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.

It’s Time to Strike! This Could Be the Last Stand for American Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Labor Day hit with an extra knife-twist of cruel irony this year, in an America that is barely trying to pretend anymore that the plight of tens of millions of working people merits national concern.

On Friday, the government announced a slowing recovery from the job losses and economic shutdown caused by the pandemic. Nearly 14 million Americans are now unemployed, and almost eight million more are euphemistically called “involuntary part-time,” meaning they would work more if there were enough work.

In March, as part of a wider stimulus, Congress expanded unemployment aid by $600 per week, a plan that scholars say may have temporarily reduced the nation’s poverty rate. As of mid-August, about 29 million Americans were receiving some form of unemployment assistance.

But the $600-per-week bonus ran out in July, and Senate Republicans have rejected Democrats’ bill to extend the payments. The G.O.P. is now working on its own more limited plan, though several Republican senators are reluctant to support even that.

Inaction may prove disastrous. Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist for S & P Global, told The Times last week that federal aid was meant as a kind of economic bridge through uncertain times, but, she added, “it looks like the ravine has widened and the bridge is halfway built, so there are a lot of people stranded.”

Bovino’s image suggests a way out of this mess: Workers should band together and demand, collectively, a bridge across the ravine.

To put it more plainly: It’s time for a general strike. Actually, it’s time for a sustained series of strikes, a new movement in which workers across class and even political divides press not just for more unemployment aid but, more substantively, a renewed contract for working in an economy that is increasingly hostile to employees’ health and well-being.

This may be the American worker’s last stand: If we can’t get our government to help us now, when will we ever?

Read the complete article here.

Why Work From Home When You Can Work From Barbados or Estonia?

From today’s New York Times:

When Lamin Ngobeh, a high-school teacher at the Freire Charter School in Wilmington, Del., saw a social media post last month about working remotely in Barbados for 12 months, his interest was piqued.

Lamin Ngobeh, a high-school teacher in Delaware, plans to move temporarily to Barbados in September.
Mr. Ngobeh in his classroom in Delaware.

“My school probably won’t open for in-person classes at least until February 2021, and I want to be in a country that’s safer — health wise — and also enjoy the quality of life,” he said of the reasons for considering a temporary relocation. “I reached out to my school leaders and they were very supportive of my decision.”

When it announced its 12-month Welcome Stamp program in mid-July, Barbados became one of the first of several countries, in regions from the Caribbean to Eastern Europe, to create programs for remote workers. The programs employ either special visas or expand existing ones to entice workers to temporarily relocate. Other countries offering similar visas currently include Estonia, Georgia and Bermuda.

A substantial drop in these countries’ tourism numbers is a key reason for the new programs.

“Tourism is the lifeline of the country,” said Eusi Skeete, the U.S. director of tourism for Barbados. Tourism accounted for 14 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product in 2019, according to data published by the Central Bank of Barbados, and had a record number of international arrivals of more than 712,000. But in 2020, the number of visitors during the months of April, May and June were near zero.

Mr. Skeete said that the country’s new remote worker visa program will help with those numbers. “A 12-month period will allow visitors to experience the country in a holistic way,” he said.

More than 1,000 applications from around the world were submitted within the first week, the country said, with the majority of responses from the United States, Canada, and Britain.

Read the complete article here.

Coronavirus relief talks restart as jobless aid divides GOP and Democrats

From today’s CNBC News Online:

Democrats and Trump administration officials will sit down again Monday afternoon to try to hammer out an elusive deal on a fifth coronavirus aid bill. 

Negotiators House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows plan to meet at 1 p.m. ET as the sides find themselves far from an agreement. The discussions will follow Sunday’s staff-level talks on a package to help rein in a raging pandemic and jolt a flailing U.S. economy. 

The effort has gained urgency after a $600 per week federal unemployment benefit expired at the end of July. The extra aid has helped tens of millions of jobless people afford food and housing as the economy reels during the outbreak. 

Pelosi has indicated the sides made more progress in talks over the weekend than they did in discussions last week. Asked Monday how far apart Democrats and Republicans are, the speaker said she would wait to see how Monday’s talks go. 

“Well, let’s see when we meet today,” she told CNN. “It’s absolutely essential that we reach agreement.” 

Disagreements over how to structure unemployment insurance have stood in the way of a deal. Democrats have insisted on continuing the $600 weekly sum. They passed a House bill in May to extend the aid into next year.

Republicans, who questioned the need for more pandemic relief before they released a proposal last week, want to slash the extra benefit to $200 per week through September. They would then set the aid at 70% wage replacement.

Read the complete article here.

Senate GOP, White House propose cuts to unemployment relief checks

From today’s ABC News Online:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a new coronavirus relief plan on the Senate floor after Senate Republican leaders and the White House appear to have overcome their differences.

“I hope this strong proposal will occasion a real response, not partisan cheap shots. Not the predictable, tired old rhetoric as though these were ordinary times, and the nation could afford ordinary politics,” McConnell said Monday afternoon in a floor speech.

But Democrats already don’t agree with the Republicans’ plan, which includes a $200 flat-rate, short-term extension to federal unemployment benefits as opposed to $600 a week, a senior source familiar with the matter confirmed to ABC News, since it will take time before states’ systems can shift to accommodate any federal benefit changes.

Following McConnell’s floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the Republican Party for “wasting precious time” in the months since Congress passed its first coronavirus relief package, arguing “the White House and Senate Republicans couldn’t get their act together” in the time since.

“Ten weeks after Democrats passed a comprehensive bill through the House, Senate Republicans couldn’t even agree on what to throw in on the wall,” Schumer said, adding that support for the plan presented Monday is still not clear. “Not only do we not know if the president supports any of these proposals, we don’t even know if Senate Republicans fully support.”

Republican sources familiar with the matter told ABC News later Monday that there could be as much as half the Senate GOP conference voting against the bill.

Read the complete article here.

California unemployment falls, but virus surge likely to reverse job gains

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

California added 558,200 jobs from mid-May to mid-June and state unemployment fell from 16.4% to 14.9% — but don’t start celebrating yet. The numbers don’t account for the resurgence of COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S. and in California in the last half of June or the retreat in plans to reopen the economy. The numbers were released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which slightly revised the earlier jobless figure from 16.3% to 16.4%.

Leisure and hospitality added the most jobs, at 292,500, benefiting from statewide reopenings of bars and dine-in restaurants, according to the California Employment Development Department. As of mid-June, that sector had regained more than a third of job losses from March and April. Construction jobs had the highest percentage gain, clawing back 68% of jobs lost during the pandemic. Government suffered the largest decline in jobs, at 36,300.

But the dial-back is bound to reverse a positive trend in rehiring as bars, restaurants, hotels, airlines and thousands of other affected businesses scale back already reduced operations or remain closed, said Michael S. Bernick, an attorney at Duane Morris and former head of the California Employment Development Department.

“In some cases, workers rehired in June have been laid off [again] within a short time,” he said. “In other cases, companies decide they can no longer hang on. Every day brings reports of businesses announcing they are closing permanently in California.” Still, he said, the job gain is the highest in the nation, and probably the largest monthly jobs gain since World War II.

But any recovery will be jerky. The nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute said that due to the latest rise in COVID-19 cases, “Layoffs are going to pick up again as people are laid off for a second time, and hires will likely slow as well.

“Even with June’s rebound, which followed a small upturn in May, payroll employment in California stands 1.9 million lower than February. This represents an 11% drop, worse than the 9.6% loss for the nation as a whole,” said Lynn Reaser, economist at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She noted that California’s current unemployment is nearly four times its 4% year-ago rate and well above the 11.1% national rate.

Read the complete article here.

Unemployment and job growth show strong improvement, but coronavirus darkens the outlook

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. economy added a larger-than-expected 4.8 million jobs in June despite the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, registering solid gains for the second straight month after suffering near-Great Depression losses in the spring, the government reported Thursday.

Reflecting the June increase, the nation’s unemployment level fell to 11.1% after hitting 13.3% in May and 14.7% in April.

While the back-to-back months of improving numbers offered a spot of hope, they may be an uncertain guide to the future. Coronavirus cases, as well as hospitalizations and infections among younger Americans, have been exploding in California and other states across the West and South.

As a result, many areas that were reopening for business, and thus beginning to call back workers, are reversing course and imposing restrictions again. “This report may be a kind of high point,” said Heidi Shierholz, a former Labor Department chief economist now at the Economic Policy Institute.

California’s employment numbers for June will be released July 17, and are likely to mirror the national trend, albeit at a weaker pace. The state’s jobless rate for May was 16.3%, little changed from April, as job creation lagged somewhat. Unemployment in Los Angeles County was 20.9% in May.

Even with the June gains, joblessness overall remains higher than at any time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ records began in 1948. Jobless rates dropped across the board, but disparities remain significant. Black unemployment was 15.4% compared with 14.5% for Latinos, 13.8% for Asians and 10.1% for white people. Unemployment for college graduates was down to 6.9% versus 12.1% for workers with only a high school education.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the overall unemployment rate for the nation might actually be 1 percentage point higher than the 11.1% reported due to complications in survey collection. Misclassification of workers’ status had resulted in a much bigger undercount of the unemployed in the prior two months.

Read the complete article here.

Employer-Based Health Care, Meet Massive Unemployment from Pandemic

From today’s New York Times:

In the early months of 2020, Americans were engaged in the perennial election-year debate over how best to reform the nation’s health care system. As usual, the electorate was torn and confused. Polling indicated that a small majority of likely voters favored a new universal system that would cover everyone. But that support evaporated when it was made clear that any such overhaul would involve abolishing the private insurance market. At the time, nearly 160 million Americans received their health benefits through an employer, and the vast majority of them liked that coverage just fine — maybe not enough to sing about it, but enough to be wary of a potential replacement.

Then came the pandemic of the century. And the highest level of unemployment since the Great Recession. And the most concentrated wave of job loss in the nation’s history — more than 40 million Americans filed new unemployment claims between mid-March and late May. It will take time to ascertain the full impact of those losses on the nation’s health insurance rate, but an early survey from the Commonwealth Fund is not encouraging: 41 percent of those who lost a job (or whose spouse lost a job) because of the pandemic relied on that job for health insurance; 20 percent of those people have not managed to secure alternative coverage.

Nothing illuminates the problems with an employer-based health care system quite like massive unemployment in the middle of a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease outbreak. For one thing, uninsured people are less likely to seek medical care, making this coronavirus that much more difficult to contain. Also, people with chronic or immune-compromising medical conditions are particularly susceptible to this new contagion — which means the people most in need of employer-sponsored health benefits are the same ones who can least afford to return to work at the moment.

“The pandemic has amplified all the vulnerabilities in our health care system,” says Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, including “the uninsured, racial disparities, the crisis of unmanaged chronic conditions and the general lack of national planning.”

As dire as the crisis is, though, it’s also an opportunity to look at health care reform with fresh eyes — and to maybe, finally, rebuild the nation’s health care system in a way that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy and the well employed.

The first step will be acknowledging the problems of our current system. If American health care were its own country, it would be the fourth largest in the world by gross domestic product. The nation spends an average of $3.5 trillion per year on health care — more than Japan, Germany, France, China, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia combined — and still loses more people to preventable and treatable medical conditions than any of those countries do.

In other words, America has created the most expensive, least effective health care system in the modern world, and the most vulnerable Americans have been paying for that failure with their lives since long before the coronavirus came to town.

Read the complete article here.

How COVID-19 turned a spotlight on weak worker rights in the U.S.

From today’s Harvard Gazette:

As the economy reopens after the COVID-19 shutdowns, businesses are taking a varied, often patchwork approach to ensuring health and safety for their workers, and much uncertainty persists regarding employers’ obligations and employees’ rights. The Gazette spoke with labor law experts Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, and Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School (HLS), about how the pandemic has turned a spotlight on the lack of clear workplace protections in general, and in particular for women and people of color, who were disproportionately represented among those deemed essential. Block and Sachs recently co-authored a report urging that U.S. labor law be rebuilt from the ground up. On June 24, they will release the report “Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response.”

Q&A: SHARON BLOCK AND BENJAMIN SACHS

GAZETTE: What do you think the COVID-19 crisis has revealed about working conditions in the United States?

BLOCK: What it has revealed is something that many of us have known for a long time, but it’s been revealed in a much more urgent way, and it is how tattered our social safety net is in this country. That plays out in in a number of ways: for example, how inadequate our supports for workers are in terms of unemployment insurance. Just look at the desperate circumstances now more than 40 million workers have found themselves in. That’s been the reality for many low-wage workers, not on a mass scale, but that’s been their lived experience, even throughout a time when we thought we were in an expanding economy. The other side that has been exposed is that for workers who have been deemed essential and have worked throughout this crisis, how little protection they have in the workplace to be able to stand up for themselves, to say that their conditions are unsafe and they’re not being paid adequately for the important work they’re doing. On all sides of the social safety net and the ability of low-wage workers to have a decent life, what we’re seeing in myriad ways is how the system has failed workers.

SACHS: I would just add how weak the protections are for workers who stand up and demand safe, healthy, and fair working conditions, and how easy it is to fire workers who do that. It has also shown how badly broken our system of labor law is, which is to say that our system doesn’t give workers a voice so that the only recourse workers have is to take to the streets, and how little opportunity they have for an institutional structure of communication and demand-making. The other thing that Sharon and I would like to stress is how the crisis is being borne disproportionately by workers of color and women, which is another failing of our labor market and our system of labor law.

GAZETTE: Why are workers of color and women bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis? What role do the labor market and the labor law system play in it?

BLOCK: This is the result of the broken safety net we have. These are workers who are deemed essential, but the law has not treated as essential. They don’t have basic rights or the law doesn’t adequately address their situation. For lots of low-wage workers who are in these essential industries, the current labor law is particularly broken. They really have almost no real access to being able to act collectively and have the law recognize that and thereby give them power to affect their situation at work. As Ben said, they are predominantly workers of color and women, and that’s a big piece of why this pandemic has hit them so hard. We’re really seeing this connection that a lot of people intuitively knew, but hopefully more people understand now, which is that it is hard to separate economic issues and public health issues and issues of physical well-being. It’s not an accident that most people who are getting sick are poor or paid low wages.

Read the complete article here.

Why a Rotting Green Bay Boardwalk May Help Solve America’s Jobs Crisis

From today’s New York Times:

The governor of Pennsylvania wants to hire unemployed workers to help the state track the spread of the coronavirus in the fall. City Council members in Austin, Texas, voted to pay people to help with projects like preparing land for fire season. And Green Bay, Wis., hopes to pay the out-of-work to fix a decades-old rotted boardwalk in a major recreation area.

Across the country, state and local officials are considering ways to directly hire their out-of-work constituents, hoping that they can pay them to clean up parks, assist in conservation efforts and form the backbone of the public health response to the virus.

The programs so far are likely to allow for only a small number of jobs, in some cases just a handful. But local officials say they are hopeful the idea can persuade other areas to try similar efforts and, more important, elicit additional funding from Congress to support local job creation.

The effort is aimed at helping communities deal with an unemployment crisis more severe than what the nation faced at the worst moment of the Great Depression. Tens of million of workers have lost their jobs since mid-March, when the pandemic forced consumers into their homes and shut down most businesses. New unemployment claims have topped one million for 13 straight weeks.

So far, lawmakers and governors have mostly pushed for policies that will ensure Americans can go back to the jobs they held before the pandemic. The federal government allocated $660 billion for forgivable loans to businesses that agreed to keep workers on the payroll. Republican lawmakers have said they are interested in providing bonuses to people who return to work in lieu of extending expanded unemployment benefits, which are set to expire on July 31. And states have pushed to quickly reopen workplaces so that employees can regain a paycheck.

Read the complete article here.