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.

The Unionization Vote at Amazon

From today’s New York Times:

The most closely watched union election in recent history is underway in Alabama, where almost 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse near Birmingham are voting on whether they want to form a union. The election has attracted attention from President Biden, N.F.L. players and Hollywood actors, making it a high-stakes test of whether a union has a role in one of the country’s biggest employers.

The unionization effort, which began last summer, is the largest and most viable organizing campaign among Amazon workers in the United States. Here is what you need to know about it.

The unionization push came from a group of largely Black workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., which is just outside Birmingham. Late last summer, they approached a local branch of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has grown in the South, particularly in poultry, an industry with traditionally dangerous jobs and many Black employees.

The union deployed organizers who worked at nearby warehouses and poultry farms to focus full time on talking to workers at the Amazon warehouse. By late December, more than 2,000 workers signed cards indicating they wanted an election, the union said. The National Labor Relations Board determined that those signatures signaled “sufficient” interest in holding a vote.

Two big forces have helped drive the unionization effort: the pandemic’s focus on essential workers and the racial reckoning brought on by Black Lives Matter protests.

Amazon opened the Bessemer warehouse in March 2020, just as the coronavirus was taking hold in America. The pandemic made clear the critical role essential workers, many of whom were Black and paid hourly, played in serving customers and the economy broadly. Amazon had extraordinary growth last year, as people turned to online shopping instead of venturing into stores. It went on a huge hiring spree, ending the year with 1.3 million employees and $386 billion in sales.

In early summer, George Floyd’s killing prompted calls for racial justice, and the union has focused its organizing on issues of racial equality and empowerment. It has a decades-long history of working on civil rights and labor issues in the region. Around the same time, Amazon ended the extra pay it had given workers earlier in the pandemic. The workers who started the organizing said their pay was not commensurate with the risks they took and the productivity they must maintain.

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.

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.

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.

A Hidden COVID-19 Risk Factor: Your Employer Policy on Paid Sick Leave

From today’s Atlantic Magazine:

When the coronavirus first hit the United States, some politicians referred to it as the “great equalizer” because it supposedly didn’t discriminate. But very soon, that proved not to be true. People of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, for example, and low-paid essential workers have little choice but to show up for work and expose themselves. And if employees do get sick, whether they receive sufficient paid time off to recover is another pandemic disparity. Although many workers have found that their bosses are understanding about time off, others have struggled to get paid leave to heal or to care for their children.

In March, I wrote about a Walmart employee in Washington State who was fired because he had used up all his attendance “points” recovering from what he believed was COVID-19, a situation Walmart declined to comment on. In April, a grocery-store employee in Indiana claimed she was fired for staying at home with a potential case of COVID-19. (She sued, and the case was settled.) A 58-year-old nursing-home worker in St. Louis kept coming to work long after she developed symptoms of COVID-19, because she was told she wouldn’t be paid otherwise, her family told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She died a few weeks ago.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, making it easier for many American workers to receive paid leave if they get COVID-19, or if they have to care for children who are out of school. For the remainder of the year, employees are eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave if they are quarantined or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and 12 weeks of leave paid at two-thirds of their salary if they are caring for a child whose school or child-care provider is closed.

But the law excludes all sorts of employees. Large companies aren’t included in the law, and small companies can claim an exemption. Employers can supplement what’s required under the law with more expansive leave policies, but some companies are already ending the more generous leave policies that they put in place immediately after the coronavirus outbreak.

Our pandemic approach to sick leave is a continuation of America’s jumbled leave laws, in which your time off largely depends on your employer, not your needs. Because of this patchwork system, Americans are some of the only workers in the Western world who risk getting fired if they don’t drag their sick selves into work. Before the pandemic, a quarter of private-sector workers didn’t have a single paid sick day.

The inconsistent way that America does sick leave will become an even bigger problem as more states open up and companies ask their employees to return to the office. In the coming months, employers will wield remarkable power in determining whether their employees will be at risk of catching COVID-19, and whether they can keep their jobs if they do. As unemployment remains high and companies have more workers to choose from, more people may find themselves losing their jobs if they get sick.

Read the complete article here.

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.