News & Commentary

July 26, 2020

Jacob Denz

Jacob Denz is a student at Harvard Law School

The last week of increased unemployment benefits has ended with no agreement in Congress to extend them, CNN reports. Republicans in Congress have proposed plans that would reduce the weekly benefit from its current $600 level to between $200 and $400. Democrats support continuing the $600 benefit into 2021. The number of applications for unemployment benefits actually increased last week for the first time in months. Even with the $600 weekly benefit, about a quarter of adults either missed their housing payment last month or have low confidence that they will be able to make it on time.

A San Jose, California McDonald’s allegedly fired a worker for striking to demand a safer workplace, San Jose Inside chronicles. Maria Ruiz was one of the lead organizers for a wildcat strike in late March to protest what she characterizes as inadequate personal protective equipment provided by McDonald’s. She also led a group of co-workers to join the nationwide Strike for Black Lives on Monday. Ruiz says she was fired on the pretext that she used the wrong container to make coffee.

Elsewhere in California, the death of Billie Sue Matchke, an Uber and Lyft driver, from COVID-19 has renewed the debate regarding rideshare companies’ responsibility for drivers’ safety, according to The San Diego Union Tribune. The 71-year-old retiree needed the income from driving after a recent bankruptcy. Like many rideshare drivers, Matchke had had difficulty collecting unemployment benefits. Uber and Lyft have refused to pay into California’s unemployment insurance fund.

In the absence of federal enforcement, some jurisdictions are taking new steps to protect workers. Los Angeles County has become the first government in the United States to authorize the creation of workers’ councils to monitor workplace safety. Harold Meyerson writes in The American Prospect that the proposal received the backing of the county’s labor movement, which has brought together a broad coalition of workers around issues of workplace safety. The Clean Slate for Worker Power report “Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response” and labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein have argued for the creation of such workers’ councils.

Across the country in Massachusetts, the Attorney General’s office has begun accepting workplace safety complaints via an online portal, Yahoo! News details. Although the office generally does not have enforcement authority over workplace safety issues, it has responded to complaints with letters informing employers and employees of workers’ rights and referrals to other agencies. The complaints are also public, allowing other workers and consumers to learn about workplace safety issues in the state. Common complaints include failure to implement social distancing guidelines and lack of personal protective equipment.

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