Rebeca Ibarra: This is The Takeaway, I'm Rebeca Ibarra host and producer of NPR and WNYC's Consider This, in for Tanzina Vega. In Texas, two weeks after a severe winter storm caused statewide power outages, more than 160,000 residents are still being advised to boil their water before consuming it. Thousands of other Texans have also lost running water completely because of burst pipes. As people across the state continue recovering from the storm, some are also finding out they might not get paid for hours they missed during the extreme weather.
Recent reporting from The Daily Beast revealed that dozens of Texas employers are giving their workers the option of either using vacation time for days they couldn't work because of the storm or not getting paid at all. In other parts of the country, workers have also had to contend with the troubling combination of climate change and labor. During recent California wildfires, many farmworkers have remained on the job even amid dangerous air quality conditions, otherwise, they'd risk losing their pay entirely.
With me now is Nadia Marin-Molina, co-executive director of the National Laborer Organizing Network, and Steven Monacelli, publisher of Protean Magazine and an independent journalist based in Dallas. He also broke the story on Texas employers for The Daily Beast. Nadia, Steven, thanks for being here.
Nadia Marin-Molina: Thank you, Rebeca.
Steven Monacelli: Thank you.
Rebeca Ibarra: Steven, you heard from employees at dozens of different companies in Texas who were given the option to either take vacation time or not get paid for hours they didn't work during the storm. What types of companies are we talking about here?
Steven Monacelli: Well, I heard from quite a few folks across Texas. The trend that I saw in the messages that I received, which included lots of emails and text threads from their employers, primarily seem to come from fairly large multinational employers, as well as some mid-sized businesses. This included everybody from a large weapons manufacturer, like VA systems, to Toyota, to a local hospital here in the Dallas area, as well as even the city of Dallas itself. It was quite a range, as well as some colleges that I'd seen as well, but primarily, what I had heard was mid to large-sized employers that tend to have thousands of employees.
Rebeca Ibarra: How similar were the different messages you reviewed from employers regarding pay policies?
Steven Monacelli: It's a great question. Broadly speaking, they had a lot of similarities, and the tone was generally just very declarative that this is what the policy is. Some went so far as to suggest that its employees' responsibilities to set aside their paid time off for events specifically like this, which is something that folks perhaps predicted the extent of the storm, but I don't know if anyone exactly predicted the extent of the catastrophe that unfolded afterwards. So it was a lot of that. There were some that would suggest that the sender of the message was not pleased with the policy and that they were pushing back, but broadly speaking, very similar policies and very sort of tone which is this is the way that it is.
Rebeca Ibarra: Nadia, have employers taken similar approaches to work or pay during other natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Katrina?
Nadia Marin-Molina: Unfortunately, yes. NDLON, we have member organizations, worker centers across the country who work with day laborers and low-wage immigrant workers. Often, they're second responders who come in after an emergency to do cleanup after floods, wildfires, and other disasters, but they're also directly affected by the disaster at home. They face loss of income, and a general lack of worker protections, even when they do work, so that can relate to both their income, their health and safety on the job and other worker protections.
Rebeca Ibarra: Do most lower-wage workers even have paid time off as an option. What happens in these types of weather events to hourly workers like grocery store clerks or those who work at fast-food restaurants?
Nadia Marin-Molina: There is no real safety net that's required by law in most states. Most of the time workers who don't have a specific policy around that have no safety net at all, and in the case of disaster, that problem comes up and is exposed.
Rebeca Ibarra: Steven, were the workers you spoke with in Texas at similar job level and making similar wages, or did their positions vary?
Steven Monacelli: I would say their positions varied. I heard from folks, everyone including hourly wage workers to salaried employees, and even some managers who had direct reports. What I did not generally hear from were director level and above, folks that would have perhaps the ability to make these sorts of decisions or would have the responsibility for communicating them to large amounts of people.
The folks that I heard from even that had salaries, were concerned that if they were not able to be paid, that they would even have issues with paying rent and other things like that. Because I think just because someone is a salaried worker, it doesn't necessarily imply that they aren't also living paycheck to paycheck.
Rebeca Ibarra: How did the workers you spoke to feel about the way their employers have handled these pay policies following the storm?
Steven Monacelli: It varies. Generally, folks, I think were quite upset. The phrase that I would use to describe how most folks seem to feel about this was, they thought it was adding insult to injury, and they felt betrayed by their employers. Others were pleased. There were examples of employers that chose to go above and beyond and pay their workers and offer mental health support and open their offices as even shelters if they had power during the storm.
There were some folks that were pleased, and then there were some folks that even saw their employers walk their decisions back after receiving pushback, and then allow their employers to then actually receive pay for the emergency. It just I think has varied depending on the situation that workers have found themselves in, which is the unfortunate result of having no regulations. It's been entirely up to the decisions of management to decide whether folks would be able to be paid or take vacation.
Rebeca Ibarra: Employee protections vary from state to state. Nadia, which state or states offer the most comprehensive worker protections?
Nadia Marin-Molina: There are states for example like California and New York, which have greater protections in certain areas, higher minimum wages, or even in some cases, paid sick leave policies, or paid family leave policies, but these are actually very fairly rare, and they're because organizations and workers in each of those states have really pushed for them. In most states, there aren't policies for paid time off, and in states like Texas, or Mississippi, where they're the least protections, then workers really are left to fend for themselves.
Rebeca Ibarra: Is FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency able to provide assistance for individuals who couldn't get to work during a natural disaster?
Nadia Marin-Molina: There are programs that are created in order to provide disaster assistance or disaster supports. Many times, workers don't know whether the programs exist, they don't know whether they qualify for them, and in some cases, are unwilling or may not be able to apply if they're excluded from federal assistance. It really depends and those programs also may come late. In terms of their response to disasters, workers need immediate protection, immediate income, and sometimes those programs come much later than they need to for workers.
Rebeca Ibarra: Steven, The Takeaway reached out to a number of the companies you reported on, and so far, we've heard back from BAE Systems, a multinational security company, and they sent us a statement that reads in part "In Texas, our businesses are applying various mechanisms to ensure that every employee will have a way to receive full pay, including in some cases by taking personal holidays or paid time off." They also said they've issued around 240 grants to employees affected by the storm. How does their response compare to some of the other companies you heard back from?
Steven Monacelli: Well, I think that's a step. I don't know if that necessarily meets the desires of most employees that I've heard from which really what they're asking for is support during a very, very tumultuous time. If that support does not reach the entirety of the workers at a company, I'm not sure if that meets the desires or the needs of the folks that I've heard from. I can tell you, firsthand that across Dallas, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people that are still displaced from their homes and still without food and water access to that regularly, and many of these folks are either unemployed or are working a job that they cannot afford to miss.
A lot of mutual aid groups, which there's been a lot of coverage about them recently across Texas have been stepping in to fill this void that Nadia pointed to, with regard to the delay that often occurs with this assistance that comes from the federal and the state government. Folks need a roof over their heads and they need food and water now. I don't know if a lot of them can afford to wait several weeks for that to arrive.
Rebeca Ibarra: Lastly, Stephen, Texas, Governor Greg Abbott recently announced that next week he'll be ending a statewide mask mandate and allowing all businesses to open at full capacity. What have you heard from workers about those changes?
Stephen Monacelli: I've written a little bit about this for The Daily Beast and I'll be publishing another piece with a separate publication soon, specifically about service industry workers. Folks do not seem very pleased, at least the ones that have spoken with me. They are still reeling from what has happened in the past few weeks. Just because the storm is over, does not mean that the aftermath is over. Now, many of them feel they're being pushed into dangerous situations where they will be increasingly held responsible for their own safety and will not be able to cite a state law.
We've already had a lot of problems and I've heard horror stories from service industry workers about folks who refuse to comply with the law around masks when it was a mandate. Now that we will no longer be in place, many are concerned that it will embolden the folks that choose to use the masks as a political statement, as opposed to an issue of public health.
Rebeca Ibarra: Stephen Monacelli is the publisher of Protean Magazine and an independent journalist based in Dallas, and Nadia Marin-Molina is the co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Thanks so much to both of you.
Nadia Marin-Molina: Thank you, Rebeca.
Stephen Monacelli: Thank you.
Rebeca Ibarra: We also reached out to Bell Textron and United Ag & Turf; we'll add their responses if they get back to us. The City of Dallas did respond and we have that statement up on thetakeaway.org.
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