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States scramble to contain Covid spikes without enough workers to track outbreaks

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The failure to stage the tracing workforce harks back to U.S. officials’ inability to build up adequate testing in the early days of the pandemic.

Severe shortages of public health workers to track disease spread helped fuel coronavirus spikes in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona and could make it harder to stamp out new hot spots.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has about 10 percent of the 15,000 workers needed to contain the outbreak in his state, according to one widely cited simulatorand plans to hire just 600 more. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has 3,000 of the 4,000 tracers he said he wanted to hire in late April. And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey called up 300 National Guard members to fill the surveillance gap, more than a month after he lifted his stay-at-home order.

The failure to stage the tracing workforce harks back to U.S. officials’ inability to build up adequate testing in the early days of the pandemic and is increasing the likelihood that states will be forced to shut down their economies again to stop serious disease spread.

“This [tracing] situation is a disaster,” Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), whose Phoenix-area district is being swamped with new cases, wrote in a letter to officials in Maricopa County and Ducey on Thursday. “From late March until early June, those who may have been exposed to an infected patient received no outreach at all from public health officials.”

Ashish Jha, faculty director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, said there’s been little real interest in building the testing, tracing and isolation needed to contain the coronavirus, making the model difficult to apply as rolling outbreaks cross the nation. States “don’t have anywhere near the testing and tracing capacity needed to really get this disease under control,” Jha said.

Public health officials two months ago estimated it would take at least 100,000 contact tracers to safely reopen the country. But CDC Director Robert Redfield told Congress last week that fewer than 30,000 have been hired so far to interview infected people, identify those with whom they’ve come into contact and persuade those people to self-quarantine.

Redfield told NPR in April that the country could not safely reopen until it scaled up contact tracing, warning, “We can’t afford to have multiple community outbreaks that can spiral up into sustained community transmission.”

The shortfall is being felt in places like North Carolina, another state that’s paused reopenings due to a surge in new cases, which has about 1,500 contact tracers. Health secretary Mandy Cohen told state lawmakers last Wednesday that their program is stretched thin and on Friday selected its first vendor to expand the workforce.

“State economies reopened too soon, and state and local public health departments did not have enough time to get their programs fully implemented,” said David Harvey, executive director of National Coalition of STD Directors, which is advising many states on contact tracing. “Now, they’re continuing to race against the clock to get contact tracing in place, and there’s nowhere near enough people to do the work. It’s really scary.”

Ducey on Thursday defended his efforts, saying Arizona did enhance its contact tracing capability during April’s stay-at-home order. But the spike in daily infections — which have quadrupled since mid-May — overwhelmed the state.

Maricopa County officials say there had been no delay in investigations until recently, when cases soared.

Critics say the failing stems from a lack of direction from the Trump administration, which has left reopening decisions to states and released guidance on contact tracing weeks after state efforts were launched. That’s left sizable state-to-state disparities in readiness.

“President Trump’s refusal to focus on testing and contact tracing and the general absence of any leadership led to disastrous failures in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement to POLITICO.

Democratic lawmakers are pushing the Trump administration to quickly distribute $8 billion Congress approved weeks ago to fortify contact tracing programs. While the administration has already released $11 billion for state testing and tracing, Democrats say further delay on the remaining funds has left states inadequately prepared to deal with new spikes in infections.

Reports from the front lines bear that out.

Jennifer Kertanis, the director of the Farmington Valley Health District in Canton, Conn., told POLITICO her department only received $40,000 in federal aid and was told that would have to do until next March.

“We’ve already pretty much spent all of that money on equipment to allow staff to work safely from home and on overtime,” she said. “We have not had the money to hire anybody. We’ve been training the existing staff that we have had and shuffling duties around. We’ve been using pen and paper and Excel spreadsheets because we’ve never had the resources to invest.”

Lawmakers in the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses last week grilled Redfield over the lack of federal leadership on contact tracing. He said the CDC is currently reviewing plans states developed. But several lawmakers pointed out that states were already using these plans and that assistance from the agency is too little, too late.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) told POLITICO she found the information “really worrisome.”

“Are they really leaving it up to the states to have a contact tracer plan? Who’s going to enforce a contact tracer plan?” she said. “As we know, the states vary so much in terms of whether they take COVID-19 seriously.”

The CDC did not respond to multiple requests for comment and did not say when the agency will give feedback on states’ plans.

Despite ongoing challenges with funding, logistics and federal support, some states have built successful programs.

Hawaii, which is now seeing only a handful of new infections, increased its contact tracing staff in the last month from around 80 to more than 300 — and more than 1,400 have signed up to be trained if needed.

Gov. David Ige told POLITICO that the state, learning from past outbreaks including SARS, has been able to track every positive case so far, and that the vast majority of individuals have been willing to share information about their contacts.

“People don’t want to get their friends and neighbors sick,” he said.

Oregon also has a robust program that is currently contacting more than 90 percent of new infections within 24 hours.

But elsewhere, officials are still putting together their tracing programs months after stay-at-home orders were lifted — and training new hires as spikes threaten to overwhelm local health systems. Even those states that have hired hundreds or thousands of people have struggled to find new infections quickly and elicit useful information.

In New York City, which opened restaurants on Monday, contact tracers last week received phone numbers for about 85 percent of newly infected people, but less than half of those people provided information on their recent contacts.

New Jersey, one of the hardest hit states, has brought on almost no new contact tracers since the pandemic began. The state has roughly 900 and needs somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday. The state’s digital platform to track the program is only running in two counties, so statewide data on how successful the program has been so far is not yet available.

Houston, the latest epicenter, is still working to hire and train 150 contact tracers by July 1.

Kirstin Short, chief of the Epidemiology Bureau at the Houston Health Department, told POLITICO that not only has her team struggled to handle the volume of cases, but it’s been a challenge to convince the Covid-positive people they reach to share information about those they may have exposed.

“Now that they know they’re sick, they might have some guilt over what they did in terms of going out and socializing,” she said.

Meanwhile, tracking apps once billed as a key tool in reopenings have largely flopped both in the U.S. and abroad. Among the barriers are low smartphone and Wi-Fi access among low-income communities and the elderly — two groups at the highest risk from the virus — poor information sharing between states and widespread distrust of big tech and government surveillance.

North Dakota, for instance, is pushing two different apps that purport to alert users when they were around someone who tested positive, but so far, only four percent of the population has downloaded it — far too little to be a useful public health tool.

Alexander Miamen, a contact tracer in Boston since March, said technology can play a role but it will only be successful if it’s supplemented by well-trained health workers who understand the people they are contacting.

“A high-tech app cannot express empathy,” he said. “One of the most vulnerable times in anyone’s life is when they are ill.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Goldberg is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro covering health care politics and policy in the states. He previously covered New York State health care for POLITICO New York.

About the Author: Alice Ollstein is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering the Capitol Hill beat. Prior to joining POLITICO, she covered federal policy and politics for Talking Points Memo.


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How to Keep America’s Public Workers Safe as We Emerge From the COVID-19 Lockdown

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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Steve Scarpa began fishing antibacterial wipes, socks and even T-shirts out of the sewers in Groton, Connecticut.

Scarpa, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9411 and a member of the city’s wastewater treatment crew, said residents went into “mad hysteria cleaning mode” and simply flushed potentially contaminated objects down the toilet.

And so Scarpa and his co-workers risked COVID-19 themselves to remove items that kept jamming the sewer pumps crucial to the wastewater system’s operation.

While millions of Americans did their jobs remotely during the pandemic, public servants turned out in force every day to repair roads, collect trash, operate water systems and keep communities functioning.

They had America’s back. Now, the nation must have theirs as well.

Public workers will face additional exposure to COVID-19 as the lockdown ends and Americans return to government buildings, streets, parks and beaches in growing numbers.

Cities and counties have an obligation to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), enforce social distancing in public offices and implement other measures to protect road crews, water department personnel and code enforcement officers.

But it isn’t only the government’s responsibility to help public workers navigate the health risks that constitute the new normal.

Everyone has a role to play.

Residents can do their part by wearing masks when water department workers show up at the door to repair broken meters and by staying out of government buildings when they’re sick.

They can safeguard the health of crews repairing sidewalks, mowing parks and cleaning storm drains just by staying at least six feet away from work areas.

The public needs to pause and think about the people who perform these essential services—and about the impact careless actions have on them. It’s simply unacceptable for public workers to put themselves at risk because someone flushed a bulky item down a toilet.

“When they push the handle, no one really understands or cares what happens to it,” explained Scarpa, who believes people began flushing items because they feared leaving them inside the house until garbage day.

“We had to go and unplug pumps every day,” he said. “If you don’t unplug them, they’ll overheat, and they’ll burn out. And these things aren’t cheap.”

Public servants performed crucial roles during the pandemic. Many put in longer hours and took on additional responsibilities, such as tracking coronavirus cases or going door-to-door to warn citizens of COVID-19 hazards.

They paid a heavy price for keeping America’s cities and counties operating.

In New York alone, more than 100 transit workers died of COVID-19. Many other public servants have been infected nationwide.

Despite the risks they faced, these workers and their unions, including the USW, had to fight for commonsense safety measures.

Wanda Howard, president of USW Local 12160, battled the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority to provide PPE for frontline field representatives.

She demanded laptops for union members with health risks so they could do their jobs remotely. She argued for more sick leave so workers could stay home when they felt unwell instead of exposing others to illness on the job.

In recent months, field workers answered only emergency calls at customers’ homes. But as the lockdown ends, Howard worries that customers will deluge authority officials with routine service requests, increasing the chances that her members will encounter someone with COVID-19.

“People who want water service are not going to say they’re sick or somebody in the house is sick,” Howard explained. “They’re just not going to admit to that. My fear is that they’re going to open up appointments and want our servicemen to put themselves more in harm’s way.”

Already, she said, some customers greet union members at the door without masks. At one job site, a contractor helped himself to a worker’s wrench, even though COVID-19 can live on surfaces.

As local governments resume regular operations, it’s important for elected officials to stress the crucial work that public servants do and the collective effort needed to protect them.

That means insisting that customers report any illnesses in a home before crews arrive for service calls. It means demanding that homeowners wear masks and give workers plenty of space to make repairs or perform inspections.

And it means reminding residents to wash their hands frequently, maintain social distancing and take other steps to guard against COVID-19, even if infection rates continue to fall.

“If they stay safe, then we stay safe,” Howard said.

Workers’ lives are at stake. Essential services are as well.

In addition to handling service calls, the 125 members of Local 12160 monitor chemical levels in the drinking water and operate the authority’s offices. If COVID-19 swept through the workforce, Howard noted, more than 400,000 people in 15 communities could face service disruptions.

Workers know the hazards they face better than anyone else.

That is why they deserve extensive input into workplace safety plans.

When the pandemic hit, for example, the Niagara Falls Water Board asked Glenn Choolokian for help.

Choolokian, president of USW Local 9434, developed a safety plan with advice from labor and management that protected workers and kept the water flowing. He split the workforce into teams that rotated one week on the job and one week off so a surge in infections couldn’t devastate the entire operation.

Now, as the authority resumes more regular operations, he tells union members to contact him if they encounter hazardous conditions or other problems.

As Choolokian sees it, the pandemic requires an unprecedented level of cooperation—one that could make unions and employers partners in pushing for new workplace standards and other ways to enhance safety.

“It’s time to look at things differently,” he said. “I think we have to educate ourselves and see if there’s new equipment, new ideas, new ways of doing things.”

The local promoted public involvement in worker safety through social media posts, and it encouraged local businesses to make and donate PPE. In tight-knit Niagara Falls, Choolokian said, it’s been easy to get residents’ buy-in.

In coming months, that kind of support will become ever more important.

The COVID-19 economic slowdown caused many businesses to close or scale back operations, reducing the tax revenue collected by local governments.

At a time when communities must do more to protect public workers, some may try to cut corners instead. Scarpa fears that towns will cut jobs or slash budgets, straining already-vulnerable workforces.

In a crisis like that, public servants will rely on the public to stand with them in demanding that officials implement aggressive safety plans and provide the other resources that workers need.

“We can’t make these places run with bubble gum and paper clips,” Scarpa said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. Printed with permission.

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


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Coronavirus Prevention That Works For Working People

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Image result for liz watson

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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The Other Victims of California’s Fires: Workers Inhaling Toxic Fumes

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With the death toll now standing at 42 and with some 7,200 structures destroyed, officials are now calling the wildfire in Paradise, CA (dubbed the “Camp Fire”) the deadliest and most destructive in California’s recent history. Two other massive fires—dubbed the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire are simultaneously scorching Southern California.

As frontline firefighters—including many prison laborers—continue to battle the blaze while healthcare providers work around the clock treating fire victims, millions of other workers far away from the inferno are feeling a secondary impact: toxic smoke.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, over 160 miles away from the Camp Fire, air quality dramatically declined almost immediately after the fires broke out. Over the past week, AirNow, a government website reporting real-time air quality data has shown the Bay Area hovering between 150-200 on the federal Air Quality Index (AQI), surpassing 200 (or “very unhealthy” levels) in parts of the Bay. The higher the AQI value, the more polluted the skies are and the more concern there is for public health.

This week, the Bay Area also saw the second highest amount of fine particulate matter in the air ever recorded. This substance is not only made up of smoke from charred forests, but could contain everything that gets incinerated when residences go up in flames: cars, fuel, batteries, light bulbs, cleaning products, plastics, upholstery and more.

Public health officials have been advising residents of affected areas to stay indoors to avoid the unhealthy air that can lead to headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and worse.

However, for many workers who work outdoors for a living, that’s easier said than done.

While many white collar workers don protective masks to commute to office jobs where recirculated air conditioning provides some measure of protection from the smoky skies, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, day laborers, landscapers, construction workers, public works employees and others have no choice but to work through the harmful haze—at great detriment to their health.

Many of these workers hail from neighborhoods and worksites already facing increased levels of toxins. Compounding the situation, these are also often the very same workers who are least protected by worker health and safety regulations.

“It’s been horrible,” says Kywanna Reed, who has been working 10-hour days outside this week as a traffic controller. “I wake up with headaches. I go to sleep with headaches. I have a headache right now, and a bag of headache medicine in the truck. My whole respiratory system is messed up. My coworker had a nosebleed and went home sick.”

Reed said her employer, American Construction & Supply Inc., did not provide masks to employees.

“Employers should pass out masks and you could choose to wear them or not,” says Reed, “But right now, they’re not doing anything.”

Other workers, however, say their employers are providing masks while verbally encouraging workers to protect themselves.

Cesar Fragoso, who works as a landscaper for Planting Justice, said the non-profit nursery in East Oakland passed out masks to employees.

“I work outside every day, weeding and transplanting plants. I can feel the smoke in my nose. My eyes started itching. I’ve been coughing. The masks help, but it’s tragic that we have to go through this in order for people to acknowledge what we are doing to the environment,” says Fragoso.

A 2017 news release from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) advises that “Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees).”

Those measures include “using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas,” “limiting the time that employees work outdoors” and “providing workers with respiratory protective equipment.”

However, as worker advocates note, holding employers accountable for taking such measures can be a challenge.

“Even though people we know from Cal/OSHA have made a tremendous effort, their presence in the field is so limited that it is really hard for them to do any kind of enforcement or implementation,” says Dinorah Barton-Antonio of the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.

Other workers say they wouldn’t use a mask even it was provided, citing the already highly dangerous nature of their industries. Sixty-three-year-old carpenter Ruel Bernard smelled the smoke and started sneezing this week as he hung siding at a residential construction site, but chose not to wear a mask.

“Us older generation of construction workers, our bodies have been toxic waste dumps from the get-go. I started working in New York in 1971, breaking down plastic walls, climbing around in attics filled with insulation and dust. Every day I hurt myself at work, so at some point you’re just like ‘Fuck it,’” explains Bernard. “I know that’s a dinosaur, macho attitude. But that attitude helps us survive in this industry.”

The idea that the smoke from the wildfires is just one ingredient in an already toxic soup of working conditions resonates in farmworker communities.

Lucas Zucker is the Policy Director at Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works with immigrant farmworkers in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. During last summer’s wildfires, CAUSE distributed N95 masks to workers in the field.

“Farm work is already dangerous on the day-to-day. This area has some of the highest use of toxic pesticides,” notes Zucker. “But then with the wildfires, the ag industry pushes to harvest their crop quickly to prevent damage to crops like strawberries and avocados. So we actually see an increase in production, with obvious implications for human health. Whereas a white collar worker might be able to take time off and have that paid, for farmworkers who get paid piece rate it’s hard for them to take that time off if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck.”

While much of the conversation in the Bay Area about protection from the smoke has focused on masks, some workers point to having power on the job—whether that be in the form of a union contract or worker ownership—as one of the largest factors in ensuring worker health and safety.

“We have a union here. It helps us get through things like this because I feel like we have some camaraderie and I can take steps to take care of myself without worrying that I’ll lose my job,” says Daniel DeBolt, who works as a deckhand on the ferry boats that shuttle tourists and commuters from Oakland to San Francisco and who has been experiencing headaches and fatigue all week.

Worker power on the job was also key for Dante Ortiz from Root Volume, a worker-owned landscaping cooperative.

“In 20 years of building gardens in wildfire-prone areas like Colorado and California, I’d never had a day where we had to pull out because of air quality, but that happened last Friday. We were doing heavy excavation, trenching for retaining walls. It’s hard work. You’re breathing heavily, which is the worst thing you could be doing,” says Ortiz. “So we all decided it was time to get out of there. Being in a worker cooperative gave us the agency to make that decision for ourselves.”

However, other workers like day laborers don’t have stable employment or consistent employers.

According to Gabriela Galicia, the Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, CA, “Workers stand on the corner for up to eight hours a day waiting for work. Many corners are already near toxic fumes, and now workers are out in the smoke too.”

Galicia notes that many workers are already thinking about heading north in search of work rebuilding fire-devastated communities, which carries its own risks to workers’ rights and their health. Worker exploitation and wage theft has marred reconstruction in post-disaster recovery efforts across the country.

“We’ve seen too many natural disasters where day laborers have been taken advantage of,” says Galicia. “They are human beings. They’re helping to rebuild. Treat them with dignity.”

As human-driven climate change intensifies and more of California becomes engulfed in flames, workers wonder whether toiling in toxic air is becoming “the new normal”—or if there can be a just transition to a new way of relating to land and labor.

CAUSE’s Lucas Zucker explains, “Ultimately, we need state or federal disaster aid that can fill in the gaps for workers exposed to disaster or toxic conditions so that they don’t have to make that horrible choice between putting food on their family’s table or being exposed to toxic conditions.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Brooke Anderson is an Oakland, California-based organizer and photojournalist. She has spent 20 years building movements for social, economic, racial and ecological justice. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.

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Seattle’s minimum wage increase deals a blow to yet another Republican scare tactic

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Here’s yet another study that punctures all those scare tactics about what will happen when the minimum wage is raised. Seattle’s minimum wage for large employers went to $13 an hour in 2016—and a recent study from the University of Washington School of Public Health finds that the increase didn’t affect grocery prices in the city:

Otten and colleagues collected data from six supermarket chains affected by the policy in Seattle and from six others outside the city but within King County and unaffected by the policy. They looked at prices for 106 food items per store starting one month before enactment of the ordinance, one month after, and a year later.

Researchers found no significant differences in the cost of the market basket between the two locations at any point in time. A second analysis to assess the public health implications of potential differential price changes on specific items, such as fruits and vegetables, was also conducted and researchers found no evidence of price increases by food group. Meats made up the largest share of the basket, followed by vegetables, cereal, grains and dairy.

So people were earning more money to buy groceries (and other necessities) with, but they weren’t paying more. Add that to Seattle’s booming economy, and the picture looks pretty darn good.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos Labor on September 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.


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New Congress on Track to Block Long-Sought Workplace and Public Health Protections

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An estimated 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-caused diseases each year, a figure that’s considered conservative. Asbestos is no longer mined in the United States but it still exists in products here, perpetuating exposure, especially for workers in construction and other heavy industries. In June 2016, after years of debate, the country’s major chemical regulation law was updated for the first time in 40 years, removing a major obstacle to banning asbestos.

Exposure to beryllium, a metal used in aerospace, defense, and communications industry manufacturing, to which about 62,000 U.S. workers are exposed annually, can cause a severe, chronic lung disease. On January 6, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued a rule—more than 15 years in the making—that dramatically lowers allowable workplace exposure to beryllium. OSHA says this will prevent 94 premature deaths and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related disease per year.

On April 17, 2013, an explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured hundreds. In late December—after a four-year process involving public, business, governments and non-profit input—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rule designed to prevent such accidents, improve community response to and preparedness for such disasters.

Those three examples are among the occupational and public health protective policies finalized by the Obama administration now jeopardized by antiregulatory legislation already passed by the 115th Congress. It remains to be seen if this legislation will become law and actually used. But, says University of Texas School of Law professor Thomas McGarity, the likely outcome is “that this will make people sick and unsafe.”

“Landscape is grim as it is”

In addition to having the ability to pass antiregulatory legislation, Congress has at its disposal the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Passed in 1996 by the Newt Gingrich-led House, it allows Congress to overturn a regulation passed during the last 60 legislative working days of an outgoing administration. What’s more, it prevents the creation of a substantially similar regulation. It’s only been used once, in 2001, to overturn the ergonomics regulation passed by OSHA under President Bill Clinton.

Add to this the Midnight Rules Relief Act, passed by the House on January 4. It amends the CRA, allowing Congress to overturn multiple regulations promulgated during the previous administration’s last six months, rather than individually as the CRA requires. “This allows the House to pick and choose rules that industry doesn’t like and do it all at once,” McGarity explains.

Also already passed by the House is the Regulatory Accountability Act. It includes a provision that could threaten the change made to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) eliminating the provision that prevented the EPA from banning asbestos. As Natural Resources Defense Council director of government affairs, David Goldston explains, “This bill has a provision that says notwithstanding any other provision of law, costs and benefits have to be considered when writing a rule.” Goldston calls this phrase “dangerous,” as it means putting economic costs to industry ahead of costs to human health as TSCA previously required—a requirement the revised bill eliminated.

And, as if these laws weren’t enough to threaten existing regulations, there’s the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act), also already passed by the House. This law essentially says that an agency rule can’t go into effect unless Congress approves it. Or, as University of Maryland Carey School of Law professor Rena Steinzor explained in the American Prospect, “In a drastic power grab, the House has approved a measure that would strip executive agencies of the authority to issue significant new regulations.”

“If the REINS Act becomes law, then Congressional inaction will supersede previous Congressional action on fundamental bedrock popular health, safety and environmental protection laws,” says Public Citizen regulatory policy advocate Amit Narang.

He also points out that if the administration of Donald Trump declines to defend regulations now under legal challenge, they could also be undone. Among the rules now being challenged is OSHA’s long sought updated restriction on occupational silica exposure.

“The landscape is grim as it is,” says Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at the non-profit citizens’ rights advocacy group Public Citizen, referring to OSHA’s limited resources. “There are nearly 5,000 workers dying on the job every year and OSHA’s not able to respond to threats as they’re happening.” Now, she says, “I’m looking at a Congress that would nearly paralyze rulemaking.”

“Designed to smash the system not reform it”

These laws effectively knock the foundation out from under how agencies like OSHA, the Department of Labor and EPA go about creating the network of regulations needed to implement the intent of laws that protect workplace and public health.

“This is designed to smash the system not reform it,” says Goldston of this antiregulatory legislation.

Not surprisingly, the historically pro-big business U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports antiregulatory legislation, as does the American Chemistry Council and National Association of Manufacturers. On the other hand, it’s opposed by American Sustainable Business Council, which represents more than 250,000 business owners and says the regulations these laws aim to undo are needed to support healthy, thriving workplaces and the economy.

Apart from the CRA, all of this legislation still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the president to become law. But with a Republicans in the majority and Trump in the White House, vetoes seem highly unlikely.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on January 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.


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