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Essential workers speak out on the unsafe conditions they face

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For all the talk about how they’re heroes, too many essential workers still aren’t feeling valued in the ways that matter: protections for their health and safety. A new study of essential workers in western Massachusetts—a region with two cities among the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country—finds that 51% said they don’t feel safe on the job, a number that rose to 67% among grocery and other retail workers.

Nearly two out of three workers said they couldn’t practice social distancing, 29% didn’t get COVID-19 transmission training, 21% don’t have masks, 17% don’t have hand sanitizer, 8% aren’t able to practice regular hand-washing, and 16% were asked by their employers to keep their health information from their coworkers. And this is in Massachusetts, where labor protections are strong by comparison with, say, Texas, where the Hillstone Restaurant Group told workers they couldn’t wear masks as restaurants reopen for on-site dining.

In the Massachusetts study, low-wage workers faced the greater risks, with two to three times as many reporting these risks compared with workers making $40 an hour or more. But low-wage workers also faced challenges paying the bills even as they faced risk on the job: 34% said they’d been unable to afford food, 16% said they couldn’t meet childcare costs, and 9% had fallen short on their housing needs. That was particularly true for Latino workers, 38% of whom were experiencing food insecurity compared with 21% of white workers.

“We are risking infecting our family by working, and they don’t give us anything extra in our paychecks to be able to buy more food,” one woman wrote in Spanish. “What we earn is for paying rent, electricity, insurance, and the rest is barely enough to buy food.”

Just 20% of the essential workers said they were getting hazard pay. The study, conducted by Jasmine Kerrissey and Clare Hammonds of the University of Massachusetts Labor Center, drew responses from 1,600 workers in health care; grocery and retail; manufacturing; transportation, construction, and utilities; public safety; and other occupations.

Retail workers said that customers weren’t reliably following social distancing guidelines, and in a number of cases, managers were making things worse. “Managers are constantly making changes in policy and procedures and not telling us,” one reported. “It’s frontline workers that have to explain changes and new policies to customers, and this adds to an already stressful work environment.” Another worker called on their city’s health department to do a better job policing the number of people allowed inside big box stores.

“There are many who are claiming that the coronavirus is the great equalizer,” Kerrissey told the Daily Hampshire Gazette‘s Dusty Christensen. “Really what this points out is that the impacts of COVID-19 are felt much more strongly by the working class and low-wage workers.”

This blog originally appeared on Daily Kos on May 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Massachusetts Becomes First State Ever To Ban Employers From Asking For Salary Histories

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Bryce CovertMassachusetts has leapfrogged over all other states to pass the most robust equal pay law in the country.

The law takes a step that is completely unique: it prohibits employers from asking prospective hires about their salary histories until after they make a job offer that includes compensation, unless the applicants voluntarily disclose the information. No other state has such a ban in place.

Many employers require applicants to give them a salary history at the outset or during the initial steps of the hiring process, usually to determine how much they should be paid and whether the employer can afford their salary. But this disadvantages women, who, thanks to a variety of factors that can include outright discrimination, make less than men on average. Women make less than men in their first jobs even when education and field are taken into consideration, and they are also penalized in salary negotiations, while men get an advantage. If the next employer bases a salary on the previous one a woman was earning, that discrimination will only be furthered.

Massachusetts’s new law also mandates that employers pay men and women the same not just when they do the exact same work, but when their work is “comparable.” Most laws only require men and women in the exact same job to be paid equally. The state defines comparable work as being “substantially similar” in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions — not just based on job titles or descriptions. It does, however, allow for differing pay scales based on seniority — so long as a lack of seniority for a female employee isn’t related to pregnancy or family leave — merit, production, geography, education, experience, or training.

Women’s work has long been undervalued even when it’s substantially similar to what men do.Housekeepers make less than janitors, for instance. And when women move into higher-paying, male-dominated jobs, the pay drops.

There was a movement in the 1970s and 80s among state governments to ensure comparable pay equity in their own workforces. They ended up spending $527 million to adjust women’s pay to make it equal with men who had essentially the same job duties, eliminating about 20 percent of women’s wage gap.

A paper at the time found that a national pay equity law, one that looks like Massachusetts’s, would eliminate more than a quarter of the overall gender wage gap.

The new law also bans salary secrecy, blocking employers from keeping their employees from talking about pay with each other. About half of all employees say they are either prohibited or discouraged from discussing compensation, even though they have a legal right to do so. That makes it incredibly difficult for women or other marginalized groups to discover whether they’re being unfairly paid less than their colleagues.

A handful of other states have passed their own equal pay laws aimed at closing the gender wage gap. California passed one at the end of last year mandating pay equity for comparable work and banning salary secrecy, and New York passed a package of bills that included prohibiting salary secrecy. But none of them have gone as far as Massachusetts in including a ban on employers asking for salary histories.

Massachusetts’s new law unanimously passed the state legislature, and Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has said he will sign it into law.

Meanwhile, progress toward passing national legislation to address the gender wage gap has been blocked in Congress. Republicans have repeatedly blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ban salary secrecy, and the Fair Pay Act, which would mandate equal pay for comparable work, never even gets a vote.

This post originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on August 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.


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This week in the war on workers: Massachusetts home care workers win $15 pay

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Laura ClawsonThe Fight for 15 has another win. Home healthcare workers, who are represented by SEIU, will get a raise to $15 by July 2018, up from a current pay rate of $13.38, with a raise of 30 cents an hour effective next week. The more than 35,000 workers care for elderly and disabled people on Medicaid, helping them bathe, running errands for them, and other tasks that help people live in their homes.

Personal care attendant Rosario Cabrera, 31, of New Bedford, said the raise means she will be able to pay her bills on time, provide for her two children, and maybe even take a vacation. Cabrera works seven days a week caring for two elderly women in their homes, and even with the money her husband makes as a machine operator, her family struggles to get by.“I’m proud of what I do because I’m helping another human being life their life,” she said. “But it’s not fair if I can’t live my life.”

Home care work is one of the fastest-growing and lowest-paid industries in the country. But Massachusetts shows that doesn’t have to be the way it is.

The minimum wage in Massachusetts is on its way to $11 in 2017 (it is now $9 an hour) and a paid sick leave law kicks in next week. Obviously that hasn’t blunted the momentum in the state to do even better for workers in low-wage industries. And note that the governor with whose administration the home care workers deal was negotiated is a Republican.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on June 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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


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A Bright Spot in Tuesday’s Bloodbath: Massachusetts Voters Passed a Strong Paid Sick Leave Bill

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in these timesOn Tuesday night, Massachusetts became the first state to give workers 40 hours of sick leave a year. California and Connecticut have both recently adopted statewide sick leave policies, but Massachusetts now possesses the most ambitious and comprehensive system in the nation.

As a result of the initiative, employees of businesses with more than 10 people will earn an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work. Employees who work for companies with 10 or less people will accrue sick time at the same rate, although their employers aren’t required to pay them for the time away.

Sixty percent of voters supported the measure, Question 4 on the state’s ballot. About 900,000 workers in Massachusetts lacked paid sick days.

Although frequently defined by its many higher education, tech, and science jobs, Massachusetts is also fueled by a service sector of almost 300,000. Fifty-two percent of those employees lacked paid sick time. For maintenance and construction workers, it was 43 percent. Fifty-five percent of the state’s workers who make less than $15,000 were without sick time; 46 percent of Hispanic workers in the state were unable to take a paid sick day. Without paid sick days, workers not only were unable to take time off for their own ailments, but were also unable to take time off to care for a sick child or parent.

While some in the business community predictably suggest that such legislation would hurt the economy— Bob Luz, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, claimed that the law would be a “job-killing mandate”—a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research concluded the opposite is, in fact, true. Question 4 should reduce worker turnover and drastically cut back on diseases spreading throughout the state’s workplaces, according to the study’s authors, in addition to improving the overall health and economic well-being of the community: “Comparing costs to employers and anticipated benefits for employers, an annual net benefit for Massachusetts employers of $26 million is expected”

The Drum Major Institute studied the impact of San Francisco’s paid sick leave policy and reached similar conclusions. Not only did they discover the legislation hadn’t negatively impacted San Francisco businesses, but “since San Francisco’s paid sick leave law was enacted, both job growth and business growth in San Francisco have consistently been greater than in the five neighboring counties of the Bay Area, none of which have enacted paid sick leave.”

While Question 4 will certainly alleviate a massive burden for the state’s most vulnerable workers, Andrew Farnitano, a spokesperson for Raise Up Massachusetts, a local coalition of organizers who worked on the initiative, says he was impressed with how the movement had found support throughout the state regardless of the area’s economic position or racial demographic.

“It’s an issue that cuts through a lot of lines,” Farnitano said. A long list of community organizations, economists, local politicians and faith groups publicly endorsed the measure. “We believe that requiring earned sick time contributes to the dignity of every worker,” read a statement signed by the four Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts.

While the movement for paid sick time moves throughout the US, an alternative movement of “preemption bills aiming to block the possibility of expanded sick time have also worked their way throughout the country. Last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed an ALEC-affiliated bill that would obstruct local governments from enacting sick time legislation; the bill was backed by Disney World, Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

But if Massachusetts’ successful Question 4 campaign is any indication, many voters around the country are willing to back measures that bolster basic human rights in their community like paid sick leave.

This blog originally appeared in IntheseTime.com on November 6, 2016 Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17327/massachusetts_paid_sick_leave.

About the author: Michael Arria is a journalist living in NYC. He is the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.


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