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VA Workers Say Southern States Reopening Too Soon Puts Veterans’ Lives At Risk

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As Republican governors across the South gear up to reopen businesses in their states over the objections of public health experts, health care workers for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—already stretched thin in the face of the COVID-19 crisis—fear for their vulnerable patients, and for themselves.

The governors of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee say they are coordinating plans for regional reopening of businesses that have been shuttered for weeks by the spread of coronavirus. The most aggressive plans thus far have come from Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who announced this week that his state will allow gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and other businesses to reopen this Friday, along with restaurants and movie theaters on Monday. That announcement has drawn objections from the mayors of Georgia’s biggest cities, as well as from public health experts, who point out that the state’s infection rate has not yet peaked, and that Georgia lacks the capacity to do widespread testing in a way that would make such reopening safe.

One obvious consequence of reopening businesses before the virus is contained could be an increase in COVID-19 cases, wiping out any benefits from the past weeks of social distancing. Such a scenario is concerning for John Corn, an AFGE union steward and a nurse at a VA medical facility in Carrollton, Georgia that provides care for elderly and disabled veterans. Between staffers who are sick, forced to take time off to care for children whose schools are closed, and forced to quarantine because they came in contact with a colleague who tested positive for COVID-19, Corn says that his facility is already seriously short-staffed—sometimes there are only two medical workers, rather than the usual four, overseeing a house with 11 patients. “It’s very stressful times for the staff and the residents,” Corn says. “Twelve hours of work, stopping for just 20 minutes to throw down some food and take a drink. That’s the only break we’re getting.”

Corn and his coworkers are members of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents hundreds of thousands of VA employees nationwide. Since the coronavirus outbreak began in earnest, nurses at his facility have been trying to get access to more personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly N95 masks, which are being tightly rationed. For now, Corn and others who have direct patient contact are given only gloves and a basic surgical masks.

“We’re rationed one mask per day. You wear that one mask for twelve hours,” Corn says. At the end of his shift, he takes off the mask, goes home, and then puts the same mask on to walk back into work the next day and receive a new mask. The shortage of protective equipment puts everyone at risk. Because the facility has been locked down to visitors, Corn points out, the only way that patients can become infected is through staff members, who leave, go home and come back in every day. If the state’s business reopening causes a “massive increase” in cases as he fears, staffers can transmit that to vulnerable patients. Even though nurses are conscious of the fact that they could easily become asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus, they have not been able to secure more PPE. Instead, he says, they’re simply told that “this is what it is.”

The same problems plague VA workers in Florida—another state where a Trump-allied Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is determined to reopen businesses. Desantis appointed a special commission to come up with a plan for reopening by the end of the week. Tatishka Thomas, the president of AFGE Local 548 in Bay Pines, Florida, which represents more than a thousand VA medical workers, says that one of her top concerns is that workers who do not have direct patient contact are issued only a single surgical mask per week, well short of what she considers to be safe.

Thomas dreads the idea of businesses in the state opening in the near future. “I’m extremely concerned, Because of the simple fact that everyone hasn’t been tested,” she said. Currently, Floridians without symptoms are not being widely tested, despite the fact that there could be many asymptomatic carriers. Asked what her union’s relationship is with the governor’s office, Thomas had a one-word answer: “Nonexistent.”

The VA employees in Repulican-controlled southern states find themselves in the politically tricky position of being both union members (unpopular), and essential front-line health care workers taking care of veterans (very popular). John Corn, who is himself at increased risk from COVID-19 because he is a diabetic, understands firsthand the bitter irony of the situation: His employer, the U.S. government, will not give him and his fellow coworkers what they need to protect themselves at work, even though their primary goal is to protect the veterans in their care. The same politicians who are quick to proclaim their love for veterans—and their disdain for public sector unions like AFGE—are putting those veterans in danger by reopening businesses too soon, and exposing their caregivers to greater risks.

“I choose to do what I do because I love what I do. I love my veterans. I support my country by taking care of these veterans,” Corn says. “But i’m also a union member. I support my union. And I will be there for my members to give them that voice.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 22, 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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Eight years after the last minimum wage increase, Democrats want to give 41 million workers a raise

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The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since July 24, 2009—for eight years. Thanks to Republicans in Congress and the White House, it won’t be going up any time soon, and though many states have raised their minimum wages, 21 states remain stuck at $7.25 an hour. That’s a poverty wage. A new analysis from the National Employment Law Project shows what the Democrats’ Raise the Wage Act of 2017—which would take the minimum wage up to $15 by 2024, a gradual raise by any standard except the Republican “no raise ever” standard—would do for low-wage workers:

  • 20.7 million workers would see pay raises in the 21 states whose minimum wages are stuck at $7.25.
  • Fully half of the 41.5 million workers who would see pay increases are in the 21 states stuck at $7.25.
  • In the 13 other states with minimum wages of less than $9, nearly 13 million more workers also would see their hourly pay rise.
  • Of all the workers nationwide who would receive raises, 8 in 10 are in the 34 states with the lowest minimum wages.
  • In 19 of the 21 states at $7.25, more than 30 percent of wage-earners would benefit from raising the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024; the highest share is in Mississippi, with 44.4 percent.

Republicans want these workers stuck at poverty wages. There’s no other serious explanation for their refusal to raise the minimum wage over the past eight years.

 This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos. 

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Drug Tests for Welfare Bills Come to Three More States

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Laura ClawsonLooking at the range of drug testing-for-benefits bills being pushed in state legislatures across the country, you almost have to suspect Republicans of some kind of urine fetish. In addition to all the states that are debating or have passed bills requiring people applying for unemployment insurance benefits to pee in cups, drug-testing bills aimed at welfare applicants are being introduced in three states. The specifics would be ripe for comedy if we weren’t talking about a concerted effort by the powerful to stigmatize vulnerable people as drug addicts, as if that’s the only reason a person might need help in an economy in which there are still more than three job-seekers for every job opening:

The Ohio State Senate held a second hearing Thursday night on a proposal to establish pilot drug-testing programs in three counties. Under the proposal, applicants would be required to submit a drug test if they disclose that they have used illegal substances. The proposal was first introduced in the spring, but pressure from opponents led Gov. John Kasich to squash the bill in May.Virginia Republicans are also reviving a bill that was shelved earlier this year. The 2012 version failed after the state estimated it would cost $1.5 million to implement while only saving $229,000. The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Dickie Bell, has not introduced the updated version yet, but says he’s found more cost effective options.

Those would have to be some pretty damn significant changes to the cost structure to erase a nearly $1.25 million deficit. Virginia wasn’t the first to run into that kind of problem; a Florida law mandating drug-testing of welfare applicants cost the state money because so few people’s tests were positive, leaving the cost of the tests higher than the savings from denying people benefits. And that’s leaving aside the cost of the lawsuits for a law that was ultimately found unconstitutional.

Both Ohio and Kansas legislators are trying to pretend the goal is to help people rather than to associate welfare recipients with drug abuse in the public debate, claiming that they just want to be sure people get the help they need. Bear in mind that in Florida, just 2.6 percent of applicants didn’t pass their drug tests. So when you have Republican legislators who don’t show any signs of wanting to help any kind of working-class or middle-class people, even, suddenly dripping with concern for welfare applicants … well, you just have to call bullshit.

This article was originally posted by The Daily Kos on February 8, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 &  the Labor editor since 2011. She lives in Washington, D.C.


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Most States Flunk Wage Theft Test

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Image: Mike Hall

A new report from the Progressive States Network (PSN) finds that workers in 44 states have little to no protection against wage theft. “Where Theft Is Legal: Mapping Wage Theft Laws in the 50 States” reports that:

States’ wage theft laws are grossly inadequate, contributing to a rising trend in workplace violations that affect millions of people throughout the country.

Wage theft, a growing problem affecting millions of workers, is the systemic non-payment of wages by unethical employers. The report graded states based on their legal protections for workers and paints a dim picture for low-wage workers in nearly every state. Only a few states are starting to address the problem in earnest through legislation—and the vast majority have laws that are grossly inadequate.

According to the report, more than 60 percent of low-wage workers say they have been victims of wage on a weekly basis. As a result, they lose 15 percent of their earnings each year on average—about $2,634 per year—with the majority of workers affected supporting at least one child.

PSN senior policy analyst Tim Judson, co-author of the report, says:

Working people throughout the country are losing billions of dollars each year to wage theft, and this report shows why: the laws needed to protect workers are too weak. Forty-four states would fail the basic test of enacting the right laws to address the crime. With millions more people being forced into lower-wage industries where wage theft is rampant, and states losing millions of dollars in unpaid taxes and economic losses, the stakes for failure are simply too high.

Click here for the full report.

Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and its network of workers centers around the country have long recognized the gaping need for better wage protection for workers and have kicked-off several local wage theft campaigns over the past few years. IWJ Worker Center Coordinator Dianne Enriquez says:

Communities are building and passing wage theft enforcement ordinances in areas that are typically very conservative and it is clear that this is because people are tired of unethical employers stealing from them.

More information on IWJ’s local wage theft campaigns is available here.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on June 13, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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A Civil War: We’re Eating Each Other For the Crumbs

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Jonathana TasiniIn a crisis, it’s a tough thing to watch people scramble to survive. And those that already have a lot usually are in the driver’s seat, ready to pit one person against the other. The same is true for states–ever desperate to try to get a few jobs for its citizens (and, need I point out, voters) elected officials are ready to give away the store to corporate leaders, no matter what the price might be.

Per the Financial Times today:

As US states jockey to attract jobs to push down high unemployment rates, companies are benefiting from a host of tax breaks and other government-funded incentives.

But the race to offer sweeteners to corporations is raising questions about whether they are worth the cost.

And:

Maryland is looking at expanding benefits for biotechnology and research and development groups, while Missouri’s legislature is considering a $6m programme to keep jobs from decamping to neighbouring Kansas.

In the New York metropolitan area, competition between New York and New Jersey has generated millions of dollars in subsidies to businesses.

Does this create new jobs? Not really.

“Generally such moves involve just moving jobs around,” said James Parrott, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “Companies play one [state] off the other.” He argued that for most businesses, “location is so important that no matter what the subsidy is, it can’t be the decisive factor in where they’re going to locate”.

Essentially, it’s corporate blackmail.

By the way, this is nothing new. Four years ago, I wrote about how companies were lying about jobs created in return for tax breaks given out in New York.

And one of the great corporate scam artists in this “give me a tax break to save jobs” is…surprise…Goldman Sachs, as I wrote five years ago. The leader in the financial debacle in 2008 had a lot of experience under its belt: in 2005, it extorted money from New York, threatening to leave the city unless it received tax breaks and low-interest bonds. It did so in a fairly ugly way.

Using the specter of September 11th as a club, the company pocketed an unbelievable deal: $1.65 billion in low-interest, triple-tax-exempt Liberty Bonds, enabling the firm to save as much as $9 million a year in financing costs, which would save Goldman about $250 million over the life of the bonds. If that wasn’t enough, the city also threw $115 million in sales and utility tax breaks at the company, in return for a commitment to maintain its headquarters in Lower Manhattan and employ more than 9,000 people through 2028; those breaks could rise to as much as $150 million if Goldman adds 4,000 new jobs by 2019.

And, then, came a real beauty: rather than pay those tax breaks back, it set aside $16.5 billion in cash to pay out as bonuses at the end of 2006—an average pay day of $622,000 per worker. Of course, average really is misleading—the top dogs at the company will reap the big windfalls (CEO Lloyd Blankfein was in line to cash a check of up to $50 million), with the support staff probably getting a free Metro Card or maybe a nice holiday gift basket, at best.

These are not new stories. A great organization, Good Jobs First, has been banging this drum for a long time.

But, here we are. A crisis has drawn the piranhas to suck up any dollars at the expense of the people.

This post originally appeared in Working Life on September 26, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.


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