Silicon Valley’s essential workers form new group to fight for work rights

From today’s San Jose Spotlight:

A group of six essential workers and labor leaders stood in front of McDonnell Hall in San Jose Wednesday—the same church labor activist Cesar Chavez started his now-iconic labor organizing more than 50 years prior.

The workers are looking to craft the future of the labor movement among essential workers for the next 50 years, starting with combating unfair treatment from employers, elected officials and corporations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They announced Wednesday the launch of a new initiative called the Essential Workers Council, a collective of 14 members from diverse professional fields in the South Bay, including medical workers, security, grocery workers, childcare, construction and education. The council has been established by Silicon Valley Rising, a collective of leaders who advocate for workers’ rights and affordable housing.

“As workers on the front lines of this crisis, we need to be the ones setting the agenda for recovery,” said Deo Agustin, a childcare worker and member of the new council. “We can’t let business leaders decide how things should be run.”

The group, with local labor leaders’ help, hopes to lobby elected leaders for more essential worker protections during and after the pandemic, such as higher wages, more widespread hazard payrent relief, stronger eviction protections and affordable childcare.

“Even as mostly Black and brown people put their lives at risk, dying at disproportionately higher rates, too many corporate executives and elected leaders have ignored their needs and their voices,” said Maria Noel Fernandez, director of Silicon Valley Rising, on Wednesday. “They call this work essential, but not the people, their families and our communities.”

The coronavirus has killed Black and Latino residents in the county at a far higher rate than other races. Latinos in particular make up 25% of the county’s population but account for 51% of cases and nearly 29% of deaths, according to county numbers. Those racial groups are overrepresented in essential work.

The council, frustrated by the lack of clear leadership from their employers to combat COVID-19, such as providing enough personal protective equipment and socially-distanced workspaces, spoke out about their experiences in working while living in fear that they would contract the coronavirus.

Read the complete article here.

California pays homage today to another American hero with a complex legacy

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Let me tell you about an American hero whom the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education might find, um, troublesome.

Cesar Chavez stands surrounded by reporters.

He opposed undocumented immigrants to the point of urging his followers to report them to la migra. He accepted an all-expenses-paid trip from a repressive government and gladly received an award from its ruthless dictator despite pleas from activists not to do so.

He paid his staff next to nothing. Undercut his organization with an authoritarian style that pushed away dozens of talented staffers and contrasted sharply with the people-power principles he publicly espoused. And left behind a conflicted legacy nowhere near pure enough for today’s woke warriors.

A long-dead white man? A titan of the business world? Perhaps a local politician?

Try Cesar Chavez. The United Farm Workers founder is the first person I always think about whenever there’s talk about canceling people from the past. He’s on my mind again, and not just because this Wednesday is his birthday, an official California holiday.

On Jan. 27, the San Francisco school board voted to rename 44 schools that it felt honored people who didn’t deserve the homage. Some of the condemned make sense — Father Junipero Serra, for instance, or Commodore John Sloat, the Navy officer who conquered California in the name of Manifest Destiny. Others are worthy of debate. Should we really champion Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence who also fathered multiple children with his slave, Sally Hemings? Or John Muir, the beloved naturalist who didn’t think much of Black and Indigenous people?

The board’s move was rightfully met with disbelief and derision. In a year when parents are clamoring for schools to reopen, this is what board members spent their time on? And are kids really harmed if they attend a school named after Robert Louis Stevenson or Paul Revere?

Which brings us back to Chavez, the revered labor leader whose bust President Biden recently put on prominent display behind his desk in the Oval Office. On Wednesday, First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Delano, Calif., to celebrate the state holiday with the Cesar Chavez and United Farm Workers foundations, her office announced over the weekend.

Read the complete article here.

CA lawmakers propose slate of reforms for troubled unemployment agency

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

After a pair of scathing audits confirmed California’s troubled unemployment agency has been plagued by years of mismanagement, state lawmakers on Thursday announced a raft of new bills to speed up the payment of jobless benefits and reduce fraud.

The package of bills proposed by nine Assembly members is aimed at forcing change at the state Employment Development Department, which was criticized by the state auditor last week for delays in providing unemployment benefits despite having been warned of problems in the system a decade ago.

The proposals would allow benefits to be provided by direct deposit rather than issued with debit cards sent through the mail, would require the agency to check claimants against lists of prison inmates to prevent fraud and would establish an Office of the Claimant Advocate to help people with claim problems.

“Many of the issues EDD is facing today have been known since the Great Recession,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). “Almost nothing was done to fix the problems or plan for another economic downturn.”

The EDD has been slow to respond to an unprecedented flood of unemployment benefit applications that resulted from the state shutting down much of the economy to stop the COVID-19 pandemic that began nearly a year ago.

Lawmakers said during a video news conference Thursday that many residents with legitimate unemployment claims have been harmed by an EDD decision to suspend 1.4 million claims in December to make sure they are not fraudulent.

Bay Area resident Laurel Carter joined the lawmakers’ event, saying her legitimate claim was suspended in mid-December with “no other explanation given.” She had difficulty uploading documents to prove her identity and was told she would have a five-hour wait to talk to a representative for help.

“I slept with my computer on for eight days just thinking that maybe in the middle of the night I would hear a ding and it would be someone that would speak to me,” Carter said. “I am now six weeks in without any payment.”

Though EDD Director Rita Saenz told lawmakers on Wednesday that she is committed to implementing improvements to the agency recommended by the state auditor and a strike team of government experts appointed last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, skeptical lawmakers in both parties have introduced 20 bills in recent weeks in an attempt to more quickly address problems. They include legislation by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) that would provide claimants with theoption to receive their unemployment benefits via direct deposit to their bank accounts.

Read the complete article here.

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.

What Prop. 22’s defeat would mean for Uber and Lyft — and drivers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

One way or another, the business of summoning a ride from your phone is likely to look different in California after Nov. 3.

The future of gig work could hinge on the success or failure of Proposition 22, called the App-Based Drivers as Contractors and Labor Policies Initiative. Uber, Lyft and other companies bankrolling the initiative say it would improve workers’ quality of life, providing new benefits while preserving their autonomy. If passed, the measure would cement gig workers’ status as independent contractors, dealing a huge blow to a labor movement striving to bolster protections for workers at the margins.

Abstract illustration of an app-based driver in a car

Gig companies’ business models rely on hiring large numbers of workers cheaply as independent contractors to provide rides, deliver meals and groceries and perform other services. Assembly Bill 5, a state law passed in 2019, aimed to expand protections to these workers, requiring gig companies to reclassify them as employees.

Proposition 22 represents the companies’ efforts to battle that law and the obligations that come with it.

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates (which was recently acquired by Uber) have jointly poured close to $200 million into the “yes” campaign, flooding the airwaves and their own apps with ads and making the measure the costliest in U.S. history.

At the heart of it all is a vicious fight to shape the prospects of hundreds of thousands of drivers and delivery workers across the state.

Here’s what you need to know.

What would happen if Proposition 22 passes?

For the companies sponsoring it, the short answer is: business as usual. For workers, it would bring some clarity, at a price.

The text of Proposition 22 assures drivers they would maintain flexibility as independent contractors. The measure offers some benefits similar to those conferred under AB 5, but significantly weaker.

Gig companies thus far have resisted compliance with AB 5, which went into effect Jan. 1. In early August, a judge ordered Uber and Lyft to convert their drivers to employees. At the 11th hour, the companies won a temporary stay of the order from a state appeals court, effectively pushing off the deadline until after voters have their say.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Krp2r/6/

Uber and Lyft presented oral arguments before California’s 1st District Court of Appeal on Tuesday. The court has 90 days to decide whether it will uphold the lower-court ruling. But Proposition 22, if passed, would override protections granted by AB 5.

The measure instead would grant 120% of the minimum wage (state or local, depending on where the driver is). However, this minimum narrowly applies to “engaged time,” meaning the time a driver is on a trip with a passenger or en route to pick up a passenger. One study found drivers spend one-third of their time waiting between passengers or returning from trips, time that would not count toward the minimum wage.

Read the complete article here.

California Eases Off Legal Threats Over GOP Unauthorized Ballot Drop Boxes

From today’s NPR News Online:

The state of California appears to be backing off legal threats against the California Republican Party over its use of unauthorized ballot drop boxes.

On Monday, California’s secretary of state and attorney general sent a cease-and-desist order to the California GOP and several county party offices, ordering they remove unauthorized boxes to collect ballots, some of which were labeled “official.”

At a press conference Friday, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, both Democrats, didn’t announce any additional enforcement action against the party, saying the California GOP agreed to modify how they were collecting.

But while the California Republican Party agreed not to place unauthorized ballot drop boxes outdoors, leave drop boxes unattended or present them as official, the party said it will continue to accept ballots delivered by voters to local party offices and secure them in boxes attended by staff or volunteers.

Becerra and Padilla said they would continue to monitor the party’s activities closely and proceed with an investigation.

“The Republican Party’s deployment of these unofficial and deceptive ballot drop boxes were in violation of state law, and they created voter confusion,” Padilla said.

In a statement Friday on Twitter, the party’s spokesperson, Hector Barajas, said the California Republican Party made no concessions to the attorney general or secretary of state and denied doing anything wrong in the first place.

Friday’s press conference left a lot of ambiguity about how the party is continuing to deploy ballot collection boxes and whether or not using unauthorized drop boxes in any form violates California law.

Padilla and Becerra reiterated that while ballot collection is allowed, state rules require that whoever assists with delivering a ballot sign the envelope to record a chain of custody. But they also said ballots without that signature would not be rejected either.

Read the complete article here.

CA Republican Party Admits It Placed Misleading Ballot Boxes Around State

From today’s New York Times:

The California Republican Party has admitted responsibility for placing more than 50 deceptively labeled “official” drop boxes for mail-in ballots in Los Angeles, Fresno and Orange Counties — an action that state officials said was illegal and could lead to voter fraud.

The dark gray metal boxes have been popping up over the past two weeks near churches, gun shops and Republican Party offices, mostly in conservative areas of a deep-blue state, affixed with a white paper label identifying them as either an “Official Ballot Drop off Box” or a “Ballot Drop Box.”

To the average voter, they are virtually indistinguishable from drop-off sites sanctioned by the state, which are governed by strict regulations intended to prevent the partisan manipulation of ballots.

The actions of the largely marginalized state party come at a moment when Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a bitter national struggle over voting rights, with President Trump’s allies accusing Democrats in Minnesota and elsewhere of undermining the integrity of the electoral process by expanding absentee voting and other measures to increase ballot access.

On Monday, California’s secretary of state, Alex Padilla, and Attorney General Xavier Becerra sent a cease-and-desist order to the state- and county-level Republican parties, ordering them to remove the boxes. They also urged voters who might have unknowingly dropped off their ballots in the receptacles to sign up with the state’s voter tracking website to ensure their vote is counted.

“Misleading voters is wrong regardless of who is doing it,” Mr. Padilla said in a conference call with reporters, adding that the boxes “are not permitted by state law.”

Mr. Becerra called the boxes “fake,” adding that it was “illegal to tamper with a citizen’s vote.” He warned that anyone “engaging in this activity” could be subject to criminal prosecution or civil action.

Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Republican Party, said the party would continue to distribute the boxes, without adding any label identifying them explicitly as Republican ballot drops.

Mr. Barajas — who disclosed that Republicans were responsible for the boxes only after being bombarded by questions by reporters on Monday — said the party’s actions were legal because state law did not restrict “ballot harvesting,” a practice that allows businesses or other organizations to collect batches of completed ballots.

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.

Uber likely to shut down in California for over a year if new ruling not overturned

From today’s NBC News Online:

In new court filings Wednesday, a top Uber official said the company would “almost certainly need to shut down” ride services in California for “likely more than a year” if a judge’s groundbreaking ruling issued this week is upheld on appeal.

In a new four-page declaration, Brad Rosenthal, Uber’s director of strategic operational initiatives, said that if the company has to reclassify the bulk of its workforce as employees rather than contractors, it will “force Uber to dramatically restructure its entire business model and its relationships with drivers and riders.”

In a call with investors Wednesday, Lyft CEO John Zimmer said the company would likely also suspend operations in the state for similar reasons.

Earlier Wednesday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the company would halt service in its home state of California for a few months if a judge’s groundbreaking ruling this week is upheld on appeal.

“We will have to shut down until November,” Khosrowshahi told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle in an interview.

On Monday, Judge Ethan Schulman of the San Francisco County Superior Court found that there was an “overwhelming likelihood” that both Uber and Lyft had misclassified drivers as contractors rather than employees. Drivers make up the bulk of those companies’ labor forces.

The ruling was the latest twist in a lawsuit brought against the companies in May by the state’s attorney general. Schulman put a hold on enforcement of his ruling for 10 days pending appeal.

In the new filings, both companies asked the judge to at least extend this hold period beyond 10 days while they begin the appeals process. Schulman is set to hold a hearing on this issue Thursday.

Read the complete article here.

California lawmakers ask Newsom to act immediately on unemployment claims

From Los Angeles Times:

More than half the members of the California Legislature called on Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday to immediately begin paying unemployment benefits to many of the more than 1 million jobless workers whose claims have been stalled in the system as the state works to clear a months-long backlog.

In a letter to governor, a bipartisan group of 61 lawmakers issued a series of requests for immediate action at the state Employment Development Department, including calls for the agency to ensure service representatives do not hang up on callers who they can’t help, and implement an automatic call-back system to quickly respond to those who cannot reach a live operator. The lawmakers also called for the agency to expedite its approval of unemployment benefits by retroactively certifying claims and resolving issues later in the process.

“In our fifth month of the pandemic, with so many constituents yet to receive a single unemployment payment, it’s clear that EDD is failing California,” said the letter to Newsom. “Millions of our constituents have had no income for months. As Californians wait for answers from EDD, they have depleted their life savings, have gone into extreme debt, and are in deep panic as they figure out how to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.”

EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said the agency is reviewing the letter and will provide a response as soon as possible. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter’s recommendations.

The letter, which was organized by Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), was signed by 49 members of the Assembly and 12 members of the state Senate, including Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, and sent a week after Newsom announced the creation of a “strike team” to reform EDD and complete all unanswered claims by the end of September.

The governor said the claims are from those who may be eligible for payment but require more information. Many claims are “pending resolution” because they have issues to resolve, including verification of the identity of the filer, he said.

The legislators said in their letter that the backlog should be cleared sooner than the end of September and that, in the interim, Californians with stalled claims should receive some portion of their benefits to help them make ends meet.

Read the complete article here.