Workers in New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) took measures into their own hands. They wore their own masks, brought their own bleach solutions to clean shared workspaces, and had bus passengers enter through the rear door and blocked them from sitting too close to drivers. Eventually, the MTA started to catch up. But at least 41 New York City transit workers have died of COVID-19, another 1,500 have tested positive for the virus, and more than 5,500 others are self-quarantining because they have symptoms. That’s a huge hit for a workforce of 70,000.
It’s having a ripple effect through the entire city. The MTA is so understaffed it can’t keep up with even the reduced-by-25% schedule it had planned. Even with ridership down by over 90%, subway platforms and cars are crowded because trains aren’t coming as often, which in turn increases the danger of the virus spreading through the crowds in the city that has become the epicenter of the disease.
Union officials pushed MTA bosses to hand out masks and other safety equipment earlier, but the organization stuck by the Centers for Disease Control’s advice against masks. Some workers who wore their own masks were told to take them off because they violated uniform policy.
Bus drivers, whose passengers walk right by them, have been particularly hard-hit, with at least 11 dead.
If you want a devastating illustration of how the United States has let down its working people, check out the picture up top of MTA cleaning staff in early March and compare it with the one below of a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, being disinfected in late February.
This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.
The fast food industry has long insulated itself from organized labor by building a legal wall between the parent company and the individual franchised stores. That imaginary separation is being tested by the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, as McDonald’s workers across the country have held strikes and walked out, unwilling to risk their lives for fries with no safety net.
The Fight For $15 has found fertile new ground in helping to organize fast food strikes in recent days. McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa, Raleigh-Durham and elsewhere have staged job actions this week, in a coordinated push for safer working conditions, paid sick leave and hazard pay.
Maria Ruiz, who has spent 16 years at McDonald’s, was one of the workers who went on strike yesterday outside of her store in San Jose, California. Ruiz said that employees have been worried for their own health for the entire past month, watching the store’s dwindling supply of hand sanitizer, gloves and cleaning supplies. On some days, there was no hand sanitizer at all. Ruiz says employees were only recently granted permission to wear masks at work, despite the fact that there are often more than a dozen people crowded into the store’s lobby.
“We are tired of taking the risk,” said Ruiz, who earns $16.35 per hour in a city that has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. McDonald’s workers are asking for an extra $3 per hour hazard pay, along with adequate protective equipment, a guarantee of two weeks of paid sick leave for anyone who needs to quarantine, and a guarantee that the company will cover their health care costs if they get sick with COVID-19. Ruiz acknowledges that she needs to work in order to pay her bills, but said that she could no longer ignore the danger to her health. “I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she said, “but I’m more afraid to lose my life.”
The Fight For 15 said that the McDonald’s workers are expected to stay away from work until their demands for protective equipment on the job are met. It seems likely that the country will see a steady, rolling procession of fast food walkouts in coming weeks, part of a nationwide strike wave that has been gathering momentum over the past month. Grocery workers, warehouse workers, factory workers, construction workers, and others who are directly exposed to the danger of infection on the job have all walked out in protest, doubtful that their low wages make up for the risks they’re taking.
After a decade of organizing fast food workers, the Fight For 15 is well positioned to facilitate these types of job actions on short notice. One of the movement’s key wins—a step that promised to make it significantly easier for organized labor to exert influence on a national scale in the fast food industry—came in 2015, when the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board revised the “joint employer” standard to make it easier to hold fast food companies like McDonald’s responsible for the labor standards at their franchised stores. The Trump administration’s NLRB rolled back that rule change, meaning McDonald’s is once again able to keep a legal wall between the parent company and the behavior of its franchisees.
In response to questions about employee walkouts in California, McDonald’s referred to a letter from McDonald’s USA president Joe Erlinger, promising to provide gloves, increased store cleaning, “wellness checks” for employees, and to send “non-medical grade masks to the areas of greatest need.” The company also sent a statement from the owner-operator of the store in Los Angeles where employees walked out this weekend, saying the store underwent “thorough sanitization” after a worker tested positive for COVID-19, and that workers who were in contact with that person were offered two weeks of paid quarantine leave. (The fact that the statement from the store owner is being sent out by McDonald’s corporate PR team highlights how closely the parent company and store owners are intertwined, joint employer standard notwithstanding.)
Though more visible “essential” workers, like grocery store employees, have successfully won hazard pay from a number of companies, fast food workers face a steeper challenge: They are forced to continue working by employer mandate and by economic need, but still viewed as a nonessential by much of the public. Without intense public pressure or widespread work stoppages, it is easy for major fast food chains to continue with business as usual, offloading all of the risk onto those below them.
“We are essential workers,” said Maria Ruiz, “but my life is essential too.”
This article was originally published at In These Times on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].
The few commercial establishments still operating in New York City saw more than 1,500 complaints of inadequate social distancing in a single week, as officials struggle to keep residents of the most densely populated big city in America away from each other.
Even with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo closing nonessential businesses on March 22, New Yorkers have had difficulty keeping their distance. And businesses like grocery stores, street vendors and takeout restaurants that have remained open are having trouble policing their customers.
The number of social distancing complaints against commercial establishments placed through the city’s 311 platforms hit 1,572 early Sunday morning, spanning a weeklong stretch of complaints beginning March 29, according to 311 data analyzed by POLITICO. And one of the biggest hot spots is a complex managed by the city’s own Economic Development Corporation.
Businessesthat have continued to operate in varying capacities amid the public health crisis took up more than a third of roughly 4,200 social distancing complaints reported to 311 that week. Businesses can control some aspects of social distancing — but much customer behavior remains out of their control, associations, owners and advocates said in interviews with POLITICO.
“The business obligation is really around how many people are in that store at a time,” said Jessica Walker, president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “Beyond that, though … aisles are not necessarily big. How do you move people around?”
The guidance to socially distance — or maintain six feet between people to abate the rampant spread of the virus — has become a volatile aspect of daily life among New Yorkers otherwise accustomed to tight spaces and contact with strangers due to the physical constraints of city life.
Businesses across the city received social distancing complaints on average every six minutes, according to POLITICO’s analysis. But among commercial establishments, the complaints have been concentrated in Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, received 14 complaints over the week examined by POLITICO —the highest number of complaints received among business establishments across the city.
The commercial complex spans 95 acres in Sunset Park and is a mix of warehouse operations, offices and docks. It has been operational during the Covid-19 crisis, an EDC spokesperson confirmed, though she could not say how many occupants fell under the exemption.
The spokesperson said the agency hadn’t been aware of the complaints until POLITICO inquired about them.
“The Brooklyn Army Terminal is an essential hub, in fact one of the tenants, Makerspace, produced face shields in-house for NYC Hospitals,” said agency spokesperson Shavone Williams in an email. “EDC has sent clear communications to all tenants outlining latest guidelines from the Mayors Office, Department of Health and CDC.”
Cesar Zuñiga, chairperson for Community Board 7 in Sunset Park, said he hadn’t heard members complain of the situation. He was, however, “concerned” about the complaints, given that the terminal is managed by the city’s EDC.
The 311 data isn’t immune to blind spots. It does not specify who made the complaints, such as a customer, neighbor or employee. But establishments have grappled with challenges to maintaining a healthy distance.
There is a growing concern among New Yorkers about social distancing in supermarkets, the root of which Elizabeth Peralta, executive director of the National Supermarket Association, attributed to some customers who haven’t yet adjusted their habits to the new reality.
“We’re seeing things get better and better,” said Peralta, whose association has a few hundred member businesses in New York City. “But we definitely see the negligence of people.”
Four grocery stores in Manhattan and Queens were among the top five recipients of complaints. A Fairway Market in West Harlem received eight complaints in the same week. Another Fairway, on the Upper West Side, received seven complaints; a Trade Fair Supermarket in Elmhurst, and a Met Foods in Middle Village, Queens,trailed close behind with six complaints.
Bill Fani, owner of the Middle Village Met Foods,said not all customers were taking adequate precautions within his 9,000 square foot store.
“I understand the social distancing. The store’s only so big. We allow x amount of people in the store. We put up signs … but how do I enforce people?” he said.
The remaining grocers and their parent companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Some supermarkets have hired security personnel to safeguard against masses of people entering. Gov. Cuomo extended his order on Monday to shutter nonessential businesses, leaving grocers among those spared, until April 29.
Many grocery workers have been on edge over their continued exposure to fellow New Yorkers.
Street vendors have similar concerns. None yet have tested positive for the virus, according to Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, as far as he knew.
Vendors haven’t been fined or shut down by the NYPD over social distancing complaints, since it hasn’t been a major issue, Attia said. The same was the case for restaurants and bars, limited to takeout and delivery.
“Not to say that it hasn’t happened, but I’m not aware of that,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
According to the NYPD’s breakdown of coronavirus-related enforcement, it made three arrests and issued 21 summonses in roughly the same time frame. The department did not respond to a request for further comment.
This article was originally published at Politico on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Michelle Bocanegra is an intern for POLITICO New York. She was previously at amNewYork and is currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school.
Grocery workers have become some of the most essential workers of the coronavirus crisis—making clear that we’ve relied on them all along. But it’s also a dangerous job, exposing workers to hundreds of customers a day, often without adequate protective gear. The terrible, predictable result is that grocery workers are starting to die of the virus.
At least four grocery workers have died recently. Leilani Jordan, a worker at a Maryland Giant store, died last week. Phillip Thomas and Wando Evans, both of whom worked at the same Illinois Walmart store, died in late March. And an unidentified Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, New York, died on Monday. Dozens more grocery workers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19.
At the same time, grocery chains are trying to hire tens of thousands more workers, with many offering the princely sum of $2 extra per hour and pledging to improve access to masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Some stores are also putting up plexiglass dividers between workers and customers.
But anyone coming into contact with hundreds of people a day is going to be in danger of being infected by COVID-19. An extra $2 an hour is not enough for that risk, and the fact that grocery retailers think it is is a sign of how unequal the U.S. economy is, and how desperate that leaves some people to pay their bills.
We should honor the workers who’ve died, and those who are sick and suffering. But let’s be clear that the best way to honor them is to protect them from the virus, to pay them as the essential workers they are, to support them in efforts to organize and build power, and to press for stronger labor laws.
This article was originally published at Daily Kos on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.
The stock market fell 7% at the open Monday morning. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a catastrophic collapse—a financial crisis type number. Typically, the market might gain or lose in a whole year the value that was lost by the time the sound of the opening bell faded.
The collapse appears to be the result of a combination of the spread of coronavirus and falling oil prices—two events that are themselves connected. But it needs to be interpreted as an alarm bell, because we are dealing with the threat of two deadly kinds of contagions—one biological and the other economic and financial—both of which pose serious but manageable threats to the well-being of working people.
We have heard a lot about biological contagion and how to stop the spread of coronavirus in our workplaces and our communities. You can get up-to-date information on workplace safety and coronavirus at www.aflcio.org/covid-19 and at the websites of our affiliated unions. But what about financial and economic contagion? This is something elected leaders, economic policymakers and financial regulators must take action to stop.
How does it work? Coronavirus is a shock to the global economy. It stops economic activity of all kinds—shutting down factories, canceling meetings, sending cruise ships into quarantine. The only way to prevent that is to stop the spread of the virus (see above). The consequence of economic activity slowing down or stopping is that businesses lose revenue, and generally with loss of revenue comes loss of profits.
People who trade on the stock market usually price stocks by making projections about the future profits of the companies whose stocks trade on the public markets. The stock market reacts instantaneously to changing expectations about what may happen in the economy and to specific businesses. The stock market itself doesn’t create or destroy jobs, but it does contribute to the overall financial health of companies and of people. When stock prices fall rapidly, they can create their own kind of contagion—exposing fragile financing structures for both companies and people. That can in turn lead to retreat—companies pulling back on investments or, in the worst case, going bankrupt.
So the stock market can create contagion all by itself. But the much more serious kind of contagion has to do with corporate debt. We have had low interest rates for years, and businesses around the world have gone on a borrowing spree. This spree has been one of the causes of relatively healthy economic growth in the last few years, but it has also led to businesses carrying a lot of debt relative to their earnings and growth.
Here is where the danger gets very real, because, as we all know, if you borrow money, you have to make payments on that debt. What if businesses that have borrowed a lot of money suddenly don’t have anywhere near the revenue they expected to have? This is what empty planes and blocked supply chains mean.
If no one does anything and the coronavirus leads to months of revenue shortfalls in overleveraged companies, there is a real risk of pullbacks in investments by those companies or, worse, bankruptcy. Falling stock markets and debt defaults can lead to weak business balance sheets and to weak financial institutions. That is what financial contagion means. We saw that in 2008 when first mortgage intermediaries failed, then hedge funds and stock brokerages, and then major banks.
Even more seriously, once investment pullbacks, bankruptcies and layoffs start, that leads, like a spreading virus, to more losses of revenue to other businesses—in other words, economic contagion. Economic contagion, once it starts, is even harder to stop than financial contagion. Economic contagion means recession, unemployment, falling wages. What makes this crisis different is that it starts with a kind of layoff—shutdown of economic activity and quarantines to stop the spread of disease.
We need government to act to stop financial and economic contagion until the worst of the coronavirus passes and, most importantly, until everyone has a better sense of the exact nature of the threat—that is, until the uncertainty diminishes. Working people must demand that government act, or we and our families will pay the price for others’ lack of action, as we so often have in the past.
What should government do? First, it should directly address the source of economic contraction by dealing effectively with the coronavirus itself and making sure people who are sick or need to be quarantined are able to do what they need to do for themselves and for society without being impoverished. This means emergency paid sick leave for all who need it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have proposed comprehensive emergency paid sick leave for all workers; this is an urgent medical and economic necessity. We need to recognize that until the coronavirus is contained, it will be very challenging to contain the economic consequences of the virus.
Second, government should deliver financial support credit on favorable terms to sectors of the global economy that are threatened by the coronavirus and vulnerable due to overleverage. The U.S. Federal Open Market Committee took a first step in that direction last week by lowering short-term rates by 0.5 percentage point, but that is unlikely to be enough. Central banks need to work with major financial institutions to target cheap credit to vulnerable businesses—airlines, hotels, manufacturers paralyzed by broken supply chains and the like. It is time to discard the old neoliberal idea that we should let banks lend to whomever they want when we appropriately subsidize them with cheap public assets.
Third, government should provide support to the economy as a whole. Congress cannot leave this job to the Federal Reserve. We need to look at bigger emergency appropriations to support our weakened public health infrastructure, particularly hospitals; if the Chinese experience is any indication, we are going to face serious strains to the system as the coronavirus spreads. We need to look at macroeconomic stimulus—public spending to help the economy. This would best be done in the form of investment, such as finally funding infrastructure. But we also need immediate spending; that is why universal paid sick days would be such a good idea, as would be steps to improve the effectiveness of our social safety net—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—and make it easier for everyone to get the health care they need right now.
What we don’t need is the standard right-wing response to any and all problems—tax cuts for the rich. Even more than in a normal downturn, that would do harm, diverting desperately needed public resources to those who don’t need them at all.
Most of all, we need leadership and coordination among federal, state and local governments, between the U.S. government and the Fed and governments and central banks around the world, and with multinational bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization. This is critical, because neither the coronavirus nor the world financial system respects borders, and because people will succumb to fear in the absence of credible leadership.
If Monday morning tells us anything, it’s that we need that leadership now, because once fear becomes contagious, it may be the hardest thing to stop.
This blog was originally posted on AFL-CIO on March 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Damon A. Silvers is the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO. He joined the AFL-CIO as associate general counsel in 1997.
Silvers serves on a pro bono basis as a special assistant attorney general for the state of New York. Silvers is also a member of the Investor Advisory Committee of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department’s Financial Research Advisory Committee, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’s Standing Advisory Group and its Investor Advisory Group.
Silvers received his Juris Doctor with honors from Harvard Law School. He received his Master of Business Administration with high honors from Harvard Business School and is a Baker scholar. Silvers is a graduate of Harvard College, summa cum laude, and has studied history at King’s College, Cambridge University.
Labor unions, employee rights, fair wages, and America’s workforce are all hot topics this election season. While these issues are always important, an election year really works to bring these issues to the forefront of the minds of companies and politicians.
Regardless of which side of the political fence you sit on, we can all agree that employees deserve and need a safe work environment. It’s the company’s moral obligation and legal responsibility to provide a safe environment for all of its employees. But what’s the best way to do that?
Government data shows that in 2018, 2.8 million workers suffered from an injury at work, and a total of 5,250 workers actually died while on the job. That number means that an average of one hundred U.S. employees died each week while trying to earn an income. It’s unacceptable.
Despite OSHA’s (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) efforts, accidents are clearly still a regular occurrence in the workplace. It’s the employees’ right and the company’s responsibility to ensure a safe environment.
Here are five steps for creating a safer work environment.
Step One: Prioritize Safety Training
Most companies offer safety training right after hiring an employee. However, one-time training isn’t going to cut it. Regular safety training needs to be par for the course. Beyond that, consider periodic safety evaluations for both the individual employees and the company as a whole.
Moreover, safety is an ongoing attitude more than it is a one-time conversation. Companies must make safety a part of the daily discussion and habits.
Step Two: Don’t Overlook Spills and Tripping Hazards
More than twenty-five percent of all workplace injuries are a result of a trip, slip, or fall. So, it’s no shocker that one of the first things to improve when it comes to safety is tripping and slipping hazards.
Work to eliminate clutter and keep walk spaces free and open. If standing water is an issue inside or out, look into a floor drain or a traffic rated trench drain. Fix uneven flooring and repair steep or wobbly stairs. If there’s an area that employees complain about, work to get it fixed.
Step Three: Consider Employee Comfort A Top Priority
Improving employee comfort is an essential step to creating a safer work environment. Depending on the industry, uncomfortable environments might not be totally avoidable, but maximizing employee comfort when possible can increase safety dramatically.
Overworked employees are one of the chief complaints against comfort. Overworked employees mean a more tired, burnt out, and anxious workforce. Tired workers are 70% more likely to be part of a workplace accident.
To increase comfort, be sure to avoid overworking employees with reasonable hours and allow plenty of breaks. Don’t expect unrealistic deliverables. Beyond that, try to regulate temperature and decrease the amount of time employees spend in enclosed spaces.
Step Four: Use Proper Equipment
While this one might seem obvious, it’s not uncommon for companies to cut costs by using cheaper machinery, outdated equipment, or asking employees to use inadequate or improper tools to complete their jobs. Unsurprisingly, this leads to more injuries, more exhausted employees, and ultimately lower productivity.
This step is pretty straight forward. Use the proper equipment for the right jobs. For example, if you work in a warehouse with lots of dust and chemicals, be sure to use an explosion-proof vacuum. If toxic chemicals are a part of the job, make sure safety equipment is worn and provided. If scaling to the tops of high shelves is a normal part of the job, opt for lifts instead of rickety ladders. Each industry has its own type of equipment, but regardless, there is always updated and safer equipment available for every industry.
Step Five: Focus on Psychosocial Issues
Thanks mostly to employee complaints and activism from non-profits, psychosocial issues in the workplace have made their way to the forefront of workplace safety concerns. Employees who have dealt with psychosocial issues in the workplace are more likely to struggle with increased stress, anxiety, depression, and in severe cases, drug use, and suicide.
Workplace stress accounts for $190 billion in yearly healthcare costs and 120,000 deaths each year. Aside from employee comfort, issues like sexual harassment, bullying, workplace violence, and more, are all examples of common psychosocial workplace issues.
To combat these problems, it’s essential to create an environment that encourages and promotes reporting any sort of issues that disrupt an employee’s mental wellbeing. They shouldn’t fear retaliation, and they should know that action will be taken. Consider security cameras that run 24/7 to keep your employees feeling safe. Design a layout that’s open, but then use something like modular office walls, to promote privacy when it’s needed.
Workers Demand a Safer Environment
More and more workers are demanding a safer work environment. These five steps are a surefire way to start creating a safer environment in your workplace.
Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the home building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.
Why would environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and 350.org have signed a pledge that they wouldn’t use a hotel chain’s environmental program? Because Marriott’s “Make a Green Choice” program, in which hotel guests are asked to opt out of having their rooms cleaned during a stay, is a classic case of greenwashing, and one that hurts workers.
According to Sierra magazine, Marriott won’t disclose the environmental benefits of not having rooms cleaned as often, while UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh told the magazine that “when housekeepers do get into a room that hasn’t been serviced in days, they report needing to use more water and chemicals, and they experience pain and injury from having to push their bodies to the limit to get the job done.” At the same time, they’re losing work hours, and income, to people doing what they think is the right thing.
Marriott has pushed “Make a Green Choice,” but it hasn’t pushed larger environmental efforts. “Despite setting a goal of acquiring 30 percent of its overall electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2025, the hotel chain did not report purchasing any of its millions of megawatt-hours of energy from renewable resources in 2018” Sierra reports. “That same year, Marriott’s $33 million investment in energy savings initiatives like LED lighting retrofit projects were dwarfed by the $3.4 billion that Marriott returned to shareholders.” Marriott’s climate goals are also less ambitious than those of rival Hilton.
Meanwhile, 91% of Marriott housekeepers told the union that they’ve lost hours since “Make a Green Choice” was put into place, with some having lost so many hours that they’re no longer eligible for health care.
We should all be making green choices. This isn’t the one, though.
This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.
Temperatures reached 97 degrees on June 21 at the French Robinson Unit prison the day Seth Donnelly collapsed. The Texas Observer reported Seth passed out during his prison job of training attack dogs—running around in a 75-pound “fight suit” while the dogs tried to bite him. Seth’s internal body temperature was 106 when he reached the hospital, where doctors eventually took him off life support. He died on June 23, and his preliminary autopsy lists multiorgan failure following severe hyperthermia.
These conditions aren’t new. Danielle, who asked for In These Times to withhold her last name to protect her family-run business from social stigma, says she woke up in her cell in Texas at Gatesville Prison one typical early morning in July 2015, drenched in sweat. Without time (or permission) to shower or brush her teeth, she reports she was corralled to the fields in a heavy uniform.
“It didn’t feel safe,” says Danielle, who explains she picked tomatoes and jalapeño peppers without pay. Gatesville’s average high temperature that month was 98 degrees. “Texas in July, it’s like sitting on hell’s doorstep,” she says.
A guard who Danielle says she was “deathly terrified of” patrolled the “state property” (the term guards used for incarcerated people) on a horse. Danielle says she was not provided gloves, which often left her hands exposed to thorns and caustic jalapeño juices. One day, Danielle says, after several hours, another woman without gloves asked the guard if they could wash out their wounds. According to Danielle, the guard stopped, pulled her gun and yelled like a drill sergeant: “What are the rules of the field?” Danielle testifies that another group yelled back, “No breaks until work is done.”
Although there is little data or reporting on heat conditions for incarcerated workers, they may be especially vulnerable to being pushed to their limits because there are few labor protections and little to no oversight.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to protect workers from serious hazards (including heat-related risks). Though the Act does not cover incarcerated laborers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has said federal prisons must still uphold its standards—which include, when the heat index hits 91?103 degrees, reminding workers to drink 4 cups of water an hour, scheduling frequent breaks in cool areas, and developing work/rest schedules for workers in heavy clothing.
But OSHA rules do not apply to state prisons. Twenty-two states have adopted OSHA “state plans,” which cover state prisons with standards intended to be at least as effective as federal standards. Eight of the 10 states with the highest incarceration rates have declined to adopt these plans.
“The guards could literally do whatever they wanted to us,” says Danielle, who was incarcerated in Texas from August 2014 to September 2015..
Danielle’s stated working conditions appear antithetical to OSHA’s guidelines. “There was a vehicle that would come by and bring some water, but if the vehicle broke down you were out of luck for water that day,” she says. “That happened numerous times. Even when we get water it was gone within a few minutes and they won’t refill it for you. There are 50-plus women and the women in the back don’t get any.”
Danielle also says adequate work/rest schedules were not implemented. “We would go on for four hours or more before we sat in the shade,” she says. “I remember thinking—I know there were women there who were much older than me doing the exact same thing—‘What would my mother do?’ She would die. She would just fall over on the field and die. How is this possibly allowed?”
Danielle was not alone: Nearly half of people imprisoned in the U.S. work while incarcerated, a population disproportionately likely to be Black. Penal labor became a more significant part of the American economy following the Civil War; police would conduct sweeps and make arrests of Black men when plantations needed additional labor for planting, cutting and harvesting crops. Today, a majority of incarcerated workers perform “institutional maintenance,” which includes tasks like mowing the compound lawn and mopping floors. A relatively small number of others work in “correctional industries,” manufacturing things like license plates, sewing American flags and—as in Danielle’s case—harvesting vegetables that are later sold for a profit. All seven states that don’t pay for non-industry labor are in the South, which can reach dangerously hot summer temperatures.
Even indoor prison work can be dangerous, as 13 states—most of them in the South—do not equip prisons with air conditioning. As Timenoted in 2016, more than 120,000 beds in Texas’ criminal justice system do not have air conditioning, while “less than 1% of free Texans live in a home without air conditioning.” OSHA recommends indoor temperatures between 68?76 degrees, and Texas county jails must be between 65?85 degrees—but not Texas state prisons.
While there have not been any assessments of the occupational health of incarcerated workers, it is well documented that heat-related illnesses are a general problem for people in prisons, even when they are not working.
Anecdotal evidence of heat-related problems inside prisons provides additional insight. In a first-person account for The Marshall Project, Timothy Bazrowx described being beaten with a pipe and how a field captain shot at his feet during his first day of work in the fields. In 2017, The Daily Haze published a video of incarcerated workers screaming for help inside of a St. Louis workhouse as temperatures broke 100 degrees. The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, a group of grassroots advocates, said it is “common for prisoners within [the Florida Department of Corrections] to be routinely denied adequate food and safe drinking water, especially those who go outside the gate on work crews. They are never given enough to eat and are forced to work in all conditions despite injury, sickness, brutal temperatures.”
Andrew, a 31-year-old who has been incarcerated in Florida since he was 17, says confined laborers are routinely dehydrated on the job. Andrew says his first mandatory prison job, in 2006 at age 18 in Hamilton Correctional Institution (HCI), consisted of mowing the swampy compound lawn using a dull-bladed non-electric push mower in cloth shoes with poor soles from 8 a.m. until the end of the day and/or job completion alongside a group of other men. The closest large city to HCI, Valdosta, Georgia, had an average high of about 92 degrees during Andrew’s first summer on the job. The confined laborers were generally given water in the mornings, according to Andrew, but the igloo cooler was empty within an hour and a half. During his time on the job, he frequently witnessed people collapsing from fatigue, he told In These Times. And sometimes, he says, the simple act of taking a break resulted in violent discipline: “The officers will come and they’ll put you in handcuffs … and a lot of times the handcuffs turn into you getting slammed on the floor,” Andrew says.
Limited strides to cool prisons in Texas have been made through civil litigation. After four years of litigation, in May 2018, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) agreed to install air conditioning in the housing sections of Wallace Pack Unit, which houses many elderly and vulnerable prisoners. As recently as August 9, however, Federal Judge Keith Ellison accused TDCJ of not fully complying with the settlement.
The suffering endured in the heat, which will worsen with climate change, is stoked by cruelty. “Despite the heat and terrible conditions we lived in—basically, sleeping in a sauna—it was so much more than that,” says Danielle. “It was like [the guards] got a thrill out of making us feel we were lesser than people.”
This blog was originally published at In These Times on August 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ella Fassler is an independent writer, researcher and prison abolitionist.
OSHA requires employers to provide safe work environments, although there are no specific OSHA standards that apply to heat and humidity in warehouses. Some individual states have created heat illness prevention standards that are more stringent.
Workplace safety is a team effort, and employees have a role to play, too. Report unsafe conditions to the appropriate person immediately. If the condition persists after you report it, you have the legal right to file an OSHA complaint and/or request an OSHA inspection.
Dangers of Working in Extreme Heat
Working in extreme heat and humidity is not just uncomfortable, but actually dangerous. Your body requires a stable internal temperature, which is regulated by blood circulation and the process of evaporation that cools you when you sweat.
High workplace temperatures keep you from releasing body heat through blood circulation, and if it’s humid, your sweat can’t evaporate because the air is already fairly full of water. This increases your core temperature.
Recognizing and Responding to Heat Illnesses
How do you recognize and respond to the various types of heat illness? There are four main types:
Heat Rash: Result of sweat that can’t evaporate. Clusters of tiny, itchy bumps cover affected areas, such as in folds of skin, on the chest, or on the neck. To treat: Keep the rash dry. Use baby or talcum powder to soothe the itching and irritation.
Heat Cramps: Painful muscle spasms from strenuous work in excessive heat, without replenishing fluids and body salts. To treat: Place person in cool environment/shade. Have them sip a sports drink or add one teaspoon of salt to a quart of water and sip. If alert and not disoriented, wet them down and place them in front of fan to induce evaporative cooling. Apply cold compresses to the back of the neck, groin and armpits. Gently, but firmly, massage cramped muscles.
Heat Exhaustion: Identified by profuse sweating with cool, moist, and red or pale skin. Dilated pupils, headache, fast but weak pulse, rapid breathing, dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, irritability, irrational actions, thirst, and weakness may occur. Caused by prolonged exposure to excessive heat without consuming sufficient fluids and salts. To treat: Place the person in a cool environment/shade, with legs slightly elevated. Remove or loosen their clothes. Follow the treatments for heat cramps, except muscle massage.
Heat Stroke: Medical emergency – call 911 immediately! Core temperature is above 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweating stops entirely. Skin may be red, hot, and dry. Pulse is rapid but strong, pupils are small, and dizziness occurs. Breathing is rapid and shallow, together with nausea, weakness, mental confusion, and extreme irritability. There may be seizures, and loss of consciousness, progressing to shock, brain damage, and death. To treat: Follow the treatment procedures for heat exhaustion while you wait for medical transport or a medical care team to arrive. Do not give the person any drink that contains caffeine or alcohol.
Prevention of Heat Illness
Prevent heat illnesses by following some common sense heat tips to keep yourself cool. Wear light-colored, lightweight, loose-fitting cotton clothing that allows sweat to evaporate. Stay in cooler environments as much as possible.
Drink small amounts frequently, even if you aren’t thirsty. Avoid sweet or alcoholic drinks, which cause your body to lose fluid.
Regularly replenish your salts and minerals. Consult with your doctor about managing the heat if you are on any type of salt restriction or have certain chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
Heat illnesses can progress extremely rapidly from one stage to another. While you can monitor yourself for signs and symptoms, many stages of heat illness can cause mental confusion. A buddy system is the best way to ensure that you and your fellow workers aren’t headed for potential life-threatening circumstances. Periodically check in with each other and look for symptoms and take immediate action if you notice one or more symptoms.
About the Author: TJ Scimone founded Slice, Inc. in 2008. His priority has been design, innovation, and safety in cutting tools such as utility knives. The result is a unique line of tools featuring finger-friendly® blades. Safety is a key aspect of the Slice message and the website features a Workplace Safety Blog.
Thousands of Amazon workers struck on “Prime Day” this week in what was perhaps the largest multinational action to date against the online behemoth. European Amazon employees have been waging coordinated strikes against the company since 2013, but this time they were joined by U.S. counterparts at a Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center, where workers staged a first-of-its-kind six-hour work stoppage. To date, Amazon has successfully fended off all attempts at unionization in the United States since the company’s founding in 1994.
Meanwhile, at another U.S. Amazon facility in Chicago, a new organizing effort is underway. Early Tuesday morning, a group of 30 workers at the company’s DCH1 delivery station on the city’s South Side staged a “walk-in” to the facility’s management during a 2:30 a.m. break on the overnight shift.
The group delivered a list of demands to site management that included a pay bump, health insurance and functioning air conditioning in the facility, where workers say they are laboring in sweltering heat.
The DCH1 delivery station is the last place that Amazon parcels arrive before reaching the doorsteps of Chicago-area customers. Workers scan and sort at a grueling pace inside a building with a metal roof and walls, and towers of packages often block ventilation from overhead fans. The workforce includes seniors and people with medical conditions such as diabetes, and dehydration and heat stroke are frequent problems, according to four employees at the facility who spoke to In These Times on condition of anonymity.
Last month, when a small fire broke out in the facility, managers told workers not to leave their stations, according to one of the employees. No one was injured, but the incident stoked anger.
DCH1 Amazonians United, which has launched a public Facebook page, says workers decided to take action on Prime Day in part after hearing about Minnesota workers’ plans to strike. At present, the workers are not affiliated with any union or community organization.
They’re also building off a successful action this spring, when about 140 employees—roughly a quarter of the workforce—signed a petition demanding adequate access to drinking water at the facility. Managers had stopped providing workers with water bottles, and five-gallon water jugs weren’t being replaced throughout the day, says Terry Miller (a pseudonym), who has worked at the facility for four and a half months.
During his second week on the job, he remembers, a coworker passed out from dehydration.
But as soon as workers delivered the petition in May, a manager went out and bought water bottles, says Miller. Shortly after that, water stations were installed.
“Ever since then, people saw that if we move, if we demand our rights, we can win,” says Fred Brown (a pseudonym), another Amazon employee who began working at the facility in 2017.
After circulating a survey to determine which issues fellow employees cared most about, workers decided to stage another action for Amazon’s highly publicized July Prime day. Apparently short-handed during this peak week, the facility has been offering employees a pay bump to come in an hour before their regular shift is scheduled to start—they receive $18, rather than the usual $15, but only for the extra hour.
DCH1 Amazonians United is demanding “prime pay for Prime days,” or $18 an hour throughout “blackout periods” when workers aren’t permitted to schedule time off and are handling a high volume of packages as a result of the company’s promotions.
Employees received a pay bump as part of a much-touted decision by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to raise the starting wage to $15 an hour. The announcement came after years of criticism from labor, as well the “Stop Bezos Act” introduced by Bernie Sanders that would have penalized large employers that pay low wages.
But employees at the DCH1 facility typically have their hours capped at 28 a week, and many still struggle to pay their bills, says J.R. (a pseudonym). After working a homecare job during the week, on the weekends he pulls three overnight shifts at the Amazon facility and then reports for a childcare job with just a few hours of sleep in between.
“Jeff Bezos’ net worth is about $160 billion,” he says. “Thank you for the $15, but you can’t expect us to stay there forever. The way I see it, $15 is the new minimum wage.”
In a statement e-mailed to In These Times, an Amazon spokesperson said that the company is “proud to offer great employment opportunities with excellent pay, benefits, and a safe workplace for our people.”
The spokesperson did not respond to In These Times’ questions about the facility.
Employees who spoke with In These Times say that in addition to low pay, workers are dissatisfied with the lack of health benefits. According to the workers, they receive some vision and dental benefits, but in lieu of health insurance they are encouraged to call a health hotline number.
In the past year, Amazon has more than doubled the rate at which workers are expected to scan packages at the facility, say the employees, who also complain of seemingly arbitrary write-ups and firings. One of the workers says he was written up after a manager accused him of scanning a package incorrectly two months after the fact.
An investigation by the Verge this spring revealed that Amazon automatically tracks its employees’ productivity and may fire as much as 10 percent of its workforce annually for failing to meet internal targets.
After presenting their list of demands on Tuesday, the DCH1 workers say they were promised a meeting with the site manager that has yet to occur. They are circulating a public petition to demand the meeting.
In the meantime, Brown says that news of Tuesday’s action is reaching more coworkers. “You can feel the shift in power,” he says.
Amazon opened the DCH1 facility in Chicago in 2015. “I always say, they came to the wrong city,” says J.R. “Chicago is known for unions, so you can only get away with it for so long.”
This article was originally published at In These Times on July 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.
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