Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Today, Who Is Offering More Value To Society-- The People Harvesting And Distributing Our Food, Or A Hedge Fund Manager?


On Monday, Elizabeth Warren and Ro Khanna jointly rolled out a bicameral call for an Essential Worker Bill of Rights to be included as part of a broad emergency relief package that’s needed to address the public health, economic and democratic crises the country is facing right now. The Essential Worker Bill of Rights would ensure all workers deemed essential during this crisis receive hazard pay, a livable wage, workplace health and safety protections, universal paid sick days, paid family leave, free health care, support for childcare, protections for whistleblowers and collective bargaining protections.

The business section of Monday's Washington Post noted that "While much of America shelters at home, millions of people still are working at hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, day-care centers and warehouses across the country. Many report working longer hours, often without adequate protective gear such as masks and gloves, as they scramble to meet heightened demand during a pandemic that has claimed 110,000 lives, including 20,000 in the United States." Warren added that "Essential workers are the backbone of our response to the coronavirus. They are putting their health and the health of their loved ones on the line to keep our country running-- and we need to have their backs."

In their rollout, Ro reiterated that "Nearly 60 million Americans are still working to keep our internet running, to deliver our groceries, to make sure we have electricity, and to care for the sick. In an age of automation, we are reminded of the dignity and importance of work that is not remote. This crisis needs to open our eyes to the value of workers who are often invisible, and we need to give them the pay and benefits they deserve." The bill he and Warren put together rests on ten goals:
Health and safety protections. Every employee, including employees of contractors and subcontractors, should be able to do their job safely, which means having necessary amounts of personal protective equipment provided by employers at no cost to the employee. Employers should be required to take proactive actions when someone at the job site may have contracted coronavirus, including informing employees if they may have been exposed and evacuating the job site until it can be properly cleaned. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should be required to immediately issue a robust Emergency Temporary Standard to keep employees safe.
Robust premium compensation. Every worker should be paid a livable wage, and essential employees are no exception. During this pandemic, essential workers should also be paid robust premium pay to recognize the critical contribution they are making to our health and our economy. Premium pay should provide meaningful compensation for essential work, be higher for the lowest-wage workers, and not count towards workers' eligibility for any means-tested programs. It must be retroactive to the start date of the pandemic, and not used to lower the regular rate of pay for any employee.
Protections for collective bargaining agreements.
Truly universal paid sick leave and family and medical leave.
Protections for whistleblowers.
An end to worker misclassification. The pandemic has highlighted the longstanding problem of employers misclassifying workers as independent contractors in order to avoid providing the full suite of benefits and protections available to employees. At a time when too many essential workers are being denied basic employment protections, Congress should crack down on worker misclassification.
Health care security. All essential workers should get the care they need during this crisis, including those who are uninsured or under-insured, regardless of their immigration status. We must use public programs to provide no-cost health care coverage for all, as quickly as possible. Congress should also listen to workers who have called for a full federal subsidy for fifteen months of COBRA for employees who lose eligibility for health care coverage.
Support for child care.
Treat workers as experts. Any time a public health crisis hits, the government should work with employers and workers to craft a response and set safety and compensation standards. Essential workers, and their unions and organizations, must be at the table in developing responses to coronavirus-- from determining specific workplace safety protocols to helping develop plans for distributing PPE to holding seats on the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Hold corporations accountable for meeting their responsibilities. Congress should ensure that any taxpayer dollars handed to corporations go to help workers, not wealthy CEOs, rich shareholders, or the President's cronies. That means taxpayers and workers should have a stake in how funds are used and companies should be required to use funding for payroll retention, put workers on boards of directors, and remain neutral in union organizing drives. CEOs should be required to personally certify they are in compliance with worker protections, so they can face civil and criminal penalties if they break their word. And any federal funding should be designed to ensure that employers cannot skirt the rules by firing or furloughing workers or reducing their hours or benefits in order to access a tax credit or avoid a worker protection requirement. 

Needless to say, the Trumpist regime has a very different way of looking at all of this. Short version: they oppose it. As NPR's Franco Ordoñez explained it last week, Trump is, for example, seeking to lower farmworker pay in the midst of the pandemic. Trump's 59th chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and his crackpot Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue are coming up with a plan to reduce wages for foreign guest workers on American farms, in order to help U.S. farmers struggling during the pandemic. (Politically, this might help corporate farms that have been hurt by Trump's trade war with China.) Have you turned your lawn into a vegetable garden? Maybe you'd better think about it.
The nation's roughly 2.5 million agricultural laborers have been officially declared "essential workers" as the administration seeks to ensure that Americans have food to eat and that U.S. grocery stores remain stocked. Workers on the H-2A seasonal guest-worker program are about 10% of all farmworkers.

The effort to provide "wage relief" to U.S. farmers follows an announcement Friday by the USDA to develop a program that will include direct payments to farmers and ranchers hurt by the coronavirus. Trump said Friday that he has directed Perdue to provide at least $16 billion in relief.

Last month, the U.S. State Department said it will start processing more applicants seeking H-2A temporary guest worker visas to ensure U.S. farmers have foreign workers in time for spring planting.

The most recent push to lower wage rates for workers on H-2A visas has drawn pushback from some strange bedfellows: immigrant-rights advocates and immigration hard-liners usually aligned with Trump.

Erik Nicholson, national vice president for the United Farm Workers, says people who have worked in agriculture for decades are concerned they are going to lose their jobs. And he said vulnerable guest workers are not being provided proper hand-washing facilities and still being forced to live in cramped housing.

"So in the middle of a pandemic, rather than trying to figure out the cheap way to do things, we need to make sure we live up to the expectations society has of us as an industry to keep the food flowing," Nicholson said.

Groups on the right fear Trump is succumbing to the will of the agriculture lobby that is demanding lower wages for foreign and domestic farmworkers at a time of record high unemployment in the United States.

The Department of Labor reports that 16.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment aid in the past few weeks.

"President Trump should see right through what the agriculture lobby is demanding in the name of 'food security' at the height of a health crisis-- lower wages for American workers and more cheap foreign labor," said Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports immigration restrictions. "These appalling demands underscore that the whole way this nation produces food should be reexamined."

It's unclear how the reforms would be made, including whether they would be taken through executive action or through the federal regulatory process. But Perdue has pushed for adjusting what is known as the adverse effect wage rate, which prevents farmers using the H-2A program from paying all workers-- U.S. and guest workers-- wages below the prevailing rates in the surrounding area.

Earlier this year, Perdue said the adverse wage rate has set almost a $15 minimum wage for agriculture, noting "no other business in the country has that," according to the agriculture trade journal DTN.

The "adverse effect wage rates" are based on a USDA survey of what agricultural workers are paid in each state. It's $11.71 in Florida, $12.67 in North Carolina and $14.77 in California.

A USDA official told NPR that Perdue is working with Trump to "resolve long-standing challenges facing the agriculture industry, including reforms to the H-2A program.

"These challenges have been exacerbated by these uncertain times," the official said in a statement.

U.S. farmers say they have had to cut back on production because of the high number of restaurant and hotel closures. Cory Lunde, a spokesman for the Western Growers Association, said U.S. farmers are fighting to keep "our farms afloat in the face of the near-total collapse of the food-service sector" and more recent slowdown in the retail market.

Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, said Trump administration officials are trying to look at ways to help because "they understand that we're in trouble and they want to secure the food supply for the American people."

"When a farmer goes out of business, you know, he doesn't come back," Wicker said. "Food supply is a national security issue and, as bad as this COVID-19 crisis is, perhaps it can be a catalyst to start a conversation about our agriculture policy and having sustainable agriculture and diversity."
These cutbacks sound suspicious. OK, hotels and restaurants are closed so farmers lost those customers. But are people consuming less food? Five dinners out, pre-pandemic means five dinners prepared at home instead, no? Are people eating significantly less food? Amazon and Walmart stock prices are almost back to their pre-pandemic highs, at least in part because they are selling lots more food.

A few days ago, the Washington Post published a report pointing out that "Next to health-care providers, no workforce has proved more essential during the novel coronavirus pandemic than the 3 million U.S. grocery store employees who restock shelves and freezers, fill online orders and keep checkout lines moving. Some liken their job to working in a war zone, knowing that the simple act of showing up to work could ultimately kill them. At least 41 grocery workers have died so far." What if they decided it was too dangerous-- especially considered the tiny wages they make-- and decided to stop working? Ditto for the men and women who pick our food. Think about it when Congress starts debating the Warren/Khanna bill.

Goal ThermometerTwo rural district progressives, J.D. Scholten in Iowa and Kathy Ellis in Missouri saw right through Trump's ruse. "CEOs don't make this country work-- working people, especially our farmworkers, do," said J.D. "But despite Trump deeming farmworkers as 'essential' during this pandemic, he's pushing forward a 10% pay cut for 250,000 H2A farmworkers. This is his latest attack on immigrants and he's using a shameful excuse of 'helping farmers' to do it. We don't need to hurt farmworkers in order to help farmers. Our coronavirus response should reflect our values and lift up all those on the frontlines who are putting their lives on the line to help others." Kathy is on the same page-- "This issue could not be more important. In my own state of Missouri, our local union leaders have been calling on the Governor to deem all of our frontline workers-- grocery store workers, food suppliers, agricultural workers-- essential workers with essential protections. His response has been, 'I cannot deem everyone an essential worker.' We need national leadership on this issue because in too many states like mine, local leaders aren't taking the steps they need to support our frontline workers. I proudly support this Bill of Rights, and am grateful for their leadership in pushing this forward."

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At 5:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a good bill which would benefit the working class. Therefore, if Pelosi doesn't kill it, McConnell will. Trump won't have to exert himself to veto the bill.

At 6:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if it costs money or is not profit-driven, Pelosi will smother it and bury it in her potter's field mass graves of good lege that she's killed alongside MFA, GND and all others.

In America, the people who take big money and turn it into bigger money are FAR more valuable to society. not even close.

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