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Striking Bus Drivers Steer the Way to a Better World

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All eyes are on essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, as individuals, companies and even the federal government make a point to thank them for their heroic action: working. Frontline workers have received plenty of symbolic accolades, but many are working without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay, and are scared for their health and safety. Public transit workers, who shuttle other essential workers to and from work, have been sounding the alarm about poor safety standards at their jobs since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents 200,000 workers in the United States and Canada, told In These Times that nearly 1,000 of its members have been infected with coronavirus, and almost 40 have died. In response, the union has taken action by setting up coronavirus test sites, sharing information about safety gear, and lobbying both the federal and state governments to do more to protect transit workers. It has also partnered with the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) to increase its strength.

But the best way for workers to show their strength is to withhold their labor, and ATU locals across the country are engaging in work stoppages to make sure transit agencies understand what’s at stake if they don’t take immediate action to protect workers and riders. Bus drivers in Detroit kicked off the wave of workplace actions on March 17, relatively early in the pandemic, by shutting down bus service throughout the city, leaving only 10% of buses running. They won all of their demands around health and safety, including suspension of fares, rear door entrance, and PPE for drivers—but unfortunately, at least one bus driver has died from coronavirus. (ATU International President John Costa says that transport workers “have been the biggest casualty from this pandemic.”)

Several Birmingham drivers took action next and refused to work on March 23, in order to make the transit authority increase safety. They went back to work the following day after having won multiple safety measures, including a mandate that  passengers only use the rear door when boarding and exiting buses, physical barriers around the  operator seating area to give drivers social distance from riders, and only allowing 15 to19 passengers on each bus, depending on size of the bus. Gregory Roddy, President of ATU Local 725 in Birmingham, told In These Times that bus drivers “are here ready to work. But we will not work in an unsafe environment.”

Drivers in Richmond, Virginia and Greensboro, North Carolina also took action for safety on the job the following month. On April 27, about 50 drivers in Richmond caused massive service delays by calling out of work to demand hazard pay, in addition to other safety precautions, like PPE, on-site testing, and furlough protections. Two days later, bus service was stopped in Greensboro as some drivers refused to show up at work after a fellow driver tested positive for Covid-19. The transit authority sanitized buses and workspaces, and drivers returned to work the following day. Roddy shared that the coronavirus pandemic has inspired Alabama bus drivers to take action, and that their next fight is for hazard pay. Roddy said that “one person can be broken, but all of us together, we can be strong.”

Layoffs have swept the nation and transit workers are not immune: They have also been laid off and furloughed. President Costa said that without federal intervention, layoffs and cuts to mass transit could continue, long after the pandemic. But he also said his members are ready to fight back: “If we can build ships and bombs, we can transfer money back into the public transit system to keep the cities alive.”

The coronavirus pandemic has opened up new conversations about the future of public transit—in mostly scary ways, unless workers organize to take more control. Because so many people are now either laid off or working from home, ridership is down by 75% nationwide, according to statistics from the Transit App company, so bus lines have been cut, and trains come less frequently. And because numerous cities like New York and Philadelphia are pushing austerity budgets in response to deficits caused by the pandemic, many workers, riders and transit and environmental advocates are concerned that public transportation won’t be restored to its previous level of service. This could leave thousands of union members out of work, and countless others struggling to get to work, school and appointments on time.

But there are also openings to create a better, healthier future, as the pandemic has forced many of us to reckon with the past and imagine a new world. And as the coronavirus crisis has rocked our society, carbon dioxide emissions are projected to drop by about 8% this year. Businesses are closed, air travel has decreased, and millions of people are stuck at home, limiting emissions—for now. Going back to business as usual is not an option for the climate—and it’s not an option for workers either. This is not to argue that the pandemic is in any way a good thing: There is no doubt that the pandemic has ravaged our society, and there’s no way to spin that positively.

The coronavirus crisis is a wakeup call for the climate crisis, which will be far worse. Our only choice is to reimagine our society—to make jobs safer, and to massively invest in public transit, in order to help workers through this crisis and mitigate the climate crisis, which is poised to be far worse. Because of coronavirus, the fossil fuel industry is in total disarray, with prices collapsing and demand falling. By increasing public transportation, we can continue decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, even when businesses begin to reopen and more people go back to work. This is also an opportunity to create more good, union jobs—especially when unemployment is at nearly 25%. Bus drivers have already proven that they’re willing to take action to fight for health and safety on the job—and win. But what else can transport workers struggle for?

ATU says its “members already know that public transit is far more environmentally sustainable.” The union obviously supports expanding public transit—that means more workers, and more members—but it also supports making it free and powering it by the wind, sun, and seas. A retiree from Local 732 in Georgia, Paul McLennan, agrees that “it’s a no brainer. We need more public transit to get people out of cars.” Building and using electric-powered buses and moving away from fossil fuels would of course be gigantic undertakings for the union, but there’s really no other choice if we have any hope of a real future for our climate. The union choosing to prioritize fighting for expanded public transit—and fighting against austerity—opens up doors to work with environmental groups and free transit advocates, and to build the coalition necessary to actually win these huge demands. We’ve already seen this coalition at work during coronavirus—350.org, Sierra Club, and Sunrise Movement joined with ATU and TWU to demand that Congress increase the allocation for emergency assistance to public transportation.

This work is no small feat, but President Costa said that “we’ve been shut down for six weeks. Oil is worthless, they’re giving it away. Now the air is better, the world is cleaner. It pays to have a good and safe transit system in our world, and the Green New Deal means creating better jobs.” If we want to transition to a more just society, transport workers’ jobs must be safe and dignified, and we have to create more of them by expanding public transit. In the words of McLennan, “when we see problems from all sides, it makes for better solutions.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on May 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Trader Joe’s Said I Was ‘Essential’—Safety Concerns Made Me Quit

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I quit my job this month. No, not the well-paying NGO summer position; that was canceled weeks ago. Not the paid internship either; my boss hasn’t returned my emails or sent me back pay for the past month. I decided to let go of my last source of income because Trader Joe’s didn’t appear to take their workers’ safety seriously when I was working there.

As COVID-19 has swept through the country, the spread of the virus has been accompanied by a massive shift in how we view our workers. Blue-collar starter jobs—the grocery clerks, janitors, and postal workers of the U.S.—are now seen as essential to the survival of our country. Though they are often praised on social media and by elected officials, policy has yet to catch up.

Across America workers and their unions are rallying for increased protections and accommodations in these unprecedented times, demanding proper protective gear, sick leave, and hazard pay in order to continue to serve the public.

Some national retailers like Walmart and Target have increased wages and protections for their workers, but others, like Trader Joe’s, have been reluctant.

I have some health issues. Not too bad, but enough to make me think twice before going outside during a respiratory illness pandemic. I had always loved my job, and genuinely looked forward to showing up, especially in a time of crisis, to help my community and maybe make someone’s day that much better. I trusted my team to keep me safe. But the billion-dollar company let me down.

At Trader Joe’s, your coworkers are called your “crew,” and upper management takes the moniker “mate,” with the store manager as our “captain.” Nautical titles aside, leadership has been lacking since this crisis began and the policies around personal protection have been confusing at best.

One week we weren’t allowed to wear gloves at all. Then next, we could wear gloves when stocking shelves, but not at the register. No masks allowed, period. No restrictions on how many people can enter the store, and no guidance around social distancing and how to stay safe as a cashier.

In our daily meetings, whimsically called “huddles,” I heard less about how to protect yourself from infection and more about why unionizing would hurt us.

As the weeks went on, and the full scope of the situation became apparent, I kept waiting to hear that our management would do something. Finally, the day came, and I was shocked: there was no message of safety protocols, no guidance on how to minimize contact, just a disclosure that those who had worked during the first weeks of panic would get a small share of the profits from the store as compensation. For most, this amounted to less than $2 per hour.

A week later, for my own safety, I quit.

I ultimately made my decision from a place of privilege, and I am thankful that I had the means to make a decision like that in the first place. I am fortunate to have family with the means to support me. I have lost all my income, and like many, will not see a cent from the Care Act tax refund. I am ineligible for unemployment benefits, but unlike other immunocompromised workers, I have the luxury to sit at home and wait this out, for now at least.

Since I quit, I understand there has been some clarification in store policies. Officially, masks are now allowed, and stores can limit the number of customers. Yet still, daily reports come in from stores around the country detailing contradictory messaging from management, and confusion over what the store’s policies are. There has been a temporary 10 percent increase to the employee discount. Employees are still encouraged to donate their own paid leave to their peers. I received a letter from national management two days ago, one that went out to all TJ’s workers around the country. I opened it eagerly, hoping it contained some new information about medical leave, or compensation. It was two pages on the dangers of unions.

The pandemic has revealed the urgent need for billionaires profiting from the food industry to truly protect and support workers on the front lines. Treat your grocery workers like the heroes they are for continuing to work in the face of danger. Just understand that for many, they have no other option.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. April 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Frakes is a former Trader Joe’s employee. To protect the author from workplace retribution, their name has been changed.


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Striking McDonald’s Workers Say Their Lives Are More Essential Than Fast Food

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The fast food industry has long insulated itself from organized labor by building a legal wall between the parent company and the individual franchised stores. That imaginary separation is being tested by the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, as McDonald’s workers across the country have held strikes and walked out, unwilling to risk their lives for fries with no safety net.

The Fight For $15 has found fertile new ground in helping to organize fast food strikes in recent days. McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa, Raleigh-Durham and elsewhere have staged job actions this week, in a coordinated push for safer working conditions, paid sick leave and hazard pay.

Maria Ruiz, who has spent 16 years at McDonald’s, was one of the workers who went on strike yesterday outside of her store in San Jose, California. Ruiz said that employees have been worried for their own health for the entire past month, watching the store’s dwindling supply of hand sanitizer, gloves and cleaning supplies. On some days, there was no hand sanitizer at all. Ruiz says employees were only recently granted permission to wear masks at work, despite the fact that there are often more than a dozen people crowded into the store’s lobby.

“We are tired of taking the risk,” said Ruiz, who earns $16.35 per hour in a city that has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. McDonald’s workers are asking for an extra $3 per hour hazard pay, along with adequate protective equipment, a guarantee of two weeks of paid sick leave for anyone who needs to quarantine, and a guarantee that the company will cover their health care costs if they get sick with COVID-19. Ruiz acknowledges that she needs to work in order to pay her bills, but said that she could no longer ignore the danger to her health. “I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she said, “but I’m more afraid to lose my life.”

The Fight For 15 said that the McDonald’s workers are expected to stay away from work until their demands for protective equipment on the job are met. It seems likely that the country will see a steady, rolling procession of fast food walkouts in coming weeks, part of a nationwide strike wave that has been gathering momentum over the past month. Grocery workers, warehouse workers, factory workers, construction workers, and others who are directly exposed to the danger of infection on the job have all walked out in protest, doubtful that their low wages make up for the risks they’re taking.

After a decade of organizing fast food workers, the Fight For 15 is well positioned to facilitate these types of job actions on short notice. One of the movement’s key wins—a step that promised to make it significantly easier for organized labor to exert influence on a national scale in the fast food industry—came in 2015, when the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board revised the “joint employer” standard to make it easier to hold fast food companies like McDonald’s responsible for the labor standards at their franchised stores. The Trump administration’s NLRB rolled back that rule change, meaning McDonald’s is once again able to keep a legal wall between the parent company and the behavior of its franchisees.

In response to questions about employee walkouts in California, McDonald’s referred to a letter from McDonald’s USA president Joe Erlinger, promising to provide gloves, increased store cleaning, “wellness checks” for employees, and to send “non-medical grade masks to the areas of greatest need.” The company also sent a statement from the owner-operator of the store in Los Angeles where employees walked out this weekend, saying the store underwent “thorough sanitization” after a worker tested positive for COVID-19, and that workers who were in contact with that person were offered two weeks of paid quarantine leave. (The fact that the statement from the store owner is being sent out by McDonald’s corporate PR team highlights how closely the parent company and store owners are intertwined, joint employer standard notwithstanding.)

Though more visible “essential” workers, like grocery store employees, have successfully won hazard pay from a number of companies, fast food workers face a steeper challenge: They are forced to continue working by employer mandate and by economic need, but still viewed as a nonessential by much of the public. Without intense public pressure or widespread work stoppages, it is easy for major fast food chains to continue with business as usual, offloading all of the risk onto those below them.

“We are essential workers,” said Maria Ruiz, “but my life is essential too.” 

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Social distancing complaints at city businesses flood 311

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Michelle Bocanegra

The few commercial establishments still operating in New York City saw more than 1,500 complaints of inadequate social distancing in a single week, as officials struggle to keep residents of the most densely populated big city in America away from each other.

Even with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo closing nonessential businesses on March 22, New Yorkers have had difficulty keeping their distance. And businesses like grocery stores, street vendors and takeout restaurants that have remained open are having trouble policing their customers.

The number of social distancing complaints against commercial establishments placed through the city’s 311 platforms hit 1,572 early Sunday morning, spanning a weeklong stretch of complaints beginning March 29, according to 311 data analyzed by POLITICO. And one of the biggest hot spots is a complex managed by the city’s own Economic Development Corporation.

Businessesthat have continued to operate in varying capacities amid the public health crisis took up more than a third of roughly 4,200 social distancing complaints reported to 311 that week. Businesses can control some aspects of social distancing — but much customer behavior remains out of their control, associations, owners and advocates said in interviews with POLITICO.

The business obligation is really around how many people are in that store at a time,” said Jessica Walker, president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “Beyond that, though … aisles are not necessarily big. How do you move people around?”

The guidance to socially distance — or maintain six feet between people to abate the rampant spread of the virus — has become a volatile aspect of daily life among New Yorkers otherwise accustomed to tight spaces and contact with strangers due to the physical constraints of city life.

The NYPD reported its first social distancing-related homicide last week — an 86-year-old hospital patient in Brooklyn who allegedly failed to maintain a safe distance was struck dead by another patient.

Businesses across the city received social distancing complaints on average every six minutes, according to POLITICO’s analysis. But among commercial establishments, the complaints have been concentrated in Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, received 14 complaints over the week examined by POLITICO —the highest number of complaints received among business establishments across the city.

The commercial complex spans 95 acres in Sunset Park and is a mix of warehouse operations, offices and docks. It has been operational during the Covid-19 crisis, an EDC spokesperson confirmed, though she could not say how many occupants fell under the exemption.

The spokesperson said the agency hadn’t been aware of the complaints until POLITICO inquired about them.

“The Brooklyn Army Terminal is an essential hub, in fact one of the tenants, Makerspace, produced face shields in-house for NYC Hospitals,” said agency spokesperson Shavone Williams in an email. “EDC has sent clear communications to all tenants outlining latest guidelines from the Mayors Office, Department of Health and CDC.”

Cesar Zuñiga, chairperson for Community Board 7 in Sunset Park, said he hadn’t heard members complain of the situation. He was, however, “concerned” about the complaints, given that the terminal is managed by the city’s EDC.

The 311 data isn’t immune to blind spots. It does not specify who made the complaints, such as a customer, neighbor or employee. But establishments have grappled with challenges to maintaining a healthy distance.

There is a growing concern among New Yorkers about social distancing in supermarkets, the root of which Elizabeth Peralta, executive director of the National Supermarket Association, attributed to some customers who haven’t yet adjusted their habits to the new reality.

“We’re seeing things get better and better,” said Peralta, whose association has a few hundred member businesses in New York City. “But we definitely see the negligence of people.”

Four grocery stores in Manhattan and Queens were among the top five recipients of complaints. A Fairway Market in West Harlem received eight complaints in the same week. Another Fairway, on the Upper West Side, received seven complaints; a Trade Fair Supermarket in Elmhurst, and a Met Foods in Middle Village, Queens,trailed close behind with six complaints.

Bill Fani, owner of the Middle Village Met Foods,said not all customers were taking adequate precautions within his 9,000 square foot store.

“I understand the social distancing. The store’s only so big. We allow x amount of people in the store. We put up signs … but how do I enforce people?” he said.

The remaining grocers and their parent companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Some supermarkets have hired security personnel to safeguard against masses of people entering. Gov. Cuomo extended his order on Monday to shutter nonessential businesses, leaving grocers among those spared, until April 29.

Many grocery workers have been on edge over their continued exposure to fellow New Yorkers.

Street vendors have similar concerns. None yet have tested positive for the virus, according to Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, as far as he knew.

Vendors haven’t been fined or shut down by the NYPD over social distancing complaints, since it hasn’t been a major issue, Attia said. The same was the case for restaurants and bars, limited to takeout and delivery.

“Not to say that it hasn’t happened, but I’m not aware of that,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

According to the NYPD’s breakdown of coronavirus-related enforcement, it made three arrests and issued 21 summonses in roughly the same time frame. The department did not respond to a request for further comment.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Bocanegra is an intern for POLITICO New York. She was previously at amNewYork and is currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school.


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Four grocery workers have died of COVID-19 in recent weeks and dozens more have tested positive

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Grocery workers have become some of the most essential workers of the coronavirus crisis—making clear that we’ve relied on them all along. But it’s also a dangerous job, exposing workers to hundreds of customers a day, often without adequate protective gear. The terrible, predictable result is that grocery workers are starting to die of the virus.

At least four grocery workers have died recently. Leilani Jordan, a worker at a Maryland Giant store, died last week. Phillip Thomas and Wando Evans, both of whom worked at the same Illinois Walmart store, died in late March. And an unidentified Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, New York, died on Monday. Dozens more grocery workers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19.

At the same time, grocery chains are trying to hire tens of thousands more workers, with many offering the princely sum of $2 extra per hour and pledging to improve access to masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Some stores are also putting up plexiglass dividers between workers and customers.

But anyone coming into contact with hundreds of people a day is going to be in danger of being infected by COVID-19. An extra $2 an hour is not enough for that risk, and the fact that grocery retailers think it is is a sign of how unequal the U.S. economy is, and how desperate that leaves some people to pay their bills.

We should honor the workers who’ve died, and those who are sick and suffering. But let’s be clear that the best way to honor them is to protect them from the virus, to pay them as the essential workers they are, to support them in efforts to organize and build power, and to press for stronger labor laws.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on April 7, 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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Hospital Food Workers and Janitors Are Stuck In a “Death Trap”

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kari-lydersen

The hospital where Kim Smith works is supposed to be a “safe haven,” says the patient care technician at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. But now she feels it has become a “death trap.”

Like the nurses and doctors nationwide who are risking their lives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith says she’s glad to help provide healthcare in such traumatic times. But she’s among the army of frontline healthcare service providers who, while crucial to keeping the system going, are earning much lower wages than doctors and nurses and often lack adequate healthcare and paid sick leave. And like doctors and nurses, these service workers often also lack access to personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, even though they’re put in contact with infected patients.

Now, Chicago-area healthcare service workers—technicians, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), transporters, food service workers and housekeepers—are demanding better treatment and protection from their institutions, as well as additional “hazard pay” for their work during the crisis.

On April 2, SEIU Local 73—which represents workers at University of Illinois and Cook County public healthcare facilities in the Chicago area—announced that it had secured additional compensation for its workers in the university system. Union members will get an additional $1 to $5 per hour during the pandemic depending on their job description and where exactly they work within the system. The county system serves the area’s low-income and uninsured people including the hospital at the Cook County Jail, which has turned into a COVID-19 cluster.

“The extra pay is not a really significant amount but it acknowledges that we recognize you, we know you are great, that you really care about your job and your community,” says Dian Palmer, a registered nurse and president of SEIU Local 73, which has been in contract negotiations with the University of Illinois system for about nine months.

The union SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana represents workers through contracts at hospitals including Northwestern Memorial and also has at-large members in nursing homes and hospitals in the Chicago area and across four states. They’re demanding hazard pay of 1.5 times the usual rate, and added protections for their members.

Smith, a chief steward for SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana, says fellow union members at Northwestern are “reaching out to me on an hourly basis” about being forced to work without proper safety equipment and protocols while receiving contradictory messages from management. Employees have been told to continue working even after they report COVID-like symptoms if they are “low-risk” for the disease, Smith says. With many of these workers living on the economic margins, and offered few paid sick days, they’re reluctant to take time off.

About 29,000 healthcare service workers in Illinois make below $15 an hour, and 22,000 of them make below $13 an hour, according to a study by the University of Illinois. Palmer notes that service job vacancies have been hard to fill at the University of Illinois Chicago hospital since they’re exempt from the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance.

Anne Igoe, SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana Vice-President of the Health Systems Division, notes that with such low wages, these employees regularly work more than one job—whether picking up a second shift at a nursing home or as an Uber driver—increasing their own, and by extension patients’, risk of contacting coronavirus. She says employees are also used to working while sick, since they typically are guaranteed few paid sick days and until recent changes because of the pandemic, were penalized for taking extra ones.

Igoe says the majority of their Chicago-area members are African American and are women, many of them living in marginalized neighborhoods and with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of extreme illness or death from COVID-19. In Chicago, more than two-thirds of the COVID-19 fatalities and more than half of confirmed cases have been among African Americans, even though they make up less than a third of the city’s population.

In cities nationwide, as in Chicago, lower-paid healthcare service jobs are disproportionately filled by women and people of color.

“This pandemic has made it clear who has access to testing, who has access to quality healthcare,” Igoe says. “Our low-wage workers in the finest hospitals are not given protections and not given the same access to follow-up care that some of their patients have.” 

Katina McDavis, 43, has been working as a housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial for over 20 years. She has diabetes, putting her at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. McDavis also lives with her daughter and two infant grandchildren, and is terrified of contracting the virus and passing it on to them.

Since the pandemic began, McDavis has been working overtime—often over 60 or 70 hours a week total, she says. She needs the extra pay and wants to help out, but that also leaves her physically exhausted and potentially more vulnerable to illness.

She and other housekeepers are given surgical masks—not the more protective N-95 masks—and told to keep them in a paper bag and reuse them, she says. In an informal survey of about 250 SEIU Healthcare members during an online meeting, 58% reported they lack sufficient PPE and 38% said they were told by higher-ups that they don’t need PPE.

“I’m jeopardizing myself coming here every day,” McDavis says. “I love my work but just give me the tools I need to do my job.” 

Candice Martinez, another housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial, tested positive for COVID-19 after coming down with symptoms about two weeks ago. She feels confident she contracted it on the job, having cleaned rooms where she says she was not properly notified that patients had the virus.

“It’s hard because I’m in complete isolation and I don’t get to see my son,” Martinez says. “It’s scary knowing there’s nothing they can give me to say this will help you get past this. It’s having to battle this out on my own.”

While Martinez believes she will receive workers compensation for the time she is out of work, Igoe says that human resources officials at several hospitals have told the union that workers will not be granted workers comp for COVID-19, since they could have caught it through community transmission.

Igoe says employees often “find out co-workers tested positive through the grapevine, rather than being told by their employer that someone they worked closely with yesterday tested positive.”

A statement from Northwestern Memorial did not address specific questions but said in part that: “The health and safety of our employees, physicians, and patients is our highest priority. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an environment that protects everyone.”

Loretto Hospital on the city’s West Side—where SEIU Healthcare represents employees—has granted time-and-a-half hazard pay to employees in the emergency department and COVID-19 unit. 

Loretto spokesperson Mark Walker says that workers do have access to sufficient PPE supplies, the hospital follows all CDC safety guidelines, and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will be paid during their time off. But the hospital is indeed hard-pressed as it serves a largely poor, African American clientele, Walker says. At an April 7 press conference, hospital CEO George Miller, Jr. and State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, who represents the district, appealed to the city, county, state and federal government for more resources. 

“We are a small community hospital, 90% of our patients are Medicare and Medicaid meaning we’re providing services and being reimbursed at a much lower rate,” Walker said. “You take a pandemic like this and add it onto an already stretched-thin hospital, and you can reach a breaking point. We’re not there yet, but it creates additional stress on our resources and our funds. We’re trying to do everything we can to protect this community. Without additional resources, we’re going to struggle.”

Wellington Thomas is an E.R. tech at Loretto, said he goes to work each day fearing he may contract the disease. 

“COVID turned our world upside down,” Thomas says. “We’re dealing with an influx of patients, the equipment we already struggled with (having enough of) is now scarce, employees are afraid to come to work…It’s not just contained areas, it’s spreading like a wildfire through the hospital—radiology, imaging, phlebotomy, blood tests.” 

(The Cook County health system had not responded to requests for comment by the time this story went to press.)

At other hospitals as at Loretto, workers say the pandemic has highlighted issues like inadequate staffing, low wages and insufficient equipment that have long pushed healthcare service workers to the brink.

“Support staff like us have been the underdogs for a long time,” says Megan Carr, a respiratory specialist who runs ventilators for the University of Illinois system. “So getting hazard pay makes us feel like we are finally being recognized and respected for the work that we are doing, saving lives one breath at a time.”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on April 7, 2020.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.


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Is Building Missiles ‘Essential’? The U.S. Government Thinks So.

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Taylor Barnes, Author at Culinary Backstreets

On March 19, after the novel coronavirus had spread to all 50 states, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)—the branch of Homeland Security that oversees critical infrastructure—released a list of which sectors of the economy employ “the essential workers needed to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily.” The list includes mostly obvious essentials such as healthcare, food and agriculture, and wastewater management. It also includes another sector: workers in the defense industry.

Ellen Lord, top weapons buyer for the Department of Defense, wrote in a related March 20 memo that, “if your contract or subcontract supports the development, production, testing, fielding, or sustainment of our weapons systems/software systems, or the infrastructure to support those activities, [they] are considered Essential Critical Infrastructure.”

That broad designation has led to ongoing scenes inside the nation’s military-industrial workplaces at odds with the new daily reality of millions of Americans, more than three-fourths of whom are in places with stay-at-home orders.

“Every single day I am in a plant where 500-plus people have touched maybe the same part,” says Brad Richardson, a product technician responsible for precision cleaning at United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Ala. The company, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, makes rockets that launch satellites into space, including one used in the inaugural mission of the military’s new Space Force on March 26. Richardson doesn’t single out his company for criticism—there are “tons of companies and people that are in the same boat that I am”—but he calls the continuation of hands-on factory work “contradictory” in light of countrywide efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

“My wife and kids are at home because they can’t work or go to school,” Richardson says. “My church is closed. Tons of places are just shut down.” Richardson thinks his line of work could be suspended for a few weeks while “true essential things” such as healthcare and food provisions continue.

“We’re either doing this or we’re not,” he says of the national call for social distancing.

The designation of the defense workforce as “essential” poses a particular risk in places like northern Alabama, which hosts hundreds of defense contractors centered around Huntsville. More than 70,000 people work in defense and aerospace in the Huntsville metropolitan area, according to the local chamber of commerce.

Redstone Arsenal, home to the Missile Defense Agency and a hub for the region’s robust missile and rocket-production economy, had 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases among employees as of March 27. The daily workforce on the Arsenal has been reduced from about 44,000 to fewer than 19,000, a top commander said at a March 26 video town hall. “We will continue to reduce that,” said the commander. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 105 cases and one death from COVID-19 in Madison County, which surrounds the Arsenal, as of April 1.

Still, work is ongoing on military-industrial shop floors across the region.

“Every company is claiming it’s essential now,” says David Story, a top official in the state’s machinist union, who says he’s fielded “hundreds” of calls in recent weeks about workers’ rights during the pandemic. His union’s members across the state perform hands-on functions on a variety of projects deemed essential, such as on the Mars 2020 project, reconnaissance satellites, and repairs on Army vehicles returning from the Middle East. Story says a “small group” of employees have refused to work despite the Defense Department directive, and that the union is advocating for them to be spared disciplinary actions. A second group is vocal about not wanting to be at the workplace but also refusing to go home without pay, while a final group—he estimates this group is a “silent majority”—are “playing it day by day.”

Teresa Cryer, an aerospace wire harness technician at United Launch Alliance, says that in a time of widespread volatility, being deemed essential provides some welcome job security.

“The more I thought about it, the more blessed I was that I had a job that they did feel is essential,” says Cryer, who is 62 and has worked at ULA more than 17 years. “I probably wouldn’t take off work until they tell me to.”

One former Pentagon insider well versed in the department’s priorities has criticized the Defense Department’s directive. Frank Kendall, a former Pentagon official who oversaw technology acquisition and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argues that the current guidance is “very broad” and “most of the work that’s being done for the government could be delayed without a very severe impact.” He thinks there needs to be more emphasis on steps to protect the workforce, which, he says, makes sense from both a humanitarian and business perspective. “A lot of [contractor employees] are very highly skilled defense workers in short supply,” he says.

Kendall thinks a much narrower range of functions could be defined as essential—for example, ones that support ongoing operations, such as airplane maintenance for the Afghan air force and logistical support to deployed troops. Activities like major long-term weapons projects can be slowed down to accommodate health-related constraints, generally without stopping work altogether, Kendall says.

“We are at war with this virus,” Kendall says. “I think protecting our people comes first.”

In These Times submitted questions about operations during COVID-19 to four major defense contractors in Northern Alabama, all among the region’s largest recipients of Defense Department funds. A spokesperson for Boeing, which has 3,062 employees statewide, wrote its sites are “operating under guidelines in accordance with local or national government mandates.” The spokesperson declined to answer whether Boeing’s work on a major long-term weapons project in the Huntsville area—a modernized intercontinental ballistic missile meant to enter the nuclear arsenal by the late 2020s—was ongoing despite the project’s long timeline.

Similarly, Lockheed Martin didn’t comment on whether operations were ongoing on hypersonic missile development in Huntsville and nearby Courtland. The project, according to a Lockheed press release, is “multi-year.”

Rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance said the company is “deep cleaning our facilities daily,” is “disinfecting hard surfaces throughout the day,” and has “modified certain operations to reduce personnel density.”

Spokespeople for Northrop Grumman did not respond.

All three companies that responded said that some workers were teleworking but none gave an estimate of how much of their Huntsville-area workforce was doing so.

Chris Mullins, an aerospace assembly technician who continues to report to his plant, says he feels “torn” over the federal government’s order, which places his family in a high-pressure situation: Every working-age person in his household has been declared essential, including his wife in banking and his daughter in healthcare.

“When I think about the role of our plant helping with America’s war fighters and our nation’s defense and NASA, of course I think that we are essential,” Mullins says, though he also wonders whether it would be helpful for his company to take two weeks off during the pandemic. “Some companies have a vested national interest in the government and we’re one of them. And somebody made the decision for us to continue working.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on April 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Taylor Barnes is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers militarism, conflict, dissent and foreign affairs.


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Coronavirus is endangering the postal service when we need vote by mail. Congress needs to act now

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Congress is failing the U.S. Postal Service, again, and with it, the nation. USPS warned recently that it could run out of money to operate by June because of the massive fall in the level of mail being sent during coronavirus business closures. Democrats tried to include money in the recent stimulus, but the only help that ended up in the final bill was $10 billion in loans that are subject to approval by the Treasury Department.

The decline in mail being sent doesn’t mean mail is less important—it means, in large part, that the people who rely most on mail are now the most vulnerable people. People who need their prescription medications. People who live in rural areas not well served by other delivery services. But democracy also needs the mail. Vote by mail will be more important than ever if COVID-19 remains a threat in the fall.

Millions of people vote by mail, with some states having universal vote-by-mail and many others allowing absentee voting by mail. That’s something we need to expand, not endanger by weakening the USPS.

We’re also talking about an organization that employs 630,000 people. One in five is African American and more than 100,000 are veterans. Every day, postal workers are risking their health by going to work to make sure we get our mail. More than 100 have tested positive for COVID-19 and one has died.

And while the USPS is in crisis, that crisis was manufactured by Republicans. Congress does not allow the postal service to compete with private business—and then it comes under attack for not being profitable. Your local post office should be a center for services like faxing, notary publics, hunting and fishing licenses, and more. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been a longtime champion of the USPS, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has pushed for postal banking, which would not only give the post office a boost but would connect low-income people with nonpredatory banking.

The coronavirus crisis should be making us see that we need more public goods, not allow the ones we have to die off—or be killed by Republicans for whom that’s long been a goal. The USPS needs funding now.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 31, 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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Fatalistic Grocery Workers Demand Hazard Pay, Saying “Infection Is Inevitable”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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OSHA Needs A Prescription for Safety Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, they’ve received no response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workers made this happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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