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Have We Changed the Way We Treat 'Essential' Workers?

States of Crisis with Dan Vock
Have We Changed the Way We Treat 'Essential' Workers?
By Daniel C. Vock • Issue #33 • View online
Nearly a year after Americans started praising “essential” workers as heroes, the workers who still have to show up to their jobs in person have gained little ground in getting new government protections or benefits.
In fact, the very fact that so many workers are considered “essential” has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’ve never had more leverage and attention to rally the public to their side. On the other hand, the fact that they are so critical for making sure that society carries out its most basic functions means that they have often borne the brunt of the pandemic.
That’s our story this week, as Amazon warehouse workers decide whether to unionize in Alabama, big city mayors are pushing teachers to return to in-person instruction and gig workers fight for the ability to be recognized as employees at all.
** I also want to pause here and send my best wishes to the people of Texas, as they contend with a series of cascading crises from extreme cold and power outages, to unreliable drinking water supplies and overwhelmed hospitals. I’m sure we will have more to say about the situation later, but, for now, I hope you can stay safe and healthy. **
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Onto the news…

Image via UFCW
Image via UFCW
Despite 'Hero' Status, Frontline Workers Face Big Obstacles in Getting Workplace Concessions
Kroger, one of the biggest grocery store chains in the country, announced this week that it would close two stores in Seattle, after the city council passed an ordinance that would have required the company to pay workers an additional $4 an hour for hazard pay.
Kroger said it could not afford to keep the locations open with the new pay requirements, given the increased costs of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic and “consistent financial losses” at the two stores. Kroger previously closed stores in Long Beach, California, after the city council there required hazard pay for its employees, too.
The Seattle closures, though, come shortly after Walmart announced it would not follow competitors like Target in offering a $15 starting wage. The retail giant will increase pay for 425,000 workers, but will keep its lowest wages at $11 an hour. CEO Doug McMillon said the lower starting rate would “create a ladder of opportunity” for employees as they advance within the company.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden told governors this week that a push to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour will likely have to wait. The president had hoped to make the change as part of COVID-19 relief legislation moving through Congress, but the idea faces both procedural and political obstacles to getting through the Senate.
The setbacks over pay, though, are just some of the challenges that essential workers have encountered recently. Teacher unions have gone toe-to-toe with big city mayors over plans to return students to in-person learning. Amazon is fighting fiercely to prevent workers in its Bessemer facility from unionizing. And perhaps most frustrating of all, essential workers outside of the health sector have struggled to get access to vaccines.
Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University at Buffalo, says the biggest gains that essential workers have made since the onset of the pandemic may not have been in new public policy, at least not yet. But shifts in how the public views essential workers – and how the workers view themselves – could lead to longer-lasting changes.
“There was a lot of rhetoric about a year ago about grocery workers and delivery workers being essential and heroic. I was worried then that it was just largely rhetoric, and I think that came to pass,” she said. “But that rhetoric does have consequences.”
“When the economy came to its knees in this public health crisis and this economic crisis, some people started to realize that we are only as strong as our most vulnerable workers,” Hatton explained. “While most people’s recognition of that may be fleeting, for the workers themselves it may not be.”
For now, that might mean workers are bolder in organizing for better safety measures in their workplaces or even full union drives. It won’t be the first time workers are mobilizing, but now they could gain more traction because the public is sympathetic and many government officials are attuned to the needs of the workers.
In March, Amazon workers in Staten Island walked off the job to protest working conditions, and one employee who pushed for unionization there was fired. (As of last fall, at least 20,000 Amazon workers had been infected by COVID-19.) But this week, New York’s attorney general announced she was suing the online giant over conditions at the Staten Island facility and another one in Queens. “Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health and safety of its frontline workers,” Letitia James, the attorney general, argued in the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, roughly 6,000 Amazon workers at a major warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, are now deciding whether to join a union. The company tried unsuccessfully to delay the vote and to change the potential bargaining unit. With the voting open, though, the results will be closely watched all around the country. Interest is building around the country in unionizing Amazon’s labor force, and a victory in the Birmingham-area facility would give labor unions a long-sought but elusive toehold in the South.
Amazon, Walmart and grocery store chains make attractive targets for workplace activists, in part because, unlike a lot of companies, they have fared extremely well during the pandemic.
Thirteen of the top retailers in the United States, according to a November analysis by the Brookings Institution, saw their profits increase an average of 40 percent over the last year.
“Stock prices rose on average 30 percent since the end of February. In total, the 13 companies reported 2020 profits to date of $63.4 billion, which is an additional $16.7 billion compared to last year. The two largest companies—Amazon and Walmart—drove the lion’s share of this growth; combined, they reported $10.7 billion in additional profit in the first three quarters of the year compared to last year. This is nearly two-thirds of the total for all 13 companies,” Brookings researchers Molly Kinder, Laura Stateler and Julia Du wrote.
Most of those retailers, though, ended their hazard pay for employees working through a pandemic by last summer, before last fall’s major surges in infections and deaths. Some of the largest retailers have initiated major stock buybacks at the same time.
“After ending its ‘hero pay’ in May, Kroger reported $211 million in stock buybacks in the second quarter, and announced a new $1 billion stock buyback program in September, sending stock prices up. Meanwhile, the company’s frontline grocery workers [are] earning some of the lowest wages in the industry,” the Brookings researchers wrote.
A group of retail employees that call themselves Unite for Respect have launched a campaign to pressure major retailers to better accommodate the needs of their front-line workers. The group is pushing government officials to prioritize those workers in vaccine distribution plans, to hold mass vaccination events in working-class neighborhoods and to distribute free N95 respirator masks to essential workers.
The group is also pushing Walmart, Amazon, Petco, PetSmart and other retailers to provide paid time off and a $500 bonus for workers who get vaccines. They want hazard pay, mask mandates, better PPE, input into safety protocols and protection from retaliation for talking about safety concerns on their jobs.
Workplace dangers
Essential workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic, but as is often the case, the ones who have been harmed the most are not always the ones who get the most attention.
Cooks, packaging machine operators, agricultural workers and bakers saw the highest spike in their death rates over pre-COVID times, according to an analysis of California deaths between March and October 2020.
“The pandemic’s effects on mortality have been greatest among essential workers, particularly those in the food/agriculture, transportation/logistics, facilities, and manufacturing sectors. Such workers experienced an increased risk of mortality of greater than 20 percent during the pandemic, with an increased risk of greater than 40 percent during the first two full months of the state’s reopening,” wrote the researchers from the University of California, San Francisco.
“Shutdown policies by definition do not protect essential workers and must be complemented with workplace modifications and prioritized vaccine distribution. If indeed these workers are essential, we must be swift and decisive in enacting measures that will treat their lives as such,” the authors added.
But government officials have to balance those concerns with the larger needs of society and, in many cases, that has meant fewer protections for frontline workers.
Last April, for example, then-President Donald Trump issued an order requiring meatpacking plants to stay open, despite rampant COVID-19 outbreaks in those facilities at the time. He invoked the Defense Production Act to do so, despite being reluctant to use that power for other pandemic-related production needs.
Trump’s order closely resembled a draft prepared by advocates from the meatpacking industry, who wanted to keep the facilities open. The move short-circuited efforts by some governors and local officials to impose their own safety standards on the meat processing facilities. So far, some 87,000 people in meatpacking plants and related industries have contracted COVID-19, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, and 374 of them have died.
Even heavily unionized government workforces like postal workers and teachers have been pressed into service, despite employee concerns about the safety of their workforces. But stiff resistance and wide-ranging demands from those groups has also raised the ire of elected leaders. In Chicago, for example, Mayor Lori Lightfoot hammered out an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union for a gradual reopening of schools, but the negotiations were drawn-out and contentious. When they concluded, Lightfoot implied the teachers union had gone too far with its demands. “They’d like to take over not only Chicago Public Schools, but take over running the city government,” she said.
On the other hand, it was California voters who overturned new labor protections for gig workers in the middle of a pandemic. They sided with Uber, Lyft, Door Dash and other app-based transportation companies in passing Proposition 22 at the ballot box in November, even as the state overwhelmingly supported labor ally Joe Biden in the presidential contest.
The ballot measure essentially carved out drivers for the transportation companies from a sweeping law California lawmakers passed to make sure companies were not skirting employment law by classifying their workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Now that Prop 22 passed, drivers for the transportation companies will now be considered independent contractors instead. In the wake of the new law, Albertsons’, a major grocery chain, has announced it will switch from using unionized employees for delivery services to third-party, app-based providers that use independent contractors.
The transportation companies are already pushing the adoption of Prop. 22-style laws in other states, as well.
Hatton, the University at Buffalo sociologist, said that type of legislation could undercut any of the gains workers make in other arenas. “If you can cut out your workers as not really your workers, that’s a big deal,” she said. “If [a company] can say, ‘I don’t have to pay minimum wage, because that’s not my worker,’ then you can set your minimum wage at whatever you want and it doesn’t really matter.”
“It really is the central issue of the moment,” she added. “All of the responsibilities for companies, like safe workplaces and a legally protected right to unionize, all of those things revolve around employee status.”
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Daniel C. Vock

A pandemic. Recession. Civil unrest. State leaders are grappling with several enormous crises all at once. We explore how they're responding.

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