Assaults at stores have been increasing at a faster pace than the national average. Some workers are tired of fearing for their safety.
There was the customer who stomped on the face of a private security guard. Then the one who lit herself on fire inside a store. The person who drank gasoline and the one who brandished an ax. An intoxicated shopper who pelted a worker with soup cans. A shoplifter who punched a night manager twice in the head and then shot him in the chest.
And there was the shooting that killed 10 people, including three workers, at the King Soopers supermarket in Boulder, Colo., in March 2021. Another shooting left 10 more people dead at a Buffalo grocery store last month.
In her 37 years in the grocery industry, said Kim Cordova, a union president in Colorado, she had never experienced the level of violence that her members face today.
F.B.I. said, more than half the so-called active shooter attacks — in which an individual with a gun is killing or trying to kill people in a busy area — occurred in places of commerce, including stores.
“Violence in and around retail settings is definitely increasing, and it is a concern,” said Jason Straczewski, a vice president of government relations and political affairs at the National Retail Federation.
Tracking retail theft is more difficult because many prosecutors and retailers rarely press charges. Still, some politicians have seized on viral videos of brazen shoplifting to portray left-leaning city leaders as soft on crime. Others have accused the industry of grossly exaggerating losses and warned that the thefts were being used as a pretext to roll back criminal justice reforms.
“These crimes deserve to be taken seriously, but they are also being weaponized ahead of the midterm elections,” said Jonathan Simon, a professor of criminal justice at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School.
While the political debate swirls about the extent of the crime and its causes, many of the people staffing the stores say retailers have been too permissive of crime, particularly theft. Some employees want more armed security guards who can take an active role in stopping theft, and they want more stores to permanently bar rowdy or violent customers, just as airlines have been taking a hard line with unruly passengers.
Kroger, which owns Fred Meyer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Some unions are demanding that retailers make official accommodations for employees who experience anxiety working with the public by finding them store roles where they don’t regularly interact with customers.
it was revealed that the retailers were hounding falsely accused customers.
The industry says it is putting much of its focus on stopping organized rings of thieves who resell stolen items online or on the street. They point to big cases like the recent indictment of dozens of people who are accused of stealing millions of dollars in merchandise from stores like Sephora, Bloomingdale’s and CVS.
But it’s not clear how much of the crime is organized. Matthew Fernandez, 49, who works at a King Soopers in Broomfield, Colo., said he was stunned when he watched a thief walk out with a cart full of makeup, laundry detergent and meat and drive off in a Mercedes-Benz S.U.V.
“The ones you think are going to steal are not the ones doing it,” he said. “From high class to low class, they are all doing it.”
Ms. Barry often gives money to the homeless people who come into her store, so they can buy food. She also knows the financial pressures on people with lower incomes as the cost of living soars.
When people steal, she said, the company can write off the loss. But those losses mean less money for workers.
“That is part of my raise and benefits that is walking out the door,” she said. “That is money we deserve.”
Most weekend mornings, Jaz Brisack gets up around 5, wills her semiconscious body into a Toyota Prius and winds her way through Buffalo, to the Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue. After a supervisor unlocks the door, she clocks in, checks herself for Covid symptoms and helps get the store ready for customers.
“I’m almost always on bar if I open,” said Ms. Brisack, who has a thrift-store aesthetic and long reddish-brown hair that she parts down the middle. “I like steaming milk, pouring lattes.”
The Starbucks door is not the only one that has been opened for her. As a University of Mississippi senior in 2018, Ms. Brisack was one of 32 Americans who won Rhodes scholarships, which fund study in Oxford, England.
in public support for unions, which last year reached its highest point since the mid-1960s, and a growing consensus among center-left experts that rising union membership could move millions of workers into the middle class.
white-collar workers has coincided with a broader enthusiasm for the labor movement.
In talking with Ms. Brisack and her fellow Rhodes scholars, it became clear that the change had even reached that rarefied group. The American Rhodes scholars I encountered from a generation earlier typically said that, while at Oxford, they had been middle-of-the-road types who believed in a modest role for government. They did not spend much time thinking about unions as students, and what they did think was likely to be skeptical.
“I was a child of the 1980s and 1990s, steeped in the centrist politics of the era,” wrote Jake Sullivan, a 1998 Rhodes scholar who is President Biden’s national security adviser and was a top aide to Hillary Clinton.
By contrast, many of Ms. Brisack’s Rhodes classmates express reservations about the market-oriented policies of the ’80s and ’90s and strong support for unions. Several told me that they were enthusiastic about Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who made reviving the labor movement a priority of their 2020 presidential campaigns.
Read More on Organized Labor in the U.S.
Even more so than other indicators, such a shift could foretell a comeback for unions, whose membership in the United States stands at its lowest percentage in roughly a century. That’s because the kinds of people who win prestigious scholarships are the kinds who later hold positions of power — who make decisions about whether to fight unions or negotiate with them, about whether the law should make it easier or harder for workers to organize.
As the recent union campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Apple show, the terms of the fight are still largely set by corporate leaders. If these people are increasingly sympathetic to labor, then some of the key obstacles to unions may be dissolving.
suggested in April. The company has identified Ms. Brisack as one of these interlopers, noting that she draws a salary from Workers United. (Mr. Bonadonna said she was the only Starbucks employee on the union’s payroll.)
point out flaws — understaffing, insufficient training, low seniority pay, all of which they want to improve — they embrace Starbucks and its distinctive culture.
They talk up their sense of camaraderie and community — many count regular customers among their friends — and delight in their coffee expertise. On mornings when Ms. Brisack’s store isn’t busy, employees often hold tastings.
A Starbucks spokesman said that Mr. Schultz believes employees don’t need a union if they have faith in him and his motives, and the company has said that seniority-based pay increases will take effect this summer.
onetime auto plant. The National Labor Relations Board was counting ballots for an election at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz. — the first real test of whether the campaign was taking root nationally, and not just in a union stronghold like New York. The room was tense as the first results trickled in.
“Can you feel my heart beating?” Ms. Moore asked her colleagues.
win in a rout — the final count was 25 to 3. Everyone turned slightly punchy, as if they had all suddenly entered a dream world where unions were far more popular than they had ever imagined. One of the lawyers let out an expletive before musing, “Whoever organized down there …”
union campaign he was involved with at a nearby Nissan plant. It did not go well. The union accused the company of running a racially divisive campaign, and Ms. Brisack was disillusioned by the loss.
“Nissan never paid a consequence for what it did,” she said.(In response to charges of “scare tactics,” the company said at the time that it had sought to provide information to workers and clear up misperceptions.)
Mr. Dolan noticed that she was becoming jaded about mainstream politics. “There were times between her sophomore and junior year when I’d steer her toward something and she’d say, ‘Oh, they’re way too conservative.’ I’d send her a New York Times article and she’d say, ‘Neoliberalism is dead.’”
In England, where she arrived during the fall of 2019 at age 22, Ms. Brisack was a regular at a “solidarity” film club that screened movies about labor struggles worldwide, and wore a sweatshirt that featured a head shot of Karl Marx. She liberally reinterpreted the term “black tie” at an annual Rhodes dinner, wearing a black dress-coat over a black antifa T-shirt.
climate technology start-up, lamented that workers had too little leverage. “Labor unions may be the most effective way of implementing change going forward for a lot of people, including myself,” he told me. “I might find myself in labor organizing work.”
This is not what talking to Rhodes scholars used to sound like. At least not in my experience.
I was a Rhodes scholar in 1998, when centrist politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were ascendant, and before “neoliberalism” became such a dirty word. Though we were dimly aware of a time, decades earlier, when radicalism and pro-labor views were more common among American elites — and when, not coincidentally, the U.S. labor movement was much more powerful — those views were far less in evidence by the time I got to Oxford.
Some of my classmates were interested in issues like race and poverty, as they reminded me in interviews for this article. A few had nuanced views of labor — they had worked a blue-collar job, or had parents who belonged to a union, or had studied their Marx. Still, most of my classmates would have regarded people who talked at length about unions and class the way they would have regarded religious fundamentalists: probably earnest but slightly preachy, and clearly stuck in the past.
Kris Abrams, one of the few U.S. Rhodes Scholars in our cohort who thought a lot about the working class and labor organizing, told me recently that she felt isolated at Oxford, at least among other Americans. “Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was much room for discussion,” Ms. Abrams said.
typically minor and long in coming.
has issued complaints finding merit in such accusations. Yet the union continues to win elections — over 80 percent of the more than 175 votes in which the board has declared a winner. (Starbucks denies that it has broken the law, and a federal judge recently rejected a request to reinstate pro-union workers whom the labor board said Starbucks had forced out illegally.)
Twitter was: “We appreciate TIME magazine’s coverage of our union campaign. TIME should make sure they’re giving the same union rights and protections that we’re fighting for to the amazing journalists, photographers, and staff who make this coverage possible!”
The tweet reminded me of a story that Mr. Dolan, her scholarship adviser, had told about a reception that the University of Mississippi held in her honor in 2018. Ms. Brisack had just won a Truman scholarship, another prestigious award. She took the opportunity to urge the university’s chancellor to remove a Confederate monument from campus. The chancellor looked pained, according to several attendees.
“My boss was like, ‘Wow, you couldn’t have talked her out of doing that?’” Mr. Dolan said. “I was like, ‘That’s what made her win. If she wasn’t that person, you all wouldn’t have a Truman now.’”
(Mr. Dolan’s boss at the time did not recall this conversation, and the former chancellor did not recall any drama at the event.)
The challenge for Ms. Brisack and her colleagues is that while younger people, even younger elites, are increasingly pro-union, the shift has not yet reached many of the country’s most powerful leaders. Or, more to the point, the shift has not yet reached Mr. Schultz, the 68-year-old now in his third tour as Starbucks’s chief executive.
She recently spoke at an Aspen Institute panel on workers’ rights. She has even mused about using her Rhodes connections to make a personal appeal to Mr. Schultz, something that Mr. Bensinger has pooh-poohed but that other organizers believe she just may pull off.
“Richard has been making fun of me for thinking of asking one of the Rhodes people to broker a meeting with Howard Schultz,” Ms. Brisack said in February.
“I’m sure if you met Howard Schultz, he’d be like, ‘She’s so nice,’” responded Ms. Moore, her co-worker. “He’d be like, ‘I get it. I would want to be in a union with you, too.’”
It was a union organizing campaign that few expected to have a chance. A handful of employees at Amazon’s massive warehouse on Staten Island, operating without support from national labor organizations, took on one of the most powerful companies in the world.
And, somehow, they won.
Workers at the facility voted by a wide margin to form a union, according to results released on Friday, in one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation.
Employees cast 2,654 votes to be represented by Amazon Labor Union and 2,131 against, giving the union a win by more than 10 percentage points, according to the National Labor Relations Board. More than 8,300 workers at the warehouse, which is the only Amazon fulfillment center in New York City, were eligible to vote.
The win on Staten Island comes at a perilous moment for labor unions in the United States, which saw the portion of workers in unions drop last year to 10.3 percent, the lowest rate in decades, despite high demand for workers, pockets of successful labor activity and rising public approval.
including some labor officials — say that traditional unions haven’t spent enough money or shown enough imagination in organizing campaigns and that they have often bet on the wrong fights. Some point to tawdry corruption scandals.
The union victory at Amazon, the first at the company in the United States after years of worker activism there, offers an enormous opportunity to change that trajectory and build on recent wins. Many union leaders regard Amazon as an existential threat to labor standards because it touches so many industries and frequently dominates them.
likely to be a narrow loss by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union at a large Amazon warehouse in Alabama. The vote is close enough that the results will not be known for several weeks as contested ballots are litigated.
The surprising strength shown by unions in both locations most likely means that Amazon will face years of pressure at other company facilities from labor groups and progressive activists working with them. As a recent string of union victories at Starbucks have shown, wins at one location can provide encouragement at others.
Amazon hired voraciously over the past two years and now has 1.6 million employees globally. But it has been plagued by high turnover, and the pandemic gave employees a growing sense of power while fueling worries about workplace safety. The Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, was the subject of a New York Times investigation last year, which found that it was emblematic of the stresses — including inadvertent firings and sky-high attrition — on workers caused by Amazon’s employment model.
“The pandemic has fundamentally changed the labor landscape” by giving workers more leverage with their employers, said John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s just a question of whether unions can take advantage of the opportunity that transformation has opened up.”
Standing outside the N.L.R.B. office in Brooklyn, where the ballots were tallied, Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who started the union, popped a bottle of champagne before a crowd of supporters and press. “To the first Amazon union in American history,” he cheered.
asked a judge to force Amazon to swiftly rectify “flagrant unfair labor practices” it said took place when Amazon fired a worker who became involved with the union. Amazon argued in court that the labor board abandoned “the neutrality of their office” by filing the injunction just before the election.
Amazon would need to prove that any claims of undue influence undermined the so-called laboratory conditions necessary for a fair election, said Wilma B. Liebman, the chair of the N.L.R.B. under President Barack Obama.
President Biden was “glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard” at the Amazon facility, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters. “He believes firmly that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to join a union,” she said.
The near-term question facing the labor movement and other progressive groups is the extent to which they will help the upstart Amazon Labor Union withstand potential challenges to the result and negotiate a first contract, such as by providing resources and legal talent.
“The company will appeal, drag it out — it’s going to be an ongoing fight,” said Gene Bruskin, a longtime organizer who helped notch one of labor’s last victories on this scale, at a Smithfield meat-processing plant in 2008, and has informally advised the Staten Island workers. “The labor movement has to figure out how to support them.”
Sean O’Brien, the new president of the 1.3 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in an interview on Thursday that the union was prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars unionizing Amazon and to collaborate with a variety of other unions and progressive groups.
said he became alarmed in March 2020 after encountering a co-worker who was clearly ill. He pleaded with management to close the facility for two weeks. The company fired him after he helped lead a walkout over safety conditions in late March that year.
Amazon said at the time that it had taken “extreme measures” to keep workers safe, including deep cleaning and social distancing. It said it had fired Mr. Smalls for violating social distancing guidelines and attending the walkout even though he had been placed in a quarantine.
After workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., overwhelmingly rejected the retail workers union in its first election last spring, Mr. Smalls and Derrick Palmer, an Amazon employee who is his friend, decided to form a new union, called Amazon Labor Union.
While the organizing in Alabama included high-profile tactics, with progressive supporters like Senator Bernie Sanders visiting the area, the organizers at JFK8 benefited from being insiders.
For months, they set up shop at the bus stop outside the warehouse, grilling meat at barbecues and at one point even passing out pot.(The retail workers said they were hamstrung by Covid during their initial election in Alabama.)
nationwide agreement to allow workers more access to organize on-site.
At times the Amazon Labor Union stumbled. The labor board determined this fall that the fledgling union, which spent months collecting signatures from workers requesting a vote, had not demonstrated sufficient support to warrant an election. But the organizers kept trying, and by late January they had finally gathered enough signatures.
Amazon played up its minimum wage of $15 an hour in advertising and other public relations efforts. The company also waged a full-throated campaign against the union, texting employees and mandating attendance at anti-union meetings. It spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants nationwide last year, according to annual disclosures filed on Thursday with the Labor Department.
In February, Mr. Smalls was arrested at the facility after managers said he was trespassing while delivering food to co-workers and called the police. Two current employees were also arrested during the incident, which appeared to galvanize interest in the union.
The difference in outcomes in Bessemer and Staten Island may reflect a difference in receptiveness toward unions in the two states — roughly 6 percent of workers in Alabama are union members, versus 22 percent in New York — as well as the difference between a mail-in election and one conducted in person.
But it may also suggest the advantages of organizing through an independent, worker-led union. In Alabama, union officials and professional organizers were still barred from the facility under the settlement with the labor board. But at the Staten Island site, a larger portion of the union leadership and organizers were current employees.
“What we were trying to say all along is that having workers on the inside is the most powerful tool,” said Mr. Palmer, who makes $21.50 an hour. “People didn’t believe it, but you can’t beat workers organizing other workers.”
The independence of the Amazon Labor Union also appeared to undermine Amazon’s anti-union talking points, which cast the union as an interloping “third party.”
On March 25, workers at JFK8 started lining up outside a tent in the parking lot to vote. And over five voting days, they cast their ballots to form what could become the first union at Amazon’s operations in the United States.
Another election, brought also by Amazon Labor Union at a neighboring Staten Island facility, is scheduled for late April.
Long checkout lines. Closed fitting rooms. Empty shelves. Shortened store hours.
Plus the dread of contracting the coronavirus and yet another season of skirmishes with customers who refuse to wear masks.
A weary retail work force is experiencing the fallout from the latest wave of the pandemic, with a rapidly spreading variant cutting into staffing.
While data shows that people infected with the Omicron variant are far less likely to be hospitalized than those with the Delta variant, especially if they are vaccinated, many store workers are dealing with a new jump in illness and exposures, grappling with shifting guidelines around isolation and juggling child care. At the same time, retailers are generally not extending hazard pay as they did earlier in the pandemic and have been loath to adopt vaccine or testing mandates.
“We had gotten to a point here where we were comfortable, it wasn’t too bad, and then all of a sudden this new variant came and everybody got sick,” said Artavia Milliam, who works at H&M in Hudson Yards in Manhattan, which is popular with tourists. “It’s been overwhelming, just having to deal with not having enough staff and then twice as many people in the store.”
said last week that it would shorten store hours nationally on Mondays through Thursdays for the rest of the month. At least 20 Apple Stores have had to close in recent weeks because so many employees had contracted Covid-19 or been exposed to someone who had, and others have curtailed hours or limited in-store access.
At a Macy’s in Lynnwood, Wash., Liisa Luick, a longtime sales associate in the men’s department, said, “Every day, we have call-outs, and we have a lot of them.” She said the store had already reduced staff to cut costs in 2020. Now, she is often unable to take breaks and has fielded complaints from customers about a lack of sales help and unstaffed registers.
“Morale could not be lower,” said Ms. Luick, who is a steward for the local unit of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Even though Washington has a mask mandate for indoor public spaces, “we get a lot of pushback, so morale is even lower because there’s so many people who, there’s no easy way to say this, just don’t believe in masking,” she added.
Store workers are navigating the changing nature of the virus and trying their best to gauge new risks. Many say that with vaccinations and boosters, they are less fearful for their lives than they were in 2020 — the United Food and Commercial Workers union has tracked more than 200 retail worker deaths since the start of the pandemic — but they remain nervous about catching and spreading the virus.
More broadly, the staffing shortages have put a new spotlight on a potential vaccine-or-testing mandate from the Biden administration, which major retailers have been resisting. The fear of losing workers appears to be looming large, especially now.
While the retail industry initially cited the holiday season rush for its resistance to such rules, it has more recently pointed to the burden of testing unvaccinated workers. After oral arguments in the case on Friday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority expressed skepticism about whether the Biden administration had legal authority to mandate that large employers require workers to be vaccinated.
The National Retail Federation, a major industry lobbying group, said in a statement last week that it “continues to believe that OSHA exceeded its authority in promulgating its vaccine mandate.” The group estimated that the order would require 20 million tests a week nationally, based on external data on unvaccinated workers, and that “such testing capacity currently does not exist.”
When the top managers at Mr. Waugh’s Stop & Shop store began asking employees whether they were vaccinated in preparation for the federal vaccine mandates that could soon take effect, he said, a large number expressed concern to him about being asked to disclose that information.
“It was concerning to see that so many people were distressed,” he said, though all of the employees complied.
Ms. Luick of Macy’s near Seattle said that she worked with several vocal opponents of the Covid-19 vaccines and that she anticipated that at least some of her colleagues would resign if they were asked to provide vaccination status or proof of negative tests.
Still, Macy’s was among major employers that started asking employees for their vaccination status last week ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on Friday and said it might require proof of negative tests beginning on Feb. 16.
“Our primary focus at this stage is preparing our members for an eventual mandate to ensure they have the information and tools they need to manage their work force and meet the needs of their customers,” said Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes companies like Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Gap and Walmart.
As seasonal Covid-19 surges become the norm, unions and companies are looking for consistent policies. Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for the food and commercial workers union in Northern California, said the retail industry needed to put in place more sustainable supports for workers who got ill.
For example, he said, a trust fund jointly administered by the union and several employers could no longer offer Covid-related sick days for union members.
“We have to start treating this as endemic,” Mr. Araby said. “And figuring out what are the structural issues we have to put forward to deal with this.”
Barbara Sibley’s four New York restaurants had already weathered the city’s initial Covid-19 wave, the prevaccine surge last winter and this summer’s Delta spike when last weekend it finally happened: Fearing an outbreak and struggling with staffing after one of her workers got sick with Covid, she temporarily shut down one of her locations.
That was only the start of Ms. Sibley’s worries. She also had to weigh how long the employee, who was fully vaccinated, should isolate before returning to the job. And the messaging from public health experts was not clear-cut.
In the early days of the pandemic the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that most people who tested positive for the coronavirus isolate for 14 days. It later reduced its recommended isolation period to 10 days. But these policies were based on data from unvaccinated individuals and were implemented before the widespread availability of rapid tests. An increasing number of health and policy professionals now suggest that vaccinated people can end their isolation after five to seven days, so long as they are not symptomatic and they test negative.
On Thursday, the C.D.C. reduced, in some circumstances, the number of days it recommends that health care workers who test positive for the coronavirus isolate themselves, but it did not address other businesses.
said on Friday that fully vaccinated critical workers could return to work five days after testing positive, so long as they have no symptoms or their symptoms are resolving and they have had no fever for 72 hours. Those workers will also have to wear a mask, she said.
Omicron has intensified staffing shortages across industries, and the spike in cases has disrupted travel during the holidays, stranding thousands of customers and underscoring the economic toll of employees needing to isolate. Already, some economists are warning about the potential impact that shutdowns can have on consumer spending.
Delta Air Lines asked the C.D.C. on Tuesday to cut isolation time to five days for fully vaccinated people, warning that the current 10-day period may “significantly impact” operations. It was followed by JetBlue and Airlines for America, a trade group that represents eight airlines.
eliminated weekly testing for vaccinated players who are asymptomatic, with its chief medical officer saying the pandemic had reached a stage in which it’s unnecessary for vaccinated players to sit out if they feel healthy.
canceled performances through Christmas. CityMD, the privately owned urgent care clinic, temporarily shut 19 sites in New York and New Jersey because of staffing shortages. At least a dozen New York restaurants have temporarily closed in response to positive tests.
“I think lots of companies are looking at a lot of disruption in the next month and trying to put in policies right now, because they know their employees are going to get infected in very high numbers,” said Dr. Jha.
The United States might take direction from policy shifts abroad. Britain said on Wednesday that it was reducing to seven from 10 the days that people must isolate after showing Covid-19 symptoms.
After the British government lifted nearly all its pandemic restrictions in July, hundreds of thousands of workers were pinged by the National Health Service’s track-and-trace app and told to isolate because they had been exposed to the coronavirus. Businesses complained of being short-staffed, and economists said the “pingdemic” may have slowed economic growth in July.
In the United States, new tools to help manage through the pandemic are on the way.
The Food and Drug Administration this week authorized two pills to treat Covid, from Pfizer and Merck. Those treatments have been shown to stave off severe disease and have potential to reduce transmission of the virus, though supply of both pills, especially Pfizer’s, will be limited in the next few months.
President Biden said on Tuesday that he planned to invoke the Defense Production Act to buy and give away 500 million rapid antigen tests, a crucial tool in detecting transmissibility, though those tests will not be available for weeks or longer.
If a combination of the antiviral pills and rapid tests is able to get individuals back to work faster, “that’s a big economic point,” said Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research.
Molly Moon Neitzel, who owns an ice cream business in Seattle with just over 100 employees, said she had kept guidelines for isolation conservative.
“I’m on the side of protecting people over getting them back to work right now,” she said, adding that if it were summer and her business were busier, she might consider a shorter isolation period. “It’s the slowest time of the year for an ice cream company, so that is in my favor.”
Some public health experts worry that if the C.D.C. shortens its guidelines on isolating, employers could pressure workers to get back before they’re fully recovered.
“What I don’t want to see happen is for this to be used as an excuse to force people to come back while they are unwell,” Dr. Ranney of Brown said.
And even with clearer guidelines, putting policies in place can be tricky. While some experts suggest different isolation rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, some companies do not yet have a system for tracking which of their workers have gotten a vaccine. The question of whether the C.D.C. will change its definition of fully vaccinated to include booster shots adds another layer of complexity.
It’s not just sick employees who may have to stay home: Companies are also grappling with whether vaccinated workers should quarantine after exposure to someone with Covid-19, which C.D.C. guidelines do not require.
“It becomes a challenge for employers to choose between providing a safer environment and keeping staff intact, or going with the C.D.C. guidance,” said Karen Burke, an adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management.
But almost two years into the pandemic, that’s the position that employers continue to find themselves in, amid an ever-flowing cascade of new data, guidelines and considerations.
“Every moment, you’re making life or death decisions,” Ms. Sibley said. “That’s not what we signed up for.”
SEATTLE — Amazon, which faces mounting scrutiny over worker rights, agreed to let its warehouse employees more easily organize in the workplace as part of a nationwide settlement with the National Labor Relations Board this month.
Under the settlement, made final on Wednesday, Amazon said it would email past and current warehouse workers — likely more than one million people — with notifications of their rights and give them greater flexibility to organize in its buildings. The agreement also makes it easier and faster for the N.L.R.B., which investigates claims of unfair labor practices, to sue Amazon if it believes the company violated the terms.
Amazon has previously settled individual cases with the labor agency, but the new settlement’s national scope and its concessions to organizing go further than any previous agreement.
Because of Amazon’s sheer size — more than 750,000 people work in its operations in the United States alone — the agency said the settlement would reach one of the largest groups of workers in its history. The tech giant also agreed to terms that would let the N.L.R.B. bypass an administrative hearing process, a lengthy and cumbersome undertaking, if the agency found that the company had not abided by the settlement.
on a hiring frenzy in the pandemic and is the nation’s second-largest private employer after Walmart, has faced increased labor pressure as its work force has soared to nearly 1.5 million globally. The company has become a leading example of a rising tide of worker organizing as the pandemic reshapes what employees expect from their employers.
This year, Amazon has grappled with organizing efforts at warehouses in Alabama and New York, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters formally committed to support organizing at the company. Other companies, such as Starbucks, Kellogg and Deere & Company, have faced rising union activity as well.
Compounding the problem, Amazon is struggling to find enough employees to satiate its growth. The company was built on a model of high-turnover employment, which has now crashed into a phenomenon known as the Great Resignation, with workers in many industries quitting their jobs in search of a better deal for themselves.
it would spend $4 billion to deal with labor shortages this quarter alone.
“This settlement agreement provides a crucial commitment from Amazon to millions of its workers across the United States that it will not interfere with their right to act collectively to improve their workplace by forming a union or taking other collective action,” Jennifer Abruzzo, the N.L.R.B.’s new general counsel appointed by President Biden, said in a statement on Thursday.
Amazon declined to comment. The company has said it supports workers’ rights to organize but believes employees are better served without a union.
Amazon and the labor agency have been in growing contact, and at times conflict. More than 75 cases alleging unfair labor practices have been brought against Amazon since the start of the pandemic, according to the N.L.R.B.’s database. Ms. Abruzzo has also issued several memos directing the agency’s staff to enforce labor laws against employers more aggressively.
threw out the results of a failed, prominent union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, saying the company had inappropriately interfered with the voting. The agency ordered another election. Amazon has not appealed the finding, though it can still do so.
Other employers, from beauty salons to retirement communities, have made nationwide settlements with the N.L.R.B. in the past when changing policies.
well established, said Matthew Bodie, a former lawyer for the N.L.R.B. who teaches labor law at Saint Louis University.
“The fact that you can hang around and chat — that is prime, protected concerted activity periods, and the board has always been very protective of that,” he said.
Mr. Miin, who is part of an organizing group called Amazonians United Chicagoland, and other workers in Chicago reached a settlement with Amazon in the spring over the 15-minute rule at a different delivery station where they had worked last year. Two corporate employees also settled privately with Amazon in an agreement that included a nationwide notification of worker rights, but the agency does not police it.
Mr. Goldstein said he was “impressed” that the N.L.R.B. had pressed Amazon to agree to terms that would let the agency bypass its administrative hearing process, which happens before a judge and in which parties prepare arguments and present evidence, if it found the company had broken the agreement’s terms.
“They can get a court order to make Amazon obey federal labor law,” he said.
“You can’t really mandate booster shots yet,” he said. “It hasn’t been signed off on by any federal agency.”
JPMorgan Chase, whose decision to require vaccines is complicated by its sprawling retail operations across the United States, declined to comment on how the court’s most recent decision, along with the recent spike in cases, affects any plans to mandate vaccines. But the bank on Friday told its American employees who do not work in bank branches that “each group should assess who needs to come into the office, work priorities and who should revert to working from home on a more regular basis over the next few weeks.”
Walmart, which has mandated vaccines for mainly its corporate staff, also did not have any comment on broadening that requirement. Only 66 percent of its roughly 1.6 million U.S. employees are vaccinated, according to data compiled by the Shift Project at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Legal questions about the OSHA rule are far from resolved. Immediately after the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled on Friday, several of the many plaintiffs who have challenged that rule asked the Supreme Court to intervene as part of its “emergency” docket. Appeals from the Sixth Circuit are assigned for review by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who under Supreme Court rules could in theory make a decision on his own but is more likely to refer the matter to the full Supreme Court. With the Labor Department now delaying full enforcement of its rule until Feb. 9, the justices have several weeks to ask for abbreviated briefings if they want them.
“Things are going back and forth literally in a matter of hours,” said Sydney Heimbrock, an adviser on industry and government issues at Qualtrics, who works with hundreds of clients on using the company’s software to track employee vaccination status. “The confusion stems from the on-again-off-again, is it a rule or isn’t it a rule? The litigations, appeals, reversing decisions and making decisions.”
Even the spread of Omicron hasn’t changed the position of some of the vaccine rule’s most ardent opponents. The National Retail Federation, one of the trade groups challenging the administration’s vaccine rule, is among those that have filed a petition with the Supreme Court. The group is in favor of vaccinations but has pushed for companies to get more time to carry out mandates. Still, even as it fights the administration’s rule, the federation is also holding twice weekly calls with members to compare notes on how to carry it out.
“There’s no question that the increased number of variants like Omicron certainly don’t make it less dangerous,” said Stephanie Martz, the group’s chief administrative officer and general counsel. “The legitimate, remaining question is, is this inherent to the workplace?”
But Judge Joan L. Larsen, a Trump appointee, dissented, arguing — as had the Fifth Circuit panel before her — that the agency had exceeded its legal authority.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know
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Pfizer vaccine in younger children. The company said that a low dose of its coronavirus vaccine did not produce an adequate immune response in 2- to 5-year-olds in ongoing clinical trials. The setback threatens to keep the vaccine from younger children for longer than many had hoped.
U.S. surpasses 800,000 deaths. This past week, Covid deaths in the United States surpassed 800,000 — the highest known number of any country. About 75 percent of those deaths have involved people 65 or older. One in 100 older Americans has died from the virus.
“The mandate is aimed directly at protecting the unvaccinated from their own choices,” Judge Larsen wrote. “Vaccines are freely available, and unvaccinated people may choose to protect themselves at any time. And because the secretary likely lacks congressional authority to force them to protect themselves, the remaining stay factors cannot tip the balance.”
All of the judges on the Fifth Circuit panel that had blocked the rule were conservative Republican appointees.
Challengers to the decision could appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which is controlled by a conservative bloc of six Republican appointees. (The Supreme Court this month refused to block New York’s requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus even when they cite religious objections.)
Challengers could also appeal to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Of its 16 sitting judges, five were appointed by Democrats and 11 were appointed by Republicans. (However, one of the Republican appointees, Judge Helene N. White, was originally a nominee of a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, before being renominated by a Republican one, George W. Bush, as part of a political deal.)
Conditions on the ground are rapidly changing, with new cases surging, apparently because of the more-infectious Omicron variant. The Justice Department last month warned that keeping the mandate from coming into effect “would likely cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day, in addition to large numbers of hospitalizations, other serious health effects and tremendous costs.”
The OSHA rule, alongside a separate requirement for federal contractors, has helped drive a number of large companies to announce a form of vaccine mandate, including Procter & Gamble, IBM and American Airlines. Others, like Tyson Foods and Google, introduced mandates on their own, in the face of the rising risk of the Delta variant.
“We decided as a leadership team, ‘what was magical about these dates?’” Ms. Anas said. “It was extremely liberating saying, ‘We’re going to see how this nets out and we’re not solving for a date.’”
She is unsettled by the possibility that they will still be working from home in March, two years since they first packed up their desks. But with coronavirus infections spiking, Ms. Anas is relieved that the company doesn’t have to weigh the merits of an early 2022 return, leaving workers to wait worriedly for updates.
“If we had kicked the can to January, they’d be fixated on that,” she said. “We keep focused on the work. This is just a distraction.”
For many organizational leaders, addressing the anxieties of their work force has been the only constant in the R.T.O. process.
With the spread of Delta, Jessica Saranich, who runs U.S. operations at the productivity software company Monday.com, got a flurry of notes from colleagues: Will we really go back to the office in August? Last month brought the news of Omicron, with a fresh set of questions: What does this mean for the January off-site gathering, with its promise of free food, partying and a Miami D.J.? Ms. Saranich’s team has delayed its return to office date three times, which has left some employees pleading for more permanence in the company’s policies.
“Sometimes our team will say please just make a decision, pick something, make us come back to the office or make us be remote,” Ms. Saranich said. “But it’s not something that we want to rush. To be able to lean into the discomfort and say we don’t know is a great gift that we can give to our team.”
Still, plenty of organizations aiming for an early 2022 return haven’t budged.
Express Employment Professionals, a staffing provider in Oklahoma City, aims to bring half of its 300 workers back to their newly remodeled headquarters on Jan. 15. The company had originally reopened its office in July in a phased re-entry plan, which was temporarily scaled back in September. Keith McFall, chief operating officer, feels that clear R.T.O. dates serve as a force of stability for workers navigating months of tumult.
The public never found out that inspectors cited another New Jersey nursing home, Rehab at River’s Edge, for failing to protect a fragile resident who fell seven separate times, at one point fracturing her foot.
And the public never found out that a resident at the Golden Living Center nursing home in Morgantown, W.Va., crashed to the ground and died after staff mistakenly removed the safety rails from his bed.
In all three of those cases, the state inspectors’ findings were upheld by a federal judge.
Mr. Blum, the C.M.S. official, didn’t say why such citations had never appeared on Care Compare. He said the agency was working to fix the problem. (The three homes declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment. Golden Living is under new management.)
Dr. David Gifford, the chief medical officer of the American Health Care Association, which represents the nursing home industry, said the group’s members believed the appeals process should be faster and more transparent. He said Medicare should not post the results of inspections that are in dispute.
Found on the Pavement
On paper, Hilltop Rehabilitation, a sprawling ranch-style nursing home in Weatherford, Texas, seems like a place where little ever goes wrong. On Medicare’s rating website, the facility has won the highest scores on its health inspections for four years straight, not incurring a single serious infraction.
What’s missing from that picture, though, is what happened to Alan Hart’s mother, Laverne.
In 2014, he placed the 87-year-old retired children’s book author, who had dementia, at Hilltop because he was having trouble caring for her on his own.
Mr. Hart said it broke his heart to move her, but he thought she would be in good hands at the five-star nursing home, which planned to keep her on a supervised, locked floor.