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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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

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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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Far-right effort to smear Elizabeth Warren flops. Turns out pregnancy discrimination is a thing

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Elizabeth Warren and the entire history of women’s employment in the 1970s are swatting away a claim by a far-right website disputing Warren’s story of losing her first teaching job because she was visibly pregnant at the end of her first year. The Free Beacon found documents claiming that Warren was offered a second-year teaching contract but resigned. However, there are a lot more documents showing that it was absolutely standard for women to lose teaching jobs because they were pregnant, and Twitter was quick to bring those receipts.

The key rebuttal to the claim that Warren wasn’t really forced out in 1971? A 1972 news story from New Jersey, the state where Warren was teaching, reporting that “Pregnant teachers can no longer be automatically forced out of New Jersey’s classrooms.” To repeat, “automatically forced out.” But many other headlines prove just how standard that was, as historian Joshua Zeitz shows.

Warren herself had a typically straightforward, non-defensive response:

She told CBS News that, as the documents Free Beacon found indicate, she had initially been offered a second-year teaching contract. But that’s not the whole story, she said: “I was pregnant, but nobody knew it. And then a couple of months later when I was six months pregnant and it was pretty obvious, the principal called me in, wished me luck, and said he was going to hire someone else for the job.”

Other people who taught in the same New Jersey district at the time didn’t remember Warren’s specific case, but did confirm the policy. “The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant. Now, if you didn’t tell anybody you were pregnant, and they didn’t know, you could fudge it and try to stay on a little bit longer,” retired teacher Trudy Randall said. “But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant.”

Not only did women routinely lose their jobs for being pregnant in the 1970s, when it was legal to fire them for that reason, but women continue to lose their jobs for being pregnant, even though there are now technically some legal protections for pregnant women. The Free Beacon thinking it had a giant gotcha here shows how out of touch these people are with the reality American women are still living with now, let alone what they lived with in the 1970s.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 8, 2019. 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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When It Comes to Bereavement Leave, the U.S. Is Unspeakably Cruel

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Image result for Julianne TvetenOn March 19, 2018, Cindy Christensen took her husband, who had suddenly fallen ill, to the emergency room. Within one or two days, Christensen estimates, her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma. He was promptly transferred to a hospital that could provide more specialized treatment.

At the time, Christensen had been a unionized production worker at a Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies plant in Necedah, Wisconsin, for over 30 years. Before the diagnosis, she knew she’d have to be available during her husband’s hospital stay, and she arranged to use paid time off she’d accumulated. Shortly after the diagnosis, she began to consider the arrangements she’d have to make with her employer while her husband received treatment.

Christensen says she filed a request for unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), thinking she’d use the time to be with her husband for chemotherapy treatments and other medical appointments after she exhausted her paid leave. The FMLA of 1993 guarantees 12 workweeks of “unpaid, job-protected” leave in a 12-month period for family-related caretaking matters for eligible employees. In Wisconsin, employees qualify if they’ve worked for an organization for at least 52 consecutive weeks and for at least 1,000 hours in the preceding 52-week period; that organization must also employ at least 50 permanent staff members in order for workers to qualify.

“In that week’s time, my husband got worse and worse,” the now-retired Christensen tells In These Times. “He developed sepsis, and his organs shut down.” On March 26, 2018 he died.  She says she canceled the FMLA leave, finding it no longer necessary and fearing it would entail a slog of paperwork and phone calls that would aggravate her distress.

In the wake of her husband’s death, Christensen says she was given three days’ paid bereavement leave, per her contract under the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), with Good Friday, a paid holiday, following on March 30. She estimates she missed two additional days that weren’t covered by paid leave; each of these days resulted in disciplinary “points.” Reaching a certain number of points, she explains, would be grounds for firing. Christensen says she returned to work the following Wednesday, after seven days off.

“I was very close to losing my job,” she tells In These Times. “When things like this happen, you would like to take some time off. There’s so much stuff that you have to do. I would’ve liked to have taken more time off, but [Freudenberg-NOK] told me that I could not, unless I wanted to use the Family and Medical Leave Act,” she says.

Christensen hoped, as an employee of over 30 years, she could devise an alternative with Freudenberg-NOK, in the form of unpaid personal leave of approximately three days. The company had given unpaid leave previously to grieving employees, she says. To Christensen’s surprise, she recounts, the company denied her request, explaining that a broken water heater would warrant such leave, but her husband’s sudden illness and death wouldn’t.

“My husband was gone within a week’s time, and that was just a shock in itself. We didn’t know he had cancer, then we found out, and a week later, he’s gone. That was a lot,” Christensen says. “I thought they [Freudenberg-NOK] were going to be more kind, but they weren’t. It was a battle…They were just nasty about it.”

No right to bereavement leave

Christensen’s ordeal offers a glimpse into the state of bereavement leave for workers in the United States.

Bereavement leave isn’t federally mandated for any workers; thus, it’s largely a matter of whether employers choose to provide it. According to the Department of Labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping and youth employment, “does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral.” Laws vary by state: Oregon is the only U.S. state to legally require bereavement leave for qualifying employees, though said leave can be unpaid. Meanwhile, some states, such as California, legally require paid bereavement leave for certain public-sector workers, such as state employees.

The extent to which bereavement leave is available is largely limited to the attendance and, to some extent, the arrangement of a memorial service for a loved one. This informs the length of bereavement leave given to workers: Across the private sector, paid bereavement leave typically spans three to five days for full-time employees following the loss of an immediate family member, and one day following the loss of an extended family member or close friend, when it’s offered.

As of 2012, only 60% of private-sector workers were granted paid bereavement leave, per a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-time employees were at a particular disadvantage: 29% received paid leave, compared with 71% of full-time employees. (More recent statistics aren’t available, nor are numbers for public-sector jobs.) Additionally, there are no bereavement-leave protections in place for workers in the informal and gig economies, such as nannies and Uber drivers; in most cases, this remains a matter of the employer’s jurisdiction.

In some major capitalist countries other than the U.S., bereavement leave is somewhat more substantial. In Canada, bereavement leave of at least three days is guaranteed for employees under the Canada Labour Code, with pay contingent on duration of employment. The U.K. classifies leave for an emergency involving a dependent as a right, but doesn’t require that it be paid, and doesn’t guarantee bereavement leave specifically. France mandates three days’ paid leave for the death of a spouse, partner or close relative, and five days for the death of a child for all workers via the French Labor Code.

In recent years, certain high-profile companies have broadened their bereavement leave policies. In 2017, Facebook augmented its bereavement-leave allowance to up to 20 days following the death of an immediate family member, and up to 10 for an extended family member. This happened shortly after the company’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, was suddenlyn widowed.

MasterCard and SurveyMonkey followed suit with comparable policies, citing Facebook’s precedent.

At the time of these announcements, corporate  media  outlets  lavished these companies with praise, depicting their actions as beacons of hope for the U.S. labor landscape. What the press failed to ask, however, was why labor policies affecting the mental health of millions of workers should be so fragmented and piecemeal—and why the most generous versions of them should hinge upon the impulses of immensely wealthy executives.

The repercussions of trauma and loss

The answer to these questions, of course, is that these policies are the product of decades of neoliberal governance, wherein employers are given considerable latitude regarding labor practices. Employers benefit from the fact that universal paid bereavement leave isn’t federally mandated: This gives them more control over how much they invest in their workers, and further legal license to ignore their workers’ mental and physical health requirements. Thus, because federal labor law doesn’t guarantee protections for bereft workers, those workers’ wellbeing often suffers.

This was the case for Alex Blank Millard, who, several years ago, lost her father suddenly on the first day of her weeklong vacation from her job at an organization that provided no bereavement leave. (Millard chose not to name the organization.) Millard says that before her vacation, she routinely worked 60 to 70 hours per week and was commended for her job performance. When she returned to work grief-stricken, she was unable to concentrate.

“I spent the whole [vacation] week planning a memorial, dealing with family, figuring out logistics,” she tells In These Times. “I had to ask permission to take one extra day at the end of the week. I came back, and I was understandably a mess.” Millard wrote about her experience in 2018 for the now-defunct publication The Establishment.

Upon her return, Millard says she was expected to resume her regular workload and schedule. She subsequently requested additional unpaid leave. Her employer denied the request, she says, asserting that Millard simply had too much work to do, and placed her on a two-week “performance improvement plan” in order to more closely monitor her work. Millard, who’d worked there for three years, continued to seek leave over the course of two or three months, by her estimate.

“They wouldn’t [provide] that, and then I was fired,” she says. “I was fired for distraction[-related] things, like, ‘Took too long on a project.’”

An employer’s assumption that a worker can return to the workplace with their normal labor capacity intact, immediately following a life-altering form of trauma, is a testament to the necessity of bereavement leave, according to therapist and licensed clinical social worker Melissa Lopez, who specializes in grief counseling. “[Bereavement leave] is crucial. Grief is not only emotional; it’s mental, it’s physical, it’s spiritual in many ways. You’re trying to adjust to all these things, and work is asking you to not only show up, but be super productive. That causes more stress.”

Experiences such as Millard’s are symptomatic of a larger problem, according to therapist and mental-health educator Araya Baker. “I don’t think three to five days is sufficient. I think that dismisses the emotional repercussions of grief that an employee might be dealing with. Insufficient bereavement periods speak to the fact that capitalism has conditioned us to accept workplaces with a toxic, unhealthy culture,” he says.

“We romanticize the ability to repress pain and to forego help and rest,” Baker adds. “But we cannot always simply deactivate the part of our brains that cause our bodies and minds to grieve, simply because we’re at work.”

Lopez and Baker state that the individual grief process varies significantly depending on the mourner’s relationship with the deceased, cause of death and other factors. Research shows that acute grief, which commonly results shortly after the death of a loved one, can result in depression, trouble sleeping, feelings of anger and bitterness, anxiety, loss of appetite and general aches and pains—all of which can interfere with, and be exacerbated by—the need to perform a job.

And while there’s no quantifiable, universal grief period, research also shows that traumatic life events can require a recovery period of at least several weeks to months. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, for example, found that older adults who had lost a spouse saw a reduction in their stress after an eight-week program of physical and mental care.

“There should definitely be a conversation about how to accommodate someone’s grief and how to help them adapt both outside of the workplace, but also in the context of professional space, because those things often go hand in hand,” says Baker.

Whose grief counts

In addition to failing to account for the psychological and physiological process of coping with loss, current standards for workplace bereavement leave policies also run the risk of hierarchizing grief and those who mourn.

For example, the standard three-day leave period for immediate family “is dismissive of folks, especially in the LGBTQ community, where a lot of folks have chosen family” because their families have rejected them, says Lopez.

She adds, “A lot of communities of color grow up with extended family. You have uncles and aunts and cousins, everybody who is as close, many times, as immediate family members. But if it’s not an immediate family member, you [often] don’t even get those three days. It completely dismisses the impact of grief for many people.”

These forms of discrimination also surface for workers who don’t have the ability to take extended unpaid leave. Even for those whose work allows unpaid leave to heal from loss, the lack of income disproportionately affects those living in financial precarity, effectively stratifying the grief process.

Thus, at a time when a reported 40% of people living in the U.S. can’t cover a $400 emergency expense, and another reported 40% are one paycheck away from poverty, unpaid leave presents many people with an unfair choice: Take time to grieve but lose desperately needed income, or return to work and repress the repercussions of an extremely raw trauma.

In either case, workers’ mental health suffers. “Financial stress can compound grief, and make the recovery itself traumatic,” says Baker.

“You’re not going to have low-income folks have the ability to take off that much time, even if it’s given to them [as unpaid leave],” says Lopez. “That’s just not a reality. That’s the sad part. Who gets to break down? Who gets to just check out?”

The union struggle for bereavement protections

For many unions, steady, paid bereavement leave is a necessary component of worker protections. Because unionized workers can influence their own labor conditions more than non-unionized workers can, unionized jobs are likelier to offer benefits like paid bereavement leave, sick leave and maternity leave.

UE argues that paid bereavement leave should be universally provided, rather than a matter of corporate discretion. “We believe that [bereavement leave] is a basic sign of respect for workers and their families,” General President Peter Knowlton tells In These Times. He adds that it “should be guaranteed by law to all workers and all types of families.”

According to UE Local 1107 vice president Joni Anderson, the union took a number of actions in solidarity with Christensen, a member of that chapter, amid the company’s defiant posturing. Christensen’s coworkers and fellow UE members circulated a petition calling for her disciplinary points to be revoked and her personal leave to be rendered. They posted signs that said “Stand With Cindy,” and wore t-shirts proclaiming “We Are Not Family”—a direct reference, Anderson says, to the company’s tendency to profess otherwise. Eventually, Anderson says, the union discovered that the company had quietly withdrawn Christensen’s disciplinary points.

In response to the situation with Christensen, a Freudenberg-NOK spokesperson tells In These Times that it offers three days of paid bereavement to all employees at its Necedah plant. “The former employee – who was employed by Freudenberg-NOK at the time of her loss – was given three days of paid bereavement leave. The company further agreed to provide the employee with additional time off through the use of personal days, vacation days and FMLA-sponsored leave, per its contractual agreement. We do not discuss the individual decisions made in these situations.”

Anderson adds that UE Local 1107 has sought to expand paid bereavement leave policies to account for extended family members such as aunts and uncles. Freudenberg-NOK has refused to concede, she says, permitting paid leave only for the loss of family members already designated in the contract. Anderson notes that the next round of negotiations is scheduled for November, during which she expects to bargain for personal leave.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have waged similar battles. According to Andrea Zinder, UFCW Local 324 secretary-treasurer and president-elect of the UFCW Western States Council, paid bereavement leave between three and five days has been included in her local’s grocery workers’ contracts since at least 1984. Zinder tells In These Times that the local had just closed negotiations with Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs. Previously, employees were granted what was termed “funeral leave” on the condition that they produce proof of attendance of the service, such as a funeral card or program.

The policy soon proved inherently exclusionary and punitive. “A lot of times, there aren’t funerals,” Zinder says. “There are other ways of celebrating [someone’s life]. When there wasn’t an actual funeral, we sometimes ran into problems getting pay. We just changed the reference of ‘funeral leave’ to ‘bereavement leave’ in our retail food contract.”

“You get a hardcore employer, and you get a problem,” she adds. “When there’s no funeral, what do you do?” (Vons, Albertsons, and Ralphs have not responded to In These Times’ request for comment.)

The UFCW has also bargained for increased flexibility regarding timeframe of leave. Zinder says that within recent years, the union had modified certain contracts to allow for leave to be taken any time within a 14-day period.

Unions such as the UE and UFCW offer a formidable infrastructure through which to recognize and establish bereavement leave as a worker’s right. Still, amid the threat of corporate adversaries and a long history of policymaking in their favor, the struggle to secure bereavement leave continues.

“I think that if we truly care about workers, which I’m not sure that we do as a society, but if we want to truly care about workers, bereavement leave is essential,” says Millard. “We have trauma, trauma affects people, people are workers, and yet we’re not doing what we need to do to get them where they need to be.”

Baker adds, “While educating employers and lawmakers about grief is the obvious way to bring about widespread bereavement policy reform, it will take more than mental health advocacy for this idea to catch on. We need to be able to recognize exploitative expectations of workers.”

This article originally appeared on Inthesetimes.com on September 23, 2019.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about technology, labor, and culture, among other topics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Capital & Main, KPFK Pacifica Radio, and elsewhere.

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Oregon passes nation’s strongest paid family leave law

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Oregon just became the eighth state to pass a paid family leave law—and it did so with the best such law in the country, a month after Connecticut passed what was then considered the best family leave law. After the bill passed the state Senate in a bipartisan 21 to six vote, Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law Monday afternoon, saying in a statement, “Now, we can finally tell parents that they no longer will have to worry about losing their pay when they are having a baby or need to care for a loved one.”

Oregon’s law, which goes into effect in 2023, will offer 12 weeks of paid leave, covering up to 100% of pay for low-wage workers. Benefits will be capped at $1,215. Connecticut’s law had been considered generous for covering up to 95% for low-wage workers. Oregon’s law will also include people affected by domestic violence in addition to new parents and people caring for ill family members or dealing with their own illness. The law also ensures that people’s jobs are guaranteed to be there when they return from leave, something you’d think would be standard in paid family leave laws but is not.

Paid family and medical leave should be the law of the entire United States, but, like paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage, congressional Republicans are blocking it even as it gains momentum in the states.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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2018 elections give paid sick leave and family leave new momentum in the states

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Nevada recently became the latest state to pass a paid sick leave law after 2018 put Democrats in control of the state. But Nevada isn’t the only state where paid leave has advanced in 2019, and the Democratic Governors Association is highlighting that momentum.

In addition to Nevada’s paid sick leave law, which will require businesses with more than 50 workers to provide 40 hours of earned sick days to full-time workers:

  • New Jersey has expanded its paid family leave law from six to 12 weeks and up to 85% of pay.
  • Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed a law requiring employers with 10 or more workers to provide up to 40 hours of paid leave per year to be used for any purpose.
  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order giving state employees paid parental leave—eight weeks after giving birth and four weeks for other new parents.
  • Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to sign the nation’s strongest paid family leave law.
  • New Mexico and Louisiana also passed modest expansions of leave policies.

This is the kind of basic, humane policy to which Republicans are staunchly opposed. Policies that virtually every developed nation has and that are the law in a growing number of states, but that they want us to believe would be a disaster in the U.S. This is the kind of policy we get when Democrats are in charge.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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Southern Cities Are Passing Paid Sick Leave—But Republicans Won’t Let Them Have It

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On August 16, the San Antonio city council voted 9-2 to pass a paid sick leave ordinance that will allow residents to earn an hour of time off for every 30 hours worked up to six days a year at small employers and eight at larger ones. 

The United States is alone among 22 wealthy countries in having no national guaranteed paid sick-leave policy. As a result, states are left to pass their own laws, and in those like Texas where GOP legislatures stand opposed to paid sick leave, it’s up to the cities.

San Antonio became the 33rd city in the country to take such a step, and the second in the South after Austin passed a similar law in February.

The San Antonio law is supposed to go into effect in January, and Austin’s was scheduled to go into effect in October. But the fate of both laws is up in the air.

The very day after San Antonio’s ordinance passed, an appeals court temporarily put Austin’s law on hold in the midst of a lawsuit brought by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation— a member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network—that claims the law violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act.

Even if that lawsuit fails, many Republican members of the Texas legislature have vowed to pass legislation to block such local progressive laws throughout the state. Lawmakers are expected to take up broad preemption legislation as a top priority when the next legislative session begins in the new year.

Texas cities have watched the state erase their laws before. After he took office in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to preempt cities’ ability to pass their own ordinances. In 2017 he explained this decision would “continue our legacy of economic freedom” and “limit the ability of cities to California-ize the great state of Texas.” In 2015, the state blocked cities from regulating oil and gas drilling activity, including fracking, and it has also banned local laws that would create sanctuary cities.

It’s a growing trend in legislatures controlled by Republicans. At least 25 states have passed preemption laws that block cities from raising the minimum wage, and 20 have banned cities from instituting paid sick leave. The majority of these laws have been enacted since 2013 and advocates for higher workplace standards say the trend is only accelerating.

Texas advocates for paid sick leave haven’t given up hope, however. They plan to wield the sheer amount of popular support for these ordinances in their favor and against the state politicians who block them. “Our state leadership is out of touch with what the majority of Texans believe and want for their communities,” says Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, a community organizing group behind the paid sick leave ordinance.

Two years ago, the Texas Organizing Project began surveying working families in San Antonio about what issues were most important to them and what would most improve their lives. “It was very clear…that issues addressing economic security were at the very top of the list,” Tremillo says. Number one was access to jobs that pay well, but in Texas only the state can raise the minimum wage, followed by benefits and the ability to get paid time off for illness, understandable since an estimated 350,000 city residents don’t have access to paid sick days.

Advocates also eagerly watched what happened in Austin. “It just made sense that we would figure out how to make that happen in San Antonio as well,” Tremillo says.

Her group and others decided to take the issue directly to city residents. In San Antonio, anyone can put an issue before the city council by collecting signatures from 10 percent of the eligible voting population in the previous municipal election. If they succeed, the city council can either decide to vote on the topic directly or reject it, thus sending it to the ballot for voters to weigh in on. To hit the 10 percent requirement, paid sick leave advocates needed to collect at least 70,000 signatures to force the issue.

Within ten weeks they managed to collect more than double that number, eventually receiving more than 144,000. “The response was forceful. People wanted to sign it,” Tremillo says. “People understand immediately how important that basic right is, it is a basic right to take care of yourself and your family.”

It was the first time in Rey Saldaña’s seven years on the city council that he saw any issue get above the 70,000-signature threshold, he says. “It was an easy sell, easier than many folks had actually thought,” he says. Surprised at the level of support behind the issue, the mayor and Saldaña’s fellow council members decided to take it up and pass the ordinance themselves.

Saldaña, who supported paid sick leave from the beginning, chalks the support up to the fact that so many people in the city work in the service industry where paid sick day are uncommon. “Many of them know what it feels like to have to make decisions between going in sick or taking a pay cut that week,” he says. “[But] they didn’t realize that they had that power to try to ask the government to step in and intervene on some of the pressures they have in life.”

That support, he believes, will make it hard for state lawmakers to reverse the progress made. “The time is going to expire on the state of Texas’s ability to ignore that issue,” he says.

“Unfortunately we have a state leadership that is determined to interfere with our cities’ ability to do what’s best for their citizens,” Tremillo says. “We have a state leadership that is not at all concerned about improving conditions for working people.”

“The state has turned its back on working Texans and turned its back on solutions,” Saldaña agrees. “It does not surprise the city of San Antonio, just like it does not surprise Austin or Dallas or Houston, that the state wants to step in and keep cities from innovating and applying rules and laws that support the working men and women who prop up our economies.”

But that only adds urgency to the campaign to protect the laws that cities have passed on their own. Advocates pledge to keep up the momentum no matter what the state does. “We will continue to fight at the city level and at the state level for what people really need and want,” Tremillo says.

And she notes that San Antonio’s experience, with over a hundred thousand people voicing their support, shows that the state is up against a swell of popular support. “These are large numbers of voters and people in our community who are demanding improvements to working conditions,” she says. “I think our numbers are only going to get bigger. I think people are going to stand up against our state leadership… We’ll continue to increase the number of people participating in our democracy.”

She adds, “They should stay out of interfering with what our cities are doing and they should start listening to the needs of regular Texans.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has written for The New Republic, The Nation, the Washington Post, The New York Daily News, New York magazine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus.

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New Jersey to be tenth state with paid sick leave, but the U.S. stays at the bottom worldwide

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More than a million workers will be getting paid sick leave soon after New Jersey’s legislature has passed a bill, which Gov. Phil Murphy has said he supports. That makes New Jersey the tenth state to require paid sick leave, and the second to do so in 2018, but New Jersey’s path to this point has been especially tough. Republican former Gov. Chris Christie kept a statewide sick leave bill from becoming law even as 13 cities and towns, including some of the state’s largest, passed their own local laws. Now:

The legislation, variations of which have been making its way through the Statehouse for years, would allow private-sector workers to accrue one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

They can use that time to care for themselves or a family member who is ill, to attend school conferences or meetings, or to recover from domestic violence.

Family Values @ Work co-directors Ellen Bravo and Wendy Chun-Hoon noted in a statement that, in addition to the domestic violence provisions, the law “includes the most inclusive definition of family, mirroring America’s families. Those in LGBTQ relationships, people who care for grandparents, aunts, uncles and loved ones outside of the nuclear family model, can heed doctors’ orders and take the time they need to care for their chosen family.”

Republicans continue to stand in the way of the United States joining the overwhelming majority of other countries in requiring some form of paid sick leave.

This blog was published at DailyKos on April 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. 

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Today’s Working Women Honor Their Courageous Foremothers

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Nearly two centuries ago, a group of women and girls — some as young as 12 — decided they’d had enough. Laboring in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, they faced exhausting 14-hour days, abusive supervisors and dangerous working conditions. When threatened with a pay cut, they finally put their foot down.

The mill workers organized, went on strike and formed America’s first union of working women. They shocked their bosses, captured the attention of a young nation and blazed a trail for the nascent labor movement that would follow.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, working women are proudly living up to that example—organizing, taking to the streets and running for office in unprecedented numbers. It is a reminder that the movements for worker and women’s rights always have been interwoven.

But even as we rally together, our opponents are proving to be as relentless as ever. It’s been 184 years since that first strike in Lowell, and our rights still are being threatened by the rich and powerful. The Janus v. AFSCME case currently before the Supreme Court is one of the most egregious examples.

Janus is specifically designed to undermine public-sector unions’ ability to advocate for working people and negotiate fair contracts. More than that, it is a direct attack on working women. The right to organize and bargain together is our single best ticket to equal pay, paid time off and protection from harassment and discrimination.

Women of color would be particularly hurt by a bad decision in this case. Some 1.5 million public employees are African-American women, more than 17 percent of the public-sector workforce. Weaker collective bargaining rights would leave these workers with even less of a voice on the job.

This only would add insult to injury as black women already face a double pay gap based on race and gender, earning only 67 cents on the dollar compared to white men.

This is a moment for working women to take our fight to the next level. For generations, in the face of powerful opposition, we have stood up for the idea that protecting the dignity and rights of working people is a cause in which everyone has a stake.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on March 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Liz Shuler is secretary-treasurer of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States.

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