CA’s unemployment fraud may top $9 billion, doubling estimate, expert warns

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

As an army of investigators tries to pin down the scope of unemployment benefit fraud in California, the head of a security firm working for the state is warning that payments of fraudulent claims could more than double the $4 billion previously estimated, and that a flood of those claims involve overseas crime rings.

At least 10% of unemployment claims may have been fraudulent before controls were installed in October, according to Blake Hall, founder and chief executive of the company ID.me., which has been hired by the state Employment Development Department to weed out fraud. A 10% fraud rate could total $9.8 billion of the benefits paid from March through September.

Much of the fraud in California and other states is coming from organized criminal gangs operating in some 20 foreign countries, including Russia, China, Nigeria, Ghana, Turkey and Bulgaria, Hall said.

“When the Russians and the Nigerians and the Chinese are the players on the field, they are going to put up some points,” Hall told The Times. “This is a very sophisticated cyberattack that’s being run at scale.”

Hall’s firm was hired by the EDD to begin checking unemployment claims in October, and since then 30% of the claims it screened turned out to be fraudulent. Between Oct. 1 and Jan. 11, Hall said his firm blocked 463,724 fraudulent claims, which he said would represent more than $9 billion if the EDD had paid $20,000 on each claim.

The EDD has so far paid out $113 billion in unemployment benefits during the 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, including $43 billion as part of an expedited — and less secure — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed.

State officials were recently warned by Bank of America, which is under contract with the EDD to issue debit cards to distribute benefits, that there is evidence that fraud could total more than $4 billion in California. A task force of county, state and federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors is continuing an investigation to identify all of the fraud, which has also involved claims in the names of prison inmates.

Read the complete article here.

OnlyFans: Jobless from the Pandemic, Selling Nudes Online and Still Struggling

From today’s New York Tiimes:

Savannah Benavidez stopped working at her job as a medical biller in June to take care of her 2-year-old son after his day care shut down. Needing a way to pay her bills, she created an account on OnlyFans — a social media platform where users sell original content to monthly subscribers — and started posting photos of herself nude or in lingerie.

Ms. Benavidez, 23, has made $64,000 since July, enough not just to take care of her own bills, but to help family and friends with rent and car payments.

“It’s more money than I have ever made in any job,” she said. “I have more money than I know what to do with.”

Lexi Eixenberger was hoping for a similar windfall when she started an OnlyFans account in November. A restaurant worker in Billings, Mont., Ms. Eixenberger, 22, has been laid off three times during the pandemic and was so in need of cash by October that she had to drop out of dental hygiene school. After donating plasma and doing odd jobs, she still didn’t have enough to pay her bills, so at the suggestion of some friends, she turned to OnlyFans. She has made only about $500 so far.

OnlyFans, founded in 2016 and based in Britain, has boomed in popularity during the pandemic. As of December, it had more than 90 million users and more than one million content creators, up from 120,000 in 2019. The company declined to comment for this article.

With millions of Americans unemployed, some like Ms. Benavidez and Ms. Eixenberger are turning to OnlyFans in an attempt to provide for themselves and their families. The pandemic has taken a particularly devastating toll on women and mothers, wiping out parts of the economy where women dominate: retail businesses, restaurants and health care.

“A lot of people are migrating to OnlyFans out of desperation,” said Angela Jones, an associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Farmingdale. “These are people who are worried about eating, they’re worried about keeping the lights on, they’re worried about not being evicted.”

But for every person like Ms. Benavidez, who is able to use OnlyFans as her primary source of income, there are dozens more, like Ms. Eixenberger, who hope for a windfall and end up with little more than a few hundred dollars and worries that the photos will hinder their ability to get a job in the future.

Grocery chains nationwide ditching in-house delivery drivers in wake of Prop 22

From today’s Business Insider:

Albertsons and some of its subsidiaries, including Vons and Pavilions, are discontinuing their in-house delivery services in parts of California and other states starting in February. The grocery chains will instead rely more heavily on third-party delivery apps, including DoorDash, to handle grocery deliveries, local news outlet KNOCK reported Monday.

“In early December, Albertsons Companies made the strategic decision to discontinue using our own home delivery fleet of trucks in select locations, including Southern California, beginning February 27, 2021,” Albertsons spokesperson Andrew Whelan told Business Insider.

“We will transition that portion of our eCommerce operations to third-party logistics providers who specialize in that service. Our HR teams are working to place impacted associates in stores, plants, and distribution centers,” Whelan said.

Albertsons didn’t respond to questions about employees losing their jobs. In Texas, the company told the Dallas Morning News that it will also fire nearly 100 employees at Tom Thumb locations.

“With COVID-19 outbreaks spiraling out of control and overwhelming hospitals across California, it is stunning that Albertsons would fire these courageous and hard-working men and women keeping our food supply secure,” Marc Perrone, international president of United Food and Commercial Workers, a major union that represents many Albertsons workers, said in a press release, calling on Albertsons “to immediately halt these plans.”

The move comes weeks after a new California law went into effect that eliminated labor protections for app-based food delivery workers and rideshare drivers, which was authored and bankrolled by gig companies.

As DoorDash, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and Postmates waged a $200 million battle last year to pass the bill, known as Proposition 22, they pointed to “independent” research claiming it would save as many as 900,000 jobs across the state (it turned out the companies had paid a combined $411,599 to the researchers behind the study).

Albertsons’ plans to cut in-house delivery and route new business to delivery companies like DoorDash, however, shows how Prop 22’s passage potentially pushes adjacent industries to consider cheaper labor options.

Read the complete article here.

Hundreds of Google Employees Unionize, Culminating Years of Activism

From today’s New York Times:

More than 400 Google engineers and other workers have formed a union, the group revealed on Monday, capping years of growing activism at one of the world’s largest companies and presenting a rare beachhead for labor organizers in staunchly anti-union Silicon Valley.

We've Had Enough': Google Employees Form Union

The union’s creation is highly unusual for the tech industry, which has long resisted efforts to organize its largely white-collar work force. It follows increasing demands by employees at Google for policy overhauls on pay, harassment and ethics, and is likely to escalate tensions with top leadership.

The new union, called the Alphabet Workers Union after Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was organized in secret for the better part of a year and elected its leadership last month. The group is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents workers in telecommunications and media in the United States and Canada.

But unlike a traditional union, which demands that an employer come to the bargaining table to agree on a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union is a so-called minority union that represents a fraction of the company’s more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors. Workers said it was primarily an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.

Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and the vice chair of the union’s leadership council, said the union was a necessary tool to sustain pressure on management so that workers could force changes on workplace issues.

“Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of ‘Are people getting paid enough?’ Our issues are going much broader,” he said. “It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.”

In response, Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations, said: “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our work force. Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

The new union is the clearest sign of how thoroughly employee activism has swept through Silicon Valley over the past few years. While software engineers and other tech workers largely kept quiet in the past on societal and political issues, employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest and others have become more vocal on matters like diversity, pay discrimination and sexual harassment.

Read the complete article here.

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.

Will rideshare drivers get paid less than minimum wage under Proposition 22

From today’s Sacramento Bee:

Proposition 22 proposes that gig drivers for companies such as Uber, Lyft and Doordash will get paid 120% of the area’s minimum wage for the time they spend picking up and driving goods or passengers, plus 30 cents a mile.

Proponents of the proposition argue under its calculation, the drivers will get paid closer to $25 an hour after expenses, much more than the state’s minimum wage. But the initiative’s opponents cite a much-published study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center, whose researchers said Proposition 22 will guarantee only $5.64 an hour.

Amid an onslaught of advertisements, Proposition 22 still has a fundamental question to answer: How much will the gig drivers get under the initiative. A Sacramento Bee review found that the answer depends on how expenses and time at work are defined. But it is possible that workers would earn less than minimum wage under the measure.

In 2019, Ken Jacobs and Michael Reich at the UC Berkeley Labor Center published a report saying the gig drivers using Uber or Lyft will only be guaranteed a pay of $5.64 an hour under Proposition 22. They still stand by the number.

Under Proposition 22, drivers could get a pay cut from what they are paid now, Jacobs said. “The guarantee they claim to have,” he said of the gig companies. “is a false guarantee.”

Under Proposition 22, drivers will not be paid for the time they are waiting to give a ride, nor the time they spend preparing and cleaning their cars. That time accounts for some 33% of the drivers’ working time, Jacobs said, citing a 2019 study that looked at Lyft and Uber rides in six metropolitan areas across the country, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. “It’s impossible to do the work without having the time waiting for work,” Jacobs said.

Another report, “Rigging the Gig,” by the National Employment Law Project and the Partnership for Working Families found that drivers working 50 hours a week will be paid $175 to $210 less a week under Proposition 22 compared to the current minimum wage.

Read the complete article here.

I got COVID-19 working at Ralphs. We need a voice in workplace safety

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

After spending seven weeks isolated in my bedroom sick with COVID-19, I stood in front of the Ralphs grocery store where I work, bracing to return. It took me about five minutes to make the decision to cross the threshold and go back to work. I wasn’t sure I could do it.

For 20 years I have been a Ralphs employee, working at different stores throughout Los Angeles. I work the night shift, cleaning, stocking and preparing the store for the next day. I believe I caught COVID-19 at work.

In the days before I got sick, the store was exceptionally crowded. I remember it clearly because it was packed as customers stocked up for the Jewish holiday the next day. My husband is Jewish and we observe all the holidays. That day I started to feel sick. I went home early and slept all day until my youngest daughter woke me at 7 p.m., nine hours after I usually wake up after a night of work. I couldn’t breathe. I was hot. My husband rushed me to the ER. I took a coronavirus test. It was positive…

In Los Angeles, masks have been required since April. But it’s not just the policies that matter. Kroger, which owns both Ralphs and Food 4 Less, has policies to encourage distancing and limit the number of customers in the store. But these policies are unevenly enforced. I have seen carts that are not always sanitized. I have seen check stands go uncleaned. The stores are often crowded. Customers wear masks as “chin straps” all the time.

If customers aren’t wearing masks, managers are supposed to approach them. But managers aren’t always there late at night, leaving workers like me sometimes vulnerable. When a Ralphs coworker and friend, who is a manager, asked two male customers to wear masks, one attacked her with a shopping cart and drew blood. After she defended herself, Kroger suspended her.

More than 1,175 members of my union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Four have died. Just last week two more workers at my store got infected. From where I stand, Kroger, the largest grocery store chain in the U.S., needs to do more to enforce safety measures.

Read the complete article here.

It’s Time to Strike! This Could Be the Last Stand for American Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Labor Day hit with an extra knife-twist of cruel irony this year, in an America that is barely trying to pretend anymore that the plight of tens of millions of working people merits national concern.

On Friday, the government announced a slowing recovery from the job losses and economic shutdown caused by the pandemic. Nearly 14 million Americans are now unemployed, and almost eight million more are euphemistically called “involuntary part-time,” meaning they would work more if there were enough work.

In March, as part of a wider stimulus, Congress expanded unemployment aid by $600 per week, a plan that scholars say may have temporarily reduced the nation’s poverty rate. As of mid-August, about 29 million Americans were receiving some form of unemployment assistance.

But the $600-per-week bonus ran out in July, and Senate Republicans have rejected Democrats’ bill to extend the payments. The G.O.P. is now working on its own more limited plan, though several Republican senators are reluctant to support even that.

Inaction may prove disastrous. Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist for S & P Global, told The Times last week that federal aid was meant as a kind of economic bridge through uncertain times, but, she added, “it looks like the ravine has widened and the bridge is halfway built, so there are a lot of people stranded.”

Bovino’s image suggests a way out of this mess: Workers should band together and demand, collectively, a bridge across the ravine.

To put it more plainly: It’s time for a general strike. Actually, it’s time for a sustained series of strikes, a new movement in which workers across class and even political divides press not just for more unemployment aid but, more substantively, a renewed contract for working in an economy that is increasingly hostile to employees’ health and well-being.

This may be the American worker’s last stand: If we can’t get our government to help us now, when will we ever?

Read the complete article here.

When Your Employer Doesn’t Respect Your Family Commitments

From today’s Harvard Business Review:

When trying to balance your work and family commitments, it helps to have a boss who is understanding and supportive: someone who doesn’t raise an eyebrow when you sign off early to attend a school event or take a personal day to accompany an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment.

But what if your manager isn’t sympathetic to your familial responsibilities? Or worse, your boss is outright dismissive or is even hostile toward your obligations? This is particularly challenging during the pandemic when many people’s work and home lives have collided. How should you handle a boss who refuses to acknowledge the other demands on your time? How can you find room for flexibility? What should you say about your family commitments? And who should you turn to for moral and professional support?

Too many working parents and other employees with extensive caregiving responsibilities have stories of a manager who gives them an assignment at 4 pm and asks for it the next morning, or a boss who makes disparaging comments about another working parent who doesn’t seem loyal to the company. “There are some managers who are unsympathetic to the challenges their employees face at home and some who intentionally turn a blind eye,” says Avni Patel Thompson, the founder and CEO of Modern Village, a company that provides technology solutions for parents. “Other managers may have positive intent but lack empathy or ideas on how to [support their employees].”

When you work for a manager who doesn’t recognize your family obligations, your strategy must be multifaceted, says Ella F. Washington, professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and a consultant and coach at Ellavate Solutions. You need to figure out how to productively navigate the situation with your boss, while also collaborating with your colleagues and family to create a schedule and “set boundaries” that work for everyone. The goal is to “try to get your boss to meet you halfway,” she says. Here are some ideas.

First things first, “know your rights” and understand what you’re entitled to in terms of paid leave and care options, says Thompson. Do some research into your company’s policies and whether there are alternative work arrangements on offer. Long before the pandemic hit, an increasing number of organizations instituted flexible work plans for employees, and many states have flex-work policies in place for their government workers.

Find out, too, if your situation qualifies you for the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The law requires some employers to provide paid leave to workers who must care for someone subject to quarantine or a child whose day care or school is closed. Washington recommends talking to your company’s HR person, if you have one, to learn what options and accommodations are available to you. “Knowledge is power,” she says.

Read the complete article here.