The Legal Fight Over Voting Rights During The Pandemic Is Getting Hotter

From today’s NPR News Online:

The legal fight over how Americans will vote this year is rapidly turning into a war. That’s according to conservative “election integrity” advocates who accuse Democrats of using the current pandemic to push through changes that these groups say will undermine U.S. elections.

“We are watching as the Democrats and radicalized special interest groups are using this fog of COVID to fundamentally remake American elections,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, the president of True the Vote, a group that says it is trying to protect against voter fraud. She spoke on Thursday during a webinar sponsored by a conservative nonprofit, the Committee for Justice.

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups say that they’re actually trying to protect voters’ rights and to eliminate obstacles they believe are intended to suppress the votes of minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic.

Of immediate concern to both sides are efforts to expand mail-in voting in response to the pandemic. A number of states are loosening restrictions on absentee ballots so people can vote without having to go to the polls in person. More than a dozen court cases have been filed in recent weeks either challenging those changes or calling for states to do even more to make mail-in voting accessible.

On Thursday, a federal judge denied a request by True the Vote to block a Nevada plan to send absentee ballots to all active voters for the state’s June 9 primary. U.S. District Judge Miranda Du dismissed as “speculative” and “without any factual basis” the group’s claim that the plan would expose the election to fraud and thereby dilute the votes of legitimate voters.

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.

I’m the Judge Who Won in Wisc. This Principle Is More Important Than Winning.

From today’s New York Times:

On April 7, I was on the ballot in an election that should not have happened.

I was running for a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court against an appointed incumbent. I came to find out after the election that incumbents in Wisconsin have lost Supreme Court elections only twice in the last half-century — had I known that when I started, I might never have run.

The central theme of our campaign was a message of restoring the public’s trust in the judicial system. It was a winning message: We pulled in a resounding 55 percent of the vote.

And it will guide me as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. I will make decisions based on the law — we must get away from a partisan view of the law.

The election was a good example of what should not happen. Gov. Tony Evers had formally called on the Legislature to postpone it. Deadlines for returning ballots were extended.

But in a mad flurry of activity the day before the election — probably never seen before and hopefully never to be seen again — partisan court majorities in cases at the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts reinstated the election and removed the deadline extension for absentee ballots to be returned.

Scant hours before the polls opened, the people of Wisconsin were confused and worried: On one hand, their government was telling them clearly to stay away from one another. On the other, they were being told that if they wanted to continue having a democracy, they had to show up in person, stand in long lines and vote.

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.

Seven Wisconsin coronavirus cases linked to in-person voting

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Health officials in Wisconsin said they have identified at least seven people who appear to have contracted the coronavirus from participating in the April 7 election, the first such cases detected following in-person voting that was held despite widespread concern about the public health risks.

The cases involve six voters and one poll worker in Milwaukee, where a shortage of poll workers forced the city to pare nearly 200 voting locations back to just five, and voters — some in masks, some with no protection — were forced to wait in long lines for hours.

The conditions of the seven weren’t immediately available. City health commissioner Jeanette Kowalik told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she hopes to have more information later in the week. Kowalik’s office didn’t immediately respond to a question from the Associated Press asking how city health officials were able to trace the infections to the election.

The election, which included a presidential primary as well as races for a state Supreme Court seat and local offices, took place after a legal struggle between Democrats and Republicans. The day before the election, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ordered that it be delayed and shifted to all-mail voting, only to be overturned when Republican legislative leaders won an appeal in the state’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court’s five Republican appointees also blocked a judge’s order that would have given voters an extra week to submit their ballots by mail.

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.

Coronavirus Will Supercharge Election-Year Lawsuits Over Voting Rights

From today’s NPR News Online:

Election-year legal battles over voting procedures are nothing new. But their scope and intensity are growing this year amid deep partisan polarization and the logistical challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. The legal fights are expected to heat up in the coming weeks.

Exhibit A is a lawsuit filed by Democrats in Nevada on Thursday challenging the state’s plans to conduct a mostly all-mail primary on June 2 and to drastically limit in-person polling sites. Democrats say the moves — including automatically sending ballots only to voters who have taken part in recent elections, but not all registered ones — are an infringement of voter rights.

Republicans counter that Democrats want to overturn rules intended to protect the integrity of the state’s elections and would unnecessarily put voters’ health at risk.

Both Democrats and Republicans are turning to the courts to try to ensure that rules governing this year’s election don’t disadvantage their side. The litigation campaign has taken on a new urgency with the pandemic and its impact on people’s willingness and ability to go to the polls in person.

“I can assure you that we will not sit by and let Republican election officials, or the Republican Party, disenfranchise voters in a cynical effort to win elections at all costs,” said Marc Elias, the lead attorney for the Democratic Party effort. “I expect several additional voting rights cases to be filed in the coming weeks and months, all aimed at protecting the right of voters to participate in elections and have their votes counted.”

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.