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Coronavirus protests put into perspective how vulnerable some workers are: Worker Advocate

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As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread globally, essential workers are left feeling helpless and dissatisfied with their employer's response to COVID-19 and safety policies in the workplace. Patricia Campos-Medina, New York State AFL-CIO, Cornell Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University's ILR School Co-Director and Former SEIU Official joins Yahoo Finance’s On The Move panel to discuss the latest worker strikes in warehouses.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: We are seeing Amazon shares fall today after the company came out with earnings that missed estimates and said it was going to be spending a lot more on both hiring and safety procedures. However, a number of Amazon workers plan to strike today along with workers at some other retailers, saying they need increased safety precautions. And they're making other demands of Amazon and some other companies.

We are joined now by Patricia Campos-Medina. She is faculty at Cornell University's ILR School-- ILR stands for Industrial and Labor Relations. And indeed, she has consulted with a number of different unions. Patricia, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it. We're joined also by, I should say, by Anjalee Khemlani. Patricia, first of all, talk to me about the strikes that are planned for today-- what the workers are looking for in this current very challenging environment.

PATRICIA CAMPOS-MEDINA: Well, thank you so much for addressing this issue today. We have seen the pandemic has amplified the drastic inequalities in our society. Only a few-- only about 30% of the workforce can actually protect themselves by staying home and working from home. The rest of the workers have to go to work, because they are considered essential workers. And essential workers right now are not just health care workers-- nurses and doctors, who are we are very grateful for their sacrifices.

But essential workers are grocery store workers, warehouse workers, the person who delivers your takeout, the person who's cooking at the restaurant so that we can just pick up the phone and have them come over. So that workforce is basically fighting for their voices to be heard and for their lives to be protected.

We see a lot of workers at nursery homes who go from one nursing home to another nursing home taking care of elderly people-- in some cases, themselves being carriers of the virus, and they don't have health insurance so they don't have sick days or the ability to stay home. So those are the workers that are protesting today. And they are saying, I am essential, and I also deserve for my employer to take care of my safety at work.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: [INAUDIBLE], that's really important. And we know that we've seen from reports about how this has disproportionately affected minorities as well as undocumented workers. Are they also participating in this?

PATRICIA CAMPOS-MEDINA: Well, what we have seen from this workforce, the majority of them are African-Americans or immigrants-- many undocumented. For example, in New York City and New York area, we have hundreds of workers who basically don't have any benefit. They cannot stay home. They do not qualify for unemployment insurance. If they don't work, they don't get paid. So the disparity of who is being impacted by COVID-19 and by our demands as a society that some of them should work while some of us can work from home, it sort of puts into perspective how vulnerable this workforce is.

So these workers are fighting for basic things like PPE. They're fighting for hazard pay, because they're putting their lives on the line. They're fighting for paid sick leave if they get sick working while they are going-- how are they going to stay home and not continue carrying the virus. They also want affordable health care. I mean, the majority of the workers in these industries can not afford health care.

And that's the case for workers at Amazon and Target and Whole Foods. They might be able to afford-- they might be offered health care, but they cannot afford it. So many of them are in a very precarious situation, and they are demanding that corporations focus less on their profits and focus most on their corporate responsibility.

ADAM SHAPIRO: How do you bring about the changes that these men and women need, especially in, say, right to work states? I mean, New York is one place, but in a right to work state, they could actually be let go with the unemployment picture what it is. Wouldn't that be a hurdle they face in some of the southern states as they try to get some kind of equity as we're talking about?

PATRICIA CAMPOS-MEDINA: Well, yes. I mean, you know, the cost-benefit analysis for workers taking action used to be that if I take action, I may lose my job. But that cost-benefit analysis today is that if I don't speak out, I will get sick, and I will get my family sick, and I might die. So that cost-benefit analysis of taking action against your employer is higher now.

So workers, what we are seeing is all this activity, is an expectation that our society will change and will begin to value the work off of low wage workers, will identify them and recognize-- that they're essential to our own survival, and therefore change our society's perception that they are disposable, which is what for a long time corporations like Amazon wanted us to think about-- that these workers can just be moved aside.

So what May 1 and what today's actions are about is to elevate the consciousness of our society that begins to demand more for all workers. So yes, a place like Mississippi, perhaps, will not have the same level of rights as New York would. But what we are asking for, and my workers are asking for, is a recognition that the labor adds to the economic vitality of United States. And they're putting their lives on the line. Governments and corporations should do more to protect them. And I think society is beginning to see that.

Every pandemic that we have had in our society has seen a transformation of what we expect from our government and what we expect from our business community. And I think that we will see that transformation from American society this time around.

RICK NEWMAN: Patricia, hi. Rick Newman here. You've probably noticed or heard Republicans in Washington talking about imposing liability rules so that businesses cannot get sued as they normally would if customers or workers come back to work and then they get sick or something happens to them. What's the right way to deal with that?

PATRICIA CAMPOS-MEDINA: You know, it's always amazing to me how corporations think about their self-interest and not about their corporate responsibility. But what we should be talking about is how we work together with OSHA, the Office of Safety and Health, so that they can come together and develop protocols so that all employers set the same standards to protect workers when they get back to work. Rather than thinking about how to prevent a lawsuit, they should be thinking about how do I make my workplace safer so that when my workers return to work, I can protect them.

So that should be a change in mentality. And the fact is that we don't know how a federal government or an OSHA that is focusing on this, because that is not the focus of President Trump's administration, unfortunately. But I think that the change should be how can corporations and companies partner up with OSHA to create safety protocols for workers to be able to enforce themselves safety precautions once they get back to work.

Now, there are specific demands that warehouse workers are asking for, which is to create health and safety workers committees on the warehouses, where workers can monitor conditions in their workplaces and take action themselves rather than wait for OSHA to send an inspector. And I think we will see those kind of changes inside workplaces.

JULIE HYMAN: So, Patricia, I want to ask you specifically just quickly if you can speak to Amazon, which in its earnings report said it was spending a lot on safety. Do you think that that company is becoming more responsive?

PATRICIA CAMPOS-MEDINA: I think that Amazon has been one of the worst players-- corporate players-- in warehouse distribution. And they failed for a long time to address the workers' concerns. And now the workers themselves are demanding action, they are being forced to take action. And I think we will continue to see changes, because workers are no longer suffering in silence. And I do hope that corporations, like I said before, come back and focus on their social responsibility to the society that makes their profits and not just focus on taking profits out and putting them in their pockets.

We are in this together. That's the slogan. But it should also referred to corporate players who see their profits not just for themselves to build wealth, but for all of us to improve the conditions of everybody so that we can all come out of these better at the end of the day. The unemployment numbers will continue to go up. More people are going to be suffering. Government has to step in and provide some level of support for workers, but also corporations need to start figuring out what they need to do to improve the conditions of workers.

And this is where unions come into place. Workers right now are doing these actions on their own, many of them-- supported by some unions. By the labor movement also needs to begin to organize and exercise collective bargaining rights so that we can balance the scales of power between corporate actors who focus on profits and unions who ought to focus on improving the working conditions of workers.

JULIE HYMAN: Patricia, thank you so much for joining us. Patricia Campos-Medina is on the faculty at Cornell University's ILR School, speaking to us about the worker actions that are occurring today. Patricia, thank you so much for joining us. And thanks to Anjalee as well.