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Biden Has Abandoned His Covid Worker Safety Pledge

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Biden’s much-anticipated workplace safety rule excludes most workers—and some in the labor movement are not happy.

Until she got her first Pfizer shot on July 16, Cindy Cervantes toiled in the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma for most of the pandemic without a vaccine—working unprotected in an industry devastated by Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.

“In one day, at least 300 people were gone” from the plant, sick from Covid, Cervantes says. Still, “Seaboard wanted a certain number of hogs out. They kept pushing people, the chain was going even faster. People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.” Six of her coworkers have died from Covid-19, and hundreds have gotten sick, she says.

Ravaged by the pandemic, the roughly 500,000 U.S. workers in meatpacking, meat processing and poultry are not getting much help from the industry or the government. In a sector described as “essential” during the pandemic, at least 50,000 have been infected and more than 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit news outlet. Yet amid this grim toll, the North American Meat Institute lobbied successfully to exclude meatpacking and poultry workers from new Covid-19 worker safety rules enacted this June.

Even as vaccine availability in the United States steadily expands, workers still face pandemic peril on the job, from breakthrough cases of Covid-19, as well as low vaccination rates in many areas due to a combination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and serious access barriers to immigrants who fear deportation. Workers and advocates are sounding the alarm that President Biden has dropped the ball on pandemic-era worker protections, violating one of the first promises of his presidency. This warning has particular salience after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that some people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where there are severe outbreaks, due to the spread of the Delta variant. 

On his second day in office, Biden signed an executive order promising to enact new emergency safety rules “if such standards are determined to be necessary” by March 15 to protect millions of “essential” workers like Cervantes. The goal was straightforward: to give workers enforceable protections on the job, such as mandating that companies provide physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the deadline came and went, with no new rule. Then, on June 10, after heavy lobbying by many industry groups—Including the American Hospital Association, the National Retail Federation, the North American Meat Institute and the National Grocers Association—Biden issued a narrow rule covering only health care workers.

This is despite the fact that other industries have been devastated by the pandemic. “Almost all my coworkers have gotten it,” Cervantes says of the virus, noting that many of them were out sick for months, and some returned to work with lingering Covid-19 symptoms. Yet, she says, “a lot of workers I work with have not gotten the vaccination” for a host of reasons. Some are “skeptical,” and “think it’s got a chip in it or that it’s not going to work.” 

It’s not hard to get a vaccine at the plant, Cervantes says. But in an industry that relies heavily on immigrants, Latinx and often undocumented workers, there are many barriers to vaccination, researchers note. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Large shares of Hispanic adults—particularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumented—express concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination.” Oklahoma, home to the Seaboard plant where Cervantes works, is among the nation’s most dangerous Covid-19 states, with just 40% of the population fully vaccinated, and “high transmission rates,” according to the CDC.

In an email response to questions, Seaboard communications director David Eaheart said the company “proactively” notifies workers of any Covid-19 cases in the plant, and has taken numerous precautions based on CDC and state health guidance, including paid leave for infected workers, and plexiglass shields at “select line workstations.” 

Eaheart acknowledged that in May 2020, testing at the plant identified 440 employees with “active cases of Covid-19,” the plant’s “highest week of reported active cases. All these employees self-isolated at home and were required to follow CDC guidance before being allowed to return to work.” During that week, he said, “overall production was scaled back in the processing plant and fewer animals were processed and products produced.” More than 1000 workers at the plant have tested positive, and six have died, Eaheart confirmed. 

Since March 15, when Biden’s promised Covid-19 workplace safety protections were supposed to take effect, more than 15,000 working-age adults have died from the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). “Every one of those individuals had a family that was also at risk of Covid,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in a June 9 press release anticipating Biden’s rule. “Releasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, too late.”

The original rule drafted by the Department of Labor did cover all workers, as Bloomberg Law first reported—but then the infectious disease standard met the buzz saw of politics and industry pressure, and the White House opted to cover health care workers only.

As the Department of Labor’s draft standard stated, “For the first time in its 50-year history, OSHA faces a new hazard so grave that it has killed more than half a million people in the United States in barely over a year, and sickened millions more. OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) presents a grave danger in every shared workplace in the United States.” 

Citing rising vaccination rates—60% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, though just 49% of the population overall—Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said the new rules focusing on healthcare workers “provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor provided any explanation for why other workers in high-exposure jobs were excluded.

“That’s kind of ridiculous,” says Louisiana Walmart worker Peter Naughton. “They should cover retail workers as well. We come into contact with people who may have the virus without knowing it.”

In Louisiana, where new Covid-19 cases are double the national infection rate and vaccinations lag far behind, Naughton, 45, toils in fear every day at a Walmart in Baton Rouge. He got vaccinated in May, but in his job helping customers navigate self-checkout kiosks, Naughton says, “I come into contact with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people a week.” Naughton, who lives in Baton Rouge with his parents to make ends meet, says that despite the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, and the spread of the extra-dangerous Delta variant, there are minimal safety precautions, and “Walmart is acting like the pandemic is over.”

While the vaccines vastly reduce risk of death or serious illness, infections and “breakthrough cases” are still infecting vaccinated people. And the CDC’s befuddling guidance making masks voluntary for those who are vaccinated, on the honor system, hasn’t helped. Furthermore, the CDC explains, “no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from Covid-19.”

For Naughton and millions of other “essential workers,” laboring in the pandemic has been a mix of fear, insult and injury. Even when Covid-19 was at its most deadly and virulent, basic safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning were “never enforced” at Walmart, says Naughton. “They never gave us any PPE, just glass cleaner, which doesn’t protect us. Customers could come in without masks and nothing would be said to them. I complained about it and the manager said, ‘Don’t worry about it, let the customers do what they want.’”

Several of Naughton’s coworkers got infected and ill from Covid-19, but “management never said a word to any of us,” he says. “Most of them I came into close contact with. That kind of scared me. … We all should have known about it.” Naughton says he filed a complaint in November 2020 requesting OSHA to inspect the Baton Rouge Walmart, but “I never heard back, nothing ever happened.”

To top it off, when Naughton received the vaccine in May, he was hit by a 102.4 degree fever—but he had to work anyway, because Walmart employees can “lose our job” after five absences for any reason. Nobody at Walmart took his temperature or inquired about his health, he says.

Through email, Tyler Thomason, Walmart’s senior manager of global communications, insisted to In These Times, “We encourage our associates to get vaccinated. We offer the vaccine at no cost to associates… We continue to request that associates and customers wear face coverings unless they are vaccinated. Any information on confirmed, positive COVID-19 cases would come from the local health authority.”

Unions Sue to Protect More Workers

Naughton isn’t the only person disappointed by Biden’s exclusion of most workers from this emergency pandemic protection. Unions have pushed for the protection since the pandemic began ravaging the United States in March 2020. First, they encountered staunch resistance from the Trump administration; now, while pledging expansive worker protections, the Biden administration has delayed and diminished them.

On June 10, as the Biden administration announced the narrow new rule leaving out millions of workers, advocates expressed disappointment and frustration. 

Biden’s decision to cover only health care workers “represents a broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the frontlines of this pandemic,” stated United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union International President Marc Perrone the day the new rule was announced. 

That day, the AFL-CIO added, “we are deeply concerned that the [standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of Covid-19 infections and death. Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 exposures and infections.”

On June 24, the AFL-CIO and UFCW filed a petition in federal court demanding that all workers be covered by the emergency standard, which, the petition says, currently “fails to protect employees outside the healthcare industry who face a similar grave danger from occupational exposure to Covid-19.”

Another champion of the emergency standard, Rep. Bobby Scott (DVa.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, also expressed frustration when Biden released the narrow new rule, calling the diminished standard “too little, too late for countless workers and families across the country,” including workers throughout the food industry and homeless shelters. Rep. Scott added: “I am disappointed by both the timing and the scope of this workplace safety standard.” The rule, Scott said, “is long past due, and it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness from Covid-19.”

Biden’s decision to exclude meatpackers, grocery and farm workers, retail and warehouse laborers and others means especially high risks for workers of color, Rep. Scott noted. “With vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of a comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is a dangerous combination,” he said.

Much of this “essential” workforce of people of color, immigrants and low-income white people, toils in dangerous farm labor and food processing plants where Covid-19 has spread like wildfire while vaccination rates remain low. “Workers in this industry have a very low vaccination rate,” as low as 37% in some states, says Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2 representing meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. “I don’t know who in their right mind would think we’ve passed over that bridge and think all workers are safe now.” Rosas adds, “The federal government has failed to protect meatpacking workers” by leaving them out of the final emergency standard. “I’m extremely disappointed in the Biden administration.”

Both the Department of Labor and the White House declined multiple interview requests, but a Department of Labor spokesperson emailed a statement insisting that the health-care-workers-only rule “closely follows the CDC’s guidance for health care workers and the science, which tells us that those who come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19, are most at risk.”

The Department of Labor spokesperson stressed that the agency’s existing (yet unenforceable) “guidance” and the “general duty clause” protect other workers adequately, particularly in “industries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood processing, and grocery and high-volume retail.” But in its own draft standard, the Department of Labor stated the opposite: “existing standards, regulations, and the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause are wholly inadequate to address the Covid-19 hazard.” In its original draft, the agency insisted, “a Covid-19 ETS [emergency temporary standard] is necessary to address these inadequacies.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, National COSH’s co-executive director, says President Biden “is responsible” for the 15,000 workers who have died from Covid-19 since Biden’s March 15 deadline to enact the emergency standard. Biden, she notes, “promised to protect workers in his campaign and on his first day in office, but he neglected them. But workers’ safety needs aren’t over, and we’ll be continuing to demand accountability from the administration.”

This post originally appeared at In These Times on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Christopher Cook is an award-winning investigative reporter who also writes for Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis


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Arizona and Many Other States Begin Legislative Process to Protect Employees Against Discrimination Based on COVID-19 Vaccine Choices (US)

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Daniel B. Pasternak

Currently pending before the Arizona legislature, Senate Bill 1648 would prohibit discrimination in the workplace (and elsewhere) against individuals who have not received or who refuse to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. As proposed, the bill would prohibit any employer from requiring a person to receive or disclose whether they have received a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of being hired or remaining employed. The bill additionally would amend not only Arizona’s state statutes devoted to employment matters, but also would prohibit nearly any business or public space from limiting access to a person on the basis of their receipt or non-receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine to any indoor or outdoor spaces or buildings, places of public accommodation (as defined by A.R.S. § 41-1491), spaces that are owned, leased, operated, occupied, or otherwise used by a public body (as defined by A.R.S. § 39-121.01), and places that are generally open to the public.  This partisan bill, sponsored by seven Republican Senators, is not yet set for a vote.

Arizona is just one of many U.S. states that have seen legislation introduced targeted at protecting employees (and persons in general) who choose not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. However, the protections in these bills, and to whom they apply, vary significantly from state to state. For example, some proposed bills would regulate only public employers (see below). Others don’t prohibit vaccine requirements, but impose limitations on them. For example, Montana’s proposed law allows employer vaccine mandates, but requires that any accommodations provided by an employer for individuals who refuse to obtain a vaccine due to medical or religious reasons must also be offered to any employee who refuses to become vaccinated, for any reason.

The list of states with currently pending vaccine anti-discrimination legislation, and links to the pending bills, includes: Alabama (here and here), AlaskaArkansasCaliforniaColoradoConnecticutGeorgia (public employers), IllinoisIndiana, Iowa (here and here), KansasMarylandMichiganMinnesotaMissouri (public employers), Montana (accommodations to employer mandated vaccine policy), New MexicoNorth CarolinaOhioOklahomaOregonPennsylvaniaRhode IslandSouth CarolinaSouth DakotaTennesseeTexasUtahVermont,  (public employers), Virginia (public employers), Washington, Wisconsin (here and here).  These bills are at various states in the legislative process.

For the most part, these bills would seek to override recent federal guidance from agencies such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that employers may require employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment, provided that employees may be entitled to reasonable job accommodations in the event that a disability or sincerely held religious belief prevents them from being vaccinated. What a reasonable accommodation would be in such cases could vary dramatically on an employer- and employee-specific, case-by-case basis.  Further, where allowed, when seeking proof of vaccination or administering vaccinations themselves, employers must be mindful not to violate other applicable laws prohibiting disclosure of genetic information (Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act) or improper or overly broad medical inquiries (Americans with Disabilities Act). Whether these bills, if they become state laws, may be challenged on various bases, including possible preemption by any federal law, remains to be seen.

This blog originally appeared at Employment Law Worldview. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Pasternak works with employers to solve workplace problems. Sometimes that involves helping develop, implement and enforce effective and business-sensible employment and traditional labor relations policies and practices. Other times, it involves representing employers in high-stakes litigation matters.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Rockford United Labor Volunteers Answer Call for Vaccination Effort

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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.

A new COVID-19 vaccination site in Winnebago County, Illinois, has the capacity to vaccinate 2,500 people per day. But county officials organizing the program realized they needed help in setting up all those appointments. That’s when Winnebago County Board Chairman Joe Chiarelli put out a call for volunteers to Rockford United Labor President Sara Dorner (AFSCME), and she went to work finding groups to help out. “I reached out to the [American Association of University Women], League of Women Voters, NAACP and a lot of our partners in the community that we’ve worked with on other issues,” Dorner said. Those groups, along with The Salvation Army, Women’s March Rockford and Rockford Today Network, wasted little time signing up. “I’m watching the spots get filled up as I sit with my computer open,” Dorner said. Together, they logged 160 volunteer efforts, inoculating thousands of residents.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on March 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Texas and Florida, Defying CDC Guidance, Aren’t Prioritizing Vaccination of Farmworkers

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Despite Centers for Disease Control recommendations, a few states with large farmworker populations have not prioritized Covid-19 vaccinations for farmworkers. 

Because farmworkers risk Covid-19 exposure in the course of their jobs, the CDC proposed that they should be near the front of the vaccination line. But Texas and Florida, which have large farmworker populations, have not included farmworkers in their initial rollouts, according to state documents.

Farmworker advocates said the people who pick and process the fruits and vegetables consumers rely on should become inoculated from the virus. During the pandemic, farmworkers have been forced to choose between protecting their lives and keeping their jobs.

“We believe that farmworkers should be a high priority for vaccine distribution because of their essential work and because of the high risk of exposure in the agricultural workplace,” said Alexis Guild, Director of Health Policy and Programs at Farmworker Justice.

In Texas, people who are old enough and have a history of illness are the priority, and that could include agricultural workers, said Douglas Loveday, Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman.

“Right now, agricultural workers 65 and older and those with underlying chronic illnesses that can lead to several illness or death if infected by Covid-19 can be vaccinated,” he said. ?“Discussions on future priority groups have begun, but nothing has yet been decided.”

Across the U.S., most farmworkers are not over 65. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of farmworkers is 39, with over half being younger than 44.

This past summer, Marco Antonio Galvan Gomez, a 49-year old agricultural worker, died from Covid-19 a few weeks after arriving in Texas.

Similarly, only people 65 years old and older, long-term care facility residents and health care personnel are authorized to receive vaccines in Florida, even though farmworkers in the state have been hit hard by Covid-19. For instance, the Immokalee community in southern Florida, known as the capital of tomato production in the U.S., had dozens of deaths over the summer.

Florida’s health department did not return requests for comment.

During the pandemic, farmworkers have been forced to choose between protecting their lives and keeping their jobs. At least 22 farmworkers have died from Covid-19, according to data from the National Center for Farmworker Health. 

As essential workers, farmworkers ?“were required to continue to work throughout the pandemic, but they often have been excluded from protections at the national and state level,” said Kara Moberg, attorney at Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan.

More than half lack health insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2016 National Agricultural Workers Survey. Many employers don’t provide it.

Many workers also live in employer-provided accommodations?—?often in cramped housing with limited options for social distancing. Among those who don’t live in these facilities, it’s also common to live in crowded conditions.

“For workers who do not work or who do not live in employer-provided housing, they still tend to live in crowded housing conditions because of their low wages,” said Alexis Guild of Farmworker Justice. ?“So it’s very hard for them to socially isolate, socially distance.”

An October study by researchers from the University of California San Diego found that farmworkers, especially those who do not speak English and live in poverty, ?“may be at heightened risk for Covid-19 mortality in non-urban counties.”

All states’ distribution plans for vaccines follow a phased approach, but that differs from state to state.

The phases are decided based on vaccine availability. People in groups 1a, 1b and 1c (or equivalent) will receive the vaccine when the supply is limited. As vaccine availability increases, people in the next phases will be able to receive vaccinations, according to the CDC.

The problem with the CDC guidelines is that, similar to safety protections for workers, there is no federal standard for vaccine prioritization, said Jared Hayes, policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group. This is especially problematic for a workforce that frequently moves across state lines, he said.

“One challenge, especially with regard to farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, is ensuring that they have access to the vaccine,” he said. ?“We’ve seen how badly the vaccine rollout (has been). Imagine how complicated it would be to vaccinate a workforce that is undocumented and migratory.” 

Problems with access, even if states prioritize farmworkers

Most states have followed CDC recommendations on farmworkers, but advocates worry it will be challenging to get the vaccine to them.

North Carolina, plans to vaccinate farmworkers and other frontline essential workers in the state’s Group 3 (equivalent to the CDC’s 1c phase), following healthcare workers and people 65-years old or older, which belong to Groups 1 and 2 respectively, according to the state’s vaccination plan.

As of Feb. 16, only Groups 1 and 2 were eligible to receive vaccines.

“The way that things are rolling out in North Carolina and just the timing of everything, we haven’t really gotten there yet,” said Justin Flores, vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which represents tens of thousands of agricultural workers in the South and Midwest.

In the Midwest, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, which ?“represents hundreds of food and agricultural workers across the state,” complained that these workers are ?“currently not scheduled to receive vaccines until May,” according to an online statement.

Even though agricultural workers are classified as part of phase 1b in the state?—?which meant they were scheduled to receive vaccines as early as mid-January?—?they are not expected to receive vaccination until more than three months after the phase begins, according to Michigan’s prioritization guidance.

Mistrust of authorities, immigration status may lead to few vaccinations

Another problem that advocates see is that a combination of mistrust, fear and misinformation might lead farmworkers to avoid looking for vaccinations in the first place.

“The issue of distribution is really complicated and there’s a lot of fear in many communities,” said Guild, of Farmworker Justice. ?“We’ve heard from our partners on the ground, we’ve heard of mistrust and fears around vaccines.” 

According to some advocates, the role of community organizations in educating and providing critical information will be crucial in the next few months.

“Relying on expecting farmworkers to go to the CVS or a medical health clinic won’t be enough,” Hayes, of the Environmental Working Group, said. ?“We’re going to need to lean on the non-profit organizations that have always served farmworkers to ensure that they actually have access to the vaccine.”

Another reason why agricultural workers are in a vulnerable position with regard to vaccine access is that many of them lack legal immigration status, advocates said.

Roughly half of all farmworkers lack legal immigration status, according to the USDA.

Despite this, some advocates are hopeful that immigration status won’t affect farmworkers’ access to vaccination.

“We certainly hope and it seems to be that immigration status will not be a factor when it comes to the vaccine. We also hope to see the vaccine being free of charge, regardless of immigration status, or regardless of insurance status,” Guild said.

In a press release, the Department of Homeland Security encouraged undocumented workers to get vaccinated, stating that ?“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not conduct enforcement operations at or near vaccine distribution sites or clinics.”

“It is a moral and public health imperative to ensure that all individuals residing in the United States have access to the vaccine. DHS encourages all individuals regardless of immigration status, to receive the Covid-19 vaccine once eligible under local distribution guidelines,” the department said.

North Carolina is not checking immigration status during vaccinations, but some residents told the News & Observer they were still scared to get the vaccine.

In Nebraska, despite the federal government’s emphasis on reaching undocumented workers, Governor Pete Ricketts said in January that only documented workers will receive the vaccine.

Neither the governor’s office nor Nebraska’s health department responded to a request for comment.

Editor’s Note: The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. Visit us online at inves?ti?gatemid?west?.org

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Frank Hernandez is a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso, majoring in philosophy and multimedia journalism. Previously, he reported for Bor?derzine?.com, an online news magazine covering life on the U.S.-Mexico border.


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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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