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Thousands of Workers Say Their Jobs Are Unsafe as COVID-19 Cases Spike

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  • 1.5 million people filed for unemployment last week, though continuing claims fell by nearly 1 million.
  • But as the labor market stabilizes and more communities reopen, thousands of workers have filed complaints with the government alleging their workplaces are not safe to be in during the pandemic.
  • Workplace safety has become a major issue that is expected to grow as reopenings continue, especially because there are no enforceable federal laws that require employers to protect their workers during the pandemic.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. hit 2 million cases of coronavirus, and at least 20 states have reported increases in their numbers.

Concerns Over Worker Safety

Another 1.5 million people filed for unemployment, the government reported Thursday, marking the continued trend of decreasing claims over the last few weeks.

Perhaps even more notably, the number of continuing claims, which counts how many people filed two weeks in a row, fell to 20.9 million from 21.3 million last week. Economists now say that continuing claims are a better economic marker of how the U.S. labor market is doing as the pandemic continues.

The lower numbers are, at least in part, a reflection of the widespread reopenings that have taken place over the last several weeks. But as reopenings continuing and the number of people going back to work rises, so do the concerns about workplace safety in the pandemic.

Those concerns are due to one major reason: the fact that there are no rules for pandemic-related workplace safety on the federal level.

The federal government has issued guidelines for employers that reopen, but like the federal guidelines for states that reopen, they are not mandatory or enforceable.

While governors in some states have put worker protections in place under executive orders, there have been growing numbers of people who say they do not feel safe at their jobs and have filed formal complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

According to the official government data, OSHA has received thousands of workplace safety complaints related to COVID-19 over the last few months. Those complaints have risen significantly since states started reopening.

At the end of April, before states started reopening, OSHA reported just over 3,000 claims were filed at the federal level and 7,800 at the state level. But as of Wednesday, federal claims jumped to over 5,000 while state claims nearly doubled to more than 12,430.

With the growing claims, labor activists and unions have started putting more pressure on the government. In mid-May, the AFL-CIO, which one of the largest labor unions in the country, announced that it was suing OSHA to get it to implement mandatory national safety requirements during the pandemic.

At the same time, Republican congress members have been trying to pass legislation that would protect employers from being sued by their workers if they catch the virus— and idea that President Donald Trump has also said he supports.

Huge Spikes in States Reopening

But as states push forward with their reopenings, labor advocates are worried that without a codified national law the situation will only get worse, especially given massive spikes in coronavirus cases that have been reported in numerous states in recent days.

On Wednesday, the U.S. officially hit two million confirmed cases, and according to reports, new infections are now increasing in at least 20 states.

South Carolina, which had reopened most businesses by the end of last month, is now reporting more daily cases than ever— even higher than the state’s previous peak in April.

Florida, which was one of the first states to ease restrictions and has implemented one of the broadest reopenings, is also seeing a surge. On Saturday, more people in the state tested positive for COVID-19 than any other day in the past two months.

One of the biggest new hotspots is Arizona, where cases have increased 115% since its stay-at-home order ended on May 15. This week, the state also reported an average of over 1,000 new cases every day, making it the highest per capita infection growth rate in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Arizona’s health department said that only a quarter of the state’s ICU beds were available, which promoted the state’s health director to direct hospitals to activate coronavirus emergency plans for the first time since March. 

But Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has refused to put restrictions back in place, and the executive order he signed that lifted restrictions explicitly prohibits local officials from putting further restrictions in place to curb the virus in places where there are large outbreaks.

Ducey has also repeatedly claimed that the rise in cases is due to the increased number of tests that the state was administering— a claim disputed by numerous health experts.

“It’s very clear that it’s a real increase in community spread,” Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association told KJZZ. “It’s not some artifact of additional testing.”

Humble’s remarks were also echoed Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told the Post that positive test rates are outpacing the increased testing, which suggests Arizona’s enhanced testing is not the cause of the spike.

Ducey, however, is not the only governor that has made the argument about increased testing contributing to a rise in cases. Leaders in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and several other states have prompted similar claims in the last few weeks.  

But both public health experts and current data puts those claims in serious contention.

According to NPR, cellphone data collected by the Gleam Project suggest that “people in the U.S. are moving around at a level that’s up to about two-thirds of what it was before shutdown rules were implemented. This supports the idea that the new increases are real, not just a result of more testing.”

Governors Push Ahead

However, governors all across the country are still pushing ahead with easing more restrictions, including in some of the largest hotspots.

In Texas, where total cases shot up by one-third over the last two weeks, Gov. Greg Abbott still said he plans to move ahead with his plan reopen basically all businesses that have not already reopened by the end of the week.

When Texas set new records for coronavirus hospitalizations on three consecutive days this week, Abbott said the spike in cases is expected and “largely the result of isolated hot spots in nursing homes, jails, and meat packing plants.” 

But local health officials have said that is not true, and that there is a clear link between Abbott’s early and broad reopening. 

Other states are also pressing ahead with new openings despite significant rising cases.

In Arkansas infections rose by one third in a week and hospitalizations have also gone up nearly 90% since Memorial Day.

Despite that, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Wednesday he is still going to go ahead with phase two reopenings, arguing that the surges were not tied to his easing restrictions.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (Politico)

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At Least 130,000 Covid-19 Deaths Were Avoidable, Columbia Study Finds

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  • A report from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University estimates that between 130,000 and 210,000 coronavirus deaths were avoidable in the United States.
  • While the U.S. accounts for just 4% of the global population, the country makes up 20% of the world’s coronavirus cases and fatalities. The country’s proportional death rate is twice as high as Canada’s and 50 times higher than Japan’s.
  • The report largely blamed the Trump administration for ignoring warning signs and scientists, arguing that he has been downplaying the issue, peddling misinformation, and turning the pandemic into a political game.
  • It also criticized the Trump administration and other federal leaders for not responding quickly enough in terms of testing and social distancing measures, which could have saved lives if implemented sooner.

Preventable Deaths in the U.S. 

The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University released a report on Wednesday estimating that at somewhere between 130,000 and 210,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States were avoidable. 

At the time the report was made, the county had lost 217,000 thousand lives to the virus. As of Thursday morning, the U.S. death toll stands at 222,000. While the U.S. accounts for just 4% of the global population, the country makes up 20% of the world’s coronavirus cases and fatalities. 

According to the report, the U.S. has the ninth highest proportional death rate in the world behind Peru, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Spain, and Mexico. The country’s proportional death rate is twice as high as Canada’s and 50 times higher than Japan’s.

The report estimated how many deaths may have been preventable by seeing what the U.S. death toll may have been if it had mirrored the strategies of more proactive and high-income countries.

For example, it says that if the U.S. had followed policies similar to those in Canada, the country may have seen just 85,192 fatalities, making more than 132,500 American deaths “avoidable.” If the States had mirrored Germany the death toll may have been 38,457, leaving 179,260 avoidable losses. If the U.S. modeled after South Korea’s robust intervention, Americans may have seen around 2,799 deaths, leaving nearly 215,000 deaths avoidable.

The researchers do acknowledge that other various factors could contribute to a country having a higher mortality rate, including demographics, distribution of population, health risk factors like obesity, and health care access in general. Still they do not believe this would explain the magnitude of the COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. According to the report, even if the U.S. had implemented an “averaged” response, the virus may have only claimed between 38,000 to 85,000 lives, meaning that at least 130,000 COVID-19 deaths might have been avoidable.

Failures of the Trump Administration

Many, including the researchers behind this report, largely blamed state and federal governments as well as President Donald Trump’s Administration for the catastrophic death toll in the nation. Criticism has come from leaders all over, including former president Barack Obama. During a speech on Thursday, Obama said that he handed Trump’s White House a “pandemic playbook” that got thrown out the window.

“Other countries are still struggling with the pandemic but they’re not doing as bad as we are because they’ve got a government that’s actually been paying attention,” Obama added. “And that means lives lost. And that means an economy that doesn’t work. And just yesterday, when asked if he’d do anything differently, Trump said, ‘Not much.’ Really? Not much? Nothing you can think of that could have helped some people keep their loved ones alive?” 

Because the U.S. has been repeatedly condemned for its reckless mishandling of the virus, the idea that thousands of deaths could have been prevented is not surprising. Still, seeing the staggering numbers and lives that did not need to be taken is a sobering reminder of the tragedy the country is currently facing. The report said this tragedy falls on Trump’s hands and specifically criticized the president for ignoring science and instead spreading misinformation and turning the pandemic into a political game. 

“Many nations facing the pandemic crisis have put politics aside and orchestrated a response led by public health experts and global coordination,” the report stated. 

“Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has shown hostility to much of the critical guidance and recommendations put forth by its own health agencies, with the President at times misleading the public on the scope of the threat, attempting to ‘downplay’ the extent of the crisis, and advocating for unproven therapeutical or unsafe treatments.”

A Delayed Response From the U.S.

Among the many oversights, the report claimed the administration was responsible for was a lack of testing. From the start of the pandemic, the U.S. was far behind on testing efforts, which are essential in fighting a pandemic. Both the U.S. and South Korea had their first confirmed cases on the same day. South Korea began rapid widespread testing and had conducted 250,000 by March 16. At this time in the United States, Trump was still peddling the idea that the virus was like a flu and might fade away. 

The report also noted that a lack of mask mandates and delayed responses in other areas like social distancing likely contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. If major cities in the country had introduced social distancing measures just one or two weeks earlier, it is estimated that 62% of cases and 55% of deaths could have been avoided. 

Deaths and case counts are not the only things that could have been avoided. The report noted that in New York State alone 325,000 children have been pushed to poverty because of the pandemic and 4,200 children have lost a parent to COVID-19. If policies had been implemented earlier, there could be at least 1.5 million less people grieving across the country right now. 

“The U.S. should have – and could have – done better to protect the nation, and particularly its most vulnerable populations, from a threat that was identified and recognized early in 2020,” the report said in its conclusion.

“The weight of this enormous failure ultimately falls to the leadership at the White House – and among a number of state governments – which consistently undercut the efforts of top officials at the CDC and HHS…a pandemic is not a time for a decentralized and combative national response.”

See what others are saying: (Forbes) (Axios) (CNN)

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Purdue Pharma Agrees To Plead Guilty To 3 Opioid-Related Charges in $8B Settlement, But Don’t Expect Them To Pay the Full Amount

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  • As part of a more than $8 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Purdue Pharma will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and two counts of violating anti-kickback, or bribery, laws.
  • Because Purdue filed for bankruptcy last year, that full figure likely won’t be collected by the government.
  • Under the settlement, which will need approval in bankruptcy court, Purdue would become a public benefit corporation that is controlled by the government, with revenue from opioid sales being used to fund treatment options and programs.
  • A number of state attorneys generals and Democratic lawmakers have said the settlement does not hold Purdue or its owners fully accountable and could derail thousands of other cases against the company.
  • They have also argued that the government should “avoid having special ties to an opioid company… that caused a national crisis.”

Purdue to Plead Guilty to 3 Criminal Charges

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that Purdue Pharma has agreed to plead guilty to three criminal charges related to fueling the country’s opioid epidemic. 

Notably, those guilty pleas come as part of a massive settlement worth more than $8 billion, though Purdue will likely only pay a fraction of that amount to the government.

Purdue is the manufacturer of oxycontin, which is a powerful and addictive painkiller that’s believed to have driven the opioid crisis. Since 2000, opioid addiction and overdoses have been linked to more than 470,000 deaths. 

As part of the settlement, Purdue will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. There, it will admit that it lied to the Drug Enforcement Administration by claiming that it had maintained an effective program to avoid opioid misuse. It will also admit to reporting misleading information to the DEA in order to increase its manufacturing quotas.

While Purdue originally told the DEA that it had “robust controls” to avoid opioid misuse, according to the Justice Department, it had “disregard[ed] red flags their own systems were sending up.”

Along with that guilty plea, Purdue will also plead guilty to two anti-kickback, or bribery, related charges. In one charge, it will admit to violating federal law by paying doctors to write more opioid prescriptions. In the other, it will admit to using electronic health records software to increase opioid prescriptions.

According to a copy of the plea deal obtained by the Associated Press, Purdue “knowingly and intentionally conspired and agreed with others to aid and abet” the distribution of opioids from doctors “without a legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice.”

The $8 billion in settlements will be split several different ways.

In one deal, the Sackler family — which owns Purdue — will pay $225 million to resolve civil fines. 

As part of the main deal, another $225 million will go directly to the federal government in a larger $2 billion criminal forfeiture; however, the government is actually expected to forego the rest of that figure.

In addition to that, $2.8 billion will go to resolving Purdue’s civil liability. Another $3.54 billion will go to criminal fines, but because Purdue filed bankruptcy last year, these figures also likely won’t be fully collected — largely because the government will now have to compete with other claims against Purdue in bankruptcy court.”

Purdue Will Become a “Public Benefit Company”

Since Purdue is in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings, a bankruptcy court will also need to approve the settlement.

“The agreed resolution, if approved by the courts, will require that the company be dissolved and no longer exist in its present form,” Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said. 

However, that doesn’t mean that Purdue’s fully gone or that it will even stop making oxycontin. In fact, as part of this settlement, the Sacklers would relinquish ownership of Purdue, and it would then transform into what’s known as a public benefit company.

Essentially, that means it would be run by the government. Under that setup, money from limited oxycontin sales, as well as from sales of several overdose-reversing medications, would be pumped back into treatment initiatives and other drug programs aimed at combating the opioid crisis.

For its part, the Justice Department has endorsed this model. 

Should Purdue Be Punished More?

There has been strong opposition to this deal, mainly from state attorneys general and Democratic members of Congress who say it doesn’t go far enough.

Those critics argue that the settlements don’t hold Purdue or the Sackler family fully accountable, especially the Sacklers since — unlike Purdue — they didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing.

“[W]hile our country continues to recover from the pain and destruction left by the Sacklers’ greed,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said, “this family has attempted to evade responsibility and lowball the millions of victims of the opioid crisis. Today’s deal doesn’t account for the hundreds of thousands of deaths or millions of addictions caused by Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.”

“If the only practical consequence of your Department’s investigation is that a handful of billionaires are made slightly less rich, we fear that the American people will lose faith in the ability of the Department to provide accountability and equal justice under the law,” A coalition of 38 Democratic members of Congress said in a statement to Attorney General Bill Barr last week.

While this settlement doesn’t include any convictions against the Sacklers specifically, as the Justice Department noted, it also doesn’t release them from criminal liability and a separate criminal investigation is ongoing. 

Still, last week, 25 state attorneys general asked Barr not to make a deal that includes converting Purdue into a public benefit company, urging the Justice Department to “avoid having special ties to an opioid company, conflicts of interest, or mixed motives in an industry that caused a national crisis.” 

Part of their concern is that the government would essentially run this new company while also holding the original one accountable. Those attorneys general instead argued that Purdue should be run privately but with government oversight. 

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (The New York Times) (Fox Business)

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Parents of 545 Children Separated at U.S. Border Still Can’t Be Found

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  • A Tuesday filing update from the ACLU and Department of Justice revealed that a Steering Committee in charge of reuniting families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border has not been able to find parents of 545 separated children. 
  • Efforts to reach these parents via telephone have been unsuccessful and those involved are not hopeful that will change. Two-thirds of these parents are believed to be in their respective countries of origin.
  • So far, parents for 485 kids have been reached.
  • Finding these parents is an already complicated process made even more strenuous by the coronavirus pandemic. On-the-ground searches were suspended because of COVID-19 but have now picked up in limited capacity.

Parents of 545 Children Remain Unfound

A Tuesday court filing from the U.S. Department of Justice and American Civil Liberties Union revealed that the parents of 545 children who had been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border have not been found or contacted.

Two thirds of those parents are expected to be in their respective country of origin. While there have been efforts to reach these families via phone, they have not been successful. Other efforts to reach these parents are in the works. 

Thousands of families were separated in 2018 under President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy, but a federal judge ordered that those families should be reunited. Soon after, many were, but in reality many more families had actually been separated. It was later revealed that the Trump Administration had been separating families back in 2017 under a pilot program. A court order reuniting those families was not issued until last year. 

A Steering Committee, of which the ACLU and other organizations are members, is now searching for these parents. According to the filing, the government provided a list of 1,556 children. The current focus on reaching children whose membership in this case is not contested and who have available contact information for a sponsor or parent. The Steering Committee has attempted to reach the families of all 1,030 children who fit that bill, and have successfully reached the parents, or their attorneys, for 485 kids. 

“There is so much more work to be done to find these families, Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, told NBC News, which broke the story.

“People ask when we will find all of these families, and sadly, I can’t give an answer. I just don’t know,” he continued. “But we will not stop looking until we have found every one of the families, no matter how long it takes. The tragic reality is that hundreds of parents were deported to Central America without their children, who remain here with foster families or distant relatives.”

Efforts to Find Parents

Because so much time has passed between family separation practices and today, initiatives to find those parents are difficult. They are also further complicated by the fact that during the pilot program, U.S. officials did not collect thorough information from these parents, and many were deported before courts ordered they be reunited with their kids. 

Nan Schivone, the legal director for Justice in Motion, which carries out on-the-ground searches for parents, told The Washington Post that attorneys “take the minimal, often inaccurate or out-of-date information provided by the government and do in-person investigations to find these parents.” 

Schivone said it is an “an arduous and time-consuming process on a good day.” Sometimes, these lawyers might find themselves in remote villages where outsiders are suspect and language barriers can slow down communication.

The pandemic halted these efforts as lockdowns and curfews made it impossible for Justice in Motion to look for parents abroad. Though, Tuesday’s filing revealed that “limited physical on-the-ground searches for separated parents has now resumed where possible to do so.” 

See what others are saying: (NPR) (NBC News) (Washington Post)

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