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Bay Area Transit Unions Join Forces to Win Safety Protections and Beat Back Layoffs

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Transit workers have been hit hard by the pandemic. Last year at least 100 from the Amalgamated Transit Union and 131 from the Transport Workers lost their lives to Covid-19.

Before Covid, transit unions in the Bay Area—six ATU locals, and one local each of TWU and the Teamsters—often faced their individual struggles in isolation. But during the pandemic, these locals united across the region and came together with riders to demand protections for all.

That unity forced reluctant politicians to make Covid safety a priority. It also set the stage for the unions and riders to team up again to stave off layoffs. And there are more fights ahead.

Tough Fights Across the Country

Transit workers in Detroit, Birmingham, and Richmond, California, were among the first to fight for basic protections for themselves and their riders against coronavirus hazards.

In March, a one-day strike by Detroit transit workers at ATU Local 26 won protective gear for drivers, fareless rear-door boarding, and upgraded cleaning of buses.

Yet in April, half of surveyed ATU locals still reported that basic protective gear was not provided at all, while 80 percent said service cuts had led to unsafe overcrowding.

In September, half of U.S. transit agencies surveyed had cut service levels by 25 percent or more, responding to reduced state and local revenues. Two rounds of federal emergency funding for transit, in March and December, fell $18 billion short of filling the gap. Many systems are facing major new service cuts and layoffs in 2021. 

While ridership is down, transit remains more important than ever: nationally, it is estimated that 2.8 million transit riders are essential workers.

“On a normal day, essential workers account for 38 percent of transit commuters in New York City, 33 percent in Seattle, and 36 percent in Miami,” says the Transit Center, a pro-transit nonprofit. Many other riders are low-income people who depend on transit to get to essential destinations, like hospitals and grocery stores.

PUBLIC TRANSIT STARVED

More than two dozen public transit agencies serve the Bay Area. They include MUNI in San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit, AC Transit in Oakland, Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, and Golden Gate Transit, which links San Francisco with counties to the north. 

As a public service, transit depends on government funding. Yet federal support for operations—keeping the buses and trains running—was eliminated in 1998. Since then, federal funding has been restricted to capital projects, like buying buses or building light rail.

This austerity led many transit systems to cut service and raise fares. With each new round of cuts, union jobs were eliminated and vacancies left unfilled. A “death spiral” set in: cuts and fare hikes drove riders away; fewer riders meant less revenue.

With the onset of the pandemic, transit ridership plummeted, most dramatically on commuter systems that carry white-collar workers to downtown offices. But local service became more important than ever. Today over a third of transit riders are essential workers.

In March, the CARES Act earmarked $25 billion for emergency transit funding. Departing from past federal policy, this funding was eligible for operating expenses to keep workers on the payroll.

A new regional coalition called Voices for Public Transportation had been taking shape in 2019, bringing together unions and riders to push for more transit funding. When the pandemic hit, this coalition turned its attention to the urgent organizing for safety measures, and participation continued to grow.

FIGHTING FOR SAFETY GEAR

In the Bay Area, the distribution of $1.3 billion in CARES Act funds among the region’s 25 transit agencies was up to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Transit unions and riders asked MTC to dedicate a portion of those funds to a COVID-19 Response Fund, to pay for such things as deep-cleaning of buses and protective gear for workers and riders.

In April, MTC refused. Claiming that ensuring worker and rider safety wasn’t its job, it instead created a Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force. With only two seats on the 32-member task force, labor had reason to doubt that its concerns would be taken seriously.

But after an ATU petition demanding strong protections for transit workers and riders got 1,000 signatures, MTC reversed course. In May, Commissioner Jim Spering was forced to commit that the Blue Ribbon Task Force he chaired would make its “first order of business” a plan to protect transit workers and riders from Covid-19.

But whose plan? Rather than consult with frontline workers and riders, MTC met secretly with the general managers of the various transit agencies to develop a “Healthy Transit Plan.”

Meanwhile, a second ATU petition with a list of 10 safety demands, such as providing riders with masks, racked up 3,500 signatures.

THREE-FOOT DISTANCE

When MTC unveiled its plan in August, workers and riders were angered that not one of those demands was met. Worse yet, MTC’s plan permitted social distancing of only three feet, threatening unsafe crowding.

At MTC’s August board meeting, the Voices for Public Transportation coalition turned out to express its anger. The coalition counts among its members three labor councils, along with ATU and TWU locals and transit rider unions.

Jovanka Beckles, a Teamster who was running for a seat on the AC Transit board (she later won), captured the mood. She told the board: “The general managers may feel like they have a deal, but there is no deal until frontline transit workers and riders have our concerns addressed.” 

ATU International Vice President Jim Lindsay drove the point home: “Under our contracts, we have the right to shut the service down because of safety. Guaranteed that will happen.”

The workers and riders won the day. MTC voted that state guidance recommending six-foot distancing would trump the “Healthy Transit Plan,” and agreed to require each transit agency to adopt its own implementation plan.

Within weeks, two of the largest systems, VTA and AC Transit, began providing free masks and sanitizer for riders on all their buses.

BLUE RIBBON VS. BLUE COLLAR

The joint struggle galvanized the solidarity of transit labor in the Bay Area. Roger Marenco, president of TWU Local 250A, which represents 2,500 workers at San Francisco’s MUNI, invited ATU and Teamster leaders to form a “Blue Collar Task Force”—labor’s response to MTC’s “Blue Ribbon” group.

The Blue Collar Task Force turned its attention to the threat of layoffs. The CARES Act funding was running low, with no new stimulus on the horizon.

The first domino was Golden Gate Transit. In September, ATU Local 1575 and the Inlandboatmen’s Union, representing 575 bus and ferry workers, received WARN Act notices that 220 of them could face layoff before Thanksgiving.

Rebuffing solutions the unions suggested, General Manager Dennis Mulligan proposed saving $26.7 million by eliminating 146 filled positions—140 of them union jobs—effective December 5. Management would contribute just $440,000 through a 10 percent compensation cut. 

Workers and their supporters from across California turned out in force to oppose the layoffs. 

STOPPING THE LAYOFFS

Bus operator JorDann Crawford, a mother of three, was ready when her local president approached her in the break room to encourage her to speak at a board meeting. “If I’m going to lose my job,” she said later, “I’m going to go down fighting.”

Crawford joined ATU Local 1575’s internal organizing committee and started talking to co-workers. She asked some for permission to tell their stories, including one who was ill with Covid. Others she encouraged to speak up for themselves. Bus operator Luis Luciana told the board in November that bus riders with low to moderate incomes, mostly people of color, were being “underrepresented, neglected, and shut out of this decision process, even though it greatly impacts them.”

It rankled workers that management would be taking just a 10 percent cut while 25 percent of the blue-collar workers would lose their jobs and health care. In a board meeting, ATU Local 265 President John Courtney mocked “poor Mr. Mulligan,” who was “willing to sacrifice 10 percent of his $416,000 salary. Can you imagine how he’s going to struggle?” 

Instead of the layoffs, TWU’s Marenco offered two solutions that management had rejected: “Number one, use the more than $216 million in reserves. Number two, make cuts from the top.” 

In the end the board approved the layoffs, but delayed them till January 4. That delay bought crucial time: on December 21, Congress approved $14 billion in new transit funding. Two days later, the board rescinded the layoffs.

ATU 1575 President Shane Weinstein credited this victory to the rank-and-file organizing committee that had “worked tirelessly” and the members who made calls to elected officials, board directors, and the press. Crawford said the experience has interested her in running for her local’s executive board.

WINNING OPERATING FUNDS

The fight against layoffs also targeted MTC. In November, the Voices coalition demanded that the regional funding agency make hundreds of millions of dollars available for payroll by delaying inessential capital projects—for example, Golden Gate’s plan to spend $6 million to repave an employee parking lot. The coalition letter, signed by six labor councils, a building trades council, 15 unions, and many other Voices coalition groups, attracted press coverage.

Among the non-transit unions expressing support was Local 5 of the Food and Commercial Workers. The president wrote that grocery workers, who were risking Covid infection every day so that people could get food and medications, depended on public transit to get to work. 

MTC commissioners are mostly members of city councils and county boards of supervisors. Many depend on labor support to get reelected. Almost immediately, MTC proposed to make $450 million in federal capital funds available for operations. Less than a week later, MTC’s board unanimously approved that proposal.

TWU’s Marenco and ATU’s Courtney see important struggles ahead. Their goal for the Blue Collar Task Force this year is to engage more members as organizers. They’re now planning a Bay Area-wide virtual town hall to help organize transit workers into a fighting force. As Courtney says, “we need a movement.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard Marcantonio is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit civil rights and economic justice advocacy organization. He is a co-founder of the Voices for Public Transportation Coalition and a participant in the Blue Collar Task Force.


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New York City fast food workers to get a major new job protection, this week in the war on workers

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The New York City Council voted to dramatically strengthen protections for fast food workers with two bills this week, both supported by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The really big deal bill would ban fast food restaurants from firing workers without just cause—that means workers could only (“only”) be fired for performance issues or other serious problems, not just because the boss felt like it.

Most workers in the U.S. are currently “at-will,” which means exactly that—your boss doesn’t actually need a reason to fire you. As Jared Odessky explained at Data for Progress last summer, moving to a just cause standard could help crack down on discrimination: “Currently, the burden is on a fired worker to show that they were terminated for an impermissible reason like their race or sex. This is true even though the employer has greater access to and control over information about the firing. After the worker makes out a case of discrimination, the employer can then point to another basis for the termination, benefiting from an at-will presumption that permits employers to fire workers for almost any or no reason. In reality, employers can simply invent reasons after the fact. The burden then falls to the worker to show that the reason the employer gave was a lie.”

The other bill passed by the city council would require layoffs to go in order of seniority. Both bills apply to fast food stores belonging to chains with more than 30 locations.

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

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


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Big corporations suck the marrow out of the COVID-19 economy, leaving devastation behind them

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What’s the use of a crisis if big corporations and wealthy people can’t use it to make more money, preferably at the expense of those with less than them? I ask you! 

Well, by that standard, the coronavirus pandemic has worked out quite well. A large majority of the biggest publicly traded companies were profitable between April and September, but more than half laid off workers. Meanwhile, they watched small business revenue crash and many small businesses go under.

According to a Washington Post analysis, it breaks down like this: “45 of the 50 most valuable publicly traded U.S. companies turned a profit,” with an average of 2% revenue growth through the first nine months of the year. But at least 27 of those 50 firms had layoffs, leading to more than 100,000 people losing their jobs.

At the same time, small business revenue dropped 12%, with at least 100,000 small businesses closing.

To add insult to injury for the workers laid off by these large, profitable companies, many entered the pandemic with rah rah rhetoric about protecting their workers. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff pledged “not to conduct any significant lay offs over the next 90 days.” He kept that promise. But about two months after that 90 days was up, Salesforce laid off 1,000 workers despite big profits.

This is 21st century corporate capitalism in action. Every disaster is an opportunity for more profit, and responsibility to the workers that make your company run is a meaningless concept. It’s one more reminder that claims about corporate tax cuts—like the ones the Republicans passed in 2017—meaning job creation should never, ever be believed. The tax cuts and the pandemic alike saw companies doing huge share buybacks to benefit the already wealthy, while workers reaped no benefit to speak of.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on December 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Union urges Small Business Administration to take a close look at hotel chain’s post-PPP layoffs

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The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was supposed to keep small businesses from laying off workers during the coronavirus pandemic. (Disclosure: Kos Media received a Paycheck Protection Program loan.) It hasn’t always worked out that way. Trump and Kushner businesses got loans, as did predatory payday lenders, but many of the businesses that needed the loans most were left out

UNITE HERE, the union representing hospitality workers, has set its sights on a major hotel chain that got tens of millions of dollars in PPP loans but laid off the workers at many of its hotels. In a letter to the Small Business Administration (SBA), the union calls on the SBA to “closely scrutinize” the hotels and the lending banks.

Omni hotel affiliates got a whopping $76 million across 32 PPP loans, according to UNITE HERE. But in the cases for which the union has “direct knowledge,” five hotels got nearly $15 million in loans. Despite that, “Three of them—Omni Providence, Omni San Francisco and Omni William Penn—are temporarily closed, and none of our members have been rehired or paid by the hotel. The Omni New Haven and Omni Parker House only recently reopened without all of their facilities, and the hotels have failed to recall more than 80% of our members who work at the hotels.”

This is not what the PPP was supposed to do, and it’s directly harmful to the workers. “The failure of these hotels to rehire their employees has financially harmed our members and created great uncertainty for them and their families. So far, we have not received commitments from Omni to use the loans to fully rehire the workers we represent.”

The union also sent letters to the managers of the hotels in question, noting that they appear not to be in compliance with the PPP’s terms and calling on them to rehire workers, along with letters to the banks responsible for most of the loans, calling on them to take a very close look at whether the hotels qualify for forgiveness.

“It is time for the SBA to step up and ensure that money intended to help American workers actually benefits them,” said UNITE HERE Executive Vice President Carlos Aramayo. “It is unfathomable that massive corporations like Omni have access to millions of tax-payer backed loans, while hundreds of their workers remain without a paycheck heading into the holidays.”

Rep. Katie Porter previously called for an investigation into hotel layoffs in and around her California congressional district after those hotels received PPP loans.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on December 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The next blow for businesses: Tax hikes that threaten more layoffs

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Businesses across the nation could soon face state tax increases to pay for the surge in Americans filing for unemployment benefits this year, further straining employers at a time when many are fighting for survival.

Massachusetts, New Jersey and Alabama are among the states looking at tax hikes that could cost employers billions of dollars. It would be a gut punch for businesses struggling because of the pandemic — and some fear it could trigger even more layoffs or prevent new hires.

Governors have been pressing the federal government to come through with more funds, but talks between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House over a new economic relief package have dragged on for months with no deal in sight, and state aid is one of the major sticking points.

“We’re in a situation where we’re trying to actually get employers to bring people back to work,” said Rachelle Bernstein, vice president and tax counsel at the National Retail Federation. “You certainly don’t want to increase the taxes on employment, which is in essence what’s happening here.”

Both the federal government and states tax the wagesbusinesses pay in order to build up a store of funds in case of mass unemployment. Yet the extraordinary increase in the number of workers filing jobless claims since the pandemic hit in March caught the states by surprise, and the scale of layoffs sparked by the crisis already dwarfs those lost in the Great Recession, which lasted more than twice as long.

As a result, 21 states and the Virgin Islands have already exhausted the money in their accounts that pays for jobless benefits and are tapping into the U.S. Treasury-managed Unemployment Trust Fund for billions of dollars in federal loans to stay afloat. Congress waived interest on these loans in March for all states until the end of the year.

Once a state’s unemployment account dips into the red, it has little choice but to borrow from the Treasury or from private entities, because they are required under federal law to pay unemployment benefits.

Many states will need to cut benefit levels or raise taxes on employers to replenish those funds. The process is fairly routine: 27 states have a tax in place that automatically kicks in when the unemployment fund drops below a certain amount, according to the Tax Foundation. Thirteen of the states that are borrowing from the Treasury have laws on the books that call for an automatic tax hike. They include New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Massachusetts.

“It’s going to take many years for states to pay this back,” said Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the right-leaning Tax Foundation. “It’s going to mean higher [unemployment insurance] taxes for a very long time; it’s going to mean all of the costs associated with borrowing will be a fiscal constraint on states for many years to come.”

Glenn Spencer, executive vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said tax increases are inevitable given that more than 20 states are already borrowing tens of billions of dollars.

“That number is only going to go up,” he said. “So the potential tax burden on businesses across the board is only going to go up.”

In Massachusetts, businesses are staring down a tax hike of nearly 60 percent for 2021.

The state had a healthy balance in its unemployment trust fund in February, but job losses from the pandemic dried it up by July. The state now projects that the unemployment fund will have a nearly $2.5 billion deficit by the end of 2020.

Businesses will have to set aside on average $858 per employee in 2021, compared to $539 now. The costs will continue to rise, albeit at a slower pace, until 2024.

Christopher Carlozzi, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said Massachusetts is hurting the job creators at the worst possible time.

“The state is looking to these small businesses to create jobs, but in the same breath, you’re making it more expensive to create that job,” said Carlozzi, whose group represents small businesses.

In New Jersey, unemployment insurance tax rates for employers could increase on average from 0.7 percent of payroll to 1.1 percent in July 2021. In total, businesses would see a hit of $919 million, according to an analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

A bill that’s working through the state Legislature would spread out the increase over a few years.

At a September hearing on unemployment issues, the state’s Labor Commissioner, Robert Asaro-Angelo, said what New Jersey really needs is help from the federal government in the form of cash assistance and extending the interest free loans that it’s getting from Treasuryinto next year.

“We are hopeful that there’s going to be relief for trust funds; we’re not the only state requesting this,” he said. “We hope that there will be direct funding for unemployment trust funds because that will ease the burden on employers in New Jersey and across the country.”

New Jersey is not alone. States across the country are seeking a life preserver from Washington with another aid package that could be used to bolster the unemployment trust funds. But President Donald Trump and Republican leaders are balking at giving money to Democratic-governed states like New York, California and Illinois, which they say are mismanaged.

Conservatives also argue that Washington shouldn’t give more money when states haven’t even spent all of the $150 billion that Congress set aside for them in March in the CARES Act to shore up their dwindling trust funds.

“There are a lot of states still sitting on coronavirus relief fund money that they’re allowed to be spending on unemployment compensation benefits right now and are not,” said Walczak of the Tax Foundation. He argues that states have been holding onto the CARES Act funds hoping Congress will pass another aid package that would forgive the loans or provide more flexibility for them to use the money for other priorities.

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association and other business groups have been lobbying for the state to put CARES Act money into the unemployment fund, but to no avail.

“The quicker the fund returns to good health, the more likely it is that the worst of the automatic tax increases can be avoided,” Christopher Emigholz, vice president of government affairs for NJBIA, said in testimony before the Legislature this month.

However, more than three-quarters of state and local governments recently surveyed by the Government Finance Officers Association said they have plans for the money and anticipated spending their share of the aid before the end-of-the-year deadline to use it.

At least a dozen states, including Georgia and Tennessee, used CARES Act funds to replenish their unemployment accounts.

But in some states, the aid wasn’t enough to stave off tax hikes. In Alabama, corporations are still staring at a 200 percent tax increase, even after Republican Gov. Kay Ivey put $300 million in CARES Act dollars into the fund.

Still, this tax rise will be much less severe than it would have been without the money. Alabama’s unemployment insurance tax rate was scheduled to go up from 0.65 percent to 3.95 percent, a more than 500 percent increase. Instead, the rate will increase to 1.95 percent.

“Without this infusion, employers could be facing an unemployment insurance tax increase of more than 500 percent, which could very well force many businesses to close their doors forever, resulting in even more job losses in Alabama,” Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said in a statement.

On top of the increase in state taxes, businesses could be hit with a tax hike from the federal side as well.

States with dried-up unemployment funds have already borrowed more than $38 billion in interest free loans from the federal government. But the decision to eliminate interest on the loans was a temporary one, and starting next year, states will start accruing interest on what they borrow.

If they haven’t paid back the cash they owe by 2022, businesses in those locations will see a .06 percent increase in their base federal unemployment tax.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, 26 of the states and territories that borrowed from the federal government saw their federal unemployment tax go up because they didn’t pay back their loans in time, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute’s Wayne Vroman.

“Many states had debts for multiyear periods, and 11 programs were still making debt repayments in April 2016,” he wrote.

In a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies urged lawmakers to extend the interest moratorium on unemployment insurance trust fund loans through 2021.

“With extreme claim loads, many states are borrowing in order to make UI payments,” the group, which represents unemployment agencies in every state and territory, wrote. “Given the continued economic stress, all state workforce agencies agree that a continued moratorium on interest accrual and payments is critical in order to avoid significant increased taxes and assessments on employers.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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U.S. workers filed 881K claims for jobless benefits last week

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More than 880,000 people filed new applications for unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday.

The numbers are not directly comparable to previous weeks because of a change the Labor Department made in how it calculates the claims, which are seasonally adjusted. The number appears lower than the previous week’s 1 million claims, but that reflects a change in the Labor Department’s methodology rather than a strengthening of the U.S. labor market, economists say.

On an unadjusted basis, unemployment claims under state programs rose 0.9 percent from the previous week.

An additional 760,000 laid-off workers filed for jobless aid under the new pandemic unemployment assistance program, created for those not traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits like the self-employed and gig workers. That also marks a rise from the previous week’s 607,806 claims under that program.

Overall claims remain at historic highs. In total, more than 29.2 million workers are receiving unemployment insurance benefits, the Labor Department said, an increase from the prior week’s 27 million.

Why the change? The Labor Department regularly reports seasonally adjusted data, which accounts for expected changes in the labor market, such as when a large number of temporary retail employees get laid off after the holidays.

But economists say that methodology had been causing major distortions to the data during this recession, given how many workers were filing for unemployment due to unexpected coronavirus shutdowns. Experts welcome the change, which they say should make the numbers more accurate in the future, but they warn against trying to compare this week’s seasonally adjusted data to weeks prior.

Regardless of the change in calculations, non-seasonally adjusted data shows overall claims rose last week to 833,352 from 825,761 the week before.

What’s next: The Labor Department will report jobs numbers for the month of August on Friday. The July report showed an overall unemployment rate of 10.2 percent, and while most economists expect that number to fall slightly in August, many expect the pace of job growth will slow down.

This article originally appeared at Politico on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


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A gap in federal unemployment benefits is now unavoidable. Here’s why.

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State offices will need weeks to reprogram their systems to account for an extension of the $600 weekly federal payments that expire on Saturday.

Tens of millions of laid-off American workers will go weeks without federal jobless aid — because Congress hasn’t renewed the benefits in time for overwhelmed state unemployment systems to adjust their computers.

State offices will need weeks to reprogram their systems to account for an extension of the $600 weekly federal payments that expire on Saturday — or any changes that Congress makes to the benefit amount or eligibility rules. That comes on top of hardships faced by workers in states like Washington and Nevada, who are already waiting months to get their first payments in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic because their unemployment offices can’t handle the historic flood of claims.

In some states with particularly antiquated systems, it’s already too late to prevent a lapse, even though the federal benefits haven’t officially expired, according to people familiar with how the systems work.

“In some states, it could take quite a bit of time, and it could cause severe delays,” said Arindrajit Dube, a professor of economics at UMass Amherst. “This is the kind of thing you don’t try to change in the middle of a pandemic.”

A gap in the federal program could be devastating for laid-off workers, many of whom are on the verge of eviction and are already behind on their bills. The $600 federal check comes on top of workers’ normal benefit payments which average around $340. The weekly benefit amount varies by state, and is as low as $235 per week in Mississippi.

“I know my clients are really fearful that they’re going to have a deluge use of bills that are going to become due very quickly, and that $600 supplement was really critical to ensuring that they could meet those bills,” said Tori Dempsey of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which offers free legal services to lowincome Americans. “Without it, and without any prospect really returning to any sort of secure employment, it’s really unnerving for a lot of them.”

Dempsey said that while some of her clients have been called back to work in recent weeks, their shifts have been reduced to one or two days a week.

“The work just isn’t there for them,” she said.

It’s unlikely Congress will act before Saturday, but even if they do, states have already prepared their systems to cut off the benefits. Republicans want to cut the amount or change how benefits are calculated to prevent workers from making more money on unemployment than they did at their jobs. Democrats are insisting on maintaining the benefit as-is.

The GOP’s next relief proposal is expected to include a temporary flat payment for unemployment insurance for two months, but the final details have not yet been released. President Donald Trump this week said other changes could include capping benefits at 70 percent of a worker’s prior wages.

Any changes could create an accounting disaster for the state systems, which are still struggling to keep up as the number of new workers applying for unemployment benefits each week remains at nearly two times the peak seen during the Great Recession.

More than one million new unemployment applications have poured into state agencies each week for 17 straight weeks, piling onto state backlogs. Across the country about 10 to 15 percent of applications are still waiting to be processed, said Andrew Stettner, a fellow at the Century Foundation.

Hundreds of laid-off workers from Alabama to Oklahoma made headlines in recent weeks as they resorted to camping out in front of unemployment offices, demanding payment.

In Nevada, some workers have been waiting on their unemployment checks for months.

Rhea Gertken, an attorney with Nevada Legal Services, said her clients call the unemployment hotline first thing in the morning, and within minutes, the number of claims that can be processed that day has been reached.

“Say someone calls in at eight o’clock in the morning. Almost immediately, what they’ll get is a recording that says the queue is full for the day, call back later,” she said.

There also are problems with the pandemic unemployment assistance program — a payment created by Congress to send jobless aid to workers ineligible for traditional unemployment benefits, such as gig workers.

Nevada was the last state in the nation to set up its PUA program and Gertken said there’s also been confusion over whether workers should file for unemployment or through the pandemic unemployment assistance program, leading to even more delays.

This week a Nevada judge ruled that the state unemployment office must start paying benefits to some out-of-work gig and independent workers who qualified but haven’t received payments.

The state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, the agency that administers unemployment, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In Washington state, laid-off workers have been waiting an average of three months to finally receive their benefits, Behnaz Mansouri, an attorney at Unemployment Law Project in Washington state, told POLITICO.

Once workers finally receive their benefits they’re “beyond grateful” and “relieved,” Mansouri said, “However, at this point, they may have already lost their home, their car may have already been repossessed. A lump sum payment coming in doesn’t necessarily resolve recurring expenses that need to be paid in a timely fashion.”

Washington state is still so overwhelmed with new unemployment claims that it has resorted to completely shutting off its phone system except to those who need accommodations for disabilities or because they don’t have internet access.

A spokesperson for Washington’s Employment Security Department said the agency instead focused the bulk of its agents on “making outbound calls to claimants.” ESD said that it began accepting inbound calls again earlier this week.

In Texas, it can still be difficult to just file a claim, said Karen Miller, executive director of the Texas Legal Services Center. Just this week, one of her clients called from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., every thirty minutes. That person was never able to get through, she said.

Miller also said many of the low-income workers she advises don’t have access to a computer, and have trouble applying through their phones. Before, she’d send the workers to public libraries, but they are now closed due to the coronavirus.

The timing of the lapse in the $600 federal payment couldn’t be worse, she said, as it coincides with the moratoriums on eviction expiring.

“That’s the kicker. Eventually, in Texas, tenants have to be able to pay their rent and so if there’s too much of a delay in that benefit being there, they’re really going to suffer,” she said.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on July 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katherine Landergan covers the state budget, tax policy and labor issues for POLITICO New Jersey.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Unions warn small business rescue changes will weaken paycheck protection

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Mnuchin touted the program during a congressional hearing as having kept “tens of millions of employees connected to their jobs.” 

Labor groups are warning that newly enacted changes to a popular small business lending program will make the $670 billion relief effort less about protecting workers’ paychecks than protecting businesses.

The bipartisan bill signed into law by President Donald Trump lowered to 60 percent the amount that participants in the program must spend on payroll to qualify for full loan forgiveness from 75 percent — a change that could shift billions of dollars away from workers’ pay. The new rules also give businesses until the end of the year to spend the money, when previously, they had to use up the funds in eight weeks.

The so-called Paycheck Protection Program, created as part of the record $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed in March, was aimed at giving businesses an incentive to keep paying their workers during the pandemic by turning the loans into grants if they retained most of their staff.

Now, unions say, businesses have more of an incentive to use the money for non-payroll expenses like rent.

“This change represents a huge loophole in legislation that was meant to help workers keep their paychecks coming during the economic fallout from the pandemic,” United Steelworkers Legislative Director Roy Houseman told POLITICO. “Rather than keeping the focus on maintaining payroll, however, the new threshold for loan forgiveness seems as though it was developed more with an eye toward putting money into business owners’ pockets.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin touted the program during a congressional hearing Wednesday as having kept “tens of millions of employees connected to their jobs” and said it has saved 50 million jobs during the pandemic.

Many economists have also suggested that the unexpected job growth seen in the May unemployment report could be attributed to the program. The Labor Department reported last Friday that 2.5 million jobs were added to the economy during the month, upending predictions that payrolls would fall by 7 million.

While the number of workers who were rehired last month won’t be available until the Labor Department releases its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey on July 7, economic indicators suggest that a long recovery is still ahead.

Labor groups and some observers fear that the rule changes to the Paycheck Protection Program will lead to less rehiring and an increase in layoffs, potentially thwarting early signs of a recovery in the labor market.

“Changing PPP gives businesses more time to delay rehiring workers, resulting in fewer paychecks for workers,” according to Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says the new law shifts $76.5 billion originally allocated for businesses to pay their employees during the pandemic to other costs, like overhead, and in turn, is “reducing the share that goes to workers.”

Klein said the rule changes provide “businesses the ability to use government grants to pay their creditors, not protecting the paychecks of their employees.”

Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, agreed. He said he’s concerned that the changes “are going to lead to employers pocketing the money and not hiring, and not protecting anybody’s paycheck.”

Business groups said the changes in the lending program were needed because the economic effects of the pandemic have lasted longer than Congress had expected, and the requirements for loan forgiveness were too burdensome. States have also instructed certain businesses, such as those in the restaurant and travel industries, to reopen in limited capacities, which businesses say prevent them from bringing back their full staff.

“Congress had to act quickly to provide flexibility to account for different business structures and operating expenses to make the program work,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who co-sponsored the legislation, said in a statement after the bill passed.

Rachel Greszler, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, disagrees that the changes to the program will lead to layoffs.

“Businesses need a little more flexibility,” said Greszler. “A lot of those businesses who were forced to shut down had to rehire and retain employees, or secure new inventory, or establish vendor relationships, or settle balances. There are a lot more costs involved with starting up than if this had been a very short shutdown.”

The changes to the payroll requirements of the program were originally proposed to be much broader until a pushback from organized labor. The bill by Roy and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) would have eliminated the payroll spending requirement altogether, but that was scaled back after more than a dozen labor leaders warned that it would create “a disincentive for employers to retain or rehire workers.”

Neither Phillips nor Roy responded to a request for comment on this article.

While unions were able to convince Democrats to move the payroll spending threshold down to just 60 percent, many are still concerned the rule changes undermine the program’s goal of keeping workers.

The Small Business Administration and the Treasury on Monday said businesses would still qualify for partial loan forgiveness under the PPP, even if they fell short of the 60 percent requirement.

“Thank goodness the House didn’t pass its original bill which would have completely eliminated the paycheck protection part of the PPP,” said D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, which represents hotel, gaming, food service and other workers. “The fundamental problem is that the big corporations and private equity firms that own hotels are desperate for a government handout so they can postpone the day of reckoning with their lenders, but the last thing they want to do is provide laid-off workers with paychecks or health benefits.”

Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza faced questions from the Senate Small Business Committee Wednesday on the implementation of the program, but not a single senator from either party raised concerns about layoffs.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.


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Field Museum Workers Say It’s Time for the CEO to Start Making Sacrifices, Too

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Facing devasting pay cuts and layoffs amid the Covid-19 crisis, workers at Chicago’s Field Museum are organizing to demand greater transparency and equitable sacrifice from upper management.

“We fear these cuts will disproportionately impact staff of color and those already paid the least,” Field Museum workers explain in a petition that has now garnered over 1,700 signatures. “We are proud to call the Field home, and are prepared to make sacrifices to preserve it for generations to come. We are asking leadership to do the same.”

Best known for being the home of SUE, the most intact T. rex skeleton in the world, the Field is the nation’s third largest natural history museum after the Smithsonian and New York’s American Museum of Natural History. As of 2019, the museum had an endowment of approximately $440 million, up from $299 million in 2012.

The museum has been shuttered since mid-March due to the pandemic, and it remains unclear when it will be able to reopen to the public. Though the Field secured a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and 70% of its revenue comes from sources other than ticket sales, at a May 19 virtual town hall with employees, CEO Richard Lariviere announced an impending 10% pay cut as well as an unspecified number of layoffs.

“At the town hall, we had a lot of staff proposing alternatives and various cost-cutting ideas like rotating furloughs, graduated pay reductions, and reducing hours, and asking if those had been explored,” says Anna Villanyi, an educator who has worked at the museum for two years. “But those ideas were dismissed without transparency about to what degree leadership had already explored them.”

Lariviere’s total compensation in 2018—the most recent year with available data—was $796,000. While the presidents of the Boston Museum of Science and American Museum of Natural History have respectively taken a 50% and 25%pay cut in light of the crisis, Lariviere reportedly dismissed the idea of reducing his own compensation as “a meaningless gesture.”

“A lot of museums are experiencing hardship due to this time, and we can see the different ways that is being addressed,” Villanyi tells In These Times. “We have such a large and seemingly financially stable institution that’s choosing not to make equitable moves like graduated pay cuts that other museums are doing.”

The Field Museum’s nearly 400 employees include scientists, collection managers, educators, technicians, guest services workers, maintenance workers and security guards. Many, like Villanyi, have been working from home during the pandemic, but others, like those who manage the upkeep of the museum’s exhibits, are not able to work from home.

Staff who can work remotely have been donating their vacation hours to their coworkers who don’t have the option of working from home, ensuring they continue receiving income. “It has been a really helpful act of sacrifice,” Villanyi says. “I believe it’s been over $200,000 worth of vacation hours that have been donated into that pool.”

In addition to aiding one another through the crisis, Field Museum employees have also been helping the public by sewing face masks and repurposing 3-D printers to make face shields for frontline workers.

The museum workers are specifically calling for a moratorium on pay cuts and layoffs until they can have a greater voice in cost-cutting measures, particularly by having a staff representative present at all future budget meetings.

“I’m hopeful that the increased awareness through our petition puts pressure on accountability for those things to happen,” Villanyi says.

Their organizing effort is being assisted by the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a joint project of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

EWOC was launched shortly after the pandemic hit the United States to give non-union workers the resources needed to organize their own workplaces around coronavirus-related demands like hazard pay, sick leave and provision of personal protective equipment.

UE International Representative Mark Meinster says that over 1,000 workers from a range of industries including fast food, manufacturing, meatpacking, retail and higher education have received advice and assistance through EWOC on how to take workplace action around Covid-19 related issues.

With help from EWOC, workers around the country have already won several victories, including improved health and safety measures for grocery workers in Texas and Pennsylvania, and hazard pay for 250 Taco Bell workers in Michigan.

Meinster says that most of the work of EWOC is done through volunteers including DSA members, former Bernie Sanders campaign staff and UE activists.

“We’re building on models developed around the Bernie Sanders campaign of doing distributed organizing—where you’ve got a large group of motivated volunteers—and apply that model to workplace organizing,” Meinster explains. “That’s one of the keys to revitalizing a fighting labor movement. We’ve got to figure out how to go beyond mere staff resources and engage lots of motivated people out there.”

Meinster says the Field Museum organizing is a perfect example of workers organically coming together and reaching out to EWOC for assistance. “Like all museum workers, they’re facing some real difficult fights,” he says. “But here we’re seeing workers start to stand up and do something about it.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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California Authorities Take Steps to Protect Workers’ Health and Rehiring Post-Quarantine

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State and local governments in California have recently signed into law several measures aimed at protecting workers. At the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order offering additional paid sick leave to food sector workers. At the local level, both the County and City of Los Angeles have now adopted worker retention and right of recall ordinances protecting the jobs of certain service sector workers. While the potential harm to workers resulting from COVID-19 remains great, these measures should provide some comfort to vulnerable workers at a time of financial insecurity. 

Food workers entitled to additional paid sick leave for reasons related to COVID-19

The statewide measure pertaining to food workers was signed into effect by Gov. Newsom on April 16, 2020. Executive Order N-51-20 points out that food service workers are far less likely to stay home from work when they’re sick if they do not have available paid sick leave. If workers feel they have no choice but to work while sick, there is a greater risk that the infection will spread to all coworkers.

The order addresses these concerns by mandating that employers of food service workers must offer supplemental paid sick leave related to COVID-19 to food service workers. Workers become eligible for this leave when: the worker has been ordered to quarantine or isolate by a federal, state, or local order; the worker is told by a healthcare worker to self-quarantine or self-isolate; or, the worker has been barred from working by their employer based on concerns of transmission of COVID-19. The amount of paid sick leave to which workers are entitled will vary based on the number of hours the employee worked. Workers considered to be “full-time” employees or who were scheduled to work an average of 40 hours per week for the two weeks prior to taking COVID-19-related leave will be entitled to 80 hours of COVID-19 supplemental sick leave. For those working fewer hours per week, the worker will be entitled to take the number of hours of paid leave across two weeks as they would have normally been scheduled to work in that time.

Los Angeles County workers now have a right to rehire and to be retained by new owners

Many laid-off workers fear that, due to the struggling economy, their positions may be filled by new and inexpensive workers rather than the experienced, possibly older, workers who held the position previously. After similar ordinances were signed into effect by City of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the County of Los Angeles has now enacted two ordinances designed to assure laid-off workers in the service industry that they have a right to be rehired when businesses reopen. The City’s orders offer protections to those working at airports; as janitorial, maintenance, or security workers at commercial properties; and at large event centers, hotels, and hotel restaurants. The City’s orders go into effect on June 14, 2020. The County’s orders cover only those who work at commercial properties and hotels, and go into effect on May 12, 2020. Both measures offer workers a right to pursue legal action if they believe their rights have been violated under these ordinances.

The City’s Worker Retention ordinance and the County’s Right of Retention ordinance each mandate that, upon the sale of a business to a new owner, any laid-off employees of that business have a right to be kept on as an employee under the new ownership. The former owner must provide a preferential hiring list of the business’ employees to the new owner. The new owner must hire from that list for six months after the business is again open to the public. In order to be eligible for inclusion on this list, the worker must have worked for the business for at least six months, must have been primarily employed by that business, who is directly employed by or works for someone who has contracted with the former owner, and who worked for the former owner after March 4, 2020 and before the business was sold. These ordinances do not include managerial, supervisory, or confidential employees. Workers rehired by a new owner must be retained for at least 90 days unless the employer can show cause for firing the worker.

The City and County ordinances related to the Right of Recall state that workers laid off on or after March 4, 2020 must be prioritized when businesses begin to rehire workers. The worker must have performed at least two hours of work for that employer each week to be eligible, and have worked for the employer for at least six months prior to layoff. Workers are entitled to an offer for open positions with their former employer if they held the same position previously, or if they could become qualified for the position after completing the same amount of training that a new worker would need. If two workers are eligible for the same position, employers must offer the more senior employee first right of refusal.

About the Author: Kurt R. Mattson is the President of Union Legal Research. He has spent more than 30 years in the legal services industry as a research attorney, writer, editor, and marketer. 


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