As workers continue to face rounds of layoffs and unsafe working conditions, the world of unemployment applications and collective organizing can seem daunting. Strike waves and calls for worker action hit nationally around the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 85 percent of America's workers still don't belong to a union, and many are looking for ways to protect their income and rights.

March 25, 2020, Scalawag brought together labor organizers and legal providers for a virtual learning session, "Strategies for Southern Workers Amid the COVID-19 Crisis." The first call of our Solidarity Over Distance webinar series, aimed at connecting readers with frontline organizers, showed us how workers can protect themselves during the crisis and gain traction toward long-standing demands.

Here are some key lessons from that call, including information, updates, tools, and strategies to help Southern workers and residents collectively advocate for themselves when mutual aid isn't enough. 

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Jayanni Webster is a Southern-based leftist and organizer from Memphis, Tennessee. She has over ten years of experience in labor, community, and student organizing. She emphasized that all workers are in danger and provides resources for workers wanting to organize around safer conditions on the job.

Organizer Jaynni Webster emphasized the need for workers to connect with fellow employees, not only for the sake of building momentum, but for legal protections when it comes to making demands—a protected concerted activity is one that two or more employees take action on for the benefit of all employees at a workplace, in order to change working conditions.

Before diving in to making those demands, Webster implores organizers to understand each individual's immigration status, which sector of the economy you work in, and what state you live in—as all are critical to know for determining what protections you qualify for and which target at your workplace (or above) should be held accountable.

"Taking action by yourself is a recipe for disaster," she said, urging workers to involve not only their coworkers, but their greater community, in figuring out which actions might successfully put pressure on unfair bosses.

If adverse action is taken against you when you talk about your rights with your employer, you can file an unfair labor charge. But to build a successful case, documentation is key—make copies of petitions, repeat conversations in email, record phone calls.

If you believe your working condition is unsafe and unhealthful you can file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), with proper proof and documentation that you have asked your employer to correct the hazard, told your employer that you will not perform the work unless they address the hazard, and remain at the worksite until dismissed.

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Lita Farquhar is a queer labor organizer who has spent the last 12 years in the service industry. She recently joined the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Local 1846, and currently serves as a co-chair of Worker Power Louisiana, the labor committee of DSA New Orleans. Farquhar stressed the importance of coalition building, labor education, "organizing the unorganized."

New Orleans was among one of the first cities to suffer heavy losses in the tourism, hospitality, and gig economies as the pandemic rose during Mardi Gras season, putting some 49,000 people out of work. In response, organizer Lita Farquhar worked with groups going after the wealthiest hotel and restaurant owners to reclaim some of the $150 million of annual profits gained through high alcohol and service taxes. She hopes that tapping these funds will provide relief for tipped workers, who are often not covered by traditional unemployment support.

Strategies in action:

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Sheree Allen is a childcare worker in North Carolina who recently lost her job when her workplace closed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. She is also a leader in NC Raise Up, a branch of the Fight for $15 Movement of frontline service workers demanding living wages and union rights.

Fight for 15 is demanding better safety protections for frontline workers, paid sick leave for all workers, emergency healthcare for all, and compensation for those who have been laid off or had hours cut due to the pandemic.

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Mindy Isser is an organizer in the labor movement and a writer based in Philadelphia who has written about coronavirus' impact so far on rent and grocery store workers.

Organizer Mindy Isser reminds workers to assess what is winnable in this specific crisis. As we prepare to enter a recession and perhaps an economic depression, collective bargaining can differ day to day as circumstances shift.

Union density in the South currently sits around 5 percent, compared to 10 percent nationwide. But spontaneous connections outside of traditional unionizing can allow room for workers who are at risk or live with people who are at risk to have different accommodations.

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Reece Chenault has spent over 15 years as a union and community organizer. He is formerly the National Coordinator for U.S. Labor Against the War, an anti-war organization dedicated to changing the labor movement's foreign policy from within, and is also the founder of Justice Before Peace. Chenault is based out of Louisville Kentucky.

Union organizer Reese Chenault offered lessons from organizers in Korea, where the organizing response has been seen as more activated than in other parts of the world, due, he says, in part to existing mobilization tactics from SARS outbreaks. One major distinction he notes is that organizers in Korea are rarely specific about which kinds of workers they're protecting—demands are often broad-reaching and intentionally crafted to offer protections to all levels of labor.

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Dante Strobino is an organizer with UE 150, and has been working with some health care workers on the front lines in North Carolina, making collective demands on the state.

Strobino notes that this struggle is particular in that it offers specific examples of the lack of protections—and that the sum of those missteps has motivated many to fight in a much more concrete and urgent manner.

Historical context:

"While we are spending time separated physically we need to be engaged in ideological preparation," longtime labor advocate Ajamu Dillahunt said on the call. "We need to use the time to put people's suffering in the context of the system and  why we need radical change so that people are prepared to hit the streets hard when it is safe."

Dillahunt offered some historic insight into Southern workers organizing amid crisis, as well as non-traditional organizing tactics. This sudden shift provides us an opportunity to move quickly and build on ongoing movements. "This is when we fight for our vision. Make permanent the emergency measures around health care, sick leave, evictions, free internet. These things will not appear so radical now."

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Ajamu Dillahunt is a retired postal worker who served as President of the Raleigh Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union, as the Research and Education Director of the North Carolina Council of the APWU, and as a Southern Regional FMLA Trainer. He has participated on the boards of many labor and social justice organizations including Labor Notes, the Institute for Southern Studies, and United for a Fair Economy. He is a leader of the Black Workers for Justice and a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Labor Convergence on Climate who has long worked in solidarity projects in Latin American, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Who is and isn't covered by emergency legislation?

Most employees in the private sector are covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a law that protects the rights of employees and employers to encourage collective bargaining and curtail certain private sector labor and management practices—which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy.

However, the Act excludes people who are employed as:

  • Federal, state, or local government workers
  • agricultural laborers
  • domestic service workers providing care for any person or family in a home
  • workers for a parent or spouse
  • independent contractors
  • supervisors of any sort—although supervisors who have been discriminated against for refusing to violate the NLRA may be covered
  • working for an employer subject to the Railway Labor Act, such as railroads and airlines
  • working for other person who is not an employer as defined in the NLRA.

Unemployment resources

Civil Rights Attorney Trisha Pande advises any person experiencing financial loss due to the pandemic to apply for unemployment—even if you're not sure if you qualify. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), passed at the start of the pandemic, required certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) administers and enforced the law's paid leave requirements. The FFCRA mandated leave expired at the end of 2020, but covered employers can choose to continue to provide the same paid sick leave and paid family leave moving forward—but they were not required to do so. In 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), extended and expanded several provisions of the FFCRA through September 30, 2021. Under the ARPA, employers are eligible for the same tax credit only if employers voluntarily provide employees up to 80 hours of EPSL from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021.

The act adds the following benefits for employers with less than 500 workers:

  • Two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at the employee's regular rate of pay where the employee is unable to work because the employee is quarantined (pursuant to Federal, State, or local government order or advice of a healthcare provider), and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis; or
  • Two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at two-thirds the employee's regular rate of pay because the employee is unable to work because of a bona fide need to care for an individual subject to quarantine (pursuant to Federal, State, or local government order or advice of a healthcare provider), or to care for a child (under 18 years of age) whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19, and/or the employee is experiencing a substantially similar condition as specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the Secretaries of the Treasury and Labor; and
  • Up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds the employee's regular rate of pay where an employee, who has been employed for at least 30 calendar days, is unable to work due to a bona fide need for leave to care for a child whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.
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Trisha Pande is an attorney at a civil rights and labor law firm based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She primarily focuses her work in labor and employment law. She also represents victims of police misconduct and individuals who have been wrongfully convicted. Before joining the firm, Trisha was Assistant General Counsel at the Service Employees International Union in Washington, DC.

The new legislation also waved work requirements for unemployment insurance. The stimulus bill boosted insurance employment benefits, and provides a one-time $1,200 check for those making less than $75,000 annually. Workers compensation, however, is state run—and can still apply for many more people out of work right now.

Pande encourages out of work people to check resources both locally and federally, and be vigilant in filing and documenting their struggles in the face of worker discrimination.

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Lovey Cooper is Scalawag's Digital Editor and the voice behind This Week in the South. Follow her on Twitter: @LoveyCooper.