J-1 Visa Recipients Stuck in US during Pandemic Are Demanding Their Rights

From today’s The Nation Magazine Online:

By mid-March, Mars was starting to worry. The 27-year-old was living and working in Little Rock, Ark., where the mayor had just imposed a midnight curfew. Restaurants and shopping malls were beginning to be shuttered. On March 20, Arkansas recorded the state’s biggest one-day spike in Covid-19 cases since the outbreak began.

Mars is from the Philippines, and he came to the United States last year on a visa called the J-1. Technically, his J-1 visa is meant for “trainees”; by March, he was eight months into a year-long work placement at a well-known hotel chain where he was supposed to be receiving management training. (He and the other workers interviewed for this story asked The Nation not to publish their last names or the names of their workplaces for fear of retaliation.) To get that position, which paid $11 an hour, Mars had to pay $10,000—plus a $7,000 bond—to a recruiting agency in the Philippines, which then arranged the placement through the State Department’s J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program. He arrived in Little Rock in debt. 

Mars had been keeping tabs on the hotel’s occupancy rate, noting the rising number of cancellations. When he raised concerns to the HR department on March 19, they assured him that the hotel staff would weather the crisis as a team. Three days later, HR handed him a termination letter.

I didn’t know what to do,” Mars told me“I felt betrayed.”

Mars became one of thousands of J-1 visa program participants—many of them from the Philippines—who have been effectively stranded in the United States after losing their positions because of Covid-19. They may be unable or unwilling to return home. Many paid thousands of dollars in fees to get here, and some worked only a few days or weeks before being laid off. The stakes are especially high for Filipino recipients; remittances sent home by overseas Filipinos keep an estimated 10 million Filipino families afloat. J-1 workers also face a hurdle that other overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs, do not: Neither the US nor the Philippine government considers them workers.

The J-1 is officially a cultural exchange visa, admitting 300,000 people into the United States each year. Despite little employer accountability and no Labor Department oversight, J-1 visa recipients have increasingly been used to fill US employers’ labor needs in hospitality, teaching, and other fields.  The Philippine government, similarly to the US State Department, classifies J-1 participants as study abroad students, rather than overseas workers. Yet US government oversight agencies, labor advocacy nonprofits, and grassroots organizations argue that the visa program functions as an unregulated pipeline for temporary migrant labor and props up US industries like hospitality and tourism. At its worst, the program creates the conditions for human trafficking.  

Read the complete article here.

How to tell kids the REAL story behind the Thanksgiving Holiday

From Today Online:

Most people hear the story of Thanksgiving from a young age and it’s pretty simple. A group of Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution, sail to North American and settle on Plymouth Rock. After a hard winter, they celebrate a successful harvest with their new neighbors, Native Americans. Everybody’s grateful; the end.

Visit project562.com for amazing photos of America’s First Nations and Indigenous Peoples.

But that’s only half the story. The Wampanoag tribe, the Indigenous people who lived at Plymouth Rock, experienced this moment very differently. Are your kids ready to hear the real history? The answer is probably yes.

“Parents can start by telling their kids the truth and offering their children the more complex narrative. Kids are smart and capable of understanding,” Matika Wilbur of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes told TODAY Parents. She co-hosts the podcast All My Relations, which recently aired an episode called “Thanksgiving or Thankstaking?” that aims to understand the Wampanoag perspective.

“Thanksgiving is rooted in a historical fallacy,” Wilbur said, and the story is tied to the idea of white supremacy. “The main Pilgrim narrative coincides with colonization that was inherently oppressive and brutal.”

Parents might balk at introducing the “real history” to their children because they think their children can’t handle it. But that’s not giving them enough credit, Wilbur said.

The back story of Thanksgiving

Wilbur — who traveled to over 400 Tribal Nations for her documentary Project 562 — and her co-host Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who is an assistant professor of American Studies and Ethic Studies at Brown University, spoke with Paula Peters and Linda Coombs, Wampanoag historical scholars, for the episode.

Peters said sharing the Wampanoag perspective is essential but can be tough for parents.

“It’s difficult because we have to talk about some raw topics in order to get a fuller, clearer understanding,” Peters, a citizen of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and a researcher and journalist, told TODAY Parents. “Quite honestly, cherry picking that moment when the Wampanoag and Puritans happen to break bread as the ‘Kumbaya’ moment really does not do it any justice. The Wampanoag have been marginalized and forgotten and the back story is so incredibly critical for what ultimately happens.”

Read the complete article here.

Supreme Court ruling allows plan for religious limits to Obamacare contraceptive coverage

From today’s NBC News Online:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for the Trump administration to give the nation’s employers more leeway in refusing to provide free birth control for their workers under the Affordable Care Act.

The ruling is a victory for the administration’s plan to greatly expand the kinds of employers who can cite religious or moral objections in declining to include contraceptives in their health care plans. Up to 126,000 women nationwide would lose birth control coverage under President Donald Trump’s plan, the government estimated. Planned Parenthood said nearly nine in 10 women seek contraceptive care of some kind during their lifetimes.

The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, gives the government authority to create the religious and moral objections, said Justice Clarence Thomas for the court’s 7-2 majority. The Department of Health and Human Services “has virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings,” and that same authority “leaves its discretion equally unchecked in other areas, including the ability to identify and create exemptions from its own guidelines,” he said.

In dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said the court in the past has struck a balance in religious freedom cases, so that the beliefs of some do not overwhelm the rights of others.

“Today for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree” and “leaves women workers to fend for themselves” in seeking contraceptive services, they said.

Women’s groups condemned the ruling. The National Women’s Law Center said more than 61 million women get birth control coverage through Obamacare.

“The Supreme Court’s decision will leave their ability to receive this critical coverage at the whim of their employers and universities,” the group said. “This decision will disproportionately harm low-wage workers, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who already face barriers to care.”

Read the complete article here.

Employer-Based Health Care, Meet Massive Unemployment from Pandemic

From today’s New York Times:

In the early months of 2020, Americans were engaged in the perennial election-year debate over how best to reform the nation’s health care system. As usual, the electorate was torn and confused. Polling indicated that a small majority of likely voters favored a new universal system that would cover everyone. But that support evaporated when it was made clear that any such overhaul would involve abolishing the private insurance market. At the time, nearly 160 million Americans received their health benefits through an employer, and the vast majority of them liked that coverage just fine — maybe not enough to sing about it, but enough to be wary of a potential replacement.

Then came the pandemic of the century. And the highest level of unemployment since the Great Recession. And the most concentrated wave of job loss in the nation’s history — more than 40 million Americans filed new unemployment claims between mid-March and late May. It will take time to ascertain the full impact of those losses on the nation’s health insurance rate, but an early survey from the Commonwealth Fund is not encouraging: 41 percent of those who lost a job (or whose spouse lost a job) because of the pandemic relied on that job for health insurance; 20 percent of those people have not managed to secure alternative coverage.

Nothing illuminates the problems with an employer-based health care system quite like massive unemployment in the middle of a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease outbreak. For one thing, uninsured people are less likely to seek medical care, making this coronavirus that much more difficult to contain. Also, people with chronic or immune-compromising medical conditions are particularly susceptible to this new contagion — which means the people most in need of employer-sponsored health benefits are the same ones who can least afford to return to work at the moment.

“The pandemic has amplified all the vulnerabilities in our health care system,” says Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, including “the uninsured, racial disparities, the crisis of unmanaged chronic conditions and the general lack of national planning.”

As dire as the crisis is, though, it’s also an opportunity to look at health care reform with fresh eyes — and to maybe, finally, rebuild the nation’s health care system in a way that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy and the well employed.

The first step will be acknowledging the problems of our current system. If American health care were its own country, it would be the fourth largest in the world by gross domestic product. The nation spends an average of $3.5 trillion per year on health care — more than Japan, Germany, France, China, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia combined — and still loses more people to preventable and treatable medical conditions than any of those countries do.

In other words, America has created the most expensive, least effective health care system in the modern world, and the most vulnerable Americans have been paying for that failure with their lives since long before the coronavirus came to town.

Read the complete article here.

In landmark case, Supreme Court rules federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ workers from job discrimination

From today’s NBC News:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that existing federal law forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status, a major victory for advocates of gay rights and for the nascent transgender rights movement — and a surprising one from an increasingly conservative court.

By a vote of 6-3, the court said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate because of a person’s sex, among other factors, also covers sexual orientation and transgender status. It upheld rulings from lower courts that said sexual orientation discrimination was a form of sex discrimination.

Equally surprising was that the decision was written by President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four more liberal members to form a majority.

“An employer who fired an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

“Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result,” he wrote, adding, “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

Across the nation, 21 states have their own laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Seven more provide that protection only to public employees. Those laws remain in force, but Monday’s ruling means federal law now provides similar protection for LGBTQ employees in the rest of the country.

Gay and transgender rights groups considered the case a highly significant one, even more important than the fight to get the right to marry, because nearly every LGBTQ adult has or needs a job. They conceded that sexual orientation was not on the minds of anyone in Congress when the civil rights law was passed. But they said when an employer fires a male employee for dating men, but not a female employee who dates men, that violates the law.

Read the complete article here.

LeBron James to Push Voting Rights in Historically Significant Athlete-Led Political Campaign

From today’s Forbes Magazine:

It is fair to say LeBron James is launching one of the most important athlete political campaign in history. As Georgia’s primary elections this week turned into a voting meltdown, it’s become even more apparent one of the biggest unknowns heading into Election Day is if U.S. citizens will actually be able to vote. Those who are unable to vote cannot enact change at the ballot box, destroying our democracy.

Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020

James is forming a voting rights organization along with several other prominent Black athletes and entertainers. The group, called More Than a Vote, will go beyond traditional get-out-the-vote campaigns. It will combat voter suppression, with James using his gigantic presence on social media to shed light on attempts to restrict voting access for minorities.

“Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us — we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door,” James told the New York Timesin an interview. “How long is up to us. We don’t know. But we feel like we’re getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference.”

James and his longtime business partner, Maverick Carter, are putting up the initial funding for the group. Multiple former and current pro basketball players, including Trae Young, Draymond Green, Jalen Rose and WNBA guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. Comedian Kevin Hart and Saints running back Alvin Kamara have reportedly committed to the group as well.

With a nation outraged over the killing of George Floyd and police violence against Black people, athletes are filling the leadership void. They are also being rewarded for their activism, with Converse signing Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud to a lucrative endorsement contract because of her outspokenness. Cloud, who is openly gay, published a poignant essay about white complicity in systemic racism, titled “Your Silence is a Knee on My Neck.”

A Hidden COVID-19 Risk Factor: Your Employer Policy on Paid Sick Leave

From today’s Atlantic Magazine:

When the coronavirus first hit the United States, some politicians referred to it as the “great equalizer” because it supposedly didn’t discriminate. But very soon, that proved not to be true. People of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, for example, and low-paid essential workers have little choice but to show up for work and expose themselves. And if employees do get sick, whether they receive sufficient paid time off to recover is another pandemic disparity. Although many workers have found that their bosses are understanding about time off, others have struggled to get paid leave to heal or to care for their children.

In March, I wrote about a Walmart employee in Washington State who was fired because he had used up all his attendance “points” recovering from what he believed was COVID-19, a situation Walmart declined to comment on. In April, a grocery-store employee in Indiana claimed she was fired for staying at home with a potential case of COVID-19. (She sued, and the case was settled.) A 58-year-old nursing-home worker in St. Louis kept coming to work long after she developed symptoms of COVID-19, because she was told she wouldn’t be paid otherwise, her family told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She died a few weeks ago.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, making it easier for many American workers to receive paid leave if they get COVID-19, or if they have to care for children who are out of school. For the remainder of the year, employees are eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave if they are quarantined or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and 12 weeks of leave paid at two-thirds of their salary if they are caring for a child whose school or child-care provider is closed.

But the law excludes all sorts of employees. Large companies aren’t included in the law, and small companies can claim an exemption. Employers can supplement what’s required under the law with more expansive leave policies, but some companies are already ending the more generous leave policies that they put in place immediately after the coronavirus outbreak.

Our pandemic approach to sick leave is a continuation of America’s jumbled leave laws, in which your time off largely depends on your employer, not your needs. Because of this patchwork system, Americans are some of the only workers in the Western world who risk getting fired if they don’t drag their sick selves into work. Before the pandemic, a quarter of private-sector workers didn’t have a single paid sick day.

The inconsistent way that America does sick leave will become an even bigger problem as more states open up and companies ask their employees to return to the office. In the coming months, employers will wield remarkable power in determining whether their employees will be at risk of catching COVID-19, and whether they can keep their jobs if they do. As unemployment remains high and companies have more workers to choose from, more people may find themselves losing their jobs if they get sick.

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 .