Our Fungible Widgets

“Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders.” ~ Ronald Reagan

That was from another time. Ronald Reagan had been saying such things since the late fifties as he made his move from Hollywood into politics, and then when he was governor out here, facing down the Black Panthers and the hippies up in Berkeley, and then when he was president for two terms. But he’s been dead for years and the nation he had imagined has shut down its economy for now, to save that economy and the nation, for later. That damned virus is killing too many people.

Everyone, stay home alone. Don’t give that deadly virus any more chance to spread any more than it already has. And that changed things. Twenty-five million have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March and millions more file each week. All but “essential” businesses were forced to shut down. These people were forced out of work. They’re not freeloaders. Ronald Reagan would recognize this. This is the Great Depression again, soup kitchens and all. No one is on vacation.

But how does this end? It may end with Republicans taking Ronald Reagan seriously:

Some states that are reopening parts of their economies have warned employees that they’ll lose their unemployment benefits if they refuse to go back to work for their employers, even if they’re worried about contracting the coronavirus.

“If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said Friday. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

That’s it – no more freeloading. That virus may still be out there, and it may kill you, but you’re cowardice doesn’t earn you an unemployment check:

The only exception for workers getting unemployment after not returning to work is if they are ill with the virus or taking care of a family member who has the deadly disease.

The situation is similar for workers in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Monday gave the go-ahead for retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen on Friday.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, to qualify for unemployment benefits in the state, a worker must be “willing and able to work all the days and hours required for the type of work you are seeking.”

Cisco Gamez, a Texas Workforce Commission spokesman, told the Texas Tribune that employees, who choose not to return to work, will become ineligible for unemployment benefits.

This isn’t complicated. If any governor, or the president, says that all the scientists and doctors and epidemiologists are simply wrong, that it actually is safe to go back to work now, you go back. No one is going to pay you to stay home. You listen to those doctors? You believe them? Hell, you’re just a coward. Man up. Grow a pair. Don’t be a girly-man. And do NOT take other people’s money for sitting on your ass all day. That’s what Ronald Reagan would say.

The Washington Post covers how that discussion is going:

Plans for a swift reopening of malls, factories and other businesses accelerated Tuesday, but they quickly collided with the reality that persuading workers and consumers to overlook their coronavirus fears and resume their roles in powering the U.S. economy may prove difficult.

President Trump on Tuesday evening issued an executive order that gives the federal government broad powers to ensure that meat and poultry processing plants remain open during the pandemic. The move, designed to avert widespread food shortages, came after the Conference Board reported that consumer confidence had plunged to its lowest mark in six years.

President Trump realizes he’s in trouble here, as things fall apart even more than they have:

In the absence of a federal mandate, states are adopting varying approaches to the speed and pace of their commercial revivals. During a White House meeting with Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said he would make an announcement Wednesday on his state’s reopening plans.

Businesses in Georgia – including massage parlors and barbershops – began welcoming customers Friday for the first time since Gov. Brian Kemp (R) issued a mandatory shelter-in-place order on April 2. And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is allowing certain businesses, including retailers, restaurants and movie theaters, to reopen at the end of the week, but at only 25 percent capacity.

But that’s not working:

Hanging over plans to restart the nation’s economic engine are unprecedented health concerns, as individuals balance each shopping trip, airplane flight and restaurant meal against the risk of catching a sometimes-fatal illness.

“Consumers may have permission to go do something. But whether they go do it depends upon how badly they want to do it and how safe they feel,” said William Dunkelberg, chief economist at the National Federation of Independent Business.

Sustained improvement now depends upon wooing workers and consumers to return to factories, restaurants and shops. There already are signs that it may not be easy.

Tell the business it can reopen. Force the frightened workers to show up, or else. But what if no customers show up? They may be too wary. Can the state government force them to show up at the local bowling alley, and bowl?

No, and workers do worry:

After 20 meatpacking plants closed in recent weeks following covid-19 outbreaks, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union complained about unsafe working conditions. A worker at a Smithfield Foods plant in Missouri sued the company in federal court, saying it had failed to take action to protect its employees, including altering operations to permit social distancing, providing protective gear and encouraging sick employees to stay home.

The New Braunfels, Tex., restaurant where Olivia Wise, 22, works as a waitress is planning to reopen Friday, when the state begins allowing some businesses to operate at 25 percent capacity. But the young woman, who lives with her parents, doesn’t feel comfortable going back just yet.

“I personally think it’s still too soon,” she said. “It’s awesome they want to get the economy going again, but it’s not worth risking getting my parents sick.”

And there’s no reason she should go back to work:

Consumers, too, do not appear to be in any rush to leave home. While there have been scattered protests of lockdown orders in a handful of states, the current limits on activity draw solid public support. In a new Washington Post poll, 66 percent of respondents – including 62 percent of Republicans – agreed that existing limits on restaurants, stores and businesses were “appropriate,” while just 17 percent said they were too restrictive.

The president and these Republican governors stand with that seventeen percent – their people – but there’s that other issue:

The administration’s hopes for a swift V-shaped recovery are clouded by the danger that a premature reopening might result in a new surge of infections, which would require some states to order a second shutdown. Besides testing public compliance, such an order could interrupt supply chains.

“This is what matters. The risk is you’ve got to shut down again,” said Steven Blitz, chief U.S. economist for TS Lombard.

The risk is making things far worse, by choice, just before the election that could ruin them all. But nothing is easy:

Business owners say they also are facing a delicate balancing act, weighing the health of their employees against the need to make money. It wasn’t clear, many said, whether customers would even show up once they reopened, but they couldn’t risk staying closed if all of their competitors were open.

In Texas, Abbott’s quarter-capacity mandate has left business owners scrambling to determine how, and when, to restart operations, according to Jason Mock, president of the San Marcos Area Chamber of Commerce, near Austin.

“Everybody is still wrapping their hands around it,” he said. “There’s still hesitation among some businesses, but others are excited to get back in the game because they’ve been sidelined for so long.”

Some restaurant owners, he said, are wondering whether they can make ends meet with only one-quarter of their seats open to the public. Reopening this week means having to pay for food, utilities and employee wages, with little guarantee that diners will immediately venture back.

Why would they venture back? They have no money to spend now. They’ve been unemployed, skipping what bills they could and hoping they wouldn’t end up homeless.

But there’s more to this:

As Southern governors are reopening the region this week, black activists are joining with local and federal lawmakers to sound the alarm about what they see as a looming threat to the Black Belt.

They say the mostly white, male Republicans – who were reluctant to close their states but are now eager to reopen – are effectively issuing a “death sentence” for millions of black Americans who have been disproportionately impacted both economically and medically by coronavirus.

“He’s willing to risk us at any cost,” said Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who announced a reopening of the state beginning last Friday, with plans to officially let the state’s stay-at-home order expire on Thursday.

“It’s clear that he does not give a damn about the citizens of this state and that he feels like some folks are disposable. The first thing that came to my mind was: These people are trying to kill us,” said Brown, an Alabama native who lives in Georgia.

They say no:

Public health officials have said reopening states to commerce and freer movement comes with risks, particularly without robust testing and contact tracing.

So, you don’t know who might infect you? And two or three times as many black folks die of this thing than any other group? Hey, life is full of risks. Get over it. But they will not get over this:

The overwhelming majority of the country has not been tested for coronavirus, and the South appears to have among the lowest rates in the country. Without widespread testing, Americans – particularly the ones dying most from the disease – lack an accurate picture of the threat, said Camara Jones, an epidemiologist and family physician whose work focuses on the impacts of racism on the nation’s health.

“We’re blinding ourselves to how many infections there are,” Jones said.

Black lawmakers, including much of the Congressional Black Caucus and black mayors in cities with large black populations such as Atlanta, Jackson, Miss., Albany, Ga., and New Orleans have also been outspoken about the need for increased testing and economic support.

And to get specific:

Among the most vocal has been Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has been active on social media and in interviews about urging residents of the Georgia capital to stay at home. Her stance drew racist backlash last week when Bottoms received an anonymous text calling her the n-word.

“I was not elected mayor to be a coward,” Bottoms told The Washington Post during a virtual event Tuesday. “I do think there’s something larger at play. But the facts are the facts, and the data is the data. It is impacting African American communities at a higher rate, and Atlanta has a very diverse population with many of the underlying conditions we’ve talked about.”

Brian Kemp may be fine with his state’s “black folk” but on the other hand they may be gone soon. And the same may be what Donald Trump has set up:

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday evening compelling meat processors to remain open to head off shortages in the nation’s food supply chains, despite mounting reports of plant worker deaths due to covid-19.

Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as essential infrastructure that must remain open. Under the order, the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance, according to a person familiar with the action who spoke about the order before it was signed by the president. The person was not authorized to disclose details of the order.

That may be because there are no details. Here’s some protective gear – a few masks – and we gave your bosses some ideas on what they might do now. That’s it and it’s not impressive:

Worker safety experts say such an order would prevent local health officials from ordering meat companies to use their most effective weapon available to protect their employees from the coronavirus – closures. They also fear that it would also undercut newly issued federal health guidelines designed to put space between plant workers.

Trump has not publicly explained which provisions within the act he will rely on to compel plants to remain open or grant companies protection from workplace safety requirements.

This seems a bit casual for a situation that seemed dire:

At least 20 meatpacking plants have closed in recent weeks because of covid-19 outbreaks, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents thousands of workers at U.S. meat plants, said Tuesday that at least 17 have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and at least 5,000 have been directly affected by the virus.

“America’s meatpacking workers and our nation’s food supply are in greater danger every day that companies and leaders fail to act during this outbreak,” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a news release. “It is clear that our food supply chain is threatened, and that is why our country’s elected and corporate leaders must act now.”

Industry analysts say pork and beef processing has fallen 25 percent because of these outbreaks. Major meat companies, including Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA, have repeatedly touted their essential role in the nation’s food supply chain, often resisting calls from government officials and labor advocates to close their facilities due to outbreaks.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson’s board, wrote in a full-page newspaper ad published Sunday in The Post, the New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“We have a responsibility to feed our country,” the ad said. “It is as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.”

Ah! Donald Trump was bold! You must stay open! That’s it. Problem solved. But not really:

Many workers say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and companies have not done enough to protect them from fast-spreading outbreaks that have hobbled production and devastated rural communities in which they are based. Some workers say companies put production over their safety and have failed to provide adequate protective gear and promote social distancing.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA released interim guidance for meatpacking and processing facilities. It outlined procedures for cleaning shared equipment and reconfiguring workstations. It also included information on how companies can use physical barriers to put at least six feet between employees, who typically stand shoulder to shoulder in the plants.

It also called for the use of personal protective equipment and revising attendance policies to ensure employees are not penalized for taking sick leave because of the coronavirus. But like previous CDC and OSHA guidance for workplaces during the pandemic, it is voluntary and not enforceable…

But of course that’s a moot point now:

Trump’s order would render meaningless the guidance the CDC issued Sunday, including keeping individual workspaces six feet apart and ensuring plant employees are not facing one another.

Just stay open. That’s an order. Do it. I don’t care how. Do it. But some found that rather awful:

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups, said: “Workers in the American food industry are vital to us all, but the terrible working conditions that already existed in that industry have only been exacerbated by the covid-19 virus. Donald Trump is finally using the Defense Production Act, but not to ensure that American manufacturers produce the protective equipment that essential workers so desperately need to be safe. Instead, Trump is using the DPA to try to force workers back on the job in unsafe conditions. It doesn’t get more wrong than that.”

Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) called Trump’s expected order “profoundly disturbing” in a statement and called on the White House to harness the DPA for the manufacture of personal protective equipment.

“If President Trump orders people to work in meat processing plants but refuses to protect their health and safety,” Scott said, “the result will be more preventable illnesses, the tragic deaths of workers across the country, and ultimately, an actual reduction in food production as meat processing plants run out of healthy workers.”

Yeah, those people will keep dying, and there’s not an infinite supply of black and brown people to do this work, and some of them are downright pesky:

A Smithfield worker in Missouri is suing the company in federal court, accusing it of failing to take action to protect employees by altering operations to permit social distancing or providing personal protective equipment, and of discouraging employees from staying home while ill. A preliminary hearing has been set for later this week in the lawsuit, which does not identify the worker who filed it. A judge has ordered Smithfield to comply with CDC and OSHA guidelines in the interim.

Does the executive order from Trump override this judge’s order? This could get tricky:

The courts and the Justice Department have ruled that the DPA “doesn’t give the president or anyone else the authority to grant broad immunity from other federal requirements, or from state laws,” said Adam R. Pulver, an attorney with Public Citizen who litigates claims about the scope of government authority.

Legal experts say there are serious questions about whether legislation Trump cited authorizes the president to grant broad immunity to businesses from workplace, environmental and other safety protections, nor is it clear whether Trump can order a shuttered manufacturing plant to reopen.

That’s something to consider, but there are more immediate issues:

A union leader representing 3,400 workers at a JBS beef plant in Colorado where five workers have died said she fears working conditions that contributed to the spread of the coronavirus among workers will worsen.

“If these meat plants can’t be held liable, there is no reason for them to take measures to ensure workers are safe,” said Kim Cordova, president for workers at the plant in Greeley, Colo. “If workers stop showing up, what are they going to do? Enact a draft? This is insane. If these workers are essential, protect them. They are treating workers like fungible widgets instead of human beings.”

Of course they are. They have always seen this as a nation of quite useful fungible widgets, and Kevin Drum adds this:

Trump just plays for the crowd every chance he gets, doesn’t he? I mean, I’m a big time carnivore, but even I don’t think meat is critical infrastructure. I can make do with bread and cheese and fruit for a while if I have to.

But his base hears “meat shortage” and goes cuckoo, so Trump sees a chance to show them whose side he’s on. And it’s not the side of liberal elites, that’s for sure. Nor is it the side of the brown-skinned people who mostly work in packing houses these days. However, I’m sure they’ll be mollified by Trump’s promise of “guidance” to their bosses…

The alternative to Trump’s executive order is for the USDA to step up testing at meat packing plants and issue strict new workplace rules for the duration of the pandemic. But that’s just stupid, I guess.

Perhaps so, but one must appear manly:

Vice President Mike Pence chose not to wear a face mask Tuesday during a tour of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, an apparent violation of the world-renowned medical center’s policy requiring them.

Video feeds show that Pence did not wear a mask when he met with a Mayo employee who has recovered from COVID-19 and is now donating plasma, even though everyone else in the room appeared to be wearing one. He was also mask-less when he visited a lab where Mayo conducts coronavirus tests.

And Pence was the only participant not to wear a mask during a roundtable discussion on Mayo’s coronavirus testing and research programs. All the other participants did, including Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn, top Mayo officials, Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn.

Mayo tweeted that it had informed the vice president of its mask policy prior to his arrival. The tweet was later removed. Mayo officials did not directly respond to a request for comment on why it was removed, or at whose request.

“Mayo shared the masking policy with the VP’s office,” the health care system said in its response.

Pence explained his decision by stressing that he has been frequently tested for the virus.

He’s fine, even if those who test negative can test positive the next day, but the issue is not being a girly-man:

Pence is not the only White House official who has shown a reluctance for face masks. When President Donald Trump announced new federal guidelines recommending that Americans wear face coverings when in public, he immediately said he had no intention of following that advice himself, saying, “I’m choosing not to do it.”

He’s bold and he’s fearless, or something, but there’s a backup plan for opening a frightened country:

Attorney General William Barr directed the nation’s federal prosecutors Monday to watch for restrictions imposed by state and local governments during the coronavirus pandemic that may go too far, violating constitutional rights.

“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Barr wrote. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected.”

He told the assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division, Eric Dreibund, and all of the country’s U.S. attorneys to “be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”

Andrew Cuomo wants to keep New York shut down another week or two? Gavin Newsom wants to keep California shut down another week or two? They could both go to jail:

President Donald Trump, speaking later Monday at a news conference, backed Barr’s efforts.

“He wants to see people get back to work,” Trump said. “He does not want people to be held up when there is no reason for doing it.”

The president added: “The attorney general doesn’t want rights taken away. There are some people – they are not allowed to open up their store. They’re going to lose their livelihood. And, by the way, that causes death also. The fact that people aren’t allowed to have their freedom causes tremendous amounts of problems, including death, so that’s what he’s talking about.”

Let the fungible widgets die instead. Open things up and they will die. But we know who they are:

President Donald Trump indicated he wouldn’t allow federal aid for states facing budget deficits from the coronavirus outbreak unless they take action against “sanctuary cities” – municipalities that prevent their police from cooperating with immigration authorities.

Yep, they say they don’t have the resources for that, or the mandate. The feds should do their job. The locals will do their own jobs. What is so hard about that? But this is about “those” people:

“We would want certain things” as part of a deal with House Democrats to aid states, he said at a White House event on Tuesday, “including sanctuary city adjustments, because we have so many people in sanctuary cities.”

“What’s happening is people are being protected that shouldn’t be protected and a lot of bad things are happening with sanctuary cities,” he added.

Trump has long complained about the cities and has previously sought to cut off their federal funding unless they end the policies.

This is a continuation of that. Help him round up those brown-skinned people or your state, out of money now because of what had to be done about this virus, will go under.

No, we’re all going under. We’re all fungible widgets.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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