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.

How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class

From today’s Atlantic Online:

Late last month, a photo circulated of delivery drivers crowding around Carbone, a Michelin-starred Greenwich Village restaurant, waiting to pick up $32 rigatoni and bring it to people who were safely ensconced in their apartment. A police officer, attempting to spread out the crowd, reportedly said, “I know you guys are just out here trying to make money. I personally don’t give a shit!” The poor got socially close, it seems, so that the rich could socially distance.

The past few weeks have exposed just how much a person’s risk of infection hinges on class. Though people of all incomes are at risk of being laid off, those who can work from home are at least less likely to get sick. The low-income workers who do still have jobs, meanwhile, are likely to be stuck in close quarters with other humans. For example, grocery-store clerks face some of the greatest exposure to the coronavirus, aside from health-care workers. “Essential” businesses—grocery stores, pharmacies—are about the only places Americans are still permitted to go, and their cashiers stand less than an arm’s length from hundreds of people a day.

My inboxes have filled up with outcries from workers at big-box retailers, grocery stores, and shipping giants who say their companies are not protecting them. They say people are being sent into work despite having been in contact with people infected with the virus. They say the company promised to pay for their quarantine leave, but the payment has been delayed for weeks and they are running out of money. Or the company denied their medical leave because they don’t have proof of a nearly impossible-to-get COVID-19 test. Or the company doesn’t offer paid medical leave at all, and they’re wondering how they’ll pay for gas once they recover from the disease.

Masks are in short supply nationwide, and some managers have resisted allowing workers to wear them, fearing it will disrupt the appearance of normalcy. Some companies have rolled out “hazard pay” for employees, but in many cases it amounts to about $2 more an hour. The Amazon employees I’ve spoken with largely work fewer than 30 hours a week, and the company does not provide them with health insurance. One Walmart employee used up all his attendance “points” while sick with the virus, and was fired upon his return to work. (Walmart did not comment on his situation for my story.) At least 41 grocery-store workers have already died from the virus. “I make $14.60 an hour and don’t qualify for health care yet,” one grocery-store employee in New Mexico wrote to me. “I am freaked out.”

Meanwhile, many white-collar workers have no “points” system. Many such jobs offer as much paid time off as an employee and her manager agree to—a concept far beyond even the most generous policies at grocery stores. Many PR specialists, programmers, and other white-collar workers are doing their exact same job, except from the comfort of their home. Some are at risk of being laid off. But for the most part, they are not putting their lives in danger, except by choice.

Read the complete article here.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wants a bill of rights for essential workers

From today’s Boston.com:

Elizabeth Warren says the next coronavirus relief package should “put all workers front and center.” But the Massachusetts senator is also proposing a slate of new protections for those who don’t have the luxury of staying at home during the pandemic.

Warren and California Rep. Ro Khanna unveiled an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” on Monday aimed at boosting protections and benefits for the employees most exposed to COVID-19.

Experts say between 49 million and 62 million Americans are employed by industries designated as “essential” by the federal government. And while health care employees are viewed to be at the greatest risk of contracting the disease, the list also includes other “frontline” workers whose jobs continue to require them to be in close contact with other people during the outbreak, from grocery store workers and janitors to truck drivers and transportation employees to government and child care workers.

“Essential workers are the backbone of our nation’s response to coronavirus,” said Warren, who has called on Congress to end its weeks-long recess to pass additional legislation in response to the economic and public health crises wrought by the pandemic.

The federal government has issued some guidance for workers in the food retail industry, but Warren and Khanna want Congress to strengthen and expand those policies in the next relief package,

Their “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” proposal would require employers to provide all frontline workers with personal protective equipment and robust hazard pay “retroactive to the start date of the pandemic.” It would create a program to require — and reimburse — employers to provide up to 14 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave during the public health crisis.

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 .

Grocery workers are beginning to die of coronavirus

From today’s Washington Post:

Major supermarket chains are beginning to report their first coronavirus-related employee deaths, leading to store closures and increasing anxiety among grocery workers as the pandemic intensifies across the country.

A Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, N.Y., a greeter at a Giant store in Largo, Md., and two Walmart employees from the same Chicago-area store have died of covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, in recent days, the companies confirmed Monday.

Though more than 40 states have ordered nonessential businesses to close and told residents to stay home to stem the spread of the virus, supermarkets are among the retailers that remain open. Thousands of grocery employees have continued to report to work as U.S. infections and death rates continue to climb, with many reporting long shifts and extra workloads to keep up with spiking demand. Many workers say they don’t have enough protective gear to deal with hundreds of customers a day. Dozens of grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Industry experts say the rise of worker infections and deaths will likely have a ripple effect on grocers’ ability to retain and add new workers at a time when they’re looking to rapidly hire thousands of temporary employees. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, is hiring 150,000 workers, while Kroger is adding more than 10,000. Many are offering an extra $2 an hour and promising masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. But finding people willing to work on the front lines for little more than the minimum wage could be an increasingly tough sell, according to supermarket analyst Phil Lempert.

“One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to,” he said. “They’re starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers. We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’ “

Read the complete article here.

Freelancers can get unemployment pay for jobs lost to coronavirus

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

New coronavirus laws provide a litany of benefits to the self-employed, freelancers and workers in the gig economy. But what are the benefits, and how do you claim them? Here are some answers explaining how the laws impact freelancers.

I lost my part-time gig because of the coronavirus lockdown. Can I claim unemployment insurance?

Yes. The federal CARES Act creates a temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides unemployment insurance coverage to self-employed individuals, independent contractors and those with limited work history. (You must be available for work but unable to do your job as the result of the pandemic.) All of these individuals were barred from claiming state unemployment insurance benefits prior to the passage of this law.

How much will I get?

That depends on where you live. Each state operates its own unemployment insurance program. Requirements and pay-out ratios vary from state to state. For instance, California’s unemployment insurance program provides about 46% of working wages, up to set limits. Maximum unemployment benefits amount to $450 a week.

Thus, if you previously earned $1,000 a week ($4,000 a month), you’d get $450 in weekly unemployment coverage, or $1,800 per month from the state of California. The new CARES Act adds a federal payment of $600 a week to that. So, this hypothetical worker could get as much as $4,200 a month.

However, if you live in Alabama, the state’s maximum weekly benefit caps out at $275. Thus, an unemployed worker in Alabama would receive a top benefit of $1,100, plus $600 weekly from the CARES Act, for a total of $3,500.

Read the complete article here.

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.

Coronavirus to cost California 125,000 hotel jobs trade group says

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Struck by a severe drop in travel demand, California’s hotel industry is expected to lose more than 125,000 jobs in the next few weeks, more than any other state, an industry trade group estimated Monday.

The hotel industry in the Golden State is expected to be hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak because California has the most hotel jobs — about 285,000 — according to the American Hotel and Lodging Assn. trade group.

In addition to the loss of 125,000 hotel jobs, another 414,000 jobs that are supported by the hotel industry, such as waiters, busboys, bartenders and limousine drivers, could disappear in the next few weeks, the group said.

Only last month, the average occupancy rate — the percentage of hotel rooms filled — was 62% across the country, according to STR Global, a Tennessee company that tracks hotel data. By mid-March, the average occupancy rate nationwide had dropped to 53%.

To break even, hotels need to have an occupancy rate of 41% to 63%, depending on the type of hotel, according to industry analysis. Upscale hotels need a higher occupancy rate to pay for extra amenities, such as room service, valets and concierges, while economy hotels can break even with a much lower occupancy rate.

Because of the pandemic, hotels in some cities, including Seattle; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Boston, are reporting occupancy rates below 20%, with some individual hotels already shutting down, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Assn.

“The impact to our industry is already more severe than anything we’ve seen before, including September 11th and the Great Recession of 2008 combined,” Chip Rogers, chief executive of the trade association said in a statement Monday.

The lodging industry requested the federal government provide $150 billion in financial aid to keep the hotel industry afloat during the crisis. That is in addition to the $100 billion requested by other segments of the travel industry, such as convention centers, theme parks and tour companies.

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.

More than half of American jobs are at risk because of coronavirus

From CNN News Online:

A week ago, Darrin Dixon wasn’t all that concerned about the coronavirus. Now he’s losing sleep over the prospect that the virus could cost him his food truck and catering business, which provides three jobs, including his own. Sales at Dixon’s food truck, KC Cajun, plunged this week as businesses in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, where he’s based, have shifted to working from home. His catering business is having cancellations like he’s never seen before.

“I know I’m stressed. I’ve had sleepless night. It’s just scary because we don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Dixon. His situation is a harbinger of the problems facing the US economy from the coronavirus, which could be far deeper and more widespread than they initially appeared. And because it will hit small businesses like Dixon’s particularly hard, it could take years for the economy to fully recover — even after the coronavirus crisis is long over. It’s not just jobs at airlineshotelsamusement parks and sporting events that are at risk. It’s the food trucks that serve office workers or school students who are now staying home. It’s the dry cleaners who clean the dress clothes that will not be worn as workers stay away from their offices. It’s hair stylists, dog walkers, babysitters, restaurant workers and others who provide services that people no longer need or can’t afford.

More than half of US jobs at risk

Nearly 80 million jobs in the US economy are at high or moderate risk today, according to analysis in the last week from Moody’s Analytics. That’s more than half of the 153 million jobs in the economy overall. That doesn’t mean that all those jobs will be lost. But it’s probable that as many as 10 million of those workers could see some impact to their paychecks — either layoffs, furloughs, fewer hours or wage cuts, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

Of those 80 million jobs, Moody’s Analytics projects that 27 million are at high risk due to the virus, primarily in transportation and travel, leisure and hospitality, temporary help services and oil drilling and extraction. Maybe 20% of those workers, comprising about 5 million jobs, will be affected, Zandi said. The other 52 million jobs are judged to face “moderate risk.” They are in areas such as retail, manufacturing, construction and education. Some 5 million of those workers are could be unemployed or underemployed.

Read the complete article here.