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From Carl’s Jr. to a gay club, Oregon workers suffered in the heat, this week in the war on workers

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Workers suffered during recent heat waves around the country, and hitting the Pacific Northwest especially hard. We’ve talked about the need for heat protections for farmworkers, but they’re not the only ones.

HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson looks at the heat complaints to Oregon OSHA, finding that restaurant workers were hit particularly hard. According to a complaint from a Carl’s Jr., “The restaurant management is forcing employees to work without air-conditioning in dangerous heat. The temperature in the building is at least 100*F. Employees are covered in sweat, and are showing signs of heat exhaustion.” At a Burger King, “110+ Degrees in the kitchen over the past few days. The AC system is broken and the employer will not fix it. This is when it’s been 101+ outside. Employees are forced to work nonetheless, no matter the heat hazard.”

It wasn’t just farmworkers and restaurant workers, either. The complaints Jamieson reviewed included a carwash, a cannabis dispensary, a canvassing agency that sends people out to fundraise for nonprofits, and dancers at a gay club. Clearly as climate change makes extreme heat a more frequent occurrence, workplace safety regulations and enforcement are going to need to catch up.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Juneteenth Jumble

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Politics, Policy, Political News - POLITICO

Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday last Thursday after Biden signed the legislation recognizing it — but what that actually meant for workers in the immediate aftermath has varied greatly.

Some nonessential government offices, federal courts and school districts shut down on Friday, NPR’s Camila Domonoske reports. And “a small number of businesses acted swiftly to observe the holiday — even with just a few hours’ notice.”Some employers had already voluntarily decided to recognize the holiday.

“Other companies say they’re recognizing Juneteenth without actually observing it,” she writes. “Google is not giving people the day off but is encouraging them to cancel meetings. AT&T held internal events recognizing the holiday but also encouraged people to use their existing leave to take Juneteenth off. … Many big banks say they’ll start observing the holiday next year, and in the meantime, they’re are offering employees a floating day off to use sometime this year. The stock exchanges remain[ed] open for this year, although they may reevaluate in the future.”

RELATED: Juneteenth Was Supposed to Be a Holiday for N.Y.C. Workers. Not Anymore,” from The New York Times

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Politico is a political journalism company based in Arlington, Virginia that covers politics and policy in the United States and internationally. It distributes content primarily through its website but also printed newspapers, radio, and podcasts. Its coverage in Washington, DC includes the U.S. Congress, lobbying, the media, and the presidency.


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This pandemic-year Thanksgiving, think hard about the system that has workers on the job today

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Every Thanksgiving, people across the United States gather with their family and friends to celebrate and eat and be with their loved ones. And at the same time, people across the United States are at work—maybe having rescheduled their holiday meal around their work and maybe having given up the celebration entirely. 

Well, this year is different. Fewer people will be gathered in big family groups. And the people who are working are doing so in radically different, more stressful, more dangerous circumstances. That’s true of the healthcare workers and first responders standing ready to respond to emergencies every hour of every day of the year. More than 1,000 healthcare workers have died of COVID-19, and no one is keeping a reliable count of how many have gotten sick, a fact that hangs over these workers every day.

The grocery workers ringing up the people scrambling to get that one forgotten ingredient for the big meal now do their work at risk to their health, on Thanksgiving and every other day. They’re essential workers who are too often treated as disposable, and paid too little to pay their bills. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union represents 1.3 million workers in grocery stores, other retail stores, meat packing and processing, and more. As of early September, at least 238 of its frontline members had died of COVID-19, with 29,000 having been infected or exposed to the virus. Obviously, UFCW members are just a small fraction of the grocery workers nationwide. 

Then there are the workers at the retail chains that try to milk that Black Friday business for every penny they can get by opening on Thanksgiving. Because people shouldn’t have to wait until Friday morning for those sweet sweet doorbuster deals. There’s absolutely no reason those workers should be on the job on Thanksgiving, not even a shred of a reason—besides capitalist greed.

If you’re sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal—even a much more solitary one than you had hoped for, even if back in April you were looking ahead to the holidays when the pandemic would surely be behind us—take a moment to think about these workers and about the organization of our society that forces so many of them to be on the job for such flimsy or nonexistent reasons. 

Whatever Thanksgiving means to you, it shouldn’t be a symbol of the race to the bottom, especially during a pandemic that means people in the workplace are very often people whose health is at risk. In a normal year, Thanksgiving should be time to recommit yourself to the fight for everyone to get a (paid) holiday sometimes, for everyone to have the leisure and the budget to relax and celebrate and eat well. In this coronavirus year, it should be a time to recommit yourself to the fight for the government to pay people to stay home if they don’t absolutely need to be at work, to keep people housed and fed and healthy while we wait for a safe and effective vaccine.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 26, 2020 Reprinted with permission.

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


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Unemployment Systems Floundering Without Worker-Centered Design

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New York, NY—The Century Foundation, the National Employment Law Project, and Philadelphia Legal Assistance today released the findings of an intensive study of state efforts to modernize their unemployment insurance benefit systems. This is the first report to detail how technology modernization has altered the experience of jobless workers.

The report, which was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, draws lessons from state modernization experiences and recommends user-friendly design and implementation methods for future projects.

Read the new report, “Centering Workers: How to Modernize Unemployment Insurance Technology”

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the struggling technology holding up our unemployment systems and the harm to workers when they cannot navigate or access their unemployment benefits.  Many state systems were programmed with COBOL, a long-outdated computer language.  While some states have undertaken modernization projects, many encountered significant problems and workers paid the price through inaccessible systems, delayed payments, and even false fraud accusations. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an unprecedented spike in unemployment claims, has further exposed the weaknesses in these systems and the difficulties workers face with their unemployment claims.

State officials have at times been candid about the deep flaws in their systems. Pennsylvania’s labor secretary described their 50-year old computer system as “held together with chewing gum and duct tape.”  Florida’s own state auditor found numerous flaws in the state’s new computerized system that went unfixed through multiple administrations. States and the private companies that develop these systems failed to consistently seek worker input and build systems focused on user experience.

The report also explores how modernization and controversial new technology like predictive analytics can affect access to benefits.

“Much remains unknown about how state unemployment agencies are using technology like automated decision-making, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence,” added Julia Simon-Mishel, supervising attorney of the Unemployment Compensation Unit of Philadelphia Legal Assistance and principal investigator for the report. “While these tools can sometimes be helpful, we remain concerned about fairness, accuracy, and due process.”

“The pandemic has underscored that unemployment insurance is a lifeline for workers, yet state systems are rarely built with workers’ needs in mind,” said?Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with NELP and a co-author of the report. “Our report finds that Black and Latinx workers are particularly poorly served by unemployment insurance systems. We have to do better.”

To date, fewer than half of states have modernized their unemployment benefits systems. Several have plans to modernize or are already in the midst of modernizing. The report provides guidance for them, as well as for modernized states looking to improve their systems.

The report also recommends six steps states can take right now, to expand access to benefits during the pandemic:

  1. provide 24/7 access to online and mobile services for unemployed workers;
  2. mobile-optimize unemployment websites and applications;
  3. update password reset protocols;
  4. use call-back and chat technology;
  5. adopt a triage business model for call centers; and
  6. comply with civil rights laws requiring that websites and applications be translated into Spanish and other commonly spoken languages.

“Modernization needs to be approached carefully to avoid creating new problems for workers,” noted?Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a co-author of the report. “Our analysis shows that states were able to pay benefits more quickly after modernizing their systems, but workers were more likely to be denied assistance and too many of these denials were inaccurate. These problems have been magnified during the pandemic when no one should have to choose between paying rent, putting food on the table, and good health.”

The findings and recommendations in the report are grounded in publicly available data on unemployment insurance system performance, interviews with officials from more than a dozen states, and in-depth case studies of modernization in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington, conducted from October 2018 to January 2020.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed?workers. For more about NELP, visit?www.nelp.org. Follow NELP on Twitter at @NelpNews.


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What are the best and worst states to work in during the coronavirus pandemic?

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The coronavirus pandemic has dealt blow after blow to U.S. workers. The two biggest: Unemployment is sky-high, and many of the jobs that are left are suddenly unsafe. 

But as with so many things, from minimum wage to paid sick leave to enforcement of existing laws, how bad workers have it varies dramatically from state to state. Now, you can find out how your state ranks on labor protections in the era of COVID-19, thanks to a new report from Oxfam America. Oxfam ranked states by worker protections, healthcare, and unemployment, coming up with an overall ranking that puts Washington State, New Jersey, and California at the top, and Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia at the bottom.

At $275, Alabama’s maximum unemployment benefit is only a little higher than the minimum of $240 in Massachusetts—and in Puerto Rico, the maximum is just $190. But that’s not the only way Alabama is committed to hurting working families: “Alabama has no moratorium on evictions or utilities being shut off; no mandated paid sick or family leave; and no requirements for personal protective equipment for workers. In addition, the governor issued an executive order to protect businesses and health care providers from lawsuits resulting from COVID-19.”

Oxfam America is calling on states to:

  • Improve worker protections to ensure paid sick time, paid family and medical leave programs, and childcare for all workers
  • Expand Medicaid
  • Increase unemployment payments

Regardless of what state you live in, employers are going to vary in how much they’re doing to protect workers’ safety. The AFL-CIO has a new checklist to determine how safe you are at work, with information about workplace safety—including how to organize for it.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Pentagon Wants to Sacrifice Mexican and Indian Workers for U.S. Arms Industry Profits

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Sarah Lazare | Al Jazeera America

On March 20, the Pentagon issued a guideline stating that U.S manufacturers of missiles, warships and fighter jets should stay open during the Covid-19 crisis. The rationale is that the “defense industrial base” constitutes “essential” critical infrastructure for the United States. Yet we have every reason to believe that U.S. militarism, propped up by the arms industry, is making the world far more vulnerable to the pandemic.

Five years of devastating airstrikes, primarily carried out with U.S.-made weapons, have decimated Yemen’s health system just in time for Covid-19—and the bombs did not stop when the pandemic began. Instead of global cooperation, we’ve seen the United States tighten sanctions on Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, deploy ships to the caribbean to provoke Venezuela, and take a confrontational posture towards China. Now, U.S. workers are being asked to risk their lives—or, as one union that represents General Dynamics workers in Maine put it, become “sacrificial lambs”—so that the U.S. war machine can keep humming. Meanwhile, far from the assembly lines and plant floors, the CEOs of companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are safeguarding their profits. These are the same executives who enjoy influence in the Trump administration, whose Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, is a former lobbyist for Raytheon.

But now we are seeing a new dimension to this injustice. To protect the flow of supplies to U.S. military contractors, the Pentagon is pressuring Mexico and India to keep factories open, at the peril of Mexican and Indian workers. However bankrupt the argument that U.S. weapons manufacturers must stay open to protect American interests, it is outright brutish for the Pentagon to impose this standard on other countries. Workers in Mexico and India have no say in the actions of the U.S. government or military, yet they are being asked to put their lives at risk for America’s “national security.”

Covid-19 is spreading rapidly in Mexico, where factories are sources of major outbreaks. In mid-April, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, warned that factories that continued to operate, despite orders for non-essential businesses to shut down, threatened to become major vectors of the disease and unleash an outbreak in northern border states.

Yet, just days later, in an April 20 press briefing, Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord said that “several pockets of closure internationally” are impacting the “aviation supply chain, ship-building and small space launch.” She stated, “I spoke with our U.S. Ambassador to Mexico on Friday, and today, I am writing the Mexican Foreign Minister to ask for help to reopen international suppliers there. These companies are especially important for our U.S. airframe production.” While Lord did not specify which U.S. companies she was referring to, several U.S. military contractors have subsidiaries in Mexico, including Lockheed Martin and Honeywell, according to a U.S. International Trade Commission report from 2013. In an April 21 earnings call, a Lockheed Martin official indicated that the company sees it as a priority that vital suppliers in Mexico stay open.

The Pentagon was not the only powerful U.S. entity that joined in this pressure campaign. In an April 24 special briefing, Michael Kozak, acting Assistant Secretary at the State Department, said, “Our embassy and here in Washington has been working very closely with Mexico, advocating for American firms.” He added, “And I think we’re making progress on that.” Meanwhile, on April 22, more than 300 corporate presidents, chairs and CEOs wrote a letter to Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to keep open manufacturers deemed by the United States to be “essential and critical.”

These joint efforts appear to have been effective. Ten days after her initial remarks about Mexico, Lord indicated in another press briefing that U.S. pressure had been successful. “While I won’t provide any numbers, we have seen positive results,” she said. “I am thankful to our U.S. ambassador in Mexico, and to the government of Mexico, who has taken great strides to evaluate firms and their contribution to U.S. National Security requirements.”

Her admission that Mexico is being compelled to put its workers at risk in the service of U.S. “national security” is striking. What’s more, Lord revealed that U.S. corporations had a seat at the table when this pressure was discussed. “I have had ongoing conversations with our U.S. ambassador to Mexico, U.S. corporate CEOs, members of the House and Senate, as well as other officials in the State Department over the past two weeks to highlight key companies constraining our domestic defense supply chain in order to catalyze re-openings in Mexico,” she said. “We appreciate Mexico’s ongoing positive response.” (The Washington Post reported on May 1 that Mexico’s President AMLO “has not clarified whether U.S. defense or health-care manufacturers should remain open.”)

In a statement for a Defense News article published April 21, Eric Fanning, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, attempted to present the subservience of Mexican workers’ lives to U.S. arms manufacturers’ interests as a form of mutually-beneficial synchronization in the spirit of the Trump administration’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, slated to take effect July 1. “To restore certainty and keep goods and services moving, all levels of government within the U.S., Canada, and Mexico must work together to provide clear, coordinated, and direct guidance about how best to protect our workers, while ensuring aerospace and defense is declared an ‘essential’ function in all three countries,” he said.

The claim that a few months of slowed or stopped production presents a threat to the U.S. military apparatus is untrue on its face. The United States, by far, has the largest military in the world: In 2019 the country accounted for 38% of all global military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The United States is also the top arms exporter by a long shot, delivering weapons to 96 countries from 2015 to 2019, according to a separate SIPRI finding. What’s more, this industry has grown significantly over the past five years, with U.S. arms exports from 2015 to 2019 23% higher than 2015 to 19. The idea that this massive industry can not pause to protect the lives of workers without threatening the U.S. military fails on its own, violent logic.

Meanwhile, some Mexican workers have vociferously objected to being asked to work during the pandemic for U.S. companies. In mid-April, protests took hold in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border, after workers for U.S. companies died, as Reuters reports. “These companies are worried about their supply chains, but it’s the workers who are dying,” Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor activist in Ciudad Juárez, told the Washington Post amid protests against the Michigan-based Lear Corp., which makes car seats. “And if all they do is export, how is that essential to Mexico?”

It is not immediately clear which suppliers or subsidiaries to U.S. military contractors in Mexico have remained open as a result of pressure from the Pentagon, and whether any deaths can be directly attributed to the Pentagon’s actions. However, even keeping a single factory open for the good of U.S. military contractors presents an unacceptable risk to the workers being asked to clock in.

Mexican workers don’t appear to be the only ones being asked to make a sacrifice for the U.S. military industry. In her April 30 statement, Lord indicated, while providing no details, that the United States is applying similar pressure to India. “We’re also watching India very closely,” she said. “India has mandated closure of businesses, which is impacting defense sector primes. India is a major defense partner, and we hope they can all stay safe while transitioning back to an operational status.” This followed a brief statement she made in her April 20 remarks: “Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us, but we’re working through our Embassy, and then there are pockets in India, as well.”

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there are currently 42,836 confirmed Covid-19 cases in India, yet it has one of the lowest testing rates in the world, so numbers could be far higher. With a population of 1.3 billion and just 0.55 hospital beds per 1,000 people, a full-blown outbreak in the country could be catastrophic.

The U.S. military was already in the business of sacrificing the wellbeing of ordinary people all over the world to maintain its dominance. We see this in its 800 military bases across the planet, which erode self-determination and environmental safety around the world. We also see it in the military’s ongoing wars, occupations, drone strikes and proxy battles—which have persisted, and in some cases escalated—during the pandemic. And we have seen this in the Pentagon’s request for billions in the next stimulus package, demanding a bailout for arms industry CEOs while 30 million people in the United States are newly unemployed. That the Pentagon is now demanding workers in other countries risk their lives for the sake of protecting its U.S. contractors shines new light on the cruelty of the U.S. military, and on the folly of allowing systems designed to carry out war to determine what constitutes “essential” work.

This article was published at In These Times on May 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.


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Workers Are Fighting for Their Lives on May Day. They Deserve to Be Heard.

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In the Season Three finale, Working People talks with Adam Ryan, a Target worker in Virginia and liaison for Target Workers Unite, one of the groups that has been organizing the coordinated strike actions planned for May 1st, 2020. Adam discusses his life, his path to becoming a leftist and getting involved in labor organizing, and the conditions that Target employees have been working under even before the Covid-19 crisis began.


This blog was originally published at In These Times on May 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Search Results Web results Workers Won’t Quit Just to Get a Marginally Increased Benefit

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Unemployment insurance (UI) is a program designed to keep workers connected to the workforce. It is an earned benefit that allows workers to receive income while they are looking for a job. Any notion that workers will not return to work when it is safe to do so ignores not only evidence but also the intention of the unemployment insurance system.

UI benefits have always been a critical, yet insufficient wage replacement. The weekly benefit in states with the best benefits generally covers around 50 percent of a worker’s lost wages, allowing for some income during instances of unemployment, while remaining woefully inadequate to cover all expenses. This is particularly true if unemployed people worked in jobs that paid minimum or low wages.

Making ends meet when making 100 percent wages is hard enough for underpaid workers, never mind trying to do so making only – or less than – half of that. That is why the new Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program, which temporarily provides an additional $600 weekly to qualified unemployed workers (on top of their regular state unemployment benefits) is so important to workers – and to our ability to counter this economic downturn.

We should be asking ourselves why underpaid workers – who will hopefully be making closer to or above their regular wages, allowing for greater economic stability in these uncertain times – are being expected to labor for too little money in the first place. Wages have stagnated for decades. People cannot live on the wages they are making, much less on an unemployment benefit that is a fraction of that.

Right now, our concern should be focused on making sure that workers are able to maintain an adequate income. This benefit boost is necessary in part because states have lowered their unemployment insurance benefit levels to the point where they cannot effectively provide countercyclical stabilization during a recession.

As NELP has reported repeatedly, the real problem is that too many workers who qualify for benefits cannot access them. As we have seen across the country, filing for unemployment insurance can be arduous.

When we see workers standing in line for paper applications for unemployment insurance, workers spending hours on hold while trying to apply over the phone, or the crashing of computer systems, we should focus on making sure everyone who lost work can get their benefit instead of worrying about the extremely unlikely scenario that underpaid workers will quit to get unemployment benefits.

There are more than a few reasons to call this idea into question. First, of all, under every state unemployment law in the country, a person who quits work in order to receive an unemployment check will be found ineligible for benefits. There are some situations (mostly adverse changes in wages, hours, and working conditions) that can be regarded as good cause to leave a job; the prospect of a higher unemployment benefit is not one of them.

Second, several guidance letters issued by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration have made it clear that quitting work to receive unemployment benefits can be fraud – workers know this because the few stories about fraud are used by anti-worker, anti-UI proponents to represent all workers and hurt a system that can support all. Workers are informed before applying that they cannot claim benefits for which they do not qualify and if they do, they will need to pay them back, and may even face steep financial penalties.

Moreover, it’s short-sighted to overlook how critical it is for workers to maintain their connection to a job right now. For so many people, there is more to a job than the paycheck. Workers can share a sense of camaraderie with their coworkers. They can find personal meaning in their jobs. If nothing else, work can provide a sense of stability for individuals and families.

In these highly uncertain times, the reassurance of continued work is something that more and more workers can no longer count on. It may be the source of health care benefits, retirement security, and possibly equity in the company. Workers are also well aware of how resume gaps can harm long-term job prospects, even in this era.

Policymakers need to learn the lesson of the last recession, which many individuals,  families and communities,  never recovered from. The response to the last recession did not inject enough money and was not sustained enough to ensure that communities actually recovered.

The families and communities that were most harmed in the last recession, unsurprisingly, were disproportionately people of color and women – who already were dealing with generational racial wealth gaps and gender wage gaps. Today, we are in an economic crisis with workers in a worse place economically than before. Communities cannot afford for policymakers to aim low in terms of emergency aid.

It is concerning that states like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee are “re-opening” their economies and encouraging workers to go back to work. If shutting off access to unemployment insurance is any motivator behind this decision, it is sure to backfire. As public health officials warn, the more people who are forced to go back to work, the greater the risk to their health and safety and the cascading effects.

As we see shockingly disproportionate numbers of Black people dying, we know that racism and classism are not only the root cause of economic abandonment but also encapsulate our entire response in this moment.

More workers getting sick and overwhelming the health care system will prolong the duration of the pandemic and the number of people being infected, while also exacerbating economic problems in the future. The rush to reopen will ironically lengthen the duration of the crisis and worsen long-term economic conditions – particularly for underpaid workers of color and women of color.

Any argument being made that is not focused on ensuring all workers have the income needed to survive in this moment is ignoring a very important lesson: providing people with economic security is the answer to economic stability in good times, and to recovery after times of crisis. After all, the economy doesn’t exist without workers.

This article was originally published at NELP on April 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michele Evermore joined NELP in 2018 as a senior policy analyst for social insurance. She has worked to promote worker power as a legislative advocate for labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union District 1199 New England and National Nurses United. She also worked for the Obama Department of Labor to advance sound benefits policy, employment policy for people with disabilities, and equal pay for equal work. Prior to that, she worked in Congress for a decade, primarily for Senator Tom Harkin and also for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. In those roles, she worked to advance worker protections, organizing rights, and improving retirement security in a variety of private pension plan designs, as well as Social Security.


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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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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Defend Global Supply Chain Workers Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Brian Finnegan (@finneganba) | Twitter

COVID-19 may not yet have sickened as many people in developing countries as in the United States or Europe, but more than 150 million workers in supply chains are already suffering the swift and massive impact of the pandemic. These workers have even less savings and weaker social protection systems than the very weak ones America’s workers have. Just as we insist U.S. government assistance in this crisis must prioritize jobs and workers’ lives and livelihoods, global collective efforts must focus on millions of workers in global supply chains who have no safety net.

Global demand has plummeted and major corporations have stopped buying, many canceling orders already placed—even refusing to pay for goods already produced. Employers in these supply chains are cutting jobs and wages. Global garment workers, already facing some of the worst working and living conditions before the pandemic, are losing their precarious foothold on survival. At minimum, major garment brands and retailers must pay for work already done and goods already made or in production. Some companies have acted ethically; others have not.  

Today, workers and employers announced a joint statement to work together in the garment industry at the global level to clarify principles that major brands and retailers must act on throughout this industry that has long depended on unsustainable practices and low wages.  

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow joined the call to action:

We cannot afford the human and economic devastation of the collapse of our global supply chains and millions more in developing economies thrown back into poverty. Jobs, incomes and social protection are the dividends of business continuity, and this statement calls for emergency funds and social protection for workers to guarantee industry survival in the poorest of our countries. Leadership and cooperation from all stakeholders are vital to realize a future based on resilience and decent work.

In the statement, employers and workers commit to work together to seek funding for the producing countries from governments and international financial institutions and other sources, so that workers can get wages, jobs can be preserved during the crisis and governments can commit to strengthen social protection programs in the future. 

Like all statements of principle, this one is a first step that will mean nothing without immediate action and sustained collaboration with workers. Beyond paying wages, the industry must reform its labor relations and buying practices to fix problems that have existed for decades. The global labor movement and allies will track the behavior of governments that receive this assistance and the actions of buyers and suppliers in the supply chain, as well as the impacts of both on workers. Student labor activists are already tracking the follow-through by some brands from the United States

Other industries need to collaborate globally and work upward from these principles, too, making more concrete commitments. Working with the global labor movement, the AFL-CIO will pursue these commitments to ensure that companies and governments fulfill their stated principles and ethical and legal commitments in this crisis and move toward globalization with social justice.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on April 22, 2020.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Finnegan is a Global Worker Rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO.


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