‘Virus Exposes Inequality in Economy’

Photo: Oregon AFL-CIO
Graham Trainor after his election as Oregon AFL-CIO president in 2019

The president of Oregon AFL-CIO discusses how Covid-19 has upended the lives of working people and how the labor movement is advocating for change. 

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On May 13 Kroger, the company that owns grocery store chains Fred Meyer and QFC announced they would discontinue their “Hero Pay” bonus, a $2 pay increase for grocery store employees working during the pandemic. 

Then the unions spoke up. 

After a nationwide protest, Kroger announced a “Thank You” bonus to workers on May 15. It consists of a one-time bonus of $400 for full-time employees and $200 for part-time workers.

Graham Trainor, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, the local chapter of the largest federation of unions in the U.S., discusses how he is advocating for workers affected by Covid-19. 

RELATED STORY: Are Unions Back?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You have said repeatedly the Oregon AFL-CIO represents all working people not just those in unions. How has Covid-19 affected the working people represented by your organization? 

Literally a quarter of working Oregonians are out of work. If we don’t act, like federal and state governments have statute to do, we are facing another Great Depression. 

At the time that this virus started to take hold there were seven million unemployed. Now they say that number is closer to 50 million because for every 10 who get unemployment, three don’t and two don’t even file. 

Health care is at the top of my mind. Twelve million have lost health insurance and tens of millions more could be next. Losing health care in the middle of a recession is bad enough but in the middle of a pandemic is criminal in my mind. 

What issues have you seen arise between employers and employees as a result of Covid-19?

There’s a strike against Hood River Distillers over a contract that has been prolonged, which is now exacerbated by the pandemic. In Lane County workers had to push a large public employer to get workplace protections.

The folks who normally were fighting just for dignity and fairness on the job are now fighting for their own safety and protections. 

We’ve also seen some problematic trends where employers use the new highly competitive labor market to get people to come back to work when they feel unsafe or risk getting fired. 

A worker in a manufacturing plant lived with someone who was immunocompromised and would have qualified for expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act. The employer said to them: “You either come back in to work or we’ll find someone who will.”

We’ve heard multiple examples of this reality, and it’s becoming more and more prevalent. 

What employers doing right by their employees?

I was going to give the grocery store industry as an example of employers who are doing the right thing, but trying to take away hazard pay during a pandemic completely negates that in my mind. 

Fred Meyer taking back the Hero Pay was really troubling. Major corporations and grocers that are doing quite well are taking back hazard pay. We are not out of the woods at all.

[Fred Meyer declined to comment on ending Hero Pay]

It’s not that there isn’t a lot of goodwill out there, and it’s not like there aren’t a lot of employers who are doing the right thing; but unless changes are demanded by workers and labor unions, employers aren’t really doing much. 

In our experience, the places employers are doing the most good are the places where employees have a collective voice.

 What has the AFL-CIO been doing to combat these emerging issues? 

We are fighting against efforts in state after state trying to hastily re-open economies with little to no regard for working people’s safety.

We are helping laid-off workers navigate the confusing unemployment insurance system, advocating for child care benefits, access to affordable health care coverage, food insurance programs like SNAP and TANF, and making sure employees have access to personal protective gear.

There are many essential workers in health care, grocery stores and transportation for whom complete social distancing on the job isn’t realistic. The workers compensation system needs to adapt to accommodate and compensate those workers who are considered essential. 

We’ve also been advocating for undocumented workers who can’t access government programs. We’re proud that the Oregon Emergency Board acted a few weeks ago to fund the Worker Relief Fund, which helps employees who fall through the cracks in those programs. 

How has technology and the strong economy before Covid-19 affected working people?

You’re seeing folks who are already bearing an unequal burden of that economy being left behind by much of the growth we were seeing before Covid took over our lives. People of color, women, caregivers are more impacted by this pandemic crisis because of the place they occupy in the economy. 

More often it’s higher-wage workers who have access to telework, which allows them more flexibility. A lot of lower-wage workers don’t have that luxury. 

The economy that happened before Covid wasn’t working for people either. The virus has exposed the inequality in our economy and exacerbated it.

RELATED STORY: Why Business Owners of Color Are More Impacted by Covid-19

Do you foresee any opportunities for restructuring after Covid-19?

In many ways federal programs are all that have stood between us and complete financial ruin. Covid has also exposed the importance of government and government systems and safety nets in people’s lives.

It has also exposed the cracks and gaps of those systems. We need a public safety net to ensure there are protections for all. 

If there’s any silver lining from this pandemic it’s that people are recognizing the dignity of their grocery store worker, their truck driver, the Grubhub driver who brings you food because you have the luxury of being able to stay in.

It’s what the labor movement has been advocating for since its inception. 

These are the people who are getting us through this and putting their lives on the line to keep good chunks of the economy running. I guarantee you it’s something we are going to remind legislators about when the time comes to act.

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