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Amazon’s Unlimited Unpaid Time Off Ends May 1, and Workers Say That Could Be Deadly

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Amazon warehouse workers across the country today decried the company’s decision to end a policy of unlimited unpaid time off, and said that working conditions inside Amazon fulfillment centers are putting their lives at risk.

Employees from New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, working with Athena Coalition, said on a call today that a policy change announced late last week—which will replace the unlimited paid time off offered to workers as a response to the coronavirus crisis with a more restrictive policy at the end of this month—is “outrageous” in light of the very real level of danger that still persists for those forced to work in close quarters. “People have to choose, do I stay home and risk losing my job, or go to work and risk getting sick?” said Hafsa Hassan, who walked out of work yesterday in protest, along with about 50 colleagues at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota.

Amazon’s announcement that it will roll back unlimited unpaid time off at the end of April means that employees will soon be required to apply to be granted leaves of absence if they must be away from work for health reasons, or to take care of children who are out of school, or to protect vulnerable family members. But employees say that system is confusing and broken, even for those who should qualify. Rachel Belz, an Amazon warehouse worker in New Jersey who also works with the activist group United for Respect, has not been at work since mid-March because of fears of infecting her family, especially her son. Her attempts to apply for a leave of absence, though, have resulted in multiple dropped calls, unanswered emails, and no response from the company. “H.R. is overloaded. You can open a case, and they won’t get back to you,” she said. “If you’re expecting people at a high volume to apply to these things, you need to work out the kinks in the system.”

Belz, who is in contact daily with other workers at the facility, said that the company’s attempts to keep the warehouse free of coronavirus are inadequate. Among the problems, she said: No soap in the bathrooms, cleaning supplies that are kept locked in cages that can only be opened by managers, and temperature screenings for workers that are being conducted using only a thermal camera—and workers who appear too warm are encouraged to go outside for a few minutes, cool down, and try again.

Amazon spokesperson Rachel Lighty said that “we are providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures.” She also called Amazon employees “heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis.” The company had its first confirmed Covid death two weeks ago, when an operations manager at a California Amazon warehouse died.

Multiple workers said that their facilities lacked cleaning supplies, and that hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes are being kept in one location away from work stations, making it impossible to regularly sanitize your individual work area throughout a shift. They said that Amazon’s current hiring boom is making break rooms and common areas even more crowded, making proper social distancing impossible. They expressed doubt that the single mask being issued per person per shift is enough to keep them safe. And they described the unnerving experience of seeing fully protected cleaning crews descend on their job sites after a coworker reported testing positive for Covid.

Jordan Flowers, who works at the Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island that has been the target of protests and walkouts in recent weeks, said that he knows coworkers who are now choosing to sleep in their cars, rather than going home and risking getting their families sick. “It’s frightening,” he said. Billie Jo Ramey, an Amazon worker in Michigan who has been taking unpaid leave since March after getting ill with Covid-like symptoms, fears what the policy change will mean for her, and for those around her. “I’m in no shape to go back. I’m at high risk,” she said.

Several workers noted the wealth of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos—who’s gotten tens of billions of dollars richer since the beginning of this crisis, thanks to Amazon’s booming stock price—and contrasted his resources with the lack of resources they feel they’re being given on the job. “That’s not just terrifying,” said Rachel Belz, “it’s pathetic that we can’t trust a trillion-dollar company to do the most basic thing, which is to clean.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 27, 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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Know Your Rights to Paid Leave and Unemployment During the COVID-19 Crisis

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On March 18 Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), in part to discourage layoffs and in part to guarantee paid leave to workers who need to stay home due to the COVID-19 emergency. On March 27 Congress enacted the CARES Act to expand unemployment insurance eligibility and benefits. Both laws expire on December 31, 2020, unless extended.

What follows is a selection of questions relating to the new laws. Please note that this is a complicated and rapidly changing area. Although the U.S. Department of Labor has issued several regulations and guides, aspects of the programs remain hazy.

Moreover, enforcement is likely to be slow and spotty, as a poorly staffed federal Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor appears unable to effectively oversee the leave program and state UI agencies claim to be overwhelmed by the crush of applications. Union workers should always review their contracts to see if they have stronger protections.

1. Business shut down due to COVID-19 emergency

Q. Our governor has ordered nonessential retail businesses to close temporarily due to the COVID-19 emergency. My employer, a department store, has issued over 300 layoff notices. Can I collect unemployment insurance (UI) benefits though I only worked there for a week?

A. Yes. The CARES Act awards UI benefits to workers who are laid off, temporarily furloughed, or reduced in hours due to the COVID-19 emergency–even if they have a sparse wage history. Most states pay approximately 50 percent of wages up to a maximum amount that varies significantly around the country. Some add more for dependents.

The CARES Act adds $600 to weekly UI benefits between March 27 and July 31, 2020—even if this raises benefit checks above a claimant’s regular pay. UI payments are taxable.

2. Quit due to COVID-19 safety concerns

Q. I work in a supermarket in close contact with customers and co-workers. Social distancing is impossible. Management has not responded to our complaints about the lack of proper protective equipment. Two workers have contracted COVID-19. If I quit because of the virus risk, could I qualify for unemployment insurance?

A. Possibly. The CARES Act grants UI eligibility to an employee “who has to quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19.” Although the Act does not elaborate, the entitlement would appear to apply to a worker who stops work because of a reasonable concern of contracting the virus. A state UI official will ultimately decide.

Tip: Put your resignation in writing, making sure to explain your fears.

3. Paid sick leave during self-quarantine

Q. My doctor has told me to self-quarantine for two weeks due to COVID-19 symptoms. Does my employer have to grant me paid leave for the absence?

A. Yes, unless you are a health care provider or an emergency responder or work for an employer with 500 or more employees (see questions 5 and 6 below).

Under the FFCRA a full-time worker who needs to quarantine due to COVID-19, or who is experiencing symptoms of the virus and seeking a diagnosis, is entitled to up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at a rate of up to $511 per day over a two-week period. Part-timers are entitled to pay on a pro-rata basis. The employer is reimbursed dollar-for-dollar through tax credits from the federal government.

You cannot be required to use other accrued benefits, such as paid vacation or sick leave, in place of FFCRA leave. Nor can you be required to make up the time.

Your employer must continue paying for group health coverage during your leave. If your workplace has 25 or more employees, you must be restored to your regular job or an equivalent position (unless a layoff affecting you has transpired).

Your employer can deny paid leave if 1) you decline an offer of telework, or 2) there is no work available. In the latter event, you would qualify for UI benefits.

After two weeks, if you continue in quarantine, or if you are still experiencing COVID-19 symptoms (but are not severely ill), you may file for benefits from your state UI agency.

Note: You are also entitled to paid leave to care for a family member or other person with whom you have a relationship who is subject to a quarantine order or is advised by a physician to self-quarantine. Your rate will be two-thirds of your regular pay up to a maximum of $1,000 per week.

Note: Workers requesting paid sick leave under the FFCRA must give notice to their employer as soon as is practicable after the first day missed, providing the name of the health care provider who issued the stay-at-home advisory.

4. Paid childcare leave

Q. My ten-year-old child’s school has closed due to the COVID-19 crisis and I must be home to care for her. Does my boss have to provide me with paid time off?

A. Yes. You are covered by the FFCRA if you have worked 30 days or longer for your employer and you are not in one of the Act’s exempt categories (see questions 5 and 6 below). Eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of protected paid time off if a child’s school or daycare center closes due to the COVID-19 crisis and no other parent or usual childcare provider is available.

The pay rate for workers taking childcare leave under the FFCRA is two-thirds of regular pay up to a maximum of $200 per day. You may supplement your check up to your regular earnings with other available paid leave such as sick or vacation pay. Leaves may be taken intermittently—up to a total of 12 weeks—if your employer agrees. Your employer may not take adverse action against you because of your time-off request.

Your weeks out of work will count against your annual 12-week Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) entitlement. If your employer violates your leave rights, you may file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

A worker whose request for childcare leave is denied may apply for UI benefits. UI benefits may also be available if you need more than 12 weeks time off. You cannot collect UI benefits for any weeks that you receive paid leave.

5. Employers can refuse leave requests from health care providers

Q. I am a hospital nurse. My child’s regular caregiver cannot come to my home because of the COVID-19 virus. Am I entitled to paid time off?

A. This is a sore point. To guarantee the availability of medical personnel, the FFCRA allows covered employers, public and private, large and small, to deny COVID-related sick and caregiver leave to persons who serve as “health care providers.” A similar federal law (the FMLA) restricts this term to physicians and other professionals qualified to issue medical diagnosis. According to the Labor Department, however, for purposes of FFCRA leave the phrase includes everyone employed by a hospital, clinic, nursing home, pharmacy, medical products manufacturer, or other similar institution. Consequently, your hospital can refuse your request.

Note: A hospital employee whose request for a COVID-related caregiver leave is denied can stop work and file for UI benefits under the CARES Act. The possible downside is that the employee may lose his or her rights to paid health insurance and reemployment.

6. Large employers can refuse leaves

Q. We work for General Motors. Are we entitled to sick and caregiver leaves under the FFCRA?

A. Surprisingly, no. Congress excluded private employers with 500 or more employees (across all facilities) from the FFCRA, supposedly to prevent such employers from claiming the Act’s tax credits.

7. Public employees

Q. Are state workers entitled to paid sick and childcare leaves under the FFCRA?

A. Yes. The FFCRA applies to all state and local government agencies and many, but not all, federal agencies.

8. Small employers and paid leave

Q. I work for a private social service agency with 12 employees. Does the agency have to approve FFCRA leaves?

A. Yes, with one exception. An employer with less than 50 employees can deny a COVID-19 child care leave if the employee’s absence would prevent the employer from working at minimum capacity or would cause expenses to exceed its revenues.

9. Workplace closes during caregiver leave

Q. I am in the midst of a 12-week FFCRA leave to care for my children. If my company closes its workplace during my absence, can it stop paying me?

A. Yes. Pay to a COVID-related leavetaker can be halted if the employer closes its doors or otherwise has no work available. You would then be able to apply for UI benefits.

10. Independent contractors and UI benefits

Q. I drive for Uber. Due to COVID-19, rides have dried up all over the city. Where I used to pull in $1,200 a week, I now make less than $200. Can I file for UI?

A. Yes. The CARES Act allows self-employed persons, including independent contractors and “gig” workers, whose incomes have dried up due to the COVID-19 crisis to file for total or partial UI benefits through December 26, 2020. Successful claimants will receive their regular weekly rate plus the $600 bonus through July 31, 2020. You will have to document or otherwise certify your income loss.

But note: Many state agencies are delaying decisions on claims from self-employed persons until they can make changes in their claims verification system. When approved, however, your benefits should be retroactive to the first week you lost work due to COVID-19.

11. Part-time workers and UI benefits

Q. I was working part-time when my employer ceased operations due to the COVID crisis. Do I have to look for full-time work to receive UI benefits?

A. No. The CARES Act allows persons out of work because of the COVID crisis to limit their job search to part-time work.

12. Undocumented workers and UI benefits

Q. Can undocumented immigrants file for UI benefits due to the COVID-19 public health emergency?

A. No. Although undocumented workers are deemed essential in some industries, they are still excluded from UI programs.

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Robert M. Schwartz is a retired union-side labor lawyer and author of several Labor Notes books, including The Legal Rights of Union Stewards, The FMLA Handbook, and Just Cause: A Union Guide to Winning Discipline Cases. Ordering information is at labornotes.org for when our online store reopens.


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Amazon Says It’s Giving Part-Time Workers PTO—But There May Be a Catch

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has rolled out a new policy that extends paid time off to thousands of part-time operations employees.

The change follows a months-long campaign by workers in Amazon’s last-mile delivery stations to demand PTO, touted in the company’s public communications as an “essential” benefit offered to all its workers. After being told that a special classification made them ineligible, workers at Sacramento’s DSM1 delivery station launched a petition demanding the same benefits as other part-time employees and staged a walkout in December. Workers at delivery stations in Chicago and Queens took up the call earlier this year, and more than 4,300 Amazon employees nationwide signed on.

On March 20, delivery workers celebrated after receiving a “manager’s update” that reads, “We are excited to announce that Amazon will offer paid-time off benefits to all our regular part-time and seasonal employees in the United States working in the [Operations] network.

But employees still have questions.

It’s still unclear how the policy will apply in localities that already require paid sick leave. Chicago-area Amazon workers who say they previously caught the company breaking local sick-leave law suspect the company is now trying to pull a bait-and-switch.

Workers at Chicago’s DCH1 delivery station say they currently accrue 15 minutes of paid sick time per 8 hours worked, a rate slightly above what’s required by local law. Over the weekend, members of the group DCH1 Amazonians United asked an area manager to confirm whether they would receive PTO on top of existing sick leave. They say they were told that they would accrue both, separately, until June 1. At that point, sick time would “disappear,” and they would continue racking up PTO: at the same rate they do now.

An internal announcement at the facility, provided to In These Times, reads: “PTO and sick time will continue to accrue. In June it will combine and sick time bucket on HUB will disappear.” (HUB refers to the online system where employees can track their available paid and unpaid time off.)

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about the new PTO policy.

According to Ted Miin, a Chicago Amazon employee and member of DCH1 Amazonians United, “Amazon is making a few concessions to motivate workers who are desperate and poor to keep coming into the warehouse and putting themselves at risk. But once we get this, we’re not going to let them take it away.”

To meet soaring demand from home-bound consumers, Amazon last week announced plans to hire 100,000 additional warehouse employees. The online-retail giant is also raising workers’ pay by $2 an hour through April, creating a $25 million hardship fund and granting two weeks of paid sick leave to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Those changes fall short of demands outlined in a petition for coronavirus protections from Amazon, including time-and-a-half pay, childcare pay and subsidies for workers impacted by school and daycare closures, paid sick leave without a requirement for positive diagnosis, and complete facility shutdowns in order to sanitize warehouses where workers test positive for COVID-19.

Last week, a Queens delivery hub reopened the day after an employee tested positive, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at a U.S. Amazon facility.

Workers say that the standard precautions—stand at least six-feet apart, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching surfaces that might be contaminated—are almost impossible to follow inside crowded facilities. The volume of packages they’re handling has peaked, and the goods they’re moving are heavier.

“At the same time that they’ve been telling us to work more safely and sanitize our stations, they’ve raised productivity quotas,” said a worker at the Queens facility station who asked to remain anonymous. “Some people still have trouble hitting them even if they’re not washing their hands, and they’re not giving us extra time to wash our hands.”

Chicago Amazon employees have set up a mutual aid fund to support workers who they say are struggling to make ends meet during the crisis.

“While Amazon has publicly announced a policy to give workers sick/quarantine pay, several of our coworkers under CDC-advised self-quarantine due to medical status or recent travel are still getting the run-around by Amazon and have thus far not been able to get that pay,” they write on the page. “We will fight until we get it, but in the meantime funds are running low for medicine, food, baby supplies, and rent.”

Last week, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos, urging him to grant workers sick leave and hazard pay. The letter also poses questions about precautions Amazon is taking, with a March 26 deadline to respond.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Americans who are taking every precaution … might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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Worried Call Center Workers Do Not Understand Why They Are Risking Their Lives for Customer Service

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As the coronavirus has shuttered swaths of America’s offices, many workers in corporate call centers say they are still expected to work, risking their own health. Call centers have been deemed “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security, but employees with little paid sick leave say they feel forced to work, in constant fear of infection, in order to keep customer service lines functioning smoothly.

Late last week, as states from coast to coast closed businesses in order to try to restrain the spread of the disease, call center workers across the country told In These Times that their jobs were continuing. Many said that the policies instituted by their employers were wildly insufficient for protecting employees from the scale and danger of this pandemic. One person who works as a customer service rep at a Kansas call center for the government contractor Maximus, said that employees were told late last week that they could apply for leave for childcare reasons after schools shut down, but that the process was broken.

“After applying online I immediately received an email from Maximus saying that I didn’t qualify for the leave. My supervisor told me to talk to human capital (that’s what they call HR now) about it, but they wouldn’t speak to me. They said they would only take appointments. I applied for an appointment twice and got no response,” the employee said on Friday. “We were also told to tell our supervisors if we were sick. I have symptoms of a cold right now, which I relayed to my supervisor. We assumed they were going to send everyone who was sick home, but human capital never responded. And I’m still scheduled to go into work tomorrow.”

Cassie Ludwig, who works at a Maximus call center in Kentucky, said that she is required to work 30 hours a week to qualify for health insurance, and now she fears losing it when she needs it most. “I got a schedule change because the schools in our area are closed due to COVID-19, but if I don’t work the minimum hours and fall ill, I won’t be able to afford treatment.” (A Maximus spokesperson said that the company’s updated sick leave grants up to 80 hours of paid leave to employees who are self-quarantined or forced to care for sick family members, and that “if an employee needs to take COVID related leave their health insurance coverage continues.”)

Several call center workers for Wells Fargo spent last week grasping for clarity on whether they could keep themselves safe without facing unemployment. Last Wednesday, an employee at a Wells Fargo call center in Minneapolis was desperate enough that she was emailing any news outlets she could find, concerned about the health of her husband, who was working in conditions she said were “definitely closer than they should be.” Her husband was later granted 14 days of paid sick leave due to a health condition, but other employees at the call center remain on the job.

There was similar uncertainty in other locations, according to Patrick Creaven, a member of the Committee for Better Banks who works at a Wells Fargo “contact center” in Concord, California that handles customer service. At the end of last week, Creaven said, some though not all of the several hundred employees in the building were told they could work from home—theoretically. “My colleagues and I in the Social Care department could work from home if we were given laptops, but they are currently not available. We’ve been told the bank is working on securing them for us, but there’s a backlog,” he said. “Overall, the workplace this week is very similar to the workplace we had pre-coronavirus.”

Creaven said that he and his colleagues are typically given three paid sick leave days a year; Wells Fargo has told them that if they test positive for coronavirus, or are deemed to be at high risk as defined by the CDC, they can file to receive 14 days of paid leave.

“Some Wells Fargo employees who support critical operations, including contact centers, must be onsite in order to serve our customers,” said Wells Fargo spokesman John Hobot. “As the situation evolves quickly, we continue to explore alternatives, and are taking significant actions to ensure the safety of our team while ensuring customers are provided the services they need.” He added that the company is updating policies, “including benefit enhancements specifically for employees directly affected by coronavirus through illness or school closures.”

A steady theme from call center employees over the past week has been that the reactive measures taken by their employers in response to the pandemic have not been enough to reassure them that they are not placing their lives on the line for their relatively low-paying jobs. An employee at a Consumer Cellular call center in Arizona who expressed fear of infection last week told In These Times that he has now left the job, making the calculation that the health risk was too great. “I am of the opinion that states like mine that are oversaturated with mega call centers are putting an untold number of lives at risk by allowing them to continue to operate,” he said.

Call center workers themselves are the strongest believers that they should all be working from home, rather than being forced to choose between coming into crowded offices or lose their livelihoods. “We need to be allowed to work from home to prevent people from catching the virus, as a precautionary measure—not as a reactionary one,” said the Wells Fargo worker Patrick Creaven. “I’m very worried. Government agencies have told us to ‘shelter-in-place’ to prevent the spread of the virus. Going into a building with hundreds of people in it, opening the same doors and touching the same elevator buttons, has suddenly become terrifying. I feel like it’s not a matter of if, but when someone becomes sick.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 23, 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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Corona and Class Warfare Part II: Stopping a Multi-Dollar CEO Pension Tax Break

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Last week I asked everyone to consider the coronavirus pandemic as a pretty clarifying picture of class warfare—who are the people who get hurt most when millions of jobs go away or at best are in limbo because of a nationwide shutdown? It’s working people, minimum wage workers, service workers—almost none of whom have enough cash in reserve to pay bills, unlike the rich who have made their wealth by exploiting workers. Who are the people most vulnerable? It’s the people who either have to still go to work or can’t afford to stay at home because they don’t have mandated paid sick leave or family leave, even in a crisis.

Today, as so many of you either hunker down or are living in fear, I talk with one of my favorite and regular guests Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, about a menu of steps the country needs to take to mitigate the devastating health and economic hits workers are taking in the pandemic.

Then, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat from Maryland, joins me to talk about his efforts to protect tens of thousands of federal workers by calling for an expansion of their right to telework during the corona pandemic, as well as his effort with Bernie Sanders to buttress workers’ pensions by ending a multi-billion tax break for CEO retirement plans.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on March 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out more than a decade ago, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays (slacker), with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995). I’m currently working on two news books.


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The Narrow, Ineffective and Wholly Inadequate U.S. Debate about Paid Sick Leave

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In the rush — or at least the pretense of rush — to bring immediate economic relief to the millions of average workers gutted by the tanking global economy brought on by the coronavirus, Democratic Party elites and centrist papers of record Washington Post and New York Times are cementing the terms of the debate to a narrow, ineffective, and wholly inadequate discussion of paid sick leave.

Over a forty-eight-hour period from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, the New York Times has run twelve articles and op-eds online that substantively mention paid sick leave, including Associated Press and Reuters reprints. Not a single one of those pieces mentions the fact that informal economy and contract workers would not benefit from such protections, which are urgently needed — but ideally would just be one strand of a much larger safety net.

piece published Saturday by the New York Times editorial board does criticize the legislation for paid sick leave passed by the House Saturday morning, shepherded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for not going far enough because it doesn’t apply to companies with 500 or more workers. “In fact, the bill guarantees sick leave only to about 20 percent of workers,” the piece notes. “Big employers like McDonald’s and Amazon are not required to provide any paid sick leave, while companies with fewer than 50 employees can seek hardship exemptions from the Trump administration.” Yet nowhere in this article will you find any mention of the informal economy workers who are entirely excluded from this legislation.

This omission is glaring, because a significant portion of the US workforce is employed in the freelance and informal economies not covered by paid sick leave. According to some counts there’s over 56 million freelancers in the United States (though not all are economically precarious, many almost certainly are).

As for the informal economy, it is, by definition, difficult to determine the exact scale of this sector. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated in 2018 that 18.1 percent of total employment in North America is in the informal sector (the ILO didn’t look just at the United States). A 2011 Urban Institute report found “there are no precise estimates of the size of the informal employment sector in the United States, but it could range from 3 to 40 percent of the total non-agricultural workforce,” which means it could be as low as 4 million or as high as 53 million Americans.

Many of these informal economy and freelance workers are already in crisis. “Sex work has given me a level of financial stability I’ve never had before, but I’m still just one rent payment away from crisis,” a New England–based sex worker told Jacobin. “Most sex workers don’t have a safety net and will almost certainly be left out of any formal systems put in place to make up for lost wages. I’m already worried about what I will do when I lose income and have nowhere to turn.”

During the same forty-eight-hour period, the Washington Post published fifteen articles and op-eds that substantively mentioned paid sick leave, including Associated Press and Bloomberg Wire reprints. Of those, none gave a clear mention of informal economy workers. One opinion column by Adam Shandler discussed gig workers, but this brief mention provided the entire scope of coverage of the informal, freelance, and undocumented economy in the context of the coronavirus relief package.

Reading the Times and Post coverage, and statements from both Republican and Democrat leaders, it’s clear that helping the vulnerable and precarious dig out from the economic conditions they face is almost incidental to the paid sick leave mechanism. “The House’s failure to require universal paid sick leave,” the aforementioned March 14 Times editorial concluded, “is an embarrassment that endangers the health of workers, consumers and the broader American public.”

The urgent concern for our political and media leaders at the moment appears to first and foremost be containing the rate of the virus’s spread. A noble goal, of course, but one that is separate from making sure people don’t suffer economic hardship.

The pressing political question is: the focus on only paid sick leave? And why only two weeks? These questions are especially important given the almost immeasurable level of need among all workers.

“Informal economy workers are being entirely left out of the conversation, on the federal level but also state and local levels,” Fahd Ahmed, the director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a New York–based organization, said to Jacobin. “Conversations have centered on more established, more formal, and resourced employers, but our membership is primarily undocumented and working in small businesses, often working on cash, doing domestic work inside of homes. A lot of the message doesn’t apply to their employers, or they wouldn’t qualify because of documentation processes that are required.”

The answer lies, in part, in the worldview of the most powerful Democrat on this issue and all others: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is a longtime ideological adherent to thinking on deficits which prioritizes finding out how “one is going to pay for things” over whether the policy is moral or needed as such. Thus, in the event of a mass catastrophe, questions of austerity will, before negotiations even begin, limit what’s possible to the bare minimum required for Democrats to look like they’re Doing Something.

The excuse for the current half of a half measure, per usual, is that the ground ceded was necessary for “compromise.” But we have decades of evidence, including comments made by Pelosi herself in the past seventy-two hours, that this wasn’t a reluctant compromise made by an otherwise progressive champion of broad populist action, but the logical conclusion of her long-standing approach to politics. Pelosi has referred to far-right deficit hawk and Republican Pete Peterson as a “national hero,” and has derided anyone to her left for suggesting the Democratic Party may be insufficiently progressive.

On Saturday, when the Times broke the news of the limited scope of the bill, Pelosi took to Twitter to defend it, insisting, “I don’t support U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing … Large employers and corporations must step up to the plate and offer paid sick leave and paid family & medical leave to their workers.” Not only does Pelosi begin her statement with the right-wing austerity catchphrase “US taxpayer money,” her rhetorical climax is mildly chiding corporations and demanding they “step up to the plate” without any sense of what the consequences are if they don’t.

In the time of the most pressing crisis facing the American poor potentially since the Great Depression, the vulnerable are offered up ideologically razor-thin hand-wringing by one of the people most empowered to actually help them.

It’s important to note that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals would implicitly solve many of the problems of freelancers and those in the informal economy. In Sunday night’s debate Sanders name-checked homeless people and prisoners and he took a big risk when, months ago, he included undocumented people in his Medicare for All plan and Ocasio-Cortez has taken to social media this week to champion eviction moratoriums, student debt cancellation, and a universal basic income — all of which would fill much of the gap left in paid sick leave framing.

The goal, of course, is not to pit formal economy and informal economy workers against each other. Whether one is laboring for Jeff Bezos or for a small employer who pays cash under the table, workers deserve to be immediately bailed out by this unforeseen pandemic. Paid sick leave must be a part of this rubric, especially in times of profound public health crisis. But when paid sick leave — for a small number of workers, and for a limited amount of time — is accepted as the only emergency response, it’s tantamount to repairing a crumbling building with scotch tape.

We need to be talking about wealth redistribution on a far grander scale: What would it look like to provide immediate material relief, in the form of guaranteed income, to workers who are losing work — and who should not work, so that we can have a hope of containing this health crisis? How can we enact such a policy to ensure no one is left behind, no matter how they make their money, or whether they are able to make any money at all, regardless of immigration status or disability? What does it look like to pursue an ambitious program to redistribute wealth, unconcerned with selective “how will you pay for it?” concern trolling, on an unprecedented scale so that the people losing their jobs, and potentially losing their homes, can survive this crisis?

Millions of people are in free fall right now: Bars and restaurants are closing, construction sites are shuttering, yet rent is still due, mouths need to be fed, and there is no clear end date to the crisis. When the parameters of debate are drawn so narrowly as to exclude the actual actions that could bring these people material relief, that’s the same thing as leaving them to fend for themselves.

First published in Jacobin.

This article was published at In These Times on March 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

About the Author: Adam Johnson is the co-host of Citations Needed podcast and a writer at the Appeal.


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Coronavirus is a huge labor issue, this week in the war on workers

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Thanks largely to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, workers’ issues are getting a lot of attention as the United States confronts coronavirus. We’ll see what Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do with it, but Democrats (and COVID-19) have managed to get paid sick leave and paid family leave into the national conversation. Democrats are also pushing for emergency improvements to unemployment insurance and to food assistance, which is a workers’ issue when you consider how many working people rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Those aren’t the only concerns, though. Look below for a bunch of coronavirus-and-labor links, but also check out the Economic Policy Institute’s discussion of how to handle a coronavirus-related recession, which Josh Bivens warns could happen much more quickly than the 2008 Great Recession. He suggests “rapid direct payments to individuals,” similar to what President George W. Bush did in 2008, but with some improvements. State governments are also likely to be hit hard in ways that could be a strong anti-stimulus, so, Bivens suggests, the federal government could very quickly combat that: “A quick way to transfer resources to state governments is to pay states’ share of Medicaid for the next year. This was done as part of the Recovery Act in 2009, and it is possibly the single most-effective component of the Act (when combining scale and per-dollar impact).”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 16, 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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Coronavirus Prevention That Works For Working People

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America isn’t ready for coronavirus. In the last 24 hours, millions of school children across the country have been told to stay home for two weeks, or even longer. This is an important public health step to stop the spread, but it also means parents can’t go to work. 

I’m fixing lunch for a 9 and 12 year old as I write this. And I’m one of the lucky ones who is able to telecommute. Millions of Americans are not so lucky. 

In addition to the countless schools and businesses that are moving to telecommuting or closures, we’re also hearing from the CDC that if you are sick you should stay home, other than to seek medical treatment. 

And yet, we have to ask, exactly how are the third of Americans without paid sick days supposed to follow this advice?

Likewise the nearly 90 million Americans who are uninsured or underinsured are already sick with worry that if they contract the coronavirus they won’t be able to get treatment. 

This pandemic threatens to go from very bad to a whole lot worse simply because of our chronic disinvestment in the health and economic security of millions of Americans. The level of danger and risk we now face is directly related to our policy failures. 

Democrats in Congress are moving as fast they can on a policy response to the coronavirus that puts our health and safety first with paid sick days, enhanced unemployment insurance, food security, strong protections for frontline workers, widespread and free coronavirus testing, anti-price gouging protections from surprise medical billing, and increased capacity for the medical system. 

The reality is that these are all things that progressives have spent a very long time fighting for–guaranteed health care, paid sick days and family leave, an end to surprise medical billing, and a strong social safety net. Republicans on the other hand, have blocked them at every turn. 

And now we’re seeing the fallout from Republican indifference to low-income and middle-class families in real time: A Pennsylvania man and his young daughter were recently evacuated from Wuhan, China. When his daughter started coughing, they did the responsible thing and went to the hospital to get checked out. They were quarantined for a few days, and ultimately tested negative for the virus. When the medical bill for $3,918 arrived, he was stunned.  Almost 40 percent of people in the U.S. can’t afford a $400 emergency bill, let alone nearly $4,000. How many times has this scene played out already at kitchen tables across America? 

Just the other day, a family member told me her prescriptions were filled by a pharmacy tech who sneezed her way through the transaction. When asked why she didn’t go home to rest, the pharmacy tech said, “they won’t let me.” How many vulnerable people were exposed to cold or flu, or potentially worse, by that one pharmacy tech? Seven in ten low-wage workers can’t take time off to go to the doctor when they are sick or stay home from work without putting their jobs on the line. This is playing out in restaurants, stores, and yes, even pharmacies all across America.

When the 2008 recession hit, we engineered a massive bank bailout. If we can bail out the banks in a matter of days, we can provide guaranteed health care and workplace protections that our fellow Americans need to stay healthy and avoid getting the rest of us sick. We’ve also got to learn the lessons of 2008 and make sure we bail out the people who need it most.  Economic stimulus should focus on low- and middle income families, not tax giveaways or poorly structured bailouts that help Wall Street but leave Main Street in the dust. 

When it comes to a highly contagious virus like COVID-19 (or the flu for that matter), we’re all in this together. We have to make it possible for everyone to actually follow the CDC’s advice. That’s why Congress and the Trump administration must take action to ensure everyone can get tested, everyone has the guaranteed health care they need to get treated, everyone can stay home if they or a loved one are sick, and everyone can survive an economic slowdown. 

It should not take a terrifying national emergency for us to wake up to the realization that we all pay the price when we treat people like they don’t matter. Medicare for All, paid family leave, universal child care, a robust social safety net. These things are not a wish list. They are essentials. Now is the time to put the basic foundation in place that will make us all safer and more secure in good times, and more resilient when disaster strikes. 

This article was originally posted on Our Future on March 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Liz Watson is the executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center. She is the former labor policy director of the House Education and Labor Committee and a former Democratic nominee for Congress in Indiana’s 9th Congressional district. 


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Unions Across America Are Screaming For Paid Sick Leave and Healthcare

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As coronavirus spreads, sowing panic and economic dislocation, unions across the country are using the crisis as an opportunity to call for priorities that were dismissed as left-wing fantasies not long ago—and now seem like common sense. 

Virtually every union with members in a position to be exposed to the illness itself or to its economic side effects (which is to say, almost everyone) has reached out to members with tips about how to navigate the crisis. Many, particularly those representing front-line service workers, are also speaking to reporters, holding press conferences, and issuing press releases about the failings of the government and corporations to deal effectively with the needs of working people. AFGE, which represents federal government workers, criticized the Trump administration’s lack of guidance about what to do as the virus spread. The Association of Flight Attendant’s called Trump’s European travel ban “irresponsible,” and criticized the administration’s “failure to adequately test for the virus, failure to contain the spread, suppression of advice from leading scientists, and failure to consult with stakeholders.” Most unions called for immediate paid sick leave policies, some targeting individual companies where union members work, and others calling on the government to create a national paid sick leave program to bring the United States in line with the standards of the developed world.

Demands of different unions vary based on their membership, but all coalesce around public health and economic security. The Chicago Teacher’s Union called on city leaders to promise that teachers and staff would not lose any pay in the event of a school shutdown. It also broadened its focus to the entire community, demanding that “the City take all action within their authority to support fifteen days of paid sick leave for all CPS parents and Chicago residents.”

The SEIU is running several different campaigns at once that focus on needs exposed by the coronavirus crisis. The union represents doctors in training, and launched a “Hospital Interns, Residents and Fellows Bill of Rights,” calling for better wages and working conditions, as well as a right to unionize. In New York, where 32BJ SEIU represents thousands of airport workers, the union held a press conference calling for the passage of a state law that would require employers to give a health insurance subsidy to those workers—including subcontractors—many of whom cannot currently afford health insurance.

Massive, nationwide public fear of an infectious disease is a great way to get people to care about the health of the working people they come into contact with in their daily lives. Even the most conservative Republicans have now acquired an intense desire to ensure that the people who drive them around, serve their food, ring them up at stores, and take care of them at hospitals are not sick. Unions are trying to use this newfound leverage to score gains that can last past the day when the coronavirus dies down.

Perhaps the most bluntly effective campaign is now being waged by Chipotle workers in New York City, who are trying to organize with SEIU. Workers went on strike last week, charging that the company is violating the city’s paid sick leave laws by retaliating against employees who take time off. To put a fine point on it, the union quoted Chipotle worker Carlos Hernandez in a press release: “Several times in my year at Chipotle, I’ve gotten sick and had diarrhea while at work,” Hernandez said. “Every time this happened, I went to the on-duty manager, let them know I had diarrhea, and asked to go home. Unfortunately, every time I did this, the manager merely told me to switch from the grill, where I normally work, to washing dishes or working the cash register.”

With diarrhea and the coronavirus on their side, working people may achieve fair health care at last.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 13, 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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Why Workers Like Victoria Need The PRO Act Now

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Those bundles of joy cost bundles of money, so Victoria Whipple, a quality control worker at Kumho Tire in Macon, Ga., had been working overtime to get ready for her new arrival.

She also got involved in union organizing at the plant, and management decided to teach her a lesson. It didn’t matter that Victoria had seven kids ranging in age from 10 to 1. Or that she was eight months pregnant. Those things just made her a more appealing target.

On Sept. 6, the day Kumho workers wrapped up an election in which they voted to join the United Steelworkers (USW), managers pulled Victoria off the plant floor and suspended her indefinitely without pay solely because she was supporting the union. In a heartbeat, her income was gone.

“It kind of stressed me out because of the bills,” she explained.

What happened to Victoria happens all the time. Employers face no real financial penalties for breaking federal labor law by retaliating against workers during a union organizing campaign. So they feel free to suspend, fire or threaten anyone they want. Workers are fired in one of every three organizing efforts nationwide, and the recent election at Kumho was held only because the company harassed workers before the initial vote two years ago.

Legislation now before Congress—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—would curtail this rampant abuse.

The PRO Act would fine employers up to $50,000 for retaliating against workers during organizing campaigns. It would require the National Labor Relations Board to go to court to seek reinstatement of workers who are fired or face serious financial harm because of retaliation, and it would give workers the right to file lawsuits and seek damages on their own.

The House Committee on Education and Labor has taken up the PRO Act, and it’s important that members of Congress understand exactly what’s at stake: families like Victoria’s that might be only a couple of missed paychecks away from financial ruin.

They can’t afford to be pawns in a company’s sordid union-busting campaign.

Victoria began working at Kumho a year and a half ago, after being laid off from her dispatching job at a distribution center. Her husband, Tavaris Taylor, recently started an over-the-road trucking job. They didn’t have much of a financial cushion for emergencies, and the suspension put their backs against the wall.

Instead of focusing on her family in the final weeks of her pregnancy, Victoria had to worry about money. It wasn’t healthy for her or her unborn child. And it wasn’t right.

When Victoria’s eldest child asked why she wasn’t going to work anymore, she just said she needed some time off. It would be wrong to burden a 10-year-old with the truth.

Victoria began borrowing gas money from her mom. She cut back her spending. She prioritized the bills and paid only those—rent, electricity and so on—that she considered absolutely essential.

She kept going to her doctor appointments, hoping the company’s insurance still covered her or that Medicaid would kick in if it didn’t. Victoria qualifies for Medicaid even though she works full time. The need for better pay is just one reason Kumho workers voted to join the USW.

But Victoria’s main concern was giving workers a bigger voice in the workplace. She went to a union meeting and thought: “Maybe representation would help.”

That’s how she became a union supporter—and got crossways with a company that couldn’t care less about its workers, their families or federal labor law.

Victoria didn’t know how long her suspension would last or if management’s next step would be to fire her. That would be Kumho’s kind of baby gift.

Then, out of the blue last week, a manager called Victoria and told her to return to work. On Friday, her first day back after two weeks without pay, managers had the brass to ask her if she understood why she had been suspended.

Yeah, she understood all right.

Companies will do almost anything these days—even suspend a pregnant woman and escort her from the premises—to keep out unions and hold down workers. That’s especially true of Kumho. Its egregious union-busting activities derailed workers’ attempt to join the USW two years ago.

Back then, Kumho threatened union supporters’ jobs, interrogated employees about their union allegiance, threatened to shut down the plant if the union was voted in and made workers think they were being spied on. The conduct was so extraordinarily bad that an NLRB administrative law judge ordered Kumho to assemble the workers and read a statement outlining the many ways in which it had violated their rights and federal labor law.

The NLRB also ordered this month’s election, in which workers voted 141 to 137 to join the USW. Thirteen challenged ballots will be addressed at an upcoming hearing.

The mistreatment of Victoria shows that Kumho hasn’t changed its ways over the past two years. Unfortunately, employers have no incentive right now to follow the law.

The PRO Act would help to level the playing field. Besides fining companies for retaliation and giving workers the right to sue, the legislation would prohibit employers from holding mandatory anti-union presentations like the “town hall” meetings Kumho forced Victoria and her co-workers to attend. Employers conduct the meetings to bully employees into voting against a union.

The legislation also would provide new protections once workers voted for representation. For example, if a company dragged its feet during bargaining for a first contract, a regular ploy to lower worker morale, mediation and arbitration could be used to speed the process along. And the PRO Act would prohibit employers from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers.

Members of Congress need to understand something. Workers aren’t looking to pick fights with their employers. They just want to do their jobs well, work in safe environments and earn enough money to care for their families. And some companies work productively with unions, including the USW, to improve working conditions and product quality.

But employers like Kumho too often exploit their employees and resist any effort that workers make to improve their lot. When that happens, workers like Victoria will stand their ground. Now more than ever, they need the protections of the PRO Act backing them up.

This blog was originally published by AFL-CIO on October 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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