Workplace Strikes Surge During Pandemic, Empowering Workers

From today’s Washington Post:

Factory workers, nurses and school bus drivers are among the tens of thousands of Americans who walked off jobs in October amid a surge of labor activism that economists and labor leaders have dubbed “Striketober.”

The strike drives, experts say, stem from the new leverage workers hold in the nation’s tight job market: Having seen the massive profits their companies collected during the coronavirus pandemic, they want their contributions acknowledged in the form of better pay and working conditions.

While work stoppages may contribute to near-term inflation and production tie-ups, economists say they could fundamentally change the economic standing of millions of workers. Here’s what you need to know about the tide of recent strikes.

There are a number of reasons, but ultimately it comes down to how the pandemic has changed the way people see themselves, their employers and their jobs — especially if going to work heightened their risk of exposure to the deadly virus. So while millions of people quit or switched positions, others have staged walkouts — or at least are threatening to.

“People don’t want to go and die at work. I mean, they’re not compensated enough,” said Kim Cordova, president of the 23,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers in Colorado.

Strikes or strike authorizations — when a union supports a walkout if negotiations with management break down — typically revolve around compensation. At John Deere, where 10,000 workers at 14 factories walked off the job on Oct. 14, employees want better pay and retirement benefits. The company offered 5 to 6 percent raises in a new collective bargaining agreement, but workers say it’s not enough, given the company’s soaring profits.

Kaiser Permanente nurses and health workers in California and Oregon want the health care provider to drop a proposed two-tiered wage and benefits system that would compensate new employees less than existing ones. More than 30,000 workers represented by several unions authorized a strike in an Oct. 11 vote.

Read the complete story here.

Unions Fighting Vax Mandates Endanger Public Health & Economic Recovery

From today’s New York Times:

As New York pushes forward with some of the toughest and farthest-reaching vaccine mandates in the nation, thousands of health care workers in the state appear to be willing to be fired rather than get vaccinated.

So, too, do thousands of people who work in New York City’s public schools.

How sad that many of these vaccine holdouts are supported by their unions. Talk about a lack of solidarity.

For years, these unions defended the health and safety of their members. They fought for better wages and protected workers’ rights. They built the middle class. Now they are fighting state and city vaccine mandates aimed solely at keeping workers and communities safe and healthy. So much for the old union idea that an injury to one is an injury to all.

At least city and state government officials have the best interests of the public in mind, even if some in the labor movement have forgotten which side they’re on.

The state’s mandate, requiring vaccination of health care workers, went into effect at midnight on Monday. The city’s, which requires the same of all Department of Education employees, goes into effect at 5 p.m. on Friday. A court upheld the city mandate on Monday.

Some unions, like New York’s nurses’ union, took a reasonable approach, expeditiously negotiating over the vaccine mandate and fighting for other workplace safety measures related to the pandemic, like proper protective gear. Local 32BJ, a New York unit of the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care aides, janitors and many other lower-wage employees, has taken a similar approach and pushed hard to vaccinate its members.

But other New York unions have sought to stymie or delay the vaccine mandates. Some have argued that vaccination shouldn’t be a condition of employment at all.

Read the complete story here.

Pres. Biden to require federal workers and contractors to get vaccinated

From today’s New York Times:

President Biden on Thursday will sign executive orders requiring the vast majority of federal workers and contractors who do business with the government to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. They are part of an aggressive new plan that will also put pressure on private businesses, states and schools to enact stricter vaccination and testing policies as the Delta variant continues its spread across the United States.

The mandate will apply to employees of the executive branch, including the White House and all federal agencies and members of the armed services — a work force that numbers more than four million — but not to those who work for Congress or the federal court system, according to a person familiar with the plan.

The spread of the highly infectious variant had pushed the country’s daily average caseload over 150,000 for the first time since late January, overwhelming hospitals in hard-hit areas and killing roughly 1,500 people a day. The surge has alarmed Mr. Biden and his top health advisers, who see mass vaccination as the only way to bring the pandemic under control.

Mr. Biden, who was briefed by his team of coronavirus advisers on Wednesday afternoon, is set to deliver a speech at 5 p.m. Eastern that will address about six areas where his administration can encourage — or, at this point, push — more eligible Americans to receive vaccines.

Mr. Biden had already pushed federal workers to get vaccinated by announcing that those who refused would have to undergo regular coronavirus testing. But the surge, coupled with last month’s decision by the Food and Drug Administration to grant full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to those 16 and older, has made him decide to take more aggressive steps, eliminating the option of testing, the officials said.

At least one federal workers’ union has already indicated that the new requirements should be subject to the bargaining process. On Thursday, the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal-worker union, stopped short of offering full-throated support for Mr. Biden’s plan.

“Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” Everett Kelley, the union’s president, said in a statement. We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who is able to get vaccinated as soon as they can do so.”

Read the complete story here.

Post-COVID, Americans Don’t Want to Return to Lousy Low Wage Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

The hopes for a booming pandemic recovery — growth led by jobs gains in the millions every month — were dealt a blow in recent weeks by a disappointing April jobs report. Perhaps we will see better when results for May are released this week, on Friday. But, for weeks, many in Democratic policy and political circles have been queasy about addressing the connection between federally supplemented unemployment insurance benefits and the slowing pace of re-employment at this stage of the recovery from the pandemic. There is almost certainly a common sense connection: If you were a low-wage worker, why aggressively attempt to go back to work at a lousy, low-paying job, when you can make more money collecting unemployment benefits.

Still, Republican politicians are getting it wrong too. They are citing countless news reports that businesses are struggling to fill certain positions as both a reason to end federal unemployment benefits and as evidence that the extra benefits were too generous in the first place. They worry that the ability of some workers to stay on the sidelines of the labor market, unless employers offer wages that trump jobless benefits, could result in dangerous “wage inflation” — a potential increase in labor costs that, they believe, consumers will pay for in the form of higher priced goods and services.

That argument simply does not hold water either: Over the coming weeks and months as this aid for the jobless phases out, there will be a flood of anxious job seekers pouring into labor markets. Even if a significant share of workers are temporarily avoiding taking low-paying jobs while benefits remain generous, then there is no true “labor shortage,” as many economists and market commentators are calling it.

When Congress passed the CARES Act last May and the American Rescue Plan Act this March, it was hard, even impossible, for policymakers to forecast the demand for labor or the pace of the economic recovery. The pandemic was still stubbornly lurking. The economic (and humanitarian) risk of doing too little far exceeded the risk of being generous. And in spite of some recent comments from Democrats facing political pressure, the entire point of the enhanced unemployment checks, at least originally, was to tide Americans over until it was safe for more people to work again.

Now enhanced benefits are ending every day for the millions of Americans who have benefited from the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC, program, which extends unemployment insurance for 13 weeks to those who exhausted their conventional state and federal unemployment benefits. All extra federal supplements for the unemployed will end on Sept. 6, including the general $300 weekly benefit, as well as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program, which provides aid to those who were self-employed. (Some states are in the process of cutting them early.)

Republican-controlled states, as well as some more politically mixed states, are doing this because they presume there is a macroeconomic upside to millions of workers returning to lower-income jobs. They shouldn’t be so sure.

Read the complete article here.

Fact Check: Federal law does not prevent states, businesses, employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines

From USA Today:

As millions of Americans continue to get vaccinated against COVID-19, some employers, colleges and businesses are weighing whether to make vaccination mandatory. A widely shared claim on social media says those measures are against the law.

An Instagram post published May 10 says Americans “have the right to refuse” coronavirus vaccine mandates.

“Under Emergency Use Authorization, no employer, biz, or govt can make the #COVID19vaccine mandatory until it’s evaluated in 2 yrs,” says text in the post, which is a screenshot of an April 1 tweet.

As evidence, the tweet cites “21 US Code SS 360bbb-3,” a federal law that has to do with “authorization for medical products for use in emergencies.” Instagram posts mentioning that law have received thousands of interactions over the past month, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.

The law cited in the posts has to do with emergency use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The law says nothing about a required two-year evaluation period for vaccines approved for emergency use. While there is a legal gray area for mandating vaccines authorized for emergency use,businesses, employers and state governments generally have the power to require vaccination, experts say. 

“There is no legal basis for what is being claimed,” said Ana Santos Rutschman, an assistant professor at Saint Louis University who specializes in food and drug law, in an email.

Read the complete article here.

Health Advocate or Big Brother? Companies Weigh Requiring Vaccines

From today’s New York Times:

As American companies prepare to bring large numbers of workers back to the office in the coming months, executives are facing one of their most delicate pandemic-related decisions: Should they require employees to be vaccinated?

Take the case of United Airlines. In January, the chief executive, Scott Kirby, indicated at a company town hall that he wanted to require all of his roughly 96,000 employees to get coronavirus vaccines once they became widely available.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Kirby said, before urging other corporations to follow suit.

It has been four months. No major airlines have made a similar pledge — and United Airlines is waffling.

“It’s still something we are considering, but no final decisions have been made,” a spokeswoman, Leslie Scott, said.

For the country’s largest companies, mandatory vaccinations would protect service workers and lower the anxiety for returning office employees. That includes those who have been vaccinated but may be reluctant to return without knowing whether their colleagues have as well. And there is a public service element: The goal of herd immunity has slipped as the pace of vaccinations has slowed.

But making vaccinations mandatory could risk a backlash, and perhaps even litigation, from those who view it as an invasion of privacy and a Big Brother-like move to control the lives of employees.

In polls, executives show a willingness to require vaccinations. In a survey of 1,339 employers conducted by Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, 44 percent of U.S. respondents said they planned to mandate vaccinations for their companies. In a separate poll of 446 employers conducted by Willis Towers Watson, a risk-management firm, 23 percent of respondents said they were “planning or considering requiring employees to get vaccinated for them to return to the worksite.”

Read the complete article here.

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.

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.