Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

From The Guardian Online:

Wildcat strikes, walkouts and protests over working conditions have erupted across the US throughout the coronavirus pandemic as “essential” workers have demanded better pay and safer working conditions. Labor leaders are hoping the protests can lead to permanent change.

Food delivery workers have become essential in New York after the city closed restaurants and bars to the public on 16 March.

Norma Kennedy, an employee at an American Apparel clothing plant is one of those people. Kennedy along with dozens of other workers walked off her job in Selma, Alabama, on 23 April after two workers tested positive for coronavirus. The plant has remained open during the pandemic to manufacture face masks for a US army contract.

“We left for our own protection,” said Kennedy. “Beforehand, management said if someone tested positive they would shut down and have the plant cleaned. When workers tested positive, they didn’t want to shut it down. They’re not really concerned about the workers.”

Working conditions, low pay and lack of safety protections have triggered protests throughout the pandemic as workers across various industries, including food service, meat processingretail, manufacturing, transportation and healthcare have come together to protest about issues, many of which were apparent before the coronavirus.

“There are no federal mandates or requirements to implement the social distancing guidance or anything else. It’s only guidance and employers can choose to implement them or not,” said Deborah Berkowitz, director of worker safety and health for the National Employment Law Project. “And that is why, in an unprecedented way, they are walking out to bring public attention to the fact that their companies are not protecting their safety and health.”

Read the complete article here.

Congress calls essential workers ‘heroes,’ hasn’t passed hazard pay raise

From today’s CNBC News:

Anyone listening to congressional leaders speak during the coronavirus outbreak has heard a lot about the “heroes” sustaining the rest of the country. 

A view outside Bellevue hospital during the coronavirus pandemic on May 1, 2020 in New York City.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday lionized “American heroes” in the health-care industry whom he said should have stronger protections from lawsuits. About a month earlier, Senate Democrats proposed a “Heroes Fund” to give a $13 an hour hazard pay raise to workers — from doctors and nurses to grocery and transit employees — who face a heightened risk of contracting Covid-19, the deadly disease caused by the coronavirus

House Democrats, who hold the majority in the chamber, also used the term “heroes” on Tuesday, calling their next $3 trillion relief bill the “HEROES Act.” The proposal, which could pass in the Democratic-controlled House but has little chance of getting through the GOP-held Senate and becoming law, includes a $200 billion “Heroes Fund” to offer front-line employees a raise.

Two months into the pandemic, only some businesses and cities have given the people still required to go into work a raise. While lawmakers have put forward several hazard pay plans, none of them made the cut in the four bills Congress has passed to try to mitigate the coronavirus’s devastation. 

As workers deemed essential “heroes” during the pandemic push for better compensation, no legislation with a real chance of becoming law has yet included better pay for them. As Republicans pump the brakes on another major federal spending bill, passage of a widespread wage hike for front-line workers appears unlikely in the coming weeks.  

“They’re putting their lives on the line, they’re essential employees. They should be compensated for that. This is above and beyond the normal call of duty,” said Bob Gibson, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1199 in Florida, a state where the union represents more than 25,000 health-care employees. 

Read the complete article here.

California Sues Uber and Lyft, Claiming Workers Are Misclassified

From today’s New York Times:

California’s attorney general and a coalition of city attorneys in the state sued Uber and Lyft on Tuesday, claiming the companies wrongfully classified their drivers as independent contractors in violation of a state law that makes them employees.

The law, known as Assembly Bill 5, requires companies to treat their workers as employees instead of contractors if they control how workers perform tasks or if the work is a routine part of a company’s business.

At least one million gig workers in the state are affected by the law, which is supposed to give them a path to benefits like a minimum wage and unemployment insurance that have been traditionally withheld from independent contractors.

Although A.B. 5 took effect on Jan. 1, Uber, Lyft and other gig economy companies that operate in California have resisted and are not taking steps to reclassify their drivers. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have poured $90 million into a campaign for a ballot initiative that would exempt them from complying with the law. Uber has also argued that its core business is technology, not rides, and therefore drivers are not a key part of its business.

The lawsuit also claims the ride-hailing companies are engaging in an unfair business practice that harms other California companies that follow the law. By avoiding payroll taxes and not paying minimum wage, Uber and Lyft are able to provide rides at “an artificially low cost,” the suit claims, giving them a competitive advantage over other businesses. The suit seeks civil penalties and back wages for workers that could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“California has ground rules with rights and protections for workers and their employers. We intend to make sure that Uber or Lyft play by the rules,” Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, said in a statement. The city attorneys of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego joined in the lawsuit.

California’s move is a significant threat to the gig companies and could influence other states with similar laws to take action against them, labor experts said.

Read the complete article here.

Trump Halts New Green Cards, but Backs Off Ban for Migrant Workers

From today’s New York Times:

After pledging on Twitter to end immigration during the pandemic, President Trump moved to block new green cards but stopped short of ending all work visas.

President Trump said on Tuesday that he would order a temporary halt in issuing green cards to prevent people from immigrating to the United States, but he backed away from plans to suspend guest worker programs after business groups exploded in anger at the threat of losing access to foreign labor.

Mr. Trump, whose administration has faced intense criticism in recent months for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, abruptly sought to change the subject Tuesday night by resuming his assault on immigration, which animated his 2016 campaign and became one of the defining issues of his presidency.

He cast his decision to “suspend immigration,” which he first announced on Twitter Monday night, as a move to protect American jobs. But it comes as the United States economy sheds its work force at a record rate and when few employers are reaching out for workers at home or abroad. More than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the economic devastation caused by the virus and efforts to contain it.

Mr. Trump said that his order would initially be in effect for 60 days, but that he might extend it “based on economic conditions at the time.”

While numerous studies have concluded that immigration has an overall positive effect on the American work force and wages for workers, Mr. Trump ignored that research on Tuesday, insisting that American citizens who had lost their jobs in recent weeks should not have to compete with foreigners when the economy reopens.

Read the complete article here.

Could the Pandemic Wind Up Fixing What’s Broken About Work in America?

From today’s New York Times:

Crises like pandemics, economic collapses and world wars have, at times throughout history, ended up reordering societies — shrinking the gap between the rich and the poor, or empowering the working class. The Black Death helped end feudalism. The Great Depression helped lead to the New Deal. Never has extreme economic inequality shrunk in a meaningful way, says the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, without a major crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic, as of now, is not on the order of the plague, but it’s hitting the United States during a period of agitation about worsening inequality and waning power for workers. Already, it has made stark how precarious life is for many American workers, causing some to revolt. How employers and policymakers respond could improve work in the United States for the long term — or make the existing problems worse.

“Pandemics as a social shock do give workers more leverage to demand things,” said Patrick Wyman, a historian and host of the Tides of History podcast. “Crises like these reveal what is already broken or in the process of breaking.”

“They are attacks on a particular socioeconomic way of organizing your society,” he said. “The question is whether your institutions can make collective things happen.”

The United States is distinctive among rich countries in its lack of worker protections like nationwide paid sick leave, paid family leave and universal health insurance, and in its minimal labor union membership. For both high and low earners, many employers expect workers to be on call around the clock. Companies are typically beholden to shareholders first, above employees, customers and communities.

But the coronavirus pandemic has shown the flaw in that logic: Worker well-being is the foundation for everything else.

Read the complete article .

Amazon, Instacart Workers Demand Coronavirus Protection And Pay

From NPR News Online:

Some Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, N.Y., and Instacart’s grocery delivery workers nationwide walked off their jobs on Monday. They are demanding stepped-up protection and pay as they continue to work while much of the country is asked to isolate as a safeguard against the coronavirus.

The protests come as both Amazon and Instacart have said they plan to hire tens of thousands of new workers. Online shopping and grocery home delivery are skyrocketing as much of the nation hunkers down and people stay at home, following orders and recommendations from the federal and local governments.

This has put a spotlight on workers who shop, pack and deliver these high-demand supplies. Companies refer to the workers as “heroes,” but workers say their employers aren’t doing enough to keep them safe.

The workers are asking for a variety of changes:

  • Workers from both Amazon and Instacart want more access to paid sick time off. At this time, it’s available only to those who have tested positive for the coronavirus or get placed on mandatory self-quarantine.
  • Amazon workers want their warehouse to be closed for a longer cleaning, with guaranteed pay.
  • Instacart’s grocery delivery gig workers are asking for disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer and better pay to offset the risk they are taking.

Read the complete article here.

Pandemic Erodes Gig Economy Work

From today’s New York Times:

It was just after 11 a.m. last Wednesday when Jaime Maldonado, 51, pulled his rented Nissan into a lot outside San Francisco International Airport. He figured he had a long wait ahead — about two hours — before Lyft would ping him to pick up a passenger.

Occasionally, jets roared overhead — but not many, which meant not enough passengers for Mr. Maldonado, who said that before the coronavirus outbreak, he spent just 20 to 40 minutes waiting outside the airport for customers. To kill time, he got out of his car, looping the mask he recently started wearing around his wrist, and went to talk to other drivers.

As the minutes ticked by, Mr. Maldonado wondered out loud, “What am I going to do to pump gas and feed my kids tomorrow?” His number of rides in a typical week had dropped to around 50 from 100 earlier in the month, he said, and his payout had plunged by half to about $600 a week, from which Lyft would subtract the rental fee for his car.

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the fragile situations of gig economy workers — the Uber and Lyft drivers, food-delivery couriers and TaskRabbit furniture builders who are behind the convenience-as-a-service apps that are now part of everyday life. Classified as freelancers and not full-time employees, these workers have few protections like guaranteed wages, sick pay and health care, which are benefits that are critical in a crisis.

While gig economy companies like Uber and DoorDash have promoted themselves as providing flexible work that can be lifelines to workers during economic downturns, interviews with 20 ride-hailing drivers and food delivery couriers in Europe and the United States over the past week showed that the services have been anything but that.

Instead, as the fallout from the coronavirus spreads, gig workers’ earnings have plummeted and many have become disgruntled about their lack of health care. Many others are also feeling economic pain from the outbreak — layoffs have hit workers in retailing, airlines, hotels, restaurants and gyms — but even as public health agencies have recommended social isolation to insulate people from the virus, gig workers must continue interacting with others to pay their bills.

Read the complete article here.

The Bleak Job Landscape of Adjunctopia for Ph.D.s

From today’s New York Times:

The humanities labor market is in crisis. Higher education industry trade publications are full of essays by young Ph.D.s who despair of ever finding a steady job. Phrases like “unfolding catastrophe” and “extinction event” are common. The number of new jobs for English professors has fallen every year since 2012, by a total of 33 percent.

In response to these trends and a longer-term decline in academic job security, the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made a proposal. In exchange for federal funding to reduce public college and university tuition to zero, he said, at least 75 percent of college courses would have to be taught by tenured or tenure-track professors. Currently, that proportion is less than 40 percent and dropping.

How this happened is a story of a rupture in the way the academy produces and consumes people with scholarly credentials. In 1995, roughly 940,000 people were employed teaching college. Of those, about 400,000 had tenure or were on track to get it. They enjoyed professional status, strong job security, relatively good pay (on average), and the freedom to speak their minds.

The rest were so-called contingent or adjunct faculty: some employed full time, others filling in a course or two per semester. They had lower pay, less status and tenuous job security, particularlyif they spoke their minds. There were also thousands of graduate students, not counted in the numbers above, teaching as part of their training. (The University of California, Santa Cruz, which is known to be progressive even by the standards of academia, recently fired 54 graduate assistants who were striking for higher pay.) The percentage of professors on the tenure track had been slowly declining since the 1970s. In the late 1990s came a demographic event that would ultimately throw the university labor market into a tailspin: the first college years of the so-called millennials, those born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.

Colleges swelled with students over the next decade and a half, with undergraduate enrollment increasing from 12.2 million in 1995 to a peak of 18.1 million in 2011. Colleges needed to hire hundreds of thousands of additional professors. Administrators had options. They could have kept the ratio of tenured to nontenured about the same, using new tuition revenue to create more tenure-track positions.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the number of contingent faculty more than doubled, to 1.1 million. The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty, by contrast, increased by only 9.6 percent, to 436,000.

Read the complete article here.

In major ruling, San Diego judge says Instacart will flunk AB 5 contractor test

From today’s San Diego Union-Tribune:

A San Diego Superior Court judge has ruled that Instacart is likely misclassifying some of its workers as contractors — when the law requires they be classified as employees — marking a notable step toward enforcement of the controversial new state law known as AB 5.

But the ruling came with a healthy dose of skepticism from the judge over the “wisdom” of the law itself.

Judge Timothy Taylor issued an injunction Feb. 18 against Instacart in San Diego Superior Court, essentially warning the San Francisco company that it’s failing to comply with the state’s labor laws. Instacart disagrees with the ruling, and plans to file an appeal, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Instacart, which operates nationally and has a presence in San Diego, is an app that allows customers to place grocery orders online, which are then purchased and delivered by gig workers called “shoppers.” The labor law case, filed by San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott in September, takes issue with how the grocery delivery company classifies its shoppers.

The suit alleges that Instacart shoppers do not qualify as independent contractors under a 2018 California Supreme Court decision (Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court). It’s the Dynamex case that spurred Assembly Bill 5 to move its way through the state legislature last year, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

According to Judge Taylor, the law makes it clear that Instacart is in violation, calling California state policy “unapologetically pro-employee.”

“While there is room for debate on the wisdom of this policy, and while other states have chosen another course, it is noteworthy that all three branches of California have now spoken on this issue,” Taylor wrote in a court filing dated Feb. 18. “The Supreme Court announced Dynamex two years ago. The decision gave rise to a long debate in the legal press and in the Legislature. The Legislature passed AB 5 last fall. The Governor signed it. To put it in the vernacular, the handwriting is on the wall.”

Read the complete article here.

Kickstarter Employees Vote to Unionize in a Big Step for Tech Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Employees at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted on Tuesday to unionize, the first well-known technology company to take the step toward being represented by organized labor.

The decision, which was formalized by a vote count at the National Labor Relations Board, came down to a narrow margin, with 46 employees voting in favor of the move and 37 opposing it. The debate over a union — and whether such representation was appropriate for highly paid tech workers — had been a source of tension at the company for many months.

“I’m overjoyed by this result,” said Dannel Jurado, a Kickstarter senior software engineer who voted for a union. “There’s a long road ahead of us, but it’s a first step to the sustainable future in tech that I and so many others want to see.”

The pro-union vote is significant for the technology industry, where workers have become increasingly activist in recent years over issues as varied as sexual harassment and climate change. Behemoth companies such as Google and Amazon have struggled to get a handle on their employees, who have staged walkouts and demanded that their companies not work with government entities and others.

But large-scale unionization efforts have faltered. Only a group of contractors at a Google office in Pittsburgh unionized last year, and a small group of Instacart workers managed to do so this month. In the past, most unionization drives have been associated with blue-collar workers and lower-paid white-collar workers rather than white-collar tech workers, who are often paid upward of $150,000 a year.

Veena Dubal, an associate professor of employment law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, called the Kickstarter vote “a hugely important step” that “signals to workers across the tech industry that it is both desirable and possible to build collective structures to influence wages, working conditions and even business decisions.”

Read the complete article here.