News & Commentary

March 20, 2020

Rund Khayyat

Rund Khayyat is a student at Harvard Law School.

Initial unemployment uninsurance (UI) claims for the week ending on Saturday, March 14 jumped 33% – an rise unseen since 1992 –  to 281,000 from 211,000 the prior week. For the two years prior to the outbreak, UI claims had hovered between 210,000-230,000 a week. This was the first official labor market data to show the early signs of the coronavirus shock and coming recession. The Economic Policy Institute projects that UI claims will further explode in the coming weeks. First, the data doesn’t capture the workers who were laid off last week, but who waited to apply to benefits. Moreover, layoffs will likely continue in earnest as businesses experience the full weight of the economic shock. As Leigh reported, millions more workers are projected to face layoffs by the summer. The projected numbers are so stark that the Labor Department asked state officials to delay releasing precise numbers of unemployment claims, but to instead stick to generalities. According to the NYT, Pennsylvania received a flood of 180,000 UI claims in the last few days, a number that far surpasses what the state usually receives in an entire month. Meanwhile, Unite Here, a leading labor union for hospitality workers, projected Wednesday that 80% to 90% of its 300,000 members will be out of work due to the outbreak. The majority of its members are women working in hotels, airports and casinos.

Officials in Washington are scrambling to pass a trillion-dollar stimulus to help workers and businesses weather the economic impact of COVID-19. Senate Republicans on Thursday proposed a package that would provide hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to big corporations and small businesses, large corporate tax cuts, and checks of up to $1,200 for taxpayers. The proposal would provide $1,200 to Americans earning up to $75,000 a year, while those earning up to $99,000 would receive smaller amounts, and those earning above $99,000 would not qualify for assistance. Parents with children would receive $500 a child. The proposal would also impose limits on the newly-passed sick leave protections, by exempting small business owners from the costs of paid leave for employees affected by coronavirus and by limiting how much pay those employees could receive.

Senate Democrats, however, are likely to push for more generous paid-leave benefits, and for measures that more directly assist workers and families as opposed to large corporations. They have outlined their own $750 billion emergency plan that would expand paid family leave, pick sick leave and unemployment insurance. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Schumer issued a joint statement Thursday night stating, ““We are beginning to review Senator McConnell’s proposal, and on first reading, it is not at all pro-worker and instead puts corporations way ahead of workers.”

Many Americans – doctors, nurses, scientists, and delivery workers – are serving on the frontlines of the pandemic. News outlets have begun calling attention to the difficulties facing delivery drivers, who are mostly lower-income immigrants, risking their health to meet surging delivery demands as Americans stay home. Delivery workers earn meager salaries, have no health insurance, and have no labor protections. Jing Wang, an organizer of the Biking Public Project, a delivery worker advocacy group, told the New York Times that delivery workers are a particularly vulnerable workforce with no collective power, and that they continue working to earn paychecks even as most Americans stay home to minimize the spread of the virus. The Department of Labor has reported  delivery couriers are generally more exposed to diseases or infections than most other job types. In recognition of these realities, a New York City councilman wrote to Mayor de Blasio, “As the city shuts down….it is no secret that most who will be preparing and delivering meals will be immigrants.” Mayor de Blasio responded by easing citations on delivery workers, stating that they are providing a “crucial service” during the pandemic.

Instacart and Uber Eats announced they would provide 14 days of financial assistance to workers diagnosed with coronavirus. But many companies are not protecting the health and safety of their delivery workers. For instance, this week Postal carriers told ProPublica that USPS pressured them to stay on their routes despite showing coronavirus symptoms. They further claimed USPS provided them with little or no hand sanitizer even though carriers have little opportunity to wash their hands on their routes. In response, experts argued that by failing to protect mail carriers, USPS endangers all mail recipients by increasing the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Similarly, Amazon drivers claimed they were provided only a single disinfectant wipe with which to wipe down their vans before their shifts. Most Amazon drivers contract with one of the company’s many delivery service partners, which the tech-giant has urged to take on more routes to meet demand through the crisis. As a result, the drivers said Amazon has prioritized speedy and efficient deliveries, while enacting haphazard measures to safeguard driver health and safety.

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.