News & Commentary

July 12, 2020

Jacob Denz

Jacob Denz is a student at Harvard Law School

Federal aid to state and local governments is a racial and gender justice issue, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The COVID-19 crisis has squeezed state and local budgets as tax revenues have fallen off a cliff while expenses have increased. Federal intervention is the only realistic solution to avoid massive job cuts in the state and local government sector. Such job losses would disproportionately harm workers of color and women workers: about 60% of state and local government employees are women, while almost half of Black women workers are employed in education, health services, or public administration, the primary activities of state and local government.

Recent COVID-19 incidents in workplaces have included factories, restaurants, meat processing plants, and even the Department of Labor itself. Los Angeles County has ordered the shutdown of Los Angeles Apparel’s factory in downtown LA, CBS Los Angeles reports. A county inspection had found “flagrant violations” of mandatory public health orders including the use of cardboard as a barrier between workers who were not properly distanced. Four workers have died at the facility and over 300 have tested positive for COVID-19. The city of Seattle and King County have also shut down Duke’s Seafood at Alki Beach after seven employees tested positive for COVID-19, the Seattle Times reports. Anonymous employees told the newspaper that the restaurant’s management pushed to fill every table and seated parties larger than five in violation of mandatory public health guidelines. The management denies these claims.

But not all workplaces that face serious COVID-19 hazards have been shut down, and meat processing plants in particular continue to operate despite high rates of infection. Fox 31 Denver details how workers at the JBS beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado walked off the job Friday afternoon to protest low pay and poor safety conditions. Six workers at the plant have died and 287 have tested positive for COVID-19. At JBS’s corporate office, five workers have tested positive, and one has died. Even several high-level Department of Labor officials themselves are self-quarantining after being exposed to COVID-19 during public interviews, Bloomberg News reports. The exposure follows guidance from the Trump administration encouraging federal supervisors to “lead by example” in returning to their offices. (As Alexandra discussed Friday, pressure on federal employees to return to their workplaces has been controversial.)

Like the JBS workers, L.A. Metro bus drivers are demanding higher pay in the face of risks associated with COVID-19, the Los Angeles Times recounts. The drivers staged a protest outside Metropolitan Transportation Authority headquarters on Friday evening. Bus lines in Los Angeles are becoming more crowded again as ridership resumes after a 29% cut in service during the statewide shutdown. Metro has approved a mandatory mask rule for riders, but bus drivers cannot enforce the rule by refusing service to passengers who are not wearing masks. About four dozen drivers have tested positive for COVID-19, and one driver has died.

Worker activism directed at another major employer in California has apparently paid off. Amazon’s warehouses in the state will now comply with a paid sick leave law that the company had been flouting for months, according to Vice. An April 16 executive order by Governor Gavin Newsom requires that all food sector workers receive two weeks of paid sick leave for COVID-19-related reasons. Although the order explicitly included workers at warehouses where food is stored, Amazon had taken the position that this order did not apply to workers at the company’s Inland Empire warehouses. A group of workers known as Inland Empire Amazonians Unite contacted California’s Labor Commissioner Office to raise concerns about Amazon’s lack of compliance. After several letters from the Labor Commissioner over a period of months, Amazon has announced that it will comply with the sick leave policy.

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