News & Commentary

April 16, 2020

Maxwell Ulin

Maxwell Ulin is a student at Harvard Law School.

The Labor Department announced this morning that another 5.2 million workers filed for unemployment last week.  The new numbers brings the total number of unemployed in the United States to 22 million, or 13.5% of the American workforce.  Recent numbers mark the most dramatic increase in unemployment since the Labor Department began tracking figures in 1967.

As COVID-19 continues to roil the gig economy, major tech firms seek to adjust or make gains in the face of new economic realities.  As the Los Angeles Times reports, Instacart profits are at an all-time high as people use the service to stay home and avoid shopping in stores.  To keep up with demand, Instacart has adjusted its payment formula to induce more “bundling” by Instacart shoppers.  This decision has put increased pressure on Instacart’s workforce, whose members already often make below minimum wage and have found qualifying for paid sick leave through Instacart exceedingly difficult. As Jon and Courtney noted last month, Instacart’s lack of adequate health and safety measures have prompted mass protests by shoppers, yet the company continues to rake in record returns during the pandemic

Amazon suspended operations in France yesterday after a civil court in Paris ordered that the company must coordinate with union partners in implementing new health and safety protocols or risk of fine of up to €1 million.  The company has vowed to appeal but in the meantime has shuttered all fulfillment centers throughout the country until next week.  The legal kerfuffle follows a series of walk-outs at French fulfillment centers in late March, as workers protested a lack of adequate health and sanitation equipment at Amazon facilities.  Across the pond, meanwhile, Whole Foods workers in the U.S. now plan to hold another sickout on May Day in response to rising concerns over infections and lack of safety precautions in stores.

Responding to increasing economic anxiety among farmers, the Trump administration has taken aggressive steps to deregulate the H-2A farmworker visa program. In a temporary final rule submitted to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) last week, DHS plans to allow farmers to begin hiring foreign workers already in the United States on H-2A agricultural visas, and to allow workers to acquire visas that last beyond the ordinary three-year expiration date.  The administration is also reportedly looking into reducing the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) used to set minimum wages for H-2A workers by state, either through an emergency rulemaking or by congressional action.  As the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) notes, H-2A farmworkers make an average of just $12.96 per hour, compared with $26.53 for other hourly workers overall.  What’s more, a report by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) released this week finds that virtually all H-2A visa workers face at least one major employment or contract violation during their jobs, with around 94% of workers experiencing three or more such violations.  EPI argues that deregulation will negatively affect the wages of not just H-2A but other farmworkers, around 25% of whom are U.S.-born citizens.

Like farmworkers, healthcare workers have played a crucial role in sustaining society over the course of the pandemic and have likewise suffered the consequences.  More than 9,000 healthcare workers have been infected with COVID19 as of April 9 thanks to high rates of exposure to the disease, and around 27 have died.  The New York Times details the tragic story of one such worker, an immigrant mother from Brooklyn, who succumbed to the illness last month.  As in other industries, women in the healthcare sector have been disproportionately impacted by COVID19, according to recent surveys.  Despite the risk, PPE at many hospitals has proven woefully inadequate; healthcare workers at Temple University in Pennsylvania, for example, have received substandard KN95 masks and have been asked to reuse them for up to twelve hours each, as opposed to replacing them with each patient meeting.  In response, nurses in California, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania staged a national day of protest yesterday to demand training, additional staffing, and more hospital supplies such as respirators, hospital gowns, and N95 masks. Workers are also asking for temporary housing in union hotels in order to avoid exposing their own families to the virus by returning home.  Meanwhile, Arkansas has announced that it will begin using Medicaid funds to give $250 a week bonuses to healthcare workers from April 5 to May 30, with up to $500 a week for those who contract COVID19.

McDonald’s has also become a major flashpoint in worker activism during the pandemic.  Yesterday, hundreds of employees across more than 50 Chicago-based McDonald’s restaurants held a strike via Zoom to protest unsafe workers conditions.  The protest, joined by Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, comes after workers at one Chicago franchise filed an OSHA complaint upon learning that the restaurant failed to inform them of a co-worker’s COVID19 diagnosis and did not conduct a deep-clean of the facility.  Meanwhile, a new class action lawsuit in Florida alleges that at least one hundred McDonald’s employees faced rampant sexual harassment at corporate-owned franchises across the Sunshine State.

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