Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

From The Guardian Online:

Wildcat strikes, walkouts and protests over working conditions have erupted across the US throughout the coronavirus pandemic as “essential” workers have demanded better pay and safer working conditions. Labor leaders are hoping the protests can lead to permanent change.

Food delivery workers have become essential in New York after the city closed restaurants and bars to the public on 16 March.

Norma Kennedy, an employee at an American Apparel clothing plant is one of those people. Kennedy along with dozens of other workers walked off her job in Selma, Alabama, on 23 April after two workers tested positive for coronavirus. The plant has remained open during the pandemic to manufacture face masks for a US army contract.

“We left for our own protection,” said Kennedy. “Beforehand, management said if someone tested positive they would shut down and have the plant cleaned. When workers tested positive, they didn’t want to shut it down. They’re not really concerned about the workers.”

Working conditions, low pay and lack of safety protections have triggered protests throughout the pandemic as workers across various industries, including food service, meat processingretail, manufacturing, transportation and healthcare have come together to protest about issues, many of which were apparent before the coronavirus.

“There are no federal mandates or requirements to implement the social distancing guidance or anything else. It’s only guidance and employers can choose to implement them or not,” said Deborah Berkowitz, director of worker safety and health for the National Employment Law Project. “And that is why, in an unprecedented way, they are walking out to bring public attention to the fact that their companies are not protecting their safety and health.”

Read the complete article here.

Congress calls essential workers ‘heroes,’ hasn’t passed hazard pay raise

From today’s CNBC News:

Anyone listening to congressional leaders speak during the coronavirus outbreak has heard a lot about the “heroes” sustaining the rest of the country. 

A view outside Bellevue hospital during the coronavirus pandemic on May 1, 2020 in New York City.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday lionized “American heroes” in the health-care industry whom he said should have stronger protections from lawsuits. About a month earlier, Senate Democrats proposed a “Heroes Fund” to give a $13 an hour hazard pay raise to workers — from doctors and nurses to grocery and transit employees — who face a heightened risk of contracting Covid-19, the deadly disease caused by the coronavirus

House Democrats, who hold the majority in the chamber, also used the term “heroes” on Tuesday, calling their next $3 trillion relief bill the “HEROES Act.” The proposal, which could pass in the Democratic-controlled House but has little chance of getting through the GOP-held Senate and becoming law, includes a $200 billion “Heroes Fund” to offer front-line employees a raise.

Two months into the pandemic, only some businesses and cities have given the people still required to go into work a raise. While lawmakers have put forward several hazard pay plans, none of them made the cut in the four bills Congress has passed to try to mitigate the coronavirus’s devastation. 

As workers deemed essential “heroes” during the pandemic push for better compensation, no legislation with a real chance of becoming law has yet included better pay for them. As Republicans pump the brakes on another major federal spending bill, passage of a widespread wage hike for front-line workers appears unlikely in the coming weeks.  

“They’re putting their lives on the line, they’re essential employees. They should be compensated for that. This is above and beyond the normal call of duty,” said Bob Gibson, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1199 in Florida, a state where the union represents more than 25,000 health-care employees. 

Read the complete article here.

5 questions answered about workers’ rights during the coronavirus pandemic

From today’s PBS NewsHour Online:

Roughly 26 million have filed for unemployment benefits in the United States the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of others are risking safety to work in essential roles, or are navigating new challenges working at home. So what rights should workers, or the newly unemployed, be aware of?

Nawaz and Conti addressed a broad swath of audience questions on everything from employee recourse, to support for working parents, to unemployment benefits. You can read highlights from their conversation below.

What should be top of mind for people who have to physically go back to work?

A number of states have started to allow businesses to reopen, despite the recommendations of many public health officials, who say this could worsen the spread of novel coronavirus.

If you do have to go back to work, Conti stressed that you should consult the CDC for guidance on the protective equipment you need in order to do your job safely. “Make sure when you go back, that your employer is giving you what you need, whether it’s gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, or frequent opportunities to go to the bathroom to wash your hands,” Conti said.

Could there be recourse for employees who don’t feel safe at work?

If you don’t feel that your employer has provided the proper protections for you to return to work in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Conti said you “do have the legal right to stand up for healthy and safe treatment on the job.” You can do so by filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I can’t sit here and tell you that an employer might not retaliate and might not either treat you worse on the job, or perhaps fire you, and I certainly hope not, but you do have the legal right to stand up for healthy and safe treatment on the job,” Conti said.

If you feel that you’ve been retaliated against by your employer for asking for more protections as part of an organized group such as a union, you can file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Read the complete article here.

How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class

From today’s Atlantic Online:

Late last month, a photo circulated of delivery drivers crowding around Carbone, a Michelin-starred Greenwich Village restaurant, waiting to pick up $32 rigatoni and bring it to people who were safely ensconced in their apartment. A police officer, attempting to spread out the crowd, reportedly said, “I know you guys are just out here trying to make money. I personally don’t give a shit!” The poor got socially close, it seems, so that the rich could socially distance.

The past few weeks have exposed just how much a person’s risk of infection hinges on class. Though people of all incomes are at risk of being laid off, those who can work from home are at least less likely to get sick. The low-income workers who do still have jobs, meanwhile, are likely to be stuck in close quarters with other humans. For example, grocery-store clerks face some of the greatest exposure to the coronavirus, aside from health-care workers. “Essential” businesses—grocery stores, pharmacies—are about the only places Americans are still permitted to go, and their cashiers stand less than an arm’s length from hundreds of people a day.

My inboxes have filled up with outcries from workers at big-box retailers, grocery stores, and shipping giants who say their companies are not protecting them. They say people are being sent into work despite having been in contact with people infected with the virus. They say the company promised to pay for their quarantine leave, but the payment has been delayed for weeks and they are running out of money. Or the company denied their medical leave because they don’t have proof of a nearly impossible-to-get COVID-19 test. Or the company doesn’t offer paid medical leave at all, and they’re wondering how they’ll pay for gas once they recover from the disease.

Masks are in short supply nationwide, and some managers have resisted allowing workers to wear them, fearing it will disrupt the appearance of normalcy. Some companies have rolled out “hazard pay” for employees, but in many cases it amounts to about $2 more an hour. The Amazon employees I’ve spoken with largely work fewer than 30 hours a week, and the company does not provide them with health insurance. One Walmart employee used up all his attendance “points” while sick with the virus, and was fired upon his return to work. (Walmart did not comment on his situation for my story.) At least 41 grocery-store workers have already died from the virus. “I make $14.60 an hour and don’t qualify for health care yet,” one grocery-store employee in New Mexico wrote to me. “I am freaked out.”

Meanwhile, many white-collar workers have no “points” system. Many such jobs offer as much paid time off as an employee and her manager agree to—a concept far beyond even the most generous policies at grocery stores. Many PR specialists, programmers, and other white-collar workers are doing their exact same job, except from the comfort of their home. Some are at risk of being laid off. But for the most part, they are not putting their lives in danger, except by choice.

Read the complete article here.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wants a bill of rights for essential workers

From today’s Boston.com:

Elizabeth Warren says the next coronavirus relief package should “put all workers front and center.” But the Massachusetts senator is also proposing a slate of new protections for those who don’t have the luxury of staying at home during the pandemic.

Warren and California Rep. Ro Khanna unveiled an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” on Monday aimed at boosting protections and benefits for the employees most exposed to COVID-19.

Experts say between 49 million and 62 million Americans are employed by industries designated as “essential” by the federal government. And while health care employees are viewed to be at the greatest risk of contracting the disease, the list also includes other “frontline” workers whose jobs continue to require them to be in close contact with other people during the outbreak, from grocery store workers and janitors to truck drivers and transportation employees to government and child care workers.

“Essential workers are the backbone of our nation’s response to coronavirus,” said Warren, who has called on Congress to end its weeks-long recess to pass additional legislation in response to the economic and public health crises wrought by the pandemic.

The federal government has issued some guidance for workers in the food retail industry, but Warren and Khanna want Congress to strengthen and expand those policies in the next relief package,

Their “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” proposal would require employers to provide all frontline workers with personal protective equipment and robust hazard pay “retroactive to the start date of the pandemic.” It would create a program to require — and reimburse — employers to provide up to 14 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave during the public health crisis.

Read the complete article here.

Grocery workers are beginning to die of coronavirus

From today’s Washington Post:

Major supermarket chains are beginning to report their first coronavirus-related employee deaths, leading to store closures and increasing anxiety among grocery workers as the pandemic intensifies across the country.

A Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, N.Y., a greeter at a Giant store in Largo, Md., and two Walmart employees from the same Chicago-area store have died of covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, in recent days, the companies confirmed Monday.

Though more than 40 states have ordered nonessential businesses to close and told residents to stay home to stem the spread of the virus, supermarkets are among the retailers that remain open. Thousands of grocery employees have continued to report to work as U.S. infections and death rates continue to climb, with many reporting long shifts and extra workloads to keep up with spiking demand. Many workers say they don’t have enough protective gear to deal with hundreds of customers a day. Dozens of grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Industry experts say the rise of worker infections and deaths will likely have a ripple effect on grocers’ ability to retain and add new workers at a time when they’re looking to rapidly hire thousands of temporary employees. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, is hiring 150,000 workers, while Kroger is adding more than 10,000. Many are offering an extra $2 an hour and promising masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. But finding people willing to work on the front lines for little more than the minimum wage could be an increasingly tough sell, according to supermarket analyst Phil Lempert.

“One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to,” he said. “They’re starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers. We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’ “

Read the complete article here.

Amazon, Instacart Workers Demand Coronavirus Protection And Pay

From NPR News Online:

Some Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, N.Y., and Instacart’s grocery delivery workers nationwide walked off their jobs on Monday. They are demanding stepped-up protection and pay as they continue to work while much of the country is asked to isolate as a safeguard against the coronavirus.

The protests come as both Amazon and Instacart have said they plan to hire tens of thousands of new workers. Online shopping and grocery home delivery are skyrocketing as much of the nation hunkers down and people stay at home, following orders and recommendations from the federal and local governments.

This has put a spotlight on workers who shop, pack and deliver these high-demand supplies. Companies refer to the workers as “heroes,” but workers say their employers aren’t doing enough to keep them safe.

The workers are asking for a variety of changes:

  • Workers from both Amazon and Instacart want more access to paid sick time off. At this time, it’s available only to those who have tested positive for the coronavirus or get placed on mandatory self-quarantine.
  • Amazon workers want their warehouse to be closed for a longer cleaning, with guaranteed pay.
  • Instacart’s grocery delivery gig workers are asking for disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer and better pay to offset the risk they are taking.

Read the complete article here.

Dear COVID-19: Sorry, but Working From Home Is Overrated

From today’s New York Times:

I’m writing this from the makeshift quarantine bunker in my dining room — sweatpants on, hand sanitizer nearby, snacking my way through my emergency rations. I’m getting plenty of work done, but I’m starting to get unnerved by the lack of stimulation. It’s been hours (days?) since I interacted face to face with a human who is not related to me, and cabin fever is setting in.

Among the coronavirus’s many effects is a boom in people like me: office workers, shooed away from the office, trying to acclimate to a work-from-home lifestyle.

While the outbreak has already created inconveniences (and much worse) for millions of people in the form of travel restrictions, health scares and stock market turmoil, it has been an exciting time for some fans of remote work. They argue that quarantined workers are getting a glimpse of our glorious, office-free future.

“This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold,” wrote Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of Automattic, the software company that owns the WordPress blogging platform.

Mr. Mullenweg, whose company’s work force is fully distributed, sees a silver lining in the coronavirus. In his blog post last week, he wrote that it “might also offer an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility.”

I get where he’s coming from. I was a remote worker for two years a while back. For most of that time, I was a work-from-home evangelist who told everyone within earshot about the benefits of avoiding the office. No commute! No distracting co-workers! Home-cooked lunch! What’s not to love?

But I’ve been researching the pros and cons of remote work for my upcoming book about human survival in the age of artificial intelligence and automation. And I’ve now come to a very different conclusion: Most people should work in an office, or near other people, and avoid solitary work-from-home arrangements whenever possible.

Read the complete article here.

For Amazon workers in Minnesota, Prime Day means protest

From today’s Washington Post:

As a “rebinner” at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Minneapolis, Meg Brady says she is expected to handle 600 items per hour, constantly pivoting on her feet to grab one item and place it in a nearby chute.

Brady, 55, compared the job to an aerobics workout — one she says has left her with a stress fracture in her foot and on short-term disability for almost two months.

She’s been an Amazon employee for a year and seven months. And on Monday afternoon, she joined a small group of her fellow workers and dozens of other protesters outside the cavernous warehouse to demonstrate against the company’s working conditions, benefits and corporate culture. The protest took place on the first day of Prime Day, one of Amazon’s flagship shopping events that generates billions of dollars in sales for the retail giant.

“To actually get out and say [to Amazon], ‘You’re not doing a good job,’ that’s not an easy thing to say,” Brady said. “Because Amazon is so huge, you do feel like you’re this small person trying to fight a giant.”

Amazon has long defended how it compensates and treats workers, and the company argues that employees don’t need to form a union because Amazon already provides comprehensive benefits. Last year, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all U.S. employees, and chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos has challenged his retail rivals to do the same. Last week, the company announced it would retrain one third of its U.S. workforce — a total of 100,000 employees — to prepare them for increasingly tech-centered jobs. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

But Amazon has still come under increasing scrutiny from workers rights groups, lawmakers and politicians over issues ranging from corporate taxation to market competition. Amazon’s growing power has drawn particular attention on the 2020 campaign trail, with calls to break up the tech giant or more heavily regulate its vast empire. On Monday morning, presidential candidate and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted in support of the strikers, saying that “Their fight for safe and reliable jobs is another reminder that we must come together to hold big corporations accountable.”

Read the complete article here.

In Sweltering South, Climate Change Is Now a Workplace Hazard

From today’s New York Times by Yamiche Alcindor

GALVESTON, Tex. — Adolfo Guerra, a landscaper in this port city on the Gulf of Mexico, remembers panicking as his co-worker vomited and convulsed after hours of mowing lawns in stifling heat. Other workers rushed to cover him with ice, and the man recovered.

But for Mr. Guerra, 24, who spends nine hours a day six days a week doing yard work, the episode was a reminder of the dangers that exist for outdoor workers as the planet warms.

“I think about the climate every day,” Mr. Guerra said, “because every day we work, and every day it feels like it’s getting hotter.”

For many working class people, President Trump’s promise to make America great again conjured images of revived factories and resurgent industries, fueled by coal and other cheap fossil fuels. Such workers gave more of their votes to Mr. Trump than they did four years before to Mitt Romney, helping him eke out victory in November with narrow wins across the Rust Belt. Latino votes fell off for Democrats as well,from the 71 percent that went to Barack Obama in 2012 to the 66 percent that went for Hillary Clinton last year.

But to Robert D. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who some call the “father of environmental justice,” the industrial revival that Mr. Trump has promised could come with some serious downsides for an already warming planet. Professor Bullard is trying to bring that message to working-class Americans like Mr. Guerra, and to environmental organizations that have, in his mind, been more focused on struggling animals than poor humans, who have been disproportionately harmed by increasing temperatures, worsening storms and rising sea levels.

Read the entire article here.