency department at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

The first symptoms of overheating cause what doctors call heat exhaustion. They include heavy sweating, elevated pulse, tiredness, weakness and dizziness.

“But it’s when we cross into heatstroke that we get really worried,” Miglani said. At that point, she said, the body loses its ability to control temperature. The pulse races, sweating stops and fever can cause brain damage.

Miglani said one hot day might result in a slight bump in heat-related hospitalizations, but several hot days can bring cumulative effects, and the death toll can climb. People with underlying health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and those older than 65, are especially at risk — just as with COVID-19.

Making matters worse, movie theaters, libraries and restaurants — places that are normally reliably air-conditioned respites on hot days — aren’t open in many parts of the country, said Miglani.

About 90% of households in the U.S. have air conditioning, according to federal census figures. But access is not evenly distributed. Poor and minority communities tend to suffer disproportionately during heat waves, but they have a much lower prevalence of air conditioning compared with richer, whiter neighborhoods.

The decision about whether and how to open cooling centers during the pandemic needs to happen on a local level, said Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist on the steering committee of the Global Heat Health Information Network.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines for cities and states to deal with the competing problems. Suggestions include offering more assistance for people to pay their utility bills so that they can maintain air conditioning at home, having fever checks for people at cooling centers and a separate room for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, and making masks and hand sanitizers available at the centers. Utility companies could also be required not to cut off anyone’s power during heat emergencies, the CDC suggests.

Across upstate New York, cities kept cooling centers closed earlier this month, even when temperatures surpassed 90 degrees.

In Los Angeles County, officials opened cooling centers when temperatures spiked, but they required masks and limited the number of people who could be inside at one time.

That might offer an example of how to cool off the people most vulnerable to heat-related health problems without drastically increasing the risk of COVID-19, Ebi said.

But, she acknowledged, what works in Los Angeles might not work in other places. “We’ve all got different infrastructure, different access to air conditioning, different public transport systems,” she said.

“The balance of risk is different everywhere,” Ebi said.

There is one piece of the puzzle that doctors said is the same everywhere: checking on friends, family and neighbors.

“This is another time when it’s important to emphasize the difference between social distancing and physical distancing,” said Miglani.

“Give them a call, leave them a note on their door, find out what you can do to help. A lot of times, very simple gestures can go a very long way,” she said.

This blog originally appeared at Kaiser Health News on June 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brett Dahlberg has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Brett grew up in Bremerton, Washington, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.


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Essential Workers Fight for Their Lives

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At a time of record unemployment, Cintya Medina feels lucky to have a job at the Barnes & Noble warehouse in Monroe, N.J.—but she does not want a job that puts her in danger.

When Medina and her coworkers learned of several confirmed Covid-19 cases at the warehouse, they organized a protest on April 7 to demand a two-week shutdown and full cleaning.

“If you continue to make workers like me go back to work, you’re not going to stop the spread of the virus because it’s highly contagious,” Medina tells In These Times in Spanish through a translator. She also questioned why the chain bookseller was forcing employees to come in at all: “It doesn’t make sense that we continue to be open because we’re not essential right now.” Businesses deemed essential, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, have special exceptions to operate during pandemic lockdown orders.

Medina is one of millions of workers who are stuck with the impossible choice between protecting their health and getting a paycheck. More than 20 million others cannot work at all, laid off from their jobs and left wrangling with their local unemployment office. Many are simply excluded from other benefits, all while the country hurtles toward a depression.

The workers faring best during the pandemic are those with high wages, access to healthcare, paid sick leave and the ability to work from home. But those benefits are exceedingly rare for much of the workforce, says Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented think tank. The coronavirus crisis has “uncovered the weakness in our social safety net,” she says. More than 40% of workers are employed in low-wage jobs and some 28 million non-elderly adults lack health insurance. Moreover, federal data suggests only about 30% of workers have the ability to work from home—and the rate is even lower for black and Latino workers. 

Workers making poverty wages in precarious jobs were struggling to survive well before the pandemic. Now, besieged by economic devastation and a public health crisis, they are in a fight for their lives. Just as the virus has exposed the vicious inequities ingrained in the country’s economic hierarchy, so is it galvanizing workers to organize for safe workplaces, fair pay, decent medical leave and the right to challenge bosses who put them in harm’s way.

Low Pay, Essential Work

Jake Douglas made $14 an hour as a driver for United Airlines’ catering service at Denver International Airport, but he took a voluntary unpaid layoff in late March. His partner is immunocompromised, and Douglas worried about potentially getting infected. Ironically, his decision to try to protect his health could cost him his healthcare. Though Douglas remains on his employer-sponsored health plan, he has lost his income, is still waiting to get benefits from the state’s overwhelmed unemployment-claim system, and fears he might no longer be able to afford his health insurance payments. Meanwhile, he suffers from a longstanding shoulder injury that hampers his employment options.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to return to work without physical therapy at a minimum, but probably surgery,” he says. “And so I’m just really nervous … I do not know what I’m going to be able to do to survive this thing if it drags on.”

Douglas’ economic precarity is shared by millions of laid-off workers, who are disproportionately women, black or Latino.

Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, says the economic devastation of the coronavirus will “be tremendously damaging for lower-wage workers, who tend to not have savings and assets to withstand economic shocks like this.”

The CARES Act—the federal stimulus package passed in late March—was intended to cushion the job losses precipitated by the pandemic. Its expansions of unemployment assistance include an extra $600 tacked onto state unemployment benefits, plus an unprecedented extension of assistance to the self-employed, such as Uber and Lyft drivers and other gig workers.

But Shierholz argues unemployment insurance is not an ideal way to deliver relief to dislocated workers. Mass layoffs, she says, would ultimately slow down the recovery, by requiring businesses to rebuild their workforce from scratch as they reopen. “It’s incredibly better for both workers and businesses to furlough but not lay off,” she says. “But we don’t really have a culture of holding onto workers during a downturn and then just bringing them back online after the downturn is over.”

Several European governments have opted to preserve jobs by subsidizing companies to keep workers on their payrolls. By contrast, the U.S. relief package offered an extremely limited pool of supplementary loans for small businesses to avoid laying off staff (which was quickly exhausted, and hastily replenished), while hundreds of billions of dollars were funneled into massive hotel, retail and supermarket corporations—largely free of any concrete mandates to retain workers.

In other words, lawmakers have opted to make unemployment more bearable rather than compel employers to furlough workers and preserve their livelihoods.

Even workers who receive several hundred dollars a week in unemployment benefits could be devastated by the loss of their employer-sponsored healthcare.

The coronavirus “really lays bare the inhumanity of employer-sponsored health insurance,” says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor and employment relations at Rutgers University.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates some 3.5 million laid-off workers lost their employer-sponsored health plans between mid-March and early April—just as their families (who likely shared those health plans) will need care to deal with the growing public health crisis.

None of the federal stimulus acts have expanded healthcare coverage, aside from providing funds for hospitals and testing, although Democratic lawmakers have proposed expansions of Medicaid and of some private insurance coverage.

Givan emphasizes that millions of workers never had insurance in the first place for myriad reasons, whether they were undocumented, or their jobs never offered it, or they couldn’t afford it. Many are still working without healthcare, often in frontline jobs that expose them to health risks every day, as they staff grocery stores, clean hospitals and deliver goods.

“We’re saying, ‘Do this job that’s essential to the functioning of our society … and you will risk being infected with this virus,’ ” Givan says. “And if that happens, you’ll be left with large bills or with no access to care, whether that’s because you’re undocumented, uninsured or under-insured.”

Underpaid Heroes

A worker’s ability to stay healthy amid the pandemic hinges on their ability to take time off without sacrificing their wages. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, seven in 10 low-wage workers did not have a single paid sick day. The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides two weeks of paid leave for full-time employees affected by Covid-19. Additionally, the CARES Act temporarily extends federal family medical leave laws to provide workers with limited wage replacement for the care of a child, for up to 12 weeks.

But again, the protections are patchy. The paid leave and child care provisions exclude private employers with 500 or more employees and allow an exemption for firms with fewer than 50 employees. These carve-outs could effectively exclude up to 106 million private-sector workers, including millions of the poorest.

Josh (a pseudonym to protect him from employer retaliation) is a Walmart pharmacy assistant in Illinois and a self-described “Walmart baby”—the son of Walmart employees. He fears that, while keeping the nation’s largest retailer operating, he and his parents are exposed daily to hazardous conditions. Although workers have some protective equipment, he says, what they really need is adequate paid leave to protect themselves and their families.

In March, Walmart announced a new two-week paid leave policy for employees who test positive for the virus—but it excludes workers who, for example, are immunocompromised or tending to ill family members. Josh, who is part of the worker advocacy group United for Respect, notes that people are reluctant to actually use what paid leave they have in fear of “repercussion from management.”

“For [my parents] to not be treated and protected on a daily basis … just irks me to the highest degree,” Josh says. He suggests workers be compensated with hazard pay, so they can at least have their “essential” role reflected in their paycheck.

“[People say] we’re heroes and everything—but it doesn’t feel like we’re heroes,” Josh adds. “It feels like we don’t have a choice.” With hazard pay, “at least [workers] might get a little bit of solace in knowing that, ‘Hey, I’m working during this. My job’s important.’ Helping people is definitely worth more than $8 an hour.”

Demanding A Just Workplace

Some workers in high-risk jobs are banding together to demand their bosses do more to keep them safe.

Jordan Flowers, a worker at Amazon’s JFK8 facility in Staten Island, protested alongside coworkers in late March and early April to demand the company close its workplace until it could be fully sanitized, as reports emerged that as many as 25 workers had contracted Covid-19. “We’re in a warehouse of 5,000 people,” Flowers says. “You never know who is sick.”

The walkouts at JFK8 followed similar actions at Chicago and Detroit Amazon facilities, and were part of a national campaign to expand paid leave policies for affected workers. (Amazon provides two weeks of paid leave only for employees diagnosed or quarantined with Covid-19.)

Workers who help secure the nation’s food supply are also demanding respect and fatter paychecks.

Unionized grocery workers with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have successfully pressured several large supermarket chains and food producers to secure hazard pay, extra sanitation provisions and paid leave for hundreds of thousands of members. Workers at non-unionized chains, such as Trader Joe’s, are also campaigning for improved safety protections and hazard pay. (Trader Joe’s has made some reforms, like additional paid leave, but at the same time, sent employees a strident antiunion letter to deter organizing.) Meanwhile, Instacart workers—who provide home grocery delivery services for various outlets—went on strikein late March to demand safety equipment and $5 per order in hazard pay.

Meat-processing workers have mobilized to refuse work at claustrophobic plants where hundreds of Covid-19 cases have surfaced. An estimated 830 workers at the JBS USA meat-processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, called off work en masse, and about 50 Perdue chicken-processing workers walked off the job in late March. After some plants temporarily shuttered following outbreaks, President Trump ordered in late April that they remain open as a “critical industry.”

Some of the lowest-paid food service workers are agitating for better safety protections as well. In early April, McDonald’s workers staged protests and walkouts in Los Angeles, St. Louis and other cities to demand hazard pay and adequate safeguards. In San Jose, 26-year-old drive-through worker Irving Garza staged an informal strike with several coworkers to demand hazard pay and safety gear. Customers are constantly hovering within a few feet of his window, most not wearing masks. “I’m breathing the same air that they’re breathing … so I’m putting myself at a big risk,” he says.

Some companies, including Amazon, Instacart, JBS USA, Perdue, McDonald’s and Barnes & Noble, have introduced new safety measures, such as more intensive cleaning, masks and social-distancing rules, and in a few cases, provided additional paid sick leave for Covid-19.

But, fundamentally, workers are standing up for something more: a voice. In terms of physically safeguarding workers’ health, Givan explains, employers can offer protections at their discretion, but “anything that’s given by the good grace of the employer can be taken away just as easily.”

During the McDonald’s protests, the company announced plans to increase safety protections at its restaurants, including distributing masks and hand sanitizer—though it admitted the rollout was still in process at its restaurants, most of which are independently operated franchisees. As of mid-April, protests continued. Garza, who relies on his fast-food job to support his mother and several siblings, returned to work after his manager provided additional safety equipment, but since going on strike, his hours were cut in half.

“McDonald’s should listen to its workers … because they are all at the bottom of the pyramid,” he says. To the bosses, he says, “And we’re not serving you. You are serving us, because we’re the ones that are working. We’re the ones who are making the sales happen, who are working on the line … so just listen to the workers.”

No Papers, No Relief

Many of the workers hardest hit by the pandemic, whether they are laid off or soldiering on in their essential jobs, will receive no support from federal relief legislation—because they are undocumented.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, some 6 million immigrant workers—both with and without legal status—work in “frontline industries,” such as healthcare and manufacturing medicine and soap. Immigrant workers, a large share of them undocumented, hold about a quarter of construction and extraction jobs. Yet undocumented workers are excluded from most federal benefits programs.

So people like Fredy Moreno, an undocumented construction worker in the Twin Cities, won’t get the $1,200 stimulus check other households look forward to. But he has bigger worries, like the more than $13,000 he says he is owed by a previous employer. With the economic downturn compounding his prior employer’s wage theft, Moreno is desperate to get back to work despite the health risks.

“I don’t have the rent,” Moreno says through a Spanish translator. “I don’t have money to buy food for my family. I have a small child. … I don’t have money to go out and buy diapers—if there are even diapers to go buy. It’s been pretty difficult.”

With construction jobs drying up, Moreno laments the exclusion of undocumented workers, who contribute roughly $27 billion in local, state and federal taxes annually, from the federal relief package. “I think that we should be included,” he says, “because we also work, and we also pay taxes … and I think our families also matter.”

While the federal relief package shuts out undocumented workers, several immigrant-focused labor groups, such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), Make the Road New York and Alianza Agrícola, have launched relief funds for workers or pressed state lawmakers to help undocumented workers access aid. In mid-April, NDLON sent a “protest caravan” to California’s statehouse. A day later, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide $125 million relief fund for immigrant workers, regardless of status.

Viral Resistance

Some labor advocates hope the pandemic, and the worker uprisings it is spurring, could compel policymakers, employers and the public to address critical gaps in the welfare system and to start to give frontline workers the respect and fair compensation their essential labor deserves.

The crisis might ultimately “create a moment in the public dialogue and in the political imagination about the choices that we’re making,” says Wendy ChunHoon, executive director of Family Values @ Work, an advocacy group focused on paid leave policies. “Because we could value childcare and care jobs, and the entire care infrastructure … as [equally] important as the carveouts that we’re giving [to] large corporations right now. It’s a choice that we’re making as a country—we could choose differently.”

Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the pandemic “has exposed fundamental basic contradictions in the way public policy has been formulated to benefit the narrow interest of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, at the expense of the vast majority.” He adds the ongoing economic devastation could spur “public demand to address some of these basic structural issues within our society” to provide “a sustainable standard of living for working people.”

Right now, most workers are focused on protecting their health and feeding their families. But the momentum of grassroots organizing in the face of Covid-19 could eventually inspire more workers to form unions, call for comprehensive family-leave policies and demand employers protect jobs through arrangements like work-sharing, which allows employers to use the unemployment system to reduce work hours while avoiding layoffs.

General Electric workers recently agitated at plants in Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia, not only for health protections at work but for jobs that protect the health of others. As members of the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America, they demanded better sanitary conditions and expanded paid leave, along with the conversion of factories where workers have been laid off—which usually produce industrial parts, such as generators and jet engines—to manufacture respirators for coronavirus patients.

Douglas, the former airline-catering employee, is organizing with other airport and service-industry workers under the banner of the Denver Democratic Socialists of America to pressure the city and state government to cancel rent, mortgage and utility bills for 90 days. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced a similar federal bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments, which has been co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), among others.

“All of us feel that if we can’t work, we can’t pay,” Douglas says. As more residents are laid off, then “there’s a tipping point and a crisis coming regardless, and our local elected officials need to do everything they can to support us right now, because the system can’t sustain itself.”

The economy “will never be what it was before,” says Erica Smiley, executive director of the workers’ rights group Jobs with Justice, but says the labor movement has a chance to organize for a more just future. “The question is, will [post-pandemic society] be reorganized to continue to move more resources to those at the top? … Or will it be forever changed in a way that more ordinary people are put into positions to make decisions about our general health and well-being as a society?” Smiley says.

“It will be a fight either way.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a historian based in New York City, a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored podcast.


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Trump is putting the shock doctrine in action, using COVID-19 as an excuse to slash regulations

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It’s not just immigration. Donald Trump plans to use coronavirus as an excuse to weaken environmental, labor, health, and other regulations in exactly the ways he’s wanted to all along. While the White House negotiates with Congress, including Democrats, over what the next round of coronavirus relief could look like, regulatory changes can be made without congressional approval.

The administration already decided not to enforce air quality standards—during a respiratory disease pandemic. Now, Trump and advisers like director of the United States National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and incoming chief of staff Mark Meadows are talking about ideas like suspending regulations on small businesses—an absolute invitation to wage theft and dangerous working conditions, among other things—and “expanding an existing administration program that requires agencies to revoke two regulations for every new one they issue,” The Washington Post reports. Because nothing says “we’re serious about making good policy” like arbitrary rules limiting what the government can do on a strictly numeric level.

“This sounds exactly like the type of opportunistic political move that absolutely should not be attempted right now,” Jared Bernstein, who was the chief economic adviser to Joe Biden during his time as vice president, told The Washington Post. “Correlations between regulations and economic activity are far shakier than they assume, and I don’t believe this idea will help at all.”

According to Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, “all attention should be focused on improving the regulatory state to protect the public. We should be focused on the crisis at hand, not loosening standards.” There’s a great example of someone saying something that is 100% true and 100% not what is on the table in the current administration. Protecting the public? Ha ha. Focused on the crisis at hand rather than on loosening standards—indeed, rather than using the crisis as an excuse to loosen standards? Bitter laughter to infinity.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 21, 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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2018: The Workplace Safety and Health Year in Review

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As we sit here mired in yet another pointless government shutdown stranding tens of thousand of workers without paychecks, we pause to reflect over the past year in workplace safety and health. The madness in Washington DC continues, and while we can’t make any guarantees for the White House or the Senate, things are at least looking up in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the indefatigable Confined Space team (of one) has posted almost 250 times over the past year, talking about the carnage in American workplaces, but also the victories of unions, activists and dedicated government officials. I can’t honestly say I did it ALL by myself. I was aided by the many of you who sent me articles and story ideas that I never would have noted, and those of you who give me the inspiration to go on when I’d really rather be binge-watching some some addictive Netflix series, reading a book or riding my bike. (Actually, I manage to do enough of that as well.)

The real story, of course, continues to be the more than five thousand workers who go to work and never come home, the tens of thousands who die each year from occupational diseases like black lung, silica-related disease and work-related cancers, and the millions of workers who are seriously injured every year in preventable incidents.  The struggle continues as we hope that the lessons of 2018 will help make 2019 a better one for this nation’s working people. 

  1. A New and Improved Congress (or at least the House): The long awaited Blue Wave hit the House of Representatives full force last November, bringing with it real oversight hearings, better budgets and legislation: Donald Trump — along with the Department of Labor and OSHA — don’t know what’s about to hit them come the new Democratically controlled congress and its ability to exercise its oversight function to ensure that Labor Department agencies actually work to fulfill the mandate that Congress has given them.  In a symbolic move, the House has already changed the committee name back to the Committee on Education and Labor, instead of the rather anodyne in impotent “workforce.” But real work is on deck. Workplace safety and health hearings are already being planned, as well as legislation to move improve worker protections. While it’s unlikely that any pro-worker legislation will pass the Senate or be signed by the President, we can expect new ideas and new energy: Rumor has it that a record number of new Democratic House members want to be on the Education and Labor Committee. Something to look forward to.
  2. A Headless Agency: By the end of January, OSHA will move into its third year without an Assistant Secretary — a new record in the 48-year history of the job-protection agency. The confirmation of Trump nominee Scott Mugno remains mired down in a fight between HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) and Republicans who don’t want to confirm Democratic nominees for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC.) The lack of an Assistant Secretary hits particularly hard as other OSHA veterans like Region 8 Administrator Greg Baxter and long-time Director of Enforcement Tom Galassi also retire.  Meanwhile, Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt continues to labor on, almost alone in the once hyper-active Assistant Secretary’s office — no doubt looking forward to testifying at OSHA oversight hearings this year.
  3. Inspectors down, enforcement units down, penalties down: The number of OSHA inspectors has hit an all-time low according to data compiled by Bloomberg Environment Reporter Bruce Rolfsen in November. “The agency ended fiscal 2018 with 753 inspectors, compared to 860 at end of fiscal 2014, the personnel data, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show.” And that means fewer serious injuries being investigated.  And last June, The National Employment Law Project (NELP) issued a report showing that worksite enforcement activity by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is declining under the Trump administration. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta likes to boast that OSHA conducted slightly more inspections in the last two fiscal years than they did in the last year of the Obama administration, but NELP points out that in FY 2017 OSHA changed the way it counts inspections. Instead of just counting the number of inspections conducted, OSHA moved to counting Enforcement Units. And those numbers under Acosta don’t look quite as good as they did under Obama. Things also don’t look too good for workers in at least one state plan state, Kentucky, which suggests that OSHA’s oversight over state plans (which run almost half the country’s OSHA programs) may be weakening as well.
  4. Return of Black Lung: After almost being eradicated in the late 1990s, black lung is back, with a vengeance. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say they’ve identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease ever reported, according to an NPR story by Howard Berkes last January. The cause is not just coal dust, but also silica exposure, caused by cutting through more quartz rock as the coal seams get smaller.  Berkes recently filled out the story alleging that the failure of regulatory agencies to understand what was happening and respond are largely to blame for the new epidemic. Meanwhile, making things worse, the state of Kentucky is killing the messenger by no longer allowing radiologists to diagnose black lung. Only pulmonologists will be allowed to review black lung cases, but there are only six pulmonologists in Kentucky that have the federal certification to read black lung X-rays and four of them routinely are hired by coal companies or their insurers.
  5. Brett Kavanaugh: Republicans confirmed a Supreme Court justice who, in addition to his questionable behavior around women, displayed shockingly little knowledge of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and even less understanding of workers’ struggle to survive in the workplace. After a Orca (aka “Killer Whale”) dismembered and drowned a SeaWorld trainer, Kavanaugh dissented in a court case challenging the resulting OSHA citation. Kavanaugh wrote that OSHA had paternalistically interfered in a worker’s right to risk his or her life in a hazardous workplace, that OSHA had violated its long-standing precedent not to get involved in sports or entertainment, that the agency had no authority to regulate in the sports or entertainment industries and that Congress — and only Congress — could give OSHA that authority. While none of this was true, Kavanaugh nevertheless doubled down on these assertions during his Senate confirmation hearing. Kavanaugh’s opinion related to other workers’ rights issues were not much better.  Nevertheless, today he sits on the Supreme Court.
  6. Regulatory Rollback: OSHA is struggling valiantly to roll back regulations that protect workers and slow down those under way, to fulfill the visions of Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress, and Corporate America. Happily, the curse of OSHA — how impossibly long it takes to issue any single health and safety standard — has become a blessing for workers because it takes almost as long to repeal a standard as it takes to issue a new one.  Nevertheless, OSHA is in the process of attempting to weaken beryllium protections for construction and maritime workers, and striving to roll back a major section of the “electronic recordkeeping” regulation.The good news is that the courts not only upheld OSHA’s silica standard, but also told the agency to add more worker protections or at least explain its decision not to.

    While the road to roll back regulations is long and difficult, the agency’s chance of stopping any significant new workers protections from being finalized is much better. Standards to protect workers from infectious diseases and chemical plant hazards languish on the agency’s “long-term agenda,” while other standards are unlikely to see the light of day anytime in the near future because of Trump’s “one-in, two-out” regulatory budget. 

    Other agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, also contribute to increase hazards for workers by allowing poultry processing facilities to increase line speeds. And EPA is close to repealing Obama era chemical plant safety protections, and the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division is in the process of allowing 16-year-olds to operate potentially hazardous patient lifts.  Bad news not only to workers, but to residents living near chemical plants — and granny in the nursing home.

  7. Methylene Chloride:  The Obama administration had proposed to ban the use of Methylene Chloride due to the deaths of numerous workers and citizens who weren’t aware of the highly hazardous properties of the solvent in enclosed spaces.

    Obama’s EPA, under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, agreed with chemical manufacturers, and decided that a ban wasn’t a very good job. Obviously, if consumers and workers couldn’t read between the lines of the ineffective warnings on the containers, they deserved to die.  After some hard questioning at Congressional hearing, and meeting with family members of the victims of methylene chloride, Pruitt reversed himself and sent the ban to the White House for review. Although the ban has not yet emerged from the dark, dank dungeons of the White House, family members and other organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund Green Chemistry and Commerce Councils, and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, aren’t waiting around. They have succeeded in pressuring retailers like Lowes, Home Depot, WalMart, Sherwin Williams, Home Hardware and True Value to stop selling the product. Organizing and citizen action works, even in Trump times.
  8. The Fate of the Labor Movement: A strong labor movement is good for workers and good for workplace safety. This year has seen ups and downs for the fate of American labor movement.  On the down side, in June, the Supreme Court handed down its Janus decision fulfilling the dreams of corporate America in its quest to weaken not just public employee unions, but the labor movement in general. But public employee unions are not going gentle into that good night. They are fighting back, convincing their members that union membership is the best bargain they’ll find.  And, as labor reporter Steve Greenhouse describes, 2018 saw “a startling surge of strikes in both the private and public sectors” — tens of thousands of teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina went on strike and hotel workers struck in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Honolulu, and San Francisco. And “15,000 patient-care workers, including radiology technicians, respiratory therapists, and pharmacy workers, held a three-day strike against the University of California’s medical centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Irvine, and Davis. An additional 24,000 union members, including truck drivers, gardeners, and cooks, struck in sympathy.” Even 20,000 Google workers walked out to protest how the company handled sexual harassment accusations against top managers.

    The other bad union news was the elimination of the health and safety offices in the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers, continuing the general reduction of health and safety staff still working in American labor unions — not a good thing for the health and safety of American workers, organized or unorganized. 
  9. Journalism: American workers continue to suffer and die in obscurity and the agencies tasked to protect them remain seriously underfunded and legally handicapped. The only hope for many of these workers lies with the excellent investigative pieces published by this country’s dwindling corps of investigative journalists, especially those who focus on labor and health & safety issues. Longtime labor Charleston Gazette-Mail labor reporter Ken Ward received a McArthur Genius Award for his reporting about labor and environmental issues in West Virginia. Ward is teaming up with ProPublica for more hard-hitting pieces in the future.  Retiring National Public Radio reporter Howard Berkes has produced two powerful investigative pieces on the return of black lung disease among the nation’s coal miners. (Here and here.) He will be missed. Veteran investigative reporter Jim Morris at the Center for Public Integrity continues his excellent work, most recently with a story on the deaths of oil field workers and problems at Kentucky OSHAJamie Satterfield at the Knoxville News Sentinel published a hard-hitting piece on the health problems suffered by workers who cleaned up the massive coal-ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant. 

    You can listen to an interview with Satterfield hereAntonia Juhasz of Pacific Standard about the workers working and dying on the Dakota Access Pipeline and how difficult it is for OSHA to enforce safe working conditions.   Will Evans of Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting has focused relentlessly on electric car maker Tesla and documented how the company put style and speed over safety, was hiding injuries and ignoring the concerns of its own safety professionals.  Eli Wolfe of Fair Warning wrote a devastating piece about worker deaths on small farms and how Congress prohibits OSHA from investigating incidents on farms that comprise about 93 percent of U.S. farms with outside employees, employing more than 1.2 million workers. ProPublica’s Kara Feldman penned an investigative piece into the death of Mouctar Diallo, age 21, a Guinean immigrant crushed to death in 2017 by a 40 ton garbage truck, and the plight of New York’s unorganized and mostly immigrant garbage collectors. Chemical and Engineering News reporter Jeff Johnson keeps us up-to-date on goings-on at the Chemical Safety Board here and here. And Kartikay Mehrotra, Peter Waldman and Jonathan Levin of Bloomberg News have written a long piece on how the growing threat of deportation is causing immigrant workers endure abuses in jobs Americans don’t want. 

    And I just want to give a shout-out to some of my favorite labor/OSH/environment reporters:  Labor reporter Steve Greenhouse who continues his eloquent defense of workers even (or especially) after his retirement from the New York Times.  And then there’s Juliette Eilperin and the team at the Washington Post, David Kay Johnston who follows worker issues at DC ReportSuzy Khimm at NBC, Mike Elk of Payday Report, Wooty Sixel at the Houston Chronicle, and . And honorable mention of those who labor for labor at various news bureaus: Rebecca Rainey who has graduated from Inside OSHA to heading up the team at Politico’s Morning Shift. Rebecca’s replacement at Inside OSHA, Ariana Figueroa, and, of course the Bloomberg labor/OSHA team: Josh Eidelson, Sam Pearson, Bruce Rolfson, Peter Waldman.And while they’re not exactly journalists, this is probably a good place to recognize those academics and public interest people (some of whom are former colleagues) who are continuing the battle for worker justice by providing the research and perspective that go into many of the above pieces. My old OSHA colleagues David Michaels, now at George Washington University and Debbie Berkowitz, now working at the National Employment Law Project, both of whom write prolifically in defense of workers’ right to a safe workplace. And, of course, Sharon Block, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School who writes frequently in OnLabor (along with many colleagues), Shanna Devine at Public CitizenKatie Tracy of the Center for Progressive Reform and former Labor Deputy Secretary, rising pundit and my favorite Twitter contributor Chris Lu.

    And finally, while it’s not exactly great journalism, my appearance on MSNBC last January marked the longest cable television coverage of OSHA issues all year.

  10. The Bottomless Swamp: This year happily saw the resignation of two of the Trump administration’s leading swamp monsters: Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke — as well as the resignation and firing of a record number of other high administration officials either because they could no longer look themselves in the mirror in the morning, or because Trump tired of whatever residual residue of integrity they had left. Are things better now. Not so’s you’d notice. 

    As New York Times reporter Eric Lipton tweeted, “As of Thursday, DOD will be run by a former senior Boeing executive. EPA is run by a former coal lobbyist. HHS is run by a former pharmaceutical lobbyist. And Interior will be run by a former oil-industry lobbyist. Welcome to 2019.”  Meanwhile, even the Mr. Clean of the Trump Administration, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta had a bit of a bumpy road in 2018 as the Miami Herald detailed how he gave Palm Beach multimillionaire sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein a legal break when Acosta was Miami’s top federal prosecutor. What will this mean for the comparatively moderate Acosta? Who knows? But even if he survives as Labor Secretary, his chance of ever seeing a coveted federal judicial appointment seems all but vanished.  Oh well, we could have worse Labor Secretaries.

This article was originally published at Confined Space on January 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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When Temp Workers Die While Being Taken to the Job, Who’s Responsible?

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in these timesOn September 24, just after 3 PM, a 36-year-old Haitian immigrant named Marianie Sanon was sitting on a particleboard bench in the back of a van overcrowded with 22 other Haitian temp workers on their way to the night shift at a factory in Evansville, Indiana. She noticed that the van driver seemed to be driving dangerously fast down Interstate 69. Sanon had recently moved from Miami to Washington, Indiana, on the hope of landing a good job at the local branch of a temp agency called ServiceXpress. This would have been her fourth day temping at a plant operated by AmeriQual, an Evansville, Indiana-based manufacturer of prepackaged military food for the Department of Defense.

The last thing Sanon remembers of the van ride was watching the driver—a 30-year-old man named James Allen who helped his father run a van service that he called “Haitian Transportation”—attempt a high-speed, slalom-like maneuver to get around a truck.

Three days later, Sanon emerged from a coma in a hospital in Evansville, Indiana. She had suffered severe head trauma, had several fractured vertebrae, a bone in her left arm had been shattered and she still had shards of glass still imbedded in her body.

The accident had left two of her fellow passengers dead. As it tumbled across the interstate, the van disintegrated, ejecting Sanon onto the pavement and sending more than a dozen other survivors to the hospital. As she lay in her hospital bed and gathered information about her co-workers, Sanon says she began to wonder why she had heard nothing from the temp agency—ServiceXpress, a subsidiary of Delaware-based Service General—that deployed her, or from AmerQual itself. Not only had there been no offer of help, but not a single person from either firm had checked in, called, visited or sent a letter, Sanon says.

Sanon called ServiceXpress and spoke with a manager. “She said she was sorry for what happened to me,” Sanon told me, “but that she cannot do anything for me.”

Sanon soon received a letter from ServiceXpress.

Dear Employee,

We thank you for your time that you have been with ServiceXpress; we want to help in some way from the traumatic experience that you have been through. We hope this gift card and food basket can help you get back on your feet. We want to wish you the best regards in everything you do.

Thank you,

ServiceXpress Staff

Aside from the $50 Walmart credit, Sanon says that she soon received a paycheck from ServiceXpress that came to $71.00. (She says she never received the food basket referenced in the letter and has heard nothing from AmeriQual.) Meanwhile, Sanon, who was airlifted from the crash site, began receiving the first of her medical bills (many more are on their way), which quickly amounted, she says, to roughly $105,000.

Out of work and unable to pay rent on her apartment, Sanon soon became homeless. She currently sleeps in a women’s shelter in downtown Evansville.

The subcontractor maze

Steven Chancellor is the Chairman of AmeriQual, according to Bloomberg. He has an ardent passion for big-game hunting on African safari trips and has even used his wealth and influence to lobby the Botswanan government to lift its ban on lion hunting. Chancellor has also proven an energetic Republican activist, hosting a high-profile fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012. Before that, he reportedly held a Republican fundraiser in 2004 election of President George W. Bush who, from the White House, assisted Chancellor’s crusade against Botswana’s lion hunting ban.

Immediately after the I-69 van crash, AmeriQual expressed sympathy for the victims but also made clear that it had enlisted the workers through ServiceXpress, which sent the temps to the factory for $11 per hour. Yet ServiceXpress, in turn, emphasized that the van’s driver worked for a different business. James Allen, the van’s driver, was recently arrested for his role in the van crash and Neil Chapman, Sanon’s attorney, says Allen likely has little in assets for the crash victims to draw from. (AmeriQual declined to provide comment for this story.)

Since the Great Recession, the temporary staffing industry has boomed, and temp employment has accounted for significant portions of rebounding job growth. Temps—who are employed by agencies and whose labor is simply rented out by third-party businesses—have become seen as some of America’s most vulnerable workers. Labor advocates say that, in treating workers as replaceable units of labor, the temp industry can overlook workers’ most basic human needs.  Through the layering of contractors and subcontractors, many corporations who rely on temps have effectively shielded themselves from numerous forms of liability for temps they retain through third-party agencies.

Labor advocates across the country have identified the safety of vans that transport temp workers to job sites as a key issue. In 2013, ProPublica published a diagram, drawn by a temp worker, of an overcrowded van said to be a typical feature of the New Jersey temp economy. Workers in New Jersey I spoke with this week say that they are still being transported in woefully overcrowded conditions.

“The problems with the vans from the agencies is that they pack them in over capacity,” a Spanish-speaking temp worker in northern New Jersey told me through a translator and labor organizer named Louis Kimmel, the executive director of New Labor. “Logically when it’s over capacity and no one has seatbelts on, for example—and sometimes drivers might be driving when they’re still drunk—we’re putting ourselves at risk just by getting into a full van like that.”

Sanon herself expressed surprise at the lack of responsibility assumed by AmeriQual and ServiceXpress after the crash. “I was like, how am in the hospital and why am I not hearing from anyone?” Sanon said. “I’m very strong, but really, I need help. I cannot do this by myself.”

“A heroic effort”

Bamdad Bahar, the president of ServiceXpress, said that his office in Indiana did more than just send Walmart cards and food baskets. “[O]ur team there provided round the clock support for the employees, including taking family members to and from the various hospitals,” Bahar said in an email. “It was truly a heroic effort.” Bahar said that he had taken out life insurance plans that would provide the families of each deceased worker with a $5,000 payment.

Bahar also reiterated that his company has nothing to do with the accident. “I mentioned we provided maximum support feasible. This was NOT a workmans comp case, and was NOT an industrial accident. The driver and van company are NOT part of our company, and we are NOT responsible for the accident, the blown tire etc.” He added that he is looking into filing a libel suit against the local newspaper in Indiana, the Evansville Courier & Press, for its coverage of the accident. “There is really NO need to refer to us in relation to the accident,” Bahar said in a subsequent email. “I shut my operation in Indiana because of all this negative press.”

After the accident, Jacques Estime, who is involved in Washington, Indiana’s Haitian community, launched a fundraiser for the victims of the I-69 rollover crash. After securing enough money to pay for the funerals of the deceased, Estime said he split the leftover money 17 ways among the injured victims, who will each receive a check from Estime for $196.95.

In late September, shortly after the van crash, AmeriQual announced in a Facebook post that it would launch a donation drive among its full-time employees to compensate the injured temps. Yet Sanon has heard nothing about AmerQual’s fundraiser. It is unclear if the company gathered a single donation. Estime said the ServiceXpress had donated one thousand dollars to a funeral fund.

Estime told me that the victims are coping with an array of physical and psychological injuries. “Some of them are badly hurt, some of them need therapy,” Jacques told me. “Some haven’t been sleeping well. They’ve been having horrible nightmares. All they see are people dying.”

In late October, a Gibson County prosecutor reportedly filed 19 criminal charges against the van’s driver, James Allen, who had tested positive for marijuana during a blood test taken just after the crash. The charges against Allen range from “causing death while operating a vehicle under the influence of a controlled substance” to “causing serious bodily injury while operating under the influence,” according to the Evansville Courier & Press.

Last week, Sanon’s attorney, Neil Chapman, filed a suit against not only James Allen and his father, Robert, who owns the van, but also against Ameriqual and ServiceXpress. The civil complaint seeks to dispute any notion that the Allens’ transit business operated with autonomy from Xpress and AmeriQual, and asserts that the three businesses were operating as a joint venture. “A principle motivating factor for Ameriqual to choose ServiceXpress was because it offered a competitive advantage of other temporary agencies: transportation of the Haitian employees free-of charge as a part of its advertised, integrated incentive package to its factory clients.”

Sanon told me that, before the accident, she still owed $50 to a man she had paid $200 to bring her from Miami to Washington, Indiana. Although the AmeriQual wage was modest, it was the best she could find, she said, and she had hoped to use the earnings to become debt-free. With medical bills that she estimates total over $100,000, that goal now seems impossible.

“I’m struggling for my life right now,” Sanon said. “I cannot do this by myself.”

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on November 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the AuthorSpencer Woodman is a journalist based in New York. He has written on labor for The Nation and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @spencerwoodman and reach him via email at Contactspencerwoodman@gmail.com.


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The Hellish Conditions Facing Workers At Chicken Processing Plants

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Bryce CovertPedro started getting worried when his hands were so swollen he needed a larger size of plastic gloves.

Pedro (which is not his real name) would arrive at the chicken processing plant for Tyson in North Carolina at 5 p.m. to clock in for the second shift. For the next three hours, he says he wouldn’t get a single break from breaking down slaughtered and defeathered chickens, cutting the shoulders and pulling out the tenders, until he was allowed to take a half-hour lunch at 8 p.m. Then it was back to the line until all of the chickens were processed, sometimes at 5 or 6 in the morning.

He says the line moved so quickly that he was processing 45-50 chickens every minute, or nearly one each second. The fast, repetitive motions soon started affecting his hands, which swelled up painfully. They got so large he had to wear 3XL sized plastic gloves. But when he was sent to the plant’s infirmary, he says the nurse simply told him to take ibuprofen and soak his hands in epsom salts and hot water. “The infirmary nurse told me it was nothing to worry about, just your body getting used to it, like when you lift weights and your muscles swell up,” he said on a call with media.

But he didn’t adjust and his hands kept getting worse. He eventually sought out medical treatment from a doctor, who told him he’d never seen injuries as bad as Pedro’s and gave him work restrictions. Yet Pedro says his supervisor ignored the doctor’s orders and put him back to work on the line. “They do not care about the safety of the person, they just care about putting the chickens out,” he said.

He’s worked lots of jobs, many of which — such as construction — were physically demanding. But nothing was quite like the job processing chickens. “Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life, working at the processing plant was the worst job ever,” he said.

In a report released on Tuesday, Oxfam America is launching a new campaign to address what it says are rampant health and safety issues, as well as low pay and few benefits, that face the people who process chicken in the country’s plants. Consumer demand has been growing such that the average American who consumed about 20 pounds of chicken a year in 1950 eats 89 pounds today, and today the industry sells 8.5 billion chickens a year, earning $50 billion.

That demand has come with increased pressure on processing line speeds, which are twice as fast today as they were in 1979, with an upper level of 140 birds per minute today versus 91 back then. But the report claims that speeds can go even higher than that, given that each line is run by a supervisor with the capacity to slow it down or speed it up at any time. In interviews it conducted with current and former workers in Arkansas, Mississippi, and North Carolina, they reported averaged between 35 and 45 birds per minute, or processing more than 2,000 chickens an hour and 14,000 a day.

Workers have to hang, cut, trim, bread, freeze, and package chickens, actions that require multiple motions on each bird. That means that the average worker has to repeat the same motion — cutting, pulling, hacking, twisting, and hanging — 20,000 times a day with force, although some reach as many as 100,000 of the same motion each shift.

This speed, coupled with repeated motions, is a recipe for injury. Workers report pain in their hands, fingers, arms, shoulders, and backs, plus swelling, numbness, tingling, twitching, stiffness, and loss of grip. Some workers say the pain is so intense that it wakes them up at night. Sharp knives and even chicken bones lead to cuts, which can also expose workers to pathogens. The conditions can be long-lasting if not permanent.

They end up with high rates of injuries, although Oxfam warns that even the official numbers can be an undercount. They have ten times the rate of repetitive strain from microtasks than the rest of the workforce, seven times the rate of carpal tunnel syndrome, and five times the rate of musculoskeletal disorders generally. Human Rights Watch has found that poultry workers are 14 times more likely to have injuries such as “claw hand,” where their fingers get locked in a curled position, or ganglionic cysts where fluid is deposited under the skin. In a 2013 survey from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 86 percent of workers reported hand and wrist pain, swelling, or numbness or the inability to close their hands.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 4.32.50 PM
Credit: OXFAM

They also report being exposed to harsh chemicals, often used to clean up the blood, offal, and grease that flows from the birds. One survey found that every single worker reported being exposed to chemicals on the job, with half exposed to chlorine and 21 percent to ammonia.

“Despite industry claims that conditions are improving and injury rates are dropping, we don’t believe that they’re true,” Oliver Gottfried, senior advocacy and collaborations advisor at Oxfam, said on the media call.

In a statement, Tyson said, “we believe in fair compensation, a safe and healthy work environment and in providing workers with a voice.” It said it has the highest entry-level pay in many poultry communities, provides health and dental benefits, provides health and safety trainings, requires workers to report injuries and illnesses, allows them to leave the line to use the bathroom, and employs 500 health and safety professionals. Perdue said in a statement that it provides “competitive wages” above minimum wage, comprehensive benefits, and paid time off. It also pointed to its lost-time rate as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 0.17 per 100 workers compared to .8 for all industries, and its incident rate as recorded by OSHA of 2.23 compared to 4.5 for the industry. Pilgrim’s and Sanderson representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The industry also says the injury rate has steadily fallen over the last 20 years. But that data is often based on self-reported rates. Meanwhile, sending a worker to the company infirmary and instructing him to take Advil rather than to a regular doctor, as Pedro says he experienced, means a company doesn’t have to official record an injury in its log.

“Employers have been going to great lengths to avoid taking responsibility for these injuries,” said Celeste Monforton, professional lecturer at George Washington University and a former legislative analyst for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Then there’s the problem of breaks. The bathroom is particularly challenging, as workers say they have to get a supervisor to find another employee to fill their spots to keep the line running while they relieve themselves. Workers report that they have to wait an hour or more to get a break. Some say that to cope, they severely cut back on drinking liquids or even wear diapers. Pedro has seen people urinate on themselves while working on the line out of fear of losing their jobs if they leave to use the bathroom.

Tyson specifically refutes this issue in its plants, saying in a statement, “we make it very clear to our production supervisors that they are to allow Team Members to leave the production line if they need to use the restroom. Not permitting them to do so is simply not tolerated.”

All of this is undertaken for low wages. Oxfam reports that they average about $11 an hour, or between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. For every dollar spent on a chicken product, a worker sees just two cents. That kind of pay qualifies a poultry worker with two children for food stamps and free school lunches.

And they still might not see all of their promised pay. Workers report often working more than 40 hours a week — they’re required to stay at most plants until all chickens are processed — but rarely get overtime pay. There have also been investigations and lawsuits finding that plants fail to pay workers for time spent putting on and taking off all of their safety gear or for their lunch breaks. SPLC found that nearly 60 percent have to pay for some or all of their protective equipment, eating into their wages.

On top of all of that, Oxfam did not find a single worker who got paid time off for illness, vacation, or personal leave.

Yet the industry is profitable. The top four companies — Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson — control about 60 percent of the market. Tyson made $856 million in profit last year, Pilgrim’s made $711 million, and Sanderson made $249 million.

Oxfam is hoping that by drawing attention to the issue of safety, consumers will be inspired to push back. Its reforms include lower line speeds and higher staffing numbers, stronger training, more frequent breaks, and dealing with and reporting workers’ injuries. “They need to have respect for workers,” Minor Sinclair, Oxfam America’s regional director, said. It’s targeting the four largest because, he said, “They’re the ones that have the lion’s share of employees and the lion’s share of the market. They influence the market for other poultry companies.”

Pedro will miss out on any improvements, as he was fired, he says because he had been raising awareness about rights among his coworkers at the Tyson plant. He noted people used to ask him why he would put up with those conditions at work, but there are few other jobs on offer in his area.

“I’m trying to pay my bills, pay my rent, feed my family,” he said. “I have to do what I have to do to survive.”

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on October 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.


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Half of Food Workers Go to Work Sick Because Lack of Paid Sick Leave Forces Them To

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LauraClawsonPaid sick leave isn’t just the right thing to do for people who currently face the choice of going to work sick, or going without pay. It’s a public health issue.

Fifty-one percent of food workers — who do everything from grow and process food to cook and serve it — said they “always” or “frequently” go to work when they’re sick, according to the results of a survey released Monday. An additional 38 percent said they go to work sick “sometimes.” […]But it’s not as if these sick food workers are careless. Nine out of 10 workers polled in the new survey said they feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their customers. Yet about 45 percent said they go to work sick because they “can’t afford to lose pay.” And about 46 percent said they do it because they “don’t want to let co-workers down.”

That means that customers are exposed to those sick workers’ illnesses. And that, in turn, can be a serious issue:

“One of the most egregious examples that I describe in the book is a worker at a Fayetteville, N.C., Olive Garden [who] was forced to work with hepatitis A because [Olive Garden] doesn’t have an earned sick leave policy,” [Saru] Jayaraman says. As a result, Jayaraman says, 3,000 people had to be tested for hepatitis A at the Cumberland County, N.C., health department.

Most cases aren’t that dramatic, of course, but norovirus is often spread by food workers, and you really don’t want norovirus. Yet somehow Republican morality says that these workers in one of the lowest-paying industries should stay home to protect the rest of us while being denied basic protections themselves, and risking their ability to pay the bills and put food on the table for every day they stay home sick.

Paid sick leave is gaining momentum in the United States, with four states—Connecticut, Oregon, California, and Massachusetts—now having laws requiring it for most workers. But it will never be federal law as long as Republicans have the ability to block it.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on October 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.


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How the Poultry Industry is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

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Michelle ChenWalk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

“I shouldn’t say it’s work-related. If I say my pain comes from something I did at work, then I will be laid off without pay and three days later get fired. So, when I go to the nurse I tell her that I hurt my hands at home.”

In towns that lack decent job opportunities outside of the poultry industry, these workers face an oppressive workplace culture that undermines not only their health but their dignity. Workers reported “being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”

Conditions may soon worsen, the SPLC notes, because the Department of Agriculture is seeking to alter regulations to allow even faster line speeds. That means the already frenzied pace of production–whipping bird carcasses into hermetically sealed flesh pellets in a matter of seconds–might speed up even more under a controversial set of proposed changes to plant inspection protocols.

The planned reforms have been criticized as counterproductive because they transfer control of inspections from federal inspectors to company employees. The revamped inspection process would, according to critics, both give corporations more power to regulate their own henhouse while accelerating the already frighteningly hectic pace of production. Some USDA inspectors have criticized the proposal, warning that with the combination of sped-up lines and company-controlled oversight, these industry-backed efforts to “modernize” the production chain may create more safety risks. So safety standards for both consumers and workers might be further weakened. (Industry representatives dispute the SPLC’s research, insisting that the proposal would not harm safety standards.)

Underlying labor injustices have exacerbated the immediate workplace hazards. The mostly black and Latino workforce, which includes many documented and undocumented immigrants, generally have little recourse against abusive employers. Many saw their pay arbitrarily cut by deductions for housing expenses and other fees. Meanwhile, for female workers, sexual harassment was a commonly reported issue. Harsh immigration enforcement laws, which were recently tightened by state legislation that seeks to further criminalize undocumented Latino workers, has made them even more economically insecure and socially marginalized.

One structural problem making poultry workers especially vulnerable, the researchers argue, is that despite some general occupational safety guidelines for poultry plants, OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers,” which constrains workers’ ability to take legal action against unsafe working conditions or unfair treatment.

The report’s author, SPLC advocate Tom Fritzsche, says that while OSHA can enforce general workplace protections, regulatory gaps nonetheless enable the industry to structure its labor system around loophole-ridden standards for food production, which are not focused on worker safety. “This specific [line speed] rule from USDA is not really intended originally as a worker protection standard… The speed that they currently run at is based more on whether the inspectors can see the chickens, rather than how the workers can do the work safely,” he says. As a result of these regulatory lapses, “We’ve kind of ended up in a world where this is the only limit on speeds.”

Until state and federal regulators start prioritizing workers’ labor rights and health needs, the unsafe work environment, Fritzsche adds, “ultimately comes from the fact that the whole industry is just operating in this kind of race to produce as many chickens as they can in as little amount of time as they can. And so it affects every aspect of the worker’s job.”

But all those bitter hardships are stowed far away from the millions of super-clean, ultra-cheap drumsticks that will end up on American dinner tables tonight. Countless consumers will enjoy their meals without any conception of how perfectly the poultry industry masks the true price of its brutal efficiency.

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 21, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.


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