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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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COVID-19 makes Michigan Republicans’ 2018 trickery to block strong paid sick leave look even worse

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Michigan workers without paid sick leave have an extra reason to be angry about being forced to go to work during the coronavirus pandemic: Republicans in their state went to extreme lengths to keep 1.5 million Michigan workers from getting paid sick leave in 2018.

In 2018, Republicans blocked a ballot measure that would have let workers at businesses employing six or more people earn up to 72 hours per year of sick leave. They blocked it by passing it as law—and then, after the election, slashing the law to ribbons, reducing the hours of sick leave from 72 to 40 and exempting businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

Now paid sick leave has gone from being an unmet need to a national crisis, and Michigan Democrats are trying to revive the push for a strong paid sick leave law in the state, with a bill boosting the law back up to what Michigan Republicans originally passed in order to be able to reverse. The problem is that, while Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would sign the bill, Republicans still control the state’s heavily gerrymandered legislature. In fact, both the Senate majority leader and the House speaker voted to gut the sick leave law in 2018.

“Yes, I am politicizing this,” wrote Danielle Atkinson of Mothering Justice in a recent op-ed. “I am weaponizing the virus, because the leadership of one political party weaponized the legislative process against working men and women. Because it deserves to be weaponized and used against the politicians, many of whom are still in office, who put Michigan at a greater risk than necessary.”

Republicans across the country have been working for years to ensure that workers can’t stay home when they’re sick, a burden that falls overwhelmingly on low-wage workers who are often already vulnerable in other ways. Just 30% of workers in the bottom 10% have paid sick leave, while 93% in the top 10% do. That fact is now at the center of an emergency—and Republicans are still looking for ways to keep workers on the job while sick or punish them for taking time off.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Unions Across America Are Screaming For Paid Sick Leave and Healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Republicans are opposing paid sick leave and holding up free coronavirus testing over abortion

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is avatar_2563.jpgSenate Republicans have backed down on the threat to wait until after a week-long recess to consider the House coronavirus response bill, and have canceled recess. But that doesn’t mean they’re gearing up to be reasonable about protecting families from the economic impact of the pandemic.

“Per multiple sources, there are 2 issues emerging as sticking points in negotiations between the White House and Speaker Pelosi on the Coronavirus aid bill: paid sick leave and abortion,” NBC’s Alex Moe tweeted. It’s a close call which of these is more shocking (without being all that surprising)—that Republicans are balking at paid sick leave during a pandemic or that Republicans are somehow turning pandemic response into an abortion fight.

The issue at play, abortion-wise, is that Republicans want to add anti-abortion language to the bill. That scans—as something ruthlessly partisan politicians with no regard for health or safety would do. It also comes in the context of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell having warned about the House Democrats’ bill—the one with the sick leave and coronavirus testing—being “an ideological wish list that was not tailored closely to the circumstances.”

According to the Daily Caller (no, I’m not linking), the issue was “a mandate for up to $1 billion to reimburse laboratory claims, which White House officials say would set a precedent of health spending without protections outlined in the Hyde Amendment.” So Democrats called for funding to cover laboratory costs of testing for coronavirus, and Republicans said no, because it would set a precedent that the federal government could spend money on health care without explicitly excluding abortion? IT’S CORONAVIRUS TESTING. But oh noes, it would set a precedent. 

According to Politico Playbook, “The two sides resolved issues over federal funding of abortion in a separate bill that will also hit the floor.”

Then there’s paid sick leave. Which is at least a relevant issue here. In fact, it’s one of the absolute central issues: People who may miss weeks of work because they’re sick, caring for a sick loved one, or caring for a child whose school is closed should not face hunger and eviction or foreclosure for it. We should not want these people going about their daily lives infecting other people, even if we lack the basic humanity to say they shouldn’t have to suffer through working while sick.

Paid sick leave is, for the record, extremely popular with the public. Ten states and the District of Columbia, in addition to some cities and counties, have paid sick leave laws, although none of them are likely to offer enough time for someone to ride out a case of COVID-19. Eight states and the District of Columbia have paid family leave laws—except that the Massachusetts law hasn’t gone into effect yet.

Paid sick leave was already a dire need in this country, and now it’s a crisis. It’s one more thing keeping the U.S. from an effective response to the pandemic, as if we needed one more thing when we already had Donald Trump. Paid sick leave has always been a moral imperative and safety imperative and now for many people it is a survival imperative. And Republicans are standing in the way.



This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.




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Senate Republicans block emergency sick leave bill as coronavirus threatens widespread need

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You’d think the desperate need for paid sick leave legislation would be undeniable in the face of coronavirus. But trust Republicans to do the wrong thing. On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray tried to speed the progress of an emergency paid sick leave bill to a full Senate vote, but Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander wasn’t having it.

Alexander blocked Murray’s procedural maneuver and stuck the bill in the Senate health committee. While the bill would have failed on the Senate floor thanks to Republicans, at least they would have been on the record against paid sick leave during a pandemic. Alexander’s block protected his fellow Republicans from taking that unpopular stance publicly.



This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.




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America’s workers face an outbreak of uncertainty

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Timothy NoahAmericans are going home — and creating an economic train wreck.

The coronavirus outbreak has U.S. companies starting to shutter offices and send workers home through layoffs, furloughs or directives to telecommute until health risks from the spreading virus recede.

The evidence is expected to show up through lost consumer spending, derailed business plans and swift damage to lower-wage workers across the nation. The extent of the damage will rest largely on how long it takes for businesses and consumers to gain confidence that the threat is under control.

“If workers can’t work … production and income go down,” Georgetown University economist Harry Holzer said. “That becomes a demand problem if workers lose income and stop spending.”

When that happens, “odds of recession can go way up,” Holzer said.

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all advised Seattle employees to work at home after workers at Facebook and Amazon were diagnosed with the virus. In Everett, Wash., ten workers were sent home from a Boeing plant even before it could be confirmed that a sniffling coworker had coronavirus.

Businesses are halting non-essential travel at a rapid pace and major conferences are suddenly canceling across the U.S. As airline bookings tumble, United Airlines announced it will next month cut international flights by 20 percent and domestic flights by 10 percent. It invited staff to take unpaid leaves of absence. Other airlines around the world are already furloughing workers and slashing schedules as they face the prospect of flying empty planes.

In some cases, employees are asked to vacate the very workplaces where the virus is treated. At the University of California, Davis Medical Center, 36 registered nurses and 88 other health care workers were sent home, according to the labor union National Nurses United, after a single coronavirus patient was admitted to that hospital. Hospital workers reportedly numbering in the dozens were sent home under similar circumstances by Kaiser Permanente’s Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Ore. — long before the Oregon governor declared a state of emergency on Sunday.

For workers, the consequences of being sent home depend greatly on the circumstances. Many white-collar professions can adapt with relative ease to telecommuting from home for a temporary period, but workers in the brick-and-mortar retail, restaurant and hotel sectors cannot. Hourly workers are likelier than salaried workers to be laid off.

The sudden darkening of the outlook comes against a long stretch of resilience for the economy — in an expansion now in its 11th year, the longest on record.

For now, official statistics show a robust labor market, with 273,000 jobs created in February, the Labor Department reported Friday, and an unemployment rate at a very low 3.5 percent. But economists are bracing for a weaker jobs report in March.

The first hints of trouble are expected to come in weekly jobless claims and gauges of the factory sector, which has been under strain from President Donald Trump’s trade wars.

The manufacturing industry, which employs about 9 percent of the U.S. workforce, was underperforming even before news of China’s coronavirus outbreak first surfaced in January. The international nature of supply chains in the global economy — domestic factories’ reliance on parts produced in other countries — spell a near-certain decline in U.S. factory hiring even if the coronavirus outbreak is contained within the U.S. In a potential early sign of trouble, the Institute for Supply Management’s index of national factory activity fell to 50.1 in February, down from 50.9 in January, bringing it back to the brink of a sub-50 reading indicating recession in the sector.

“The supply shocks from quarantined factories in Asia are weeks away from idling U.S., Canadian and European factories,” said economist Michael Hicks of Ball State University, “and the demand-side impact on tourism, travel, eating and drinking establishments is already being felt across the world.”

Economists are already urging policymakers to consider a stimulus program to cushion Americans from impending damage. Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, proposes a one-time payment of $1,000 to every adult American citizen or taxpaying adult.

“If the economic shock is small and stimulus proves to be unnecessary,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, “its negative effects are likely to be small. But if the shock is bigger and policy makers fail to act now, it will be harder to reverse the economic damage.”

Eleven states, including California, Massachusetts and New York, require employers to offer workers paid leave, as does the District of Columbia. But none of these jurisdictions explicitly guarantee the benefit to healthy workers on leave because a virus outbreak sent everybody home.

Fourteen Democratic senators last week wrote to leaders of the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to urge their member companies not to penalize workers for going home during the outbreak.

Paid sick days are particularly rare for low-income workers. Ninety-three percent of workers in the top tenth of the income distribution get paid sick leave, compared with only 30 percent of those in the bottom tenth, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

“People are already losing pay,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, citing flight attendants’ loss of overtime hours and per diems.

While Trump has been trumpeting his actions in fighting the coronavirus, Nelson blames him for increasing its economic cost — through widespread cancellations of business meetings and travel — due to his initial response. “Shutting down these public meetings, she said, “is the only way to stop the spread if you don’t have a way of identifying where the threat is.”

“It makes me very angry,” she said, “because it’s my members’ lives and their jobs.”

With all the uncertainties surrounding the U.S. outbreak, experts are reluctant to predict with any specificity the coming impact on workers. But comparable episodes from the past provide some guide.

After the 9/11 attacks, which suspended air travel and required much of lower Manhattan to be evacuated, about 115,000 workers were laid off by the end of that year, according to the DOL. Forty-two percent were in the airline industry, and 28 percent were employed by hotels and motels.

The U.S. economy was already in recession by that point — it started in March 2001 and ended in November. Still, economists say the widespread uncertainty after 9/11, the start of the war in Afghanistan and the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003 all restrained hiring by employers worried about the outlook.

A global outbreak similar to the Spanish flu of 1918-19 — the most commonly cited historical comparison — would produce “a short-run impact on the worldwide economy similar in depth and duration to that of an average postwar recession in the United States,” a 2005 Congressional Budget Office report estimated. The significant caveat is that the Spanish flu was deadliest to the young and healthy, whereas the coronavirus, like most epidemics, exacts its worst toll on the elderly and the infirm.

A 2007 report by the St. Louis Federal Reserve raised the gruesome possibility that a shortage of workers from a major outbreak ultimately would increase wages, as it seems to have done in 1918, though it noted that was less likely now, “given the greater mobility of workers that exists today.” (The coronavirus is also much less deadly to the working-age population.)

“Given our highly mobile and connected society,” the report concluded, any comparable pandemic in the future “is likely to be more severe in its reach.”

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on March 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Timothy Noah is the Employment & Immigration editor at POLITICO. Previously he was a contributing writer for MSNBC.com and a senior editor at the New Republic, where he wrote the “TRB From Washington” column. For a dozen years before that he was a senior writer at Slate magazine, where he wrote the “Chatterbox” and “Prescriptions” columns. Noah has also been a Washington-based reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek; an assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report; and an editor at the Washington Monthly. He is the author of “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It” (Bloomsbury, 2012).




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Nevada workers get some big wins because elections matter, this week in the war on workers

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Nevada Democrats had a great Election Day in 2018, and Nevada workers are about to start seeing the effects of that. Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a package of major bills, including one giving 20,000 state workers collective bargaining rights, a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, and more.

The state’s minimum wage will only go up to $12—$11 if the employer offers insurance—and won’t reach that level until 2024, with the first 75-cent raise not coming until July 2020. Compared with the laws taking some states’ minimums up to $15 on a faster timetable that’s not spectacular, but since Nevada’s current minimum wage is $7.25 for employers that offer insurance and $8.25 for ones that don’t, it’s still a substantial improvement for an estimated 300,000 Nevada workers. (And something for worker-activists to build on, perhaps.)

Workers at businesses with more than 50 employees will also start getting paid sick leave, up to 40 hours a year for full-time workers. That law will take effect January 1. Nevada will join 10 states and Washington, D.C., in having a paid sick leave law.

The law giving public workers collective bargaining rights is “yet another massive win for working people and the labor movement as union momentum continues to grow across the country,” according to AFSCME. Harry Schiffman, a local AFSCME president in the state called it “a historic day for state employees and all Nevadans, as collective bargaining rights will mean a voice on the job to make meaningful changes in our workplaces and communities.”

 

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Why Hundreds of Georgia Bus Drivers Just Staged a Massive Sickout

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Robbie Brown loved her students. For 18 years, she drove them in her yellow bus to and from schools in DeKalb County, Georgia. And then, last Friday, two police officers showed up at Brown’s house with a letter. She’d been fired.

Brown is one of at least seven drivers sacked after staging a “sickout” to demand better pay and benefits. Last Thursday, nearly 400 school bus drivers and monitors in DeKalb County called in sick, aiming to pressure school district officials to boost driver pay, improve retirement packages and reclassify drivers from part-time to full-time employees. The drivers have 50 demands in all. Some paint a picture of a bus system in disrepair: Drivers say they need restrooms at parking lots, working intercom systems, air conditioning on buses. Other demands, like “fair treatment for bus drivers,” tell a story of workers who are tired of being pushed around.

While district officials say they fired “ringleaders,” drivers say plans for the sickout emerged informally, and spread by word of mouth. Drivers in DeKalb, which covers part of Atlanta, are not unionized, and as public employees in Georgia, they’re barred from collective bargaining and striking. But Brown, who’s 51, felt like she had to speak out.

“My mortgage is $1,000 a month, and there’s no way, even if I retire in 20 or 30 years, that I can afford to keep my home,” she told Scalawag Magazine. Brown’s retirement plan would net her only about $400 a month after she stopped working, she says. Many of her colleagues work well into their 70s just to keep the lights on.

“Once we get old enough to retire, we can’t pay the bills.”

The sickout, which continued through Monday, comes after months of meetings in which drivers voiced concerns over benefits and pay to district officials. And it follows waves of wildcat strikes by public school teachers across the South and West who are demanding better treatment and pay. It’s too early to tell what effect the DeKalb sickout will have, but supporters hope it will add fuel to a resurgent labor movement in public education. Closer to home, Brown hopes the action will pressure district officials to meet drivers’ demands, and perhaps provoke teachers, custodians and other workers in Georgia schools to fight for better pay, benefits and working conditions.

“They need to stand up,” Brown said. “If you stand together, if you make a chain link with your hands and hold on, it can be done.”

While a number of DeKalb teachers support the sickout, teachers in Georgia might be reluctant to jump on a picket line, says Verdalia Turner, President of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“We don’t even have the word strike in our vocabulary here because there is no reason for our membership to strike,” Turner said. “Our plan is to continue to organize as issues come about … I hope all workers can get organized with an organization that they control and can run democratically.”

In DeKalb County, employment incentives discourage teachers from organizing, according to a teacher in the district. She spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about retaliation. Some teachers are complacent, she said. And because enough teachers want to leave the classroom for the administrative ranks, where they can expect much higher salaries, it’s difficult to whip up support for collective protest, the teacher, who is a member of the Georgia Association of Educators, explained.

“The way the system has been created, it incentivizes keeping your head down and following the rules,” she said, adding that “there’s no indication of a walkout, a sickout, or a protest.”

Yet strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma have shown that teachers in states hostile to organized labor, and battered by funding cuts, can win material gains through collective protest. It’s worth remembering that the teacher strikes began in only a handful of counties in southern West Virginia, weeks before there was public chatter about a state-wide work stoppage. Even though the driver sickout only affected one Georgia county, 42 percent of DeKalb’s drivers refused to work last Thursday. If drivers win some of the improvements they’re asking for, it could be an early sign that drivers, custodians and other non-teacher staff can use direct action to successfully push for better labor conditions in the right-to-work south.

It’ll be a tough fight, though. While a DeKalb spokesperson told Scalawag that district officials have been developing a timeline for addressing driver concerns, the DeKalb County Superintendent condemned the sickout last week, saying the action put students in danger. “This is not acceptable and it will not be tolerated,” Superintendent Stephen Green told reporters at a press conference last Thursday, saying they will now require doctors’ notes from drivers who call in sick. “Your actions will have consequences and there will be repercussions for putting our children in harm’s way.”

For Brown, who has three children of her own, the suggestion that drivers would intentionally endanger their students is “totally ridiculous.” “I love my kids, I know all my kids’ names,” she said. She’s sad to think she might not see them again. “That’s the biggest regret I have — that I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to them.”

Drivers have been raising concerns about pay and conditions for over two years. In recent months, a committee of drivers and bus monitors met regularly with district higher-ups, and drivers flooded recent DeKalb County Board of Education meetings with questions and complaints. On April 17, two days before the sickout, drivers met with Superintendent Green to discuss their demands. When drivers didn’t get concessions they’d asked for, they informed district officials about a planned sickout, giving them time to alert parents about possible delays. The district’s decision to subsequently fire alleged “ringleaders” prompted drivers to seek assistance from outside organizations, including Atlanta’s General Defense Committee, which is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union.

On Thursday, fired drivers held a press conference calling on Superintendent Green to rehire Brown and her colleagues. They were joined by still-employed drivers, parents of DeKalb students, and members of supportive organizations.

Melanie Douglas, a fired driver, censured Superintendent Green for behaving contrary to what DeKalb schools teach students about the importance of free speech. “The message is if you speak up about injustice, if you use your First Amendment rights, then we will strike you down,” she said.

A district spokesperson told Scalawag Superintendent Green has no plans to rehire fired drivers, but did meet with members of the Driver and Monitor and Advisory Committee on Thursday. “The district has been open, is open, and will continue to be open to sitting down and thinking about issues and how to solve them,” the spokesperson added.

But during the press conference, Douglas said the superintendent was trying to “sow division between the fired and still-employed drivers.” Another fired driver, Marion Payne, said he wasn’t confident the Driver and Monitor and Advisory Committee would advocate for rehiring drivers. “They’re afraid to death. They might not say anything,” he said.

A current driver, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed that retaliation has not entirely chilled their efforts. He said drivers may yet resolve to take further action if their demands are not met.

Drivers are also consulting with lawyers about possibly contesting the terminations in court, according to Sara Khaled, a community organizer working with the drivers. “But we’re hoping we can resolve this outside the court to get the drivers hired again and get some of their original demands met,” they added.

Whatever comes of it, the sickout is history-making. It’s the first work stoppage by school bus drivers in Atlanta since 1980, when drivers shut down schools in Fulton County. And it comes on the heels of several successful organizing efforts by bus drivers elsewhere. In February, Seattle school bus drivers staged a week-long strike, forcing management to expand benefit packages and provide comprehensive healthcare coverage. Also in February, city transit workers in Atlanta went on strike to protest unfair labor practices, ultimately prompting their employer to agree to improvements in their contract. (Crucially, drivers in DeKalb insist that their action was not a strike.)

Meanwhile, Brown’s future remains uncertain. “I am applying for jobs,” she said, a little wistfully. “My license is a Class A, and I’m thinking of driving trucks, even though I love my kids and I loved my eighteen years.”

This article was published at In These Times on April 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Williams is a writer based in Durham, NC. He covers issues from environmental justice to southern culture, and has published work in The New York Times, The Nation, HuffPost, and other local and national outlets.


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When three days sick means losing a month’s grocery budget

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Nearly two-thirds of private-sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid sick leave, but as with so many labor and economic statistics, that masks serious inequality: 87 percent of the top 10 percent of earners have paid sick leave, while just 27 percent of the bottom 10 percent do. And what that means is that the people who can least afford to take a day off without pay are the ones who are forced to do so if they’re too sick to go to work. A new Economic Policy Institute analysis shows how devastating that choice can be:

Without the ability to earn paid sick days, workers must choose between going to work sick (or sending a child to school sick) and losing much-needed pay. For the average worker who does not have access to paid sick days, the costs of taking unpaid sick time can make a painful dent in the monthly budget for the worker’s household:

  • If the worker needs to take off even a half day due to illness, the lost wages are equivalent to the household’s monthly spending for fruits and vegetables; lost wages from taking off nearly three days equal their entire grocery budget for the month.
  • Two days of unpaid sick time are roughly the equivalent of a month’s worth of gas, making it difficult to get to work.
  • Three days of unpaid sick time translate into a household’s monthly utilities budget, preventing the worker from paying for electricity and heat.
  • In the event of a lengthier illness—say, seven and a half days of unpaid sick time—the worker would lose income equivalent to a monthly rent or mortgage payment.

State-level paid sick leave laws are starting to make a difference—in 2012, when the first such law was passed, in Connecticut, just 18 percent of low-wage private-sector workers had paid sick days. But workers outside of the five states with such laws need the federal government to act, and that’s not going to happen under Republican control.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 1, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Midwest continues its paid sick leave winning streak

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Bryce Covert

There is no national law ensuring that American workers can take a paid day off of work if they or their family members get sick. But there are now more than 30 of these laws in cities and states throughout the country.

On Wednesday, St. Paul became the second city in Minnesota to pass a paid sick leave law, following Minneapolis in May. Once it goes into effect, more than 68,000 workers in the city’s private sector who have gone without the benefit should be able to take a paid day for illness.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Brian Witte

Starting next summer, those at companies with 24 or more employees would be able to earn up to 48 hours of leave a year, while those at smaller ones will be covered at the beginning of 2018.

Before this year, paid sick leave laws had mostly been concentrated on the East and West coasts. But the last three laws passed have been in the Midwest, with Chicago passing its own ordinance in June.

In total, with St. Paul’s passage, 28 cities and five states have passed paid sick leave laws.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

These policies are already having a noticeable effect. The share of Americans who get paid sick days at work just reached an all-time high, climbing to 64 percent of the private sector workforce, up 7 percentage points over the last decade when cities and states began passing laws. Those toward the bottom of the income scale, who perversely are the least likely to get paid leave benefits, have been the biggest beneficiaries.

CREDIT: Bureau of Labor Statistics

This increase also hasn’t come at the expense of employers or employment. A new survey of businesses in New York City found that the vast majority reported no increase in their costs to comply with the law, while most of the small share that saw them go up only had to grapple with an increase of less than 3 percent. Meanwhile, they reported virtually no abuse of the benefit by employees, such as taking days when they weren’t actually sick.

That comports with other surveys of employers after these policies have taken effect. Employers in Connecticut, Jersey City, and Washington, D.C. have also reported that the laws weren’t costly or difficult to comply with. The majority of businesses in San Francisco and Seattle actually support the policies now.

Job growth has also remained unaffected. It stayed strong in Connecticut and San Francisco even after paid sick days went into effect and was actually stronger in Seattle.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on September 8, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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


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