L.A. County approves ‘hero pay’ of $5 an hour for grocery store workers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Hundreds of grocery store workers in unincorporated Los Angeles County will receive $5 an hour in hazard pay on top of their regular wages as part of the county’s “hero pay” mandate that goes into effect Friday and lasts 120 days.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to mandate the pay bump for publicly traded grocery store or retail drug companies, or companies that have at least 300 employees nationwide and more than 10 employees per store site. The measure applies only to unincorporated areas, benefiting about 2,500 hourly grocery store workers.

“These workers … have put their lives on the line since the beginning of the pandemic to keep our food supply chain running and provide access to medicine our families need,” Supervisor Hilda Solis, who authored the motion, said in a statement. “Many are working in fear and without adequate financial support, while their employers continue to see profits grow and top executives receive steep pay bonuses.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger voted against the measure, saying she felt that it leaves out many essential workers and that it could have unintended consequences.

Barger said officials have worked hard to bring retailers to food deserts in unincorporated areas, such as Grocery Outlet in Altadena, which has donated food for food drives during the pandemic.

“I would hate to think we’re driving [out of business] the very businesses we fought so hard to locate in unincorporated areas, many of which are working class neighborhoods … and that’s why I can’t vote for this,” said Barger, the only Republican on the board.

Since January, several cities, including Santa Monica, San Jose, Berkeley and West Hollywood, have considered or passed some level of hazard pay mandates.

The county’s ordinance will probably be challenged in court in the coming days by the California Grocers Assn., which has sued the city of Long Beach after it passed its “hero pay” measure.

Read the complete article here.

San Jose passes mandatory $3-an-hour pay raise for grocery workers

From today’s San Jose Mercury News:

Thousands of San Jose grocery store workers will soon receive a $3-an-hour boost on their paychecks, as San Jose became the latest city to pass a new ordinance compelling large grocers to offer their employees  hazard pay for their high risk of catching COVID-19 at work.

The San Jose City Council voted 7-3 Tuesday night for a new ordinance temporarily requiring corporate grocery stores, chain supermarkets and retail stores that sell groceries and employ at least 300 people nationwide to pay workers an additional $3 an hour on top of their regular wages. The ordinance will last for 120 days after it goes into effect. Small businesses and franchises with less than 300 employees are exempt.

The ordinance failed to clear a requirement that it must be backed by at least eight members of the council to become effective immediately. Instead, the majority vote means that the new ordinance will be enacted in about two months.

Councilman Sergio Jimenez, who crafted the ordinance, said he had hoped that it would have garnered more support but was nonetheless pleased that the city will provide relief to front line grocery workers.

“I feel strongly that this is the right thing to do in my gut,” Jimenez said. “And I’m hoping that in 120 days, the sky didn’t fall, stores didn’t close, the economy is looking up and these companies continue to do well.”

San Jose will soon join the cities of Oakland, Long Beach, Santa Monica and Seattle, which have all passed similar ordinances in recent weeks to mandate increased wages for grocery store workers. Santa Clara County will vote later this month on a $5-an-hour boost on the paychecks of workers in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants everywhere in the county, except for San Jose.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and council members Dev Davis and Matt Mahan voted against the ‘hazard pay’ legislation Tuesday night, citing an inadequate analysis of the possible financial effects, concerns over potential store closings and increased grocery prices and a disagreement over exactly which companies should be affected by the legislation. Councilmember Pam Foley recused herself from the vote because she holds stock in Amazon, the owner of Whole Foods, which would be affected by the ordinance.


Read the complete story here.

Op-Ed: The Work-From-Home Employee Bill of Rights Outlined in Seven Articles

From today’s ComputerWorld Online:

Remote work became the new normal quickly as COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns came into force in spring 2020, and it’s clear that after the pandemic recedes, remote work will remain the norm for many employees — as much as half the deskbound “white collar” workforce, various research firms estimate. As a result of the sudden lockdowns, many employees had to create makeshift workspaces, buy or repurpose personal equipment, and figure out how to use new software and services to be able to keep doing their jobs.

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution overlays a photo of a woman working remotely by laptop.

Users and IT departments alike made Herculean efforts to adapt quickly and ensure business continuity, and the result was an improvement in productivity despite the pandemic. But now the pandemic has become a longer-term phenomenon, and remote work will become more commonplace, even desirable as a way to save on office expenses and commute time, even after the pandemic subsides.

So now it’s time for companies and employees alike to formalize remote work standards and policies. And it’s time for employees to advocate for themselves, so they don’t bear a disproportionate burden in enabling the new remote work reality. This employee bill of rights is meant to help them do just that.

Article 1: The employer provides clear rules and standards for remote work.

Many employees want to continue to work from home at least some of the time, according to multiple surveys conducted across the globe by AdeccoBoston Consulting GroupGallupIBMPwCEngagerocket, and others.

It’s therefore critical that businesses have a clear policy around who must work at home, who may work at home, and who may only work in an office or other company facility — as well as any requirements around how often the use of office space is required or allowed.

Typically, these standards will be based on the employee’s role. But there does need to be flexibility — spelled out in the policy — to handle people who have extenuating circumstances. For example, some employees may need to work at an office even if they theoretically could work at home (such as people in crowded households or with poor broadband access), and some may need to work at home even if they theoretically could work in an office (such as to monitor or care for relatives throughout the day).

Read the complete article here.

United Airlines might require its employees to take the COVID-19 vaccine

From today’s New York Times:

The chief executive of United Airlines told the company’s employees this week that the carrier — and other businesses — could make the coronavirus vaccine mandatory for all workers.

“It’s the way to ensure the safety of our employees,” United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby said.

“The worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career is the letters that I have written to the surviving family members of co-workers that we have lost to the coronavirus,” the executive, Scott Kirby told employees at a virtual town hall on Thursday, according to a transcript of the remarks. “And so, for me, because I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine — and I recognize it’s controversial — I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory.”

Some states, such as New York, have already made the vaccine available to flight attendants, pilots and other airline and airport employees. United has encouraged employees to get the vaccine as soon as they can.

Mr. Kirby’s comments, first reported by CNBC, do not reflect actual corporate policy. The airline would need to overcome logistical hurdles before requiring its tens of thousands of employees to get vaccinated and would need other businesses to join it in requiring vaccination, he said.

A spokesman for Delta Air Lines declined to comment on whether it will require the vaccine, but said the carrier is advocating that flight crews are considered essential workers for the purposes of vaccine distribution. American Airlines said on Thursday that it is encouraging its employees to get the vaccine, but won’t require it unless necessary for employees who fly to destinations where it is mandated.

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.

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.

Coronavirus: Retail workers ‘scared’ as cases surge during U.S. holidays

From BBC News Online:

They are calling for hazard pay, paid sick leave and better communication about outbreaks, among other things. The campaign comes as workers across the US have spoken out about condition and concerns over their health.

“Associates like me are scared,” said Walmart worker Melissa Love.

The workers rights campaign launched on Monday was organised by United for Respect, a workers rights non-profit that says it represents more than 16 million people across the US. Separately, the labour union UFCW, whose members include grocery and meatpacking plant workers, also called on employers to do more to protect staff.

“Simply put, frontline workers are terrified because their employers and our elected leaders are not doing enough to protect them and stop the spread of this virus,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said.

“As holiday shopping begins this Thanksgiving, we are already seeing a huge surge of customer traffic. Unless we take immediate actions beginning this holiday week, many more essential workers will become sick and more, tragically, will die.”

Ms Love, a member of United for Respect who has worked at Walmart for five years, said on a call organised for reporters that she feared a rush of holiday shoppers could turn Walmart into a “super-spreader” hub.

“Working Black Friday this year comes with an obvious danger,” said Ms Love, who is based in California. “I do not believe Walmart should be trying to entice crowds into our stores on Friday and risk a super-spreader event.”

Read the complete article here.

Judge Dismisses Effort To Throw Out Drive-Through Votes In Houston

From today’s NPR News Online:

U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen on Monday threw out a suit challenging the legality of some 127,000 votes cast at drive-through voting sites in the Houston area. He ruled the plaintiffs don’t have legal standing to sue.

Harris County, Texas’ most populous county and majority-Democratic, erected 10 tents to expedite the early voting process as a way of allowing people to cast ballots safely during the coronavirus pandemic. They were also in place this summer before the state’s primary.

Noting that point, Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, asked plaintiffs, “Why am I just getting this case?” He later said that the suit was not timely and that “this has been going on all summer.”

The suit was brought by Republican activists, who argued the move by Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, was an illegal expansion of curbside voting, which is permitted under Texas law. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed a similar challenge on Sunday. All of that court’s justices are Republican appointees.

Hanen said that if he found the plaintiffs did have standing, he would have still ruled against them “as to the voting that has already taken place,” but that he would “probably enjoin tomorrow’s votes.” He also ordered that records of votes cast in the drive-through facilities be maintained in case his decision is reversed on appeal.

One of the intervenors in the hearing, lawyer Andre Segura of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, argued that a ruling allowing the ballots to be thrown out would cause people to have to vote a second time.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS clears the way for sending mail-in ballots to Montana voters

From today’s CNN News Online:

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Thursday denied a request from Republicans to block Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive last month allowing counties to send mail-in ballots to all registered voters amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Kagan, who has jurisdiction over the lower court involved in the case, turned down the request without referring the petition to her colleagues or asking the other side for its views.The suit was brought by Joe Lamm of the Ravali County Republican Central Committee as well as several voters.”

While Covid is a national tragedy, it poses no emergency,” James Bopp, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, wrote in court papers. Bopp noted that the Montana legislature already allowed any qualified voter to obtain a no-excuse absentee ballot by merely applying.

Lower courts have upheld Montana’s directive. Bullock, a Democrat, issued a similar directive in the primary, and all of the state’s counties opted to send out mail-in ballots to voters. Montana already allowed voters to request and submit absentee ballots without providing an excuse.

Bullock will appear on the ballot as a candidate for Senate in November. He is running against Republican Sen. Steve Daines in a competitive race that could help Democrats flip the Senate.

The case that Kagan acted on Thursday isn’t Montana’s only voting battle playing out in the courts. In September, a federal judge in Montana rejected the Trump campaign’s effort to stop an expansion of mail-in voting in the state after the campaign and the Republican National Committee filed suit following Bullock’s directive.

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.