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Grocery workers, heroes of the pandemic, left out on vaccinations, this week in the war on workers

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“Grocery workers say they can’t get coronavirus vaccines, even as they help distribute them,” the Washington Post headline reads. But as the story makes clear, grocery workers don’t “say” they can’t get vaccines. They can’t. Unless they are elderly or have comorbidities in addition to being grocery workers—i.e., unless they are eligible for vaccination for reasons other than being among the front-line workers who have kept us all going this last nearly a year—grocery workers don’t get vaccination priority except in 13 states. Meanwhile, pharmacies in some grocery stores are administering the vaccinations the workers can’t get.

“Of course health-care workers should get the vaccine first, that’s not a question,” one California worker said. “But how many people am I exposed to in a day? Hundreds. Sick or well? I don’t know. Customers come in with masks under their nose, sipping their coffee as they walk around.”

In 11 states there’s no plan to give grocery workers any priority for vaccination, while in Tennessee they’re at the same priority level as overnight camp counselors.

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This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Maine hospital gave scarce COVID-19 vaccinations to out-of-state consultants there to bust a union

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Union-busters who traveled from other states to fight a union organizing drive at a Maine hospital got an extra-special bonus from hospital management: COVID-19 vaccinations. State officials are calling out MaineHealth over that violation of state vaccination policy and basic decency.

“Vaccinating out-of-state contractors who came here to disrupt a union-organizing effort was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn: the 80-year-old grandmother who hasn’t seen her family in months; the man being treated for cancer; the teacher wanting to return to the classroom; the grocery clerks and delivery drivers who are exposed to the public and working to put food on the table,” Maine Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. Mills also criticized MaineHealth more broadly for vaccinating staff who don’t have contact with patients, noting that “we have a limited supply of the vaccine, and we have had to prioritize who can be vaccinated.”

”Every out-of-state consultant and lawyer that MaineHealth flew in as part of their intimidation campaign got the vaccine instead of someone’s grandparent or loved one,” Maine Senate President Troy Jackson said. “It’s concerning that MaineHealth would put their own anti-union agenda, and their own bottom line, ahead of the health and well-being of Maine people. At a time when Maine has only a limited supply of the COVID-19 vaccine and is still grappling with a public health crisis, this seems particularly cruel.”

”They’re not front-line people. They should not have been the priority to get those vaccinations,” Maine State Nurses Association President Cokie Giles told HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson. “I have friends of mine in their 70s who get up at 6 o’clock every morning to go online and try to get their [vaccination] appointments.” 

With the attention on its actions—thanks originally to Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz—MaineHealth has gone from defending the move, saying “MaineHealth stands by its decision in December to offer vaccination against COVID-19 to its full care team as being in the best interests of its patients, care team members and the communities it serves,” to “We understand that non-Maine residents are not eligible for any vaccine and acknowledge that we erred in vaccinating those individuals.”

But the hospital system showed its priorities first by hiring anti-union consultants and then by drawing attention to that by vaccinating them over actual Maine residents who should have gotten those doses. With the union representation election coming up in March, nurses have been organizing around issues like staffing and protective equipment. Now they have another big question to ask their employer: “Hospitals talk to nurses about how expensive it would be to have a union, and how their costs would go up,” said Giles. “I would like to know how much they’re spending on these consultants.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Essential workers fear not just for their own health, but for their families

In recent weeks, essential workers have been pushed down the priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations in states including California and Massachusetts, a decision that is likely to cost lives among the people we rely on to keep us fed and keep the economy going. A recent study by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco shows a big spike in excess death among these workers in 2020.

There was a 22% increase in deaths over all adults aged 18 to 65 in California last year, the researchers found. But among food and agricultural workers, the increase was 39%. For Latino adults overall, the increase in deaths was 36%. For Latino food and agriculture workers, it was 59%. For Black working-age adults, the increase was 28%, and for Black retail workers, it was 36%. Asian Americans also saw a big jump in one profession, from 18% excess mortality for everyone working age to 40% for healthcare workers.

White Californians got off easy—6% excess mortality for everyone age 18 to 65 and 16% for food and agriculture workers. That’s a ridiculously large difference.

The danger for essential workers doesn’t stop with their own lives. Two essential workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal recount infecting members of their families—one woman’s husband died after an outbreak in the grocery store where she works. Every day, 68-year-old Joyce Babineau lights a candle and talks to her husband’s ashes. “I talk to him and tell him I’m sorry,” she told the WSJ. “Because I brought it home.”

Now Babineau isn’t sure she can afford to retire this year, as she and her husband had planned, and she’s still showing up for her shifts at Stop & Shop. “As time goes on, everybody forgets that you’re still on the front line.” Safety measures at many workplaces have never been adequate—many have been almost entirely hygiene theater—and many companies eliminated their already inadequate hazard pay a few months into the pandemic, even as workers continued to get sick and die.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around the more than 440,000 COVID-19 deaths the United States has suffered. For workers who can’t stay home and are at the mercy of their employers’ highly variable commitments to health and safety measures, every day on the job brings the risk that they or a member of their family will be added to that toll. And we haven’t reckoned with that, either—congressional Republicans and some Democrats are still dragging their feet over the idea of taking the next four years to raise the minimum wage to $15. Paid leave is still not a reality in most of the United States, except in limited ways for limited time during the pandemic. The pandemic came, and the United States answered, in policy and politics, that essential workers are dispensable human beings. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.

Warehouse Workers Are on the Front Lines of the Covid Crisis. They’re Worried They’ll Be Passed Over for the Vaccine.

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As Hal­loween approached, Ronald Jack­son spent his days at a Chica­go-area ware­house for the Mars can­dy com­pa­ny ?“get­ting Hal­loween can­dy to Amer­i­ca.” After co-work­ers got Covid-19, Jack­son com­plained to man­age­ment about a lack of safe­ty pre­cau­tions. Rather than improv­ing pre­cau­tions, he said, the com­pa­ny fired Jack­son for an alleged infrac­tion that occurred months ago.

Such sit­u­a­tions are why work­ers and advo­cates are demand­ing the state of Illi­nois des­ig­nate ware­house work­ers as essen­tial work­ers and pri­or­i­tize them when Covid-19 vac­cines are dis­trib­uted. Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice and oth­er labor groups on Tuesday pub­lished a peti­tion to Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er mak­ing these demands. 

They note that ware­house work is essen­tial to the econ­o­my, includ­ing by dis­trib­ut­ing clean­ing sup­plies, per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) and oth­er prod­ucts that are espe­cial­ly crit­i­cal dur­ing the pandemic.

Work­ers in ware­hous­es are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble because the struc­ture of ware­house work?—?where employ­ees are gen­er­al­ly hired through tem­po­rary staffing agen­cies with few pro­tec­tions or rights?—?makes it easy for the own­ers and oper­a­tors of ware­hous­es to ignore risks and fire or silence work­ers like Jack­son who speak up. The peti­tion to Pritzk­er says the 650,000 tem­po­rary staffing work­ers in Illi­nois are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black and Lat­inx, mean­ing they are also among the groups at dis­pro­por­tion­ate risk for Covid-19infec­tions and com­pli­ca­tions. (There are also tem­po­rary work­ers in oth­er indus­tries, but many thou­sands are employed in the Chica­go area ware­house sector.)

“To devel­op an equi­table vac­ci­na­tion plan you have to ask who bears the brunt of the health and eco­nom­ic impact of the pan­dem­ic, and the answer will always be com­mu­ni­ties of col­or,” said Sophia Zaman, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the group Raise the Floor, a coali­tion of Chica­go work­ers centers. 

The Trump administration’s Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices Sec­re­tary, Alex Azar, said last month that while the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will issue rec­om­men­da­tions on vac­cine dis­tri­b­u­tion, it will be up to gov­er­nors to decide how to dis­trib­ute vac­cines and pri­or­i­tize recip­i­ents. The Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health has pub­lished guide­lines for local gov­ern­ments to ulti­mate­ly dis­trib­ute the vac­cine giv­en them by the state; mean­while, Chica­go will also receive vac­cines direct­ly from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Right now, ware­house work­ers are list­ed as a ?“pos­si­ble group to include” in Phase 2 of Illi­nois’ vac­cine roll­out when a ?“larg­er num­ber” of vac­cine dos­es is available.

There are sprawl­ing com­plex­es of ware­hous­es in sub­urbs and towns south­west and west of Chica­go, and increas­ing num­bers of ware­hous­es?—?includ­ing for Ama­zon?—?with­in the city lim­its. Many of the ware­house work­ers employed in the sub­urbs live in Chica­go, com­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly from Lat­inx and Black com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard-hit by Covid-19. 

The governor’s office and Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health didn’t respond to a request for com­ment about the peti­tion by the time this sto­ry was published. 

Dur­ing the governor’s dai­ly coro­n­avirus brief­ing on Decem­ber 8, pub­lic health depart­ment direc­tor Dr. Ngozi Ezike said, ?“While the vac­cine is com­ing, it’s not going to be as much as we want and won’t come out as quick­ly as we like. The first groups to receive the vac­cine will be our health care work­ers and also the res­i­dents of long-term care facil­i­ties… We’re pri­or­i­tiz­ing those at great­est risk of expo­sure and severe illness.”

Mark Balen­tine, a com­mu­ni­ty nav­i­ga­tor for Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice, also worked at the Mars ware­house until April, when an acci­dent and his con­cerns about Covid-19 caused him to leave the job, he said. 

“Peo­ple are com­ing up pos­i­tive. There’s a chance you work right next to them on the floor and (man­agers) don’t warn you,” he said, not­ing that he found out one cowork­er had Covid-19 only when he called her on unre­lat­ed Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice busi­ness. ?“The bot­tom line with Mars was the dol­lar?—?they were more con­cerned with the dol­lar bill than with people’s health. I don’t believe in play­ing Russ­ian roulette with people’s lives like that.” 

(The U.S. media office for Mars did not respond to a request for comment.)

After being fired from Mars, Jack­son got work at anoth­er sub­ur­ban Chica­go ware­house that ships prod­ucts ?“from fan­cy chi­na to per­fume and every­thing else” for Wal­mart, Ama­zon and oth­er retail­ers. A Covid-19 out­break occurred and the ware­house shut down for about a week, Jack­son said, and he was required to get a test on his own time in order to return to the job that pays $14.50 an hour with no health insur­ance. Jack­son said work­ers still wor­ry they are at high risk of con­tract­ing Covid-19 since, he said, man­age­ment does lit­tle to pro­tect them. 

“They’re just hav­ing us sign a piece of paper say­ing they took our tem­per­a­ture,” he said. ?“It’s real­ly an unsafe work area, they’re not lis­ten­ing to the work­ers, they just want to move these products.” 

Even if he or oth­er work­ers are exposed to some­one with Covid-19, he said, they would like­ly keep going to work because they are not paid if they are quar­an­ti­ning. Balen­tine said his broth­er con­tin­ues to work at the Mars ware­house despite feel­ing at risk, since he needs the money. 

“You make this mon­ey and put it in the bank and now you’re not here to spend it, so what good is it?” said Balen­tine about his deci­sion to quit. He doesn’t believe the com­pa­nies oper­at­ing ware­hous­es will improve pro­tec­tions any time soon, hence the urgency for vac­cines for workers. 

“We need our doc­tors and nurs­es in order to take care of us, we need the health­care work­ers to go by the elder­ly folks and see that they’re straight, and you need the ware­house work­ers because every­thing comes from a ware­house?—?hand san­i­tiz­er, toi­let tis­sue, clean­ing sup­plies,” said Balen­tine. ?“You want to pro­tect (ware­house work­ers) to keep them working.”

Jack­son said that while he thinks ware­house work­ers should be deemed essen­tial and giv­en pri­or­i­ty access to vac­cines, he would him­self be reluc­tant to take it. 

“Me being Black and the way the gov­ern­ment has treat­ed Black peo­ple deal­ing with (med­ical care), I’m not sure I would take the vac­cine,” he said, cit­ing the infa­mous Tuskegee syphilis exper­i­ment, in which Black men were not giv­en ade­quate care or ful­ly informed about the trial. 

Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice has long tried to raise aware­ness of abus­es in the indus­try and demand reforms. The tem­po­rary staffing struc­ture means that work­ers have lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to advance or earn high­er wages, and can be fired for any rea­son. As a result, there has been lit­tle recourse for work­ers to address report­ed­ly ram­pant health and safe­ty prob­lems, dis­crim­i­na­tionand sex­u­al harassment. 

As with many inequities and injus­tices, the pan­dem­ic has just ampli­fied and cast light upon the long­stand­ing prob­lems with the ware­hous­ing indus­try, advo­cates and work­ers say. 

“It’s not just about Covid, it’s the way we’re dis­re­spect­ed and mis­treat­ed in these ware­hous­es,” said Balen­tine. ?“They look down on us. We’re treat­ed as invis­i­ble. But with­out ware­house work­ers, noth­ing happens.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: ATU Calls on Governors to Prioritize Front-Line Transit Workers in Vaccine Distribution

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

With hundreds of transit workers killed, including 96 ATU members, from COVID-19, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) has called on governors across the United States to prioritize front-line transit workers in the first rounds of COVID-19 vaccin­­e distributions. ATU International President John Costa wrote a letter to every governor to inform them of the request and offer logistical support in vaccine distribution. “The recent promising news of multiple quality vaccines for the coronavirus has lifted the spirits of all Americans, including the hundreds of thousands of transportation workers who have been on the front lines working through this very dark period in our nation’s history,” Costa wrote in the letter to governors. “On behalf of the ATU, the labor organization representing the majority of these brave workers, we urge you to provide early vaccine access and availability for our members in the transit and school bus industries.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is an AFL-CIO contributor.


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