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.

‘Lives Were Lost’ as Warnings Went Unheeded, Whistle-Blower Tells House

From today’s New York Times:

The whistle-blower who was ousted as the head of a federal medical research agency charged on Thursday that top Trump administration officials failed to heed his early warnings to stock up on masks and other supplies to combat the coronavirus, and that Americans died as a result.

“Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” Dr. Rick Bright, who was removed in April as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told a House subcommittee as he warned, “The window is closing to address this pandemic.”

Over nearly four hours of testimony, Dr. Bright told lawmakers that the outbreak would “get worse and be prolonged” if the United States did not swiftly develop a national testing strategy. He also predicted vaccine shortages if the administration did not draft a distribution plan now.

After holding back for nearly a month, President Trump and his health secretary, Alex M. Azar II, hit back at Dr. Bright, elevating the confrontation. Mr. Trump dismissed Dr. Bright as a “disgruntled employee” while Mr. Azar insisted officials followed through on the scientist’s ideas.

Dr. Bright’s testimony was the first time a federal scientist — or any federal official — had gone before Congress and openly accused the administration of endangering American lives by bungling its coronavirus response. He said Americans would face “the darkest winter in modern history” if the administration did not move quickly, as people become “restless” to leave their homes.

That came two days after Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, contradicted Mr. Trump by warning of “needless suffering and death” if states reopened too quickly, amounting to a one-two punch for the administration.

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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 considers unprecedented $25 billion recovery fund and rental relief

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Two unprecedented proposals to help Californians weather the fiscal storm unleashed by the coronavirus crisis are expected to be unveiled Tuesday by Democrats in the state Senate — one to help struggling renters, the other to create a $25-billion economic recovery fund by issuing long-term vouchers to those willing to prepay their future state income taxes.

Taken together, the ideas suggest lawmakers are willing to launch never-before-tried experiments to avoid the unpaid debts and deep cuts to government services that resulted from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

“We need some short-term assistance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) in an interview with The Times on Monday. “But we’ve got to be thinking long term on how to do this in a very strategic way.”

The proposals are scheduled to be formally unveiled Tuesday morning in Sacramento, two days before Gov. Gavin Newsom sends lawmakers a plan to erase a short-term budget deficit that could total more than $54 billion.

Neither the renter-assistance program nor the economic recovery fund would have a direct effect on the state budget in the coming weeks and months. Still, lawmakers believe both ideas could boost California’s shattered economy.

The unconventional effort to help renters would ask landlords to forgive rent payments in exchange for equally sized tax credits spread out over a 10-year period starting in 2024. The tax credits would be transferable, meaning the property owner could sell them to an outside investor and get cash immediately.

“This is a substantive proposal that protects those who are struggling to afford their rent and also keeps rental properties from going into foreclosure,” state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) said. “This equitable strategy will keep people housed.”

Some local governments have already stepped up to address concerns about renters being evicted during the public health crisis, promoting a variety of rental assistance programs. Pending legislation at the state Capitol also seeks to prevent evictions during the coronavirus state of emergency, which was declared by Newsom in March and has no targeted end date.

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.

Thousands of health care workers are laid off as coronavirus spreads

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Healthcare workers, championed as heroes of the COVID-19 crisis and applauded for risking their lives to protect others, have been hit especially hard by the severe economic fallout wrought by the pandemic.

In California, thousands of nurses, doctors and other medical staff have been laid off or furloughed or have taken a pay cut since mid-March. The pain has been felt broadly, from major facilities such as Stanford Health Care to tiny rural hospitals to private practitioners. Across the nation, job losses in the healthcare sector have been second only to those in the restaurant industry, according to federal labor statistics.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices lost billions in revenue when they canceled elective surgeries and non-emergent visits to prepare for a possible surge in COVID-19 patients and to reduce the spread of the virus.

Patients also began scheduling fewer appointments and avoiding the hospital, even for medical emergencies, creating another hit for providers who were already hurting. The surge, in places where it did arrive, was not enough to compensate for the losses, experts say.

American healthcare is a business, and the economics are simple: Fewer patients means less money. And though some California hospitals are beginning to schedule elective surgeries again, experts say the healthcare industry is unlikely to bounce back immediately, as large swaths of the population are now struggling to make ends meet and may continue to avoid or put off medical care.

Read the complete article here.

5 questions answered about workers’ rights during the coronavirus pandemic

From today’s PBS NewsHour Online:

Roughly 26 million have filed for unemployment benefits in the United States the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of others are risking safety to work in essential roles, or are navigating new challenges working at home. So what rights should workers, or the newly unemployed, be aware of?

Nawaz and Conti addressed a broad swath of audience questions on everything from employee recourse, to support for working parents, to unemployment benefits. You can read highlights from their conversation below.

What should be top of mind for people who have to physically go back to work?

A number of states have started to allow businesses to reopen, despite the recommendations of many public health officials, who say this could worsen the spread of novel coronavirus.

If you do have to go back to work, Conti stressed that you should consult the CDC for guidance on the protective equipment you need in order to do your job safely. “Make sure when you go back, that your employer is giving you what you need, whether it’s gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, or frequent opportunities to go to the bathroom to wash your hands,” Conti said.

Could there be recourse for employees who don’t feel safe at work?

If you don’t feel that your employer has provided the proper protections for you to return to work in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Conti said you “do have the legal right to stand up for healthy and safe treatment on the job.” You can do so by filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I can’t sit here and tell you that an employer might not retaliate and might not either treat you worse on the job, or perhaps fire you, and I certainly hope not, but you do have the legal right to stand up for healthy and safe treatment on the job,” Conti said.

If you feel that you’ve been retaliated against by your employer for asking for more protections as part of an organized group such as a union, you can file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

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.

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.